The Truth About Cars » Curbside Classics http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 31 Oct 2014 14:42:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Curbside Classics http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/curbside-classics/ Curbside Classic Special: 1959 Edsel “Eco-Boost” http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/curbside-classic-special-1959-edsel-%e2%80%9ceco-boost%e2%80%9d/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/curbside-classic-special-1959-edsel-%e2%80%9ceco-boost%e2%80%9d/#comments Wed, 08 Jun 2011 23:47:42 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=397846 Editor’s note: Ladies and gentlemen, for one night only, it’s the return of Curbside Classics to TTAC. You can catch Paul Niedermeyer’s work (along with contributions from an ever expanding crew of TTAC commenters and more) on a regular basis at the new Curbside Classics site. But this piece? It just had to be on […]

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Editor’s note: Ladies and gentlemen, for one night only, it’s the return of Curbside Classics to TTAC. You can catch Paul Niedermeyer’s work (along with contributions from an ever expanding crew of TTAC commenters and more) on a regular basis at the new Curbside Classics site. But this piece? It just had to be on TTAC.

There’s a big difference between creating and re-creating. The proto-hot rodders of yore scoured the junk yards for new solutions, not to replicate. The competition was as much in creativity as it was pure speed. Much of that has given way to endless replication, whether it’s a perfect restoration or a 1000 hp resto-mod. But creative juices are irrepressible, and they were certainly at work here. Want a daily driver Edsel, but not its 1950′s fuel-gulping ways? The solution was just a $200 junkyard engine away. But it had to be imagined first. Now that’s creativity, and a harbinger of the future. Which is exactly what the old car hobby needs: a new model, like this “Eco-Boost” Edsel.

 

If there was room for a third CC logomobile at the top of our homepage, this would be it. But not just because it’s an Edsel, although daily drivers of that brand are hardly common even here in Havana, Oregon. It’s because this car actually manages to bridge the two extremes the two cars at the top of our page embody: The 1950 hot-rod Caddy represents the glorious past, but it’s hardly the thing for a run to The Laughing Planet cafe, where I found the Edsel. The 1980 Datsun 210 is a highly-practical daily driver, but a mundane living cockroach.

 

This Edsel is some of both, in a brilliant and refreshingly unlikely combination. In a reversal of the traditional engine swapping protocol, its heavy inefficient V8 was tossed overboard like the proverbial anchor it is, and a 1988 Ford 2.3 liter turbo four has taken up residence behind the distinctive anatomically almost-correct grille. The result is the best of both worlds: a highly unique but practical daily driver. What more could a lover of old cars ask for?

 

For the record, this is not the sort of mega-bucks green-washing display that appear at SEMA; this Edsel’s owner, Randall, built it on a very tight budget, and has done all the work himself. The car was found in Portland in reasonable shape, and the body got treated to a low-bucks paint job. After driving eighties FWD turbo-four Chrysler products, he wanted something more distinctive, and its hard to beat an Edsel for that. He was also hooked on a turbo-four’s unique potential for economy and performance, so the two had their unlikely encounter here.

 

We’re not going to recite the whole Edsel bucket-of-tears story verse-by-verse here; most of you know it well enough. Ford’s ambitious attempt to create five full divisions to go mano-a-mano against GM fell apart in 1958 when the gaudy Edsel arrived in the midst of a nasty recession. 1958 Edsels came in two distinct sizes; the smaller Pacer shared a Ford body shell, and the larger Corsair a Mercury shell.

 

For 1959, Edsels were decidedly toned down, and all of them shared a slightly lengthened Ford body shell. One could even get a Pacer with the 232 cubic inch six, as a delete option. But the standard engine was the old Y-block 292 cubic incher, a heavy and notoriously inefficient lumpen-element. Together with the cast-iron housing Fordomatic, there was probably close to a half ton of iron sitting over the front wheels.

 

And a notoriously inefficient half ton. A vintage Popular Mechanics review of a ’59 Edsel yielded 12.1 mpg (20 L/100km) on the highway and 8.5 mpg (28 L/100km) in city driving. Randall says the Eco-boost Edsel can get 24 mpg (9.8 L) in gentle driving, and 20 mpg (12 L) comes quite readily. That’s a solid 100% improvement. Or more accurately, a 50% reduction in fuel used.

Speaking of weight, this Pacer sedan was listed as weighing some 3800 lbs, which probably translates to about 4000 real-world pounds. I don’t have ready access to what a 2.3 turbo four and T-5 manual weighs, but I’m guessing about half, if not less. That made the Edsel’s sit pointed skyward. Randall’s solution:

The front was still sitting up too high so I used an oxy acetylene torch to selectively add many thousands of calories into the bottom three coils on each side. I carefully wrapped the rest of the springs with water soaked rags to help isolate heat transfer. The car is now perfectly level.

That, and lots of other details comes from one of his blog posts at eco-modder, where he describes the journey of his Edsel’s inner transformation. A reader had sent me the link some time ago, and I tried vainly to contact him, but I knew it was just a matter of time before I ran into it.

 

As soon as he started it, the sound was very familiar indeed: I bought a Thunderbird Turbo-Coupe in 1983, the first year for this engine. And its strengths and vices were well known to me. I could easily hit 30 mpg in the aerodynamic T-Bird. So the Edsel’s 24 mpg seems perfectly credible.

The Edsel probably weighs about 3300-3500 lbs now, a bit more than the T-Bird, but not much. But then maximum performance was not the goal here, although the Edsel is undoubtedly brisker than in its V8 incarnation. The 292 was rated at 200 gross hp, which equates to some 165 net hp. The 1988 turbo four was rated at 190 (net) hp, although it’s not quite making all of that here.

 

Randall purchased the engine and transmission for $200, but not all the electronics came with it. So it’s currently being controlled by a 1984 computer, and the intercooler is still missing (for now). It probably makes closer to the 145-155 hp of the earlier versions. A mega-squirt set-up is high on the wish list, but it runs quite fine in the meantime.

 

The Edsel’s 3.11 rear axle gearing were an obstacle, since the little four doesn’t have the low end grunt of the big V8, at least until the boost comes up. A rear end swap would have been pricey, and a new set of tires to replace the old tall 800×14″ bias ply donuts were necessary anyway, so the solution was to, once again, go against the grain. A set of low-rolling resistance 195/70 14 inchers, painted white, increased the effective ratio by 7.3%. Not quite perfect, but fifth gear is now very usable by 55 mph, and starting out on a hill no longer raises beads of sweat.

 

Curbside Classics is all about honoring cars still at work on the streets. And every time gas shoots up, I start worrying about finding that Mark III or some other gas hog I’ve yet to encounter. Its given impetus, along with a bit of anxiety to my documentation of the survivors. But finding this Edsel was like a giant boost to my all-too often lagging optimism: this is the way forward.

 

After decades of stuffing ever bigger and more powerful monster V8s into old cars, that past time has reached its obvious limits. 600 cubic inches and a 1000 hp? Sure, why not? Everybody can have their idea of fun. But if the old car hobby is going to be more accessible and affordable, not to mention drivable, than a new paradigm is needed.

The earliest hot-rodders were truly creative in their search for speed and power: GMC truck engine sixes with five carburetors. Or Buick nailhead V8s with their porting completely reversed. Writing a check for a 600 hp crate engine ain’t exactly the definition of creativity or originality.

 

My hat’s off to Randall and his “Eco-Boost” Edsel. It’s as good of a role model for the next generation of old-car car hobbyists as it gets. And he’s infected with me with thoughts of slipping a turbo four to slip into my ’66 F-100, and beating Ford with an Eco-Boost four cylinder full-sized truck.

Despite my fertile mental ramblings, in 1983 I certainly didn’t ever imagine that my T-Bird’s engine would someday be powering an Edsel, or mentally powering a pickup. Now it seems so obvious. That’s how paradigm shifts work; they sneak up, and suddenly they’re the next big thing. Now just watch Ford add a RWD Eco-Boost turbo four to its line of crate engines.

This piece originally appeared at www.curbsideclassic.com

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Curbside Classic: 1975 Chevrolet Monte Carlo http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/curbside-classic-1975-chevrolet-monte-carlo/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/curbside-classic-1975-chevrolet-monte-carlo/#comments Wed, 19 Jan 2011 14:00:15 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=381017 You’d think that all the Malaise Era Montes would have been crushed 15 years ago, but you still see the occasional survivor chugging around these days. I spotted this battered-but-solid example in a Denver park a few months back. You could get a 235-horse 454 V8 for the Monte Carlo in ’75, but most of […]

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You’d think that all the Malaise Era Montes would have been crushed 15 years ago, but you still see the occasional survivor chugging around these days. I spotted this battered-but-solid example in a Denver park a few months back.

You could get a 235-horse 454 V8 for the Monte Carlo in ’75, but most of them came with a 145-horsepower 350. This in a car that weighed 3,950 pounds. Think about that next time you complain that your rented Cobalt (205 horsepower, 2,783 pounds) lacks power.
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Snorkel-ized, RHD Diesel Land Cruiser Laughs At Denver Winter http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/snorkel-ized-rhd-diesel-land-cruiser-laughs-at-denver-winter/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/snorkel-ized-rhd-diesel-land-cruiser-laughs-at-denver-winter/#comments Thu, 13 Jan 2011 19:00:17 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=380374 In my first Denver winter after a driving lifetime in coastal California, I’m now experiencing my first real taste of driving in snow. My ’92 Civic is doing pretty well (i.e., I haven’t crashed or become stuck yet), but I’m starting to eyeball Craigslist listings for IHC Scouts and FJ40 Land Cruisers. After spotting this […]

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In my first Denver winter after a driving lifetime in coastal California, I’m now experiencing my first real taste of driving in snow. My ’92 Civic is doing pretty well (i.e., I haven’t crashed or become stuck yet), but I’m starting to eyeball Craigslist listings for IHC Scouts and FJ40 Land Cruisers. After spotting this Toyota in my neighborhood, I may have to forget about the Scouts.

I know better than to attempt to specify an exact model year on one of these things, especially when it’s an visitor from some far-off land where drivers sit on the right and engines drink oil. Let’s say early 1980s and leave it at that.

Australia? Japan? The UK? Land Cruiser experts, what do you say?

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Cargo Capacity Slightly Diminished, But Totally Worth It! http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/cargo-capacity-slightly-diminished-but-totally-worth-it/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/cargo-capacity-slightly-diminished-but-totally-worth-it/#comments Tue, 11 Jan 2011 17:00:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=380123 Here’s a totally practical daily driver I spotted on the south side of Denver a while back. My sources tell me that this Svenmeister Hardcore Kustoms creation, which appears to be a ’49 Ford pickup, was driven to the salt flats and back immediately after completion. Must have been a rough ride, but who cares? […]

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Here’s a totally practical daily driver I spotted on the south side of Denver a while back.

My sources tell me that this Svenmeister Hardcore Kustoms creation, which appears to be a ’49 Ford pickup, was driven to the salt flats and back immediately after completion. Must have been a rough ride, but who cares?

The only disappointment about this fine machine is the small-block Chevy, though the cop-enragin’ straight pipes compensate somewhat. If ever a truck needed a Lincoln 462, this is it!

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Shorty Shoebox-amino Astounds, Confounds http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/shorty-shoebox-amino-astounds-confounds/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/shorty-shoebox-amino-astounds-confounds/#comments Mon, 10 Jan 2011 19:00:04 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=380039 Not many of us wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I think I’m going to shorten and narrow a ’57 Chevy wagon, give it a truck bed, and install a 427 with a 5-speed!” Check out the powered bed-cover! The owner of this incredible machine, however, did say that to himself, and […]

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Not many of us wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I think I’m going to shorten and narrow a ’57 Chevy wagon, give it a truck bed, and install a 427 with a 5-speed!”

Check out the powered bed-cover! The owner of this incredible machine, however, did say that to himself, and I spotted the result parked in front of a Denver wrecking yard. He didn’t have a lot to say about his creation, no doubt because he’s burned out from all the constant questions lobbed at him from dudes with eyeballs bugged out of their heads in amazed Rat Fink fashion, but I was able to get the summary of what he’d done.

The best part? This beast gets driven on the street for everyday errands such as junkyard shopping expeditions. If only someone would do this for a Studebaker Scotsman wagon…

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1975 BMW 2002tii http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/1975-bmw-2002tii/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/1975-bmw-2002tii/#comments Sat, 25 Dec 2010 19:00:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=378583 Yes, owners of classic cars still drive them on the street during the winter in Denver (though we haven’t seen any real snow yet); I spotted this rare Bavarian at the park yesterday. It’s nowhere near show quality, but it’s a solid, running example of a car you almost never see outside of shows and […]

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Yes, owners of classic cars still drive them on the street during the winter in Denver (though we haven’t seen any real snow yet); I spotted this rare Bavarian at the park yesterday.

It’s nowhere near show quality, but it’s a solid, running example of a car you almost never see outside of shows and vintage races. I’m guessing that it gets driven regularly, so I’ll take it over any trailer queen.

I’m guessing on the exact model year here; the 5 MPH crash bumpers indicate that we’re looking at a 1973-75 model, but you’d to be a far scarier more devoted BMW zealot aficionado than I’ll ever be to nail down the precise year from these photos (yes, I know, I should have shot the dash).

Even though this car came right out of the Malaise Era, its 1990cc engine was rated at a respectable-for-its-time 125 horsepower. Compare that to the ’75 Corvette’s base engine, which displaced nearly three times as much and made 165 horsepower (a 205-horse 350 was optional).

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Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – GM’s Deadliest Sin Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1980-chevrolet-citation-gms-deadliest-sin-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1980-chevrolet-citation-gms-deadliest-sin-ever/#comments Tue, 21 Dec 2010 18:01:17 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=378038 The greatest crime in ancient Greece was hubris. And the perpetrator that carried out the sins as a result of their hubris inevitably faced great shame and retribution, most often fatal. So for the sake of this CC, we’re going to drop the Citation’s X-Car moniker, and call them the H-Cars. And just in case […]

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The greatest crime in ancient Greece was hubris. And the perpetrator that carried out the sins as a result of their hubris inevitably faced great shame and retribution, most often fatal. So for the sake of this CC, we’re going to drop the Citation’s X-Car moniker, and call them the H-Cars. And just in case you’re not convinced that the Citation truly was GM’s greatest sin rather than the Vega (coincidentally numbered GM’s DS #2), let me cite you the incontrovertible evidence:

Of course numbers don’t tell the whole story, but I challenge you to find another newly introduced car that did so well in its first year and whose sales collapsed so spectacularly thereafter. And that 811k in 1980 doesn’t tell the whole story: the Citation was so popular, supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Folks waited months for their deadly sins to be delivered, and Chevy might well have been able to sell a million in 1980 if they could have made them fast enough. But they were so poorly built, the drop-off was almost instantaneous. By its fourth year, the Citation had dropped some 90%. And in 1985, it was all over.

Having jumped ahead to the final outcome of GM’s hubris-mobile, let’s step back a bit and consider the setting for this tragedy. For the third time at the beginning of a new decade, GM was determined to take on the import competition. In 1960, it was the VW Beetle, and GM countered with the conceptionally similar (rear engine) but bigger Corvair. It failed at its intended mission for a number of reasons, but there were no egregious issues with its quality or durability (for the standards of the time). But GM cut corners, and had make a series of improvements to its suspension to save face, including a substantially redesigned second generation, even though the Corvair was by then already doomed.

In 1970, it was Toyota and Datsun, as well as a few fading European imports that GM countered with the Vega. Despite them all being highly conventional rwd cars, Chevrolet bungled the Vega’s engine and rust-resistance. And although build quality was certainly not up to the Japanese competition’s level, it was not atrocious, in terms of what was yet to come.

For 1980, GM had the revolutionary Honda Accord in its visor, as well as the goal of redefining the compact American car in an all-new fwd package. The Citation and its H-Body brethren from Pontiac, Olds and Buick (we’ll get to them in more detail in another CC) were the closing number of GM’s overly-ambitious downsizing drama in three acts, which had begun three years earlier.

Make no mistake: this mammoth undertaking that would result in the 1977 Caprice and the rest of the full-sized line up, the 1978 Malibu and the other midsized cars, and the 1980 Citation and friends was no less than the biggest single corporate industrial re-investment ever up to that time. GM was betting its whole future here, and we all know how it turned out: the eighties were GM’s worst decade ever in terms of market share loss, and the Citation not only kicked it off, it also set the template for almost all of its sins from then on.

GM’s biggest act of hubris was in even thinking it could execute such an undertaking, given its history. And clearly, the results got worse with each act. The fact that the Citation would be GM’s first ever-front wheel drive mass-market car didn’t help. As well as GM’s perpetual obsession with the next quarter’s profit. The mega-billions GM committed to its downsizing was taking its toll on the bottom line, and the Citation was behind schedule. Switching production facilities and suppliers over to a completely new generation of cars was taking its toll.

Typical for GM, the Citation looked best on paper, or to the automotive writers who were suckered when they drive the most un-production-like “ringers” ever hand assembled and wrote breathless reports on the Citation’s spectacular “better than a BMW” abilities.  The current issue of C/D has a brief mea-culpa by Patrick Bedard about how they fell for GM’s bait.

The Citation’s basic body package was highly modern for the times, with a very roomy interior, a practical hatchback (a notch-back coupe was available but never popular), lightweight (2500 lbs), and featuring a new transverse engine/transaxle arrangement. Unfortunately, GM’s greatest industrial re-investment didn’t include a new four cylinder engine. The noisy, crude and rude “Iron Duke” 2.5 L OHV four was adapted for its new east-west orientation, and shook 90 hp from its crankshaft.

But GM was a bit more ambitious with the optional engine: the immortal 60-degree V6, still being built in China, and only just recently departed from the US GM line-up. In its first incarnation here, it had 2.8 L and 115 hp (110 beginning in 1981). And in 1981, the sporty X-11 Citation was graced with a bumped-up HO version, which churned out 135 hp. Just the ticket to fully display the Citation’s truly prodigious torque steer and other entertaining characteristics, some of them quite genuine, especially in later model years.

Since quietness was always disproportionately high on the list of criteria for GM cars, and because neither of the Citation’s engines were intrinsically quiet and smooth, extreme measures were taken to isolate them from the passenger compartment. The front subframe that carried the drive train and front suspension was attached to the body with very soft rubber mounts. This led to a remarkable sensation during acceleration.

It felt as if your favorite H-mobile was composed of two separate components (which it sort of was), or to take the analogy further, it felt like the body was a semi-trailer hooked to the back of a semi-truck. Floor it, and the truck started heading one direction (left, if I remember correctly) while the trailer both followed as well as tried to keep the truck from running off the roadway. Amusing, sort of. I had the chance to do it several times a day, in my Skylark company car. And I got quite good at it: kind of like crabbing an airplane. I did used to wonder if one day my car’s front sub frame would just fully detach and head off into to the median by itself; it sure seemed to want to very badly.

One might eventually get used to that, and if you had a good running V6, these cars could feel pretty lively given their light weight. But what goes fast must slow down, eventually, especially in LA traffic. And that’s where the fun disappeared, in a cloud of burning rubber. GM made almost the same penny-ante mistake with Citation as with the Corvair. Then, they left off a $14 camber-compensating spring. Now it was a $14 (?) rear brake proportioning valve. Drivers complained, NHTSA sued GM, which GM ended up winning in 1987, way too late: the perception/sales battle was then long lost. My Skylark with wider tires and wheels wasn’t too bad that way, but I once drove a four cylinder Citation that was highly prone. Let’s just say that my old Peugeot 404 had a very effective ride-height sensing rear proportioning valve even though it was rwd, and the Citation didn’t, with 60% of its weight on the front.

That was just for starters (and stoppers). In between, a seemingly endless rash of maladies made these cars recall kings and queens. Transmission hoses that leaked and cause fires. Various driveability issues: fuel injection was deemed too expensive; meanwhile the two-barrel carb on the V6 was the most complicated and expensive fuel mixing device Rube Goldberg was ever commissioned to design. (A replacement cost  over $1000 in today’s money, as I well know).  Shifting the manual transmission was like sending messages to a distant cohort in secret code via carrier pigeon.

The Citation interiors were hard and cheap. Sundry pieces of trim were prone to suddenly disassociating themselves from the rest of the car, in shame perhaps. Starting on day one. General build quality varied greatly, somewhere between miserable and mediocre. Cost cutting resulted in skin cutting from rough edges. Within one model year, the word was out and the jig was up: the Citation was a lemon.

In a truly cynical move, GM found the pennies to add a “II” suffix to the Citation in 1984, even though anyone would be hard pressed to see any difference. Enough fools fell for the Citation II to bump sales by 5k units that year, before they realized that it was just a Citation Too.

What really must have burned GM with the Citation’s flame out was that Toyota was dealing with the exact same challenge: to convert its rwd Carina/Corona lines to fwd. The all-new Camry appeared in 1983, just as the Citation was crashing. Ironically, the Camry had a distinctly Citation-ish look to it too, especially the hatchback. But looks can be deceiving. First year Camrys are considered as utterly solid and fool-proof as this year’s, if not more so. I can think of no better example of the contrasting state of affairs that predicted their makers’ respective trajectories in 1983 than these two similar and yet so different cars. GM’s Death Warrant Exhibit A.

Perhaps we should just leave it there, but there is a relevant postscript to the Citation: it became essentially immortal, in new garb. The Chevy Celebrity and its A-Body kin were nothing more than a Citation inner body and platform with a new exterior suit. The magic of a restyle and a little attention to working out the most blatant kinks resulted in a long-lived career (through 1996), at least for the Olds and Buick versions. And eventually they got fairly reliable…just too late.

But the A-Bodies are just the most obvious genetic offshoot. Let’s face it; just about every fwd GM car built since the first Citation torque-steered its way off the assembly line has X-chromosomes in it, to one degree or another. The Citation was GM’s starting point with the fwd car, as well as the true beginning of its end.

More New Curbside Classics Here

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Curbside Classics: The First Mini-Pickups: Datsun’s 1964 320 1200; 1967 520 1300; 1969 521 1600 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classics-the-first-mini-pickups-datsuns-1964-320-1200-1967-520-1300-1969-521-1600/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classics-the-first-mini-pickups-datsuns-1964-320-1200-1967-520-1300-1969-521-1600/#comments Sat, 18 Dec 2010 20:56:02 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=377698 The Toyota pickup has become such a dominant vehicle in its class worldwide, its easy to assume that it was always that way. Not so. It was Nissan’s little Datsun trucks that essentially invented the modern mini-pickup genre, and was top puppy in the US for well over a decade before handing over the throne. […]

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The Toyota pickup has become such a dominant vehicle in its class worldwide, its easy to assume that it was always that way. Not so. It was Nissan’s little Datsun trucks that essentially invented the modern mini-pickup genre, and was top puppy in the US for well over a decade before handing over the throne. In fact, trucks were the only vehicle that Datsun imported for quite a few years, and made its reputation with them. They’re a significant piece of automotive history, and many are still hard at work, at least hereabouts.

The Datsun pickup series started (in Japan) with the Model 120 in 1955. Featuring a new chassis and body, it still had a pre-war 860 cc flat-head four which made all of 25 hp. It shared much of its chassis and mechanicals with the contemporary Datsun 110 sedan.

In 1958, the improved Model 220 arrived, with a new 1000 cc OHV four that was an offshoot of Datsun’s licensing agreement with Austin. But the new C-Series engine wasn’t just a direct copy of the Ausitn B-Series; it was substantially improved by an American engineer, Donald Stone. These “Stone engines” quickly developed a rep for being extremely rugged and hard to kill.

There were a number of minor evolutionary steps from the original 120 to the red 1964 320 that I shot here, and there were other body styles that never made it to the US. One of the more interesting ones is the double cab U Series, which looks more like a precursor to a SUT/Avalanche/Baja type vehicle tha the more typical double cab small work trucks.

Datsun trucks were first imported to the US in 1959, the 37 hp 1000cc Model 220. Although slow, Nissan’s (then) legendary build quality helped find a foothold in the American market, as there was no other vehicle quite like it. Not surprisingly, import friendly Southern California was where the bulk of these early trucks were sold.

In 1961, the Model 320 appeared, with a number of improvements. It now had a torsion bar independent front suspension that replaced the solid beam axle on early models, and a 1200 cc E-Series engine that was a further development of the “Stone” engine.

Its badges proudly proclaims 60 hp! That actually was pretty good for 1961, considering VW buses/pickups were still laboring along with 36hp that year.

The Datsun engine’s Austin roots are apparent with those distinctive head bolts. These E-series engines are pretty legendary, especially in places like Australia which took a shine to little Datsun trucks very early on. Consider it a contender for the ubiquitous slant six comparison.

Obviously, these old 320s are cuteness embodified. The used to be fairly common in CA, and were especially popular with the surfer crowd.

Their one shortcoming was shortness…in terms of cab length. They were not sized for tall Americans, and I’ve never been able to make myself comfortable in one. But I love that simple dash…now that’s right up my alley.

In 1965, the new 520 Series Datsun trucks appeared. They still had the rugged height-adjustable torsion bar suspension, but the styling was new, as well as incorporating a number of other significant changes. It was a handsome truck for the times,with a distinctly Italianate flavor. Not surprisingly, as the Nissan designers used the work Pininfarina did for the Datsun 410 sedan and adapted it for the 520 truck.

In addition to a slightly roomier cab, the 520 had another evolutionary development of the “Stone” OHV four, now called the J-Series and sporting 1300 cc and a whopping 67 hp. This engine was also used in the 410/411 sedan, and helped give it its sporting reputation.

For a truck engine, it was pretty sporty: check out the fine swept cast exhaust header; you wouldn’t find that on an American straight six truck engine.

This 1300 truck is still hard at work earning its living. There’s a lot of these early Datsun trucks in Eugene, but not the 1300s are pretty rare, especially in front-line duty.

For 1969, the Datsun pickup received a  restyled front end, and for the US anyway, a big boost in power. The new L-series 1600 cc OHC four that was developed for the legendary Datsun 510 was also dropped into the 521 series pickup. With 96 hp on tap, the Datsun was now a genuine ‘lil hustler, as long as the rear wheels had enough traction. Weighing some 2100 lbs, the power to weight ratio was excellent for the times, and another legend was made.

By this time, Datsun was selling over 30k of their little trucks per year, and not just in California anymore. They created a new market, and soon Toyota and a slew of other Japanese competitors would all pile in.

I had seen a few of them in Maryland and Iowa in up to 1972, but they were not common. It wasn’t until I went to CA the first time in ’72 that their popularity hit me. As I first approached LA in the spring of ’72, in a Datsun 510 no less, there were swarms of these on the I10 out in the fringes of the desert heading into San Bernardino, many of them hauling the the other hot vehicle of the times, a Yamaha DT Enduro bike, in the bed. They seemed to be made for each other.

Datsun pickups and VW Beetles (modified to some degree or another) were probably the two most popular cars with kids in LA at that time. Like so many trends, they foreshadowed the huge import tsunami about to wash ashore and flood the whole country. Datsun maintained the number one sales position for some ten years or so, but eventually Toyota pulled ahead.

Not surprisingly, these were pretty primitive little trucks to drive, for better and for worse. The Datsun 1600 engine pulled well, and was now geared so that it could keep up easily with freeway traffic. The ride was harsh, and the brakes were decidedly mediocre, the weakest link in the package. But their elementary goodness and simplicity endeared these trucks to a whole generations (or more) of Americans as an alternative to ever larger or increasingly more complicated cars. It’s truly hard to believe that the whole segment has essentially died out. But then these old Datsuns, and the generation that followed these are still plentiful, should one really wish to relive the experience.

More new Curbside Classics here

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The Curbside Classics Treasure Hunt http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/the-curbside-classics-treasure-hunt/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/the-curbside-classics-treasure-hunt/#comments Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:15:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=377205 This week’s Silversides Bus and Tempest CCs were high on my wish list, and finding them motivated me to put in some serious overtime. So today I need a breather, say an urban hike from our house to Skinner Butte, the geographic focal point of Eugene. Now some of you have asked if you could […]

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This week’s Silversides Bus and Tempest CCs were high on my wish list, and finding them motivated me to put in some serious overtime. So today I need a breather, say an urban hike from our house to Skinner Butte, the geographic focal point of Eugene. Now some of you have asked if you could join me sometime on a CC hunt in Eugene; of course you all have a standing invitation; just show up. In the meantime you can join me on a virtual tour/hunt of the Skinner Butte District. I’ll just point out the highlights of the neighborhood, and you just give a shout out when you see something that interests you.

To get oriented, we’ll start at the viewpoint on top: we’re facing south, towards downtown Eugene and Spencer Butte, and our house is a couple of miles off in the distance. A quick note on these two cars: they both passed me as I was heading up, and the two drivers are now both in the black car; that’s a very big dog in the back seat of the red one. The top of the Butte has a long tradition of being favorite meeting (or finding) spot, and Stephanie and I have witnessed some ah…free porn here, once right up against the front of a car. Well, the view is rather romantic…

This is the Butte looking up from where downtown runs into it. That’s the old package depot next to the train station. The Amtrak Coast Starlight stops in Eugene, and we have cool Spanish-built Talgo trains that run up to Portland and Seattle twice daily. But lets head on over the west side of the Butte, which is a lot more colorful.

It’s a little hard to make out, but right above the blue garage are the exposed basalt columns. Here’s a closeup:

No old cars in the parking lot here on this winter day. But if you want to do something active on your lunch break, this is just a few blocks from downtown and five minutes from the university. And there a  number of hiking trails on both sides of the butte. Eugene got its start at the base of Skinner Butte with pioneer settler Eugene Skinner, who so generously lent is first name to the town he founded here in 1851.

This mixed-use neighborhood is a jumble of a few old houses, some businesses that were converted from old mills, like the popular REI store,

and other small commercial and industrial properties.

Just west of the REI store is the seedy Jefferson-Washington “bridge”, actually the very end of the connector freeway (105) that drops one into Eugene, and separates Skinner Butte District from the Whitaker District, the most colorful and CC fertile neighborhood of all. We’ll save that for another “day off”.

Around the corner I will point out a couple of CC milestone cars. The ’72 Caddy was the first CC ever, almost two years ago. And the Corolla served as the first anniversary CC.

Let’s check in on the Caddy’s vinyl roof “garden” and see how it’s coming along. Nice.

Before we leave them to age some more, let’s take a quick look at the faded bread van’s exhortation. Was that Sunbeam bread?

One block south, we can see the back of the old bread van and Tactics, the board sports shop that used to be a popular destination for my younger son (and my wallet).

This neighborhood does attract a higher than average share of eccentrics, or he’s just ready for all contingencies, including cross-country skis on top.

There’s even a small steel fabricating operation around the next corner here. Looks like some of it originated at the Rouge.

Since it’s a bit of a rough neighborhood, some folks feel the need to protect their precious valuables with security fences. Can’t totally blame them, although I doubt they’d have much luck getting this started. But it might make a nice human-powered RV for a transient; beats a shopping cart.

Let’s head north, towards the Willamette River, which runs right through the middle of Eugene. The river runs cool and clean, and is a great place to swim, kayak or drift down on a hot summer day. Here we see the butte from the northwest.

There’s a number of modest cottages here;

Some newer infill houses;

And an apartment building or two.

This bus has been here for a while. I already shot it for a future CC, because it’s surprisingly unusual, likely the only one of its particular make and year still on the road. Patience!  But it’s sporting a brand new paint job today, so maybe I better re-shoot it. Zingy! After you’ve spent a few gray winters in the northwest, you learn to appreciate strong bright colors. You should see our kitchen.

Across the street from the bus is a fellow who operates a vegetarian food cart.

This is the last block before we hit the park, which encompasses the whole north side, from the butte to the river.

There’s a re-creation of Eugene Skinner’s log cabin. Before the town was named Eugene, it was commonly referred to as Skinner’s Mudhole. Now that’s a bit more colorful than Eugene, no?

The gentleman here is giving me the finger for photographing his rig. I did point out to him that I feel I have the right to shoot vehicles parked on the public streets whose existence and maintenance, as well as his ability to park there for free, has benefited substantially from my recent $17k annual property tax payment. He obviously didn’t buy my argument.

He’s not the only benefiting from my largess. Cheese!

On this blustery winter day, there aren’t any families bringing their kids to the big new playground. But there’s something very toy-like about this red, white and blue display in the parking lot.

I want to show a glimpse of the river but there’s no old cars here. Actually, there are some ancient relics of dumped cars embedded in the bank in one place, but the river’s running too high for me to swim out and show you them. Sorry!

As we head east, we emerge at the Campbell Senior Center parking lot. The river is just beyond the green bank.

We’re on the east side of the butte now, which is the most historic neighborhood in Eugene. Lots of charming Victorian houses, but this view shows the effects of no zoning: in the sixties this huge building, Yo Po Ah Terrace, was built right in the middle of it and smack in front of the butte, ruining the view from downtown. That woke up the city fathers and a severe height restriction was quickly enacted.

This house is representative of the scenery here.

The Parkview Apartments is a low-income senior housing project; one is likely to meet seniors in the parking lot too.

Sure enough. Let’s take a closer look at this trendy “green roof”.

Yikes! That’s really come along since the last time I saw it. Time to wrap up and head back to the top of the Butte to catch the sunset.

The west side has a bench which is a great place to catch the day’s last rays when the clouds cooperate.

Looking to the east, we see the pulp mills of sister-city Springfield adding to the clouds, as if they needed the help. The big yellow O is Autzen Stadium, home of the top rated Oregon University Ducks, headed to the BCS National Championship.

One final shot of downtown Eugene in the last light of day before we trot home again (a five mile round trip) for wine and dinner. Oh wait; you wanted to see cars, not scenery. Ok, I’ll dig up one from here that I shot last summer:

The folks in this ‘risienne were straight out of the Big Lebowski; the smoke wafting out the window is lost in the summer haze. Well, if you can’t get laid on top of Skinner Butte, you might as well get high.

For those that made it to the end, I hope that wasn’t too long or tiring. Care to join me on a different urban hike sometime?

[Note: place your cursor over the pics in the unlikely event you need help identifying them]

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics here

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Curbside Classic: 1963 Tempest LeMans- Pontiac Tries To Build A BMW Before BMW Built Theirs And Almost Succeeds http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1963-tempest-lemans-pontiac-tries-to-build-a-bmw-before-bmw-built-theirs-and-almost-succeeds/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1963-tempest-lemans-pontiac-tries-to-build-a-bmw-before-bmw-built-theirs-and-almost-succeeds/#comments Tue, 14 Dec 2010 17:25:19 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=376863 In the thirties and forties, GM pioneered and brought to market some of the most innovative, successful and lasting new technologies: diesel-electric locomotives, the modern diesel bus, automatic transmissions, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, high compression engines, independent front suspension, and many more. But GM’s technology prowess was just one facet of its endlessly warring […]

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In the thirties and forties, GM pioneered and brought to market some of the most innovative, successful and lasting new technologies: diesel-electric locomotives, the modern diesel bus, automatic transmissions, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, high compression engines, independent front suspension, and many more. But GM’s technology prowess was just one facet of its endlessly warring multiple personalities. Planned obsolescence, chrome, fins and financial rationalization were the real moneymakers, especially during the technically conservative fifties. But in the period from 1960 to 1966, GM built three production cars that tried to upend the traditional format: the rear engined 1960 Corvair, the front-wheel drive 1966 Toronado, and the 1961 Tempest. And although the Corvair and Toronado tend to get the bulk of the attention, the Tempest’s format was by far the most enduring one: it was a BMW before BMW built theirs. If only they had stuck with it.

A high performance four cylinder engine with four-venturi carburetion, four-wheel independent suspension; four speed stick shift; perfect 50-50 weight distribution; a light, compact yet fairly roomy body; decent manual steering; and neutral to over-steering handling qualities: sounds just like the specs for the all-new 1962 BMW 1500/1800. Or a Mercedes, or a Rover 2000 perhaps? But none of them had this: a rear transaxle and a totally revolutionary flexible drive shaft.  When GM gave its engineering talent the freedom to innovate, the results were often extraordinary. But in true GM fashion, penny-pinching resulted in the 1961 Tempest arriving flawed, like the Corvair. But unlike the Corvair, The Tempest never got a second chance to sort out its readily fixable blemishes. If so, the result would have been even more remarkable than the 1965 Corvair.

John DeLorean may be more famous for the ’59 Wide-Tracks, the GTO, the Pontiac OHC six, and the ’69 Grand Prix during his tenure at Pontiac, but in my opinion, the 1961 Tempest is his most ambitious and creative engineering effort. He was aware as anyone of the limitations of the Detroit big car formula: too big, thirsty, front-heavy and dull-handling. With the 1960 Corvair in the wings, DeLorean’s lingering plans to build a truly advanced and practical car finally came to (not quite ripe) fruition.

DeLorean was particularly interested in the benefits of independent rear suspension that so many European cars like the VW, Porsche and Mercedes had been using since the thirties. In the mid fifties, his engineering team developed an even more radical evolution of the Mercedes approach for the 1959 full-sized Pontiacs: a rear transaxle to balance weight distribution, and connected to the engine with a flexible shaft drive inside a rigid torque tube. That innovation was his alone, and he received a patent on it. And please don’t call it “rope drive;” good luck trying to send power through anything resembling a rope. It was a single flexible piece of steel, more akin to a torsion bar or a speedometer drive shaft.

The big 1959 Pontiacs arrived with their ad-friendly wide tracks, but were otherwise utterly conventional. But GM wanted to foist the new rear-engine Corvair on Pontiac, in order to spread its high development and production costs. The prototype Pontiac Polaris (above) was classic badge-engineering: a ’59 Pontiac-ish front end grafted on an otherwise unaltered Corvair. But the Pontiac brass Bill Knudsen, Pete Estes and DeLorean weren’t buying it, in part because DeLorean was already familiar with the Corvair’s tricky handling and nasty habit of spinning or even flipping when it got pushed too far.

DeLorean’s initial plan was to use the Corvair body, but turn it into a front-engined car while leaving the whole Corvair rear suspension and its transaxle in place, not even turning it around to face the motor. By using a hollow shaft, the Corvair transmission would actually be “driven” from the rear of the car, resulting in the torque converter hanging off the back of the differential, where it would normally have mated up to the Corvair’s rear engine.

Very creative indeed, and rather bizarre to see the torque converter just sitting there in the open like an appendage (above).  The drive shaft had three inches of deflection (curvature), and that curvature was strictly induced by applying the appropriate stresses on each end; there were no intermediate bearings necessary to locate it within the torque tube.

The rigid torque tube’s benefits went well beyond resulting in an almost-flat floor. It was a key component to adapt the four cylinder engine and help tame its vibrations. A four cylinder theoretically has perfect primary balance. But because it has only two power impulses per crankshaft rotation, second order and torsional vibrations can be quite significant, especially in a larger displacement motor. Traditionally, Europeans kept fours to two liters or less for that reason. Mitsubishi reintroduced the balance shaft with its 2.6 liter four in 1975, and it is highly effective and now very common in smoothing large fours.

This is why Detroit shunned fours like the plague; in order to provide American-style torque and power, American fours had almost always been large. At low engine speeds, like in the Ford Model T and A, this was not too bothersome. A suitable six might have been perfect, but Pontiac had little choice but create a compact and low-cost four by building it the quick and dirty way: eliminating one of the banks of its 389 CID V8. This was very cost effective, because it used a high percentage of the V8’s parts, and could be machined on the same lines as the V8.

Rigidly mounting the four to the front end of the torque tube eliminated the need for the engine mounts to control its front-to-back movements, so it was possible to isolate it and its vibrations from the body to a much greater degree than if had been mounted in the usual fashion. The mounts on the four only had to control its vertical movements, so they could be very soft. That does result in an impressive display of vertical “jumping” when the throttle is opened from idle.

That’s not to say that the 195 cubic inch (3.2 L) four’s noise, vibration and harshness issues were all miraculously solved by DeLorean’s innovative mounting solutions. It’s a very big four, for better or for worse. It does have a fatter torque curve than a comparable six or eight for its displacement, and therefore is very responsive. And thanks to Pontiac’s high performance experience, it could be quite powerful; output started at 110 hp, and went up to 165 hp with the optional four barrel carburetor. That overshadows the 1961 Corvair’s 98 hp optional engine.

As it turned out, Pontiac didn’t have to use the actual 108″ wheelbase Corvair body after all; GM relented and let them share the Corvair-based but slightly larger 112″ wheelbase Y Body that Buick and Oldsmobile were preparing for their 1961 compacts. But Pontiac was given a very tiny budget to adapt it, so the 1961 Tempest (above) used most of the Olds F85 sheetmetal with a ’59 Pontiac-derived front end and a new rear end grafted on. But the four cylinder, flex-drive and Corvair transaxle and its rear suspension were retained, for better or for worse.

The worst was that it was a simple swing axle: rigid half-axles jointed only at each side of the rigidly mounted differential. This was the hot new thing in Europe back in the thirties, but its tendency to jack up in fast corners and create snap oversteer and flipping had become all-too well known.

That’s why Mercedes developed its innovative single low-pivot rear axle (above) with an anti-jacking compensating spring in the early fifties, a temporary step before it adopted a double-jointed irs in 1968. BMW’s “Neue Klasse” 1500/1800/2000 sedans first arrived in 1962 with a double-jointed rear suspension. As did the Jaguar S sedan. Europe was moving on, and GM would quickly learn this painful lesson in penny-pinching. The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray had a new double-jointed rear axle, which the 1965 Corvair also adopted to great effect.

I showed you the odd Tempest automatic transaxle earlier, but here’s the (leaky) four speed in the featured convertible. That round bolted cover on the end is where the Corvair bellhousing would have attached.

And here’s the front of the same unit, showing the shift linkage which the Tempest conveniently shared with Corvair too. It wasn’t a model of precision and quickness, but Porsche had to have something left to improve when it adopted a highly similar torque tube rear transaxle for their 928 and 924/944/968. The 968’s three liter four was only slightly smaller than the Tempest 3.2, and its ferocious torque showed to best advantage the benefits of a large displacement four with balance shafts. If John Z. had remembered about the 1904 Lanchester’s patented balance shafts and adapted them, the Tempest would really have been a milestone car.

Speaking of Porsche’s claims about their pioneering:

a minor error in the text

The ’61 and ’62 Tempests did also offer a version of the aluminum Buick 215 CID V8 optionally, but only 1-2% of them were built with it, and only a tiny handful with a stick. Theoretically, the combination of the light and smooth V8 with a four speed and the Tempest’s independent suspension and perfect weight balance would have potentially made a very appealing package. But the V8 was troublesome from the beginning, and Pontiac had to “buy” it from Buick, so the four was pushed heavily. And the hi-po four did make almost as much horsepower as the V8.

The Tempest was widely (and rightfully) hailed when it arrived. It won Motor Trend’s COTY, and accolades from the press: “a breakthrough for Detroit”…”a wonderfully refreshing automobile”…”a significant coup of major import”…”may be the forerunner of a new generation”…”unquestionably a prototype American car for the sixties”. Testers praised its 50-50 front-rear balance, which resulted in lighter steering, less understeer, better traction and braking, and a good ride. But its ability to create the dreaded snap oversteer in the wet or on quickly driven curves was not left behind with the Corvair’s rear engine. The Tempest’s handling could also be tricky, and its agricultural sounding four could not be fully tamed, even if some of its shaking was mitigated. Consumer Reports was not so enthralled.

1962 Tempest LeMans

The Tempest met its sales expectations, selling 100k in 1961, 140k in ’62, and 130k in ’63. That helped Pontiac clinch third place in the sales stats. But it suffered the same problem as the Corvair: profitability was not up to snuff. The extra costs in converting the Olds body and the drive shaft and rear transaxle bit into the already slim margins on compact cars. The whole ambitious Corvair/Tempest/Olds F85/Buick Special Y-body experiments left GM with a bad aftertaste, especially since Ford was doing so well with its utterly conventional Falcon and Comet. The dull 1962 Chevy II was the effective replacement for the Corvair, and the B-O-P compacts became highly conventional mid-sized cars in 1964.

Our next door neighbor in Iowa City, a Russian professor, drove a white ’62 LeMans convertible like the one above. I vividly remember the throb of the big four as I rode with her to Sears to get her lawnmower fixed. But the open top was even more effective than DeLorean’s other efforts to drown out its agricultural sounds, at least above thirty or so. And I once briefly drove a co-worker’s base ’61 sedan in LA: despite being elderly, its intrinsic balance (which could be all-too easily upset for amusing purposes) and decent steering for an American car was downright un-American. If only its engine ran sweetly like my Peugeot 404’s. But the trade-off was the torque: very American indeed.

Our featured car is a 1963 LeMans, which was the sporty/upscale variant analogous to the Corvair’s Monza with the same bucket seats and higher trim. The ’63s were restyled to make them appear bigger, wider and longer. This convertible has all the right options, at least for those that have a soft spot for the four. I found it in front of this shop where it had just been converted to the factory 165 hp four barrel setup. And it also has the four-speed stick. Not surprisingly, its owner turns out to be a ’63 Tempest junkie; it was the car he always wanted in high school.

Norman has over half a dozen ’63s in and a round his shop and back yard, including this sedan still on the trailer that he just picked up. And he has another convertible (below) with the optional 326 V8 that replaced the aluminum V8 for 1963. This was a prescient move by DeLorean, and foreshadowed the 1964 GTO.

The 326 is a 389 with smaller bores (and actually displaced 336 cubic inches), and although no lightweight, it still results in a quite decent 54/46 weight distribution because of the rear transaxle. With a two barrel carb, the 326 made a fairly modest 260 hp, but the Tempest was light (2800-3000lbs) so with the V8 it scoots right along.  Because of limited funds, the four speed was not upgraded to handle the V8’s torque, so as far as is known, all the 326s came with the three speed stick or the two-speed Powerglide/aka: TempesTorque automatic. Norman says his fours get 18 – 20 mpg, and the 326 around 16 – 18 mpg.

To mitigate its handling rep, the 1963 Tempest’s rear suspension was revised with a modified control arm geometry and other tricks. But it was still a swing axle, and the Tempest’s end was already in sight, to be replaced by live-axle conformity.

But in my imagination, I see a 1965 Tempest coupe based on the stunningly beautiful ’65 Corvair body, with the 230 hp Sprint OHC six under a lengthened front end and sharing that Corvair’s new Corvette-based rear suspension. What a genuine American BMW that would have been, right down to the dash (the BMW’s Tempest look-alike dash appeared on the ’66 1602). In my oft-repeated GM coulda-shoulda dreams.

A scan of an in-depth SIA article on the Tempest is here

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics are here

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Curbside Classic: 1947 GM PD-3751 “Silversides” Greyhound Bus – The First Modern Diesel Bus http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1947-gm-pd-3751-silversides-greyhound-bus-the-first-modern-diesel-bus/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1947-gm-pd-3751-silversides-greyhound-bus-the-first-modern-diesel-bus/#comments Sat, 11 Dec 2010 17:53:29 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=376530 This GM bus revolutionized the industry, and set the template for all over-the road buses to come: forward control, rear transverse diesel engine, the famous fluted aluminum “Silversides” cladding, semi-monocoque construction, high floor and underfloor luggage compartments. But its wildest feature was not replicated: a four-on-the-tree shifter and its mechanical linkage back to the non-synchronized […]

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This GM bus revolutionized the industry, and set the template for all over-the road buses to come: forward control, rear transverse diesel engine, the famous fluted aluminum “Silversides” cladding, semi-monocoque construction, high floor and underfloor luggage compartments. But its wildest feature was not replicated: a four-on-the-tree shifter and its mechanical linkage back to the non-synchronized gear box; something had to be left to improve. Let’s check it out and delve into the history and workings of its legendary Detroit Diesel 6-71 engine, which first made its appearance here.

First, let’s consider the setting into which it appeared: inter-city bus service once played a much more significant role than today, with numerous companies competing. And until the late thirties, buses were generally built like this; on heavy truck-type frames with the gasoline engine up front. Luggage rode on a roof-top rack.

That all changed with the 1936 Yellow Coach (owned by GM) Model 719 Super Coach, a groundbreaking design. It was conceived during that very creative mid-late thirties period, when traditional approaches to cars, buses trains and airplanes were all being tossed overboard. Yellow, encouraged and partly financed by Greyhound, decided to reinvent the bus. Dwight Austin, who had designed the remarkable but unsuccessful double-decker Pickwick Nitecoach, was hired by Yellow/GM to head up the effort.

Austin brought with him his patented angledrive system, which allowed the engine to sit transversely at the very rear of the bus for maximum space efficiency and accessibility. The new Model 719 also featured a semi-monococque (self-supporting) construction using aluminum to save weight, and large underfloor luggage compartments. The engine was a gasoline GMC 707 CID six, as GM’s new diesel engine wasn’t quite ready yet. But by 1938 it was, and in 1939 GM restyled the 719 with the then fashionable fluted polished aluminum “silverside” cladding.

The also groundbreaking Pioneer Zephyr of 1934 introduced the stainless steel fluted cladding, which came to typify streamlined trains and modern buses until just the last decade or two. Needless to say, it was also a mighty durable exterior finish. And the Zephyr also pioneered GM’s Elelectro-Motive Division two-stroke locomotive engine, which went on to revolutionize the train world.

Let’s swing open these beautiful louvered doors on the back, to expose that famous Detroit Diesel 6-71 engine.

GM’s two-stroke Detroit Diesel (“DD”) engine is one of America’s engineering marvels of the twentieth century. Designed under the direction of Charles Kettering at the GM Advanced Labs, the two-stroke principle was used in part because of the desire to have a compact and light engine for use in GM’s coaches, which dominated the industry, or would very soon. Many of you already know its operating principles, but for the uninitiated, they’re worth repeating again.

The DD is different from the typical loop-scavenged two-stroke engine, which has no valves and relies strictly on ports (openings) in the cylinder for the intake and exhaust, as well as crankcase pressure to help keep the gases flowing (typically, but not always). The DD two-stroke “Uniflow” has port openings in the cylinders for the intake air, but has two or four exhaust valves in each cylinder’s head. In order to fill the cylinder with fresh air since there’s no intake stroke, a blower is essential for its operation. Here’s a short video showing the DD two stroke cycle.

Conveniently exposed here to show one of its two overlapping lobed rotors, the 6-71 “Jimmy” Roots-type blowers soon found a new role as superchargers on dragsters and hot rods. In that application, they were overdriven to provide large amounts of boost; in the DD engine, they provide just enough of an increase above atmospheric pressure to evacuate and fill the cylinder with fresh air. Later versions also had turbochargers, which fed through the blower and increase power output. The blower couldn’t be eliminated though, because its boost is needed to start the engine and at idle.

The DD engine family was designed from scratch to be modular, to be built in many cylinder multiples. The “71” indicates the cubic inch displacement per cylinder; therefor this 6-71 has 426 CID. Two, three and four cylinder versions were offered from the beginning for powering everything from smaller trucks, gen-sets, pumps, tractors, marine use, and a host of other applications where its small size and durability put it to great advantage. Later, larger multiples were also built, including V8, V12, V16 and according to one source, even a V24. The smaller 53 family soon joined, and in more recent years, a 92 family largely replaced the 71 series. But the 71 family lasted into the 1990’s, and millions of these engines are still at work in all manner of vehicles, boats and equipment. The same basic two stroke diesel design was also scaled up and used in diesel locomotives, where GM enjoyed a near monopoly for decades.

What finally put it out of production was its slightly lower efficiency than the four stroke diesel. This was a small price worth paying in exchange for its compact dimensions and light weight. Higher fuel prices in recent years finally sealed its fate, but tightening emission standards would have likely been impossible to meet as well. BTW, these 6-71 powered coaches can get up to twelve miles per gallon.

Because of cheap fuel prices, diesel engines caught on slowly in the US. Initially, there were really just two common diesel engines for automotive (truck, etc) use in the US: the DD and the larger and heavier Cummins four stroke. And into the seventies and eighties, the two of them along with the Mack four stroke duked it out in the truck sector. But the DD was always  instantly recognizable by its distinct exhaust howl, which sounded like it was revving twice as fast or more than the grumbling four strokes. But then all two strokes sound like they’re running twice as fast, obviously because they have twice as many exhaust strokes at any given engine speed. If you’ve ever heard a DD without a muffler, its scream will haunt you forever.

If you haven’t, here’s a video of the DD V12 in the hot rod Peterbilt above. As the owner points out, it may sound like it’s running at 6000 rpm, but its actual redline is 2500 rpm.

The next trick was to get the 190 hp or so that the early 6-71 made to the wheels. It’s torque being substantially more brutal than the gasoline engines it replaced, initially there were experiments with a diesel-electric drive, and a torque converter. Complications and efficiency losses with both led to a mechanical drive, an unsynchronized four speed, shifted by what has to be the biggest and gnarliest column shifter ever.

This picture is spoiled by the heavy tinting on the window and the light coming in the other side, but there it is, the black knob on the end of the shifter. Just try to imagine the mechanical linkage going back thirty-five feet to the transmission. Because of the challenges of the linkage, reverse gear was engaged by a solenoid, which can be clearly seen on top of the transmission along with the ends of the linkage (below). And check out that awesome art-deco driver’s seat.

You’re looking at the output end of the transmission and the angle drive that now sends the power forward to the rear axle. The working ends of shift linkage is visible, as well as a solenoid that engages reverse gear. I drove big transit buses, but never had the pleasure of trying to shift one of these stick versions. But I assure you, if you rode in these old buses, the shifts were very slow in coming, and if the driver hadn’t mastered the art of double clutching, down shifts never did happen, which could be deadly on a long steep downgrade in the mountains.

Since I’m snapping away, might as well get the output end of the angle drive and the short drive shaft to the rear axle, which had an offset differential. Also very visible are the big leaf springs, which was the one old-tech artifact. The next generation of GM buses, the almost equally revolutionary 1953 PD-4104, pioneered air suspension. The difference is huge; we had one old leaf spring transit bus, and it rode like a cart compared to the floating air-rides.

These 35′ coaches came in 37 or 41 passenger configuration, depending on how much leg room was desired. This obviously is the deluxe service version. Even a few 2 + 1 seating luxury versions were made. On-board lavatories were still a couple of years away, but air conditioning was available, which required its own small diesel engine to run the compressor.

This series of buses was made exclusively for Greyhound, but GM also made variations of the theme for all the other operators who clamored for them. If you look carefully at our featured bus, the outline of the greyhound logo is still visible.  GM came to have an 80+% share of the bus market in the fifties, and was at risk of being broken up by the government, and GM made their engines and the later Allison automatic transmission available to the competition. That power train combination totally dominated the bus market until fairly recently.

Numerous problems with the Scenicruiser and other frustrations of dealing with a near-monopoly drove Greyhound to buy the Canadian bus builder MCI, and never looked back. Other builders eventually found their footing, and as GM’s market share plummeted in the seventies, they lost interest and pulled the plug in 1980.

This particular bus, like so many other old GM coaches, has been converted into a motorhome. It lost water heading back from Nevada, and damaged its engine, which is in the final stages of being replaced. With a freshly rebuilt 6-71, it should be good for another million miles or so.

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Curbside Classic – When Honda’s Mojo Was Working: 1980-1983 Honda Civic http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-when-hondas-mojo-was-working-1980-1983-honda-civic/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-when-hondas-mojo-was-working-1980-1983-honda-civic/#comments Thu, 09 Dec 2010 18:15:02 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=376317 Yesterday’s piece  about Honda’s slippage left little doubt that its mojo ain’t quite what it used to be. But there was a time when Honda was on fire, and could do (almost) no wrong. The gen 1 Civic was like a little cherry bomb lobbed into a Weight-Watcher’s convention. Tiny, tinny, rude and crude as […]

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Yesterday’s piece  about Honda’s slippage left little doubt that its mojo ain’t quite what it used to be. But there was a time when Honda was on fire, and could do (almost) no wrong. The gen 1 Civic was like a little cherry bomb lobbed into a Weight-Watcher’s convention. Tiny, tinny, rude and crude as it was, the first Civic already embodied the unique qualities, if in somewhat embryonic form, that would revolutionize the American small car market and establish Honda’s meteoric rise. And this gen2 Civic was huge step forward; now instead of wearing a Civic like a badge of honor, one could now actually step into it and think of it as a legitimate car. How civil and civic-minded. But the best was yet to come.

Unlike the usual CC randomness, I set myself the task of documenting Honda’s rise chronologically from the beginning. I already blew that by a year, running the 1981 Prelude ahead of this Civic. Although even the gen2 two-door hatchback was a genuine improvement space wise, the real breakthrough was with the four door sedan and wagon that sat on an extended wheelbase. A young family with two kids could actually make this their car, like mine.

In 1983, Stephanie developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and she blamed it on the Peugeot 404 wagon I put together for her for $100. It was an awesome car, but it obviously lacked power steering. But in my new job, I had access to perks including a trade-out with a long-term rental outfit in LA. So the Pug sadly went away to good home, and Stephanie found herself behind the wheel of a Civic wagon just like the one at the top. I’m 99% certain it didn’t have power steering either, but it must have felt like it to her.

Just goes to show you how times change: if it was today, it would undoubtedly have been a Pilot or Odyssey. But in 1983, this was the biggest and only wagon Honda made, all 1900 lbs of it, 40% of what an Odyssey weighs. So what do I remember about it? Since it was replaced with a brand new 1984 Civic Wagon (Wagovan/Shuttle) within a month or so, my impressions are rather overshadowed by its much more memorable and fun to drive gen3 successor. That’s still more than Stephanie can muster; she swears she doesn’t remember driving this car at all. Was it that forgettable after a month?

OK; I’ve transported myself back behind the wheel of the gen2 Civic wagon: it’s adequately big enough even for me, but then I’ve always done fairly well in small cars. The unassisted steering is light (as soon as it’s rolling) and accurate, and the whole car has that distinctive old-time Honda feel: delicate yet robust. It’s the remarkable synthesis of these two opposing forces that were the brand’s hallmark.

The gen2 Civic was not an overtly sporty car, especially the longer sedan and wagon, yet it wasn’t un-sporty either. There’s that Honda juxtaposition again. Honda certainly knew what it took to make wild and screaming small sporty cars, sports cars (and even trucks) back then, but chose to export relatively mild-mannered cars, at least for the first some years. The gen2 1500cc Civic engine generated 67 hp at a modest 5,000 rpm. But it was smoother than any inline four (of the same size) at the time, and had a decent torque curve to keep Americans from having to exercise their right arms too much, since the overwhelming majority back then were sticks. Honda was out to capture the mainstream buyer before it could be troubled to introduce new variations, as that kept production simplified.

The specs of Honda motors explains their torque curve and low redline: these were massively undersquare motors; their 2.91″ bores much smaller than their 3.41″ stroke (almost the same as a 5.7 L Chevy V8). Actually, all Honda fours except the S2000 engine were and still are significantly undersquare, which makes the later DOHC, 16 valve and VTEC engines all the more remarkable for their high revving ability. Some of these fours have strokes close to 4″. That’s getting impressively close to one of the all-time long-stroke champs, the 4.2 L Jag XK engine, which I remember off the top off my head to have a 4.2″ stroke.

The point of that digression departure was the Civic’s lack of overt sportiness. Yet it was always fun to drive, given the alternatives of the times. The main reason I decided to run this Civic CC today was to provide a counterpoint to the late seventies Cougar and its ilk, which so predominated American roads at the time. Compared to them, a Ford product in particular, any Civic felt exceedingly sporty indeed.

Before I forget, Honda’s first overtly sporty Civic variant, the S model, arrived for the 1983 MY, the last year of this generation. I haven’t seen one in ages, but here’s one from the web (above). The best I can tell though, is that it didn’t actually have more power, but some external and internal displays of sportiness, a firmer suspension and bigger tires. But it was just the first mild preview of ever hotter coming attractions.

The other Civic hatch variant was this 1300 FE, which was Honda’s mileage queen with (old) EPA numbers of 41/55.  That probably adjusts to about a 40 mpg average in today’s numbers, not bad for a carbureted motor without any electronic controls.

This generation Civic was really the breakthrough version in terms of mainstream acceptability, at least on the coasts anyway. In LA, these Civics were massively popular, practically the default car to buy if in the market for a compact economical car with stellar reliability to boot. These were the days when if you wanted one, you put $500 down and awaited a call from the dealer when your car came in. There were probably half a dozen in the parking lot outside my office window. The younger women went for the hatch, but what really sent Civic sale skyrocketing was the sedan, which arrived one year later in 1981.

Quite the smart move by Honda, especially since it arrived in the heart of the second energy crisis. I assure you that a whole lot of fat Cougars and T-Birds were being traded in on these cute baby sedans during that massive run-up in gas prices. And not all that much interior space was given up in the process of tripling or quadrupling mileage. The rear seat in the Civic was undoubtedly easier to get at and more commodious than the wretchedly cramped back seats of the personal luxury coupes.

I know if I mention the reliability and durability of these little Hondoos, I’m going to hear it from our rust-belt contingent: “they all succumbed to the tin worm twenty years ago”. So be it. But there’s plenty of these now thirty-year old Civics running around of the streets in daily front-line service here, and as is all too obvious, if kept on a low-sodium diet, they hold up very well indeed.

Ironically, that does not seem to apply to the thin velvety mouse fur upholstery Honda used in the sedans. The vinyl used in the wagons and most hatches seems to survive ok. But the rest of these Civics were doing their best to cultivate the rep for longevity that Hondas quickly developed.

But Honda was just getting their mojo warmed up with this generation; what followed in the subsequent two generations was perhaps the pinnacle of the Civic, in relation to the their competition and the standards of the times, if not forever. Check back before long.

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Curbside Classic: 1946 Lincoln Continental – The Most Imitated American Car Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1946-lincoln-continental-the-most-imitated-american-car-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1946-lincoln-continental-the-most-imitated-american-car-ever/#comments Tue, 07 Dec 2010 16:54:05 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375951 This car is a jaw-dropper, a true classic, and a lucky find that rivals the CC logomobile, but it’s misnamed. By all rights, it should be the Edsel American. It was Edsel Ford’s fine taste and encouragement that made the original version of this trend-setting car happen, and in the process created a car that […]

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This car is a jaw-dropper, a true classic, and a lucky find that rivals the CC logomobile, but it’s misnamed. By all rights, it should be the Edsel American. It was Edsel Ford’s fine taste and encouragement that made the original version of this trend-setting car happen, and in the process created a car that set the template that every American personal luxury coupe/convertible has been trying to measure up to ever since. An aggressive face on a very long hood, a close-coupled body, a short rear deck, and dripping with the aura of exclusivity and sex: a timeless formula. All too few of the endless imitators got the ingredients right, or even close, as our recent Cougar CC so painfully showed. But that didn’t stopped them from trying, just like I never stopped looking for this Continental after I first saw it almost two years ago. It was well worth the effort.

Since the original Continental has a lot of history attached to it, we’re going to step back a bit and put in into context. A more comprehensive background can be found in my Lincoln History Up to 1961, but here’s the semi-condensed version: Unlike his father, Edsel Ford had a very artistic side and was a lover of fine cars. Travel to Europe exposed him to the latest styling trends, and his oversight of Lincoln during the classic era resulted in superbly designed cars.

The Depression essentially ended the era of these expensive toys and also ushered in the aerodynamic era. This resulted in a radical re-thinking of the automotive configuration, with pushed-forward passenger compartments, small pointy hoods and long tapering bodies, sometimes with rear engines. Lincoln adopted John Tjaarda’s radical rear-engined concept, but toned it down and adapted it to use main-stream Ford mechanicals. The resulting 1936 Zephyr (above) was quite successful, because unlike the similarly advanced Chrysler Airflow, it kept at least some semblance of a traditional pointed hood, even if shorter in proportion to the rest of the car than its predecessors.

For sedans, this re-arranging of the automotive real estate was eminently logical for the roomier interiors that resulted. But it really wasn’t so suitable for coupes and convertibles. As handsome as this ’37 Zephyr coupe is, it lacks the raw visceral appeal that the long-hood classic-era cars exuded so powerfully.

Now there were perks along with the endless pains of being Henry Ford’s (only) son. Edsel had commissioned a number of one-off “Specials” and customs since he was sixteen, including three sporty cars that represented his vision of sophistication and latest European trends. All three of them were thus dubbed “Continental”. He came up with the basic concept and certain details of these cars, and handed them over to Bob Gregoire to make the renderings that resulted in the hand-made final results.

In late 1938, Gregoire drafted the latest of the series (he claimed in thirty-five minutes) with input from Edsel, and the resulting car was shipped the following March to its happy new owner in Florida, where the Fords spent much of the winter.  The 1939 Continental was built on the Zephyr chassis, but the passenger compartment was now well set back (again) resulting in that long hood, and the whole body was lowered and the side-boards completely eliminated (sectioned and channeled). It was a superb reconciliation of the traditional with the streamlined trends, and an instant classic. And the exposed spare on the rear quickly became known as the Continental Spare, an affectation that still haunts us today.

Ironically, our featured car lacks the eponymous spare, and its owner may even go so far as to customize the rear end to eliminate any lingering clues to its disappearance. Now that’s a gutsy move, and one I can respect. A Lincoln American indeed, if not an Edsel.

Edsel was bombarded with open check books as he drove his new toy around Palm Beach (one per mile, he claimed), so he called back to Dearborn and ordered the Continental to go into production. As it was essentially a hand built car, only some four hundred were produced in 1940. The first one was given to Mickey Rooney, which quickly had the rest of Hollywood fighting to be seen in one. Like most successful halo cars, its impact was way beyond the sheer revenue numbers.

After a brief two-year run, the Continental hibernated through the war, and re-emerged in 1946 with a drastically re-styled front end. I will admit to generally preferring the original’s more delicate prow, but ironically perhaps, the ’46-’48 Continental’s much heavier and bolder front end actually completes the enduring formula that would be copied so prolifically.

The restyle is also the equivalent of a sex change operation: the original is a delicate, graceful and feminine car, none of which comes to mind when confronted with this butch bomb. So strictly speaking, the Continental was aptly named for its first edition, but what reappeared after the war was utterly all-American. Understandably so, since the swagger in America’s psyche after WWII was all-too obvious.

Perhaps that also helps explain why the ’46 Conti has been the object of endless replication; it so utterly embodies the self-confidence and all-time high national testosterone levels that winning the biggest war ever induced. No wonder there was such a huge Baby Boom. And no wonder older guys were the primary target for its off-shoots. And (again) no wonder that the peak years for the personal luxury coupe market was during the seventies and eighties. Our war heroes were hitting middle age, and Viagra hadn’t been invented yet. But instead of buying a Mark IV, they should have gone out an hunted up the real thing instead, because this car is guaranteed to get your sperm count up.

I say this from experience (no, not my own). In 1973, I had an evil landlord in Iowa City. Henry Black was his name, and he would trade rent for slave labor from his starving student tenants during the summer to build additions and whole houses to his ramshackle slum called Black’s Gaslight Village. He was a big, heavy-set ornery old cuss, and walked with a cane (which he also treated as a weapon), and must have been well into his seventies. And he kept a quite young and attractive wife under virtual-house arrest in his big old Victorian. We only ever got peeps of her through the front door when we paid the rent; he never let her go anywhere, especially in his only car, a mean black ’46-’48 Continental coupe just like this one. Maybe he was worried about all the young male students. It was all like some Gothic novel.

I worked for him one summer building a cottage for future student tenants out of old railroad ties, creosote smell and all (this was before students financed their lifestyle, spring breaks in Mexico and summers in Africa with endless student loans). It was also before building permits were mandatory. Anyway, I vividly remember  riding with him in his musty old Continental to the hardware store, where he’d wait outside. Being twenty at the time, it was a bit hard to imagine, but old Henry Black was still fathering little kids with his locked away bride (unless students were sneaking in). The kids actually got to come out once in a while.

If I’ve digressed inappropriately (again), sorry; but the memories of hearing the flathead V12 in Henry’s car cough to life and his ivory-handled cane sliding against me in the curves are irrepressible after being exposed to this beast today. But if you’re wondering why there’s no engine shots, it’s because the troublesome Zephyr V12 is long gone; a healthy sounding Chevy small block does the burbling instead. And it may well not be the first transplanted engine either; the twelve had such a bad rep folks were tearing them out back in the late forties already and replacing it with the flathead Lincoln V8 that succeeded it.

The Zephyr was not an expensive car, so Ford had his engineers cobble up a budget twelve that was not much more than the Ford V8 and a half. But undersized water passages exacerbated the flathead’s intrinsic thermal issues, and as a result bores warped, rings wore out, oil burned and didn’t get properly circulated for other reasons as well. It only made some 120 hp from its 292 cubes, so performance was none too impressive in the 4,000 lb Continental, even when it ran properly. Admittedly, the post war engines had many of their ailments fixed, but the bad rep stuck.

I first ran into this car on the street a year and a half ago, and almost had an accident (in my pants). It’s not like I was expecting to find an original Continental at all, but then this comes burbling down the street. I caught up to the driver at a light, but he was in too much of a hurry to stop for photos. And I’ve been lusting for it ever since. Well, good things sometimes happens to those that lust hard enough, and I finally caught up with it again on a rare sunny December day here. Drew, its owner, bought it a couple of years back, and is still mulling over its future. A chopped top maybe?

Or maybe not; Drew is tall like me, and the Conti is none too roomy already. This is definitely a “personal” coupe, and not nearly as big, at least on the inside, as one might expect. But whatever direction he takes it, I’m sure it will serve him well, even into old age, should he feel the desire or need to keep it that long.

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Curbside Classic Mercury Memorial Week Finale: The Fat Cats – 1971, 1974 And 1977 Cougar http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-mercury-memorial-week-finale-the-fat-cats-1971-1974-and-1977-cougar/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-mercury-memorial-week-finale-the-fat-cats-1971-1974-and-1977-cougar/#comments Sat, 04 Dec 2010 16:49:58 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375685 The Cougar first arrived in 1967 as something unique and distinct: a handsome, lithe sporty coupe with a distinct hint of luxury and a dash of continental flavor. Although the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix is often credited with creating the mid-size/mid-price personal-luxury coupe coup, the first Cougar certainly predicted the trend. What wasn’t so predictable […]

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The Cougar first arrived in 1967 as something unique and distinct: a handsome, lithe sporty coupe with a distinct hint of luxury and a dash of continental flavor. Although the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix is often credited with creating the mid-size/mid-price personal-luxury coupe coup, the first Cougar certainly predicted the trend.

What wasn’t so predictable is how quickly the Cougar would slather on the pounds (tons?), and morph into just another bland also-ran competitor in that rapidly crowding field. And if that weren’t bad enough, the once exclusive Cougar name was sullied by four door sedans and even a station wagon. The seventies were not kind to the Cougar, and (surprise) we’re not going to be very kind to it.

The Cougar (de)evolved rapidly in the decade after its arrival, with a total of five distinct generations in that time period. We covered the ’67-’68 and had a brief look at the already plumper ’69-’70 in our recent CC. They both followed the Mustang’s trajectory, largely sharing its platform and body shell, with a couple of extra inches of wheelbase, but with highly differentiated styling. And just like the 1971 Mustang went overboard in size and girth for a so-called pony car, so did the Cougar.

This was during Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen’s brief tour of duty at the helm of Ford, and his efforts to bring Pontiac noses and other GM-esque design elements are all-too obvious. Four years after the ’67’s distinctive styling and very successful start, the 1971 Cougar was totally unrecognizable as its successor. What a way to destroy equity in a successful and unique identity.

It wasn’t just that it looked nothing like its memorable predecessors; it now also shared way too much family-arity with the Mustang. Mercury was reverting back to Ford form.

Admittedly, this car’s interior has seen better days, but even in its prime, there wasn’t a whiff of Jaguar here. Go back and compare it to the ’67-’68 interior. What a come-down; this might as well be a Pinto Bobcat. Not surprisingly, sales were also a huge come-down; for these ’71-’73 Cougars they were off a whopping 66% from the original. As was performance, fuel efficiency, handling, taste, and all-round desirability. The only thing that was up was weight (500+ lbs), but that was just an appetizer of things to come.

two cats: normal and morbidly obese

For 1974, the Cougar stopped pretending to be a more exclusive variant of a pony car, and joined the burgeoning mega-mid-sized personal luxury coupe market. This was the hot category in the seventies, led by the Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Cutlass Supreme and a host of hangers-on. Ford, which had been so successful in creating niche vehicles in the late fifties (T-Bird) and the sixties (Mustang), was caught flat-footed with this monster trend, but jumped in late in 1974 with their delightfully refreshing and highly original Gran Torino Elite. Its great innovation and claim to fame was two “opera windows” per side. It must have been fun to be an automotive designer in Detroit during the seventies.

The Cougar was invited to slip into an Elite suit in 1974 too, but it was a mighty heavy one.  Now the Cougar weighed some 50% more than it did in 1967, well over two tons. And don’t even ask about performance. Somehow, Ford managed to eke less power out of its engines during the seventies than anyone else: the 400 CID (6.6 L) V8 managed 158 hp; the big block 460 (7.5 L) squeezed out all of 216 hp. The bad old days. And no; torque isn’t a direct substitute for horsepower.

But Lo! Sales began to recover after the low point of  ’71 – ’73. Folks took a shine to cars like this fine 1974 XcRement 7, which this owner can’t bear to have the garbage men haul off with the cans, despite how happy it would make the neighbors (he used to have a minor junk yard of vintage Ford iron, but this one survived the cull).

Now we reach 1977-1979, the pinnacle of Cougar size and taste. OK, I know some of you have a soft spot for these lovely cars, and what can I say, other than you’re obviously delusional devoted. Just kidding; aren’t these just ah…ah…wonderful. I just don’t feel like hurting anybody’s feelings today; I do that way too often. Well, it’s good to know someone loves these, because otherwise I wouldn’t have run into this remarkably well kept example. Curiously enough, I found it the same beautiful summer day as I found its very similar red stablemate, the Thunderbird (lower picture).

The family genes are in full display here, eh? The T-Bird was given that precious little slanted opera window, but other than that, I bet it would be mighty easy to swap fenders, doors, bumpers and almost everything else except that opera window on these kissing cousins.

From the very distinctive ’67 Cougar’s electric-razor face, we now gaze on the universal seventies’ Ford face, practically interchangeable with everything from the compact Granada to the mighty Continental. It might have been hard to tell what model was coming down the road, but you just knew it was a Ford. Brilliant!

Now the Cougar suffered much further indignities than just being a badge-engineered clone of a badge-engineered clone of a copy of a GM coupe. Now, the once proud and exclusive Cougar name now could also be had on a four door sedan, and…

Yes! A Cougar station wagon! It’s exactly what the world was holding its breath for. Or was it after they saw it? More likely, since the wagon went over like a hearse; only 4,951 buyers still had enough breath left to actually buy one. It was a one-year wonder, and probably highly collectible by now. I don’t expect to find one.

Mercury’s big marketing theme in the seventies was to more closely ally itself with the Lincoln and Continental. As a result, the Cougar now even sprouted a Conti-inspired butt bulge. Yes, the Cougar was all-too obviously now trying to be a budget-priced Mark IV than an original American take on a Jag. Why try harder?

Ok, even if the exterior styling is very much a question of (questionable) taste, at least the dash and interior were getting relatively better. Compare it to the ’71 above and we have genuine progress! And some commentators thought I was being too harsh on the dreadful Marauder X-100 dash, but look at how much better this is than that too! I didn’t say inspired, just not as bad. The mystery here is why one seat is cloth and the other leather or vinyl. A Monday car, or?

All right, we’ve been harsh enough on this poor big fat dull dumb Cougar. It looks so lovely sitting here on a summer’s evening. What a period piece. But then I just noticed that the very next car I shot on this glowing sunset was our CC logomobile. Compared to the true classic American coupes, this Cougar will always be relegated to a warm-up act, no matter how golden the sunshine. Adios, Mercury! We miss you already.

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Curbside Classic: The Bootylicious 1970 Mercury Marauder X-100 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-the-bootylicious-1970-mercury-marauder-x-100/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-the-bootylicious-1970-mercury-marauder-x-100/#comments Thu, 02 Dec 2010 16:30:35 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375177 Memorable (def): 1. worth remembering 2. easily remembered Maurauder (def): one who raids for booty In yesterday’s Cougar CC, I claimed there were only three Mercuries truly worth remembering. The Marauder X-100 wasn’t on the list, and many of you protested. Fortunately, there are two definitions for the word, and the Marauder is certainly easily […]

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Memorable (def): 1. worth remembering 2. easily remembered

Maurauder (def): one who raids for booty

In yesterday’s Cougar CC, I claimed there were only three Mercuries truly worth remembering. The Marauder X-100 wasn’t on the list, and many of you protested. Fortunately, there are two definitions for the word, and the Marauder is certainly easily remembered; more like impossible to forget. And what exactly is it memorable for? Its booty. So how could we possibly not honor that?

Marauder is a bit of an unlikely name for a big Mercury. It appeared in 1963.5 to distinguish the semi-fastback roofed Mercs from the reverse-angled Breezeway models. NASCAR racing made it a necessity, and it presumably brought some suggestion of sportiness to the Monterey, Montclair and Park Lane. And if you were one of the maybe seven folks who paid big bucks to get a genuine eight-barrel 427 in your Marauder, you were obviously not into the herd mentality. But that’s not the key to success, and the name disappeared again in 1965, as the sporty affectation apparently didn’t exactly suit the staid Mercuries all that well after all: “I am so torn between buying a GTO or a Marauder…”

After a four year absence off raiding for booty, the Marauder reappeared in 1969, showing off its newly-acquired embarrassment of riches. It was an oddly timed and predictably unsuccessful attempt to compete in a market segment that was not only long in tooth, but utterly moribund. The full-sized “muscle-sporty” segment had its birth with the 1955 Chrysler 300, and within a few years expanded to the popular price segment in the early sixties, like the Impala SS, among others. It was a heavily GM-dominated field, as the original Marauder’s demise soon proved.

But when the new 1964 intermediate muscle cars appeared (GTO etc.), the full-sized progenitors quickly became dinosaurs, in more way than one. What little relevance they once had now evaporated. The segment leader, the Impala SS, was a distinct model from 1963 through 1967, but reduced to a trim option only through its final years in 1968 and 1969. That must have been the cue for Mercury to create the Marauder to glean the Super Sport crumbs.

I realize that this 1969-1970 Marauder holds an exalted place for lovers of big and distinctive booties, so I kind of hate to pop the big bubble. The Marauder, like so many easily remembered Mercuries was just another Ford with heavy makeup. Very heavy, in the case of the X-100.

Here are the two Blue Oval blood brothers: the Marauder on top, and its near-twin, the Galaxie XL below. The Marauder is nothing more than the XL with a Marquis front end, and a few trim details, like the fake vent and a cheap fake crackle-finish plastic slab that encases the tail lights.

But the most distinctive difference was the matte black paint applied to that whole rear of the X100 (optional on the base Marauder).

So why isn’t our featured Marauder wearing those black Lycra tights to really set off its hind assets? [Update: Our astute commentators figured out why: this is a 1970 model X-100, and the matte black paint on the rear deck was a delete option for 1970]

Beats me. I’ve been wondering about that since I found it, and I guess I was just too much in awe to ask its elderly and very proud owner. So is it a genuine X-100, or a plain Jane Marauder with X-100 emblems attached to the front fenders?

I found a spec sheet from a Marauder brochure, and except for the missing black ass, it rather appears to be the genuine article (X-100 standard equipment): rim-blow 3-spoke steering wheel – check; styled Alum. wheels – check; automatic parking brake release – I can’t tell; leather and vinyl upholstery standard – wait a minute.

Looking at these pictures, it appears that there are no animal hides here anywhere, unless there’s a dessicated dead mouse under the seat. Forty year old leather inevitably has some visible wear, or at least a certain distinct patina; only vinyl ages this well.  Between the that and the flesh-tone derriere, I’m switching my vote to fake. Or did the vat of matte black paint run low one Monday morning? And he seemed like such a sweet honest old guy. Any Marauding experts want to weigh in?

Here’s some more confusion: standard rear wheel fender skirts and bright wheel opening molding, front and rear – no fender skirts here, but the front opening molding is there (not on a base Marauder). But it’s not on the rear…

Genuine or not, let’s try to recreate an authentic picture in our minds what these big bad babies were like to drive. Now I could contribute my own memories of a summer’s worth of illicit marauding in a very similar ’69 Ford LTD coupe. But that didn’t have the Marauder’s standard performance handling package suspension or the Marauder X-100’s big 429 V8. Nevertheless, it’s hard to conjure up any memories of even a hint of sportiness in the perpetually understeering LTD, which was a hallmark of Ford products. It was their way of keeping you safe.

But who’s going to want to believe the drug-addled memories of an eighteen-year old joy-riding the back roads of Baltimore County with no fewer than three girls sharing the endlessly-wide front seat with him? (details revealed when I find a ’69 LTD coupe). But wait! I happen to have a December 1968 issue of Car and Driver which curiously features two road tests of the two most polar opposite cars available that year: the tiny 1.1 L 60 hp Corolla Sprinter coupe and the 7.0 L 360 hp Marauder x-100. These ultimate extremes of trying to turn pedestrian sedans into “sporty” coupes both had predictable results.

The reputation of C/D in the old days of ripping apart cars (literally and metaphorically) in their tests is rather over-stated. The Marauder is treated rather gently, despite the predictable shortcomings of its sporty pretensions. Considering that the brand new canted-valve 429 engine was still in its smog-tainted sunshine years, with high compression heads, a big four barrel carb and un-catalyzed genuine dual exhausts, performance might be expected to be…memorable. It wasn’t. Zero to sixty came in 7.8 seconds, and the quarter mile in a leisurely 16.0 secs @ 86.0 mph.

And it gets better yet: C/D’s observed fuel mileage: 10 – 13 mpg on premium fuel. Yes, the good old days. Hey, it was fun having to stop every two hundred miles to refill the 24 gallon tank – the gas jockey did it for you. The Marauder’s 4400 lbs test weight undoubtedly played a role.

But there is a pleasant surprise: the Marauder handles reasonably well, for what it is: a big fat Ford two-door sedan; not a sporty car. C/D makes that clear: “rather than being a two-ton sports car as the ad men would have you believe, the Marauder is fashionable transportation – which is not the same thing”. While sporty characteristics might at least be somewhat timeless, fashion hardly ever is, all to obviously.

But the steering comes in for heavy-handed criticism: numb and slow; requiring a full four turns lock to lock. And it loses its power assist when parking, no less. How inconvenient! C/D helpfully suggests that Ford consider buying their power steering components from GM.

And C/D and I share a similar complaint with the Marauder’s instrument panel. It looks like it should be on an Econoline or a Maverick. What a cheap, love-less, and uninspired block of plastic and vinyl-wood. A couple of tiny, pathetic instruments are lost in a smattering of randomly mis-placed knobs and buttons. The seventies were off to a good start.

It was all-too obvious where the cost-cutting was taking place compared to the 1964 Marauder’s dash (above).  The ’63-’64 Marauder may not have been the muscle car extraordinaire, but at least this interior looks like a rape and pillaging sort of guy might actually be at home behind the wheel. The X-100? Grandpa heading to the Knights of Columbus.

C/D sums it up: “The Marauder just goes to show you can’t judge a car by its name. Strip away the scheming of market researchers and the babbling of ad writers and you end up with a huge, semi-lethargic, but reasonably competent Detroit cruiser…”  Well, the Ford  market researchers got it wrong, if they thought the market was looking for this: sales were tepid (15k) in 1969, and dropped off the cliff in 1970, before it was sent packing.

Of course, Marauders can’t be kept at bay forever, and sure enough it returned for its third plundering in 2003. Also weighing 4400 lbs, the blacked-out Grand Marquis now sported a warmed-over 302 hp 4.6, and enough other goodies to knock off seven second runs to sixty, and a fifteen second quarter mile (stock), still none too overly impressive.

I know it’s a favorite among the Panther crowd, which is well represented in these parts. But it also bombed out in the sales charts, and after a run of 11,053 of them, the Marauder was put to rest, for the third and final time. And our booties are safe at last.

Click this link to the 200 other Curbside Classics

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Curbside Classic Mercury Memorial Week: 1968 Cougar – Mercury’s Greatest (Only?) Hit http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-mercury-memorial-week-1968-cougar-mercurys-greatest-only-hit/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-mercury-memorial-week-1968-cougar-mercurys-greatest-only-hit/#comments Tue, 30 Nov 2010 17:57:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=374962 I almost forgot; Mercury is dead. Is amnesia a symptom of Mercury poisoning? Was it not just about the most forgettable brand ever? Ask yourself this: how many Mercuries (not counting the German Ford Capri) over its seventy year lifespan were truly memorable? And by memorable, I don’t mean like the time the toilet backed up […]

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I almost forgot; Mercury is dead. Is amnesia a symptom of Mercury poisoning? Was it not just about the most forgettable brand ever? Ask yourself this: how many Mercuries (not counting the German Ford Capri) over its seventy year lifespan were truly memorable? And by memorable, I don’t mean like the time the toilet backed up so bad the shit floated out the bathroom door. And down the hallway. Yes, there’s way too many Mercury memories I’d rather flush away forever. The keepers? Let’s just say that the ’67-’68 Cougar is the best one of that little bunch. Which in some respects, isn’t saying much, so maybe we’d better cover all three of the memorable Mercuries here; a CC triple play:

That’s because my proposed Illustrated History of Mercury and supplemental Mercury Memorial Week Curbside Classics met the same executive fate as the brand. So I’m not going to be able to do seventy year’s worth of Mercury floaters proper historical justice here. Maybe just as well. But I’ll condense Mercury’s over-arching problem down to its essence: it was perpetually seen as either a more powerful Ford (in the forties and fifties), or a more tarted up one (from the sixties forward). Which meant it had no real prestige value: the general perception was that a Mercury driver was no wealthier than a Ford driver; just a bit more willing to spend a few extra bucks for a slightly larger motor, more chrome, or a more deeply padded vinyl roof, depending on the decade.

It was exactly this image problem that caused Ford to create the Edsel. Market research then showed that the public thought a Mercury was suited to a “dance band leader” or “race driver”. Not exactly the coveted Buick and Oldsmobile accountant and lawyer clientele. Of course band leaders and race drivers hardly figured into Mercury’s perceived demographics by the sixties and going forward. But from 1939 to 2010, Mercury was mostly seen for what it usually was: a warmed-over Ford. It started right at the beginning: the original Mercury in 1939 was a Ford with a bored-out V8 and a couple of inches more wheelbase.

The fact that GM’s divisions had roots as independent makes, and that they still had unique engines and engineering departments even into the seventies undoubtedly reinforced the Mercury problem. But there were a few times when Mercury broke out of the Ford mold, to one degree or another. And not surprisingly, they almost perfectly correspond to my three memorable Mercs.

The first time were the ’49 – ’51s. They had a completely different body shell from the Fords, and instantly became cult classics with the Kustomizer set. Even unmolested, they had a handsome presence that didn’t scream Ford, even if (sadly) there was still just a stroked Ford flathead threatening to overheat under the hood. Looks can be successfully deceiving, some of the time.

By 1952, Mercs were back to obviously sharing Ford body shells. Snooze…

The garish excesses of the late fifties like the Turnpike Cruiser are amusing to contemplate under the influence of psychotropics, but when you wake up you want to know (or certainly hope) it wasn’t for real.

My second memorable Mercury was the ’64-65 Comet Caliente. Why? Because of this. As an impressionable eleven year old, Mercury’s drag racing Calientes left remarkably deep black stripes in my synapses. Don’t ask why. There were plenty of other semi-factory supported teams doing the same thing, but some marketing dude at Mercury in 1964 knew what he was doing. He managed to turn the image of the staid Comet into an underdog terror of the strip and the object of juvenile obsession. Hope he got the bonus he so well deserved.

We covered the Comet story here, but it’s worth noting again that it wasn’t just a Falcon with more chrome; it sat on a longer wheelbase, and it too had unique sheet metal. And it was quite successful, even against the Olds, Buick and Pontiac compacts, perhaps the only time Mercury could lay claim to that. Ironically, or because of it, the Comet wasn’t even branded as a Mercury to start with. The Meteor on the other hand was merely a mildly-disguised Fairlane clone suffered the inevitable Mercury malaise.

I’ve already spent 600 words on Mercury history, so that leaves precious little for memorable Merc number three. Let’s just say that for the third time, Mercury did the right thing and resisted inertia by just tarting up a Mustang a bit and calling it shit good. It could easily have turned out that way, and all too soon, the Cougar spent the rest of its miserable existence being just that; well not just with the Mustang, but even finer Ford flunkies like the Elite, and numerous incarnations of the then earth-bound Thunderbird. If you can bear it, we’ll check in on those forgettable losers later in the week.

But here it is, not just a memorable Mercury, but a memorable CAR, period. What is it about the original Cougar? It was distinctively styled, in a way that captured the essence of what it was trying to be: an American Jaguar.

I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch, but the name doesn’t exactly belie its intentions, eh? And what made that work is that the Cougar wasn’t obviously trying to imitate a Jag, but just going after what a Jag evoked: classy, comfortable sportiness. Although the outside styling was unique and the most un-Ford just about ever, the interior’s Jag ambitions were a bit more obvious, especially in the XR-7, which featured one of the most Anglo-centric dash boards ever.

This interior shot is not from our featured car which is a more pedestrian version, despite the XR7 badge on the trunk. Call me a sucker, but in the fall of 1966, at the age of thirteen, this XR7 dash “board” impressed me just a wee bit. I’d totally forgotten though what the console looked like until I found this picture; Ouch; talk about a cross-cultural mish-mash. Oh well; this was about the same time some Yank bought the original London Bridge, had it taken apart and reassembled in Arizona. He probably drove a Cougar XR7.

Our CC’s pedestrian base interior was still a decent affair, especially in light of the dark vinyl-walnut appliqued caves that were to come in just a few years more.

Even though the Cougar’s emphasis was on American elegance and a more refined and quiet ride than its Mustang stablemate, thanks to a three inch longer wheelbase and plenty of sound insulation, the big cat had a racy edge too, at least in its first year.

No less than Dan Gurney was hired to put a Cougar team in the Trans Am series, which was the nexus of the actual pony wars during those years. Despite a hell of an effort and four wins, the Cougars couldn’t touch Roger Penske’s Camaros.

If I’m skimming Cougar history too lightly, Aaron Severson at ateupwithmotor has a fine article about all things Cougar. It doesn’t happen very often, but I do disagree with him about the affect of the one-year Cougar TA racing effort. He claims that the Cougar’s all-time high sales in its first year (150k) was directly the result of the racing effort, and that sales dropped in 1968 and subsequent years because of the Ford’s decision to kill the TA effort.

I’m going to guess that 90+% of 1967 Cougar buyers were oblivious of what happened on the TA circuit, which didn’t really have that much of a following anyway. Cougar buyers predictably were…your next door neighbors, who were trying to one-up your 1966 Mustang.

For an extra two hundred bucks over the price of a Mustang, the brand new ’67 Cougar was dripping with cheap cachet and Safeway lot prestige. An instant recipe for success in suburbia…and what the hell is Trans Am anyway? Ford most likely killed the Cougar racing program precisely because they realized it had no relevance to its terrific initial success. And all the racing in the world wasn’t going to bail out the endless sales decline of the ever paunchier cats.

Yes, there were some hot GT-E models with 427s under the hood (unlike this 302), and the GTO-Judge imitator Eliminator. but their numbers sold were minuscule compared to Z-28 and SS396 Camaros and the various hot Mustangs, ‘Cudas and Challengers. The Cougar sold on its other qualities, which unfortunately were all too quickly watered down, and sales followed.

The ’67-68 Cougar had a sinewy body that showed off the highly toned cat muscles in an effective way. By 1969 (above), the Cougar’s newly found fat obscured the sinews. It lost much of its distinctive and crisp styling edge, gained very GM-esque hips, and its long blandification and decline was well underway. Any association with Jaguars, real or imagined, was over after 1968. I’ve often railed about how successful new American designs quickly get watered down and destroyed, and the Cougar is the poster cat of that. It was a sexy beast in its first two years, and after that it quickly became a cougar of another sort.

Well, I’ve covered my three worthy Mercuries in one sitting, so that leaves just a lot of unloved bulk to eliminate this week. Maybe we should rename it Mercury Day, and call it good.

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Curbside Classic: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Most Radical RV Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-ultra-van-cross-an-airplane-with-a-corvair-for-the-most-radical-rv-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-ultra-van-cross-an-airplane-with-a-corvair-for-the-most-radical-rv-ever/#comments Sat, 27 Nov 2010 18:38:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=374511 In 1959, David Peterson, a professional aircraft designer, had a dilemma: he owned a travel trailer and a boat, but couldn’t tow them both at the same time. He dreamed of putting an engine under the floor of the trailer, and towing his boat with it. When the Corvair appeared that year, he decided to […]

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In 1959, David Peterson, a professional aircraft designer, had a dilemma: he owned a travel trailer and a boat, but couldn’t tow them both at the same time. He dreamed of putting an engine under the floor of the trailer, and towing his boat with it. When the Corvair appeared that year, he decided to act on it. He rented a large garage, tossed out the trailer, started from scratch, and four months later out rolled the first Ultra Van, weighing a mere 3,000 pounds. It was way ahead of its time then, and it still is today. Which probably explains why it was a commercial flop.

To help put the UV into perspective, here are a few basic stats: it’s a “full size” RV, 22 feet long, 8 feet wide with full 6’2″ stand-up headroom, yet it’s only 8′ tall overall. It has all the usual amenities of a Class A RV, including a large bedroom in the back, full galley, bathroom, etc. The production versions weigh about 3,400 lbs (dry), about the same as a new Camry. And it can get up to twenty mpg on the road.

It’s a brilliant marvel of space and weight efficiency; if Colin Chapman, Buckminster Fuller, Ferdinand Porsche or Gordon Murray had been asked to design an RV, this is what they would have come up with. David Peterson deserves to join their ranks.

If you’re getting the drift that I rather like the UV, you’re right.  And finding this one in a church parking lot the other day is my biggest CC find to date: I love stumbling unto cars like the Packard and Caddy, but I wasn’t really looking for them. I’ve had an eagle eye out for an UV for years. As much as I can wax eloquently about big Detroit iron, fundamentally I’m a Chapman/Fuller/Porsche/Murray sort at heart. And as an RVer, the UV is my dream rig. Here’s the history and the details of my heart throb:

Peterson didn’t just transplant a Corvair engine under his travel trailer. He started from scratch, and designed the only RV (to my knowledge) that was built just like an airplane, where light weight is paramount. The UV is a true monococque (self supporting) structure of aluminum ribs with an aluminum skin riveted to it. The aerodynamic front and rear caps are fiberglass, and those bumpers are made of foam.There are four aluminum tanks for gasoline, water, gray water and sewage carefully integrated under the floor, and the bottom of the coach is fully sheathed in aluminum skin as well.

It’s important to understand that Peterson wasn’t just trying to build the world’s lightest RV. His goal was that the UV could also be used as a second car too, unlike the large and unwieldy RVs that were (and still are) being built on truck chassis. The UV was not that much longer than the big land yachts at the time, and its steering allowed a 50 degree inside wheel angle so that it was also very maneuverable.  And of course, its fuel efficiency played into that too. Even if it wasn’t exactly going to be used daily,  in any case, there certainly was no need to have a dingy car towed along behind.

In my obvious enthusiasm, I’ve jumped ahead of the story a bit, because originally Peterson had no plans to build his invention for others. But he got pestered about it enough that he found some technical school apprentices, and built fifteen of them. They were priced at $7,000 ($50k adjusted). And those early ones had all of 80 hp, which feeding through the two-speed Powerglide meant a leisurely ride, especially with a boat in tow.

In 1964, a Wichita Kansas company bought rights to build the UV, in an attempt to properly commercialize it. But only some 330 Corvair powered UVs were ever built before production ended in 1969, for several reasons. One of them was that the Corvair was known to be ending its production, meaning no new engines. But the biggest reason by far was Winnebago.

In 1966, Winnebago revolutionized the RV industry by offering Americans the equivalent of the Big Mac Value Meal, an family-sized RV for half the price of the going rate. They did it the Henry Ford way: it was the first mass-produced production-line RV. And it was the polar opposite of the UV in every way: a cheaply framed box sitting on a cheap truck chassis; heavy, gas-sucking, ill-handling; and Americans snapped them up as fast as Winnebago could make them. Cheap, big and inefficient: the American mantra for success whether it’s with cars, houses, or a cross between the two.

The UV’s brilliance was also its downfall. Its airplane construction was intrinsically more expensive.  If gasoline had always been at European levels here, there would likely be an UV dealer down the road today.

After 1964, Ultra Vans came with the bigger 164 CID Corvair engine, in both 110 and 140 hp tune. Since a shift linkage was out of question, they still pumped through the Powerglide. For those more leisurely times, the Corvair engine did the trick, cruising happily up to 65 mph (on flat terrain). But by the late sixties Americans were getting power-hungry, and even with their RVs.

So after the Corvair engine went bye-bye, Ultra engineers tested several alternatives. The Olds Toronado FWD power train was promising, and versions with it in the front and back (not both at the same time) were tried. These experiments led to an offshoot, the Toro-powered fwd Tiara, which if there are any left in the world today, would be quite a find. But the Ultra experimental department kept at it, and finally hit on a solution to replace the weak chested Corvair: “Corvette” power!

But not in the Corvair-like configuration. As best as I can make out from the iffy descriptions, the small block Chevy sits in the back under a bed, and then sends its power to the rear through a Powerglide, then a marine V-drive sends it back forward to a Corvette independent rear suspension with disc brakes.

These so-called “Corvette” Ultra Vans have sparkling performance wit their very un-RV like power-to-weight ratio. Mileage dropped to a still respectable 12 -15 mpg. Only 47 of these were made, of which some are still prowling the roads of America looking for stoplight drags with Chrysler 440 powered Winnebagos in order to settle an old score.

It was all in vain; the UV was getting even more ultra-expensive, and Ultra shut its doors in 1970. Peterson tried to revive it with another fwd Toronado version, saying that if the Toronado had been available in 1960, there never would have been a Corvair UV. His ideas were picked up by others, including the second-most radical RV ever built, the GMC Motor Coach (above).

Ultra Vans have an enthusiastic and loyal following, and some 200 of the 370 ever built are still on the road, or hoping to be soon. Obviously, there are challenges and limitations to Ultra Vanning: one has to travel lightly, since its total wight capacity is limited, especially with those little 14″ tires (early ones had 13 inchers!). This UV has obviously and wisely had its rim widened. There’s no air conditioner. The brakes are little unassisted drums. The tanks and complex sewage system can become problematic. At least there’s no power steering to get leaky. You get the drift: this is for minimalistic RVers, which would suits me fine.

When I was young, I shared Peterson’s dream: whenever I saw an Airstream trailer, I imagined turning into a self propelled sleek and low RV. I became aware of the UV in the early seventies, and have played out many re-powering scenarios: a Porsche air-cooled six with a TipTronic with 911 suspension and brake upgrades was a long favorite.

Now I lean more to maximum mileage: a Subaru turbo-diesel boxer (sold in Europe) is the current candidate. But how to change the rotation, after flipping the drivetrain 180 degrees? I’m convinced an UV would hit 30 mpg with a modern tubo-diesel. Its low clearance and lack of off-road capability, as well as the huge amount of time and energy it would take has so far kept me from Ultra-insanity.

I’m rather intrigued with the idea of whether a modernized update on the UV would be able to find a market today. Perhaps one using the Prius’ hybrid drivetrain, or even an all-EV version, since every campground has electric hookups. No more fuel cost whatsoever! With a 100 mile range, one would be forced into leisurely excursions, but isn’t that the point? Solar panels on the roof and on a pull-out awning for charging batteries in undeveloped sites. My imagination runs rampant, like David Peterson’s. The trick is knowing whether to act on them, or not.

For more info. head to the Ultra Van section at Corvair.org

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Curbside Classic Fastback Week: 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Fastback http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-fastback-week-1969-volkswagen-1600-type-3-fastback/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-fastback-week-1969-volkswagen-1600-type-3-fastback/#comments Thu, 25 Nov 2010 17:18:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=374190 Two fastbacks found in one week; now there’s something to be thankful for (not that I don’t have plenty already). The Packard Clipper Super and this Volkswagen Type 3 may not seem to share anything other than their tapering hind ends, but there is one other quality that they both have in common, and it […]

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Two fastbacks found in one week; now there’s something to be thankful for (not that I don’t have plenty already). The Packard Clipper Super and this Volkswagen Type 3 may not seem to share anything other than their tapering hind ends, but there is one other quality that they both have in common, and it makes the VW worthy to share the podium with it:

Quality. Packard was famous for their passion in perfecting and refining the highest quality cars in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s easy to forget, but taking a good look at this VW reminded me how the workmanship and material quality on these cars is absolutely superb. That alone ignited a little brief flame of lust for it, which I hadn’t ever quite felt before. It also helps explain why folks were willing to pay a premium price at the time for a car which still suffered from many of the Beetle’s shortcomings.

The Type 3 is a very polarizing car, and it was so from its very beginning in the summer of 1961. Reaction to it largely depended on one’s relationship to the Beetle: for those that thought of the Beetle as a slow poor man’s Porsche 356 (and many did in the fifties), the Type 3 narrowed the gap substantially: an affordable Porsche sedan. Buyers who bought a Beetle because it was cool or just cheap, but came to hate its many shortcomings and would really rather have had a Mustang or a Cutlass, the Type 3 was totally wasted on them. It was still all Volkswagen under its thick-gauge skin.

The Type 3 VW first appeared in the traditional notchback sedan format. It was  a highly anticipated car in Europe, as the whole continent watched and waited to see how and when Volkswagen would address the obvious shortcomings of the then 25 year old Beetle. Germans were quickly becoming more affluent, and the rest of the industry rightfully targeted their growing purchasing power with mid-level cars like the Borgward Isabella, the BMW 1500/1800, and of course the ever popular mid level Opels and German Fords. VW was late to the party, and everyone was in a high state of anticipation.

The VW 1500, as it was called, was decidedly a mixed bag. One could rightfully say it was nothing more than a Beetle wrapped in a stylish new dress: it rode on the same wheelbase and platform frame mighty similar to the Beetle. Yes, the track was widened at the rear (as was the Beetle’s a few years later), but the front suspension was fundamentally the same, and the engine was classic VW: the same basic case, with bigger bore cylinders, a longer stroke, as well as a re-arranged cooling system where the fan was on the back end of the crankshaft (pancake), allowing a drastic reduction in the engine’s height.

For those that were expecting VW to do something actually new, like FWD, water cooling, a roomy body or a modern high-rpm OHC engine were sorely disappointed, and had to wait over a decade until the Audi-based Passat came along. A whole slew of the Beetle’s biggest shortcomings were not improved, or not enough so: the heater was still inadequate, handling on long fast sweepers invariably induced oversteer, and rear seat egress and leg room was still subpar. How hard would it have been for VW to lengthen the platform by four inches, add rear doors, and make it a legitimate sedan capable of carrying four adults in comfort?

(In Brazil, VW did make a four door version of the Type 3, but still on the same wheelbase, so rear leg room wasn’t any better either.)

The answer is obvious: the Type 3 was initially built right alongside the Type 1 (Beetle) in Wolfsburg, and it was cheaper and more expedient to make it a “Super Beetle” rather than a truly new car, or even just a slightly longer one. It largely solved the problem in Europe where Beetle fatigue set in much sooner than in the US. That also explains why VW didn’t import Type 3s to the US until 1966, even though the rest of the world was worthy of them since 1962.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a busy gray market importing Type 3s from Germany to the US. Even VW dealers were doing it, to keep their loyal customers happy looking for an upgrade, although the price was stiff: about $3,000 ($21k adjusted) in 1964, when a US Beetle was going for $1595. Quite a premium for better visibility, more trunk room and twenty-five horsepower. When the Type 3s where finally imported by VW, that premium dropped substantially: this 1969 listed at $2295, vs. $1799 for a ’69 Beetle.

I happen to have an April 1964 Car and Driver in my lap, which devotes the bulk of the issue analyzing why VW wasn’t importing the Type 3, and the ins and outs of gray imports. Production constraints was one of them, since VW was building a huge new factory in Emden, where Type 3 production was eventually moved to from Wolfsburg. And as long as the Beetle was still red hot in the US, VW didn’t feel any particular need to supplant it. Another theory was that VW at the time was anxious about the huge success of the Beetle, and the impact it had on the US industry and the trade imbalance with Germany. Since gray market imports where technically “used cars”, they didn’t add to the swelling official VW sales numbers, and so VWoA did little to impede them.

That issue of C/D also tested a 1500 S (65 hp twin carb) Notchback, and put its finger on its pros and cons. It certainly was nippier than the 40 hp Beetle, especially in the first two gears. And it could hit alofty 88 mph, eventually. But 0-60 took still eighteen seconds, glacially slow for today’s standards. They loved the superb visibility instead of sitting in a cave. And the build quality, down to every little piece of heavily chromed interior trim, was absolutely world class. But it still handled like a Beetle, jacking up on its rear swing axles on fast curves. The revised trailing arm rear suspension was still a few years away.

By 1966, the Emden plant was in full swing and Americans were finally worthy of Type 3s, even though they were already looking pretty out of date by then. But the notchback sedan was replaced by this new fastback body style, along with the very versatile Variant wagon (Squareback). Was VW influenced by the resurgence of  fastbacks in the US during the mid-sixties? The Barracuda and Mustang fastback ignited a new fad for the swoopy tails, and soon all of Detroit got in the act. It seems kind of ironic that ultra-conservative VW would fall for such a fad.

But there were some compensations, including a rear trunk somewhat bigger than the notchback. Combined with the front trunk,

the Fastback was a bit of a Swiss Army knife, and made good use of the low and flat pancake motor, as a young Dustin Hoffman points out in this famous “where’s the engine?” ad for the Fastback:

Presumably, he got the job because his short stature makes the Fastback look larger than life; an old Detroit ad trick.

Undoubtedly, the Squareback was even more practical: it offered a front trunk in addition to a tall rear cargo area. It deserves its own CC, so we’ll honor it then. But let’s talk about one of the more remarkable features that both Type 3s came with starting in 1968: electronic fuel injection.

This was a very big deal at the time. Sure, the much more expensive Mercedes could be had with Einspritzer, but these were pricey mechanical units. The Bosch D-Jetronic was the mother of all modern electronic fuel injection systems, employing a vacuum sensor in the intake manifold to measure air mass, as well as several other sensors to determine temperature, engine speed and a few other parameters. An analog ECU made all the requisite calculations. And it worked like a charm: easy starting, no stalling, stumbling or flat spots. The same basic characteristics that were going to make fuel injection the next big thing in Detroit in the late fifties on luxury and performance cars was now standard, on a Volkswagen. And it would take over two more decades before proper port injection finally became common on American cars.

Ironically, Bosch’s Jetronic system was based heavily on the Bendix FI system patents, which was briefly optional on some American cars in the late fifties before teething problems and high prices quickly had Detroit spending the money on taller fins instead.

VW did give the Type 3 a nose job in 1970, pushing it forward and squaring it off to increase the trunk space as well as improve safety a wee bit, presumably. I’ve had one of the later ones in the can for ages (lower in photo above), but I prefer the original, and I’m glad I held out. They’re getting pretty hard to find anymore too.

This particular car, which its brand new owner proudly showed off to me, was a one-owner car that was obviously well kept, including a long period of little use. He was thrilled to find it in a newspaper ad (what’s that?). And it still runs like a sewing machine with its fuel injection intact. Sadly, or foolishly, many Type 3 owners tore out the Bosch and replaced it with a retrograde twin carb set-up, being intimidated by repairing it. In reality, these are quite rugged and fairly simple to fix, at least for someone inducted into the school of Jetronic.

The Fastback was a bit of an oddity: was it supposed to be sporty, or luxurious, or just a high-priced VW? Its appeal and sales were undoubtedly to those upgrading from a Beetle; it’s hard to imagine someone trading in a Cutlass for one. But for some, its familiar qualities, and just the quality of a Volkswagen were a habit hard to break, except with a Mercedes perhaps. And even today, its Germanic charms are seductive, but it would have to be without the automatic, thank you, even if it is spelled out in letters of such obvious high quality.

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Curbside True Classic: 1946 Packard Clipper Super – And Why Did Someone Dump Paint On It The Other Night? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-true-classic-1946-packard-clipper-super-and-why-did-someone-dump-paint-on-it-the-other-night/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-true-classic-1946-packard-clipper-super-and-why-did-someone-dump-paint-on-it-the-other-night/#comments Tue, 23 Nov 2010 17:20:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373882 It’s mysterious enough that a genuine CCCA-designated classic car suddenly appears curbside in my neighborhood. And not just any true classic, but the immensely desirable and infinitely awesome Clipper Super Coupe, the most powerful and fastest American car of its day. But the mystery deepens: why did its owner try everything possible to keep me […]

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It’s mysterious enough that a genuine CCCA-designated classic car suddenly appears curbside in my neighborhood. And not just any true classic, but the immensely desirable and infinitely awesome Clipper Super Coupe, the most powerful and fastest American car of its day. But the mystery deepens: why did its owner try everything possible to keep me from photographing it the day I first found it, and then why did someone deface it by pouring paint over it the very next night?

Before we get started on this strange story, for a frame of reference, here’s how it looked on the day before, when I first drove by.

This Packard is the biggest find of the year so far, rivaling the official CC logomobile, the 1950 Cadillac Series 61 Coupe for top-dog status. But in terms of the human elements connected with each of them, they couldn’t be more different.

Mike, the Caddy’s owner, proudly showed off his pride and joy, took me for a memorable ride, and is now a friend. The guy that presumably owns this Packard threatened me in numerous ways. Bid vibes surrounded him and his car from the minute my eyes laid on him. But it wasn’t just me; someone else must not like him very much either.

I had been tooling down West 24th, scanning the side streets as always, when I saw that big black ass two blocks down. At first I thought it might be a Volvo 544, or a big Olds or Buick from the fastback era. I drove around the block and as I turned onto Taylor, that distinctive Packard Clipper front end came into view.

The 1941 Clipper was a milestone car for Packard, the most handsome and advanced new car of its day. It was a response to Harley Earl’s groundbreaking 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special (top in photo below). The sleek Caddy made quite a splash, and Packard needed to up the ante or fall behind.

In 1940, they hired Dutch Darrin to come up with a quarter-scale clay proposal in ten days(!), which he did, but the design was a bit too progressive for staid old Packard. Darrin’s original design had the front fender flow all the way back, and dropped any hint of running boards. But the quote “success has many fathers while failure is an orphan” applies all too well here; there is endless controversy over the Clipper’s true patrimony, which also involves Briggs Body, Packard chief designer Werner Gubitz’ team, George Walker, Alex Tremulis and whoever else wants or deserves a cut of the credit. We’ll leave that endless debate to others. Clearly, a healthy dose of typical Darrin taste and flair survived, including his hallmark touches which reappeared in more modern form in the 1947 Kaiser and Frazer.

The Clipper appeared as a four door sedan only in 1941, riding on the 127″ wheelbase of the senior Packard, and initially used the 120’s 282 CID (4620 cc) straight eight engine. It was actually wider than it was tall, which was highly unusual, and at least as pioneering a design as Earl’s Caddy, if not more so. And thanks to a positive reception, Packard quickly adopted Clipper styling across the board for 1942. Only one big problem: WW II.

Arriving just some six months before Pearl Harbor, the Clippers were on the market barely a year before production ceased. This would have consequences in 1948, when Packard face-lifted (body-bulged, more accurately) the Clipper to go against the all-new 1948 Cadillac. We covered that painful part of Packard’s history and demise in our other Packard CC, the 1951 200 here, so let’s just dwell on this long-hooded elegant beast here.

As mentioned earlier, this is a CCCA recognized true classic, of which very few post-war cars qualify. It applies only to the two top-line 1946-47 Packards; this Super and the more lavishly-trimmed Custom Super, in recognition of these cars being carry-overs from the pre-war era as. Maybe it’s also because of the powerplant. The Supers for 1946 and 1947 were endowed with Packard’s ultimate straight eight, the 356 cubic inch mammoth that was introduced in 1940, and was the final and finest expression of the genre.

This giant slab of engine weighs some one thousand pounds. The crankshaft, which swings a mean 4.63″ stroke, alone weighs 105 pounds. Supported by nine main bearings, it is virtually impossible to tell that these engines are running, unbeaten in the “balance a quarter on its side on a running engine block” trick (see video here). That half ton of engine represents one full quarter of the weight of this Coupe, which at 4,000 lbs is not all that hefty for today’s standards.

With 165 hp and enough tug-boat torque to start off in top gear, the big eight outclassed all its competition in power as well as refinement. One hundred mph plus was genuine and effortless. The Clipper Super offered the kind of refined speed that the Bentley R-Type Continental became famous for a few years later.

Enough for the historical preamble: I parked my old Ford truck and greeted the owner, who was just headed toward his house. I’m always eager to introduce my self and explain my intentions, even when its not necessary for a car parked on the street. And I’ve always gotten a friendly response, especially with the more exotic and unusual cars. One of the few paybacks of owning an old or unusual car is getting some love and attention. Not this guy.

He had a sour look to start with, and instantly started yelling at me insisting that I can’t photograph his Packard. He made a cryptic remark along the lines of “I’ve had enough problems with this car, and it won’t be here much longer”. I tried in vain to reason with him and explained that I have every right to shoot it sitting on a public road, but he started jumping in between me and the car, and threatening to call the the police. That was an empty threat, but he became more agitated and aggressive, so I let it go for now.

I drove by a couple of hours later, and grabbed a few quick shots from my car before he came running out the door. I figured I would let him simmer down overnight, and walked over the next day. What the hell! That very night, someone had come by and dumped white paint all over that black Packard’s long tapering roof. Or was it a giant bird? This time the owner was not sitting by the window waiting for me; the curtain was drawn, and there was no response. I got my shots, and left the poor thing sitting in the drizzle, with paint dripping down its flanks.

Who knows what that was all about, but it certainly wasn’t random vandalism. That very rarely happens around here anyway, and this car was clearly targeted. The owner’s extreme agitation and paranoia the day before made it obvious that there were “issues” surrounding this car.

It’s still sitting there, forlorn like a black rock the sea gulls have adopted. Undoubtedly, this Clipper has a future brighter than its current state. These are very desirable cars, for obvious reasons. I’m still getting over having found my second genuine CC Packard within a dozen blocks of my house. What’s next; a CC Duesenberg with patina? And I’m trying hard to get the Clipper out of my head; not only wondering what happened to it, but imagining tooling this majestic coupe down the McKenzie highway on a warm summer night, and opening the cutout on the exhaust. Nothing quite beats the sound of a big honking Packard straight eight (listen for yourself here and here). And although I like my cars rough and ratty, a little scrubbing might be called for.

My guess as to what happened: this Packard has obviously spent  a very long time in a barn or shed, from the look of the rotted tires. Perhaps the current buyer made a deal with the former owner that somebody else isn’t any too happy about; possibly another buyer, or a family member of the former owner. What’s yours?

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Curbside Classic: 1989 Ford Festiva – Korea Week Shitbox Shoot-out Loser http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1989-ford-festiva-korea-week-shitbox-shoot-out-loser/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1989-ford-festiva-korea-week-shitbox-shoot-out-loser/#comments Sat, 20 Nov 2010 18:12:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373693 The Korean invasion began in the late eighties with three shitboxes: the Hyundai Excel, the Pontiac LeMans, and the Ford Festiva. Korea Week CC pits them against each other to determine the outcome: the Festiva loses the contest by a large margin. Why? It was way too good of a car. So losing is winning […]

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The Korean invasion began in the late eighties with three shitboxes: the Hyundai Excel, the Pontiac LeMans, and the Ford Festiva. Korea Week CC pits them against each other to determine the outcome: the Festiva loses the contest by a large margin. Why?

It was way too good of a car. So losing is winning in this showdown. Now undeniably, the Festiva still falls into the shitbox category by virtue of its looks alone; in fact it’s styling couldn’t be more so: somewhere between a porta-potty and a litter box. As my eighteen year-old would say: strictly a no-sex box.

Yup, the Festiva took the form that the original Honda Civic popularized fifteen years earlier, and turned it into a generic Wal Mart version. No need to spend money for Giugiaro here. It’s almost a dead-ringer for the Civic in terms of size. But that’s not the only one: Ford’s very similarly named Fiesta obviously comes into the picture too. And given their similarities in name, form, function and both carrying the Blue Oval, comparisons are inevitable.

The Fiesta was a true little gem in its time, that being a critical part of the comparison. The Fiesta arrived before Honda started getting back to its performance roots; in the US, anyway. Since Ford only sent the 1.6 L version of the Fiesta, it was the hottest little pocket rocket of its day. Thus its cult status.

Things had changed dramatically by the time of the Festiva’s appearance in 1988. By then, hot Hondas and other rice-flavored delights of the mid-late eighties changed the landscape, so by the time the Festiva appeared with about the same performance envelope as the Fiesta, it was instantly relegated to shitbox status.

But if one’s appreciation for the timeless joys of minimalistic motoring was undulled by the late eighties’ excesses, the Festiva was the warm little ticket. Because unlike the Excel and the LeMans, nothing was lost in the translation from the Japanese Mazda 121 into the Korean Festiva. Kia followed the original faithfully, and the result is obvious. How so?

I considered myself lucky to find one example each of the gen1 Excel and the Daewoo LeMans. But I could go out and find half a dozen of these Festivas this morning if I needed to. There’s one for sale at the Official CC Sales Lot. The sheer numbers add up to the Festiva’s loss/win; but that’s not all. The Festiva is a blast to drive, if you’re into the underpowered shitbox thing. I am.

There’s no better way to enjoy automotive minimalism than with the Festiva. Forget all the chatter about electric vs. hydraulic power steering; unless you’ve savored the pleasure of no power steering at all in a light little car – that makes me wonder how many younger drivers have never driven a car without power steering. A show of hands, please?

Granted, the Festiva was best in urban settings, where its telephone booth visibility (and size) made it perfect for the task of gaining every inch of advantage possible in thick traffic. My experience in one was in San Francisco, and the Festiva shone there. Precious parking spaces that other cars would have needed casters to fit in were a breeze. And there’s nothing like catching a bit of air in a Festiva on the hills.

As alluded to earlier, the Festiva is a Mazda 121 in everything but name, and lives up to its zoom-zoom heritage; or at least tries hard to. Curiously, the 121 was never sold in Japan, but a Japanese-made Festiva was, at Ford’s Autorama dealer network. Japanese tie-ups and dealer networks are a complicated thing. And outside of the US, the little Kia was called the Pride, and  built up until to 2000. And like the LeMans that found an immortal home in Uzbekistan, the Kia Pride is still going strong in Iran. The license built SAIPA Saba and its successors including a pickup version account for some 40% of the Iranian market. It’s a small world after all.

Unless I was having too much fun last night, my memory tells me that the Festiva was the last of the true lovable shitboxes. The Geo Metro is close, but the Festiva’s 1.3 L four will blow away the Metro’s little three-pot. The Suzuki Swift with its 1.3 L four, perhaps. As Michael Karesh pointed out in his Hyundai i10 review, the i10 is within inches of the Festiva. And they both have that same tall stance with tiny wheels that makes it look like they will fall over in a strong breeze. It may look dorky, but it does the job, especially in the right setting. Manufacturers: the shitbox segment is wide open; these Festivas are holding up surprisingly well, but eventually they’ll need to be replaced.

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Curbside Classic: 1990 Pontiac LeMans – The Lows And Rocky Mt. Highs Of GM’s Deadly Sin #12 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1990-pontiac-lemans-the-lows-and-rocky-mt-highs-of-gms-deadly-sin-12/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1990-pontiac-lemans-the-lows-and-rocky-mt-highs-of-gms-deadly-sin-12/#comments Thu, 18 Nov 2010 16:01:08 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373212 Between the years 1988 and 1993, GM decided to use Americans in a mass experiment, in which I found myself  an unwitting participant. Seemingly unable to determine on its own whether Korean-made cars would pass muster here, GM just sent boatloads of them over and slapped on the storied Pontiac LeMans name, no less. Then […]

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Between the years 1988 and 1993, GM decided to use Americans in a mass experiment, in which I found myself  an unwitting participant. Seemingly unable to determine on its own whether Korean-made cars would pass muster here, GM just sent boatloads of them over and slapped on the storied Pontiac LeMans name, no less. Then it looked for suckers/participants, both long and short term. Oddly enough, one actually had to pay to play. I ponied up for a week’s worth in the summer of 1990, and put it through the most difficult torture possible to try to kill it, in revenge for having been drafted by Hertz to do GM’s work. I hereby submit my results, in the hopes of getting my money back. Oh wait; that was the old GM. Well, someone’s going to pay to hear my evaluation, twenty years late or not.

I’m assuming the overall experiment didn’t go so well even without my input, because GM and Daewoo broke up in 1992, right about when the US-LeMans experiment was ending. It wasn’t the first time Daewoo got kicked out of bed for a poor performance, having previously shared sheets with both Toyota and Datsun.  Daewoo then went through its brief independent single era, which ended in tears and bankruptcy, and back in the General’s loving arms in about 2002 or so, despite the LeMans experiment, or maybe because of it. They were obviously meant for each other.

It was a particularly rude choice of GM to inflict the LeMans onto Americans via Pontiac, since historically the once-proud Indian brand occupied a notch above Chevrolet in the corporate pecking order. And Chevy/Geo was selling some quite decent Japanese cars at the time, both the Corolla-clone Prizm, as well as the Isuzu-built Spectrum. Saturn was also still in its heyday. So why dump this on poor Pontiac?

I suppose one could argue that Pontiac was already the GM cesspool of small cars at the time. Its Chevette-clone 1000 began rotting before it was introduced almost ten years earlier, and the Sunbird was no gem. And there was the not-so Grand Am. How’s another piece of crap dumped on Pontiac going to hurt it? It’s not like it’s going to go under or anything like that.

The Daewoo LeMans actually had some pedigree. It was heavily based on the Opel Kadett E, the lead member of GM’s global T-Platform that found its way around the world. But something go lost in the translation into Korean, because the real McCoy Kadett/Astra was generally able to give the Golf a reasonable run for its money on its home turf.

In the summer of 1990, my younger brother and I both needed a break from our jobs and young families. My parents were heading to the mountains of Colorado for a vacation, so we played hookie and joined them. My rental was a 1990 LeMans four door. It was almost brand new, but felt like it had already spent a lifetime being abused: the steering was sloppy, the suspension felt like all the bushings and shocks were worn, the engine moaned like it was about to die. And the interior was deadly. “Use Me – Abuse Me” was etched all over its thin paint.

With a 74 hp 1.6 L four hooked to a three-speed automatic, the LeMans was feeble enough at Denver’s altitude; but we were heading to Leadville, the highest town in the continental US. Taking the Hwy 6 bypass at the Eisenhower Tunnel to Loveland Pass took us to 12,000 feet, and the Daewoo was already wheezing and staggering with altitude sickness. But that was just the warm up act.

We came here to climb the 14,000 ft. peaks of the Collegiate Range, but my seventy-year old father needed a one day break between hiking, and my mother couldn’t hike at all. So on alternate days, I took them mountain climbing in the LeMans. There are numerous old wagon and mining roads all over that part of the Rockies; I can’t remember exactly which ones we took, but if they were headed up, so did we.

These rough rock and gravel “roads” that sometimes reach 13,000 feet or so are normally the exclusive domain of genuine four wheel drives. In the old days, tall and rugged two-wheel drive trucks were adequate, and I had conquered a few with my old VW Beetle. But a rear-engined high-clearance 15″ wheeled VW is not a low-squatting, FWD LeMans. Just for the record, a light FWD car with four adults aboard on a very steep grade is the worst drive train configuration possible, except perhaps a rear-engined car with front wheel drive, which I don’t remember ever being built (please, someone prove me wrong).[Update: the Dymaxion]

But we gave the LeMans the spurs, and it scrabbled its way up most everything we could find, although I seem to remember backing down one at some point when the wheels just couldn’t find traction anymore. I might have tried going up backwards; if necessary; that’s the way to go up a too-steep hill in a FWD car. We got high enough as it was, and the boulders we scraped on its bottom were fortunately well inside of the rocker panels.

My mother took and sent me the picture above, which was taken on one of our “climbing expeditions”. On the back, she wrote: “this was taken on one of the lower peaks we reached. A triumph for the car and your driving, Paul!” Aw shucks, Mom! I was just doing my job for GM! But I’ll pass on the compliments belatedly.

Since I’ve already hijacked the main LeMans thread, I’ll share another brief story from that trip. My father, a medic, was captured by the Allies near Normandy during WWII, and likely owes his life to being one of a fairly small number of POWs to be sent to the US, where he was well-fed. In the the large POW camps in France, he saw his weight and health decline precipitously, and attended to many starving POWs. Since the war was as good as over by then, his group was sent to various military camps to tear them down. One of them was here at Camp Hale, also near Leadville, where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained before heading to Italy. Here my father stands at the foundations of the buildings he helped dismantle forty-five years earlier. And we got there courtesy of the LeMans.

OK, so the LeMans never gave up regardless of what I dished out. Getting there is one thing, how it feels getting there is what makes the car. And what really put the LeMons into perspective was that my father’s rental was the all-new Mazda 323-based gen2 Ford Escort. The difference between the two was huge. The Escort felt so buttoned down on the (paved) winding roads; it was a pretty impressive small car for the times. Of course, he wouldn’t dare let us compare its climbing abilities to the Daewoo, so that aspect will be forever unknown. But then Ford wasn’t asking us to be their guinea pigs.

Even if Americans didn’t end up embracing the Korean LeMans, it has found a more loving home elsewhere. And a more enduring one too. They’re still being made today as the UzDaewoo Nexia in Uzbekistan (insert Borat joke here).

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Curbside Classic: 1988 Hyundai Excel – The Damn Near Deadly Sin http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1988-hyundai-excel-the-damn-near-deadly-sin/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1988-hyundai-excel-the-damn-near-deadly-sin/#comments Tue, 16 Nov 2010 16:58:36 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=372753 Americans are a forgiving sort, and redemption from sin is just the right gesture away. Well, that applies more to politicians and celebrities than to car companies. It can be a little more challenging to overcome the damage from a poor quality car, especially if you’re the brand new kid on the block. Just ask […]

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Americans are a forgiving sort, and redemption from sin is just the right gesture away. Well, that applies more to politicians and celebrities than to car companies. It can be a little more challenging to overcome the damage from a poor quality car, especially if you’re the brand new kid on the block. Just ask Yugo; they quickly walked away. As did Peugeot, Alfa, Fiat and countless other imports, even though they had been around for decades.  But the Koreans are a tough and determined folk, and when they got their less-than Excellent head handed to them on a platter, they dug in their heels and figured out what it would take to be given a second chance. 

The Excel was Hyundai’s first fully self-developed car, which suggests that they might well have waited a couple of years before tackling the world’s biggest and must demanding car market. Hyundai Motors itself got its start in 1967, building licensed Ford Cortinas. The next big leap forward came in 1975, when the Pony appeared (below).

Technically, the Pony was developed by Hyundai too, but with a lot of hired help. George Turnbull, former Managing Director of Austin-Morris at British Leyland quit in 1972, and as a parting gift (to himself?), took two Austin Marinas with him. Turnbull and the Marinas turned up at Hyundai, along with some other ex-BL designers and engineers. The resulting RWD Pony certainly reflects its origins, although Giorgetto Giugiaro was hired to do the final styling.  At least the Marina’s ancient BMC engine was abandoned, in favor of Mitsubishi units in 1.2, 1.4, and 1.6 L size.

Hyundai’s exports began with the Pony, including Europe, and Canada from 1983 on. The Canadians took a particular shine to it, and the Pony was a big hit up north, selling over 50k units annually. When I was in Korea in 1980, traffic was a sea of these Ponys, including pickup versions. Every taxi ride reinforced the image of what it was: the developing world appliance-mobile; simple, rough riding, noisy, but rugged in that old-school RWD way.

Since it wouldn’t meet US standards, we were spared its pleasures on our home turf, although I doubt it would have compared all that poorly to the similar RWD Datsun 210s and Corollas of the times; maybe a bit less refined. After a ten year run, Hyundai was ready to take the plunge into the FWD world; a tricky transition that had tripped up more than one major manufacturer.

The Excel was fully Hyundai developed, although Giugiaro styled the body again. And with their new baby, Hyundai launched a massive assault on the US in 1986. Powered by a very attractive $4,995 ($10k adjusted) starting price, the Excel arrived at an auspicious time, given that the Voluntary Import Restrictions caused shortages of Japanese cars, rapidly rising prices, dealer markups, and waiting lists.

The infamous Yugo (I’m still hoping to find one for CC) had appeared just the year before, priced at a rock-bottom $3990. But there were serious doubts about the Yugo’s provenance and durability from the beginning, and they quickly proved to be all-too true. For a grand more, the Hyundai looked very appealing, even if the Made-In-Korea stamp back then had the the equivalent image of Made-In-China in more recent times.

Putting quality issues aside, the Excel was a steal compared to the barely warmed-over tiny ex-Fiat Yugo. The Excel looked handsome enough for the times, was fairly roomy, and its driving dynamics were adequately competitive with the lowest-end Japanese imports, while undercutting them by several thousand dollars.

The result was explosive, with Hyundai selling 126k Excels in the US that first year. That was the biggest first year sales performance of a newly introduced import brand ever. But it quickly unraveled.

The Excel was Hyundai’s GM X-Body (Citation, etc.), its builder having underestimated the challenges of a completely new FWD car with all-new engines and transaxles. Quality and reliability issues surfaced very quickly, and Hyundai was tainted with the same bad rep that killed the Yugo. I don’t know exactly what the early Excel’s greatest weaknesses were, but American import drivers had been spoiled by the Japanese cars’ well honed reliability by then, and were not about to embrace anything retrograde in that department.

And what were they like to drive? It was a highly unmemorable experience. I drove one once, fairly briefly, and my only now-dim impressions were of it being a reasonably functional appliance. It didn’t inspire in any regard, but neither did it engender loathing. The 1.5 L engine teamed with the three-speed automatic was feebler than average, certainly more so than a Sentra and Civics of the times I had experience with.

Hyundai limped along in the US, having made dubious history with its explosive introduction followed by its nearly immediate implosion. But time and continued steady progress in resolving the Excel’s issues healed some of the wounds. Whether Hyundai purposely waited some ten years before it got aggressive with its ten-year 100k mile warranty and a massive product expansion is unclear. But Hyundai is a text book case of how to redeem oneself with the demanding American consumer: hang around long enough and keep putting your face out there, and pretty soon all is forgiven. Image Rehab: an American specialty; available to Koreans too.

More new Curbside Classics here

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The Curbside Classics Graveyard: May They Rust In Peace http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/the-curbside-classic-graveyard-may-they-rust-in-peace/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/the-curbside-classic-graveyard-may-they-rust-in-peace/#comments Sat, 13 Nov 2010 16:02:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=372530 Even in Eugene, where Curbside Classics miraculously soldier along on the streets for decades beyond their normal life expectancy, the forces of entropy cannot be forestalled forever. If it’s still running enough to get there, you could donate it to the official CC Sales Lot, and pass that slipping and leaking transmission on to the […]

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Even in Eugene, where Curbside Classics miraculously soldier along on the streets for decades beyond their normal life expectancy, the forces of entropy cannot be forestalled forever. If it’s still running enough to get there, you could donate it to the official CC Sales Lot, and pass that slipping and leaking transmission on to the next sucker loving owner. But when the tow truck has to be called, Judgment Day has arrived. Will you pony up and put yourself that much deeper under water? Or will it end up at the Pick and Pull, donating its vital organs to keep its kin on the road a bit longer? But for the chosen few, there’s one other alternative: the Curbside Classic Graveyard, where it may rust (superficially) in peace until the second coming of Henry Ford (or his only begotten Son Edsel).

Where exactly is this automotive Elysian Field? 29329 Airport Road, and this screen shot from Google Street View will help you find it if you decide to come to Eugene. It’s a stone’s throw from the Eugene Airport, and 95% percent of all traffic to and from there pass it, as I did for years until I caught a glimpse of something, and decided to stop and take a look. One thing is clear; this is not a working junkyard. The doors and gates have been locked for ages, and the cars have obviously not been cannibalized.It’s a good thing I’m tall, as all my shots were taken over the top of the six foot fence.

I’ll post my shots according to the random sequence of how I shot them. The first thing that caught my eye were these two Fiat 850 Spiders, one trying to protect its open cockpit from the elements. Ooo! What’s that lurking in the background?

A Hillman Imp, no less. It’s been way to long since I’ve seen one of them. This was probably Eugene’s only Imp, which means it certainly rated an invitation to the CC Graveyard. If I can’t find it on the streets, I can hope to find it here. Lots of vintage bikes back there too. And I can’t even make out all of what’s behind them.  I’m going to have to come back and hop that fence.

Panning to the left we see a rather eclectic assortment of vintage iron: a couple of old Chevy trucks, and…I’ll stop and leave some for you guys to identify.

Moving a bit further left, one of those ultra-boxy Rambler Americans, next to its predecessor. I’m seeing an obvious pattern here: this graveyard is organized like human graveyards: by families.

I’m repeating the top picture here just for continuity. A couple of ’58 Edsels, one a Citation, the other a Corsair. Or is one a Pacer? Some definite repeated patterns emerge behind them in those windshields: old Fords, to keep it in the family, of course.

In the front row of the Ford family plot sit the proud Thunderbirds. How appropriate.

Along the west side, the Ford trucks are lined up, in what appears to be chronological order.

There’s some decided inter-familial co-mingling going on in the front row though.

But it soon turns into a nice big Corvair plot, well represented with coupes, sedans, and a fairly uncommon second generation sedan too.

That white four door by the shed could by my first car. Man, those coupes had an overly-long rear deck. No wonder the Mustang was so popular.

Lets swing back to the right, to the head of the Corvairs, where the big Chevies await their Resurrection. Or maybe in the case of cars, it’s their reincarnation.

Did I mention Mustangs? Of course they’re represented here too, as well as some interesting big iron from the fifties behind them.

Here’s the Mustang tails, including a charming customized one with triple lights on each side. Damn; haven’t seen that since I left Iowa in the mid seventies. Charming. Maybe it helped get it in the door here.

Let’s grab another parting shot of that crowded center section before I get too choked up and can’t operate my camera anymore. What a lot of deserving souls resting here.

It’s quite obvious that these cars were all well-used and even battered before they earned admission. This is no fancy-pants collection; my guess is that it started as a wrecking yard, but someone’s emotions got the better of them; like a farmer who couldn’t bear to send his pigs and chickens to market. Given how long the office has been closed, it will probably be his heirs that get/have to deal with them. Wouldn’t surprise me if that happens sooner than later; it’s hard to forestall the Grim Reaper forever.

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Curbside Classics: Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni – Detroit Finally Builds A Proper Small Car http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classics-plymouth-horizon-and-dodge-omni-detroit-finally-builds-a-proper-small-car/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classics-plymouth-horizon-and-dodge-omni-detroit-finally-builds-a-proper-small-car/#comments Thu, 11 Nov 2010 17:10:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=372239 Is time slowing down? Just fifteen years separate this 1960 Imperial and the Horizon’s birth. Or was it just that Detroit was terribly slow to embrace the inevitability of modern European design? Better late then never, because not only were the Horizon and Omni the first proper small cars ever built in Detroit, they also […]

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Is time slowing down? Just fifteen years separate this 1960 Imperial and the Horizon’s birth. Or was it just that Detroit was terribly slow to embrace the inevitability of modern European design? Better late then never, because not only were the Horizon and Omni the first proper small cars ever built in Detroit, they also saved Chrysler from irrelevance and bankruptcy just in the nick of time.

Before we turn the clock back and rediscover the origins of Omnirizon twins, let’s briefly put that fifteen year span between the Imperial and Horizon in perspective:

Thirty five years separate the Horizon from this 2010 Golf. Has automotive evolution really slowed down that much? Unfair comparison, perhaps. Well, there is no 2010 Imperial to compare it, since that species long ago became extinct. And the Golf does loom large in the Horizon’s existence. Or is it the other way around?

Our timeless main story begins with the Simca 1100 (at the left on the top, and right on the bottom, mislabeled as an R12). This photo is here courtesy of allpar.com, which has an excellent article about the birth of the Horizon by its creators here. We see it in a comparison of the C2 Horizon’s proposal with the brand new Golf . The C2 was the intended replacement for the Simca, and it’s easy to see that they (Simca, C2) sat on the same platform and followed its general shape.

When the Simca 1100/1204 first appeared in 1967, it set the template for the modern hatchback small car. It was the true winner of our CC virtual 1971 Small Car Comparison, and one of the first cars to employ that template was the 1975 VW Golf. Some of the Chrysler fan-boys at allpar argue that the Golf imitated the Simca. Conceptually yes; stylistically, the  photo above is the damming evidence that once the Golf appeared, Chrysler’s fine tuning of their C2 proposal was deeply influenced by it, to put it politely.

The final of our comparison photos: the evidence is all too obvious, right down to the kink in the rear door. Well, if you’re going to imitate, the original Golf was certainly a good model, and it was a sight cheaper than hiring Guigiaro, like VW did.

The development of the Horizon has other compelling aspects beyond the cribbing. As the headline says, it was the first time one of the Big Three pulled its head out of its ass and decided that a modern FWD European design did actually make more sense for a small car than the crap it came up with by itself: the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin. In case you’ve forgotten, click the links, but in a nutshell, Detroit was obsessed with the idea that small cars needed to look like a shrunken Mustang or Camaro. Combined with RWD meant that they were atrociously cramped, especially in the rear. Perhaps they were punishing their buyers for being so stupid to want a small car instead of a real car.

It didn’t have to be that way, and cars like the Simca 1100 and the Golf showed the way. Certainly, by today’s standards they are quite small indeed, perhaps like a Fiesta or less. But at the time, when even cars like the over sized Nova were none too roomy, this was a revelation. And the Horizon was bigger than the Golf, by far the roomiest of any small car at the time.

Chrysler, fortunately lacking the funds to join the Vega-Pinto debacle, looked to its European subsidiary for a life-line, having already been convinced of the Simca 1100’s capabilities, despite its poor sales in the US and reliability issues. In a very closely coordinated effort, Chrysler undertook a three-way development effort with its French and British units. That presented huge challenges, given the substantially different priorities and the metric-inch divide. But the body was fine tuned on both sides of the continent, and for the fist time ever, digital scans of the clays were exchanged via satellite. A first, and not bad for 1975.

It became clear early on that the US version would be a very different car except for the basic body. Well, at least that was shared. The Simca’s supple but more expensive long-stroke torsion bar suspension was jettisoned for more pragmatic MacPherson struts in the front. Americans just didn’t deserve or wouldn’t appreciate that famous French ride. On the other hand, the Americans wisely stayed clear of the Simca engine, which was generally fragile and usually developed terrible valve clatter within 20k miles or so. In another nod to the Golf, Chrysler instead bought engines from VW, a 1,7 L version of the Golf’s 827 engine. Chrysler added its own manifold and cantankerous carb, foolishly eschewing fuel injection for several more years.

The Americans also developed the front automatic transaxle, a miniaturized TorqueFlite, which turned out to be pleasantly similar to its big brother reliability wise (whew!). And it brought its electronic prowess to both versions, with the first popular priced trip computer. Of course, the domestic version got an interior more in keeping with the um…slower to develop taste of Americans at the time. Still, it was a refreshing place to sit in the late seventies era of bordello interiors, with excellent visibility and decent ergonomics for the times.

Either way, the Horizons on both sides of the Atlantic were well received by the press, both winning respective COTY awards. That may have meant more in Europe, where it’s voted on by hundreds of auto journalists. Still, the American press and public reception was pretty universally positive, even though it was clear that the Horizon was not a Golf in certain key respects, mainly in the handling department. The Omnirizon’s suspension was Americanized in more ways than one. Its handling was decent for the times, but just neither actually fun nor inspiring.

Maybe that was a worthwhile trade off for the American versions’ much better rustproofing; the Euro Horizons were some of the worst rusters ever, and there may likely be less than 200 examples left on the whole continent. I’m sure I could find that many in Oregon. Our city water and electric utility had a fleet of them until just a couple of years ago.

Of course, those were undoubtedly from the latter years of the Omnirizon’s long US run from 1978 through 1990. And typical for American small cars, they slowly got better and better, later adopting the Chrysler 2.2 L four, fuel injection, and a 1.6 liter Peugeot engine as the base mill. Meanwhile though, cars like the Civic, Corolla and Mazda GLC/323 were evolving at a much quicker pace.

So even though the Omnirizons were pretty progressive when they arrived, time in the eighties was not standing still. The Japanese upsurge kept Omnirizon sales in check, although in its first three years it averaged over 200k units and some 1.8 million were sold during the whole run. Those first couple of years were critical, because Chrysler was in the depth of its brush with bankruptcy, largely in part because its big cars were obsolete or stinkers.

But it wasn’t just the sales numbers alone. Without the Horizon and Omni, it’s highly doubtful Chrysler would have been able to develop their K-Cars in time and on budget, or at all. Chrysler had a huge head start with the Horizon and its fwd transaxle, and Lee Ioacocca could prove to his Washington DC bankers that he really did have that leading edge fwd technology, the equivalent of GM and its Volt today.

Of course, the legendary hi-po versions of the Omni developed with Carroll Shelby can’t be ignored here, although the odds of finding one on the street are slim indeed. But starting with the 1984 GLH (“Goes Like Hell”), the VW GTI had a wild and woolly competitor. The first version was actually the most GTI-like, with the 110 hp tweaked 2.2. The optional 146 turbo version was already something different altogether. But then the GLHS appeared with an uprated 175 hp turbo. A crude and rude little beast it was; the wildest combination of torque steer and turbo lag bang for the buck.

The Omnirizon twins did nothing to stave of the Japanese invasion of the coasts or dissuade VW lovers from their Rabbits, but they did finally expose heartland Americans to what a proper small car could be, including a fitting hot-rod version of it. For that, it deserves a special place in my history book. And if Chrysler had kept developing it properly, my last combination picture could be comparing an original Horizon with a 2010 Horizon. Oops; make that a 2010 Omni.

No such luck; Chrysler decided small cars should look like a trucky SUV. Well, the Caliber’s replacement will be based on a European Fiat. So maybe automotive time hasn’t slowed down; it’s just running in circles.

More new Curbside Classics here

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Curbside Classic: 1960 Imperial Crown Southampton – The Frankenstein Of Cars http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1960-imperial-crown-southampton-the-frankenstein-of-cars/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1960-imperial-crown-southampton-the-frankenstein-of-cars/#comments Tue, 09 Nov 2010 17:51:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=371891 Calling a car from this period a monster is not exactly uncommon or uncalled for. But what if its own daddy called it that? Virgil Exner, the father of the definitive automotive fins created a sensation in 1957 when they appeared on the all-new “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. With a straight face, Exner then claimed […]

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Calling a car from this period a monster is not exactly uncommon or uncalled for. But what if its own daddy called it that? Virgil Exner, the father of the definitive automotive fins created a sensation in 1957 when they appeared on the all-new “Suddenly it’s 1960” models. With a straight face, Exner then claimed they were rooted in aerodynamics and highly functional. But with the ’57s he painted himself into a corner; there was no where further to go with them except ever greater absurdity, quickly turning them into caricatures of themselves. Even Exner admitted as much: “by 1959, it was obvious that I’d given birth to a Frankenstein”. I credit him for his honesty, if not good taste.

Let’s briefly take in the Frankenstein in its full glory, then jump back three years to where it all started.

The 1957 Chryslers were probably the finest of the Mopar crop that year, their fins being the best expression of Exner’s bold new look. In addition to the alleged aerodynamic benefits, Exner saw the fins as away to dramatically change the poise of his cars. His son Virgil Exner Jr. speaks for his father’s intentions: “The idea of the fin was to get some poise to the rear of the cars, to get them off of the soft, rounded back-end look, to achieve lightness.”

These ’57s were certainly dramatically ahead of the competition in terms of length, lowness, width and of course fins. And they work quite well here, given the objectives of that moment, questionable as it was.

Exner was a creative designer whose two main influences were the Italian school of design, especially the Alfa Romeo BAT cars, and the classic era of the thirties such as the Duesenberg. The perpetual battleground of integrating such disparate influences plays out repeatedly in his work, for better or for worse. The truth be told, he was a bit of a two-hit wonder with the 1955-56 and the 1957 Chryslers. Everything that followed until he left in 1961 was problematic, exacerbating Chrysler’s other issues at the time.

The 1957 Imperial was a bold and expensive gamble by Chrysler to challenge the near-monopoly that Cadillac enjoyed in the fifties. Lincoln was struggling with its own design issues, and the Imperial was certainly years ahead of the pathetic ‘57 Cadillacs, even if it wasn’t quite as harmonious a design as the Chryslers (note: this was during the time when Imperial was a separate brand from Chrysler).

The ’57 Imperial even got its own distinct body shell, unlike previous and later Imperials. One of its most unique features was curved side glass, an industry first. There was no question; the ’57 Imperial was the most advanced of the luxury cars when it appeared, in the context of that moment in time. But like all of Exner’s cars, it was a bit over the top, and not everyone’s taste. Sales tripled in 1957 over the prior year, reaching 35k, an all-time high water mark for both its fins and Imperial sales ever.

Of course, the rampant quality problems of all ’57 Chrysler products did not escape the Imperial. and the deep recession of 1958 created a remarkable change in attitude. Suddenly yesterday’s rocket ships became giant finned monsters overnight, now being seen the same light that over-leveraged MacMansions are today. A recession can be a remarkably sobering experience.

Imperial sales dropped by over 50%, and the whole upper end sector took a huge bruising as everyone clamored for Ramblers and VWs. Imperial sold 18k cars in 1960 to Cadillac’s 143k, so maybe it wasn’t all the recession, but perhaps in part to that ridiculous fake spare tire “toilet seat” that showed up in 1958. This was Exner’s jumping the shark moment, although I know some will disagree. You’re wrong! What a hodge-podge of mish-mashes. Suddenly it’s 1974!

At least Imperial didn’t drop as much as Lincoln; their disastrous over-the-top 1958 models dropped Lincoln into the number three sales slot of the luxury brands. For two brief years, Imperial savored silver, even if sales were in the toilet of its own making.

The failure of the Imperials to properly catch on put them into weird sort of limbo: from 1957 through 1966, they used the same basic body shell, despite ever more desperate efforts to conceal that fact. But there was a royal give-away: that very expensive compound curve windshield. Chrysler could screw around with a fin here and a floating headlight there, but it was stuck with that distinctive tell-tale windshield for way too long. I figured this out in real time, and each fall as the new cars came out, there it was: that same damn windshield. It wasn’t until 1967, when Imperials went back to using a slightly disguised Chrysler body that it finally disappeared.

When the rest of the Chrysler family switched to unibodies in 1960, the Imperial got a pass. Ostensibly because the frame gave it a quieter ride, the real reason was that Chrysler couldn’t afford to spend anything more than nickles and dimes on the slow selling Imperial during its 1957-1966 body era. Hence the tell-tale windshield.

If this 1960 Imperial is a Frankenstein, than what is its 1961 successor (above)? That’s when Exneruberance started to really go off the deep end, marrying the free-standing headlights inspired from his beloved classic era with the tail end of the fin era. And free-standing taillights to go along, no less. But freaks can be so lovable; I’ll take one home, thank you.

Consider that by 1961 the rest of the industry had already moved on, and even Cadillac fins had returned to earth. The rest of Caddy’s clean and trimmer new looks, never mind the stunning new ’61 Continental made the former leading-edge Imperial look like a retro-mobile, the forerunner of the seventies’ customs like the Bugazzi and such.

After Exner departed, former Ford designer Elwood Engel was brought in to subdue and tone down the the monsters. His reskin of the old ’57 body added very ’61 Lincolnesque slab sides to the ’65 Imperial, but still there’s that old wrap-around windshield again, looking very out of date by then.

Seems like we’ve talked about everything but this 1960. Well, it was an interim year, just before the floating headlights, but the fins were already well past their prime. As a compensation, there’s a quite dramatic dashboard to savor, including those push buttons for the TorqueFlite transmission.

Let’s not shortchange Chrysler’s squared-off steering wheel, which was as prescient of future tillers as the fins. Looking out over it was presumably easier, to better appreciate the acreage under which sat Chrysler’s 413 CID wedge V8, which replaced the legendary and legendarily expensive to build hemi a couple of years earlier. With a 350 hp rating, the big wedge did everything the hemi could but even better, except to power a dragster after it was yanked out of its first role in life.

A Frankenstein the 1960 Imperial may well be, but we all loved that monster too. Now it’s hard to fathom how such bizarreness was once considered elegant and chic. Stranger things have happened, but not that many more than the 1960 Imperial.

More new Curbside Classics here

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