The Truth About Cars » History http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 28 May 2015 20:00:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 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 » History http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/history/ Brotherly Love… For Crosleys http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/brotherly-love-crosleys/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/brotherly-love-crosleys/#comments Sun, 17 May 2015 16:10:57 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1057386 In 1957, Ronnie Kaczmar was 15 years old and, like most teenage boys living in Dearborn, Michigan in the 1950s, Ronnie and his younger brother Jim loved cars. Unlike most of the boys in Dearborn, though, Ronnie Kaczmar wasn’t into flathead Ford hot rods. No, he was into hot shots, as in the Crosley Hot […]

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In 1957, Ronnie Kaczmar was 15 years old and, like most teenage boys living in Dearborn, Michigan in the 1950s, Ronnie and his younger brother Jim loved cars. Unlike most of the boys in Dearborn, though, Ronnie Kaczmar wasn’t into flathead Ford hot rods. No, he was into hot shots, as in the Crosley Hot Shot and other Crosley automobiles.

 

Ronnie Kaczmar and his first Crosley in 1957

Ronnie Kaczmar and his first Crosley in 1957

In 1957, Ron Kaczmar bought his first Crosley – a 1948 station wagon – and based on the date on a photo with his brother, he soon acquired a Crosley convertible sedan that same year. His love for the tiny but technologically advanced American cars made by radio pioneer Powel Crosley lasted the rest of his life and made his family name synonymous with Crosley enthusiasm. The family still owns that ’48 Crosley wagon. Ron’s brother, Jim, bought his own Crosley, also a wagon, in 1963. While it’s clear Jim Kaczmar loves the little cars, it’s even clearer that he loved his big brother.


Start the YouTube video player. Click on the settings icon in the menu bar to select 2D or your choice of stereo 3D formats

In time, Ronnie Kaczmar became the go-to guy for Crosley information, history and parts. It’s impossible to research the brand without coming across his name sooner or later. Eventually, he started a small business selling Crosley parts and the occasional restored Crosley. While the marque may not be as known as more popular brands, it has an active community of collectors and enthusiasts, with over 1,000 people in the Crosley Auto Club. Just about everyone loves cute little cars, so there’s ongoing interest in Crosleys.

 

Ron Kaczmar and his father Walter drove this 1951 Crosley Super station wagon to all 48 contiguous United States.

Ron Kaczmar and his father Walter drove this 1951 Crosley Super station wagon to all 48 contiguous United States and it has the window decals to prove it. I believe that’s real wood veneer.

You’ll see them at car shows and at auctions, but you’re not likely to see a Crosley in one of Murilee Martin’s Junkyard Finds like you would the slightly less oddball Nash Metropolitan. While the Metropolitan is a cute little car and it had its own novelty song, the Crosley has a better story, starting with the personality of Powel Crosley and his various enterprises.

 

Ronnie (L) and Jimmy (R) with a Crosley convertible.

Ronnie (L) and Jimmy (R) with a Crosley convertible.

Prescient about the value of small, lightweight cars when Detroit was busy going longer, wider and embracing road hugging weight, Crosley’s cars were true pioneers achieving a number of notable automotive firsts. They made the Farm O Road, Crosley’s take on the jeep concept, and the COBRA engine made up of steel stampings copper brazed together. There’s plenty of history to add interest to the Crosley story. Besides, as small as the Metropolitan is, it’s still about 30% heavier than the truly tiny Crosley station wagon, making the little Nashes worth more at the crusher.


The water pump was run off of a power take off shaft on the back of the generator, which was about half the size of the engine itself.

The brothers weren’t the only family members to appreciate the brand. By 1968, Ronnie and his father Walter had driven Ronnie’s blue and white ’51 Crosley Super station wagon to almost all of the 48 contiguous United States.

 

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The Crosley wagon on a trip to Florida in 1968

In 1992, Ronnie took a 6,000 mile trip with a lady friend from Dearborn to Long Beach and back, via Seattle, to complete the list. The car also took trips to Florida with Kaczmar and his parents. As of last fall, the wagon had 38,300 original miles on the clock.

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Ronnie Kaczmar passed away a few years ago, but his brother Jim continues to operate Kaczmar Crosley. If you’re interested in a properly done Crosley, he’s the person to see. Jim also continues to show his brother’s collection of Crosleys.


The grille spinner/propeller was a Crosley factory accessory.

Jim Kaczmar’s enthusiasm for Crosley cars has probably only been exceeded by that of his brother, but in talking to him at Ypsilanti’s Orphan Car Show, it became obvious to me that, while he clearly has affection for the cars of Powel Crosley, he continues his involvement in the hobby more as a tribute to his brother than to the Crosley brand. At the Orphan Car Show last September, there was a for sale sign on the family’s wagon, listed at $9,800. Checking at Hemmings.com, that looks to be about $3,000 over market, but I don’t think you’ll find a Crosley with better provenance, or a better story.

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I can relate to Jim Kaczmar. My interest in cars was spurred by my own big brother, Jeff, whose ’63 Mini Cooper and ’66 Lotus Cortina forever turned me on to unusual little cars that make going around corners fun. Jeff’s even influenced the stories that I write here at TTAC, providing me with a lead on the history of airbags from when he worked for Eaton, along with my continuing coverage of the Elio Motors startup. One reason why I’m interested in Elio is that they’re trying to make a reverse trike.

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Years ago, when Jeffrey and I were kids designing a go-kart we were building using a scavenged two-stroke lawnmower engine (he designed the frame, I did the steering and brakes), we realized we couldn’t afford all the wheels, tires, bearings, etc to make a live axle in the back. Instead, we opted for a mid-engined reverse trike with a single rear wheel. What we didn’t know was reverse trikes need a forward weight bias to keep both front wheels on the ground when cornering. Elio’s trike is front wheel drive with the motor up front. Unlike the go-kart Jeff and I made, the Elio doesn’t lift the inside tire a foot off of the ground on a hard turn. But I still think of my brother whenever I write about Elio.

Photography by Ronnie Schreiber. For more photos of the vehicle in this post, please go to Cars In Depth.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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How Detroit Invented Traffic Cops, Traffic Lights, No Parking Zones & Towing Your Car http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/04/detroit-invented-traffic-cops-traffic-lights-no-parking-zones-towing-car/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/04/detroit-invented-traffic-cops-traffic-lights-no-parking-zones-towing-car/#comments Tue, 28 Apr 2015 14:30:07 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1054681 Due to advancements such as air bags, driving is much safer than it was when I first got my driver’s license in the early 1970s. Even then, because of seat belts and crush zones, cars were much safer than they had been in the early automotive age. The first decades of the automobile resulted in chaotic […]

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Woodward Avenue: "Drive Safely, Walk Right"

Due to advancements such as air bags, driving is much safer than it was when I first got my driver’s license in the early 1970s. Even then, because of seat belts and crush zones, cars were much safer than they had been in the early automotive age. The first decades of the automobile resulted in chaotic and unsafe driving conditions. Not only were the vehicles themselves dangerous to passengers and pedestrians (three quarters of early motoring related fatalities were pedestrians, often children), in the early days it was a free for all, with the first proposed traffic laws being instituted only after about a decade after the first automobiles. Author Bill Loomis is working on a book on Detroit history and in an extensive article in the Detroit News he discusses just how unsafe driving was a century ago, as well as the role that the Motor City had in making driving safer and less chaotic. Some of those innovations continue to make drivers safe, while others continue to annoy us.

Things we take for granted had to be implemented in the first place; even things as mundane as lane markings. The first centerline on a U.S. road was painted in Michigan in 1911. Before that, people would drive wherever they cared. Cars started to clog cities that weren’t designed with parking in mind, so people would park wherever they wanted to as well, sometimes in the middle of intersections or in front of fire hydrants. The city of Detroit started to use equipment designed to mark lines on tennis courts to paint lane dividers, crossings, safety zones and no parking zones, issuing citations to violators.

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The Ferndale crow’s nest when it was operational. Note the warning to pedestrians to “walk right”. Pedestrians made up about 75% of early traffic fatalities.

Traffic control devices, called Street Semaphores, were first implemented in Detroit. Developed by Cleveland inventor Garrett Morgan (who also invented the gas mask), they were manually operated red and green signs, later fitted with with red and green lights, controlled by a traffic patrolman in a crow’s next above the street. In the 1920s, the Street Semaphores were replaced with automatically operating stop lights, with the first automated traffic light being installed at the intersection of John R. St. and East Grand Blvd. in 1922. Around that time, a yellow light was added to the mix to alert drivers of an impending red light. (By the way, the motivation for switching to traffic lights wasn’t so much safety as saving money. The automated lights cost 10% of what it cost to man a Street Semaphore crow’s nest.)

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A different view of the same crow’s nest. Note the street car lines on Woodward Ave.

To commemorate the Street Semaphores, Ferndale, Michigan installed a sculpture of one of the traffic crow’s nests near where one had been installed in 1920 at the intersection of Woodward Ave and Nine Mile Road. When Woodward was widened in 1928, that crow’s nest was replaced with an automated traffic light, but it was fondly remembered in Ferndale. Artist Shan Sutherland, who received his MFA in metalsmithing from the Detroit area Cranbrook Academy of Art, based his reproduction on historic photographs. The traffic signal is “manned” by a bust of a Ferndale police officer sculpted by Anne Sutherland, the artist’s mother.

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A traffic control crow’s nest on Detroit’s West Grand Blvd, with the General Motors Building in the background. By the 1920s, automated electric traffic lights had replaced semaphores, but traffic cops, another Detroit innovation, were still needed.

Traffic lights weren’t the only traffic control device invented in Detroit. In 1911, the city was the first to implement one-way streets as a way of improving traffic flow and making commercial deliveries easier. The first stop sign in the United States was installed in Detroit a century ago in 1915. It had black letters against a white background. In the 1920s, the familiar octagon shape was standardized by national committees (though for decades stop signs were yellow, not changing to red until the 1950s).

Today, some states and cities have traffic lanes restricted to high occupancy vehicles or hybrid cars. That concept was presaged in the Motor City with an idea called “channelizing” streets, allowing only particular kinds of vehicles, like delivery vans or taxi cabs, on particular streets.

Detroit was the first city to have specific traffic cops, with a quarter of 1914’s thousand member Detroit Police Dept being assigned to traffic duty, and it was the second municipality, after New York City, to establish traffic courts.

Even with traffic cops and traffic courts, illegal parking continued to plague Detroit. James Couzens had been the business manager of the Ford Motor Company from its founding until he got sick and tired of working for Henry Ford in 1913. For a $10,000 investment in FoMoCo, Couzens was eventually paid $38 million. After he retired from Ford, he went into politics, first becoming Detroit mayor and then a U.S. senator. As mayor in 1917, Couzens proposed dealing with illegal parking with what he called “intensive disciplinary training”. Within half a year, the newly organized Detroit Towing Squad had towed almost 11,000 cars to a city owned vacant lot. Couzens, a pretty smart guy later said, “This proved to be something of a shock to the thoughtless and careless, but it proved effective.”

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Whatizit? Shoulda Known Myron Vernis Had Something to do With It http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/whatizit-shoulda-known-myron-vernis-something/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/whatizit-shoulda-known-myron-vernis-something/#comments Thu, 26 Mar 2015 16:00:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1028081 But of course! While researching this post I discovered that a previous owner of its subject is actually someone that I know, Myron Vernis. I featured his Mazda Cosmo and Toyota Sports 800 in a post on last year’s Eyes On Design show. Myron owns what has to be the world’s finest collection of oddball cars so […]

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Full gallery here

Full gallery here

But of course! While researching this post I discovered that a previous owner of its subject is actually someone that I know, Myron Vernis. I featured his Mazda Cosmo and Toyota Sports 800 in a post on last year’s Eyes On Design show. Myron owns what has to be the world’s finest collection of oddball cars so the fact that this literally unique vehicle ended up in his hands came as no surprise.

The research that ended up  with a phone call from Vernis started with a post by Jason Torchinsky over at Jalopnik, the second in a series of articles asking readers to identify relatively obscure motor vehicles simply from a photo of the drivetrain. Like many of Torch’s ideas, it’s clever and I’m not saying that just because we tend to write about similar topics. Well, maybe a little, but he’s one of the writers over there whose stuff I try not to miss.

A lot of manufacturer’s engines have ended up in smaller companies’ products so there is some challenge to the game. So far his two photographic riddles have involved the 1951 Tempo Matador commercial van and the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine. Both of those vehicles happen to be powered by air-cooled VW Beetle engines.

That reminded me of another unusual car with an air-cooled flat four, one that I’d personally photographed at the Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti a few years back. At first I was just going to email Torchinsky a photo to suggest that he’d really stump his audience with it, since this is a one of of a kind car. Then I thought to myself, why should I give Jason content for free when I can get paid for it here not entertain some of own readers here at TTAC instead of helping another site’s traffic?

So what do you think it is? The answer is after the next break.

Photo courtesy of Myron Vernis. Photo credit: Wolfgang Blaube

Photo courtesy of Myron Vernis. Photo credit: Wolfgang Blaube

It’s a Gregory, a one-off project of Ben F. Gregory, an American pioneer in front wheel drive automobiles and the creator of the Vietnam War era M-422 Mighty Mite four wheel drive mini-truck. Small and of light weight so it could be transported and dropped by aircraft, 5,000 of the aluminum intensive M-422s were made by American Motors for the U.S. Marines. Ben seems to have been a bit of a character as well.

Benjamin F. Gregory was born in Missouri in 1890 and lived most of his life in the Kansas City area where he operated one of America’s first commercial air services along with a flight training school. He took his first flight in 1913 but didn’t really gain an interest in aviation for a few years.

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After his discharge from the Army following World War One, he began a lifelong interest in automotive design, particularly front wheel drive. Per Griff Borgeson’s The Golden Age of the American Racing Car, between 1918 and 1922 Gregory assembled ten or so front-wheel-drive automobiles, approximately contemporaneously with the development of the Citroen Traction Avant in Europe and a year or so before the first of racing pioneer Harry Miller’s FWD race cars. Apparently Gregory paid for those experimental front drive cars by barnstorming a track racer powered by a Hispano-Suiza airplane engine.

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Ben Gregory and his eponymous sports car

Attending an American Legion air show in 1920 got him interested in flying again, not as a just as a hobby, but as a business. By 1921 he was flying a three seater plane, offering passengers a seven minute flight for $5. That was a lot of money in the 1920s but then flying was a very novel experience then. He flew more than a half million passengers,  using the slogan, “Fly With Ben”.

In 1930, Gregory upgraded to the first of what would be five Ford trimotors, with a top speed of 90 mph and capable of carrying 13 passengers. I don’t know if the “mile high club” existed back then, but Gregory did perform marriage ceremonies, as captain of the ship, for at least 90 couples while aloft. Ever the promoter, Gregory mounted $15,000 worth of lights and smoke machines to do nighttime meteorite imitations, and nicknamed the plane “The Ship From Mars”.

He had a bit of luck, too, surviving seven plane crashes, including three of his Trimotors. He was too old to be a military pilot during World War II, but he contributed to the war effort flying commercially until a serious crash put him out of commercial aviation. He continued to fly as a hobby, though.

Returning to his passion for automobiles and inspired by the wartime jeep, Gregory, in 1946, started work on what became the M422 Mighty Mite, a lighter, smaller version of the same concept. He incorporated MARCO, the Mid-America Research Corporation and hired a number of the engineers who worked for Bantam designing the original jeep. MARCO debuted the MM100 in 1950. It had an aluminum body, sat on a tiney 64.5 inch wheelbase and it was powered by a 52 hp, 1.5 liter flat four made by Porsche. It had a novel suspension, independent all around, using swing arms and cantilevered quarter elliptical springs at each corner. Both front and rear ends had differentials with aluminum cases as well as inboard brakes.

Helicopters came into their own during the Korean War and the Marine Corps was interested in a jeep-like vehicle that was light enough to be airlifted into battle by the rotary wing aircraft. The USMC was impressed with how well the MM100 performed in their tests and they wanted to go forward with the project, but only if the Porsche engine was replaced with something sourced in America. In 1954, Gregory turned turn the fledgling American Motors, which was working on it’s own air-cooled V4. AMC started building what was called the M422 in 1960. However, the production run was short, some say less than 4,000 and no more than 5,000 were built. What happened is that in the ten years between concept and production, helicopters got stronger and could carry a standard jeep.

In the mid 1950s, Gregory devoted himself to building a front wheel drive sports roadster with a tube space frame and a hand formed aluminum body. Road & Track tested it in 1956. Though at first glance you might think that’s air-cooled flat four is from a VW, but if you look closely it’s actually a Porsche engine, capable of 70 horsepower, roughly double the power output of a Vee Dub motor of that time. I’m guessing that the Porsche motor was left over from the MM100 project. That engine sits in front of the front axle, facing in the opposite direction that it would have been in a bathtub Porsche. A transaxle sits behind the engine and drives the front wheels. R&T reported that the 1,925 lb roadster could approach 100 mph. The steering geometry featured center point steering with a vertical pivot. Rzeppa constant velocity joints at the wheel end of the equal length drive axles were housed inside oversized wheel bearings.

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Myron Vernis at the wheel of the Gregory. Full gallery here

Initial plans were to build and sell 20 of the roadsters at a price of $5,000, a considerable sum of money in the mid 1950s. To compare, a 1956 Corvette had a MSRP of $3,120. It’s not clear if the high price was a factor but Gregory never put his car into production. He did, however, drive it regularly for the rest of his life, putting over 300,000 miles on it. After he died in 1974, his widow gave the sports car to his friend John Burnham of Colorado, who raced it and then sold it. When Bob Chinnery saw that the Gregory was part of a collection that was being liquidated he knew that he had to buy it. A former drag racer, he had a small collection of motorcycles and race cars. He knew about the car because Bob Gregory once approached him at his race shop, pointed to Chinnery’s Jaguar XK120 and asked him if he wanted a ride in a “real sports car”. They ended up becoming good friends.

Chinnery planned to restore the car, still in almost completely original condition, but passed away before that could be done. Myron Vernis bought the car from Chinnery’s estate. He told me that it drove well, and had no torque steer because of the equal length half shafts, but that it did steer a little oddly because of the center pivot steering.

When I photographed the car at the 2011 Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti, Michigan, it was in Vernis’ collection, but he’s since sold it to the Lane Museum, which says something about the Myron’s taste and eye as a collector.

Speaking of his collection, I suppose that the next car scheduled to join it could be described as mainstream. When I told him I’m in the middle of writing a review of Dodge’s Scat Pack Challenger, Vernis replied, “Oh, I ordered a Hellcat Charger,” rather matter of factly. Well, not quite so matter of factly. I could hear him grin over the phone. Myron has a sly grin that gives me the impression that he knows how it all works. “I wanted the Charger because it has four doors,” he explained. What could be more mainstream than a four door Dodge?

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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The Last Emperor: 1983 Chrysler Imperial http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/last-emperor-1983-chrysler-imperial/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/last-emperor-1983-chrysler-imperial/#comments Sun, 22 Mar 2015 14:00:46 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1026785 It was the late 1970s. Following the oil crisis in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Japanese automakers were able to go from having a foothold on the west coast to being major players in the domestic American market. In 1976, Honda introduced the first generation Accord, a revolutionary package that combined outstanding […]

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Full gallery here

Full gallery here

It was the late 1970s. Following the oil crisis in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Japanese automakers were able to go from having a foothold on the west coast to being major players in the domestic American market. In 1976, Honda introduced the first generation Accord, a revolutionary package that combined outstanding fuel economy, front wheel drive, reliability, practicality, sprightly performance and a standard equipment list that included a stereo and air conditioning. At the time, Chrysler was headed by Lee Iacocca and in a changing automotive world, for some reason Iacocca decided that what Chrysler needed was a large personal luxury car. Burton Bouwkamp, who was director of body engineering for Chrysler at the time, recalled his boss barking “Where the hell is our Cadillac/Lincoln entry?” The result was the 1981-83 Chrysler Imperial, the last V8 powered Imperial to be produced.

The decision was made to use the company’s B-body platform, originally developed for the Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet. That what was formerly an intermediate sized mass market middle class car was turned into a luxury car indicates the kind of wrenching upheavals the auto industry went through in the 1970s. By then the B-body had morphed into the Chrysler Cordoba (itself originally planned as a Plymouth) and Dodge Mirada. A design by Steven N. Bollinger from 1977 for a Chrysler with a formal grille and bustle back rear end named the La Scala was pulled down from the shelf and that became the 1981 Imperial. Bustle backed personal luxury cars were big in Detroit in the mid to late 1970s, with Cadillac and Lincoln both offering cars with that styling feature.

Though it was based on the Cordoba, the Imperial was not a case of badge engineering, having unique sheet metal and it’s own interior and instrument panel, an early Detroit experiment with electronic dashboards. Heavier gauge steel was used for some panels and the Imperial got more sound proofing than the Cordoba. Another use of electronics was the fact that the 318 cubic inch V8 powering the Imperial had Chrysler’s first modern electronic fuel injection system (the company experimented with fuel injection back in the 1950s, making it available as an option). Each Imperial, when assembled, also underwent a rigid post-production inspection and quality control check that included a five and a half mile test drive. Other QC checks done on every Imperial also included  a high pressure leak test, electronics check, underbody bolt torque inspection, hot engine testing and front end alignment. The Imperial also came with Chrysler’s best warranty, bumper to bumper for 30,000 miles or two years. They were warrantied against rust for three years. Those short terms seem quaint today when low cost Korean cars come with 100,000 mile warranties but consumers had lower expectations then.

Each imperial also came with a Mark Cross gift set including an umbrella, leather bound folder, a gold and leather key fob and a spare uncut ignition key made with Cartier crystal. A power moonroof was the only option, though customers could choose from wire spoke hubcaps or cast aluminum wheels, and between a cassette player, 8-track unit, or a CB radio. Standard equipment included thermostatic climate control, a built in garage door opener, electrically heated and adjusted rear view mirrors, the aforementioned electronic instrument cluster, power trunk release, 500 amp battery, rear window defroster, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-beam map/dome lights, cruise control, power windows and locks, the extra sound insulation, and a 30-watt stereo.

The electronic dash was Chrysler’s own, designed in their Hunstville, Alabama plant that dated to Chrysler’s participation in the U.S. space program. While the display used some fluorescent tubes, the indicators for washer fluid, oil pressure, engine temperature, door ajar, alternator and brake problems were normal incandescent light bulbs, so the system also included a test for bad bulbs.

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The 1991-93 Imperial also featured an early example of a range indicator and microprocessors controlled displays for speed, time, distance, fuel level and transmission gear. Moving past mere buzzers as warnings, the Imperial featured a spectrum of chimes, beeps and tones to remind drivers about seat belts, or headlights and ignition keys left on.

At a MSRP of $20,988, it was the most expensive production car offered by an American automaker in 1981. However, even at that price, it was a money loser. Some say that each Imperial sold ended up costing Chrysler $10,000 in warranty costs. As was the case with a lot of 1980s vintage electronics, the fuel injection system was not reliable. Complaints and lawsuits followed. Eventually Chrysler supplied dealers with a carburetor kit to replace the EFI. One complainant was apparently Iacocca’s buddy Frank Sinatra, for whom a signature model of the Imperial was made. The way the story goes, Sinatra was driving, perhaps to Vegas, in the car and high voltage transmission lines running next to the highway started to interfere with the fuel injection system. Just 278 of the Frank Sinatra Edition Imperials were made, reflective of the regular model’s lack of success, with less than 13,000 sold over the three years it was offered.

Our colleague Murilee Martin spotted one of the FS Imperials at a San Francisco area junkyard not long ago. While it still had its Glacier Blue paint (to match Ol’ Blue Eyes’ blue eyes), platinum colored carpet, sky blue upholstery, Frank Sinatra emblems, and a custom console for holding the 10 Frank Sinatra audio cassettes that came with the car, the cassettes and their bespoke leather carrying case were gone.

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In time, Iacocca would disclaim that the last real Imperial was his idea, having hired in at Chrysler in 1979, only 18 months before the model’s introduction. He said the car was former CEO John Riccardo’s idea. Iacocca, though, midwifed the Imperial and linked his and his buddy Frank Sinatra’s reputations to the car. J.P. Cavanaugh over at Curbside Classics thinks the embarrassing failure of the last RWD Imperial is the reason why Iacocca and Chrysler spent much of the next two decades churning out low risk variants of the K-car, including the 1990-93 Imperial. They even made a stretch limo on the K platform.

The 1983 Chrysler Imperial pictured here was photographed at the 2014 Sloan Museum Auto Fair in Flint, Michigan. The owner wasn’t near the car so I couldn’t check on it’s originality, but based on the dealer stickers that are still on the rear valence, my guess is that it’s a pristine survivor, not a restoration. It’s a great looking car (well, for the era) that didn’t give up anything to Cadillac and Lincoln in the looks department, even if its iffy electronics make it a poster child for the malaise era.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Heritage Cuts Both Ways http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/heritage-cuts-ways/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/heritage-cuts-ways/#comments Sun, 15 Mar 2015 13:00:07 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1015466 An old friend ran the Aragon Ballroom back in the days when it was Chicago’s version of Bill Graham’s Fillmores. He told me that contemporary rock bands that didn’t know any better would insist on being higher on the bill than Sha-Na-Na. After all, Sha-Na-Na was an oldies act, with gold lame suits and greaser […]

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Gallery links below

Gallery links below

An old friend ran the Aragon Ballroom back in the days when it was Chicago’s version of Bill Graham’s Fillmores. He told me that contemporary rock bands that didn’t know any better would insist on being higher on the bill than Sha-Na-Na. After all, Sha-Na-Na was an oldies act, with gold lame suits and greaser shtick. Sha-Na-Na, however, were great entertainers and they would kill the audience. Bowser would come to the edge of the stage, spit something out about “f’in hippies” and by the end of the set the hippies would be dancing in the aisles. The musicians who insisted on higher billing would afterwards insist on never following Sha-Na-Na again. Sometimes, though, following a great act can inspire greatness too, as when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones reluctantly followed James Brown on the TAMI Show. Performing music or introducing new cars, you don’t want to be upstaged and if you do happen to follow your inspirations, you had better be inspired.

Car companies like to bask in the reflected glory of previous accomplishments of their firms, even if those accomplishments might have been a generation, or a century, ago. That explains why automakers will bring out historical examples of their nameplates to auto shows. At the Detroit show, the new Alfa Romeo 4C Spyder at its official world introduction shared the stage with two prewar Alfa racers and a Tipo 33 Stradale. Also at the NAIAS, Honda had their first car to win in Formula One, their RA272, which won the Mexican Grand Prix in 1965 with R. Ginther at the wheel. A month later, at the Chicago auto show, the wall behind the Toyota display had archival photos of historic vehicles from the company and on the show floor there was a 2000GT. The Stradale, F1 Honda and 2000GT are great examples of what their makers have done in the past, but the problem with bringing them out for an auto show is that people may benchmark what you currently sell against them, if not literally, than certainly emotionally. Also, they can overshadow and distract from the new products that are being revealed.

While the Alfa Romeo 4C seems to charm most who drive it, the Type 33 Stradale is one of the great Alfas. The Stradale has a sensual shape that was one of the major contributors to its era’s automotive aesthetic sensibilities and it’s considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cars ever. Not a few think it’s the most beautiful car ever made. It’s also one of the rarer cars around. A quick check says that only 18 of the roadgoing Stradales were made, each by hand and only 10 are known to still exist.

Not only did FCA and their folks running Alfa in North America risk overshadowing their new product with the Stradale, they compounded the problem by hiring a distractingly beautiful Italian-American model to stand near the 4C coupe and the new Spyder. At both the Detroit and Chicago shows, when I was at the Alfa booth I noticed that photographers were taking photos of her and the Stradale more than of the new Alfa Romeos.

beautifulitalians_l_r

Soichiro Honda was a racer by heart and when it was still generally regarded as the maker of 50-90cc motorbikes, the Honda company raced and succeeded at the highest level of automotive motorsports, demonstrating to themselves an to anyone who bothered noticing that Honda was an engineering force to be reckoned with. 2015 is the 50th anniversary of that racing success, which explains why Honda had the F1 car on display.

Dario Franchitti, who drove Honda powered Indycars before his retirement had the opportunity to drive the RA272 at the Motegi circuit in Japan. He says that the transversely mounted 48 valve 1.5 liter V12 “probably has the best sound of any car I’ve even driven, or heard.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

That F1 car up on the Honda stand may have been too distracting. Even though I spent time in the Honda display taking more than a dozen photos of the Ginther race car (and as you can see in the photos, I wasn’t the only one shooting the F1 car) I can’t tell you, offhand, exactly what vehicles Honda introduced at the Detroit show (it was the FCV fuel cell car).

At the Chicago Auto Show, Toyota’s press conference was mostly about special editions of the Avalon, Camry and Corolla, said to be influenced by Toyota’s sportier S trim lines. Our editors here have discussed how a post on the Camry will get substantially more traffic and comments than one on a desired-by-enthusiasts performance car. Also, my friend Mr. Baruth has pointed out that a properly equipped Camry can scoot pretty good on the road and on the track. Those things may be so, but you’ll have to excuse me if I believe that all of your reading this post who aren’t currently in the market for an Avalon, Camry or Corolla or one of their competitors would walk right past those special editions to get a look at the 2000GT. Again, you can see in the photos that there were photographers, whose job it was to take photos of new products, hanging around the heritage car, not the new reveals.

The headline says that heritage cuts both ways, so I suppose I should give an example of heritage done right at an auto show. One of the unqualified hits of the Detroit show was the new Ford GT. At the 2015 NAIAS in Detroit, the Ford stand was laid out so that before you saw that new GT on it’s turntable, you walked past examples of Ford’s and the GT’s heritage, a 2005 Ford GT and the car that inspired both that and the new GT, a roadgoing 1965 version of the LeMans winning Ford GT40.

When you talk about automotive rock stars, the GT40 is right up there. In the long run it’s even a more important and better known car than the Alfa Stradale, certainly among North American car enthusiasts, so I suppose that Ford was taking a greater risk of overshadowing their new car than Alfa was. However, people poured right past the GT40 and the new GT’s 2005 older brother as they thronged around Ford’s new sail-paneled supercar at the NAIAS. A month later, the new GT was one of the hits of the Chicago Auto Show, a relatively rare occurrence for a car that already had debuted elsewhere. I guess I could say that means that the new Ford GT is indeed inspired.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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A Car So Personal Virgil Exner Named It After Himself, the Plymouth XNR http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/car-personal-virgil-exner-named-plymouth-xnr/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/car-personal-virgil-exner-named-plymouth-xnr/#comments Mon, 15 Dec 2014 13:00:56 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=949705 In the late 1950s, when Chrysler executives asked Virgil Exner Sr to show them what could be done with a highly personalized future car for the popularly priced Plymouth brand, the Chrysler design chief took them at their word and came up with something so personal that he named it XNR, after himself. One of a […]

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Full gallery here

Full gallery here

In the late 1950s, when Chrysler executives asked Virgil Exner Sr to show them what could be done with a highly personalized future car for the popularly priced Plymouth brand, the Chrysler design chief took them at their word and came up with something so personal that he named it XNR, after himself. One of a series of Chrysler Corp show cars built by Ghia in Italy, the XNR was based on the compact Valiant chassis. Unlike many of the other Exner-Ghia concepts that featured Mopar’s marquee motor, the Hemi, the XNR is powered by a souped up version of what would in time become venerable but what was then a new engine, the Slant Six. With its asymmetrical and quirky styling, the little speedster is quite an interesting car, but its provenance, which includes being both Exner’s and the Shah of Iran’s personal vehicles and surviving a Mideast civil war, is even more interesting.

As with Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job and Bill Mitchell’s Stingray, two concept cars that were also their designer’s personal rides, Exner designed himself a sporty open car. Some call it a roadster but speedster seems more appropriate since as far as the sources indicate, it never had any kind of roof, hardtop or soft.

Sports cars are generally not as big as sedans so the XNR was fabricated on an altered Valiant chassis with a 106.5″ wheelbase and it’s torsion bar suspension up front.  The relatively high-revving Slant Six, in its original 170 cubic inch displacement, earned its name because it lays 30 degrees from upright. One of the XNR’s inspirations were the “lay-down” Watson Indy racers whose Offenhauser engines were also canted over. The Slant Six allowed for the XNR’s sleek hood. With a four barrel carburetor, the 170 CI engine was good for 250 horsepower and as assembled with a manual 3 speed transmission with a floor shifter, the XNR saw 146 mph on the Chrysler test track. Eager to see the 150 mph mark, Exner had engineer Dick Burke design and build a “shark nose” mouth for the front end with a shrouded radiator cooled by electric fans. The modified XNR reached 153 mph at the company proving grounds. The Slant Six’s 6 into 1 exhaust manifold was replaced by a custom cast header with two outlets, one for each of the visible side pipes, both of them mounted, again asymmetrically, on the driver’s side. In addition to the bigger carb and special tuned exhaust system, the Slant Six in the XNR was fitted with a Hyperpak tuned ram intake manifold, a ported cylinder head, special cam and special pistons.

Polarizing in its day and still a bit radical, the XNR has an asymmetrical design. A chrome bumper flush to the sheet metal surrounds a drilled grille inset with quad headlamps, a touch that seems to me to be inspired by trends in the custom car world at the time. An offset scoop, with its own matching drilled grille, dominates the hood and the lines of that scoop fair into the cowl and driver’s windshield and then flow elegantly into a single offset fin that Virgil Exner Jr. a successful car designer in his own right, said was inspired by the Jaguar D-Type. Nominally a two-seater, the passenger was protected by a flat, Brooklands style windshield. When not carrying two, that screen folded down and an aerodynamic and snug fitting steel tonneau was installed to cover the passenger seat. In keeping with the asymmetry theme, and perhaps as a nod towards aerodynamics, the passenger seat sits four inches lower than the driver’s seat. The shape of the wheel wells and winglet fenders would later show up on the production Valiant. Exner neatly tucked possibly aircraft-inspired running lights under the front winglets.

An elegant styling touch is the way the bladed rear bumper incorporates a vertical element that is integrated into the car’s monofin. That vertical element is mirrored by one that drops below the bumper line. The resulting star shape is eye catching to say the least.

After Exner and his team did sketches in 1958 and the following year, a 3/8ths scale clay model was sculpted in Detroit. That model and the modified Valiant unibody was shipped to Ghia in Turin. Ghia and Chrysler had a very successful relationship in the 1950s, with the Italian coachbuilder fabricating most of the company’s high profile concept cars. As was Ghia’s practice with those Chrysler “idea cars”, the XNR’s body was made of hand formed steel.

While Chrysler hype that the car might see production was typical of the day, the XNR was fully engineered and featured a complete black leather interior. While there was a small trunk lid in back, it was easier to access storage for luggage from behind the seats. Instrumentation reflected Exner’s passion for photography, with dial covers that mimic camera lenses.

Once built, the XNR was shipped to the United States where it went on the show circuit, appearing on Road & Track’s cover. Exner drove it as much as he could but after it was no longer needed as a show car prohibitive customs tariffs meant that it had to either be crushed or returned to Italy to Carrozzeria Ghia. “My dad wanted to buy it,” Exner Jr. says, “but if it had stayed in the U.S., it would have to have been destroyed.”

That’s where the story gets interesting. A man from Switzerland, variously identified by the sources as either a businessman or a butcher, bought the XNR from Ghia. He sold it to a man named Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, a Persian collector of rare automobiles better known as the Shah of Iran. The Shah was still ensconced on the Peacock Throne when he sold it to a Kuwaiti, as evidenced by a May 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine that had a photograph of the XNR representing Kuwait’s affluence. It was sold again in the early 1970s to a Lebanese collector. To protect the one of a kind vehicle, the owner hid it in an underground garage for the duration of the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1991.

Karim Edde is a personable Lebanese man who started collecting cars when he was just 15 years old, in 1977,  inheriting the hobby from his father. Trying to find classic sports during a civil war proved to be a challenge. By the ’80s Edde was paying local teenagers in Beirut “…go on their scooters to search the underground garages in the upscale areas—I was looking for Ferraris—and one day, they were all excited about a ‘weird’ car they’d found in a garage just 200 meters from my home. I recognized the XNR from a Swiss book I owned called Dream Cars.”

Though there was a war raging, Edde immediately bought the XNR. That presented him with another challenge: how to keep it safe during the conflict. “I hid the XNR in an underground warehouse,” he told RM Auctions, “that seemed safe at the time, but when the conflict became more global, I had to move it to a different location. In fact, the last two years of the war were so bad, I had to move the car many times to save it from destruction. We had no flat bed trucks, so we used long arm tow trucks to lift the car and put it on a truck and move it around. It was a delicate operation, but we had no choice, we had to move the car to safer locations. After the war ended, the car waited patiently for me to find a restorer that could bring back its past glory.”

Eventually, Edde decided on using RM’s restoration subsidiary in Ontario, Canada, which started work on a two year restoration in the spring of 2009. The car was finished in time for the 2011 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, where it won best in class.

Restoring a one-off car can be harder than doing a similar quality job on a production vehicle. Mario Van Raay, general manager of RM Restoration says, “When we received the XNR in 2008, the body shell was intact and, considering its history, in surprisingly good condition. Many original parts accompanied the XNR, but our greatest challenge was the re-creation of the missing components. Considering that this was a concept car, there was incredible attention to detail, right down to the fine leather interior, beautiful instrument cluster, and custom built hubcaps. Each hubcap was comprised of 35 individual metal pieces. We had to completely scratch-build those hubcaps. Because of the extensive information and many high quality photos available, we could not take any liberties when re-manufacturing all these components. They had to be exact.”

The restoration was aided immensely by access to Virgil Exner Sr’s archive of documentation for the XNR, provided by his son.

Edde put the XNR up for auction in 2012 (again through the RM organization) where it sold for $935,000 to Paul Gould, a New York investment banker. Gould also owns another Exner/Ghia concept car, the Dart Diablo. Both cars were on display at the 2014 Concours of America at St. John’s, which was honoring Virgil Exner Sr as the show’s “featured designer”. In addition to the two concepts an entire class at the concours was devoted to Exner era Mopars.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Forward Look Fargo (and Sweptside Dodge): Trucks With Fins http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/forward-look-fargo-sweptside-dodge-trucks-fins/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/forward-look-fargo-sweptside-dodge-trucks-fins/#comments Fri, 12 Dec 2014 15:17:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=958945 By 1957, not only had Ford and Chevy brought modern styling to their traditional pickup truck lines but Ford had also introduced the Ranchero car based pickup and Chevy featured the Cameo Carrier, a conventional pickup that sported many automobile styling trends. Dodge’s trucks, in comparison, were starting to look a bit dowdy. The solution […]

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Full gallery here

Full gallery here

By 1957, not only had Ford and Chevy brought modern styling to their traditional pickup truck lines but Ford had also introduced the Ranchero car based pickup and Chevy featured the Cameo Carrier, a conventional pickup that sported many automobile styling trends. Dodge’s trucks, in comparison, were starting to look a bit dowdy. The solution was to create the Sweptside pickup, with tailfins that emulated Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner Sr’s “Forward Look”, which fully flowered in the ’57 model year. One could be forgiven for assuming that the Sweptside Dodge and the nearly identical Fargo trucks sold in Canada were the product of Exner’s design studio. That wasn’t the case. Supposedly “Ex” wasn’t even interested in restyling the  trucks. In fact the Sweptside pickups had nothing to do with Chrysler’s design team. They were the result of a parts-bin project of Joe Berr, the head of Dodge’s Special Equipment Group.

The Special Equipment Group was something akin to General Motor’s Central Office Production Order, or COPO system that resulted in some legendary limited production muscle cars. Dodge’s group was tasked with modifying production trucks for fleet customers or even individual customers, and the SEG had the power to make whatever changes in a vehicle it wanted to, even going over the heads of factory engineers. The only condition was that operator or passenger safety could not be compromised.

When Chrysler brass wanted Dodge, then ranked #5 in pickup sales with just 7% of the market, to sell a more stylish truck, Berr came up with a clever plan. He procured the finned quarter panels from a 1957 Dodge two door station wagon and had them welded to the fenders of  a cargo bed for the recently designed long wheelbase half ton pickup. The wagon’s rear bumper was also used, and they modified the truck tailgate so it wouldn’t interfere with the new fenders. Unique chrome trim was added to tie it all together and the result was spiffed up with a contemporary two tone paint job and whitewall tires.

When the prototypes were shown to Dodge dealers they demanded the Sweptside go into production but it never sold well. The conversions were essentially done by hand, not on an assembly line. For 1958, the feature was made available in Fargo trim. About 2,000 D100 Sweptside Dodges and Fargos were made during the 1957, 1958 and 1959 model years, though the number of Canadian models produced was miniscule, reportedly only 11 trucks. The Sweptsides were not particularly practical work trucks since the beds were narrower than on non Sweptside models. Production ended in January of 1959

The fins weren’t the only way the Forward Look was applied to pickups. The front fenders were reshaped to duplicate the hooded headlamps on the Forward Look cars and chrome trim was added to accentuate that look. The old fashioned two piece center hinged hood was replaced with a contemporary one piece hood. To go with the more modern look, Dodge trucks also offered an automatic transmission for the first time in 1957.

While conventional 1950s Dodge pickups are a relative bargain when compared to the escalating prices on ’50s Ford and Chevy trucks, that’s not true of the Sweptside models. Also, with only a couple thousand that were made, there are few survivors today. Sweptside enthusiasts estimate that about 165 still exist, about half of them 1957 models. Their rarity and visual distinction has made them very collectible so if you want a truck with fins, be prepared to peel off quite a few “fins” from your bankroll.

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If you love the Sweptside look but can’t afford a full size example, Danbury Mint made a model of the 1957 Dodge. They’re usually red and white, the most popular color combination on the 1957-59 Sweptline, but Danbury also issued them in green and white as well. You might also be able to find the Christmas tree ornament that Hallmark released a few years ago that features a Dodge Sweptline with a tree in the bed. The Hallmark truck is small enough that if you want to, you could display it in the bed of the Danbury edition. Then you’d have something really meta to put on the air cleaner at auto shows should you buy a real Sweptside.

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These two trucks, both of them from the 1958 model year, were photographed at the Concours of America at St. John’s, as part of that show’s Jet Age Pickup Trucks class.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Bugatti Royale: The Most Magnificent Car In The World? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/bugatti-royale-magnificent-car-world/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/bugatti-royale-magnificent-car-world/#comments Thu, 27 Nov 2014 18:30:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=951737 Our friends over at Jalopnik ran a post on cars so important to you that you’d make a pilgrimage to see them. I really can’t quibble with the ten *cars that made their final cut, mostly because I’ve seen and photographed three of them myself, a Chrysler Turbine Car, the Gulf Oil liveried Ford GT40 that twice […]

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Full gallery here

Full gallery here

Our friends over at Jalopnik ran a post on cars so important to you that you’d make a pilgrimage to see them. I really can’t quibble with the ten *cars that made their final cut, mostly because I’ve seen and photographed three of them myself, a Chrysler Turbine Car, the Gulf Oil liveried Ford GT40 that twice won at LeMans, and a Bugatti Royale. Now fortunately for me, my pilgrimage to see those cars didn’t involve crossing an ocean or getting on an airplane. It was more like getting on the Southfield freeway and driving 20 minutes to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearbon, Michigan. The museum is surely pilgrimage-worthy as it owns one of the eight extant Chrysler Turbines, one of the six Bugatti Royales that were made, and for a while the 1968-69 LeMans winner was in the museum’s Racing In America exhibit while the 1967 LeMans winning Ford Mk IV was being repaired. We recently looked at the Mk IV and not long ago featured the Gulf colored GT40, plus the Chrysler Turbine cars are pretty well known, so this is a good opportunity to talk about the Bugatti Royale.

Click here to view the embedded video.


Start the video and click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats

There are cars that are special. If you get a chance to see a Duesenberg Model J with your own eyes, you immediately understand why “It’s a Duesey!” became an idiom for supreme excellence. Likewise, a Cord 810, so low slung and radical for its day, will grab your eyes when sitting a midst the Packards and Cadillacs of that era. The same is true of the 1956 Continental Mark II, considered one of the most beautiful cars ever made, hand assembled with visible build quality. Any one of those cars could be the centerpiece of a magnificent car collection, so it takes a superbly magnificent automobile to make a Duesenberg, a Cord and a Continental look almost ordinary, a little less special. The Ford museum’s Bugatti Royale sits right next to those illustrious automobiles and it does exactly that. Duesenbergs are large, impressive cars, but it’s possible that when the word massive was coined, it was waiting for the Royale to illustrate its dictionary entry. It’s not just big, it is a beautiful and stunning piece of human creation.

Ferraris have a prancing horse. Bugattis have a prancing elephant, sculpted by Ettore Bugatti's brother, Rembrandt Bugatti. Full gallery here.

Ferraris have a prancing horse. Bugattis have a dancing elephant, sculpted by Ettore Bugatti’s brother, Rembrandt Bugatti. Full gallery here.

Ettore Bugatti planned to build 25 Royales, also known as the Type 41, hoping to sell them, as the name indicated, to royalty. Unfortunately for Bugatti, the Great Depression had depressed the market for $30,000 automobiles, a bit more than a half million 2014 U.S. dollars. By comparison, when the Ford V8 was introduced in 1932 it’s starting price was $495. Henry Ford sold over 300,000 cars in 1932. Ettore Bugatti ended up making only 6 Royales and while ’32 Fords are indeed some of the most collectible cars you’ll find, the Bugatti Royale takes collectible a few quantum leaps higher.

Of those six Royales, two of them are in the French national automobile museum, the confiscated Schlumpf brothers’ collection. Volkswagen, which owns the Bugatti brand, owns a third. A fourth is in a private collection in Switzerland and the fifth is part of the Blackhawk collection. So if you want to see a Bugatti Royale, you’re going to have to go to either Europe or California… or Detroit. Well, properly speaking Dearborn. As mentioned, the Henry Ford Museum’s Driving America exhibit contains a number of great and historically significant cars, but the jewel in the collection has to be Bugatti chassis no. 41-121, known as the Cabriolet Weinberger. 41-121 has a colorful history, traveling all around the world before ending up in Dearborn.

Ordered for his personal use by Dr. Joseph Fuchs, a German who was successful at both his vocation, medicine, and his avocation, racing cars. Delivered in 1931, Dr. Fuchs contracted with the Weinberger coachbuilding company of Munich to body the the 169.3-inch wheelbase chassis. He took delivery the following year.

Soon after Adolph Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany and the Nazis came to power in 1933, Fuchs first went to Switzerland before traveling on to Shanghai, China, then a pretty wide open city. When considering refugees from the Nazis and their connection to Shanghai, one might conclude that Dr. Fuchs may have been Jewish, but none of my research indicates that he was other than a German who didn’t like the Nazis.

Fuchs had the massive car shipped to China but in 1937, with imperial Japanese soldiers advancing in the south of China he left Asia for North America, first moving to Canada and then to New York City. The winter of 1937-38 was a cold one in the Big Apple and the block for the model J’s 12.7 liter straight eight engine froze up and cracked. After unsuccessfully trying to sell it the car was sold for scrap to a junkyard in the Bronx.

One of the things that made Bugattis advanced for their day was the extensive use of aluminum. Amazingly, the aluminum intensive car survived early World War II era scrap drives.

In 1943, Charles Chayne, the chief engineer for Buick and one of the pioneers of the car collecting hobby, found out about the junkyard Bugatti and bought it, shipping it back to Detroit. Following the end of hostilities, in 1946 he started to repair the engine and restore the Bugatti in general, finishing it the following year.

Today we’d call it a restomod because Chayne wanted it to be a driver, not a museum piece. He replaced the original single carburetor with four Stromberg units mounted on a custom intake manifold (possibly of his own design). For all of his advanced ideas, Ettore Bugatti was set in his ways and he never stopped using mechanically activated brakes (Henry Ford also was a fan of mechanical brakes). To drive the car safely Chayne had the braking system swtiched to hydraulics. The car’s original black finish was repainted in oyster white, with a contrasting dark character stripe featuring Chayne’s monogram on the door. A tall man, Chayne also modified the interior to fit him better.

Charles and Esther Chayne donated the Bugatti Royale Weinberger Cabriolet to the Henry Ford Museum in late 1950s. For most of the time since then it’s been on static display but seven years ago the museum hired Classic & Exotic Services, a high end Detroit area restoration shop to get it running so it could be driven onto the show field at the Meadow Brook Concours (now the Concours of America at St. John’s).

Many people who have never visited the Henry Ford Museum are under the mistaken impression that its transportation collection must focus on Ford automobiles. While there certainly are many historically significant Fords, it’s a well curated museum that gives credit wherever it is due. If you make an automtive pilgrimage to the Dearborn museum, you’ll see marques from around the world of cars and trucks, so it shouldn’t surprise you that one of biggest stars of Henry Ford’s museum’s collection is a French masterpiece with Buick connections.

*The top ten pilgrimage cars post at Jalopnik lists a Type 57 Bugatti as being at the Henry Ford Museum, but something must have gotten lost in translation because the commenter credited with making that suggestion actually mentioned the Bugatti Royale at the Ford museum, not a Type 57 (you can see a Type 57 Bugatti that was a best-of-show winner at Amelia Island in 2012 here). As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Henry Ford Museum does not have a Type 57 in its collection. Also, the Jalopnik article says that you can see the 1968-69 LeMans winning Gulf livery Ford GT40 at the Henry Ford Museum but, as was pointed out in a recent TTAC post and mentioned above, that car was on temporary loan to the Henry Ford while the museum’s own 1967 LeMans winning Gurney/Foyt Ford Mk IV was being repaired and preserved. Now that the Mk IV has been fixed, the Gulf liveried car has been returned to its owner.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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A Man Who Wears the Texaco Star and the Man Behind the Jingle http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/man-wears-texaco-star-man-behind-jingle/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/man-wears-texaco-star-man-behind-jingle/#comments Fri, 07 Nov 2014 14:45:19 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=936074 Brian Saylor has managed to combine two of his passions, old trucks and Texaco memorabilia. You can see him at Detroit area car shows with his Texaco trucks,  Texaco gasoline pump and assorted Texaco merchandise, with Saylor dressed in the uniform that Texaco service station employees would have worn a couple of generations ago. Yes, […]

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Full gallery here

Brian Saylor has managed to combine two of his passions, old trucks and Texaco memorabilia. You can see him at Detroit area car shows with his Texaco trucks,  Texaco gasoline pump and assorted Texaco merchandise, with Saylor dressed in the uniform that Texaco service station employees would have worn a couple of generations ago. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when gas station employees wore uniforms and they actually serviced your car.  They even sang songs about them. Okay, so they were advertising jingles, but I bet most Americans over the age of 50 recognize, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big bright Texaco star.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

About ten years ago Saylor  bought a 1937 Ford dump truck that had been sitting in a Nebraska field for more than a quarter century. It was pretty rough, the engine was seized, but the body was in decent shape and it still had the power-take-off unit that ran the hydraulics for the dump bed. He stripped it down to the frame, which he had sandblasted and powder coated. The truck is a bit of a resto-mod. He was planning on it being a driver, not a trailer queen so he replaced the mechanical brakes (Henry Ford wasn’t a fan of hydraulic brakes so Ford used mechanical linkages for their stoppers well into the 1930s) with a hydraulic system. What was supposed to be a freshly rebuilt flathead V8 turned out to indeed rebuilt but with the rear main bearing installed backwards resulting in another seized engine.

Once that engine was rebuilt again the project picked up steam. On a trip to the big vintage car meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania Saylor saw an old tank truck and got the idea to turn his ’37 Ford into a Texaco fuel oil delivery truck. After some initial testing yielded a top speed of just 40 mph due to the the truck’s 1:6.67 final drive ratio, Saylor retrofitted a full floating rear axle from a 1983 Ford F-350 Super Duty pickup with 3.54 gears.  “Now I can go faster without the engine turning 10,000 rpm,” Sayler quips, though I doubt a Flathead Ford V8 has ever turned 10,000 rpm.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Of course a proper service station back then would have actually done service and repairs and if they did repairs they needed a “parts truck”, something to run to the auto parts store. Towards that role playing end, Saylor’s also restored a 1967 Ford Econoline pickup.

In real life Saylor manages the engineering laboratory of Gabriel shock absorbers, is married to Angie and they have a teenaged son. The Saylors make car shows a family affair, setting up their traveling service station and talking to folks waxing nostalgic.

That hospitality reflects Brian’s roots as a self-professed “southern boy”. Saylor lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida before moving to Michigan in the late 1990s. He told the Ford & Mercury Restorers’ Club bulletin,  “I haven’t lost nor want to lose my southern ways,” though for someone who describes himself as “addicted” to restoring Ford trucks, the move has had its benefits.

A lot cuter than those creepy "Cry baby" dolls people lean on bumpers at car shows.

Whoever’s exceptionally cute and charming child this is*, he’s a lot cuter than those creepy “Cry baby” dolls people lean on bumpers at car shows. Full gallery here

As expected, when they see Saylor, his trucks and his display, a lot of folks mention that old advertising slogan. Many remember the jingle, but few know who created it. Roy Eaton, first at the Young & Rubicam ad agency and later at Benton & Bowles, helped shape mid-century American popular culture and he was responsible for the slogan and the melody of the jingle that accompanied it. The first black man to have a creative role at a major U.S. ad agency, Eaton was also one of the first in the ad business to use jazz music in commercials. In addition to his memorable and catchy jingle for Texaco, he also coined the phrase “Can’t get enough o’ that Sugar Crisp” and it was his idea to have the Sugar Bear character that promoted the cereal effect a Dean Martin persona.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Born in Harlem, Eaton’s father was a mechanic and his mother was a domestic worker who had immigrated from Jamaica. Though he lost part of a finger in an accident when he was three years old, he took up classical piano at the age of six. By his teens he had played Carnegie Hall. Graduating from New York City’s High School of Music and Art, he then completed, simultaneously, degrees from CCNY and the Manhattan School of Music. He won a scholarship to study in Switzerland and upon his return he won a Chopin Award and was awarded a musicology fellowship at Yale.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While in the Army during the Korean War, he wrote and produced programs for Armed Forces Radio. After his discharge, he hired in to Young and Rubicam as a copywriter and composer for jingles. He’s reported to have been responsible for 75% of the music produced at Y&R during the first two years he was at the agency. The companies whose accounts that he worked on are a veritable who’s who of the business world, including Jello, Cheer detergent, Johnson & Johnson, Post cereals, General Electric. Spic and Span and Beech Nut Gum. He didn’t just write the music, he wrote the taglines as well. The music he wrote was contemporary and innovative for the ad business, incorporating themes and sounds from what at the time was considered the modern jazz of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.

Click here to view the embedded video.

In the  late 1950s, after barely surviving an automobile accident killed his new bride and left him seriously injured, Eaton took the job of music director at the Benton & Bowles agency. It was there that he wrote the Sugar Crisp jingle, music for toys like GI Joe and Mr. Potato Head, Yuban coffee and, “Hardee’s, Best Eatin’ in Town”. After staying with that agency for more than three decades, in 1980 he opened his own music production company and returned to the concert stage. An enthsusiast of meditation, his 1986 solo concert, The Meditative Chopin, at Lincoln Center was praised by the New York Times, “The cumulative effect was deeply satisfying. One came much closer to the heart of Chopin—and by extension, to music itself”. He’s performed internationally and recorded albums of the compositions of Chopin, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and others. His own compositions have been on the soundtracks of feature films. On the faculty of his alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music, in 2010 he’s was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Eaton credits his success to a lesson taught by his mother. She told him that in order to succeed in the face of the racial prejudice that was unfortunately common in his youth, he ““needed to do 200% to get credit for 100%”. “So,” Roy says, “that became my lifetime mantra.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

Roy Eaton’s talent for crafting jingles continues to resonate today. A black man from Harlem and a southern boy share a common chord. If it hadn’t been for Eaton’s jingle more than 50 years ago I’m not sure that Brian Saylor would be dressing up as “the man who wears the star” today.

*Photo taken with parents’ permission given in exchange for providing Zayde services.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Henry Ford Paid His Workers $5 a Day So They Wouldn’t Quit, Not So They Could Afford Model Ts http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/henry-ford-paid-workers-5-day-wouldnt-quit-afford-model-ts/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/henry-ford-paid-workers-5-day-wouldnt-quit-afford-model-ts/#comments Mon, 13 Oct 2014 15:35:12 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=926097 Over at Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle, in a post titled “Employees Are Not Your Customers” happens to use one of the more enduring myths of automotive history to prove her point. That myth is that Henry Ford started paying his famous $5 a day wage in 1914 so his employees could afford to buy Model […]

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Over at Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle, in a post titled “Employees Are Not Your Customers” happens to use one of the more enduring myths of automotive history to prove her point. That myth is that Henry Ford started paying his famous $5 a day wage in 1914 so his employees could afford to buy Model Ts. She was using the story as an example to make a specific point so Ms. McArdle doesn’t tell her readers the real reason why Henry started paying a more livable wage. That gives us an excuse to learn some history.

McArdle elucidates:

The other day, I noted in passing that it is arithmetically impossible, except in some bizarre situation with little bearing on the real world, to make money by paying your employees more and thus enabling them to afford your products.

Someone asked me to show my work. So let’s run a simple model based on Henry Ford’s legendary $5-a-day wage, introduced in 1914, which more than doubled the $2.25 workers were being paid.

That’s about $700 a year, almost enough to buy a Ford car (the Model T debuted at $825). Now let’s assume, unrealistically, that the workers devoted their extra wages to buying nothing but Model Ts; as soon as they bought the first one, they started saving for the next.

Is Ford making money on this transaction? No. At best, it could break even: It pays $700 a year in wages, gets $700 back in the form of car sales. But that assumes that it doesn’t cost anything except labor to make the cars. Unfortunately, automobiles are not conjured out of the ether by sheer force of will; they require things such as steel, rubber and copper wire. Those things have to be purchased. Once you factor in the cost of inputs, Ford is losing money on every unit.

But can the company make it up in volume, as the old economist’s joke goes? Perhaps by adding the workers to its customer base, Ford can get greater production volume and generate economies of scale. But Ford sold 300,000 units in 1914; its 14,000 employees are unlikely to have provided the extra juice it needed to drive mass efficiencies.

So if Henry didn’t pay his employees more money so they could afford his automobiles, why did he pay them $5/day? Well, the answer to that question involves another one of those automotive legends.

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That particular myth is that Ford invented the assembly line or, more in a more modest version, he was the first to use an assembly line to build cars.  Henry understood the value of publicity and very early on he started to put together a public relations effort that went far beyond simple advertising. Ford’s publicity machinery cranked out the image of the mechanical and business genius from Dearborn, the farm boy who made it big. I’d be surprised if Ford’s propaganda team didn’t originate the notion that Henry Ford invented the assembly line. In fact, though, Ransom E. Olds was building cars with an assembly line process a decade before Ford moved from the station assembly process to assembly lines. When Ford built the big Highland Park plant in 1910, it used station and sequential assembly processes until 1913.

That’s not to say that Henry Ford wasn’t a manufacturing innovator. Ford’s great contribution to mass production was reducing assembly to the simplest tasks, something a minimally trained person could do. It’s well known that Ford changed the automobile industry from producing luxury cars and toys for the wealthy to making mass market transportation devices. Those luxury cars were often hand-built by skilled craftsmen. In addition to changing what cars were, Henry Ford also changed who made cars, from skilled fabricators and artisans to semi-skilled industrial workers.

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Thousands of job seekers descended upon the Highland Park Ford plant after Henry Ford announced his $5/day wage.

Going to an assembly line process with simplified tasks allowed Ford to massively ramp up production. Production went from 94,662 in 1912 to 224,783 to 1913, the first year of the assembly line. Ford and his lieutenants first use of an assembly line was for putting together the innovative magneto that was a critical component of the Model T. By the time they initiated final assembly on a line, almost the entire Highland Park plant was using that process for subassemblies. That way they worked out the kinks in the process.

Ford’s assembly lines  along with Ford’s embrace of Taylorism (also known as Scientific Management) which included things like timing employees with stopwatches, plus the fact that Henry’s factories, modern as they were in their day, were noisy and dangerous (at the Rouge complex, started in 1916, there was an office tasked with placing employees into jobs who had hitherto been somehow disabled on the job), made working for Ford in 1913 a miserable existence. In 1913, Ford had to employ over 40,000 new hires just to keep 13,000 workers on the job. Even with only minimal training needed, that kind of employee turnover will kill a business model based on productivity, as Henry’s Model T plan was. In order to reduce his employee turnover rate, Ford made the logical decision: pay them more and they won’t quit. It worked.

It’s true, however, that Ford’s increased wages (paid as a bonus, not available to all employees and subject to having their lives spied upon by Henry’s “Social Department”) did ultimately increase the market for inexpensive automobiles. Overnight, the wage floor for automaking in Detroit, already the center of the industry, doubled. In short time $5/day was a standard wage. Still, Megan Mcardle’s point must be stressed, paying your employees enough money to afford your products is no business model. At best it’s transferring money from one pocket to the other while incurring some costs that likely will not offset profits on those sales. While many car companies do offer employee discounts today , those are only possible because of profitable retail and fleet sales.

While Henry Ford may be unfairly credited with inventing the assembly line, he usually doesn’t get any credit for an innovation of his that has made the lives of working men and women much more pleasant, the weekend. Having the weekend off from work is conventionally attributed to organized labor. The labor movement has given workers a lot of things, but not the weekend. That, too, was Henry Ford’s innovation. Originally, Ford employees worked a six day work week, with 9 hour days. That was reduced to five and a half days, with a half day on Saturday. I don’t know if it was Henry’s idea or not, but he finally figured out the math. His business model, as mentioned, was productivity. There are 24 hours in a day and running two 9 hour shifts meant that his factories were sitting idle for 6 hours a day, 2/3rds of a full shift. By going to an eight hour workday and a five day standard work week, Ford was able to run his factories with three shifts, 24 hours a day. Eliminating the half shift on Saturdays meant that, with overtime, FoMoCo plants could run 24/7/365 if he wanted.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think that 3D is a plot to get you to buy yet another new television set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Model T Production Began 106 Years Ago This Month http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/model-t-production-began-116-years-ago-month/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/model-t-production-began-116-years-ago-month/#comments Sun, 12 Oct 2014 15:35:33 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=926113 Sorry for missing an important automotive anniversary, but ’tis the season for those of the Mosaic persuasion. On October 1, 1908,  at least according to some sources*, the first production Model T was assembled at the Ford Piquette Avenue factory, Henry Ford’s second plant for his third, finally successful, automobile company. There are lots of myths about […]

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Full gallery here.

Sorry for missing an important automotive anniversary, but ’tis the season for those of the Mosaic persuasion. On October 1, 1908,  at least according to some sources*, the first production Model T was assembled at the Ford Piquette Avenue factory, Henry Ford’s second plant for his third, finally successful, automobile company. There are lots of myths about Henry Ford. Some of them are actually true, but many are the stuff of legend. For example, people think that the Model T made Henry Ford a wealthy man. Henry was a very wealthy man before he started making the Model T. He was one of the leading automobile producers in the world and he was the leading automaker in Detroit. Ford Motor Company was a success almost from the outset and when Henry hit on the idea of a simple, inexpensive car that folks who weren’t affluent could afford with the Model N and then the Model S, the Model T’s immediate precursors, he was selling thousands of cars a year.

The Ford mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district, and the one up the street built by Ford’s lawyer and investor, Horace Rackham, were constructed in 1907, the year before the Model T was introduced. Henry was a successful man. That success gave him the freedom to develop the ultimate simple and inexpensive car, the Model T. Henry, though, was a big idea man who loved engines and power (in all of its meanings) but he was not the most technically proficient person.

Assembly-Piquette

Oliver Berthel, who designed Ford’s first two racers, the Sweepstakes and 999 cars that predate the Ford Motor Company, and also likely designed the nearly identical first Cadillac automobile and Ford Motor Company’s first car, the 1903 Model A, had first met Ford when the latter was teaching courses on the automobile. Berthel described Ford as an average teacher with similar mechanical skills. He had made himself into the chief operating engineer of the Edison Illuminating company of Detroit, but he had no formal engineering training. Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle was highly dependent on the work of Detroit’s first motorist, Charles Brady King.

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Ford Model N. Full gallery here.

While Henry Ford was no mechanical genius, he had a small number of very good ideas and, more importantly, he was indomitable. I believe that if Ford had genius, that genius was in his ability to identify and hire genuine mechanical and business geniuses with an even rarer talent, the ability to get a megalomaniac to agree with you. Ford surrounded himself with men like Farkas, Galamb, Sorensen, Martin, Wills, and Couzens and it could be argued that they were just as important to the success of the Ford Motor Company as Henry Ford was.

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Ford Model S, the immediate precursor to the Model T. Full gallery here.

Besides being a megalomaniac, Ford quite possibly was dyslexic. When he later sued the Chicago Tribune for libel, he was embarrassed by the jury’s $0.06 judgment in his favor, but even more so, he was humiliated as publisher Robert McCormick’s lawyer showed that not only was he not familiar with many things that had been published in his name, he could barely read. He’s also recorded as favoring wooden models to blueprints. Dyslexic or mostly illiterate, you take your pick. As Farkas, Galamb and Wills developed the Model T in the Piquette plant’s secret “experimental room” at the back of the factory’s third floor, Henry would sit in his rocking chair and his workers would bring him the models for his approval. It was “Spider” Huff, Ford’s riding mechanic in his early racing days, who developed the Model T’s innovative magneto (and likely also invented the porcelain spark plug insulator while developing one of Ford’s racers) and it was C. Harold Wills who introduced Ford to vanadium steel, one of the key ingredients to the success of the T.

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The Experimental Room where Ford and his associates developed the Model T. Full gallery here.

On the Model T’s birthday, I visited its birthplace, the Piquette Avenue plant that is now a museum in progress, to see what changes have taken place since my last visit. The director, Nancy Darga, graciously gave me permission to take the accompanying photos (some are from previous visits since they were setting up for an event hosted by a non-profit – the facility is available for rental so if you’re looking for a way cool venue for a wedding, benefit, or corporate event, I recommend it). Even more graciously Ms. Darga gave me access to Henry Ford’s now reconstructed corner office, which has been furnished to replicate how it looked in a historical photograph taken for the Ford Times publication just before the Model T’s introduction. The desk in the office is a reproduction made by the grandson of Peter Martin, who was Ford’s production manager.

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Unlike just about everyone mentioned above, Peter Martin stayed with Ford Motor Company for his entire career. Henry had few lifelong business associates. Even James Couzens, without whose business acumen and management skills Ford Motor Company would likely have not succeeded in the early days eventually got fed up with being spied upon and resigned, later serving as Detroit mayor and U.S. Senator. Offhand, Charlie Sorenson, Peter Martin, Harry Bennett and Ford’s son Edsel are the only people that I can think of that spent their entire careers in Ford’s employ. Gene Farkas hired in and quit twice before staying on for more than a decade and even he eventually got tired of working for Henry.

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Henry Ford’s restored office at the Piquette Ave plant. Full gallery here.

His employees may have tired of working for him, but Henry Ford is undoubtedly one of the more fascinating personalities in automotive history and it’s hard to get tired of writing about him, his enterprise and his associates. A piece of work for sure, he changed the world. We’d be driving automobiles today whether or not Henry Ford came along, he was just one of many pioneers, but I think the automotive world and the world in general would be a different place without him.

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In the background is a reproduction of the rocking chair where Henry Ford would sit in the experimental room and approve wooden models of proposed Model T components. In the foreground is sculptor and master clay modeler Giuliano Zuccato, who carved the first clay model of the Ford Mustang, and who was shooting a documentary the day I visited the museum.

*The Piquette Ave museum has the date of the first Model T being assembled as Sept. 27, 1908.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think that 3D is a conspiracy to get you to buy yet another new television set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

 

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National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum Opens, Obscures History http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/national-hudson-motor-car-company-museum-opens-obscures-history/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/national-hudson-motor-car-company-museum-opens-obscures-history/#comments Sat, 27 Sep 2014 17:10:13 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=917570 This past weekend, the big annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti was augmented by the grand opening of the National Hudson Motor Car Museum, also in Ypsilanti. While I’m usually excited about the opening of new car museums, though the region is gaining what appears to be a fine, professionally run museum, the development means that you […]

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What it used to look like. Gallery of 2011 Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum photos here.

What it used to look like. Gallery of 2011 Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum photos here.

This past weekend, the big annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti was augmented by the grand opening of the National Hudson Motor Car Museum, also in Ypsilanti. While I’m usually excited about the opening of new car museums, though the region is gaining what appears to be a fine, professionally run museum, the development means that you can no longer see a unique display of automotive history.

What it looks like now. Full gallery here.

What it looks like now. Full gallery here.

The new museum, a project of the National Hudson Essex Terraplane Historical Society, will be located in the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. The Ypsilanti museum is housed in the building of  what eventually became the last surviving Hudson dealership, Miller Motors. Jack Miller, the son of the founder of Miller Motors, started the YAHM in 1996, to honor both his family’s history and the history of making cars in Ypsilanti. As a result, the YAHM has been focused on Kaiser-Frazers (built at Willow Run) and Tucker (Preston Tucker lived in Ypsi and much of the design and engineering of the Tucker car was done there), in addition to the Hudson and Nash marques that the Miller’s sold as well as Corvairs and GM Hydramatic transmissions, also built in Ypsilanti. Over the years the museum has expanded beyond the original Miller Motors walls and now also occupies an adjacent former post office.

Miller Motors' repair department in as-was-in-1959 condition. Full gallery here.

Miller Motors’ repair department in as-was-in-1959 condition (2011 photo). Full gallery here.

The Miller Motors building has been used as a car dealership since it was first used to sell Dodges in 1916. In the late 1920s it switched to Hudson and in 1932 Carl Miller, Jack’s dad, and a partner bought the shop and ran it as a Hudson store until the brand died in 1957 following the creation of American Motors with the merger of Nash and Hudson. Miller eventually bought out his partner and the store sold 30-60 cars a year, a reasonable number for a single brand dealership in a small city. The Millers continued to sell AMC Nashes and Ramblers until 1959 when they were pressured by AMC to modernize the vintage showroom that only had room for one new car. Carl Miller decided to drop the franchise and concentrate on service and used car sales. Later Jack used the firm to sell parts to Hudson collectors and the dealership’s service bays were used to restore cars. Miller continued to sell at least one restored Hudson, Essex or Terraplane every year to maintain the shop’s status as “the last Hudson dealer” until he sold off his stock of parts when he started the museum.

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The same space today. Full gallery here.

Since the Orphan Car Show is penciled in as a must see for me every year, I used the opportunity of being in Ypsi to visit Miller Motors and the new Hudson museum and I’m sorry to say that I came away rather disappointed. The development of the new Hudson museum is related to the fact that Jack Miller retired. When Miller and his team of volunteers ran the museum it was very much a grassroots and family operation. The displays, however, although definitely worthwhile, were a bit haphazard. It was not the most sophisticated operation but it was charming. Also, the YAHM allowed you to see something that you weren’t likely to see anyplace else, what a car dealership in the 1950s looked like. The service department and the parts counter appeared pretty much as they did when the shop stopped selling new Hudsons and Nashes.

People used to be frugal and had spark plugs "serviced" with a sand blaster instead of just replacing them.

People used to be frugal and had spark plugs “serviced” with a sand blaster instead of just replacing them. Full gallery here.

Now I’m not naive. I’m sure that it wasn’t exactly as it was in 1959 and that over the years the Millers added artifacts and memorabilia but the vibe was authentic, as were the grease stains on the floor. Now everything is shiny and clean.

Preston Tucker lived in Ypsilanti and much of the engineering and design for the Tucker automobile was done there. This is one of three replica Tuckers used in the filming of the Tucker biopic. Full gallery here.

Preston Tucker lived in Ypsilanti and much of the engineering and design for the Tucker automobile was done there. This is one of three replica Tuckers used in the filming of the Tucker biopic. Full gallery here.

Unless you had an interest in the specific marques or had a thing about automatic transmissions, I thought the building itself was the best part of the museum. I try to be a bit of a booster for local museums and I’d encourage people to drive out to Ypsilanti just to see the Miller Motors service department and parts counter. Those attractions, though, no longer exist as they have for years. As part of the new Hudson museum the former parts department has been redecorated as a vintage sales office and the service department now is display space for Hudson cars. While there is still vintage repair equipment, like a spark plug refurbisher and a hand cranked ignition key grinder, it’s just not the same. It used to look like a functioning repair shop. Now it looks like a museum.

A section of the museum devoted to Kaiser-Frazer cars, which were assembled in Ypsilanti. Full gallery here.

A section of the museum devoted to Kaiser-Frazer cars, which were assembled in Ypsilanti. Full gallery here.

I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here and I understand that museums can’t be static, they have to change with the times. There are many advantages to the establishment of the Hudson sub-museum. The rest of the museum is a bit more organized and things are displayed a bit better, though it seems to me that the Tucker display is smaller and less comprehensive. Though Tucker enthusiasts have lost, Hudson enthusiasts have gained. The NHETHS is thrilled to have a museum less than an hour’s drive from where Hudsons were built in Detroit. Cars like Herb Thomas’ #92 “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” NASCAR racer (made newly popular as the Paul Newman voiced “Doc Hudson” in the animated movie Cars) are now properly displayed and there are plans to use the original one-car showroom to highlight significant Hudson cars over the years.

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Significant Hudsons will take turns on display in what was Miller Motors’ one-car new car showroom. Full gallery here.

I’m sure that Hudson enthusiasts are happy, but I walked away from the Ypsilanti museum, which I’ve visited regularly, disappointed for the first time. They’ve unquestionably set up an impressive museum devoted to one of the more important independent automakers. In the manner in which they set up that museum, though, I believe that the National Hudson Essex Terraplane Historical Society did a disservice to automotive history. Don’t get me wrong, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and the National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum are certainly worth a visit, particularly if you have an interest in American independent automakers, Corvairs or automatic transmissions, but I get the feeling that in their zeal to set up the Hudson museum organizers didn’t realize they were changing something very special.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

 

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Does 999 Mean “Ford Performance” More Than SVT? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/does-999-mean-ford-performance-more-than-svt/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/does-999-mean-ford-performance-more-than-svt/#comments Sun, 21 Sep 2014 14:15:15 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=915450 Based on a market research study commissioned by Ford Motor Company rumors are circulating that FoMoCo will change the branding for its high performance vehicles from SVT (for Special Vehicle Team) to 999, the name of Henry Ford’s second race car, popularized by barnstorming driver Barney Oldfield. Marketers have seized on “authenticity” as a lever […]

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Based on a market research study commissioned by Ford Motor Company rumors are circulating that FoMoCo will change the branding for its high performance vehicles from SVT (for Special Vehicle Team) to 999, the name of Henry Ford’s second race car, popularized by barnstorming driver Barney Oldfield. Marketers have seized on “authenticity” as a lever by which they can move consumers and I suspect that reaching back over a century for a brand name may have something to do with that. As someone who likes history I can’t complain about Ford looking into reusing a historic name, but  while its true that the name 999 has been associated with Ford racing since before the establishment of the Ford Motor Company, the name SVT means something to today’s car enthusiasts and for most of them 999 is just the number before 1,000. Today’s performance consumers are more likely to recognize the name Ken Block than Barney Oldfield.

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Henry Ford (standing) with Barney Oldfield and Old 999, 1902

There was a time, though, when 999 was the name of the most famous racing car(s) of the early motoring age, holder of a land speed record and winner of numerous races and exhibition matches with Oldfield at the wheel, er, rather tiller. Unlike Henry Ford’s first racer, the Sweepstakes car, which was a nifty little runabout, 999 was a relatively primitive machine that was all about “brute force” in the words of the transportation curator of the Henry Ford Museum, Matt Anderson. Both the Sweepstakes car and 999 are in the Racing in America exhibit in the Museum’s Driving America display.

It’s not known exactly who first coined the phrase, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, but Henry Ford understood the publicity value in winning races with his automobiles. It was his 1901 win with the Sweepstakes car against established automaker Alexander Winton that gave him credibility with investors and allowed the formation fo the Henry Ford Company. Ford almost immediately ran into difficulties with his backers. Part of it was his dream of building an inexpensive car for the masses but also part of it was that Henry wanted to race cars and his partners wanted him to focus on building and selling them.

In early 1902, he told his brother in law, Milton Bryant that his interest in racing was all about dollars and cents: “… there is a barrel of money to be made in this business.… My company will kick about me following racing but they will get the Advertising and I expect to make $ where I can’t make ¢s at Manufacturing.”

By March of that year Henry had left the company that bore his name, taking with him $900 severance and the plans for a new race cars. With financial backing from bicycle racer Tom Cooper and the technical assistance of Ed “Spider Huff and C.H. Willis (who would later persuade Ford to use vanadium steel in the Model T to great success), in May 1902 Ford began construction of two race cars with huge engines and wooden frames. One was painted red and the other yellow, named respectively, Red Devil and Arrow. The had four cylinder inline engines with 7.25 inch bores and a stroke of 7 inches for a total displacement of a massive 1,155.3 cubic inches. It put out between 70 and 100 horsepower. There was no transmission. Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a wooden block clutch on the 230 lb exposed flywheel. There were also no universal joints nor was there a differential. A solid drive shaft connected to what was literally an open rear axle, just a ring and pinion gear setup. There was no rear suspension and steering was by a primitive tiller with two upright handles and a center pivot. Not only was the flywheel exposed, so was the valve gear and the crankshaft. With a bumpy ride and oil spraying everywhere, it wasn’t a pleasant drive.

Barney Oldfield and the car that made him and Henry Ford famous.

Barney Oldfield and the car that made him and Henry Ford famous.

As primitive as 999 looks, it did have at least a couple of features that were advanced for its day like that simple drive shaft and rear axle. Most early automobiles had a chain drive for each of the driving wheels. 999’s pneumatic “balloon” tires were also novel at the time.

Though he would later *drive Arrow to a land speed recordof 91.37 mph in the flying mile, Henry was said to be a bit intimidated by the machine. Instead he hired bicycle racer Barney Oldfield to pilot 999 in the five-mile Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup race on Oct. 25, 1902, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. In a way it was a rematch between Ford and Winton, but while the 999 became firmly associated with Henry Ford in the public mind, by the time of the actual race Ford had backed out of the venture, selling his interest to Cooper because of a poor test session a couple of weeks before the race.

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According to legend, Oldfield had never driven an automobile before the race, which he won going away, covering the five miles in 5 minutes and 28 seconds, a record for the distance on a closed course. Though he sold his interest in 999, Ford, though, retained publicity rights, which proved to be invaluable. Oldfield renamed Red Devil “999” after a famous locomotive of the day. Oldfield and Cooper took the two cars around the country, setting speed records, winning races and establishing Oldfield as the first celebrity race driver in America. Having made a name for himself driving a Ford, though, Oldfield switched to the competition, Winton, in the summer of 1903. By then Henry Ford was focusing on getting the Ford Motor Company off of the ground.

It's tempting to call that an "open differential" but there's no differential at all, just a ring & pinion gear set. Full gallery here.

It’s tempting to call that an “open differential” but there’s no differential at all, just a ring & pinion gear set. Full gallery here.

In September of that year, both the 999 and the Arrow were entered into the inaugural car race at the Wisconsin state fair. Huff was driving 999 and Frank Day piloted the Arrow. Day, though, was killed when he crashed the car. The destroyed Arrow was returned to Detroit where Ford rebuilt it, planning on a land speed record attempt that winter on frozen Lake St. Clair. On Jan. 12, 1904, Ford set a new flying mile record. Though that record would stand for less than a month, the young Ford Motor Company benefited mightily from the publicity surrounding Ford’s LSR effort.

The Detroit Tribune described the record attempt: “As Ford flashed by it was noticed he wore no goggles or other face protection. Humped over his steering tiller, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zig-zag fashion. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.”

Henry Ford driving the "999" in an Exhibition Run against Harry Harkness in a Mercedes Simplex, at the Detroit Driving Club's 1 Mile Track in Grosse Pointe.

Henry Ford driving the “999” in an Exhibition Run against Harry Harkness in a Mercedes Simplex, at the Detroit Driving Club’s 1 Mile Track in Grosse Pointe.

Cooper sold the cars in 1904 and some years later Henry Ford would acquire it for the museum that bears his name. Shortly before his death, Henry Ford is said to have remarked to Barney Oldfield: “You made me and I made you.” Oldfield shook his head and replied “Old 999 made both of us.”

I’ll have to check with Matt Anderson to find out the current running status of “Old 999″. It was still in operating condition in 1963 when racer Dan Gurney visited the Henry Ford Museum while he was racing for Ford. Gurney would go on to win at LeMans with co-driver A.J. Foyt and as one of the leading American racers who happened to be driving for the blue oval, he was an honored guest. When the curator asked him if he’d like to drive it, Gurney jumped at the opportunity and soon afterwards the then over 60 year old race car was transported to Ford’s nearby test track where the all-American racer took it for a spin.

Dan Gurney drives Old 999 on Ford's Dearborn test track, 1963

Dan Gurney drives Old 999 on Ford’s Dearborn test track, 1963

Richard Barrett described the scene for Ford Times magazine:

It was a bone-chilling, blustery day nearly sixty years ago when Henry Ford drove his famous “999” racer over the ice at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, to set a new world’s speed mark of ninety-two miles per hour. The Detroit Tribune of January 13, 1904, headlined the event as a “wild drive against time.” The article went on to say, “As Ford flashed by it was noticed he wore no goggles or other face protection. Humped over his steering tiller, the tremendous speed throwing the machine in zig-zag fashion. Ford was taking chances that no man, not even that specialist in averted suicide, Barney Oldfield, had dared to attempt.” As fate would surely be delighted to have it, the day last March when Dan Gurney, one of today’s racing greats, drove the same old “999” at Ford Motor Company’s high-speed test track, the cold wind cut like a knife and a driving snow all but blinded the eyes. As the car was started up, and Gurney got his first close look, he whistled in wonder and said, “It’s a fire-breathing monster!” Henry Ford said exactly the same thing the first time he drove it.

Gurney, like Ford before him, proved his championship mettle that cold March day. With only a short briefing on the mechanics of the monster, a few questions asked and answered, he took the “999” out on the infield track to get the “feel” of the car. A short time later, after the high-speed test track was cleared, Gurney got his flying start and roared into the “soup bowl” (a high-speed, steeply banked turn). Here’s how Gurney later described the sensation: “It’s quite a thrill. I was looking for the exhaust pipes and then I realized there are hardly any. They’re about two inches long and I could see flame coming out. The car is vibrating and everything is twisting every time it fires; you can feel everything from one end of the car to the other.

“The car is a little bit deceiving because it’s so high geared, but you’re really covering the ground. It’s sort of like comparing a running elephant to a deer. The low revs of the engine are what do it, and those four big cylinders. You can feel them working. Until it’s going forty to fifty miles an hour it doesn’t really settle down, and then it hardly seems to be turning over at all. It’s just chug, chug, chug with a lot of popping, smoke and roar. All the while you’re sitting there, straddling that big engine high on the single seat and remembering to keep your feet out of the way of that exposed flywheel. It’s as big as a man-hole cover.”

Asked if he was concerned about controlling the flying “999” Gurney smiled and answered, “I just prayed nobody would get in front of me. There were patches of ice and snow on the track, and at the speed I was going it would take at least two hundred yards to stop. I can imagine Henry Ford driving that thing ninety-two miles an hour on ice. Very, very tricky. You’d have to be extremely delicate with the tiller and braking or you’d really be in trouble. Having good eyesight would be a help in a panic stop, although with all the engine racket they could probably hear you coming far enough so they could get out of the way.”

Gurney later recounted the experience for the Car Crazy television show.

*My recent post on the Sweepstakes car said that the 1901 race was the first and last time Henry Ford raced a car. While that’s technically true, Ford indeed never again raced in wheel to wheel competition, he did race against the clock on the ice in 999 and participated in at least one exhibition at speed in the car.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

 

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Watch A Model T Get Assembled in Less Than Five Minutes and Two Historic Replicas Drive at the Old Car Festival http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/watch-model-t-get-assembled-less-five-minutes-two-historic-replicas-drive-old-car-festival/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/watch-model-t-get-assembled-less-five-minutes-two-historic-replicas-drive-old-car-festival/#comments Thu, 11 Sep 2014 17:31:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=910618   Start the video, then click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats. Every year, Greenfield Village hosts two large car shows, the Motor Muster for cars built from 1933 to 1976 and the Old Car Festival, for vehicles from the start of the motor age until the introduction […]

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Every year, Greenfield Village hosts two large car shows, the Motor Muster for cars built from 1933 to 1976 and the Old Car Festival, for vehicles from the start of the motor age until the introduction of the 1932 Ford. The Henry Ford institutions claim that the Old Car Festival is the longest running antique car show in America, having started in 1955. It’s a charming event, with many of the cars’ owners dressing in period clothing and since folks are encouraged to drive their cars around the Village (with traffic “cops” in period uniforms at the intersections) there’s a “back in time” look and feel to the event. There aren’t many places were you can see a parade of 90 year old cars drive through an authentic covered wooden bridge.

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It’s a unique car event. Where else can you see a drag race between a 1909 air-cooled Franklin and a ninety year old Hupmobile?

In addition to races and field exercises on the Village parade grounds there are also demonstrations like the one put on by the Canadian Model T Assembly Team. As you can probably guess from their name, the team shows how Model Ts went together, using a 1927 chassis as an example. After some preparation laying out part was done, the clock started running and the team started putting the major assemblies together. It took them just under five minutes to everything put together and filled with fluids, ready to be crank started. Now admittedly, they didn’t mount a body, but still five minutes to assemble any kind of automotive rolling chassis is pretty impressive.

While the Model T is famous for Ford’s use of an assembly line to put it together at the Highland Park plant, the Canadian Model T Assembly Team’s process is a bit more like the “station assembly” process used a the previous Piquette Avenue factory.

Apparently, putting together a team to put together a Model T has become a bit of a thing with T enthusiasts. This group in Florida can do it in less than three minutes:

As mentioned, the Old Car Festival celebrates the earliest days of the automobile. The oldest vintage car that I saw on display, which was also driven around the Village, was a 1902 Columbus electric car. I spotted at least three curved dash Oldsmobiles puttering around and there were also a couple of original Ford Model As being driven. That was the first model produced by the Ford Motor Company when it was started up in 1903.

Two years earlier Henry Ford’s first attempt to start a car company, the Detroit Automobile Company, failed. Things were not going well for the entrepreneur. He had given up a good job as chief operating engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit to pursue his dream and instead it had the makings of a nightmare. He had a wife, Clara, and a son, Edsel. Ford himself was not a young man, already 38 years old, and he and Clara had to move in with her parents.

To gain credibility with the public but even more important, with potential investors, Henry decided to enter a motorcar race called a sweepstakes that was to be held at a Grosse Pointe horse racing track. With a team of associates including riding mechanic Edward “Spider” Huff who is said to have invented the ceramic spark plug insulator for the car using dental supplies, Ford built what he referred to as the Sweepstakes car. It’s two cylinder engine displaced over 500 cubic inches and was said to have a top speed of at least 70 mph. Though Ford would later hire professional drivers like Barney Oldfield to drive later racing specials like the 999, for the 10 laps around the one mile horse track Henry decided to take the wheel himself. Huff’s role wasn’t just to provide an extra pair of hands. He rode on the running board, shifting his weight like a sidehack rider to keep the Sweepstakes’ wheels on the ground.

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Ford’s competition was Alexander Winton, then the most successful American automaker. Winton was an experienced racer, the best known race driver in the country. Ford had never raced a car before, nor would he ever race one again. The Winton automobile was faster and Winton took the lead but the Ford Sweepstakes was more reliable, passing to take the lead and hold it on the main straight, much to the pleasure of the local crowd.

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While it’s tempting to say that it was a case of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, to begin with Ford didn’t then operate a car company so he would have had nothing to sell to potential customers. Also, the race took place on Oct. 10, 1901, a Thursday. Ford won $1,000. There are sources that say that he would later use some of that money to start Ford Motor Company in 1903, but in the short term it gave him sufficient credibility to find backers for his second venture, the Henry Ford Company. Though it was more successful than the Detroit Automobile Co., Ford would quickly butt heads with his investors and within months he was out of the company. Those investors brought in Henry Leland, Detroit’s most respected machinist and a supplier of engines and other components to Ransom Olds and other early automakers, to put a value on the assets, so they could be liquidated. Instead he convinced them that there were the makings of a going concern. That’s how Cadillac was started.

The original Sweepstakes car is in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum. For a long time it was thought by curators that it was a replica made for Henry Ford in the early 1930s but during a restoration it was proven to be the actual car.

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The old saying said that behind every successful man there is a woman encouraging him to succeed. Had Bertha Benz not believed in her husband Karl’s invention, perhaps even more than he did, the automotive world might be a different place. Bertha (nee Ringer) was already a teenager when Henry Ford was born. As a young woman she invested money in her fiancé Karl Benz’s workshop. That money is said to have allowed him to develop what is widely considered to be the first practical automobile, a three wheeler known as the Patent Motorwagen, often called the Patentwagen.

Bertha was a savvy woman and a very smart wife as well. Without her husband’s knowledge (or at least that’s how the story goes) she took one of his newly built Patentwagens for a 66 mile trip to visit her mother, returning back home with no serious mechanical issues, or at least none that she couldn’t resolve. Though her purpose was ostensibly to take her sons to visit their grandmother, her real reasons were to prove to Karl that his invention had genuine commercial potential and to expose the vehicle to the public  so they could exploit that potential. She succeeded on both fronts.

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Karl Benz’s 1896 patent drawings for the Motorwagen.

Apparently Bertha was a bit of a gear head. On the journey she repaired the brakes in a manner that some say invented brake linings, found a blacksmith to repair a broken chain, and used her hatpin to remove a blockage in the fuel line and her garter to insulate an exposed wire. The trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim took all the daylight hours, leaving at dawn and arriving at her destination in the evening. She sent Karl a telegram when she arrived in Pforzheim and she and the boys drove back the following day.

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To celebrate the pioneering contributions of the Benzes and Henry Ford, replicas of the Sweepstakes car and the Patentwagen were driven past the reviewing stand. The Sweepstakes replica is one of two that Ford Motor Company had fabricated on the centennial of Henry’s race victory. It’s fairly accurate, though to keep oil from flying everywhere for the original car’s “total loss” oiling system, the engine has a sealed, recycling lubrication system. The Patentwagen is one of a run of a number of accurate replicas that John Bentley Engineering  of the UK started building to commemorate the first practical automobile’s centennial in 1986. Over the next decade they would go on to build about 100, in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz. That’s about four times as many Patent Motorwagens as Karl Benz made himself. This particular replica was assembled by Mercedes-Benz interns.

You can see a photo gallery of the Benz Patent Motorwagen at the Automotive Hall of Fame, which owns it, here. Photos of the original Ford Sweepstakes car, which is on display in the Racing in America exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, can be seen here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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A Volkswagen With a Coat of Many Colors: 1996 Golf Harlequin http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/volkswagen-coat-many-colors-1996-golf-harlequin/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/volkswagen-coat-many-colors-1996-golf-harlequin/#comments Mon, 08 Sep 2014 11:00:01 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=904737 It’s not clear whether they were inspired by one of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s clever ads for the VW Beetle in the 1960s or by the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, but in the mid 1990s, Volkswagen decided to make some multicolored cars. TTAC previously looked at the Halequin Polo and […]

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It’s not clear whether they were inspired by one of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s clever ads for the VW Beetle in the 1960s or by the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, but in the mid 1990s, Volkswagen decided to make some multicolored cars. TTAC previously looked at the Halequin Polo and Golf and you can read more of the story at the link, but the short version is that in 1995 the German automaker decided to offer a colorful option for folks buying the Polo, VW’s hatchback slotted just below the Golf in Europe, *NAH. The car with body panels of different colors turned out to be a bit of a hit, with an initial production run of just 1,000 cars extended to 3,800 units. Probably because of that modest success, VW of America decided to introduce the Harlequin color schemes on the Mk III Golf for the following model year.

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I don’t know how many they planned to make. The Puebla, Mexico factory that assembled them turned out 264 Harlequins. Each car was first assembled in one of four base colors (including Pistachio Green, exclusive to the Harlequins) and then at the end of the line, panels were unbolted and swapped to different vehicles per a color chart prepared in Germany that made sure that no two adjacent panels would be the same color. Even when Germans are silly, they do it with precision.

With a total build of just 264 cars, Harlequin Golfs are rare. So rare, in fact, that our previous post on the topic used publicity photos and shots owners have posted online. They’re not cars you come across every day. When I spotted this Harlequin at the 2014 Vintage VW Show in Ypsilanti this summer, I knew it was special enough to photograph, but I had no idea that there were so few of them. A Wolfsburg Edition it’s not. I’m happy that I took the time because we can now show you some views of the car that you may have not seen before.

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This car was sold by Jim Ellis VW, in Atlanta, Georgia. Maybe it’s the same Pistachio Green Harlequin that’s second from the right in the photo above. According to the Harlequin Registry, the original owner flew from Michigan to Georgia to buy it.

That dealership had somehow been allocated an unusually large number of Harlequins. Perhaps VW thought it was a good idea to use them as promotional and courtesy vehicles during the Summer Olympics that year in Atlanta or perhaps it was a reward for Ellis having recently opened up another VW store, but either way Harlequin Golf didn’t turn out to be as popular in America as the Harlequin Polo was in Europe.

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Jim Ellis Volkswagen eventually had trouble moving the rather conspicuous cars and the dealer reportedly swapped around some panels (or, more likely, resprayed them), which explains the existence of at least one monochromatic Pistachio Green Harlequin in the Harlequin Registry.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

 

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Can That Thing Schwimm? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/can-thing-schwimm/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/can-thing-schwimm/#comments Sat, 06 Sep 2014 04:25:08 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=904713 Potential military applications of what became known as the Volkswagen Beetle were part of the earliest discussions that Ferdinand Porsche and Adolph Hitler had concerning the “people’s car” in the spring of 1934. However, it was only after what was then called the KdF-Wagen was approaching production in 1938 that Wehrmacht officials formally asked Dr. Porsche […]

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Potential military applications of what became known as the Volkswagen Beetle were part of the earliest discussions that Ferdinand Porsche and Adolph Hitler had concerning the “people’s car” in the spring of 1934. However, it was only after what was then called the KdF-Wagen was approaching production in 1938 that Wehrmacht officials formally asked Dr. Porsche about designing a lightweight military transport vehicle, capable of both off and on road use in extreme conditions. The engineer and his design studio got to work quickly, producing a prototype based on the Type 1 in less than a month.

That prototype, though, proved that the vehicle would need a dedicated chassis as even a reinforced Beetle platform wasn’t up to the rigors of the military’s needs. Porsche had Trutz, a coachbuilding company with military experience, help with the body design and what became known as the Type 62 got the go-ahead for development when the two-wheel drive vehicle proved to be competitive off-road with existing Wehrmacht 4X4 trucks. A self-locking differential made by ZF and the Type 62’s light weight proved to be sufficient.

Pre-production models were battle tested during the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939. While commanders were generally pleased with the performance they told Porsche that the vehicle’s minimum speed of 8 mph was two fast to accompany marching soldiers and they wanted better off-road performance. Porsche satisfied both requests by implementing gear-reduction hubs in the rear axles. After the war those hubs made the Type II, what we know as the VW Bus, possible of carrying significant loads despite having only 36 hp. The self-locking differential was replaced with a limited slip device and a number of other changes were made so by the time what became known at the Kübelwagen was finalized it was given a new designation, Type 82.

VW Type 82 Kubelwagen

VW Type 82 Kubelwagen, Photo: Wikipedia

The name Kübelwagen means “bucket car” and actually isn’t a description of it’s rudimentary bodywork. It’s full name was “Kübelsitzwagen”, bucket seat car, the Wehrmacht’s term for cars with open or removable doors that needed bucket seats to keep the driver and passengers in the cars. Production of the Kübelwagen began as soon as the KdF-Stadt (later Wolfsburg) works were operational in early 1940 (beating the Type 1 to production by months) and the German jeeplet stayed in production for the duration of the war. Total production was just over 50,000 units.

Kubelwagen, Sicily 1943

Kubelwagen, Sicily 1943. Photo: Wikipedia

A number of variants, experimental and production, of the Type 82 were made, but the best known is the Type 166 Schwimmwagen, an amphibious vehicle that was driven on land with all four wheels and in water by a hinged propeller that dropped into place.

Kubelwagen on the eastern front.

Kubelwagen on the eastern front. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the flat platform chassis of the Type I and Kübelwagen were not exactly designed to glide through water, Erwin Komenda, Dr. Porsche’s body designer, came up with a patented unitized tub for the body, or rather hull. Mechanicals were based on the Type 87 4WD Command Car, a Kübelwagen with a Beetle body. When the Type 128 prototypes proved to be insufficiently stiff and not water tight, changes were made, including shortening the wheelbase to just 200 cm for better maneuverability. The production Schwimmwagen was named the Type 166 and eventually over 15,000 were made. While that production figure makes the Schwimmwagen the largest production amphibious vehicle ever made only 163 are listed as surviving today in the Schwimmwagen Registry and only about a dozen are in original condition.

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Type 166 Schwimmwagen. Wikipedia photo.

Production Schwimmwagens had four wheel drive but only in first gear. There were ZR self-locking diffs on both the front and rear axles. In back, the Schwimmwagen used the same “portal gear” hubs that helped with getting the Kübelwagen going at low speeds and they also gave better ground clearance. A screw propeller, as mentioned, was hinged on the back of the Schwimmwagen, normally stored on the rear deck over the engine. When lowered into place, a coupling attached the prop drive to the engine’s crankshaft. There was no rear rudder, the front wheels provided steering on land and on sea they acted as rudders.

Years after British Major Ivan Hirst got the postwar Volkswagen company going, in the 1960s a number of governments in Europe started collaborating on a new military vehicle to be used by NATO called the Europa Jeep. Development stalled and the West German government decided it needed something in the meantime. When approached, though they had turned down the idea of building a military vehicle in the 1950s, by the late 1960s, VW managers recognized that such a car might make sense as a consumer vehicle in some of their markets. At the time, VW based dune buggies were popular in the U.S. and Mexican consumers living in rural areas wanted something a bit more rugged than the Beetle. The idea was to use as many off the shelf parts as possible.

The Karmann Ghia’s chassis was chosen because it was wider and stronger than that of the Type 1 Beetle, though it was further strengthened. Swing axles and the gear reduction boxes were contributed from the pre-1968 Type II transporter. For off-road travel there was over 8 inches of ground clearance, minimal overhangs front and back, and skid plates. Fenders bolted on and there were visible strengthening ribs all over the generally simple and flat body panels. Doors were interchangeable and removable, the windshield folded flat and the entire convertible roof could be removed for al fresca driving. An optional fiberglass hardtop was offered.

The inside was just as spartan as the outside. There was very little in the way of trim or upholstery. Vinyl covered bucket seats and lots of painted sheet metal. There were drain holes and perforated rubber mats so the interior could be hosed out if needed.

While there’s a great visual similarity between the Type 82 Kübelwagen and what became known as the Type 181, and while they were both used by the German military, they don’t really have that much in common, there are no shared parts.

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In addition to military sales, the Type 181 was marketed to the public in Germany as the “Kurierwagen”, in the UK as the “Trekker”, the “Safari” in Mexico, and the “Thing” in the States. I haven’t been able to determine exactly how it got the name but I suspect that the folks at Doyle Dane Bernbach, VW’s innovative and humorous U.S. ad agency, probably had something to do with it. After all, the same agency produced ads calling the Thing “ridiculous”. While production of the Type 181 continued into the 1980s, the last year for the Thing in the U.S. was 1975. One of the oddest of odd automotive ducks, the Thing wasn’t a great success in America and it wasn’t worth keeping it compliant with increasingly stringent federal motor vehicle safety standards.

The three VW Things pictured here were photographed at the 2014 Vintage VW Show, held in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen is on display at the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy museum, in suburban St Clair Shores.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Preeminent Custom Car Builder Mike Alexander 1935-2014, R.I.P. http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/preeminent-custom-car-builder-mike-alexander-1935-2014-r-p/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/preeminent-custom-car-builder-mike-alexander-1935-2014-r-p/#comments Thu, 04 Sep 2014 11:30:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=904329 Mike Alexander, the surviving member of Detroit’s preeminent custom car builders, the Alexander Brothers, passed away in July at the age of 80. Mike and his brother Larry made some of the most famous and influential customs of the 1960s and because of a new toy called Hot Wheels and a Beach Boys song & […]

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Mike Alexander, the surviving member of Detroit’s preeminent custom car builders, the Alexander Brothers, passed away in July at the age of 80. Mike and his brother Larry made some of the most famous and influential customs of the 1960s and because of a new toy called Hot Wheels and a Beach Boys song & album the “A Bros” ultimately affected American culture and how the world sees us. They were as important to the world of hot rods as Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were to rock and roll. I had the great privilege of interviewing Mike Alexander last year as part of a project I’m working on about the Dodge Deora show car, and then meet him in person at the 2013 Eyes On Design show, where I was in the right place at the right time to witness Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo hand Mike a blue ribbon for the Deora, which was on display as part of a group of Alexander Brothers’ cars at that show. Mechanical and fabricating geniuses, Mike and Larry were perhaps the most technically adept of all the builders during custom cars’ golden era.

Rather than rewrite someone else’s obituary of the man, the following has been excerpted and revised from my as yet unpublished book on the Dodge Deora.

Ever since Harley Earl came to Detroit from Los Angeles in 1927 to start GM’s “Art and Color Section”, those two cities have been the epicenters of automotive styling in North America. It was true in the 1920s and it’s still true today. The Lexus LF-LC, which is in development for production, was designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, California, not far from LA. The Toyota Tundra pickup truck was designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just down the road from Detroit. What is true about production cars and trucks is also true about those who customize them. It’s tempting, with people like Dean Jeffries, Gene Winfield, George Barris, Bill Cushenberry and others having been located on the West Coast, to think of the custom scene as dominated by California car guys, and it’s undoubtedly true that a lot of car culture in many forms has come out of California, but it’s also true that the West Coast customizers eventually had to compete for magazine covers and premium displays at car shows with Motor City customizers and fabricators like the Alexander Brothers and Chuck Miller. Hot Rod magazine said that the Alexander brothers were as important to the automobile world as Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were to rock and roll (video below). Yeah, that important. In fact it can be argued that Larry and Mike Alexander created the most famous custom car ever [that wasn’t in a tv show or movie], the Dodge Deora.

Larry (L) and Mike (R) Alexander working on the Deora.

Larry (L) and Mike (R) Alexander working on the Deora.

The story of the Deora goes back to 1964. In the early sixties, all three big Detroit automakers introduced cabover vans, the Dodge A100, the Ford Econoline, and the Chevy Sportvan / GMC Handi-Van (along with the Corvair vans which also had cabover driving positions). The Alexander brothers were intrigued by the possibilities of building a radical sport pickup out of one and they commissioned car designer Harry Bentley Bradley to draw what became the Deora.

The Alexanders were always on the lookout for design talent and they had spotted Bradley when he was still a student at the Pratt school of design. He had been a regular contributor to popular magazines that covered the custom scene like Rodding and Re-styling, Customs Illustrated, and Rod & Custom. After Pratt, Bradley got a job with GM design and came to Detroit in 1962, but he continued to do side work, eventually designing a total of 10 cars for the Alexander brothers. Of course that had to be kept secret from his bosses until he left GM in 1967, feeling somewhat stifled at GM Design. Bradley’s move from Detroit back to his native California to work at Mattel’s Hawthorne headquarters is probably another example of the Detroit-Los Angeles yang and yin.

The Alexanders’ plan was to use Bradley’s exciting drawings to entice one of the OEMs into ponying up a free truck for the project. The design, as radical, fresh and clean today as it was almost 50 years ago, worked because it was pretty much a clean slate approach. Bradley saw it more as a concept car than as a custom.

“What I wanted to do was get rid of that phone booth cab and integrate the upper (section of the body) with the lower. The finished truck would have no doors on either side. I didn’t want cutlines. We were always told at GM to play down cutlines. If cutlines were wonderful, Ferraris would have them running down their sides.”

Designer Harry Bentley Bradley’s original design for the Deora. The door was later split in two because the A pillars could not bear that much weight. The result, with a clamshell top and a center pivoted bottom, was much more dramatic.

This may distress Murilee Martin, but the A100 was not Bradley’s first choice, nor his second. The Alexander brothers didn’t care. They happened to approach Chrysler first. While Bradley thought the other two vans were better looking, considering what a radical custom the Deora is, I doubt the donor would have mattered. In any case, the plan worked. For the manufacturer’s cost of an A100 based pickup and about $10,000 in mid-1960s money, Dodge ended up getting publicity that still has residual value today. As it is, though it is mechanically 100% Dodge, the Alexanders actually used a few Ford and Corvair bits. The exhaust ports on the Deora’s sides are Mustang taillights turned sideways and the roof and front windshield are actually from the back of a Ford station wagon. Whether Dodge noticed or cared isn’t recorded. My guess is they knew, and laughed all the way to the bank, carrying the money Chrysler made from the production A100s that the Deora helped sell.

Harry Bradley’s 2001 account of the history of the Deora, though it was in 1967, not 1966 that the Deora won the Detroit Autorama’s Ridler Award

The Hot Wheels version of the Deora was not the only toy Deora sold. The AMT plastic model company was involved with the Deora project long before Mattel made their first little die-cast cars. Over the years the AMT brand has used the Deora molds to offer a wide variety of model kits based on the basic design.

In the AMT scale model of the Deora, the lower section of the door swings down, unlike the actual Deora’s door, which pivots in the middle. That was either a production neccesity or, more likely, the model’s design was set before the fabrication was finished on the car. AMT was involved with the Deora project very early on. Models of popular and award winning customs were and continue to be good sellers for model companies so designers have worked closely with model companies. It’s a symbiotic relationship and a major source of income for some custom designers. In fact, a number of the model kits for 1960s and 1970s era customs, besides the Deora, like Chuck Miller’s Fire Truck and Red Baron, have been reissued. In recent years, high dollar full size show car replicas of 1960s era model kits have also been made like Monogram’s Black Widow by Troy Ladd.

The Deora was no one-hit-wonder. Operating their own shop for over a decade by the time they won the prestigious Ridler Award with the Deora, the Alexander brothers also won Ridlers in 1965 with their ’56 Chevy based Venturian and in 1969 with their T-bucket pickup Top Banana. They had quickly developed a reputation with the Detroit custom and hot rod crowd but it took a while for the brothers to get some national attention. The custom and hot rod magazines were almost all based in California and more than a little bit West Coast centric in their views. Ironically, the Alexanders got their break with those magazines when George Barris’ XPAK 400 hovercraft car itself broke at the 1961 Detroit Autorama and Barris’ crew needed a competent local shop to fix the car.

Mike and Larry Alexander at their shop on Northwestern Hwy, one of two A Bros shops that had to close because of highway construction. Can you identify the car they’re working on?

Barris asked the show organizers which builders were the most competent mechanics and was told the A Bros.  The Alexanders fixed the “flying” car, George graciously put a good word in for them with the West Coast editors, and the Alexanders started getting some national press. Well, not completely graciously. According to Mike Alexander, Barris, true to form, told the editors that the A brothers were the East Coast division of Barris Industries. Whose car broke down and who fixed it should tell you something about the relative build quality at Barris Kustom City and Alexander Bros. Custom Shop.

Cars built by the Alexanders had exceptional build quality. In September of 1967, Rod & Custom editor Spence Murray test drove the Deora for a number of miles, more than the Alexanders had driven it to that point, and was impressed. “Our test drive went off without a hitch. Larry Alexander knew that (the) Deora would perform up to the standards of any mass-produced pickup truck, but I had to prove it to myself.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

The current owner of the restored Deora, Tom Abrams, who also owns Reliable Carriers, the specialty automotive transportation company, says that it’s a fully functional, perfectly operational vehicle, albeit with an awkward driving position.

The original Hot Wheels Deora from 1968

Having gotten their entre to the West Coast buff books, the Alexanders’ cars became popular. Besides having a different aesthetic sense than what was popular in California, the Alexanders also necessarily had to do things differently because of their location. In the late 1950s and early 1960s you could still find rust free ’32 Fords in arid Southern California but around Detroit (there it is again) the snowy winters and use of road salt meant that few old cars survived and many of the cars they worked on were badly rusted particularly along the lower edges.

1996 Hot Wheels Deora reissue

The Alexanders were more likely to use later model cars than their West Coast colleagues and do more radical reshaping of the sheet metal. The fact that the cars were rusted gave them a bit of freedom. If they had to make an entirely new panel, they might as well shape it to their desires, and not do a restoration. Their ’56 Chevy based Venturian is an example. Except for the windshield and doors, it’s very hard to see the Chevy underneath. By working on newer cars and doing older cars differently, Larry and Mike carved out their own niche and gained some measure of fame and success. While the name Alexander Brothers meant little outside of the custom car and modeling communities, the cars they were building were starting to percolate into the general public’s consciousness.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the Beach Boys’ song, Little Deuce Coupe, a tribute to the 1932 Ford that has gone on to inspire even more popularity for that iconic automobile. Well, the actual “Little Deuce Coupe” that inspired the song was a ’32 Ford three window coupe owned by Clarence “Chili” Catallo, who lived in Taylor, Michigan and bought the car for 75 bucks in 1955 as a teenager. He had an Oldsmobile V8 installed along with a GM Hydramatic transmission and had the Alexander brothers do the original bodywork and blue paint. They sectioned and channeled the body, created a custom fiberglass nose with four stacked headlights, rolled the rear pan, altered the frame, and covered the framework with polished-aluminum fins.

Click here to view the embedded video.

When he became a legal adult in 1958, Catallo took his car out west where he got a job as a janitor at George Barris’ shop, then located in Lynwood, California. Chili bartered his salary for work in the shop, which is where the car received a chopped top and a new paint job and became more of a show car than a drag racer. Competing on the West Coast car show circuit, Chili Catallo’s ’32 Ford with the unusual front end caught the attention of Hot Rod magazine and it was on the cover of the July 1961 issue. That brought it even more attention and two years later, when the Beach Boys released their Little Deuce Coupe album,  Catallo’s car was displayed prominently on the cover.

Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo about to award Mike Alexander (seated, signing autographs) another blue ribbon for the Deora at the 2013 Eyes On Design show.

Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo about to award Mike Alexander (seated, signing autographs) another blue ribbon for the Deora at the 2013 Eyes On Design show.

Album covers, magazine covers and awards, from 1963 to 1969, the Alexander brothers were on a roll, but despite the Alexanders’ fame and the success of their cars, making a living in the labor intensive custom car craft has never been easy, particularly if you pay more attention to quality than publicity. The pending expansion of Northwestern Hwy into an expressway meant they were soon going to have to move their shop a second time, highway construction having already forced a move from their original location on Schoolcraft. After winning three Ridler awards in five years, pretty much at the peak of the custom car game, both Alexander brothers decided to get straight jobs in the auto industry. Finding work wasn’t a problem. The Alexanders were highly respected in the industry at large, even outside custom and hot rod circles, having worked with OEMs on projects like the Deora.

Injection molds can last a long time.

In 1968 Larry Alexander went to work for Ford as a metal model maker in the body engineering department, shaping prototypes there until his retirement. Since model makers, even master MMMs, rarely get credit for the important contributions they make shaping and fine tuning car designs, I haven’t been able to yet determine which significant Fords he worked on, besides a coworkers reference to Alexander helping him with the clay model of a Fiesta subcompact. He was a modest man but his coworkers and superiors knew of his stature in the custom world and held him and his work in high regard. Larry, the older of the two brothers, passed away in 2010.

Mike Alexander kept the shop open until it was razed in 1969. When Henry Ford II hired GM executive Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen to be president of Ford Motor Company, Knudsen brought along some talent with him, including Corvette StingRay desginer Larry Shinoda. While at Ford Shinoda would design the Boss Mustangs. After the Alexander brothers closed their last shop, Shinoda hired Mike Alexander to be in charge of design at Kar Kraft, Ford’s fabrication shop for show cars and special runs. It should have been a good fit for Mike, but but by then not only had Knudsen been the target of Lee Iaccoca’s successful political infighting, resulting in The Deuce firing him in late 1969, but also Shinoda, who has been described as a bit of a character and non-conformist, had managed to wear out his welcome with the styling studio bosses and he was fired as well. With his two patrons axed, in 1970 Mike moved to American Sunroof (now ASC), where he ran the body shop operations for their newly established Custom Craft Division. To Cadillac and Lincoln dealers, ASC Custom Craft offered, “..a complete line of luxury customizing and classic automotive finery for the personalization of your customer’s cars. I am sure that you are finding that in recent years more and more car buyers are interested in adding to their cars these special touches of excitement and luxury.” Dealers could install the accessories or have Custom Craft do the installation at ASC’s Southgate, Michigan facility.

ASC Custom Craft brochure for el Deora and Cadillac Astro Estate Wagon conversions. Mike Alexander ran the ASC body shop that fabricated these conversions.

When ASC Custom Craft started up, available products included custom grilles, faux classic headlight shells and trim, custom hood ornaments, padded half landau roofs, landau irons, fender skirts, rear deck lids with continental kit styling, rear deck trim, color keyed wheelcovers, oval or diamond shaped rear windows, and a dash-mounted 3” television. In other words, Custom Craft made pimpmobiles. Now before you look askance, the song Be Thankful For What You Got, by William DeVaughn, with the lyric Diamond in the back, sunroof top, Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean, Gangster white walls, TV antenna in the back sold over 2 million copies in 1974 (though unlike the Alexander bros, DeVaughn in fact was a one hit wonder). The Superfly look was very popular with pimps, wannabes and drug dealers. Car dealers, on their part, have always tried to make a buck with add ons. While there aren’t many shops still doing the precise thing today, pimpmobiles do have their spiritual heirs. There is no shortage of custom and tuning shops today with more technical skill than aesthetic taste, and they will gladly bling out whatever you roll in.

Mike and Larry Alexander with their masterpiece, the Dodge Deora at the 1967 Detroit Autorama in Cobo Hall.

ASC Custom Craft even reprised the Deora name, well sort of. They offered a converted Cadillac which was called the elDeora (which further mangled the original’s botched Spanish) including making at least one stretched Eldorado version. If you think about how long the last truly full size Eldorados were, that must have been one eye-catching pimpmobile. If a stretched Eldo wasn’t a big enough Caddy for you and all of your working girls, Custom Craft also marketed the Fleetwood Talisman El Deora, which was an elongated version of Cadillac’s already stretched factory built Fleetwood limo. The brochure pictured above from the early 1970s (those are pre 1973 bumpers), offers the limousine with two, count them, two sunroofs, the elDeora DeVille (“beautiful, massive, and masculine”), the Eldorado based elDeora Coupe (“stunning individuality, taste”), the Astrella Two Door Wagon (Eldo based and “exquisite, practical”), and the Fleetwood based Astro Estate Four Door Wagon (“stunning, functional”).

After the Deora won the Ridler Award in early 1967, Chrysler leased it for two years to promote Dodge cars and trucks.

Many of the Cadillac based station wagons that come up for sale from time to time are Custom Craft products. For the original Deora, the Alexanders put the back end of a Ford wagon on the front a Dodge van. For the Cadillac wagons, ASC took the back half of full size GM station wagons and grafted them on to Cadillac front ends. Some designs were more successful than others, aesthetically and commercially, but the four door Fleetwood based cars looked good and sold fairly well. In the 1970s, ASC exported over 100 Fleetwood Brougham Astro Estate Wagons to Saudi Arabia.

The Alexander brothers could have used any of the Big 3’s cabover vans but Dodge gave them an A100 to work with. The folks at Dodge either didn’t notice or didn’t care about all the Ford parts on the finished Deora. Notice something familiar about those exhaust ports?

All of the stretched limousines and station wagon conversions made by ASC Custom Craft were done under the direct supervision of Mike Alexander. That you can still find some for sale over 40 years later and that they look good enough to pass for factory jobs are a testimony to the high standards that Mike and his brother Larry set. The same is true of all of their custom cars. They are built to concours quality and engineered well. I think that I still prefer the original Deora to an el Deora.

Mike Alexander, the shorter of the two Alexander brothers, demonstrates ingress.When they demonstrated how to get in and out of the car, it was usually Mike, who was shorter, who did the demonstration – there’s not a lot of headroom left in the Deora after the 22″ chop they did.At 57″, the Deora is more than half an inch lower than the 2013 Dodge Dart and the Dart isn’t built on a truck chassis.

I’d hate to end Mike Alexander’s tale with pimpmobiles and Cadillac station wagons used to shuttle around some sheiks’ harems. After the gaudy ASC conversions, Mike continued to influence the auto industry. While at ASC, Mike had a role in the development of the Buick GNX, the even higher performance version of the Buick Grand National. The GNX was unique from regular Grand Nationals. The GNX had very wide tires with different wheel diameters and offsets front and back. The back wheels were 16″, large for the day. For tire clearance purposes the GNX has significantly flared fenders. Those functional flares add to the car’s aggressive, almost malevolent look. The front fenders also have functional louvers to aid in brake cooling.

The Deora at the 1967 Detroit Autorama. Old time hot rodders will note the Gratiot Auto Supply banner on the wall.

ASC was contracted, along with McLaren Performance Technologies, to build the GNX at ASC’s Livonia, Michigan facility. Nearly finished cars were trucked from GM’s assembly plant in Pontiac to Livonia where the GNX bits were added including cutting the fenders and installing the louvers and flares. That was mostly hand work. Production of the 547 GNX cars took place in Livonia but according to Dave Roland, who was an important part of the team that developed the Buick Turbo V6 engines for the Grand National and the GNX, the Southgate ASC facility was involved with the build of the prototypes and some of the GNX parts. Roland said that many of the prototype GNX photos in his personal collection were shot at the Southgate facility. Mike Alexander was running the body shop at the Southgate facility when the GNX was prototyped at that facility.

Mike retired from ASC in 1995, though he continued to consult at Custom Craft, working on the retractable roof of the Cadillac Evoq show car in 1999. As a matter of fact, if your car has a retractable hardtop roof, you can probably thank Mike Alexander. While at ASC he became a bit of an expert on folding metal roof and was granted at least 19 patents on the topic.

By all accounts, Mike was a fine gentleman, a mensch. The automotive world is better because of him and he will be missed. Mike Alexander is survived by his wife Elaine and their three children. Rest in peace.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Bill Mitchell’s Swan Song: The Phantom http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/bill-mitchells-swan-song-phantom/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/bill-mitchells-swan-song-phantom/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 13:00:26 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=897690 Since it was the last design of consequence that General Motors design chief Bill Mitchell oversaw, Wayne Kady’s 1980 Cadillac Seville is thought by some to be the ultimate expression of Mitchell’s design philosophy. No doubt Mitchell was a fan of what he called the “London look”, and the ’80 Seville had that in spades: a classic […]

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Since it was the last design of consequence that General Motors design chief Bill Mitchell oversaw, Wayne Kady’s 1980 Cadillac Seville is thought by some to be the ultimate expression of Mitchell’s design philosophy. No doubt Mitchell was a fan of what he called the “London look”, and the ’80 Seville had that in spades: a classic vertical grille, a bustle shaped rear end, a raked C pillar and a long hood. When accused of borrowing the bustle-back from a contemporary Lincoln, Mitchell reportedly got indignant and said that he stole it from Rolls-Royce, not the cross-town competition in Dearborn. However, while Mitchell went to bat for the controversial Seville design over the objections of Cadillac management, the Seville was not the ultimate expression of his personal taste.

That ultimate expression can instead be seen in a car that never made it to production and in fact was treated a bit like a step-child by GM brass. While the Seville’s razor sharp edges are justifiably associated with Mitchell, something that distinguished GM cars in the 1960s from what Michael Lamm calls Harley Earl’s “Rubenesque” ethos of the mid to late 1950s, the fact is that Mitchell loved the sweeping and elegant look of cars from the late 1930s. The first two cars that he oversaw at GM were the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special and the 1941 Cadillac. Neither of those cars has a single creased edge.

1980 Cadillac Seville

1980 Cadillac Seville

His favorite cars were the custom Silver Arrow Buick Rivieras that he had personalized for his own use, and while there are some of Mitchell’s sharp edges on the Rivieras, particularly the first generation car, in profile the Rivs, most noticeably the boat-tailed versions, evoke the sweeping lines of cars from decades earlier.

Mitchell’s ultimate statement as a car designer would be the 1977 Phantom, a large, fastback two-seat coupe built atop a Pontiac Grand Prix chassis. Though the Phantom has some sharp edges, its proportions, flowing lines and exposed wheel wells  go back to the era of those Cadillacs that Mitchell designed in the late 1930s. Though some have speculated that the Phantom ended up in Mitchell’s possession as some sort of severance payment upon his retirement, while GM designers were indeed known to use one-off concept and show cars as their personal drivers, the Phantom never had a drivetrain. It still exists, but perhaps in line with its history the Phantom is almost hidden away in the corner of a museum.

This 1967 rendering by Wayne Kady of a hypothetical V16 powered Cadillac prefigures both the 1980 Seville and Bill Mitchell's Phantom of 1977.

This 1967 rendering by Wayne Kady of a hypothetical V16 powered Cadillac prefigures both the 1980 Seville and Bill Mitchell’s Phantom of 1977.

By 1977, Mitchell was a bit of an anachronism, a man with a Mad Men mentality in an era while Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinam were raising women’s consciousness, someone who could order a half dozen hookers for lunch and send out an underling to the bank to get the Benjamins to pay them. GM’s design and engineering teams had just created what would be their last masterpieces for decades, the downsized 1977 fullsize sedans, the first American cars designed from scratch to deal with more expensive gasoline, the result of the 1973 oil crisis. The new Chevy Impala, for example, was 700 lbs lighter, smaller in every exterior dimension, yet had more interior room and more cargo capacity than the land yachts it replaced. Those cars would be GM’s high point for years, as they were almost immediately followed by the disastrous X-cars, the Chevy Citation and it’s badge engineered siblings.

Bill Mitchell was not a man for downsizing. Not a small man himself, for his last personal design Mitchell opted for something that was not smaller, lighter nor more space efficient. It was his idea of a modern classic and his hope for the direction that GM design would take after his retirement. However, by 1977, Mitchell had been with the company for four decades and many of his contemporaries (and advocates) were long gone.

A styling show was planned for the GM board at the proving grounds and Mitchell had the Phantom shipped out to Milford on the sly, hoping to surprise the board of directors as well as some of the GM executives like Howard Kehrl, executive vice president in charge of the product planning and technical staffs. Kehrl wasn’t as well known and certainly not as flamboyant as Mitchell, but the engineer had risen up through the ranks and by the late 1970s, with many of Mitchell’s allies retired, Kehrl held more power in the corporation. Having been on the receiving end of Mitchell’s legendary foul mouth, Kehrl was in no mood for one of Mitchell’s power plays. He spotted the Phantom being prepared for display and ordered it off the grounds immediately. Lo, how the mighty are fallen. Mitchell reportedly fumed, but the lion was roaring in winter. Later that year Mitchell retired from GM and opened up his own design studio in suburban Detroit. He died in 1988.

Pontiac_Phantom_01

By 1977, times had changed. In a 1979 interview he told Corvette historian Michael B. Antonick, “You know,  years ago when you went into an auto styling department, you found sweeps…racks of them. Now they design [cars] with a T-square and a triangle.”

Even the designers who had risen through GM’s design studios under Mitchell to positions of power themselves realized that times had passed the designer by. Jerry Hirschberg, who later would head Nissan design, is quoted by Michael Lamm as saying, “”As the years passed, Mitchell’s rather narrow biases and hardening vision limited GM styling. He was fighting old battles and withdrawing increasingly from a world that was being redefined by consumerism, Naderism and an emerging consciousness of the environment.”

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George Moon, a senior interior designer at GM reflected on Mitchell at the end of his career: “Bill Mitchell ruled over GM Design Staff during its most creative, most exciting years in corporate history. No matter his mood, his manner, his style—he gave the place a verve and an excitement it never had before or since. He brought out the best creative energies from all of us, and he oversaw the design of the greatest diversity of cars ever produced.

“Bill couldn’t have survived in today’s arena: too many rules, too many handcuffs, committees and bosses. Nor could today’s corporation tolerate Mitchell’s flamboyance, impertinences, ego and lifestyle. He was his own man, flawed and gifted, crude and creative. You had to love him or hate him, but no one in America could ignore him.”

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Mitchell seemed to have understood that times had passed him by. Even his internal code name for the Phantom, “Madame X” evoked a bygone era. Concerning the Phantom he later said, “Realizing that with the energy crisis and other considerations, the glamour car would not be around for long. I wanted to leave a memory at General Motors of the kind of cars I love”.

Click here to view the embedded video.


Start the video and click on the settings icon to select 2D or 3D formats

Though his power had ebbed, Mitchell was still a legend at General Motors. Perhaps out of consideration for Mitchell’s indelible role in GM history, unlike many concepts the Phantom wasn’t destroyed, and while it’s not in a place of honor in GM’s Heritage Center, the company’s private car museum, the automaker has either donated or loaned it to Flint’s Sloan Museum where you can see it in their Buick Gallery.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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A Son, His Father, and Mom’s Car, a 390 Cubic Inch AMX http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/son-father-moms-car-390-cubic-inch-amx/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/son-father-moms-car-390-cubic-inch-amx/#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 13:54:57 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=899474 A while back, I stumbled upon the fact that while car enthusiasts may be entertained by talk of things like independent rear suspensions, dual overhead cams, and launch control, people in general (and that set includes the subset of car enthusiasts) like to read stories about people. I think you’ll like the story of Clovis […]

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Full gallery here.

A while back, I stumbled upon the fact that while car enthusiasts may be entertained by talk of things like independent rear suspensions, dual overhead cams, and launch control, people in general (and that set includes the subset of car enthusiasts) like to read stories about people. I think you’ll like the story of Clovis “Mickey” Nadeau, his wife Betty and her 1968 American Motors AMX.

Full gallery here.

Full gallery here. Note: each AMX pictured in this post has a separate gallery.

Being that I’m attracted to the oddball and the unique, the regional American Motors Owners club meet held in Livonia on the Sunday immediately following the huge Woodward Dream Cruse is penciled in every year. This year because I was planning on photographing the original Boss 302 prototype at the big Mustang Memories show at Ford’s Product Development Center I didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the AMC meet. I wanted to take photos of a ’62 Rambler American convertible that I knew would be at the show, using my father’s Argus camera that he used when he himself owned a ’61 Rambler American. In addition to those photos, with my digital rig I decided to concentrate on the collection of first generation AMX cars at the show. That proved to be a fortuitous decision because I got to meet the Nadeau family and find out about Betty Nadeau’s muscle car.

While I’m a fan of most things AMC, I was a young teenager when the Javelin and AMX came out and they’ve appealed to me ever since then. Maybe it’s the non-conformist in me, but the Javelin was my favorite of the pony cars, and the shorter wheelbase, two seat AMX is the distilled essence of the Javelin’s shape. In the mid 1960s, AMC chairman Roy Chapin Jr., and president Robert Evans wanted to change the company’s image from being the staid manufacturer of Ramblers, competent and economical but not very exciting compact cars. In late 1965 AMC design head Richard A. Teague was given the assignment of coming up with four show cars that would demonstrate that the little car company that could, could indeed build exciting cars.

The most exciting of the four “Project IV” non-running “pushmobiles” was the AMX, for American Motors Experimental. It was a fastback coupe that had already been in progress in Chuck Mashigan’s advanced styling studio before AMC executives came up with the idea of putting their ideas on tour. Mashigan had a notable design career, including being the primary stylist of the Chrysler Turbine cars. A mockup of the AMX was built on the chassis of a trashed Rambler American. Besides the overall shape, familiar to us as the production AMX, the most distinctive feature of the car was the “Rambleseat” an updated version of the rumble seat. The trunk lid flipped back to reveal a third seat (the concept had a small conventional rear seat), while the rear glass flipped up to provide Rambleseat passengers with a windscreen. Teague referred to the seating arrangement as a 2 + 2 + 2.

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The response from the public to the AMX was so strong that the Vignale coachbuilding firm in Italy was hired to build a running model. Since the original AMX pushmobile and two running Vignale prototypes exist, it appears that Vignale built more than one.

I don’t know if Betty Nadeau’s 1968 AMX still exists or not. She and her husband Clovis, known as Mickey to his friends and family, were married in Ohio, where they grew up, in 1941. They moved to Detroit where Mickey found work and in 1949 moved to what then was a far suburb, Farmington, where they raised three kids including their youngest son, Mickeal. They must have done a good job because Mickeal and his wife Mary had brought his dad to the AMC meet to reminisce, which is how I happened upon them, walking a midst the AMXs. Mickey and Betty must have liked fast cars because in 1962, he bought her a baby blue Thunderbird, one of the “rocket birds”. It might have been too fast, though, because Betty found it hard to control, once doing an unintentional 360 degree spin. Also, her younger son kept borrowing it to impress the girls.

In 1968, Mickey took Betty to an AMC dealership to pick out a new car to replace the T-Bird. By then, the four-seat Javelin had been introduced, followed by more-true-to-the-concept AMX. In mid 1965, AMC had introduced a modern thin-wall “mid block” V8, originally in 290 CI displacement form. With boring and stroking, the same basic engine would eventually be stretched to 402 cubic inches (sold as the 401 to avoid branding conflicts with a Ford motor). In the AMX it had 390 cubic inches, good for 315 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Since the AMC V8 weighed less than the big block engines of similar displacement from the Big 3, AMCs could be surprisingly quick. Car and Driver measured a 0-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds.

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This 40,000 mile original condition survivor was formerly owned by AMC design chief Richard Teague. Full gallery here.

Clovis wanted to buy Betty a Hialeah Yellow AMX. She liked the black racing stripe but thought that with the bright yellow paint the car ended up looking like a bumble bee. I guess she wasn’t a Mopar fan. Instead she picked one out in Scarab Gold, with the requisite black racing stripes. According to her daughter in law, Mary “drove it and loved it”. Apparently it was some kind of limited edition because the family recalls there being a numbered plaque on the dashboard.

Fashions change though, so a few years later Betty wanted a new look and Mickey had the AMX painted candy apple red with a double black stripe. Betty looked great in it. She drove the AMX for 16 years, until 1984, when Mickey retired, and they sold the car. After spending a few years on the road as snow birds, though found desert living to their liking and settled in Tucson.

Betty has since passed away and Mickey was visiting his kids in the Detroit area when Mickeal and Mary decided to take him to the AMC meet to bring back some fond memories. Clovis has a very good son and daughter in law. It was very sweet of them to bring him to the car show.

I happened upon them as they were working their way down the row of stock 1968-1970 AMX cars. Mickey was pointing out to his son various features as he remembered them. As they got to the last car in the category, Mickey beamed. It was a near identical AMX to Betty’s in the same Scarab Gold with black stripes, though it was  a 1970 model, not a ’68. That color was a shade of light metallic green that was very *popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When the owner of the AMX, Dennis Maljak, found out why the Nadeau’s were at the show, his grin was even wider than Mickey’s as he offered the older gentleman a chance to sit behind the wheel of an AMX like his wife had, once again. Mickey pointed out to the owner that the steering wheel wasn’t original. He knew because Betty always kept a $20 bill folded up and tucked behind the horn ring on her AMX’s steering wheel, just in case, for emergencies. The owner then retrieved the original steering wheel that he’s planning on restoring, from his trunk, and checked it for currency, just in case.

If you’re reading this and own a 1968 AMX that was originally painted Scarab Gold, check underneath the horn ring on your steering wheel. If there’s a twenty there, I can introduce you to the original owner who has some great stories about your (and his wife’s) car.

*I was talking to retired GM designer Jerry Brochstein and was relating the Nadeaus’ story and when I said the AMX was painted “baby shit green”, he laughed knowingly.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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There’s a Reason Why Sloan-Kettering Hospital is in Manhattan and Not Detroit http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/theres-reason-sloan-kettering-hospital-manhattan-detroit/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/theres-reason-sloan-kettering-hospital-manhattan-detroit/#comments Sun, 24 Aug 2014 13:00:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=898010 There is news, at least partially confirmed by General Motors, that the Cadillac brand may expand its operations in New York City, moving some business functions from the RenCen in Detroit. It’s thought that moving some marketing, advertising and strategy functions to the Big Apple will add luster to GM’s luxury brand by separating it […]

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There is news, at least partially confirmed by General Motors, that the Cadillac brand may expand its operations in New York City, moving some business functions from the RenCen in Detroit. It’s thought that moving some marketing, advertising and strategy functions to the Big Apple will add luster to GM’s luxury brand by separating it from the city of Detroit’s tarnished image, as well as make it easier to attract talent to those positions. Some people apparently have the notion that “Detroit” is this incredibly provincial and insular place and that the only way to thrive in the highly competitive  global automobile industry is to leave the Motor City behind, both figuratively and literally. That attitude, though, is nothing new, either outside Detroit or in the region. Also, the idea that the domestic car companies have been operated in Detroit by Detroiters, insulated from the rest of the country (and world) is contrary to the historical record.

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You’ve probably heard of Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York City, one of the world’s best cancer treatment centers. This is car site so some of you may recognize those two names as being associated with a business headquartered not in New York but rather in Detroit. That firm is General Motors. Sloan was Alfred P. Sloan, who ran GM from 1923 to 1956 and Kettering was Charles Kettering, the prolific inventor who was GM’s first chief engineer. As with the copper boom in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, more than a little bit of the money made by Detroit automakers made its way back east.

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During GM’s heyday, it’s true that the individual divisions, what we today call GM’s brands, were operated in many ways as completely different companies and most of the decisions of those companies were made somewhere near Detroit, but many of the overarching corporate decisions were made about 600 miles east of the Motor City.

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Alfred Sloan was no stranger to New York. Though born in Connecticut and educated at MIT near Boston (MIT’s school of business management was endowed by Sloan), he was raised in Brooklyn and he died in New York City at the age of 90. The financial community of New York and east coast investors had a major role in the way the GM was managed for much of the 20th century. GM is sort of notorious among car enthusiasts for giving the “bean counters”, the accountants and financial folks supremacy over the product people, the engineers and designers. Where do you think those bean counters work and live? It’s not southeastern Michigan. General Motors Treasurer’s Office has long been located in New York City and it’s long been recognized as holding a lot of power within the company.

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GM’s ties to major east coast investors goes back to Billy Durant’s days of putting the company together, and then losing control to bankers. Starting up Chevrolet to compete with GM, Durant eventually got the backing of Pierre S. DuPont to retake control of GM. One of Durant’s acquisitions for GM was the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company of New Jersey, whose president was a 26 year old Alfred Sloan. By 1918, Sloan was a GM vice president and member of the executive committee and when DuPont forced Durant out of GM for the final time, under the Delaware millionaire’s influence Sloan became first operating vice president and then CEO. Sloan took Durant’s haphazard corporation and reorganized it’s structure and corporate governance along the lines of the then more than century old source of his patron’s wealth, E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co.

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In the young General Motors, Pierre DuPont saw a great opportunity to make money at least a couple of ways: dividends on GM stock and profits from selling the automaker DuPont products.

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After World War One, the DuPont company, which had started out making gunpowder on the banks of the Brandywine River in 1802, had large amounts of capacity for cellulose chemistry because of the manufacture of guncotton, nitrocellulose. Working with Kettering’s team at GM, DuPont chemists developed Duco brand nitrocellulose lacquer, a quick drying paint available in a variety of colors.

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Slow drying enamel paint that needed to be rubbed out because of all the dirt that collected as it dried, was a bottleneck in automobile production. Pierre DuPont had also moved the DuPont company into the young plastics industry through acquisitions and growing the company’s own research team. DuPont Fabrikoid Rayntite brand synthetic leather was used for roofs in an era when few cars had full steel bodies.

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While the DuPont family and company didn’t own outright controlling interest in GM, for much of the automaker’s early history DuPont interests owned about 40% of GM stock, enough for effective control of the automaker. The fact that those interests were making money owning GM stock and selling GM paint and plastics eventually caught the attention of the anti-trust division of Pres. Harry Truman’s Dept. of Justice. After more than a decade of litigation, DuPont finally divested it’s GM stock in the early 1960s.

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The two companies, though, remained close. DuPont not long ago sold off it’s automotive paint operations (now known as Axalta) because the profitable unit wasn’t making quite enough profits, but until then DuPont was still supplying GM with hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of top coats, the color and clear coatings that give modern cars their sheen. While they no longer sell paint to GM, DuPont is still a tier one, tier two and tier three supplier because of the polymers the company manufactures.

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GM isn’t the only “Detroit” automaker to have been, if not managed, influenced heavily by the financial industry centered in New York City. After Horace and John Dodge died within months of each other, their widows, Anna and Matilda, sold their stock in Dodge Brothers to New York bankers, making them perhaps the richest widows in the world. Control of the Dodge car company would eventually return to Detroit when Walter Chrysler bought it in 1928 as he put together the Chrysler Corp. Chrysler himself was also no stranger to New York and its financial industry, using some clever procedures to take control of Maxwell before he actually owned the company. Walter Chrysler, it should be noted, built the Chrysler Building, one of the more distinctive skyscrapers in New York City.

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The influence of the Ford family has meant that Ford Motor Company has been run from Detroit (well, Dearborn) for its entire history. However, I’ll note in passing that when FoMoCo managers mortgaged the entire company down to the blue oval logo to borrow the $23.5 billion or so they realized they’d need to both get past the upcoming rough times and revamp their product lines, they went to the New York financial community to borrow that money, not Les Gold’s pawnshop near Eight Mile Road.

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Besides the fact that at least GM and Chrysler have had pretty strong ties to New York City (and Wall Street held some serious paper on Ford as well recently), the idea that a car company has to break out of Detroit to get the pulse of the market is not exactly a new idea either. Not only does just about every car company in the world have some kind of design facility in southern California (that was once explained to me by a high ranking designer as “the talent likes to go to the beach and hang out with pretty girls too”), in 1998 Ford Motor Company made a big deal about the fact that the Lincoln brand was going to be headquartered near Los Angeles. The following year Lincoln was indeed moved out to southern California and made part of Ford’s ill-fated Premier Automotive Group, headed by Wolfgang Reitzle, formerly of BMW. Mark Fields, FoMoCo’s new CEO, was named head of PAG in 2002 and one of his first moves then was to shutter Lincoln’s California “headquarters” and move those operations back to Dearborn.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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New York State Outlaws Posing With Big Cats, Chauncey the Cougar Snarls Somewhere http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/new-york-state-outlaws-posing-big-cats-chauncey-cougar-snarls-somewhere/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/new-york-state-outlaws-posing-big-cats-chauncey-cougar-snarls-somewhere/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 12:30:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=893882 If a law recently signed into effect by New York Governor Andrew Coumo had been on the books in the 1960s, it’s possible that the Mercury Cougar might have been named something else. In that alternative universe, the law would also have likely completely changed the direction of the Mercury brand in the 1960s and […]

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Full gallery here.

Full gallery here.

If a law recently signed into effect by New York Governor Andrew Coumo had been on the books in the 1960s, it’s possible that the Mercury Cougar might have been named something else. In that alternative universe, the law would also have likely completely changed the direction of the Mercury brand in the 1960s and 1970s. A.9004/S.6903 prohibits exhibitors of big cats, lions, tigers, jaguars/panthers, and cougars (aka mountain lions), from allowing the public to have “direct contact” with the exotic animals. For the purpose of the law, direct contact includes both physical contact like petting or posing with the animal, proximity to it, as well as allowing photography without a permanent physical barrier between them, protecting the animal and the public. The bill was sponsored in the New York Assembly by Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), an animal rights advocate. Somewhere, Chauncey the Mercury Cougar snarls.

The act is primarily aimed at roadside zoos and traveling carnivals, things that have existed for generations. Rosenthal says that she became aware of the practice before people apparently recently started posting photos of themselves posing with big cats online, tiger selfies. It’s one of more than a dozen bills the assemblywoman has introduced on the premise of protecting animals.

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Without a doubt, had the law been in place when the Mercury Cougar was introduced in 1966, while it’s possible that Ford Motor Company might have still named the car the Cougar, the use of live animals in that model’s introduction and marketing probably wouldn’t have happened, at least the way it was implemented. Also, since the success of the Cougar car and the use of live animals in its promotion led to Mercury’s use of “The Sign of the Cat” tagline in overall brand marketing, that too would have been unlikely under New York state’s new legislation.

The name Cougar as a car model name at Ford predates its use by Mercury as it was one of the names under consideration for what became the Mustang. As a matter of fact you can see photos of a mockup of what looks very much like the Mustang II concept car from when Ford stylists were still trying out ideas in 1963 and it’s wearing badging with a big cat, not a pony.

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Ford had used the name publicly on a couple of concept cars including the Cougar II, a potential Corvette competitor built on a Shelby Cobra chassis with a 289 V8 that was shown at the same 1964 New York World’s Fair where the production Mustang first debuted. Apparently, the idea for a “man’s car” to slot in below the Thunderbird in Ford’s pricing scheme had resulted in a project called the T-7, also predating the Mustang. When the pony car was introduced to huge success, the T-7 project and the Cougar name were moved over to the Mustang platform.

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Introduced as a 1967 model by Lincoln Mercury on Sept. 30, 1966, the Cougar’s launch had been preceded by an elaborate public relations campaign to introduce the car, and it seems that a particular large cat, Chauncey the cougar, was part of that campaign from the beginning. The idea to use a live animal is attributed to Gayle Warnock, Ford’s PR director, and his assistant, Bill Peacock. Chauncey, then three years old, had been born in captivity. It’s owners had fed it dog feed and a nutritional deficiency resulted in temporary paralysis and lifelong hip problems. It’s thought that Chauncey’s trademark snarl was a defensive mechanism to compensate for his lack of leaping ability.

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Animal trainers Ted and Pat Derby rescued Chauncey as a four month old kitten, nursed it to health and put him to work in their California business, Animal World, that supplied exotic animals to the television and movie industry. One of Chauncey’s stablemates, Roxanne the bobcat, was used to promote the Mercury Bobcat, that brand’s version of the Ford Pinto. In later years, big cats would be used to sell another small Mercury, the Lynx, a badge engineered Ford Escort.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Chauncey’s work in Cougar commercials is well known. The big cat appeared in commercials with the likes of Farah Fawcett and won the first of multiple P.A.T.S.Y awards in 1969. That was an award that was formerly given to animal performers in Hollywood. With changing attitudes towards animal rights and animal performers, that award has since been retired.

From the Suburbanite Economist on July 31, 1974: "A television celebrity with a flair for a snarl will appear Aug. 3 at Van Dahm Lincoln Mercury Inc . 10201 S. Cicero Ave, Oak Lawn. Chauncey the H-year-old cougar star of Lincoln- Mercury division's Cougar XR 7 and Sign-of-the-Cat commercials, and Christopher -- the two-month-old cougar cub featured in Mercury Comet commercials. The cougars are two of 150 wild animals orphans who live at Ted and Pat Derb's Love is an Animal, a 300-acre farm near Buellton, California"

From the Suburbanite Economist on July 31, 1974:
“A television celebrity with a flair for a snarl will appear Aug. 3 at Van Dahm Lincoln Mercury Inc . 10201 S. Cicero Ave, Oak Lawn. Chauncey the H-year-old cougar star of Lincoln- Mercury division’s Cougar XR 7 and Sign-of-the-Cat commercials, and Christopher — the two-month-old cougar cub featured in Mercury Comet commercials. The cougars are two of 150 wild animals orphans who live at Ted and Pat Derb’s Love is an Animal, a 300-acre farm near Buellton, California”

Chauncey and Roxanne also made public appearances, which is where the Derby’s would have run afoul of the new law in New York. The animals were put on display at Mercury dealers, where the public was invited to watch them walk around, climb up on the cars and hopefully reproduce Chauncey’s famous pose on top of a Cougar. Photography was encouraged, and the public was protected from the big cats by just velvet ropes and the Derby’s training and handling of the animals. Those dealer appearances lasted at least until 1975, when Chauncey went on to big cat heaven.

Click here to view the embedded video.

It’s not clear when Lincoln-Mercury ended the dealer visits, but they continued to use live exotics into the 1980s, with cougars appearing live at the Chicago Auto Show in both 1980 and 1981.

That velvet rope used to keep the crowd from the cougar (and vice versa) at the 1980 Chicago Auto Show would not pass muster in New York State today, which now requires permanent physical barriers between the public and live big cats on display.

That velvet rope used to keep the crowd from the cougar (and vice versa) at the 1980 Chicago Auto Show would not pass muster in New York State today, which now requires permanent physical barriers between the public and live big cats on display.

The Cougar more than doubled original sales expectations, selling more than 150,000 units in the first year it was on sale. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Cougar nameplate would go on to more or less keep the Mercury brand on life support for the next four decades. When the Mustang was downsized to the Pinto platform in the mid 1970s, Chauncey eventually got a bigger Cougar to lay upon as it moved to the midsize Torino platform to become a sibling to the Thunderbird. Chauncey became the face of the brand, sitting on dealer signs in brand advertising as he had lounged on the roofs of Cougars. “The Sign of the Cat” became the brand’s overall tagline, as mentioned, other Mercury models were given feline names, and Chauncey’s snarl graced most Mercury commercials.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Despite the Cougar’s success, the bean counters in Dearborn wanted to kill the model in the 1970s. Ben Bidwell, who later was the number two executive at Chrysler, was then in charge of Lincoln-Mercury and he didn’t want to lose the model. By then, “The Sign of the Cat” was being used to promote Lincoln-Mercury dealers, with whom the tagline, and Chauncey, were popular.

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There was a meeting in Ford’s Glass House HQ presided over by Henry Ford II. While the source doesn’t say when, I’m guessing that the time frame was when Ford was busy creating the Mustang II and trying to decide what to do with the Cougar, still based on the large 1972-73 Mustang.

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Bidwell was in the minority at the meeting. Most of those attending thought the current, rather bloated, Cougar wasn’t very good and that it was going to be too expensive to replace it. The Deuce went around the room, asking for opinions, which were mostly negative. Finally he turned to Bidwell and said, “We haven’t heard from you yet, Bidwell. What do you think?” Bidwell replied, “I just have one thing to say, Mr. Ford. You can’t have a cat house without a cat.” After The Deuce started to laugh, the other executives joined in and the Cougar was saved. The nameplate survived until 2002, though by then it shared a platform with the front wheel drive Ford Probe.

Pat Derby seems to have changed her thoughts over the years about the use of animal performers. A year after Chauncey died she and Ted Derby divorced, reportedly over his use of cattle prods in animal training.  She always asserted that she used kind, humane training methods. Pat Derby continued to display live cougars for Mercury for a few years but by 1984 Derby had retired her own animals and Pat and her companion Ed Stewart started PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a sanctuary for captive wildlife. Here is their mission statement:

PAWS is dedicated to the protection of performing animals, to providing sanctuary to abused, abandoned and retired captive wildlife, to enforcing the best standards of care for all captive wildlife, to the preservation of wild species and their habitat and to promoting public education about captive wildlife issues.

Pat Derby passed away in 2013 at the age of 70. Her ex-husband Ted was killed in 1976 by a neighboring rancher upset over the alleged killing of some livestock by Derby’s animals.

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Pat Derby, Ed Stewart and Christopher, Chauncey’s replacement, at the 1979 Chicago Auto Show.

In his day Chauncey became quite the star, he even had two “doubles” to keep up with the demand for appearances. However, in a 1975 interview with a local newspaper covering a dealer appearance, Ted Derby insisted that anytime you’d see a cougar with a Mercury car, a Mercury sign or a model like Ms. Fawcett, that was Chauncey. Besides his doubles, Chauncey was also reproduced as a plush toy in  a variety of sizes, both as promotional items and for sale. If I have the story down correctly, one  life-size version came as standard equipment with the first high performance XR-7 Cougars in 1967. Those big stuffed cougars were also used as part of showroom displays, resting on top of Cougars.

To give you an idea of what the 1967 Mercury Cougar looks like with the roof down, here's a survivor from the Mid Michigan Mustang Show.

To give you an idea of what the 1967 Mercury Cougar looks like with the hood down, here’s an original condition survivor from the Mid Michigan Mustang Show. Full gallery here.

While the white Cougar with a black vinyl top pictured here apparently came with a plush Chauncey, it’s not original equipment, the car or the plush toy. The car has been restored and the owner told me that his copy of Chauncey was new old stock from a dealer’s back room. The car is an XR-7 Dan Gurney Special and the photographs are from two different events, Greenfield Village’s 2014 Motor Muster and the 2013 Mustang Memories show. Gurney won races in Cougars for FoMoCo in TransAm and he was a member of the Lincoln-Mercury Sports Panel with other notable athletes like Jesse Owens and Byron Nelson.

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Dan Gurney and Cale Yarborough raced this Bud Moore prepared Mercury Cougar successfully in the Trans Am series. Full gallery here.

I’m not sure how many people or exotic cats New York’s new law will protect. The institutions it targets, roadside attractions and carnies, are not known for treating animals to the standards of Pat Derby, and wild animals don’t have thousands of years of domestication and breeding out of aggression, so it’s probably a good idea. Still, I wasn’t able to find any record of anyone being hurt in all the years that Mercury used live big cats at dealer and other public appearances.

If you attend enough car shows you’ll see how owners like to add magazines, documentation and scale models to make their cars’ displays stand out. The live sized plush Chauncey, because it came with the cars and was used by dealers, and even more so, because the real cat and its image was so instrumental in establishing the Mercury brand’s subsequent identity, not only helps the car stand out at a car show, it also reminds show visitors of some of the now deceased nameplate’s history.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

The post New York State Outlaws Posing With Big Cats, Chauncey the Cougar Snarls Somewhere appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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The Most Influential Sports Car Ever Made?: The Lotus Elan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/influential-sports-car-ever-made-lotus-elan/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/influential-sports-car-ever-made-lotus-elan/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 12:30:36 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=886473 You may find the idea that relatively obscure British sports car, with fewer than 16,000 made, could be the most inspirational or influential sports car ever a bit far-fetched, but I think a compelling argument can be made in the favor of the Lotus Elan. Yes, there were two seaters going back to the MG TC and even before […]

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Full gallery here

You may find the idea that relatively obscure British sports car, with fewer than 16,000 made, could be the most inspirational or influential sports car ever a bit far-fetched, but I think a compelling argument can be made in the favor of the Lotus Elan. Yes, there were two seaters going back to the MG TC and even before that there were cars like the the Jaguar SS100. In many people’s minds the MGB defined 1960s era two seat roadsters, but was the B that much different from the Austin Healeys, the MGA, and the Jaguar XKs? An argument could be made that the Elan was the first modern sports car (putting aside the E Type Jaguar for the sake of argument) and it was introduced almost simultaneously with the MGB. Its contemporaries from MG and Triumph were primitive cars compared to the Elan.

To begin with, the Elan’s welded up sheet metal backbone frame alone, even without the composite body, has more torsional stiffness than other contemporary sports cars. It was much lighter, coming in at less than 1600 lbs with a full tank of gas. It had modern components: an aluminum head with double overhead cams, a front suspension designed by people making F1 race cars with anti-dive and anti-squat geometry, true independent rear suspension with wide A arms and one of Colin Chapman’s many innovations, the Chapman strut. The Elan has disk brakes at all four wheels and if I’m not mistaken, at the time it was introduced in 1962, the Jaguar E-Type was the only other car that came standard with four wheel disk brakes. In 1962, drums were standard on the Corvette. The Elan was also kitted and trimmed out more fully than the MGs and Triumphs of its day, noticeably more finished and luxurious. I believe that radios were always standard equipment and from 1967 on, Elans had electric windows.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Then there is the Elan’s performance. Though not particularly quick by today’s standards, when Toyota Camry’s can have almost 300 HP, the Elan was fast in its day, with respectable 0-60 times. Of course straight line performance was not what the Elan was built for. It’s simply known as one of the best handling cars ever made. Today it is still the standard by which other cars’ tossability is measured. To drive the Elan on a twisting and turning road is to commune with your higher automotive power. The inputs are all almost perfectly weighted, the steering, the gearbox, the brakes and accelerator. It’s all fingers and toes and putting the car within millimeters of your line.

Watch this videos from Jay Leno’s garage and you can see how much Leno, a truly knowledgeable car guy, respects this car. Leno owns a McLaren F1 and he knows designer Gordon Murray. He says that Murray told him that the F1 was inspired by the Elan. He also said that Murray’s praise for the Elan convinced him to buy one, a nice example of a 1969 Elan, and then another, a factory lightweight 26R intended for racing (the Elan was #26 in Lotus’ model numbering system) that was the object of a no-costs-barred restomod, with a custom aluminum engine block and a sequential transmission.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Note, this is the finale of a series of over 20 videos that Leno produced on the Elan 26R project. They are highly recommended.

Well, if the Elan had only inspired the McLaren F1, it would deserve a spot on the list, but the Elan has directly inspired two other historically important sports cars, and at least a couple of others as well. One of those influences you may know about, the other is less obvious.

Toyota is not exactly known for its sports cars. Other than the MR2 and the Lexus LF-A supercar, the company is known for making transportation appliances. However, in the 1960s, Toyota wanted to show that it was a player on the world automotive scene and they introduced the 2000GT. The 2000GT is generally regarded as Toyota’s take on the Jaguar E-Type coupe because of the cars’ styling similarities and the inline DOHC 6 cyl engines. Under the 2000GTs skin, though, the car is a near copy of the Elan’s chassis.

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Lotus Elan Chassis

There is no question that the Elan’s backbone frame, Chapman strut rear suspension, and general layout was copied by the 2000GT. Other than the two extra engine cylinders, the two cars’ chassis look almost identical. Chapman’s design, of course, had cutouts in the chassis’ sheetmetal to add some lightness.

Toyota 2000GT chassis (scale model)

Toyota 2000GT chassis (scale model)

In terms of styling while I think that the similarity with the Jaguar is obvious, I also see some lines borrowed from the Elan, the front fender line and the rear end particularly. It’s particularly noticeable in the one-off 2000GT roadster made for one of the James Bond films, You Only Live Twice.

Click here to view the embedded video.

If Toyota’s copying of the Elan’s mechanical design is not widely known, the fact that Tom Matano and the other Mazda designers involved with the first Miata used the Elan as a design brief is common knowledge. A few years ago, when it was announced that Mazda had built and sold over 750,000 units of the Miata/MX-5/Eunos, I had the opportunity to ask Matano how it felt to be “the most successful sports car designer ever”. Chevy may have sold more Corvettes since 1953, but that car has gone through more radical styling changes than the Miata. Though there have been a number of Miata generations, the car’s basic styling language has remained the same. Matano told me that because the Miata was based on the Elan, he was actually prouder of the last RX-7, which was a clean sheet design.

The Elan directly influenced three of the most historically significant sports cars of the past half century, including the best selling sports car design ever, the Toyota 2000GT, the McLaren F1 and the Mazda Miata. Just on the Miata’s sales figures alone, the Elan inspired more actual cars, more units, than any other sports car. If you look at some of the other two seat roadsters and coupes that were available after the Elan came out, like the Fiat 124, and maybe even some contemporary Alfa Romeos, I think an argument can be made that the Elan influenced them as well, with their 4 cyl DOHC engines and other features (though I believe Alfa was selling DOHC roadsters before the Elan was introduced).

Maybe that’s overstating the case but Murray and Leno aren’t the only knowledgeable gearhead fans of the Elan to give it extraordinary praise. EVO magazine founder Harry Metcalfe says that it had revolutionary handling 50 years ago and when they tested it heads up in 2003 against a Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 it had the best acceleration time and the best lap time as well. “It’s just so superb… there are so many fundamentals that are right in this car.” Watch Metcalfe describe and then drive his ’72 Elan Sprint and count how many superlatives he uses.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Leno says that the Elan is remarkable for it’s own merits, “almost the perfect sports car”, Murray says it’s his favorite car, and Metcalfe says that it’s superb. At the start I said that the Elan is relatively obscure, but with people like the above trio praising the car like that, others have started to take notice. There was a time when Elans were not regarded as well as the subsequent Lotus road car, the midengine Europe because, well, midengine, but according to the Hagerty Price Guide, today most Elans are worth more than most Europas. Hagerty says that an Elan roadster in #4 driver condition will cost you between $10,000 and $13,000 while a desirable late model Sprint SE in #1 shape is worth about $39K. Hagerty may be a bit behind the market in this case since Bring A Trailer has listed Elans whose asking prices were a bit higher than that. If you consider how influential the Elan is and how few were made, it’s easy to see them appreciating over $50,000 for very nice ones.

Elan production, from 1962 to 1974 (the two seat Elan went out of production in 1972 but the Elan +2 model survived till ’74) breaks down as follows :

  • Series 1-3 Elans:  7,895
  • Series 4 Elans: 2.976
  • Elan Sprints: 1,353
  • Elan +2 cars: 3,300
    Total: 15,524

There were over 31,000 Series 1 Jaguar E Types made and over the life of the E, over 70,000 were made. Nice E Types go for six figures and according to Hagerty, you can put yourself in a #2 or even a #1 Elan for what it costs to buy a #4 driver E Type. Admittedly, the Jaguar is more of a marquee car, certainly sexier, it will get you more attention from average folks. However, in terms of upside appreciation potential, the Elan may be a better long term bet. I don’t think that Leno’s going to lose money on that rebuilt but unaltered ’69, not that he’s selling it, and if you watch the video about his 26R restomod, that one’s not going anywhere either.

Should you buy one that’s not perfect, they’re relatively easy to restore, what components that Lotus didn’t source from other car companies are still available,  if not from Lotus, than from aftermarket vendors. You can find brand new replacement frames and probably even whole bodies if you look hard enough. Speaking of those bodies, while rusting frames are not unknown (one reason why the factory sold replacement frames, another is that they tend to be written off in colisions), Elan bodies are made of fiberglass reinforced plastic so it’s more like restoring an old Corvette than an old Mustang. Also, depending on how much work it needs, you might not end up too upside down on the restoration costs.

In any case, if you see one for sale nearby, see if you can arrange a test drive. Driving an Elan is something every car enthusiast should do at one time or another, they very may well be the best handling cars ever made. It’s not uncommon to hear owners say, “While test driving, I entered a turn a bit too fast and with those tiny pedals I couldn’t find the brake so I just cranked harder on the wheel and it simply went where I steered it. That’s when I decided to buy it.” It’s simply a great and very influential car.

Both of the Elan’s pictured here are right hand drive models, and were both coincidentally spotted in parking lots at car shows. The British Racing Green car is a Series 1 Elan, while the car in Gold Leaf tobacco (a Lotus F1 sponsor in the day) colors is a Series 3 car owned by a Japanese Toyota engineer assigned to their R&D center in Ann Arbor. Since the Series 1 and 2 cars are similar, and the Series 3 & 4 cars are alike, these two cars represent both body styles made during the Elan’s production run. The later cars have a trunk lid that extends to the back of the car, while the early cars have a panel between the trunk lid and the rear fascia. Starting with the Series 3 cars, there was also an upgraded, folding top that replaced the brackets and bows that held up the roof of the early cars, and fully framed, electrically powered windows replaced the counterweighted pull up windows of the Series 1 & 2 cars.

Note: This is a revised version of a post that was previously published at Cars In Depth. Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Days of Futurliners Past – General Motors’ Parade of Progress Buses http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/days-futurliners-past-general-motors-parade-progress-buses/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/days-futurliners-past-general-motors-parade-progress-buses/#comments Sun, 10 Aug 2014 16:34:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=884841 The way the story goes, the idea for General Motors’ Parade of Progress sprang from the mind of Charles Kettering, GM’s vice president for research and the inventor of the first practical electric self starter for automobiles, as he walked through GM’s exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago. Looking at the […]

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Full gallery here

The way the story goes, the idea for General Motors’ Parade of Progress sprang from the mind of Charles Kettering, GM’s vice president for research and the inventor of the first practical electric self starter for automobiles, as he walked through GM’s exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago. Looking at the demonstrations of the science and technology used in his company, he thought, why not put the show on the road and take the displays to towns across America?

The first Parade of Progress was in 1936, starting in Lakeland, Florida (perhaps not coincidentally, the Detroit Tigers started conducting spring training that year in Lakeland) and ending at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, stopping at  251 towns and smaller cities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and even Cuba in between, and it was seen by 12.5 million people. By comparison, less than 9 million people attended Major League Baseball games that year. If you think of how much smaller those countries’ populations were back then, you can get an idea what a major event the Parade of Progress was. That’s the equivalent of about 31 million people attending an event in the U.S. today. That’s how big of a deal the Parade of Progress was in its day.

Over the next twenty years, there’d be a total of three GM Parades of Progress, ending in 1956. There aren’t many artifacts left of those public relations campaigns, at least as far as ephemera is concerned. A quick check at eBay shows  a few brochures, and some publicity photos for sale. To automotive enthusiasts, though, some the most significant artifacts possible from the Parade of Progress still exist, the Art Deco styled Futurliner buses that carried around the displays from town to town.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Kettering ran his idea past GM chairman Alfred Sloan Jr. and Paul Garrett, the automaker’s VP in charge of public relations. They seized on the idea. Movies, fairs and other forms of inexpensive mass entertainment were popular. It was the depths of the Great Depression, people wanted distractions from the economy. The GM executives correctly reasoned that an entertaining and educational show would help promote the company and its many products, not just automobiles, particularly if there was no admission charge. Radio and newspapers were the only forms of mass communications then. By making the show mobile, GM could take it to just about every community in the country, avoiding large metropolitan areas, concentrating on places where it would get maximum attention. When the Parade of Progress came to town, people literally came from miles around, with attendance sometimes more than doubling local populations.

Click here to view the embedded video.

To transport the show, in addition to nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers, there was a fleet of eight custom red and white streamlined vans, build in Fisher Body’s Fleetwood plant, where custom Cadillacs were built. When parked and ganged next to each other, they featured walk through exhibits. The PoP was staffed by 40 to 50 young men, all college graduates from top universities. They’d drive the vehicles, set up the exhibits and then change into nicer uniforms to give lectures on the displays. They’d stay at each stop for up to four days, then pack up and go to the next town. Former participants all seem to look back fondly on the experience.

Click here to view the embedded video.

It was a sophisticated public relations operation with the route chosen a year in advance. Garrett’s staff in New York City would notify the local chamber of commerce and a few days later an advance man would show up. One of them, Bob Emerick who would would eventually retire from GM as Pontiac’s PR director, described the process:

“There were three of us advance men alternating towns – hopscotching along the route. We’d work with the chamber of commerce and city officials – find an empty lot to pitch the tents, make hotel reservations, the work with the newspapers and radio stations; also the schools, civic clubs, and local GM dealers. We had a short movie that we brought along to give these groups a teaser of the actual shows.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

When the shows arrived, they were presented live and the main tent show was about 45 minutes long. While the PoP originally used conventional circus-type tents, in 1940, a new tent with an external girder skeleton was introduced that could hold larger crowds.

A mock up of the Futurliners held an animated diorama titled Our American Crossroads. The display has been restored and is in the GM Heritage Center. Full gallery here.

A mock up of the Futurliners held an animated diorama titled Our American Crossroads. The display has been restored and is in the GM Heritage Center. Full gallery here.

 

That year the original eight streamliners were replaced by 12 new vehicles dubbed Futurliners, plus a mockup bus display that housed an elaborate animated diorama called Our American Crossroads that showed how towns developed along with the automobile. The Futurliners had clamshell sides that opened up to reveal the displays inside. A hydraulically lifted light bar would illuminate the area at night.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Futurliner name matched up nicely with GM’s Futurama exhibit then going on at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Also, dropping the E from future meant that GM could more easily trademark the name.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Futurliners were barely on the road when they were mothballed two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The buses went into storage while most of the young men staffing the show went off to war. The Parade of Progress would not be revived until 1953, perhaps to coincide with GM’s Motorama shows, which were a bit more car-centric and staged in larger cities. While cars were displayed at the Parade of Progress shows, they weren’t the focus of the events, it was a soft sell.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Parade of Progress really seems to have been about showing GM and American technology in all of its breadth, so by 1953 there were displays about atomic power, microwave ovens, jet propulsion and stereophonic sound that joined popular holdover exhibits. However, by 1953 there was more than just radio to entertain people. People could watch entertaining and educational shows for free without leaving their homes. Television spelled the demise of the Parade of Progress. With attendance declining, the last Parade was in 1956.

The Futurliner is a singular looking vehicle. I really can’t think of anything else on the road that looks like it. Attributed to Harley Earl, as with other Earl designs he probably did some of his famous hand waves and GM’s talented team of designers did his bidding. It’s very large, 11′ 7″ tall, 8′ wide, and 33′ feet long with a 248″ wheelbase. It’s also heavy, about 16.5 tons. Unique to the Futurliner are duallies up front. There are side by side front wheels and tires, each one with it’s own drum brake. Even with a total of six brake drums, they weren’t very adequate to slow all that weight and one of the Futurliners was rear ended by another.  With all that rubber to turn, the buses had an early version of power steering but apparently the pumps frequently failed due to the load.

As built in 1939, the Futuliners were powered by front mounted four cylinder diesel engines driving through 4X4 mechanical gearboxes (I believe that means a four speed with four ranges for 16 total speeds, not four wheel drive). In 1953 the Futurliners were updated. Their clear plastic domes over the driver’s cabin had proved to be rather warm, so a more conventional roof (with a hatch) was installed.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The engines were replaced with 145 horsepower 302 cubic inch six cylinder OHV units from GMC.  A four speed hydramatic replaced the manual transmission was coupled to another two speed box, plus a third 3 speed power take off unit (though that one requires the driver to stop the vehicle and go to the back of the bus to select the appropriate range). The result was 24 gear ratios to choose from. With only 145 hp and a quarter mile time of 41 seconds or more (and a trap speed of just 28 mph), the Futurliners needed all those gears to get to all those towns. In addition to a metal roof, for driver comfort GM added air conditioning units made by its Frigidaire division. Sitting with their heads 11 feet off of the ground, however, made for some uncomfortable driving, particularly when going under overpasses.

Of the 12 Futuliners that were made, nine are known to still exist in one form or another. Seven have either been restored or are considered restorable. The two basket cases have been used to restore other Futurliners. One bus is currently being restored in Sweden, and the Futurliner that is considered to be the most original is currently being restored in Utah. That bus has been the model for other restorations, including the restoration of Futurliner #10, pictured here. The remains of Futurliner #5, which donated parts to the restoration of #10, has been converted into a rather clever flatbed car and truck hauler and is currently for sale at asking price of $1.25 million.

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Coker Tires reproduced the original U.S. Royal General Motors Parade of Progress whitewalls. Full gallery here.

After GM retired the Futurliners for good in 1956 they were sold off or donated. A couple ended up with the Michigan State Police, the Peter Pan Bus Company bought and restored one, and one was used by the Oral Roberts Ministries. Number 10 was bought by the Goebel Brewing company, based in Detroit (now there’s a brand for hipsters to bring back). They called it the Goebel Land Cruiser and referred to it as “A new concept in public relations”. They drove it to fairs, picnics, parades and the like to show people how beer was made. Apparently at one point in its service to Goebel, Futurliner #10 overheated and, not having any spare coolant, the beer that was kept cool onboard for distribution to employees of the local beer distributors sponsoring the events was used instead to fill the radiator.

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Note the body by Fisher badge by the door. The 33,000 lb. Futurliners had duallies in front as well as in back. Full gallery here.

Financial issues that led to Goebel’s purchase by Stroh’s also caused the discontinuation of the Land Cruiser. The Pulte Construction company, also then based in Detroit, bought the Futurliner to use as a promotional vehicle for a new development in Florida. Driving the Futurliner south, somewhere near Tallahassee it threw a rod and the engine caught fire.

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A commanding driving position if there ever was one. The white pod to the left of the steering wheel is the sensor for the Autronic Eye automatic dimmers. Full gallery here.

Fast forward to 1998. Car enthusiast and retired GM plant manager Don Mayton saw one of the Futurliners while in Palm Springs on business. He knew he had to have one, but he also realized it would be beyond his means. Still he kept looking. Mayton lives on the west side of Michigan, not far from Grand Rapids, in Zeeland, and it turned out that he found a Futurliner not that far away. The National Automotive and Truck Museum, NATMUS, located in Auburn, Indiana, adjacent to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, had acquired Futurliner #10. It needed a restoration and Mayton and his crew of volunteers not only made arrangements through the museum’s Partner Program to raise the $200,000 or so needed for the restoration, they performed the restoration themselves, meeting every Tuesday to work on it one way or another.

As restorations go, it’s somewhere between completely original and grandfather’s axe. Much of the framework for the body had to be reproduced as did the special U.S. Royal whitewalls embossed with “General Motors Parade of Progress”. Someone still had a couple of original tires which were sent to Coker Tire for reproduction. Castings of the big GM badge up front and the General Motors Parade of Progress lettering along the flanks were taken so they too could be reproduced. One of the volunteers fabricated a completely new wiring harness. Interestingly, the keyed power switch is behind one of the outside access panels down below the driver’s compartment. Once that switch is activated, the driver can push a button to start up the GMC six. Actually, separate key switches and floor mounted starter buttons were commonplace when the Futurliners were being built.

The restoration was complete in 2006, with its first showing at the Meadow Brook concours (now the Concours of America at St. John’s). While the NATMUS museum still owns Futurliner #10, the volunteers store it in a garage near Grand Rapids from spring through fall and take it to car shows and other events, educating the public about it, which is how it came to be in Milford. Of all of the restored Futurliners, it is considered to be the most authentic, still featuring its original to 1953 drivetrain.

Click here to view the embedded video.

If you want to read more about the Futurliners in general or #10 and how it was restored, the project has an entire website devoted to it and the restoration. If you want to help pay to maintain Futurliner #10, there is an assortment of models, apparel, as well as a book and DVD on the Parade of Progress Futurliners and the restoration of #10 that you can buy to help support the project. What Mayton and his crew of volunteers have done with the Futurliner is highly praiseworthy, devoting their time and energy to restoring a piece of not just automotive history but American history as well, without any thought of recompense. Now that the Futurliner is done, Mayton and his team are restoring one of Bill Mitchell’s custom Buick styling concept cars.

Though the volunteers who restored it may need to educate members of the general public about the Futurliner and GM’s Parade of Progress, the buses are fairly well known to car enthusiasts. Every now and then one will come up for auction, like the time that super collector Ron Pratte bought a restored Futurliner for $4.1 million at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale auction. That resulted in a bit of Futurliner speculation but sales since then haven’t met presales estimates. I suppose there is a limited market for big tall vintage Art Deco buses. If you are part of that market, however, Pratte is selling off his entire collection, including his Futurliner early next year at the 2015 B-J Arizona auction.

With only a handful of Futurliners  in roadable condition, the chances of seeing one in the metal are rare, so I was excited to see that #10 would be participating in a Pontiac Oakland club show out at Baker’s in Milford. However, when I got to Baker’s that Sunday there was obviously not a Pontiac show going on. I asked someone and they told me the show was on Saturday. I could have sworn that the flyer I saw said something about the 20th. When I said I was disappointed to miss the Futurliner, the guy said, “Oh, they’re over at the Proving Grounds and are coming back.”

The Futurliner as built in 1939. Note the bubble canopy over the driver. That proved to be uncomfortably hot.

The Futurliner as built in 1939. Note the bubble canopy over the driver. That proved to be uncomfortably hot.

Milford is the location of the General Motors Proving Grounds, about two miles from Baker’s. There’s no record of any Futurliners being at the Proving Grounds since before 1953. There is one photograph showing a 1939-53 Futurliner at GM’s main road testing facility so this was the first time a Futurliner was at the Proving Grounds in over 60 years. I hopped into the press Audi A3 I had that week and headed up towards the test track. On my way there, though, I could see the Futurliner coming towards me, headed back to the restaurant. It’s rather hard to miss. I quickly pulled off the road to wave as they went by and then I had to wait. The bus has a top speed of not much more than 45 mph – or at least the driver told me that he wouldn’t want to drive it much faster than that. The road they were on has a 50 or 55 mph speed limit. Traffic was piled up for about a half mile or more behind it as it trundled down the road. Finally, a guy in a BMW took some compassion on me and let me merge.

Futurliner at Night

I had some errands to run in that part of town so I ended up hanging out with the volunteers a good deal of the day, off and on. They let visitors climb up into the cabin and sit behind the wheel, donations appreciated. It has to be the weirdest driving position short of the tail steerer on a hook & ladder rig. If you think an SUV gives you a commanding seating position, think again. The Futurliner being a cab-over design, there is a rather long and complicated linkage between the steering wheel and the wheels that are being steered.

While the displays were swapped around between the vehicles, this particular Futurliner is known to have been used to promote GM’s Fisher Body Craftmen’s Guild and the display space currently features materials about the Guild along with artifacts from the Parade of Progress.

You can describe the dimensions and what a great expression of the Art Deco design ethos it is, but the Futurliner is such a singular vehicle that words fail. It’s just this big red tall thing that grabs your eyes and won’t let go. It’s one of those vehicles that you really have to see in person to appreciate.  The idea that a company like General Motors would make something this weird just boggles the mind, but then once upon a time they also made the Corvair, the rope drive Tempest and the Pontiac “cammer” OHC inline six.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Stereo Realists: Donald Healey, George Mason and How the 3D Craze Led to the Nash-Healey http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/stereo-realists-donald-healey-george-mason-and-how-the-3d-craze-led-to-the-nash-healey/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/stereo-realists-donald-healey-george-mason-and-how-the-3d-craze-led-to-the-nash-healey/#comments Sat, 02 Aug 2014 14:25:49 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=876073 Carroll Shelby wasn’t the first person who thought of putting a powerful American engine in a British sports car. Sydney Allard did it more than a decade before Shelby made his first Ford powered A.C.E. and called it a Cobra. As a matter of fact, Shelby raced an Allard J2 in the early 1950s. So […]

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Carroll Shelby wasn’t the first person who thought of putting a powerful American engine in a British sports car. Sydney Allard did it more than a decade before Shelby made his first Ford powered A.C.E. and called it a Cobra. As a matter of fact, Shelby raced an Allard J2 in the early 1950s. So did Zora Arkus Duntov, whose ARDUN heads were equipped on the flathead Ford V8s that Allard fitted to UK domestic market J2s. Allard’s American customers generally preferred to buy cars without engines so their could fit their choice of high compression OHV V8s that were proliferating in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The most popular engine was the 331 cubic inch Cadillac V8, introduced in 1949. Actually Allard wasn’t the only British manufacturer with the idea of using American muscle in his performance cars. Donald Healey also wanted to use Cadillac engines in his sports cars and traveled to Detroit to buy them. A chance encounter while shipboard with a large man taking stereo photographs, though, changed those plans.

Due to his interest in aviation, Donald Healey’s father secured him an apprenticeship with the Sopwith Aviation Company, where he worked while continuing his engineering studies. At the age of just 16 years old, Healey volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, earning his wings and then flying combat missions including bombing raids. After being shot down by friendly fire and having a few other crashes, he was declared medically unfit to fly and spent the duration of the war quality checking airplane components. After the war he took an automotive engineering correspondence course and opened up a repair garage, expanding into car rentals. Soon, he found motor racing and rallying more exciting than running the business, which he proceeded to use to prepare cars for competition.

Healey became an accomplished rally driver, competing in nine straight Monte Carlo Rallies, with an overall win in 1931. His success as a driver brought him some attention and in 1932 he was hired by Riley and sold off his garage. In 1933 he joined Triumph as head of experimental engineering, later serving as technical director. He was responsible for the design of a new family of four and six cylinder OHV engines along with the supercharged double overhead cam, all aluminum straight eight for the very limited production Dolomite sports car. Healey was recruited by Joseph Lucas Ltd. in 1937 but returned to Triumph shortly thereafter, rewarded with a seat on the board of directors, eventually rising to managing director.

Unfortunately, by the time he got that job, Triumph was in terrible financial shape and went into receivership in 1939. The Thomas Ward company that bought the assets sold one of Triumph’s two factories, and leased out the other, so without anything to manage, Healey looked for other work, eventually ending up at Roote’s Humber subsidiary, where he worked on armored cars during the second world war. As a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve he also commanded a training squadron.

Despite his obligations serving the war effort in uniform and in his day job, Healey managed to find time to give thought to reviving Triumph after the war. Perhaps it was a psychological way of coping with the war since much of Triumph’s tooling was destroyed in German air raids on Coventry in late 1940, but Healey and some coworkers at Humber, stylist Ben Bowden, engineer A.C. “Sammy” Sampietro (who later designed the Jeep “Tornado” six as chief engineer at Willys (and later Kaiser) Jeep), and another reserve pilot, James Watt, started working on an all-new Triumph they hoped to build and sell after the end of hostilities.

However, by the time Healey and his team approached Ward with their proposal in 1944, the company had already lost interest in making cars. Also, it is likely that Ward was already negotiating the deal that was concluded later that year to sell what remained of Triumph to the Standard Motor Company, which would revive the brand into how most people today remember Triumph cars. While Healey and his team would not be able to themselves return Triumph to the land of the living, the fact that they’d started with a clean sheet with their design, unrelated to any previous Triumph car, meant that they could continue to develop the project without having to pay royalties or be dependent on Triumph’s owners for components.

Healey used his connections, developed from over a decade in the industry, to find manufacturing space and a supplier, Riley Motors, for the bits they couldn’t make themselves: engines, transmissions, rear ends, and other assorted components. With money raised from family and friends, and a hard to secure manufacturing license in hand, in 1945 Healey started the Donald Healey Motor Company Ltd, with their first cars, a roadster and sedan, going into production in October 1946.

Aaron Severson described Donald Healey’s first cars in his history of the Nash-Healey at Ate Up With Motor (from which much of this post is drawn):

The early Healeys were sleek, low-slung, and surprisingly aerodynamic; with wood-framed aluminum bodies on a steel frame, they weighed around 2,500 lb (1,125 kg), depending on coachwork. They used Sampietro’s independent front suspension, with trailing arms and coil springs. The rear suspension used a Riley torque tube, carried on coil springs and located by twin radius arms and a Panhard rod. The four-speed gearbox was also provided by Riley, as was the engine, an unusual 2,443 cc (149 cu. in.) inline four with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin in-block camshafts. Rated output was 104 hp (78 kW) and 132 lb-ft (178 N-m) of torque.

They were capable of more than 100 mph as they left the works, making them among the fastest cars sold in Britain at the time. They earned class victories in the 1947 and 1948 Alpine Rallies, the 1948 Targa Florio and the 1949 Mille Miglia. Though they performed well, they also were expensive (the roadster was the equivalent of about $6,300) limiting production to just 227 cars through late 1950. Another 120 rolling chassis were sold to customers who wanted custom bodywork.

Donald Healey’s first true sports car was the Silverstone, named after the UK’s most famous race track. Though it shared its Riley mechanicals with the earlier Healeys, the chassis was different, with the engine mounted farther back for better weight distribution and it had a lightweight aluminum body. Top speed was a claimed 110 mph, and it was a better bargain than the earlier cars, starting at just £975 ($2,730) before taxes. In the U.S. they were sold for $3,995.

The Silverstone had cut-down doors, cycle-type fenders, a fold-down windshield, and just about no protection from the elements. Suspension was via coil springs at all four corners, with trailing arms in front and a rear axle located with a torque tube, radius arms and a Panhard Rod. Telescoping shock absorbers replaced the lever action dampers of early Healeys.

One of the first American customers was gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham, who in 1949 bought two Silverstones for racing. Cunningham fitted one of them with the then new Cadillac OHV V8 and a Ford transmission, yielding much better performance over the Riley equipped cars. Healey and his son Geoff, by then a graduate engineer, managed to acquire their own Cadillac engine and they discovered that not only did the V8 have 56 hp more than the Riley four cylinder, and twice as much torque, it weighed no more than the Riley and it improved weight distribution.

It wasn’t just the performance that impressed Donald Healey. He saw the use of an American engine as a way of selling more cars in the U.S. The UK and Europe were still rebuilding after the devastation of WWII while America was experiencing a postwar economic and automotive boom. Donald Healey Motor Company was by then nearly £50,000 in debt and they needed the business.

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In December of 1949, Healey booked passage on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner and set off for the United States and a meeting with Ed Cole, Cadillac’s chief engineer, later the father of the small block Chevy V8. While on board the ship, Healey, a photography buff, noticed a tall, rather fat gentleman taking pictures with a 3D rig, most likely a Stereo Realist camera, which were popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s (coinciding with the 3D movie craze of that era). Healey approached him to talk about photography and the large man with the interesting camera turned out to be George W. Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator, on his way back to Kenosha from the European auto show circuit. Both of them being in the automobile business, albeit on different scales, Mason invited Healey for dinner, where Healey told him of his planned meeting with Cole in Detroit. Mason cautioned Healey that Cadillac was selling every V8 powered car it could make and suggested that if things didn’t work out for him in Detroit, he should give him a call in Kenosha.

As Mason expected, at the meeting with Cole the GM engineer told Healey that they had no capacity to spare him some V8s for his Anglo-American sports car project. While Nash didn’t have a V8, they did have a 235 cubic inch six, so Healey went with plan B and a trip to Wisconsin. In Kenosha, Mason made Healey that proverbial deal he couldn’t refuse. Not only would Nash supply Healey with engines, transmissions, overdrive units, and rear axles, they would do so on credit, and, putting the cherry on top, the American company would distribute the finished cars via Nash’s dealer network.

Though the Nash six was heavier than the Riley four, it had great low speed torque and it was durable. Production Nash-Healeys featured a special aluminum cylinder head, fitted with twin SU carbs, that had higher compression. Nash-Healey engines also featured a hotter cam. The improvements lifted horsepower from 115 to 125, with 210 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm. The prototype was entered at LeMans in 1950 and did fairly well, third in class and fourth overall, beating Cunningham’s Cadillac powered entry.

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The production car, called the Nash-Healey, was revealed at the 1950 Paris auto salon in October. It had a newly styled aluminum body that unlike the Silverstone’s cycle fenders, was an envelope design with integral fenders. It was designed by Donald Healey and Len Hodges and the body was made by Panelcraft Sheetmetal in Birmingham, England. To keep the car consistent with other Nashes, Mason demanded that bits and pieces of the Nash Ambassador, including the grille design, be incorporated. Other Nash parts included headlights, bumpers, hubcaps, and a shortened Ambassador torque tube. The Nash-Healey was also equipped with the Ambassador’s Bendix brakes (drums).

Healey was never completely happy with using the Nash grille, comparing it to comedian Joe E. Brown, known for his rather large mouth. When he revised the car for the European market as the Alvis powered Healey Sports Convertible, Healey had the front end redesigned.

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Regular production of the Nash-Healey began in December 1950, going on sale in the U.S. in the spring of 1951 after being introduced at the Chicago Auto Show. It was available in two colors, ivory and maroon, with leather upholstery, and whitewall tires. The sources say that the first Nash-Healeys had snap in Perspex (acrylic) side curtains that had to be stored in the trunk when not in use but the maroon one pictured in this post appears to have windows that slide up and down. Perhaps they’re similar to the windows on the early Lotus Elans, which were counterweighted but had no cranks. Curb weight was 2,600 lbs. Though the heavier motor ended up causing understeer, in general the Nash-Healey was regarded as having competent handling and a comfortable ride. Zero to sixty time was about 12 seconds with a top speed of 104 mph. Not as quick or as fast as the Silverstone but still very respectable speed for the early 1950s. Reviews generally praised the sports car, though they criticized the bench seat and said that the 10 inch drum brakes were not suitable for fast driving.

Though Nash dealers were enthusiastic about the car as what we’d call a halo vehicle, a showroom traffic builder, the car cost just over $4,000, more than 60% more costly than the next most expensive Nash. Just 104 1951 Nash-Healeys were made. Only 20 are known to exist today, most of them not in operating condition.

While not a huge seller for Nash, the Nash-Healey helped balance the books at Donald Healey’s company, allowing them to proceed with the development of what would become known as the Austin-Healey 100, the first of the so-called “big Healeys”.

A year after his chance shipboard encounter with Donald Healey, George Mason was once again touring the major European auto shows. He was impressed with the work of Battista “Pinin” Farina, of Turin, Italy, particularly the Lancia Aurelia B10. Upon his return to Kenosha, Mason had his protege, George Romney, hire Farina as a styling consultant. Though very little of Farina’s styling suggestions would end up on production cars, Nash promoted the association and the company’s cars bore the Pinin Farina badge.

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One car that did end up featuring Farina’s styling was the second generation Nash-Healey. Farina gave it a new grille with inset headlamps (a styling motif that would eventually show up on the 1955 Ambassador), a one piece windshield and flared rear fenders that kicked up into proto-tailfins. The 2nd gen Nash-Healey was a convertible, not a roadster, with wind-up windows, and later a coupe version was offered.  The bodies were made of steel, instead of aluminum, resulting in significantly more weight and lower performance. Donald Healey’s Joe E. Brown comments notwithstanding, I prefer the look of the original cars, which because of their low production, aren’t as likely to be seen at car shows so they’re not as well known as the later cars. Not only do I think it’s a more attractive design, there is more design continuity between the early Nash-Healeys and the Austin-Healeys than with the second generation cars. The earlier cars have a timeless quality about them. It wouldn’t surprise me if observers thought the earlier cars were actually newer.

Recently there’s been renewed interest in Nash-Healeys in general, and the early versions in particular. The Fast ‘N Loud television show on the Discovery Channel featured a first generation Nash-Healey, hyping the six-figure value of the earlier cars. One reason why that car was on the show is that show star Richard Rawlings’ business partner, Gumball rallier Dennis Collins, whose family owns a successful Jeep, is a serious Healey collector, having owned 200 or so at one time or another, including some historically significant early Healeys.

Click here to view the embedded video.

You won’t get any earlier than this particular Nash-Healey, nor will you find a car with any better provenance. It was part of a retrospective on the evolution of the sports car at the 2014 Concours of America. The little maroon roadster was not just the first Nash-Healey built, it was owned by Donald Healey and it was used for his personal transportation when in the United States. It currently belongs to John Kruse of Worldwide Auctions. The subject of a $400,000 restoration to how it was when Donald Healey drove it, the car has been a winner at a number of car shows and concourses. Kruse bought Healey chassis #N2001 when Collins put it up for auction last year. The reported sale price was half a million dollars, including the auction house’s cut.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While I was buttoning up this post, I discovered that in preparation for that sale, Collins put together a detailed history of the car. He calls it “the first purpose built American Sports Car”. I’ll excuse that little bit of hype, Collins is all about the hype (as you’ll see below). In fact, the Nash-Healey was at best only half American and never built in America (and the Crosley Hotshot was likely the first American sports car) but Collins’ history of the car does fill in a lot of the details, including the car’s competition history:

Winner from day one: the first purpose-built American Sports Car

Like many of life’s treasures, the Nash-Healey’s birth was an unlikely confluence of events. Its beginnings sprang from a chance meeting in 1949 aboard the Queen Elizabeth, between Donald Healey and George Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator Co. Mason wanted a sports car to improve the image of his automobile company and Healey was on his way to back to England after failing to acquire Cadillac engines from GM for his new sports car. They agreed that motor racing was a necessity in the development and promotion of a sports car. Mason thought his Ambassador engine would be perfect. The rest, as they say, is history: America’s first true sports car, designed from the beginning to go toe to toe with the world’s finest. Conceived with the engineering genius of England’s master car designer and nurtured by the financial backing of a great American industrial corporation, the results were predictable – one of the great cars of the age. As soon as first prototypes were ready, they began to appear on the race tracks of the world among some very famous company.

It is June of 1950, only months after its conception, and the fledgling marque finds itself in the boiling cauldron of motorsports: Le Mans. The factory drivers Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton have driven the freshly constructed Panelcraft aluminum-bodied Nash Healey prototype to the race from the factory in England. They are surrounded by decades of tradition, hundreds of years of European and English engineering expertise and the grand marques of the world, including a first: a two-car Cadillac factory team with the full support of GM, fielded by millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham. Our heroes prepare to do battle .

The starting grid is formidable, including 4.5 litre Talbot-Lagos from France, looking  like overpowered lightweight sprint cars. Three Ferraris from Luigi Chinetti’s North America Racing Team, the factory Jaguar XK120s and the Aston Martin factory team are among those who clearly came to win. Two lightweight Allards, one driven by Sidney Allard himself , were now equipped with monster 5.4-liter Cadillac engines with multiple carburetion and were clearly dead serious.

The results after 24 hours: only two of  the 4.5-litre Talbot-Lagos and Sidney Allard in the 5.4-liter Allard have bested the 3.8-liter Nash- Healey. The best the Jaguars can do is 12th and 15th. The fragile Ferraris are all parked, not one of the prancing  horses is prancing at the finish. The Cadillac team can only do 10th and 11th, the beginning of several defeats at the hands of the Nash-Healey for American icon Briggs Cunningham. The Nash Healey is a monster success on the biggest stage in the world. Mason is sold, and authorizes the beginning of production. A star is born.

In the 1951 Le Mans race, Briggs Cunnigham came to play. He entered three Chrysler 5.5-liter Hemi-powered C2Rs. In spite of qualifying second, third and fourth, his best finish of the three cars was 18th as his cars were still somewhat overweight. The Panelcraft alloy bodied Rolt-Hamilton Nash-Healey was to finish a very nice sixth. This was the year of the C-type Jaguar and Dunlop disc brakes, of Jaguar,  Talbot-Lago, Aston Martin, Aston Martin, Nash-Healey and Ferarri 340. Several other Ferraris finished down the list.

But the Nash-Healey’s final factory appearance at Le Mans in 1952 would be the jewel in the crown. Nineteen-fifty two would mark the introduction to the world of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL factory team. It was the 30th running of the 24-hour race and the Germans were not to be denied. The Mercedes-Benz factory was about to conduct a clinic on how to run a professional racing team. (History shows that a young Roger Penske was present, taking careful notes.)

This was probably a world record to date for the amount of money spent by a manufacturer on a motor race (not a government – the Third Reich probably holds that record). The Mercedes-Benz team had, in addition to the requisite dozen or so engineers in the obligatory white lab coats, at least 40 technicians, five fully prepared and tested racing cars (two were spares) and, unusual at the time, two semi trailers fully outfitted as workshops.

I think we all know who was going to win this little fracas. Predictably the Mercedes team finished one-two. Score a victory to Rommel and the Panzers. Let’s list the top five since we are all sportsmen here: Mercedes, Mercedes, Nash-Healey, Cunningham C4R coupe, Ferrari 340. So Briggs Cunningham gets into the top four with his new jillion dollar car, now much lighter with 350hp, and still has to look at the back end of a Nash-Healey. Bummer.

So, is the story here that the little Nash was able to defeat all but the Panzers; or that once again no matter how many millions he spent, Briggs Cunningham could not defeat the Donald Healey design?

No, the story is that for two generations foolish American collectors and vintage racers have fought tooth and nail (and checkbook) over “European purebreds,” and have remained fundamentally ignorant about these wonderful, incredibly sophisticated cars that first took our flag into battle with such distinction.

In addition to its record at Le Mans, the Nash-Healey competed at the Mille Miglia, finishing as high as 30th (out of over 400 entries in 1951) of 173 finishers. Nash-Healeys also competed there in 1952 and 1953. A special car was prepared for the 1953 Mille Miglia driven by American ace John Fitch. This incredibly fast car was well in it until forced to retire with brake (hydraulic) failure.

Sadly, this story does not have an altogether happy ending. As in the American automobile industry in general, style was about to vanquish substance, and these lithe, lightweight alloy-bodied Panelcraft Nash-Healeys would be replaced by the steel bodied Pinin Farina cars in 1952. Longer, wider, tail finned, beauties that looked more like the road going sedans, with hundreds of pounds more “road hugging weight,” they were glamourous to a fault. With racy names like Le Mans and sexy looks, they sadly could not match the performance of the alloy Panelcraft cars, but still embarrassed the likes of Thunderbird and Corvette, sports cars in name only. One hundred four of the alloy Panelcraft production cars were built. According to the Nash-Healey registry, as of today 20 are accounted for. Of these 20, seven are in operating condition. Three can be classified as restored.

Three of these early cars have been presented as entries into the modern day Mille Miglia, one of the most prestigious and exclusive events in historic motorsports. All three cars have been accepted and have run and completed the event.

Now we come to that point in our conversation where we turn to evaluation. We would all like to have the first Gullwing, snatched from the Mercedes-Benz  museum, but that is not going to happen. I am sure, however, we are all arrogant enough to place some value on it. At least seven figures. What seven figures is where we would differ.

How about the first Ferrari? Again seven figures, but what that figures would be would be all over the room. The C4R that finished 4th at Le Mans in ’52? Let’s not be picky, I will take any Cunningham team car.

The point is this: The first 1953 Corvette was not the first American sports car. It is a nice cruiser built on a shortened 1949 Chevy frame, with a fiberglass body constructed by a boat manufacturer. It has the same chance at a sports car event as a snowball in a frying pan. The Cunninghams had their shot, but their results were wanting. They are great cars, are huge money and we all covet them, but they were not around in 1950.

So alone and unafraid we have the alloy bodied Panelcraft Nash-Healeys. Competitive with the world’s finest from the period that the sports cars we crave the most were created.

Now we present the very first Nash-Healey production car. Chassis #N2001 Engine #NHA1001, Panelcraft alloy bodied, hand built. A car that cost $8,000 delivered, when the most expensive Ferrari cost $9,500, another reason they were doomed to be replaced by the easier-to-produce steel Pinin Farina cars that were thousands less. That is why they were exclusive, and that is why there are not many around. In road trim they were 124 MPH cars; and in race trim 144 MPH cars. No other American car came close.

Let’s not quibble. This is the first among firsts. The crème de la crème. The best of the best. This automobile is eligible for the most  prestigious events in vintage motorsports. Today, as it did in the day, it will compete with, and defeat Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, Alfa and Mercedes, anything it comes up against. It will win on show field or track, rally or race.

Notes:

1. The white 1952 Nash-Healey was photographed at the preview to RM Auction’s 2014 Motor City auction held in conjunction with the Concours of America at St. John’s. The black 1952 Nash-Healey was photographed at the 2011 Eyes On Design show. A number of observers at the auction preview and at the concours mentioned how the white Nash-Healey was sporting wire spoked hubcaps from off of a Chrysler. Looking at historical photos, it appears that the wheel covers on the black car are also not correct.

2. Due to my own interest in stereo photography and videography I tracked down George Mason’s grandson, to see if the family had saved any of his stereo photos. I’ve found some vintage 3D photos of cars from the Keystone View company and I thought it might be cool to see some 3D pics of cars shot by a guy who ran a car company. Unfortunately, Mason’s stereophotographic oeuvre has been lost to posterity. Please digitize your family’s photos, films and videotapes.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

 

 

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Classic Review: 1986 Pontiac Fiero GT V6 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/07/classic-review-1986-pontiac-fiero-gt-v6/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/07/classic-review-1986-pontiac-fiero-gt-v6/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 13:07:36 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=876441 The Pontiac Fiero is one of those cars that is forever showing up on lists. A simple on-line search finds that it’s one of the 100 worst cars ever built, one of the ten cars that should be avoided by tall people, one of the worst ever Indy 500 Pace Cars and, because of its […]

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The Pontiac Fiero is one of those cars that is forever showing up on lists. A simple on-line search finds that it’s one of the 100 worst cars ever built, one of the ten cars that should be avoided by tall people, one of the worst ever Indy 500 Pace Cars and, because of its poor sales, one of the 10 greatest automotive financial disasters of all time. Other lists, however, rate the little two-seater as one of the best sports cars of the 1980s, call it one of the ten unexpectedly best cars for tall people and even rank it as one of the best choices for future collectability. Oddly enough, the Pontiac Fiero also appeared on my own personal list of potential purchases a few months ago and, despite the fact that I ended up choosing one of its contemporaries, when I recently found a wonderful, low-mileage example at KC Classic Autos in near-by Kansas city, I knew I must see it.

The history of the Pontiac Fiero is an open book. Originally conceived as a two seat, mid-engine sports car with an advanced, all-new suspension and a powerful V6 engine, the Fiero was castrated prior to its birth by GM’s bean counters who worried that the proposed car might end up stealing sales numbers from the Corvette. As a result, the new car was toned down. The powerful V6 was replaced with GM’s 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” four-cylinder, a slow-revving long-stroke iron block engine intended for economy cars, and the advanced suspension was dropped in favor of a parts bin approach that used existing bits and pieces from the Citation and Chevette. The result was rather lackluster and the media received it with mixed reactions. Motor Trend gave the Fiero a decent review in 1984 but other magazines felt that, as an aggressively styled mid-engine car, it needed to have more performance. Whatever the case, the public loved what they saw and bought almost 187,000 units in 1984.

For 1985 Pontiac addressed the critics’ need for more power by adding an optional 140 HP V6 to the line-up but sales dropped to around 74,000. In 1986, the – in my opinion – much better looking fastback Fiero GT was added beginning mid-year and sales climbed to almost 84,000 units. 1987 brought general improvements and more power to the four cylinder model but sales were definitely trending downward and only 45,851 cars left the showroom that year. In 1988, Pontiac introduced a more sophisticated suspension, based on the original design the bean counters had initially kept out of the car, and this model year is said to be the most desirable among collectors. But alas, only 26,402 were sold before Pontiac discontinued the model and today they are a might thin on the ground. All totaled, 370,168 Fieros of all types were sold over the course of five years.

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Like so many GM products before it, the Fiero is one of those cars that was killed just about the time its full potential was being realized. Initially the cars suffered from quality issues and design problems. The 1984 model year also experienced a number of well publicized fires and despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia, only 148 reports were made to the NHTSA detailing just six injuries, the Fiero, much like the Ford Pinto, has an enduring reputation for combustability. The truth is that within a couple years of the Fiero’s introduction, the car was well sorted and the 1986 model I was able to ride in is a great example of just how far the design had come.

I appeared unannounced at KC Classic Autos late in the afternoon and, after paying my $1 entrance fee to the “museum” and introducing myself, was given the run of the place. I have had the opportunity to visit a few classic car dealers over the years and this one stacks up rather well with a clean facility and plenty of interesting cars on hand that I could get up close and personal with. After spending far too much time looking at a stunning 1969 Nova SS and several other classic American muscle cars, I finally decided to ask if I could get a ride in the 1986 Fiero they had parked close to the front door. I had two reasons for choosing this particular car, first I hope to be invited back to ride in and report on more of the classic machines that were further back in the showroom and second, because I wanted to compare my little Shelby to the much better preserved Pontiac.

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I’ve already spent some time talking about my Dodge in other articles but it’s important to do so again so I can do a little comparing and contrasting. At 31 years old, the Shelby is a well presented little car that recently had a great deal of work done to it. Despite its lumpy idle and its slightly rich smelling exhaust, it runs like a top and moves out just fine when I get on the gas. Thanks to the work that has been done, on the outside it looks almost new, but the inside is another story and the car’s threadbare interior shows almost every one of its three decades plus one year of existence.

I’ll write more on it in detail in an upcoming article, but suffice to say that my little Dodge really is an old car. It buzzes, it rattles and it has strange smells, but at a time when this Pontiac was sitting safe and secure in a temperature controlled garage, the Shelby was out living its life, running errands, hauling kids and generally being enjoyed by its owner. Every scar, every tear and every rattle inside the car has a story that goes with it and although as a second owner I can never really know what happened, I can respect the fact that this car was a valued member of someone else’s family for many years. It has, I think, a real sense of having been used, enjoyed and loved.

At 28 years old, the 1986 Pontiac Fiero GT I saw yesterday is still very much a new car. With right around 20,500 miles on the clock, it still looks new inside. The carpets are unworn and the seats are still firm and flawless. The internal plastics have been unaffected by the sun and the gauge faces were are still as bright and clear as the day the car came off the line. The two-seater started instantly at the first turn of a key and burbled happily as it rolled out of the show room. It was simply stunning in the light of the afternoon sun.

Like I would do with any new car I am reviewing, I spent a lot of time circling the Fiero and looking for flaws. Although it’s used, I had no complaints about anything I saw. Panel gaps were good, the interior pieces fit together well. Of course the switchgear is clearly 1980s GM but it still looked modern and good in the car. Overall, I found it to be a pleasant, clean little Pontiac and I was eager for a chance to ride in it.

fiero 3

Why this car would appear on a list of vehicles that should be avoided by tall people is a mystery to me. In the mid ‘80s, I am sure this low slung, high belted design would have felt like sitting in an old fashioned bath tub, but compared to modern muscle cars I found the Fiero roomy, easy to see out of and I had no problems getting my sizeable corn-fed All American ass into and out of the passenger seat. Although my driver, KC Classic’s president, Kim Eldred, took it a little easy on the first leg of our drive I thought the car picked up and ran along the city streets without problems. Unlike my Shelby, there were zero rattles or strange smells and it is simply so clean that my mind cannot comprehend the fact that this is an “old” car.

As we made our turn-around on an empty back street, Kim jumped on the gas and I got a chance to see just a little of what the V6 could do. Hampered by an automatic transmission, initial acceleration was sluggish in first gear but second gear, however, was downright surprising. As it made the shift, I felt myself pushed back into the seat with enough force to put a lasting smile on my face and, although the car was not blindingly fast, it was pleasantly snappy. Overall, it was a good ride.

In the weeks since my Shelby arrived I have had to take a good long look in the mirror. I remember the 1980s with some fondness, and in my mind’s eye the colors remain neon bright, the tunes fun and happy and the cars as solid, modern machines. The idea that they, like the man who looks back at me from across the bathroom sink, have gone soft over the years and are not capable of the things that they once did so easily makes me wonder if they ever could. Were the ‘80s, I ask myself, really the way I remember them or were they simply an illusion of youth? This Pontiac, so well preserved, has put those doubts to rest. The 1980s really were good times and I know now without a doubt that the cars, even one with such a mixed reputation as the Pontiac Fiero, really were capable of the things I remember.

If my purchase of the Shelby Charger was an attempt to regain a piece of my youth by marrying the prom queen that eluded me back in 1984 now that she is now the divorced grandmother of three, this Pontiac is a true piece of history recently removed suspended animation and put on sale for the relatively reasonable price of $12,900. All it needs now is a new owner to use it, enjoy it and to love it. You perhaps?

F4

My thanks to KC Classic Auto for allowing me to wander around their show room and for their willingness to take me out in one of their cars for this review.

The post Classic Review: 1986 Pontiac Fiero GT V6 appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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