The Truth About Cars » ernst niedermeyer http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 22 Oct 2014 22:13:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » ernst niedermeyer http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Curbside Classic: 1990 Pontiac LeMans – The Lows And Rocky Mt. Highs Of GM’s Deadly Sin #12 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1990-pontiac-lemans-the-lows-and-rocky-mt-highs-of-gms-deadly-sin-12/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-1990-pontiac-lemans-the-lows-and-rocky-mt-highs-of-gms-deadly-sin-12/#comments Thu, 18 Nov 2010 16:01:08 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373212 Between the years 1988 and 1993, GM decided to use Americans in a mass experiment, in which I found myself  an unwitting participant. Seemingly unable to determine on its own whether Korean-made cars would pass muster here, GM just sent boatloads of them over and slapped on the storied Pontiac LeMans name, no less. Then […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curbside Classic: 1962 Ford Fairlane http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/curbside-classic-1962-ford-fairlane/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/04/curbside-classic-1962-ford-fairlane/#comments Fri, 02 Apr 2010 14:59:26 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=351247 They say you can’t go home again. True enough, but as you read this, Edward and the rest of my family and I will be winging our way to Baltimore for a long overdue family reunion. My father recently turned ninety, and my mother will be eighty-seven soon. So what is the obvious choice of […]

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They say you can’t go home again. True enough, but as you read this, Edward and the rest of my family and I will be winging our way to Baltimore for a long overdue family reunion. My father recently turned ninety, and my mother will be eighty-seven soon. So what is the obvious choice of today’s Curbside Classic? The Niedermeyer family car from the early sixties, a black 1962 Fairlane, and in every way exactly like this one, except that ours was the base stripper, not the deluxe 500 like this one. That alone tells you something about the old man.

If you want to properly place this Fairlane in the Niedermeyer family history, here’s the corresponding chapter of the Autobiography. Or the Cliff Notes version: We emigrated from Austria in 1960 to Iowa City, Iowa, my father having been recruited to the University of Iowa, and bought a used 1954 Ford Mainline sedan upon our arrival. Six year old cars back then were already geriatric; my five year old xB is barely a teenager in comparison. The ’54 Ford blue whale was roomy for a family of six, and did the job, mostly, except for not wanting to break its slumber on cold winter mornings. But it was feeling its age, so one day in the winter of 1962, my father unexpectedly showed up with this black Fairlane, bare bones except for the brand new 221 CID V8 and the Ford-O-Matic. I had very mixed emotions.

Yes, it was a new car, not just factory fresh, but the ’62 Fairlane was a totally new creature from Detroit: the first intermediate-sized car from the Big Three. Sure, Ramblers of the times were essentially mid-sized cars, and perhaps the Studebaker Lark should best be considered one too. And it was the remarkable success of the Ramblers that undoubtedly inspired Ford to take the lead with the new Fairlane.

Keep in mind, this was just two years after Ford’s smash success with the Falcon. And just as the Falcon was the basis for the Mustang in 1964, so it also sired the Fairlane. In fact, it would be fair to say that the Fairlane was just a stretched Falcon, the kind of thing done routinely nowadays. And just to confuse matters even more, the Mercury Comet slotted in between the two in length, although it used the narrower width Falcon body. That kept me scratching my head back then. Ford was ahead of the times, and if you wonder where Lee Iacocca got his inspiration for endless variations and different lengths for all the Chrysler K-cars, here it is. History inevitably repeats itself.

So why wasn’t I as excited as I could/should have been as a nine year old car fanatic when Dad shows up with the first brand new car ever? Let me count the ways, starting with the neighbors across the street. They had a matching brace of 1960 Bonnevilles; a hardtop sedan for him, and the wagon for her. I obsessed on them, and had my heart set on the 1962 versions for the Niedermeyer livery. The fact that the car-nut in the family wasn’t even consulted alone was hard to take, but that pattern was to repeat itself endlessly, except for two notable exceptions.

Given the fact that we weren’t exactly a touchy-feely sort of family, I definitely had my eye on a wagon with a third seat for a little elbow room. In 1962, my sister was fourteen, my older brother twelve, and my younger brother three. The painful reality is that the Fairlane is roughly about the size of today’s Civic or Corolla. Extended skin contact with siblings was not my idea of how to spend two days straight on our vacation trips to Colorado.  And before I forget, nobody ever rode in the front middle; we had to do skin contact; he didn’t.

Our Fairlane was utterly stripped of any excess ornamentation, worthy of taxi-cab service. But in my father’s eye, the cheap seat upholstery was something to be well preserved, so he ordered a set of clear plastic seat covers from Fingerhut, the perfectly smooth ones, not the more expensive ones with raised bumps on them to create channels to drain the rivulets of sweat away. No, that would have been extravagant. We literally had to peel ourselves off those seats in the summer, given the short shorts of the era.

It gets worse. My dear father always had a severe issue with drafts, especially around his neck. And he’s always cold; rarely will you see him without a cardigan (or two), even in the summer. So only the front windows were allowed to be opened a tiny crack, even on the hottest summer days. Air conditioning? What’s that? So that’s how we spent two days each way driving to Colorado every summer, and on other trips. But it gets worse yet! In 1964, we were all two years older and much bigger, and my mother was seven months pregnant, and we all crammed in for a three day torture session to the New York World’s Fair, and then back again.  If a child was forced today to endure what we did on that trip, jammed into that hot black Fairlane, and the resulting expressions of emotions it engendered, the Child Protective Services would have cut that trip well short, somewhere in Ohio, I’d say. Father, somehow I still love you, despite the miserable cramped black Fairlane you tortured us/yourself with. Didn’t you know you could buy a full-sized wagon for just a few hundred dollars more?

He finally (almost) tumbled to that in 1965, when the Fairlane was traded in on a 1965 Dodge Coronet eight-seat wagon; technically still a mid-sized, but a huge improvement. Since it coincided with my sister’s departure from the family fold, skin contact issues took a huge step forward. Kids today have no idea what we endured back then. And kids in the Depression would undoubtedly have thought us to be spoiled babies. And so on…

Enough Niedermeyer family carma. The Fairlane wasn’t quite the success that the Falcon was. But then that was a monster, selling almost a half million in its first year. Nevertheless, it was another coup for Ford in its ability to expand at the expense of GM in the early-mid sixties, by expanding into niches that hadn’t been exploited fully yet. And undoubtedly, the Fairlane was developed and built on the cheap, given its Falcon bones. The only noteworthy thing about it was it was the first car to use Ford’s brand new small-block Windsor V8. Why the hell Ford chose to build it in a 221 cubic inch version, with a modest 145 (gross) hp is hard to fathom. By mid-year, the larger 260 CID version already debuted along with the bucket-seated 500 coupe. And a year and a half later, the definitive 289 replaced them all. Ford like to keep the boring machines guessing.

The little 221 was a smooth and tidy mill, but it was no more powerful than the Chevy 230 or the Chrysler 225 slant sixes, and because it had eight cylinders, it intrinsically had a less favorable torque curve. After 1963, the 221 inch V8 was gone; an oddity of Ford history. But the fact that our stripper Fairlane at least had the little V8 was its redeeming grace. That badge on the front fender meant more to my self esteem during that difficult period in my life than my father will ever know. I might not be who I am today because of it. Thanks, Dad!

My sister used to come to pick me up from grade school every Wednesday to drive me and a friend to the all-city orchestra rehearsal. On the one slightly longer stretch of road near the school we would goad her to floor it. She obliged, but we had to floor and kick-down our imaginations to experience some sort of true and visceral accelerative experience. With the two-speed Ford-O-Matic (technically it was a three speed, but one had to engage Low manually, which sis was not doing) the little V8 whispered rather than bellowed its efforts to accelerate the fairly light 2800 lb sedan.

This particular forlorn Fairlane sits in front of an old house near downtown, owned by a couple of young sisters who live in the upstairs apartment. I know this because it has a For Sale sign on it now, and I talked to the guy who lives below them. He’s tired of looking at it, and told me that they would probably take anything for it, since the next stop is the junk yard if no one steps up. He encouraged me, eager to rid himself of the eyesore. I though about it briefly, but then I remembered the words: you can’t go home again. And even if I could, I’m not so sure I’d want to.

More new Curbside Classics here

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