The Truth About Cars » iowa The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 04:01:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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 (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 » iowa Curbside Classic: 1962 Ford Fairlane Fri, 02 Apr 2010 14:59:26 +0000

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

]]> 37 Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country Mon, 01 Mar 2010 21:36:30 +0000

It’s morning on a bright summer day in Iowa City in 1962. I may have fallen asleep with pictures of Marilyn and the Corvette, but now they’re lost somewhere in the folds of my sheets. The fantasy is over, and its time to face a reality of rampant Rambler Classic wagons with wheezing sixes piloted by boozy but anything but sexy Moms. Instead of a fancy night club where a jazz band is playing, we’re off to the pool, and if we’re lucky a stop at the Purple Cow drive-in for milkshakes and floats afterward. The distinctive pattern of Rambler upholstery seared into the backs of my thighs and the stain of artificial strawberry on my trunks will be the tell-tale of having crowded in with half a dozen other hot (the wrong kind) and sticky kids in the back seat. Why did I have to find you, Rambler Classic Wagon? I was so enjoying my fantasy memories.

These Rambler wagons were everywhere at the time, the choice of the younger families that were so busy birthing and brooding baby boomers. This picture, which includes a house that is much more Iowa then Oregon, takes me back to riding in my friend Chris’ identical family Classic wagon, wishing it was a Pontiac Bonneville like the family across the street. Lets face it, Ramblers were about on the same pecking order of a passionate nine-year old piston head in 1962 as a ten year old Kia does today. These cars were the Kias of their time: the most frugal and pragmatic transportation in the land, if you needed more room than a VW. [Updtate: Ironically, it turns out that Eugene's Kia dealer was once the Rambler dealer, and a Daewoo dealer in between. Hat tip to Littlecarrot]. Rambler wisely turned away from trying to compete with the Big Three after a couple of disastrous years in 1954-1956, and identified a niche for frugal midwesterners, no matter what part of the country they lived in.

And it worked like a charm, as plenty of folks were sick of the over-sized chrome-winged flash the big guys were serving up in the late fifties. In 1960, Rambler set new records for an independent, and in 1961, a recession year, Rambler was Number Three in the land! A truly remarkable accomplishment; kind of like Hyundai in the past year, but  shooting all the way to third.

Of course it wouldn’t last. The Big Three threw their barrage of compacts and mid-sized cars at Rambler, the Studebaker Lark, and the imports, and it hit hard. Rambler’s heyday was brief and inglorious, inasmuch as the cars were utterly dreadful bores, and horribly styled, like the truly wretched 1961 American and this somewhat but only slightly better Classic. The Ambassador? That was truly a joke, trying to compete with the stylish and toned-down new ’61s from GM, especially the Pontiacs.

Obviously, a nine-year old isn’t thinking about the practical virtues of a Rambler. This Classic Cross Country was the Volvo 245 of its times, with a healthy sprinkle of chromium-laced fairy dust in two tones. It had practical big 15″ wheels when everyone was doing 14 and 13 inch mini-donuts. And AMC actually dropped the V8 option in the Classic line, which probably had everything to do with the fact that the ’62 Ambassador lost its larger platform and was now just a tarted-up Classic. That made all Classics dogs, because that six was a pretty feeble affair.

The 195.6 cubic inch 127 (gross) hp engine had its origins in 1941, and was updated with an OHV head along the way. But it was an old school chuffer, with a tiny 3.13″ bore and a massive 4.25″ stroke. Plenty of low-end torque to haul the kids around with, but I remember seeing these struggling in the Rocky Mountains, with the camping gear lashed to the standard luggage rack over that weird lowered rear roof section. And if memory serves me right, there was an all-aluminum version for a couple of years, in that brief US fad that resulted in lots of warped heads and the scratching heads of unhappy owners. Cast iron was here to stay, for another forty years or so.

This 1961 Rambler was one year away from the end of the line for the 108″ wheelbase platform it sat on, having first seen the light of day in 1954. Of course, it was a unibody, a fairly light one at that; even this wagon barely topped 3,000 lbs. The next year, the Classic got the handsome new body that we praised in one of our first Curbside Classics. It was long overdue; eight years was an eternity back then, and it was all-too obvious to me at the time that this ’61 was already a rolling antique. Enough Rambler ragging; I’m not nine anymore, but childhood impressions are hard to totally purge. And fantasies are infinitely more pleasurable.

More Curbside Classics are here

]]> 66 Autobiography: ’69 Plymouth Fury Sat, 16 Feb 2008 13:39:41 +0000 plym6901.jpgSomewhere west of Ogallala, rocketing across the plains at ninety-six in a sixty-nine Plymouth Fury, a twangy voice lectured us with the old song: “love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” My two female traveling companions and I exchanged glances, laughed and sang along. “…you can’t have one without the other.” In that precious moment, everything crystallized: what it meant to be nineteen in 1972, free as a bird, barreling down the freeway in a powerful American sedan.


Somewhere west of Ogallala, rocketing across the plains at ninety-six in a sixty-nine Plymouth Fury, a twangy voice lectured us with the old song: “love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” My two female traveling companions and I exchanged glances, laughed and sang along. “…you can’t have one without the other.” In that precious moment, everything crystallized: what it meant to be nineteen in 1972, free as a bird, barreling down the freeway in a powerful American sedan.

We were headed for the Rockies, retracing the annual eight hundred mile pilgrimage my family and I made there in the early sixties. This time I was literally and figuratively behind the wheel, re-writing the script.

Back in the day, the Niedermeyer family would stop at church to pray for a safe trip before all six of us squeezed into our barely mid-sized ’62 Fairlane penalty-box. God drove a hard bargain for our safe-keeping: two seemingly endless days spent sweating on the CIA-interrogation approved clear plastic seat covers, second-guessing our pilot’s passing skills.

Papa drove like the stereotypical newly-minted immigrant driver. His tentativeness trying to pass trucks on the crowded two-lane highways taught us what we couldn’t articulate: decisiveness (and good judgment) inspires confidence; hesitation… doesn’t. The tension in the Ford was thicker than the greasy truck-stop steaks we admired from afar. After a particularly hair-raising episode my older sister refused to return to her seat after a stop at a roadside gas station. Thankfully, daily hikes in the Rockies relieved our accumulated stress (and restored regularity).

So there I was, stretched out behind the wheel of a “fuselage body” 1969 Fury with my companions of choice (not fate). We were cruising down the interstate’s smooth, barely-cured concrete without a care in the world.

Back then, Chrysler’s barges weren’t quite as plush-riding as GM and Ford’s. But their unibody construction made them the lightest of the three. And Chrysler’s superb Torqueflite transmission put Mopar muscle to the wheels. With the popular 383 V8, the zero to sixty sprint required just 7.5 seconds. Even today, that’s not bad for a comfortable family sedan.

Little did I know that smog controls were about to emasculate this singular breed, the American barge, as OPEC gave Detroit’s carmakers an identity crisis that continues to this very day.

Anyway, the Fury, dubbed “Ply-mouth,” belonged to the two sisters’ Mom. She’d bought the car for its ability to pull a horse trailer down Iowa’s rural roads. But on that magnificent day, the Chrysler was paying service to a higher calling than equine transport: sheer balls-out speed.

It’s not like I’d set out to challenge Cannonball Baker. But once we hit I-80 on that glowing summer morning, the Ply-mouth just wanted to run, just like the well-bred horses it usually hauled. Traffic was sparse back then; cops were jawboning with the farmers over their fourth cup of dishwashing-water at the local cafe, and the purple mountain majesties beckoned us.

As the big V8 cleared the gravel-road dust from its lungs, our speed crept up. I swear, there was no holding that Fury back. In what seemed like a flash, we’d traversed Iowa and crossed the Missouri. The next thing I knew were barreling across Nebraska at somewhere between 90 mph and the ton.

It was so effortless and relaxed we might as well have been sprawled on (and across) the living room couch. The endlessly-wide bench seats became chaise lounges. Bare feet were everywhere: on the dash, across a lap, out the window. Seat belts? The restraints had atrophied from neglect.

In another break from the past, we gave greasy spoons a wide berth. We’d packed an ample supply of organic produce from their Mom’s garden, some home-baked bread, excellent cheese and iced mint tea. We only stopped for gas, which, at our Furious clip, was a regular occurrence. Even though gas was ridiculously cheap (just thirty-five cents a gallon), our meager gas budget took a big hit.

It was money well spent. By mid-afternoon, we were already well into the mountains. Having forded a stream, we made camp and slept under the dazzling stars, the smell of pine and sage intoxicating our nostrils.

I had driven fast before, but only in short bursts. Our dash through the heartland was my initiation into the joys of sustained speed. I was eight (hundred) miles high.

Truth to tell, I’ve been hooked ever since. But I’ll never recreate the magic mix of ingredients that day, which etched those glorious moments into the depths of my memory.

Within a year or so, the energy crisis hit, and we were driving fifty-five. The Ply-mouth soon gave way to a weak-chested if practical Corolla. And in just a few more years, we all heeded the song “love and marriage…”

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