The Truth About Cars » Paul Niedermeyer The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 24 Jul 2014 17:47:59 +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 » Paul Niedermeyer Curbside Classics Central: Portal To All Of Them Here Fri, 15 Oct 2010 00:43:53 +0000


Alfa Romeo                                                                                                          

1975 Alfetta GT/GTV Coupe

1991 Alfa Romeo 164


1954 Allard K2 (outtake)

American Motors (incl. Nash; but not Jeep)                       

1957 Metropolitan

*1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country

1964 Rambler Classic 770 Coupe

1968 Rambler American

1971 AMC Gremlin (1971 Small Car Comparison)

1975 AMC Pacer X

British Motors/BLM/Austin/Morris/Triumph/Rover/Sterling/Etc.

1951 Austin A40 Devon

1967 MGB-GT

1971 Mini

1987 Sterling 825 SL (Rover 825i)

1973 Triumph TR-6


1964 BMW 1800

1972 BMW 2002Tii – The Second Most Influential Modern Car In America

1985 BMW 635CSi


1956 Buick Century Riviera Hardtop

1964 Buick Riviera

1967 Buick Electra 225: The Jayne Mansfield Of Convertibles

1968 Buick Riviera

1972 Buick “Boattail” Riviera

1986 Buick Riviera: GM’s Deadly Sin #1

1990 Buick Roadmaster Woody Wagon (Outtake)


1950 Cadillac Vintage Hot Rod Series 61 Coupe (the official CC Logo-mobile)

1954 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan: GM’s Greatest Hit #2

1962 Cadillac Series 62 Six-Window Sedan

1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille (Outtake)

1970 Cadillac Hearse

1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille (the first CC)

1977 Seville – GM’s Deadly Sin #11

1978 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Classic Coupe

Cimarron: GM’s Deadly Sin #10


1967 Checker Marathon (also Checker Motors History)


1959 Chevrolet Biscayne

1960 Chevrolet Impala

1962 Corvette – The Marilyn Monroe Of Cars [NSFW]

1965 Corvair Monza: The Best European Car Ever Made In America

1967 Chevrolet El Camino (Outtake)

1968 Camaro

1968 Chevrolet Impala Coupe (with Olds 455 engine)

1970 Camaro RS: GM’s Greatest Hits #1

1970 Chevrolet Impala: The Best Big Car Of Its Time

1971 Chevrolet Vega: GM’s Deadly Sin #2 (1971 Small Car Virtual Comparison)

1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic: GM’s Deadly Sin #7

1976 Chevrolet Nova Coupe

1979 Caprice Classic: GM’s Greatest Hit #3

1979 Chevrolet Malibu Coupe

1980 Citation – GM’s Deadliest Sin Ever

1987 Turbo Sprint (Suzuki Cultus)

1989 Camaro RS: GM’s Deadly Sin #6

1990 Corvette: GM’s Deadly Sin #9

1990 Chevrolet Beretta GTZ (Outtake)

2000 & 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier Coupes (Outtake)

Chevrolet Trucks                                                       

1950 Chevrolet COE truck (Outtake)

1951 Chevrolet 3100 Pickup

1964 Chevrolet Suburban

1967 Chevrolet C20 Pickup

1970 Chevrolet Suburban C10

1980 Chevy Vanup (Outtake)

1977 Chevy LUV Long Bed Pickup (Outtake)

1983 Chevy S-10 Blazer: GM’s Deadly Sin #5


1960 Imperial Crown Southampton: The Frankenstein Of Cars

1965 Chrysler New Yorker

1965 Chrysler Newport Coupe

1974 Imperial LeBaron Coupe

1985 Chrysler New Yorker

1987 Fifth Avenue Edition – Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #2


1946 Cisistalia 202GT (MoMA)


Citroen Ami 8

Citroen 2CV Hoffman Cabriolet

Citroen H Van


1989 Daihatsu Charade


The First Mini-Pickups: Datsun’s 1964, 1967 and 1969 Pickups

1970 Datsun 510 (Bluebird/1600)

The Revolutionary 1971 Datsun 240Z

1976 Datsun 710 Wagon (Outtake)

1977 Datsun 810

1977 Datsun F-10: The Ugliest Car Ever?

1978 Datsun 310GX (Outtake)

1980 Datsun 210 Wagon (Sunny)

1984 Nissan 300 ZX Turbo

Nissan Pulsars (gen1 & gen2)

1986 Nissan Stanza Wagon (Prairie)

1989 Nissan Pao

1989 Nissan 240SX (S13) and Silvia/SX History

1990 Infiniti M30 Coupe (Outtake)

Infiniti Q45 gen1 & gen2 (Outtake)


1948 Dodge (Outtake)

1974 Dodge D-100 “Gypsy Wagon” Camper

Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #1: 1976 Plymouth Volare And Dodge Aspen

1976 Dodge Royal Monaco Coupe

1978 Dodge Omni (and Plymouth Horizon): Detroit Finally Builds A Proper Small Car

1981 Dodge Challenger

1982 Dodge Rampage mini-pickup

1983 Dodge Aries (The Original K-Car)

1984 Dodge Caravan

1985 Dodge Ram Van (Caravan C/V) (Outtake)

1986 Dodge Daytona

1986 Dodge 600ES Convertible


1972 Fiat 850


1950 Hot Rod Ford: A True Love Story

1956 Ford (UK) Consul II

1958 Ford Thunderbird

1959 Ford Courier Wagon

1961 Thunderbird Convertible – The American Dream Car

1962 Ford Fairlane

1964 Ford “Police Car”

1964 Ford Galaxie 500 Coupe (Outtake)

1965 Mustang six

1966 Galaxie 500 7-Litre

1971 Ford Galaxie 500

1971 Ford Pinto (1971 Small Car Virtual Comparison)

1973 Mustang Mach 1

1975 Mustang Cobra II-Ford’s Deadly Sin #1

1978 Ford Fiesta

1984 Ford Bronco II Eddie Bauer

1985 Ford EXP: Ford’s Ugly Little Sin

1986 Ford Tempo: A Deadly Sin? Mostly

1989 Ford Festiva – Shitbox Shootout Loser (Winner)

1995 Ford ZX2 With Lambo Doors (Outtake)

Ford Trucks

The Ultimate CC: 1956 Ford F-350 Still Hard At Work Six Days A Week

1960 Ford F-600 Truck Also Still Hard At Work

1963 Econoline Pickup

1965 Econoline SuperVan Camper

1984 Bronco II


1990 Geo Metro Convertible

GMC & GM Coach

1947 PD-3751 Greyhound Bus “Silversides” – The First Modern Diesel Bus

1956 GMC 300 Truck (Outtake)

1965 GMC Handi-Van

GMC TDH-4523 “New Look” Transit Bus


1983 Grumman KubVan


1963 Honda T360/T500 trucks (history)

1970 Honda 600

1973 Honda Civic – The Revolutionary Small Car

1976 Honda Accord: The Most Influential Modern Car In America

1980-1983 Civics – When Honda’s Mojo Was Working

1981 Honda Prelude

1985 Honda Civic CR-X (Outtake)


1988 Hyundai Excel – The Damn Near Deadly Sin


1963 International Scout 80

1964 International Travelette Pickup


1982 Isuzu I-Mark Diesel

1983 Isuzu Trooper II


1973 Jaguar XJ12

1975 Jaguar XJC V12 Coupe


1945 Willys Jeep MB

Jeep Gladiator pickups

1987 Wagoneer (XJ) Outtake


1973 Jensen-Healey


gen1 Kia Sportage shorty (Outtake)


1989 Laforza 5 Liter (Outtake)


An Illustrated History of Lincoln Up To 1961

1946 Lincoln Continental Coupe

1965 Lincoln Continental

1968 Lincoln Continental (Outtake)

1970 Lincoln Continental Coupe

1973 Continental Mark IV

1977 Lincoln Town Car

1977  Lincoln Versailles

1985 Lincoln Town Car

1986  Lincoln Continental

1989 Lincoln Mark VII

Lincoln Mark VIII

Lincoln Mark VIII (Outtake)


Mack B77 (Outtake)


1983 Mazda RX-7

2000 Mazda 626 (Outtakeke)


1965 Mercedes 220S (W111)

1966 Mercedes 250S (W108)

1977 Mecedes 24oD (W123)

Mercedes 207D and other older Mercedes Vans/Small Buses


1960 Comet

1968 Cougar – Mercury’s Greatest (only) Hit

1970 Marauder X-100

1970 Mercury Montego Coupe (Outtake)

1978 Mercury Grand Marquis Brougham

Steam Injected 1978 Mercury Bobcat

Ford’s Sin of Name Debasement: 1981 Mercury Cougar

Military Vehicles (no brand name)

M37 Military Truck (Outtake)


1986 Mitsubishi Cordia

1987 Mitsubishi VanUp

1987 Mitsubishi Precis (Outtake)

1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse


1951 Oldsmobile Super 88

1959 Oldsmobile Super 88

1963 Olds Dynamic 88 Convertible

1968 Oldsmobile 442

1985 Olds Toronado


1971 Opel Manta (Outtake)

1974 Opel Manta


1946 Packard Clipper Super

1951 Packard 200


Panhard Dyna Junior X-87 Roadster


1936 Plymouth

1951 Plymouth Cranbrook

1958 Plymouth Savoy

1965 Plymouth Valiant Wagon: The Ultimate A-Body – Daily Long-Distance Driver

1966 Plymouth Barracuda

1970 Plymouth Duster 340

1972 Plymouth Fury Suburban

1971 Simca 1204 (no original pictures) (1971 Small Car Comparison)

1978 Plymouth Horizon: Detroit Finally Builds A Proper Small Car

1983 Plymouth Colt & 198o Champ


1963 Tempest LeMans: Pontiac Tries To Build A BMW Before BMW Built Theirs And Almost Succeeds

1963 Pontiac Catalina: The Sexiest Big Car Of Its Time

1969 Pontiac Grand Prix

1965 Pontiac Le Mans Coupe

1971 Pontiac Ventura II: GM’s Deadly Sin #3

1976 Pontiac Firebird (Outtake)

1979 Firebird Trans Am

1984 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham: GM’s Deadly Sin #8

Pontiac Transvertible and Trans Sport

1987 Sunbird GT: The Exciting Collectable Deadly Sin

1988 Pontiac Safari

1990 Le Mans (Daewoo) GM’s Deadly Sin #12


1958 Porsche 356A

1978 Porsche 928 (Outtake)

Porsche 944 (Outtake)


Renault R4

Renault R-17 (Outtake)


1968 Saab 96

1969 Saab 99

1970 Saab 95 Wagon


1991 Saturn SL2: GM’s Deadly Sin #4


1971 Simca 1204 (no original pictures) (1971 Small Car Comparison)


1961 Studebaker Lark VI

1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk


1977 Subaru Four Wheel Drive Wagon: The First Of Its Kind

1992 Subaru SVX

Subaru Legacy Wagon (Outtake)


1965 Sunbeam Tiger – The Other Cobra


1979 Suzuki Jimny (LJ80/SJ20) Pickup

Suzuki Samurai (Outtake)

Suzuki X-90 (Outtake)


1965 FJ40 Land Cruiser

1971 Toyota Corolla (1971 Small Car Comparison)

1974 Toyota Celica Coupe

1975 Toyota Hilux Pickup

1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback (editorial)

1980 Toyota Celica Supra Mk I

1983 Toyota Starlet: The Most Reliable Car Ever Built?

1984 Toyota Celica Supra Mk II

1984 Toyota Tercel Wagon

1985 Toyota Corolla EA86 GT-S

1986 Toyota Camry

1987 Toyota Supra Mk III

1990 Toyota Camry LE V6

2001 Toyota Prius

1993 Toyota T-100

gen1 Rav4 shorty (Outtake)

JDM Toyota Hi-Ace 4×4 Van


1966 (Vauxhall) Envoy Epic (guest writer)


1957 Volkswagen 1200

1960 VW Bus (Type 2) Westfalia

VW Beetle Shorty Pickup

1969 VW Type 3 1600 Fastback

1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle (Small Car Comparison)

1972 VW Super Beetle Cabriolet (Outtake)

1973 VW Type 181 “Thing”

1974 VW 412: Volkswagen’s Deadly Sin #1

1975 VW Rabbit/Golf Mk.I: The Most Influential Modern Global Car

1978 VW Dasher/Passat


1965 Volvo 122S

1968 Volvo 142 S


Ultra Van: Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Ultimate RV

1985 Winnebago LeSharo Turbo Diesel


The Curbside Classic Treasure Hunt: Skinner Butte District

The Curbside Classic Graveyard: May They Rust In Peace

The Official Curbside Classic Sales Lot: All $895 Or Less

Holiday Market: Eighty Parking Lot Curbside Classics

Wal Mart Concours


Art Car #1

Human Powered RV (Outtake)

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Paris Auto Show: A Walk And Talk About Cars Mon, 04 Oct 2010 09:25:30 +0000

You don’t need TTAC to tell you what’s new at this year’s Paris auto show. If you want the re-hashed-yet-excited PR-based bits about the newest 515 HP sports car concept, or if you want to hear about which electric cars VW will maybe/probably/possibly introduce in 2014, and how great they already are at this very moment, then you probably know where to go.

Yet there is, undoubtedly, plenty of stuff from Paris worth writing about. For any car nut, the place is a Xanadu. Especially for me personally, when the opportunity presented itself to see the Paris show with one of my very favorite automotive writers (and I’m not just saying that because he’s the boss’ father), Paul Niedermeyer. Here’s an (edited, because you don’t want to spend the next three hours reading this), highly subjective conversation between two car fans. – Martin Schwoerer

Martin: So Paul, what do think you’ll find exciting here in Paris?

Paul: Well, you know, I like old cars, so its probably not surprising that the first car that catches my eye as we walk in is that delightful Mazda Cosmo. I have to confess that I wish I had gone to the 1968 Paris Auto Show when I was feverish about new cars like the Lamborghini Miura and the Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3. But Forty-two years later is better then never. I will try to stay in the present, and am curious as to what direction the industry is taking, and what catches my eye.

Martin: I just like looking at wacky cars – there is something about Paris and Tokyo that designers tend to feel inspired to let their wildest ideas roam free. Nowadays, even Paris is commercial, so we’ll see… I am also looking forward to seeing the new Focus in the flesh. I also like electrics and I look forward to some test drives, like with the Renault Fluence and the Nissan Leaf.

Paul: There’s definitely electricity in the air here; it appears that if you’re a manufacturer and don’t have an EV production car or concept to show here, you’re at risk of looking like…your batteries are run down.

Martin: Whoa, here we are at Mercedes. Say, Paul, how do you like the new CLS and what’s your take on Mercedes’s new styling language?

Paul: Well, I don’t much like the current S-Class…and the new CLS even less. It’s too blingy. They just don’t look that classy or exceptional anymore. When it’s hard to tell a Benz from a Hyundai at first glance, you know the automotive world has really changed. The thrill is gone, at least for me.

Martin: I think it’s just a kind of tragedy. The previous CLS was an interesting and new take on “how to make a car for midlife-crisis guys with money who don’t want a sports car”. It created a new segment – the kinda-practical coupé. Is the new one better-looking in any way? I’d say, no: the new CLS just shows how lost the company is. It has an oddly aggressive, insectoid face and all kinds of odd and hectic creases in places that could use some quiet.

The press says that Mercedes’ styling boss Gorden Wagener is re-defining the company’s products and wants Mercedes to have “more emotional design”. But what does that mean, exactly? Why are faux-heritage bulges around the rear wheels emotional? Where exactly is the emotion in having creases everywhere? It just looks busy and confused to me. I’d call it “tired and emotional” design, if you’ll allow me to use the British expression for being inebriated. I think the Gordenized Mercedes are a product of some misunderstanding that Dr Dieter picked up in Detroit, to wit: that when you make something blingy, when you make it badass, you are making it emotionally attractive to the New Hedonists – the boomers who are in the position to lease expensive and unpractical cars. That may be, but it kills the brand for all the rest of us.

Paul: Agreed. The lowly and fairly clean C-Class may be the most successful current Mercedes, looks-wise. But the world is changing: Mercedes once appealed to those that wanted the very finest-built automobile, whether that was a luxury car or a durable four-cylinder diesel. That market has disappeared, leaving MB to chase new ones. Can you imagine someone wanting to stretch themselves financially to buy a CLS because they planned to keep it for twenty years?

Martin: The thing is, you’ll never know exactly how successful the new CLS is. Around 70% of this market segment in Europe consists of company cars. They’re leased at possibly cut-rate prices to meet sales targets, and only after three or so years do they get dumped at market rates. If somebody has the power to make himself look good, he’ll push volume. You might get a massive write-off at some point, but they won’t say “we are posting losses because our cars haven’t been selling, because they look sucky”.

Let me take a picture of you in front of the Renault Twizy. Could you imagine one of those in the States?

Paul: Well, having just seen how popular scooters (and the three-wheel variants) are here in Paris, I see how the Twizy and other concepts similar to it here will make sense for a certain segment here and in other European cities. It’s a step up from a scooter, period…

The US? No way, except maybe, in a few cities like SF, Portland and Seattle…Eugene?

Martin: I agree it’s a no-go in the U.S: people are just too scared of crashing against a Hummer. But picture this. An affordable car you can squeeze next to the two cars that are already in your driveway. A good drive, because it has its batteries underfloor, making for a low center of gravity. “Fuel” costs totaling around $1,600 for 100,000 miles. And no need to car pool, because you can’t… At least it’s easier for me to picture than the Nissan Townpod. It’s like they looked at the Cube and said “it’s OK, but it needs smaller windows!”

Paul: Yes, because smaller windows make so much sense in a city car!? Of course, if we’d have been here in 1968, we’d be laughing at the other extreme, that glass cube on wheels, the Qausar Unipower. Is there a happy medium?

Martin: And the Kia Pop? I like bench seats – but in a car that looks like a paper clip?

Paul: In the ever-more crowded field of urban EV runabouts, I guess the designers are a bit desperate to stand out. At least it has decent visibility! And I love that purple upholstery.

Martin: But I find it impressive how with the Optima, Kia is no longer copying VW: it’s now copying Lexus, and not without success. Just look at the C-pillar! What do you think?

Paul: The handsome Optima is generating a lot of interest here; the Kia stand, along with the Hyundai one, are perhaps the two most crowded ones I’ve seen. It’s a reflection of the remarkable leap forward these two have made. Who could have predicted that even ten years ago? It’s truly rare to see a car company leap from something everyone chuckled about, to one that everyone is taking very serious, like these two German car execs in the picture above. Watch out!

Martin: Here we are at Lotus. It’s ironic, wouldn’t you say? Lotus had an over-wide, unpractical supercar in the 1970s – the Esprit. Then it turned a new leaf in the early 1990s, with the true-to-philosophy, lightweight, unique Elise. Does the new Elite Concept “supercar” mean that Lotus is no longer a maker of pure, efficient sports cars? I don’t know – maybe the new design just clinics better in Saudi Arabia?

Paul: I suppose the Elise family is reaching a saturation point. Realistically, older tall guys like me can only admire it from the outside unless they’ve just walked out of a Bikram hot yoga class. So I guess they’re doing the same thing everyone else eventually does: brand extension. When will the Lotus SUV and four door sedan appear?

Martin: Speaking of wide-body cars that probably clinic well in Saudi Arabia, I do like how BMW’s new 6-series now has chrome on the lower grille. And I appreciate how one can sum-up BMW’s management philosophy in one short sentence: “We make cars that are fun to drive and don’t break down so often, at the same time we’re hedging the future with lightweight materials and electric technology.” I just wish they looked more European and catered less to the taste of rich antisocial types.

Paul: Clearly, the luxury car makers are thinking ever more of China and other growth markets. I doubt they’re holding clinics in Las Vegas or Phoenix. Just as well, though, now that I think about what I’ve just said! I certainly like this 6-series more than its predecessor; cleaner, more classic, less Bangled. And I’m not so sure about your “antisocial types” comment; BMWs do pretty well with rich liberals, at least in the US! We do have those here, odd as it may seem.

Martin: But since this is a European show, let’s see what’s going on with Peugeot. This is the world premiere of their Diesel Hybrid system, which might make sense if Toyota’s Atkinson-cycle engines were somehow really weak or not all that economical at higher speeds. But they aren’t, so it doesn’t, I think. So why go for Diesel? Just to reap the benefits of lower tax on fuel (per energy unit, in Europe)? To get slightly better fuel economy at a constant 90 mph? For the four-wheel-drive? I don’t get it. What do you say?

Paul: I’m not sure that I’ve noticed a non-diesel French cars on the streets of Paris of recent vintage; it seems like they all are. The tax break certainly distorts the market, and that is undoubtedly what motivated Peugeot. Having the rear electric motor completely separate from the front engine is an interesting and pragmatic choice. It would make it fairly easy to adapt to other engines, including gas. I rather like it, but it will be interesting to see how well it works and if the economics are viable, given the double (cost) premium of both the diesel engine and the electric components. I suspect this approach was also cheaper to engineer, rather than develop a new transmission to incorporate both motors.

Martin: Paul, you like cars that are compact, good to sit in with enough headroom for Frankenstein, and look nice. So you might like Peugeot’s HR-1 concept. It’s shorter than a Fiesta, has plenty of space for three, looks funky, has a good amount of ground clearance, and looks realistic (not too expensive). They say it’s a new segment – the stylish micro-SUV. What’s your take?

Paul: Clearly, the SUV influence has filtered down to every class of car. I have mixed feelings about them in general, but this one displays it more successfully than some. Just the ticket for hopping curbs in the city center. It just needs bush bars for the European inner-city parking space wars.

Martin: It seems you fit inside the electric Peugeot iOn (identical with Mitsubishi iMiEV and Citroen C-Zero). How’s the feel from the driver’s viewpoint?

Paul: Excellent. I’ve been wanting to see one of these in the flesh for way too long. I think the Mitsubishi is a superbly designed one-box urban car. And sitting in it only confirms that: it’s very roomy given the small footprint, and has very good visibility. A perfect city car for four. It is narrow, to meet Japanese kei-car standards, but its not a problem, for me, anyway. But Mitsubishi has already said that the export version, at least to the US, will have a wider body, to accommodate beefier Americans.

Martin: Ah, here’s the Rolls-Royce Ghost. I sort of like it, because it is somewhat discrete and unassuming, in a 1970′s Silver-Shadow sort of way. The Phantom, in contrast, says “I am so powerful I can bankrupt your country”, which is no longer the thing to do. I think if you’re going to go all plutocratic, you should be more eccentric, like the Phantom Drophead Coupe is, which tells the world you’ve got all you want and don’t care what anybody says.

Paul: The Ghost is ok; it certainly succeeds in fulfilling its mission, to compete against the Bentley Continental. I’m slightly disappointed that RR decided to go “downscale”, but certainly understand why. I actually quite like the Phantom Coupe, especially that weird windshield/A pillar. It reminds me of the eccentric and exclusive coach-built coupes of the thirties, whose designers felt the freedom to explore new ideas and designs. It says: “I don’t give a shit what you think; who are you anyway to even offer an opinion?”

Here we are at Saab. Do you think they’ll survive?

Martin: Well, I’ll tell you: I’m an avid investor, and I think at the moment you could short any maker of smart phones except for Apple and Android franchises, because they all based on the wrong technology and have shrinking market shares. But I’d never try to bet on a car company going down. Because you’ll always find a government that will keep a zombie car maker going. I mean, who really needs all these brands? Would the world really miss Saab, or Opel, or Vauxhall, or Fiat? Now that a Fiesta rides better than any small Peugeot, who needs ‘em? Just look at the Saab 9-5: it’s another one of these executive cars that don’t have that much room inside. Huh? It’s supposed to make you feel good while it makes your family feel miserable? Talk about new hedonism…

Paul: Feel good? It’s like sitting in a coal mine: wall-to-wall black.

I’m not sure I agree with you about Saab’s future. I’m not so sure Sweden really cares that much. But then…never underestimate the whims of governments. Yes, there are way too many brands, especially when you have Hyundai/Kia and other new brands coming on so strong.

And Lancia? Well, they do have the sexiest models; I mean the girls (booth babes). But unless they come with the cars, I don’t see much future for them either.

Martin: Here we are at Ford. And here’s the Focus. Nice! It could have been a generic one-box design, but they added just the right amount of creases and effects (like the triangular sub-grilles) to make it recognizable… Typically for Ford, it shows attention to layout detail: sitting in the back, there is enough space for me to put my feet under the front seats… But the dashboard is messy. Tell me, why do designers think us grown-ups want to have dozens of buttons to play with? Are they insinuating we are a bunch of fastidious and fussy Felix Ungers who like to spend days learning how to use a mountain of gadgets? A real put-off for me.

Paul: For an electronic gadget Luddite like me, it’s a major turn-off. Toyota seems to know this, at least for the cars that tend to appeal to the older demographic, like the Camry. I fear it will only get worse. That’s one of the reasons I don’t review new cars that often: most reviews now spend half their time talking about the interface, etc., and very little attention goes to mechanical aspects. Understandably, of course, because they’re increasingly all the same under the skin anyway. And the skins are often all too similar too. Here I go again!

It’s my dilemma; in 1968, cars were so distinctly different mechanically and stylistically. Well, I need to qualify that: in Europe, more so anyway. It was an exciting time of exploring dramatic new forms, solutions and directions. That’s mostly over now: a new Lamborghini is not really all that different in concept than the Miura, which was so revolutionary then. Electric drive is the one really new thing, and I’m glad for that alone, regardless of how practical it is just yet. Would you mind if we stop and look at that Cosmo again on the way out, Martin?

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Curbside Classic: GM’s Deadly Sin #10 – Cadillac Cimarron Tue, 10 Aug 2010 22:14:39 +0000

What exactly is it that magnetically stops us in our tracks to look at a junky old car sitting at the curb and ponder it? Yes, it might unleash a treasured or long-forgotten memory of our youth. Or it might dredge up experiences we’d just as soon forget. But for most of us, there are only so many cars that afforded us memories of happily spilling our bodily fluids within or that spewed its hot fluids in our faces. In the bigger picture, since old cars aren’t exactly fossils or butterflies, they tell the highly variable story of the humans that created them: that rare spark of true brilliance, or the flights of imagination, for better or for worse. But all too often, it’s really schadenfreude. Yes, there are few things guaranteed to make one feel better about one’s own foolish mistakes and shortcomings than to chortle at someone else’s.  And today, I’m going to need a really big helping of schadenfreude if it’s going to keep me from slipping into empathy for this car. Because the truth be told, we’ve all built our own personal Cimarrons. Or at least come mighty close to it.

When I last left you all, it was with the brilliant idea to rescue a half-fallen down, rotting wreck of a gutted old house with my younger son, for him (and his friends) to live in. I saw the project through the eyes of a strong young man; more correctly my own youthful eyes. I imagined myself forty years ago, as eager to learn about old houses as I was about old cars. Just one minor problem: my son isn’t me, forty years ago, or ever.

Yes, he initially got excited about the idea of the project; or should I say, he liked the idea of the end result of it. But he has none of the enthusiasm and aptitude about actually doing what it takes to make something like this happen. And I really can’t blame him for that. He’s as strong-willed as I was then; if my father had tried to get me involved in Greek history or electroencephalography (or anything he might suggested, for that matter) when I was eighteen, the outcome would have been inevitably the same. But that’s only part of the story.

We did spend one day tearing off a hundred years’ worth of accumulated roofing on one side of the house (someone/something else tore off most of the fake cabrio roof on this Cimarron), along with a couple of his friends. To set an example (and the pace), I worked hard and fast, and royally tweaked my back. It took a solid month to (sort of) for it get back to its increasingly semi-permanent state of precariousness. Did that stop me? Did Cadillac pull the plug on the Cimarron after the howls of protest when it foisted a slightly tarted-up Cavalier on an unsuspecting public at over twice the price of a similarly equipped Chevy donor-mobile?

No; I spent weeks nursing my back at the work table, putting my imagination into endless drawings for how the house would be raised and moved forty feet onto a whole new lower level, creating a three-thousand square-foot three-story monster, and engrossed myself in fleshing out all the details while losing sight of the bigger picture. The epiphany came just after I dropped off the plans at the engineer’s: this house was going to cost way too much, and I was starting out with a sagging old box of two by fours, and my son’s fleeting interest had long evaporated by then. It was one thing to build it in my mind, but when it came time to actually tally up the cost, buy the permits, hire the workers and start writing all the checks, I relearned the painful lesson that GM eventually tumbled to: trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear can be deadly.

I should have known too, since I actually test drove one of the first Cimarrons in LA. This was at the TV station I was managing at the time, and we were blessed/cursed with an engineer who was the ultimate GM fan-boy. He had been buying GM cars for the organization that owned the station for years, and we were an official fleet buyer. He always custom ordered the cars, and was an expert at putting together the best components and options GM’s very long RPO book offered. He proudly told me about the ’74 Malibu wagons he bought for one of our affiliate organizations, tricked out with 454s and all the best handling, braking and every other conceivable HD or police-duty goody. The fact that the super-Malibus spent their time running errands for a printing press in a little town in upstate New York was irrelevant. He knew that GM could build the finest cars in the world, if you just knew how to order them properly.

My company car at the time was one of a fleet of four 1980 X-Body Buick Skylarks he had specially ordered, with the V6, HD suspension, and extra wide wheels and tires. We’ll cover the Xs in another CC. But let’s just say it actually wasn’t too bad a ride for the times, especially since I had my pick of them; naturally I chose the best running one (there was lots more production variation then than now).  The gutsy little 2.8 V6 pulled pretty hard considering that it had only some 2,400 lbs to pull. It would outrun a BMW 320i, at least on straight or smooth roads. I’m digressing way too much, but it’s all part of the story, somehow.

The two of us spent way too much work time talking cars, and we had been reading the usual build-up in the buff books about the Cimarron. I was pretty dubious from the description, but he was a sucker for every new GM car, and would be for quite a few more yet. I wonder when or what finally burned him. Anyway, he came back all excited one day from lunch, having driven the first Cimarron at the local West LA dealer. He raved about the interior, the BMW-beating handling, and how that little 1.8 liter mill “just revved and revved”. Hard to believe;  but the station was doing pretty well, and I was starting to think about a new company car for myself. Since it was a slow afternoon, I slipped out for a test drive.

Well, that was my final GM epiphany, and my personal GM Death Watch started right there and then. I had been a confirmed GM man as a boy, but the cracks first appeared in 1970, with the “upsized” ’71 barges that came out that fall. The fact that they appeared a few months after the first Earth Day may have had something to do with it. I just couldn’t see where this trend line was going…and then of course, there was the Vega and its horrible offshoots.

But I still had some residual respect for the engineering and styling prowess that GM could muster in the seventies, especially in those moments when it all came together just right. I could even still fake some of the old-time GM religion with the X-Bodies, especially since they were still new, and because the Skylarks we had with the HD brakes and big tires didn’t lock up their rear wheels quite as bad as most of them. I already had some nagging doubts when the Cavalier’s new four came with pushrods instead of an OHC. Hello GM! It is 1980, and Hondas purr like sewing machines! But I actually hadn’t driven a Cavalier

And now I was sliding into a $13,000 ($30k adjusted) Cavalier. Yes, the seats were trimmed in leather, but the dash and everything about the car screamed Cavalier! Nothing more so than the engine: the little 1.8 liter four was utterly unchanged for its appearance in Cadillac’s first attempt to take on the successful BMW 3 Series. It had all of 88 hp, and it moaned and groaned like a dying dog, as it pushed futilely against the three-speed slush box. It made my $6k Skylark V6 with 110 hp feel like a Jaguar XJ V12 in comparison.

Yes, as if there was ever any doubt, GM truly jumped the shark with the Cimarron, and it led the way for what was GM’s most disastrous decade ever, the eighties. Only GM could have such utterly outsized hubris to think it could get away with dressing up a Cavalier and pawning it off as a BMW-fighter, without even touching the engine, among other sins. Never mind that the 318i had all of 98 hp itself. But at least it didn’t sound like a kitchen mixer trying to make muesli out of nuts and bolts.

Needless to say, my next company car was not the Cimarron. Or any GM product. And I stopped taking this engineer seriously right then and there, and our afternoon GM chats came to an end. He did go on to “sell” anyone he could on the Pontiac 6000 STE a couple of years later, which redeemed him somewhat.

Now this particularly colorful Cimarron is one of the later versions, maybe an ’87 or the final year ’88. By then, it had been upgraded with the 2.8 V6 itself, and a new electronic dash to distinguish itself from the lowly Cavalier. But it was all to no avail: the Cimarron was a dud, from the get-go. GM managed to fool some 25k buyers the first year, but sales steadily drooped thereafter. The damage it did to the Cadillac brand was incalculable. But the Cimarron was just one of many wounds of the  ritual suicide Cadillac was putting itself through during those dark days.

Wasting a month drawing dead-end plans for my overpriced Cimarron house and having to re-learn that kids have to find their own passions isn’t the only thing I’ve spent my summer on so far. I’ve had rentals to re-rent, maintenance projects on houses and cars (my ’66 Ford pickup has self-canceling turn signals after 23 years!), numerous hiking trips, trips in the old Dodge camper, kayaking, harvesting a bounteous crop of berries, etc… Then I tweaked my back again (slightly) yesterday, and was very frustrated last night given all the physical work projects I had planned for today. But I woke today realizing two important facts: Despite my innate resistance to it (a combination of cheapness and denial), I can/must/will hire others to do what my inevitably aging body can’t; and I can still sit down and write, especially on a foggy morning.

The sun will be back tomorrow, and there’s still a lot of fun and (hired) outdoor work to squeeze into the now dying days of summer. Meanwhile, today’s cool fog is a reminder that fall is not far off, and that writing doesn’t need a strong back. Yes, GM made a colossal blunder with the Cimarron, and a somewhat lesser one with the Catera.  And some part of me knew going into my Cimarron house project that I hadn’t really fleshed out all the angles. Hey, but at least I pulled the plug and didn’t go bankrupt! A big bowl of GM Schadenfreude is so delicious, especially with home-grown blueberries and strawberries. Yumm! I’ll have to come back for another helping.

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Paul Niedermeyer Says Farewell; Moves On To The Next Curbside Classic Fri, 14 May 2010 15:02:39 +0000

Transitions are almost never easy, and leaving TTAC and Curbside Classics is downright painful. But for a number of reasons, that’s what needs to happen right now. Two of them are in the picture above.

That’s my younger son Will, who recently turned eighteen, with his just acquired ’02 Ranger. He and I are going to fix up this wreck of a 110 year-old empty former farm house that we’ve owned for years, just down the street from our place . It needs to be either saved now or be lost to the elements forever. And it’s no small undertaking. To start with, we’re going to move it (not with the Fords) forty feet, and then turn it ninety degrees, because right now it’s sitting across the line of two lots. Talk about the ultimate Curbside Classic.

I spent several years doing this kind of thing, saving houses from the wrecking ball, having them moved, and turning them into a whole little fleet of rentals. I like to photograph and write about old cars, but collecting old houses is a properly-paying proposition, unlike collecting old cars (or writing about them). Four years ago, I was ready to give it a break, and I started writing for TTAC. And for those that were around then, they may remember that I stopped for the first two summers, to keep up on maintenance and enjoy the outdoors.

Than a little over a year ago, I started Curbside Classics on a whim. It started out as a once-a-week habit, escalated to twice a week, and I never stopped last summer, despite the fact that there was no pay at all back then, and I was neglecting things at home. It had become an addiction, to find and record the old cars still on the streets of Eugene. And since my rate of finding them was much greater than the rate of writing them up and posting them, the addiction eventually became a six-times a week habit. Time to go cold turkey.

After older son Edward took over at TTAC last fall, I offered to help in any way I could, and stepped it up with a new title and writing all kinds of other articles; everything from taking apart gas pedals to histories that interested me and hopefully you. It was my dream job, and I’ve had as much or more enthusiasm about it than anything I’ve ever done; way too many late nights and weekends.

TTAC is now on solid footing, and I need to switch gears, completely. I can’t split my energy two ways; I need to focus on one main project at a time. And this is going to be a big one (close to 3000 sq.ft. with a new daylight basement under it). We’re planning to make it a model of environmentally-responsible building techniques: recycling the basic structure, turning it east-west for maximum passive solar gain, putting in new south-facing dormers and windows upstairs, making it energy efficient by sheathing it completely in foil-faced foam insulation, solar panels, a new metal roof, rain water catchment, etc..

And when it’s been moved on to the back lot, there will be room for another house on the front lot. And Will has an option to buy all of it from me. I’ve shown him how the numbers pan out so he can live in the daylight basement apartment for free and pay the mortgage out of the rent he collects from the five/six-bedroom house above him. He was very ambivalent about starting college anyway: this will be the hands-on home-schooling alternative version.  And if it works out like planned, I won’t have to ever help him find (or pay) for an apartment or house to rent (Landlords hate to pay other landlords rent).

The hard part is leaving my unwritten Curbside Classics as well as you, dear readers. I have over a thousand cars shot. And your support, encouragement and comments have been the single biggest factor in feeding my CC addiction. I can’t thank you all enough!

It’s hard for me to imagine leaving them unfinished for too long. If the past is a reliable predictor of the future, I will be back. But it’s too early to say if and when with certainty. Right now, summer’s sunshine is calling me outside. Let’s see what happens when it gets cold and dreary. In the meantime, you’ll have to be content with summer reruns from Curbside Classics Central and Automotive Histories Central.  I tried to leave them well stocked. Farewell, until we meet again!

contact PN:

]]> 99 Curbside Classic: 1968 Chevrolet Camaro Tue, 20 Apr 2010 14:37:45 +0000

You wake despite the hope that you would never awake, that it was all just a bad dream. But you know she’s there in the bed next to you. In the early gray light of morning, your bleary eyes reluctantly open and fall on her mottled and pallid white skin. She seemed so hot and glamorous last night, in the sparkly beams of light on the dance floor at the Rockin’ Rodeo. Everyone always raved about Camaro, what a hot number she was, and how you just had to have one some day. And last night there she was, and you finally screwed up your courage to ask her for a dance. At the time, all you could see were those hips, those glorious bulging hips. You just knew they promised action, despite the fact they weren’t hardly moving at all. Oh yeah; she was saving her energy for the big run, the final blast, you kept telling yourself. But it never came.

And now, as the fog-filtered light ever so slowly increases, you lay there and actually look at her features, which were all just a blur in the heady heat of your desire last night. Yes, the hips are still the first thing your eyes are drawn to, but now they seem so exaggerated and unreal. Your eyes slide just a bit further, and they focus on the details between them that you totally missed last night. Christ, her butt! It’s not real; its a cartoonish thing, so crude , simple and unfinished; something maybe a ten year old would draw, in a hurry.

Perhaps aware of your gaze, Camaro gently rolls over, now facing you in the muted rays of light falling from the high window of her cheap apartment. Holy shit! That’s not a face!  It’s just a jumble of lines hastily arranged where a real face should be, and totally devoid of any expression or subtlety. My God, how could you not have noticed that last night? Just how many beers did you have before you walked up to her and slapped her gently on those damned hips? For years, you’d been staring at Camaros all dressed to kill in those glossy magazine spreads, and assumed they were all the same. Sadder but wiser, you now know otherwise.

Now the painful details of last night start to take shape and tumble out of the tangled haze of your embarrassment and hangover, like baby spiders hatching out of a cobweb.  From the moment you first kicked her over, you knew something wasn’t right. Instead of that wicked come-hither rumble emanating from her nether regions that was guaranteed to get a guys’ juices flowing, she emitted a most pathetic little nasal whine. What the hell? You lift up her skirt, and there it is: “Turbo-Thrift 230 – 140 HP”; a fucking six banger!  Its one barrel carburetor’s venturi is the size of a drinking straw. Just please don’t let her have a slushbox too. Sure enough, her feeble little six is backed by a two-speed Powerglide, with a column shifter no less. Now you know for sure you’re not dreaming, because you couldn’t have imagined a column shifter in a Camaro in your worst nightmare.  No Mustang sure as hell ever had one. Call it a Powerslide all you like, but obviously neither power nor sliding was going to be on the agenda. Any visions of a long hot night burning rubber with a crackling hot Big Block and a Muncie rockcrusher are gone with the puff of bluish smoke the tired little six emits on startup.

What a nightmare! No wonder you heard some snickering as the two of you left the Rockin’ Rodeo. Her feet should have been a tip-off: those tiny size fourteens looked utterly ridiculous, even if she was wearing Cragars. And the missing little badge next to the front side turn indicator that announced the cubes, but for V8s only. Well, it was too late then; you were way too caught up in the idea of a Camaro to turn back. Let’s just spare everyone the un-juicy details. At least you can be thankful for not getting baited into any races on the way home.

Her gentle nasal six-cylinder snore confirms she’s still asleep. You take one more regretful look, especially at that “Camaro by Chevrolet” tattoo on her ample breast. As a kid, that said it all, the invincible General’s one-two punch comeback to that sassy upstart Mustang. You knew when GM finally realized they’d been snookered and put their mind to it, they’d kick that Mustang’s ass with it, even if it was a rush job that wasn’t quite finished. What’s a fourteen year old to tell the difference? And you’d been lusting after one ever since. You quietly slip out of bed, grab your clothes off the floor, and tip toe out the door. It’s going to be a long cold walk home in the drizzle.

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An Illustrated History Of Automotive Aerodynamics – In Three Parts Sun, 14 Feb 2010 20:29:41 +0000

[Note: A significantly expanded and updated version of this article can be found here]

That air presented the greatest obstacle to automotive speed and economy was understood intuitively, if not scientifically since the dawn of the automobile. Putting it into practice was quite another story. Engineers, racers and entrepreneurs were lured by the potential for the profound gains aerodynamics offered. The efforts to do so yielded some of the more remarkable cars ever made, even if they challenged the aesthetic assumptions of their times. We’ve finally arrived at the place where a highly aerodynamic car like the Prius is mainstream. But getting there was not without turbulence.


Racers, particularly those chasing the coveted Land Speed Record (LSR), were generally the first to employ aerodynamic aids. The La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied) was the first automobile to break the 100kmh (62 mph) record, in 1899. Like all the first batch of LSR holders, it was an EV. The driver’s position seems to negate the aerodynamic aids, or maybe he was just posing, and more likely crouched down for the actual run.

The evolution of aerodynamics for LSR cars was remarkably rapid, as this Stanley Steamer Rocket of 1906 evidently shows. And the increase in speed was even more dramatic: the Rocket broke the 200km barrier, with a run of 205.44 kmh (127.66  mph). That would not be bettered until 1924, and not until 2009 for steam powered vehicles.

The first known attempt at streamlining a passenger car is this Alfa Romeo from 1914, built by the coach builder Castagna for the Italian Count Ricotti. Due to the very heavy bodywork, it turned out to not improve on the top speed of the open Alfa it was based on.

Undoubtedly, the real breakthrough aerodynamic passenger car was the German Rumpler “Tropfenwagen” (teardrop car) of 1921. Unlike the impractical and heavy Castagna Alfa, the Rumpler was as dramatically different (and influential) for its completely integrated and original design and engineering. It had a mid-engined W6 engine, and four wheel independent suspension using swing axles which Rumpler patented. The Tropfenwagen was tested in VW’s wind tunnel in 1979, and achieved a remarkable Coefficient of drag (Cd) of .28; a degree of slipperiness that VW’s Passat wouldn’t equal until 1988.

It’s important to remember that the Cd is a coefficient, and denotes the relative aerodynamic slipperiness of a body, regardless of its overall size. A brick of any size has a Cd of 1.0; a bullet about .295.  To arrive at the critical total aerodynamic drag that determines power required and efficiency, the frontal area (cross section of the vehicle looking straight on) is multiplied by the Cd. The Rumpler was relatively very aerodynamic, but it was also quite tall and boxy, which resulted in the one hundred or so production cars being used primarily as taxis. An ironic ending for Rumpler, but his ideas spawned imitations and extensions world-wide, and opened the whole field.

To put the nascent field of automotive aerodynamics in perspective, the typical two-box car of the twenties was more aerodynamic going backwards than forwards, as this ass-backwards car showed. That brings back memories of Bob Lutz stating that the Volt concept would have had better aerodynamics if they put it in the wind tunnel backwards.

Hungarian-born Paul Jaray used his experience working int the aeronautical field, and especially designing Zeppelins, to develop a specific formula for automotive aerodynamic design principles that lead to a patent, applied for in 1922 and issued in 1927.  His approach was influential, and numerous companies used Jaray licensed bodies during the streamliner craze that unfolded in the early thirties. His early designs tended to be very tall, and with questionable proportions and space utilization (below).

His designs eventually became more mainstream, and Mercedes, Opel, Maybach, and numerous other makes, primarily German, built special streamliner versions using Jaray bodies, like this Mercedes below:

The limitation of these cars is like the Castagna Alfa, they were re-bodied conventional cars with frames, front engines and RWD. Jaray only addressed the aerodynamics, not the complete vehicle like Rumpler had. It was a start, but others were taking up where Rumpler left off, like the English Burney, below:

Obviously more Rumpler influenced and less by Jaray, the 1930 English Burney featured a then-radical rear engine and also four wheel independent suspension.

One of the most influential and lasting designers of the whole era was Austrian Hans Ledwinka. After he took over as chief design engineer at the Czech firm Tatra in 1921, he developed the basis of a series of remarkable Tatra cars and eventually streamliners with platform frames, independent suspensions and rear air-cooled engines that Ferdinand Porsche cribbed from heavily in his design of the Volkswagen (VW made a substantial payment to Tatra in the 1960s to compensate them for this theft of IP).

The compact Tatra v570 of 1933 (above) is the forerunner of both the larger Tatras soon to come, and obviously of the Volkswagen. We’ll come back to Tatra later.

This Volkswagen prototype from 1934 (above) shows a very strong resemblance to the cribbed Tatra v570, with the benefit of some further refinement. Although the visual cues are not really as significant as they might appear to us now, because these were the leading-edge design elements of the time, and widely imitated or shared, on both side of the Atlantic.

As this 1934 prototype for an American rear-engined sedan by John Tjaarda shows, the Europeans weren’t working alone. This fairly radical design became tamed-down for the production 1936 front-engined Lincoln Zephyr, of which the less common but handsome coupe version is shown below:

Of course, Americans’ introduction to streamlining had come two years earlier  in 1934, with the stunning Chrysler Airflow (below). An essentially pragmatic approach, the Airflow also kept the traditional Body On Frame (BOF) front-engine RWD standard, but made some significant advances in terms vehicle design by pushing the engine further forward over the front wheels. This, combined with a wider body, dramatically improved interior space and accommodations. The Airflow had the same basic configuration as American cars from the late forties and early fifties. Progress is not always linear.

The failure of the practical Airflow can probably comes down to one thing: that overly flat waterfall grille. That was too much of  a break for the symbolism still engendered in the remnants of the classic car prow. The Zephyr had one, and it was a success, despite not being nearly as a good a car as the Airflow.

An even less pragmatic but remarkably practical and effective American vehicle was the Stout Scarab (above). Aviation engineer William B. Stout designed this extremely roomy mini-van precursor using  a unitized body structure and a rear Ford V8 engine. The first was built in 1932, and several more variations, a total of nine, were built in the mid thirties, but series production never got off the ground, due to an asking price almost four times higher than a Chrysler Imperial Airflow of the times, and even those weren’t selling so well just then.

A much more radical approaches to streamlining was Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion. The first of several prototypes also saw the light of day in 1933, in the midst of this fertile period on both side of the Atlantic. The Dymaxion also had a rear Ford V8, but with a tricycle carriage and rear wheel steering, which allowed it to turn on the length of its body.

Another lesser-know variation of the popular Ford V8 engined aerodynamic vehicles was this Dubonnet Ford of 1936, whose very slippery body allowed it to reach 108 mph. I appears to have  Isetta-type front doors for the front seat passengers. About as much crumple zone too.

Let’s jump back to Czechoslovakia and the fertile Tatra design studios. Here are some clays from about 1933 or so, showing the development of both the smaller VW-like v570 on the right, and the larger streamliners in the rear. The first of these, the T77, arrived in 1934 (below):

The T77 was measured to have a Cd of .212, a number that was not broken by a production car until GM’s EV-1 of 1995, which measured at .195.  A remarkable achievement, the long-tailed T77 was powered by a rear air-cooled V8, and began a long series of Tatras until the 1980′s along similar lines. My retrospective of Tatra is here.

Tatra became synonymous with the advanced streamliner of the pre-war era, enabling remarkably fast travel (100 mph) on the fledgling Autobahns of the Third Reich. Favored especially by Luftwaffe brass, they had a nasty habit of killing them, due to its wickedly-abrupt oversteer, thanks to the combination of rear V8 and swing axles. That earned it the nick name of “the Czech secret weapon”.  So many died at its hands, that supposedly Hitler forbade his best men to drive them. In many (other) ways, the Tatra 87 was the Porsche Panamera of its time.

To demonstrate just how far the aerodynamic envelope was pushed in this golden decade of streamlining, this 1939 Schlörwagen prototype was tested originally at Cd .186, and a model of it was retested by VW in the seventies with a Cd of .15. Either of these values put the “pillbug” at or near the top of the list of the most aerodynamic concept cars ever built, like the Ford Probe V of 1985, with a Cd of .137. Built on the chassis of the rear-engine Mercedes 170H, it was substantially faster as well as 20% to 40% more fuel efficient than its donor car. The Russians took the Schlörwagen as war booty and conducted tests as a propeller driven vehicle. It represents a state of aerodynamic efficiency in league with the most aerodynamic cars being considered today, such as the Aptera.

Its important to note that the rise of interest in aerodynamics in the 1930s arose out of the desire to reinvent the automobile from its horse and wagon origins and the assumptions that average driving speeds would be on the rise with modern roads. This made it a forward looking undertaking, as most drivers were plodding along at 35-45 mph outside of cities. But the first freeways were being built in Germany, and improvements in US roads, including the first parkways and freeways were taking place. It also explains the particularly strong interest and adoption of streamlining in Germany.

Note that I have not attempted to survey the influence of aerodynamics on the styling of cars in the latter thirties and up to WW II. Needless to say the influence was utterly profound, and gave us some of the most remarkable cars of the late classic era. But this had relatively more to do with style (and even affectation) than a genuine effort to push the envelope in terms of leading edge aerodynamics. Nevertheless, the benefits and beauty that resulted, like in this Bugatti Atlantique coupe are undeniable, but beyond our scope here.

Part 2: 1939 to 1955

Part 3: 1955 to the Present

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Lincoln: A Brief History Up To 1961 Mon, 08 Feb 2010 19:43:25 +0000

In honor of our greatest president’s birthday this Friday, it’s going to be Lincoln Week at Curbside Classic. We’ll start with a brief history of the brand to set us up for the sixties, when our featured cars begin.

Cadillac and Lincoln shared an almost identical early biography. Both were founded by “Master of Precision” Henry Leland. And both were eventually sold off to their current corporate owners. Caddy was first, having been founded in 1902, and quickly establishing itself as the “Standard of the World”, which actually reflected Leland’s obsession with standardized precision parts that could be interchanged rather than some inflated PR claim. Caddy went to GM in 1909, and after WW I, Leland started Lincoln.

By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and this time Ford came to the rescue. It particularly gave son Edsel Ford an opportunity to engage himself in something slightly out of Henry’s control-freak influence over the Model T and A. The Lincoln Models KB and KA were highly regarded during the classic era, with superb engineering, large V12 and V8 engines, and the finest custom coachwork. Except for a visual example here, we’re going to skip over the classic era because it was a dead end, and is largely irrelevant to the continuity of the brand, post WWII. That’s not in any way a reflection on these exquisite cars, but we can’t do them justice here.

The car we’ll start with is the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936. The Depression was killing the classic big cars, which created an opportunity for fresh thinking on a smaller and more affordable scale. The Zephyr was Lincoln’s counterpart to Chrysler’s Airflow; both of them arising out of the new obsession with streamlining everything from trains to toasters. The Zephyr had its origins in a series of radical rear-engine designs by John Tjaarda, using airplane-type stress analysis to prove the advantages of unit construction. The prototype that led to the Zephyr is below.

Tjaarda did his work in conjunction with Briggs, one of the major pressed-steel body builders of the day. Eager to find a client for their efforts, they ended up at Lincoln. But the radical rear-engine construction, which was remarkably similar to the Tatra 77/87 of the same vintage, was highly ambitious. Since the Tatra was a favorite of my childhood, it’s no wonder I transferred that to the Zephyr after our move to the USA, as there were still some around on the streets of Iowa in the early sixties. Interestingly, Briggs built almost the complete Zephyr for Ford at its own plant, leaving Lincoln to install the drive train and mechanicals. It was a foreshadowing of outsourcing to come.

The final production Zephyr was only radical in its semi-unit construction. The streamlined styling was toned down enough to make it palatable to conservative buyers, unlike the doomed Airflow. And under the skin, the Zephyr was anything but radical, using the same transverse leaf spring suspension as the Model T, and its engine was essentially a 12 cylinder version of the Ford flathead V8, but suffered even more severely of that design’s inherent thermal deficiencies. The small V12 developed a bad rep, and many were later swapped out. But it didn’t keep the Zephyr from being a commercial success, at a critical time as the big Lincolns fell out of favor.

Now we get to the real beginning of the Lincoln Continental DNA. Edsel Ford commissioned a special one-off convertible for him to use during his winter vacation in Florida in the winter of ’38-’39. Edsel laid out the basic shape and design, and it was executed by Bob Gregoire. With the idea of capturing a decidedly European flavor, the “Special Lincoln-Zephyr”  became known as the Continental. And everyone who saw it wanted one. So in 1940, the Continental cabriolet was put in production. As is readily apparent, its design cues have been rehashed by Lincoln ever since, most notoriously again right now, with the baleen-mouthed new Lincolns aping the original Continental grille, in a highly exaggerated and garish way.

The handsome (if not exactly brilliant) Continental survived for ten years, right through 1948, but not without losing its delicate face to a heavier and somewhat overpowering mug for the bulk of its ten year run. I had a notorious slumlord in Iowa City in the early seventies, Henry Black, who’s only car was exactly like one of the later ones as shown below. I have vivid memories of riding in it with him to the hardware store (I was briefly an indentured servant of his). It suited his personality perfectly, and he undoubtedly drove it until he couldn’t drive anymore, although I doubt legalities had anything to do with that.

I rather prefer the more delicate original, but isn’t this 1948 Continental Mark I a perfect foreshadowing of Marks to come? Moving right along, we’re going to have to skip the plebian Lincolns of the fifties, which had some interesting moments, but for the most part lived deep in the shadows of Cadillac’s exuberant fins for the whole decade. Even the Imperials from 1955 on were much more interesting. Here’s a quick glimpse of what we’re missing.

Instead, lets give the remarkable Continental of 1956 some time. Technically, Continentals from 1956 through 1958 weren’t actually Lincolns at all, because the Continental division was given brief autonomy in Ford’s ambitious but disastrous attempt to go mano-a-mano with GM, by having five separate divisions: Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and Continental. Well, that sure didn’t work out so well, and not only did Edsel and Continental bite the dust, but even Lincoln was almost killed. More on that later.

The Mark II was a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Continental mystique and compete with the most expensive European luxury brands. Priced at $10k ($80k adjusted), its then very lofty price was more than twice what a Coupe DeVille went for. Extreme quality measures and small-scale production meant that each Mark II was built at a hefty loss.

Stylistically, it’s a mixed bag. If it didn’t have the fake grafted-on “continental” rear spare tire cover stamped into its trunk lid, it’s just remotely possible that we might have been spared decades of that over-worn cliche. That alone spoils it for me. But it certainly manages to convey an air of exclusivity, in an authentic way that its legions of Mark successors never could.

Meanwhile, the big Lincoln introduced in 1958 was another ambitious and expensive bust. The ’58-’60 Lincolns were far bigger than anything Americans had ever laid their eyes on, since the Depression, in any case. A vast and rather bizarre land-yacht, it also had by far the biggest engine (430 cubic inches) of the times. It did feature unibody construction, although that didn’t keep them from weighing less than some 5,000 lbs. Arriving right in time for the nasty recession of 1958 doomed them, and they only widened the gap to the far distant best selling Cadillac. As a child, I found these Lincolns to be awe inspiring on some primeval level that included fear of such an utterly incomprehensible and alien device, which was reinforced by their scarcity on the streets.

So that takes us to the dawn of the sixties, with Lincoln in danger of being axed altogether. As is so often the case in actual life as with our automotive expressions of it, near-death has the remarkable ability to draw out new levels of risk-taking and creativity. That was certainly the case with Lincoln, as we’ll see in our next Curbside Classic.

More new Curbside Classics here

]]> 41 Curbside Classic: GMC TDH-4523 Transit Bus Sat, 06 Feb 2010 19:44:31 +0000

GM has built some great vehicles in its day, but nothing can top their buses. They literally owned the bus market from the forties through the seventies, but they earned that spot with superior technology and quality construction. One of the most brilliant and enduring examples of that is the “New Look” transit bus that came out in 1959, and revolutionized the field with advanced stress-skin aluminum construction and absolutely indestructible build quality. These buses are still on the road in transit duty fifty years after they first saw the light of day. A variation of this bus (the Classic) was still being produced by MCI until 1997. Given that this pictured bus was built about the same time as the 1978 Cadillac Eldorado in our last Curbside Classic, we have here a study in GM contrasts. Of course, even GM’s bus business eventually ended badly in its inimitable way.

I’ve been a lover of buses since way back, and I have a slew of bus books in the closet. We can’t do a proper survey of the genre here, but the GM buses tell a disproportionate share of the whole story. Let’s just say that transit (and over the road) buses were a pretty big business back in the day when there weren’t more cars than driver in the US. GM’s involvement in the industry dates back to the pre-war era, when they bought Yellow Coach company. And their involvement in dismembering LA’s superb light rail system after WWII in order to sell more buses is not a very pretty story.

But their buses were unimpeachable. The sort-of modern story begins in 1943 when Yellow was fully absorbed into GMC Truck & Coach. These post war buses were durable brutes, powered by GM’s legendary Detroit Diesel 6-71 2-stroke diesel engines. And GM Division Allison’s V-Series automatic was a revolution in itself. Try to imagine shifting a transit bus, double clutching every shift of the four speed un-synchronized transmission with a 40′ mechanical linkage! Shifts were extremely slow and arduous. The Allison was the greatest thing that ever happened to bus drivers.

The breakthrough modern bus was GM’s over-the-road coach PD 4104 from 1953. (This one was still hard at work in 2005 in Brazil). The construction of the 4104 completely broke with the traditional truck-type ladder frame, and was built more like an airplane with aluminum stressed-skin construction. It dramatically reduced weight, and made for an extremely rigid and solid structure. Buses have never been the same since. And 4104s are still desirable RV coach conversions.

The 4104 powered by the DD 6-71 and the manual transmission (not so painful for over-the road use) could get up to 12 mpg. And of course, it spawned the legendary 4105 Scenicruiser. That was specifically designed and produced for Greyhound, and curiously, unlike most of GM’s other buses, suffered from some structural problems. The complicated twin-engine (two 4-71 four cylinders) setup was also problematic, and were later rebuilt with a single 8-71V engine. But they were impressive sights in their day, and I remember some memorable trips in them.

GM’s New Look transit buses used the construction techniques that the 4104 pioneered. The benefits were manifold, but none more so than for the driver. Visibility was beyond superb; it was like sitting in a green house compared to the “submarine” predecessors. And the steering was substantially lighter because of the lower weight. Note that power steering on these was highly optional; the power came from well developed arm muscles and the leverage of a large wheel and a high (numerical) steering ratio.

The Allison VH transmission was a god-send, but a curious affair. It had all of…one speed. It was really just a torque converter with a massive amount of hydraulic effective gear range. On take-off, which was (in my case) always with full throttle, the engine spun up to full speed, and the bus would lumber away. Depending on vague factors beyond anyone’s apparent knowledge, at some speed of around 30 or 35 or so, the torque converter would be mechanically locked (with a substantial jolt), and now the engine was in direct drive. Depending on rear axle ratio, the transit buses could muster about 55 mph or so; the lower (numerical geared) Suburban versions maybe 65 on a good day.

I drove for Iowa City Transit in 1975-1976. There were 12 of the smaller 35′ long and 96″ wide buses like this one, and two of the TDH-5304 big boys: 40′ long and 102″ wide, and with the bigger 8V-71 engine. The 35 footers were pretty nimble compared to the forties, and one could whip them about pretty quickly in some of the older narrower streets of town. But the slightly newer 40 footers had one other nice feature in addition to the bigger engine: the throttle pedal was air actuated, instead of the mechanical linkage of the older buses. Not only did the mechanical linkage engender knee-ache (to go along with the back ache from the mechanical steering), but one jammed up on me one memorable day. E-pedals were still an engineer’s dream.

The bus in the upper photos has been converted by an enthusiastic Oregon Ducks football fan for game day parties in the parking lot. It also has a smaller non-stock steering wheel, which makes me suspect it has power steering. The other bus, an old left-over from Eugene’s fleet of these 4523s is the victim of a botched conversion attempt, not an uncommon thing. How compelling it is to buy an a tired old transit bus with millions of miles under its belt to convert to the ultimate get-away vehicle. Some have the resources; others don’t, as these two variations of the theme illustrate graphically.

I’ve been tempted to go down this road myself, especially with a handsome PD 4104 conversion. But it’s probably a good thing I’ve resisted, since I like to take my little Chinook in places a 35′ bus would never get out again. But whenever I see one, it does tug on my heart.

I got distracted on RV conversions, and forgot to talk about how GM’s bus hegemony fell apart.  It fell victim to the same factors (and others) that undid its car (and big truck) market share: sinking reliability caused in part due to government influence. Since the feds fund the overwhelming share of all transit capital expense (but not operating costs), they started meddling early on with the bus designs themselves. The biggest one was the Transbus project to develop a new generation of buses in the seventies. GM’s proposal for that ill-fated boondoggle evolved into the GM RTS bus.

I’m not exactly an expert on this, but it arrived with complications and issues, unlike the New Look buses. The Canadians (wisely) wanted no part in this new generation of buses, and kept the New Look in production for decades. The RTS had a very checkered career, and eventually GM got out of the transit business, selling the RTS design to MCI, which eventually passed it along again. It was an unloved child that ended up in four foster homes before it was finally surpassed by newer and more desirable designs.

Greyhound never got over its problems with the GM Scenicruiser, and got into bed with with MCI, which has built almost all Greyhound buses until recently. And Trailways had a long love affair with the legendary German designed Kassbohrer that became the American Eagle. GM’s near-monopoly scared the two big bus companies into alternatives, and GM’s coaches eventually fell victim to a shrinking market and lack of development and conviction on GM’s part. Sound familiar?

More new Curbside Classics here

]]> 40 The Best Of TTAC: Auto-Biography Part 7 – Bus We Must Sat, 06 Feb 2010 07:22:37 +0000 It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of the passenger bus was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee THAT day; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenalin.

I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one caught me off-guard. It was a chilly December morning. Midway through that particular corner, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth old brick cobblestones. As always, I floored it. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. All my wintertime Corvair-hooning experience finally paid off.

I had always wanted to be a bus driver, and I started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures (drifts?) I would take them on.

In Austria in the fifties, the yellow and black Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They looked like a 1940’s school bus: rounded, with a graceful hood out front. There was lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.

It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat behind the driver, watching him shift gears and navigate the throbbing Steyr or Saurer diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence with the four-tone melodic horn: ta-taa, ta-taa.

One day in 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.

I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was un-assisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.

I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly.

As a bus driver in a university town, I got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.

During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As we passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.

Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions.

I was relief-driving one day, and momentarily forgot my route. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, I took a shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.

The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our mutual off-road adventure. Worse, the bus almost got stuck  in the uneven surface. If I had, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job.

Another time, the bus’ 40’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open– a block away from the high school parking lot on the day of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. It was a scene straight out of a cheap thriller. (Update: highly relevant experience in light of current stuck pedals situation; I quickly turned off the engine power switch). I also remember sliding down a hill and across an intersection, wheels locked, surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves.

Spring arrived and wanderlust struck again. One morning, heading out to an office park by I-80, I announced to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”

But there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their cubicles.

It wasn’t long after that I quit and bought my own bus, a 1968 Dodge van. I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in back and cut in windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to California, but she had plenty of enthusiasm. Good enough for me.

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Curbside Classic Outtake: Covering All Transportation Bases Sat, 06 Feb 2010 06:57:29 +0000

Here’s some Saturday morning pictorial randomness to start out the day. Shall we have a thetruthaboutbuses theme today? I’m very fond of them. These folks living in this lot have a pretty wide variety of transportation options ready to roll, right down to the Cozy Coupe. They’re probably off riding their gas powered skateboard.

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Exclusive: TTAC Takes Apart Both Toyota Gas Pedals Sat, 30 Jan 2010 21:26:02 +0000

Update: To see all of TTAC’s related articles on the subject of Toyota gas pedals, go here:

In yesterday’s post , we offered a bounty for anyone to open up both the CTS (bottom) and Denso (top) Toyota gas pedal assemblies. No one took us up, and no one anywhere else has done it, so we took it upon ourselves . Here they are, both e-pedal assemblies taken apart and examined, in our quest to understand if and what the significant differences are, and how Toyota’s possible “shim” fix would work.  On initial observation, it appears that the CTS may be perceived as being the more solidly engineered/built unit, in that the pedal pivots on a traditional and solid steel axle whose bearings are brass or bronze sleeves. The Denso’s whole pivot and bearing surfaces are relatively flimsy-feeling plastic. But that can be deceptive, and we’re not qualified to judge properly if it is indeed inferior or superior.  So the question that goes beyond the analysis of these e-pedals is this: are these units really the full source of the problem, or are they scape goats for an electronics and/or software glitch? Pictures and tear down examination and analysis follows:

Update #2: It’s clear to me now that the CTS unit I took apart already had the side cover plates (sheet metal) removed before I examined it. One can see where they fit, and are obviously intended to protect the exposed axle pivot and bushing seen above and below:

(Update #3: Also see our follow-up stories on Toyota’s fix and our replication of the fix and its results)

Lets take a close look at the CTS unit:

We drove out the pivot pin with a C-clamp and screwdriver. It’s a very traditional design, like millions of plain-bearing (non roller-ball bearing) non-lubricated devices used in a huge variety of devices for decades, if not even centuries. The softer brass or bronze acts as relatively low-friction bearing. With the substantial pressure from the springs, it seems relatively unlikely that this would lock up, but that seems to be the concern. It’s possible that there is a greater potential for binding due to the tighter tolerances in the axle/sleeve assembly. A close up of the axle and bearing:

A big question for us was if there are dual springs, in the case one fails. Here is the CTS unit apart. Note that the pointed metallic part on the bottom of the pivot is the magnet that passes between the sensors in the case of the unit, which is how the sensor sends the throttle position signal to the engine controller.

The outer red spring surrounds the inner black coil spring. It seems that the possible “shim fix” that Toyota is considering would be a spacer on the bottom of this spring assembly, which would increase the pressure on it and presumably reduce the likelihood of the pedal sticking. I’m not an expert on springs, but the spring is already pre-loaded (compressed) to some degree when it is assembled, and unless these are variable rate springs, I wonder whether that would actually increase the working resistance of the spring unit. Since I had no problem taking the pedal/pivot unit apart which also houses the spring unit, and reassembling it as well, it would appear that if that route is taken, it should be easily done in a few minutes at the dealership.

To understand that part more clearly, here is a shot of the CTS unit assembled, with the main cover off, showing the pivot arm with the magnet and how it passes past  the sensors (Autoblog has a video explaining how the CTS sensor works, but no teardown):

Lets examine the Japanese Denso unit (below, which comes apart by removing the side cover held on by five screws. It is already apparent from the outside that there is no axle pivot that runs through this unit.

The Denso is a dramatically differently designed unit. The pivoting unit (green) is a plastic “bearing” that just sits inside the two outer units. One can see what it bears against in the side cover. The magnet is the square unit in the middle of the green pivot, and the sensor appears to be the round unit inside the side cover.  The numerous small bright metal protrusions on the side cover are not identified. I thought they were the sensors, but nothing runs over/past them. Here is a closer look at the spring assembly still installed and the plastic pivot “bearing” surface:

Here’s another view of the Denso unit:

The Denso spring unit, also a double coil unit, has a protective “sleeve” over the inner spring to reduce binding between them, since the Denso unit’s spring is in a substantially curved position inside the housing. The CTS does not have this feature, but it appears that its spring is less curved when installed.:

Subjective impressions of taking these two units apart are the opposite of what one typically would assume. The Denso unit feels “cheaper” in that the whole pivot bearing area is all plastic, and feels relatively more flimsy (that doesn’t necessarily mean it actually is). The CTS unit relies on very traditional steel and brass sleeve bearing that took some effort to take apart. The CTS pedal has no play or wiggle when assembled.

The big question is why Toyota completely redesigned the CTS unit from the older Denso unit. Perhaps they were actually trying to design a sturdier assembly because the Denso unit was in question. Perhaps the Denso unit is actually inferior in certain ways, but Toyota didn’t want to pay for new tooling to bring the Denso unit up to the newer CTS design? Source have told me that the Denso unit is likely to be recalled shortly, and the LA Times is reporting that there are known claims of pedal issues with the Japanese Denso unit.

From our perspective, it seems possible but rather highly unlikely that condensation is somehow causing the very solid CTS bearing pivot to lock up, given the spring tension and the units solidity. CTS claims it has only experienced a very limited degree of stiction at or near the idle point on a very few examples.

A key question is which unit was designed first. The CTS unit was used in Avalons since ’05 MY. Apparently Denso units have been in use before that. The question being: why did Toyota design two such fundamentally different units, and is the latter one designed to address any deficiencies of the older one?

Both units are surprisingly simple and obviously cheap, yet they feel robust when assembled. I believe Toyota has stated that the unit cost is $15 per pedal assembly. The retail price is about $120.

The overriding question is if these pedals are really the predominant or sole cause in any true (non-floor-mat caused) unintended acceleration, or whether electronics are the real 800 lb gremlin in this whole affair. Toyota has not acknowledged that…yet.

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Paul Niedermeyer Becomes TTAC Managing Editor Mon, 23 Nov 2009 17:40:18 +0000

When I started writing for TTAC, I could never have imagined the wild ride I was in for. Luckily I’ve been able to draw on wisdom and support of a number of TTAC’s contributors, not the least of whom was my dad, Paul Niedermeyer. He first suggested that I start blogging for TTAC, and his seemingly infinite knowledge of all things automotive has been a constant resource for me. Now, I’m pleased to announce that he will be stepping up to be my Managing Editor. In addition to his twice-weekly Curbside Classic series (and who knows, maybe a few more Auto-Biographies), Paul will be developing new content, blogging stories in his formidable areas of expertise, and filling in for me when my work pulls me away from the keyboard. I can’t imagine a better person for the job, and together we hope to bring TTAC to new heights.

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Curbside Classic Clue (Updated With Hint) Mon, 09 Nov 2009 23:58:48 +0000 CC 52 015 clue

Still too easy! rpol35 unveiled the ’68 Chevy on the first guess. Must try harder to make it harder. And why is this color so popular in Eugene? Did Maaco get a deal on a tanker truck’s worth? Did I make it hard enough yet?

Update: Someone said it was plenty hard indeed. OK; Hint: we’re looking at the right (passenger side) rear quarter.

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Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne Tue, 22 Sep 2009 15:30:05 +0000 Imagine...

Look at the picture above. Now pretend it’s your rearview mirror. That giant set of batwings is right behind you and gaining; now it pulls into the fast lane. A couple of teenagers grin as they zip by you ass-backwards at seventy miles an hour. The front grille of the ’59 Chevy slowly recedes in the distance ahead. If you spent any time on the roads of Cincinnati around 1969, this may well have happened to you.

BiscayneThe 1959 Chevrolet begs not to be taken seriously. It’s just way too over the top, which makes it an open invitation to pranks, abuse, stereotyping, ridicule, and even willful destruction. Think about it: if you were given the opportunity to crash test a sixty year old car against a new one, wouldn’t the ’59 Chevy be the obvious choice? Well, except maybe a ’59 Cadillac, but they’re too expensive, and folks might get seriously upset.

The ’59 Chevy is the apogee of late fifties American taste spun out of control; it represents the point at which the collective consciousness said: STOP! That’s quite enough! We’ve gone down this road as far as it can go. Time for a one-eighty, time to reel in the excess, time for the bubble to burst, time for a recession.

By 1961, a recession and a drastically slimmed down Chevy arrived. And within a few short years, the ’59 developed cult status, a rolling art object (forwards or backwards), as well as the favored object of creative destruction. I speak from experience as an early participant.

True confession: at the age of ten, I had a spell of shoplifting, and the sole targets of my kleptomania were model car kits. Since my inventory soon resembled a current Chrysler dealer’s, I would stage elaborate crashes in the driveway. Lighter fluid was the accelerant of choice, augmented by firecrackers jammed into the engine compartment and trunk. One of my first victims was a 1959 Impala coupe. It was memorable, watching those crazy batwings droop and melt into a puddle. Roller

I say if you’re going to blow something up, make it a colorful object. The Chinese tumbled to this thousands of years ago. So I can totally relate to those IIHS guys and their choice of the ’59 Bel Air. Admit it: it was a beautiful destruction. Like a samurai warrior in his finest garb ready to meet death, the Bel Air glided gracefully to its spectacular end. Would you rather have seen the bland blob of a ’59 Rambler American take on the Malibu? I think not.

At Towson High, our dope dealer drove a Biscayne sedan just like this one. What a perfect rolling billboard. Everyone could see him coming blocks away, and we’d head across the parking lot to buy our dime bags of ditch weed. His eyes were about as squinty as the eyebrows on the Chevy. And his product was about as effective as those fins adding aerodynamic stability at speed.

One day at lunch time, we were lined up to make a transaction across the driver’s window sill, when someone said “Look, up there on the roof!” The Principal was standing on the flat roof of the auditorium, peering at us through binoculars. The dealer panicked, dumped his stash out the window, slammed the Chevy into gear, floored it, and clipped the stout back bumper of a school bus with his right front fender. Kapow! Another ’59 Chevy sacrificed to a higher calling. CC 28 040 600

The 1959 and the slightly-toned-down 1960 models were GM styling chief Harley Earl’s swan song. There are two ways of looking at them. As vehicles, they left a lot to be desired. With their huge overhangs, narrow tracks (inherited from the ’58 underpinnings), “Jet-Ride” soft suspension, undersized 14″ tires with a recommended 24 pounds of pressure, and flexible “X” frame, handling was atrocious. Build quality was mediocre and performance suffered under the bloat, up some 500lbs from the trim ’55-’57 models. Where the small block 283 offered sparkling zip in the classic tri-fives, now a big block 348 was necessary for decent momentum, unless you ordered it with the self-destructing Turbo-Glide automatic. In that case, you’d be gliding to a stop on the shoulder all too soon.

But life would have been so much less colorful without them. They’re a rolling testament to the blowout of late fifties irrational exuberance. And a magnet for creative minds. Like those that created the ass-backwards Biscayne that prowled Cincinnati.

It sprang from the same creative source that created Cadillac Ranch, and the other innumerable memorials to Harley Earls’ unchecked expansiveness. A friend who grew up there told me about it. A couple of high school classmates had the brilliant idea to lift the body off a ’59 Biscayne sedan, and drop it back on backwards. And unlike most wacko high-school inspirations, they acted on it. Why not? How hard could it be? These kids back then actually lived out their craziest fantasies in metal, not bytes, thanks to an uncle’s garage and welder. Try CC 28 051 600suggesting the same thing today to some high schoolers with access to a ’99 Accord.

The result was crude but highly effective. Rough edged holes under the rear bumper for radiator air. A crude steering column held in place by a couple of welded steel bars. The one bench seat was somewhere in the middle. No instrument panel. Or wipers. Lights? Who cared; it ran, and some kid’s crazy fantasy inspired by the ’59 Chevy was realized.

But it had an unintended effect: it brought traffic to a dead halt. Folks simply freaked when they saw those bat wings coming straight at them. Before long, the police put an end to the innocent youthful fun. I saw it some years later, when I drove my friend to Cincinnati: the bat-out-of hell-mobile was moldering away in a weedy side yard, a testament to the ’59 Chevy’s ability to inspire, amuse, revolt, entertain and cause traffic jams. Now if only those IIHS guys had resurrected it, to crash into the Malibu ass backwards. Now that would have been truly spectacular.

More New Curbside Classics Here

]]> 52
Curbside Classic Clue Mon, 21 Sep 2009 23:34:42 +0000 Think you can hang?

All right, all you expert sleuths of vintage chrome moldings and extruded textures. I will once again try to stump you and will undoubtedly fail. I apologize for the lack of resolution, but it’s a small crop. And you’re too good. A shout out to last week’s winner, 6c1500, who nailed the stick-shift Caddy early on.

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Curbside Classics: 1970 Camaro RS Tue, 11 Aug 2009 15:43:57 +0000

After being trapped six weeks in a 1971 time warp, I had the controls of the Curbside Classics time machine all set for the mid-eighties. But once again, fate interceded. Running some errands, I had my first encounter with no less than two 2010 Camaros. Then, on the way home, something called out to me as I tooled down Franklin Boulevard. I found it parked behind the old boarded-up Chevy dealer, and it had an important message for you and me: "beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it's in the object itself."


After being trapped six weeks in a 1971 time warp, I had the controls of the Curbside Classics time machine all set for the mid-eighties. But once again, fate interceded. Running some errands, I had my first encounter with no less than two 2010 Camaros. Then, on the way home, something called out to me as I tooled down Franklin Boulevard. I found it parked behind the old boarded-up Chevy dealer, and it had an important message for you and me: “beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the object itself.”

I needed to hear that, after trying to make aesthetic sense of the new Camaro. Which was going nowhere, until it hit me: the 2010 Camaro is the Pamela Anderson of automobiles: exaggerated proportions, desperately trying to evoke a (long distant) youthful past, cartoonish, crude, clumsy, and just plain stupid—Borat would love it (“you like?!”), although he would have a hell of a time trying to stuff over-stuffed Pamela into its tiny trunk.

The fact that Chevy picked the ’69 Camaro for its “inspiration” tells it all, because the gen-1 Camaro was a rushed, half-baked stylistic lightweight. Yes, it was cheerful and youthfully innocent, kind of like the high-school Pamela. But it was hopelessly outclassed by the timelessly elegant, handsome, mature and universally praised 1970 version. Perhaps we should thank GM for leaving well enough alone, although I have a sinking feeling that if the Camaro revival doesn’t peter out quickly, its successor may well be a horrible pastiche of this 1970 Rally Sport.

I was never quite as stunned by a new car from Detroit as when I first saw the 1970 Camaro. One of the reasons was that Chevrolet managed to keep it a perfect secret right to the end: no spy shots in Popular Science or elsewhere. One day, I opened a magazine, and kazow!, that incredible front end was staring at me from a full-page ad. And such a complete break with its predecessor. Who saw that coming? It was quite the change from the three and a half years-long strip-tease we’ve just endured. Enough, Pamela, enough!

Obviously, Bill Mitchell had his Pontiac and Chevy design studios perusing old Pininfarina-designed Ferraris while they were fleshing out the 1970 F-body. If you’re going to crib, might as well go to the master. And when the master returns a compliment, bask in it. But inspiration is one thing; to put it all together in a balanced, fresh, yet timeless way requires skill, time, encouragement and most of all, taste. Either you have it, or you don’t. Bill did, often enough.

The Camaro’s perpetual nemesis sure didn’t. Ford must been mighty nervous when the ’70 Camaro was released in February of that year. The Camaro’s ads even made references to it here. Because Ford’s ’71 Mustang, due six months later, was an ugly POS: overwrought, heavy, terrible visibility, cartoonish; umm . . . sounds familiar. And it was a sales bomb, as in the dirty kind. After a few more stumbles, Ford eventually got the formula down, and now sticks to it. Unlike Chevy, which couldn’t seem to ever find its way out of the trailer park since the 1970-1981 edition.

GM knew its ’67-’69 F-bodies were immature, which explains the lack of any stylistic carry-over. The 1964 Mustang caught GM totally asleep at the wheel, as usual. And its phenomenal instantaneous success meant rush, rush, rush. The two years it took to cram the ’67 Camaro and Firebird out the door showed.

So Bill Mitchell had Chevy and Pontiac studios working on a gen-2 F-body worthy of the Mark of Excellence right from the beginning. And, not surprisingly, it was the Pontiac studio that came up with the basic shape. But both versions received enough differentiation to make them each worthy of praise, interest and attention despite sharing the same basic body—kind of like Isabeli Fontana and Izabel Goulart. Take your pick; you can’t go wrong. Personally, I favor Isabeli and the Camaro.

This particular Rally Sport (which is actually quite likely a ’71 or ’72) is not exactly how I like my gen-2 Camaro dressed and made up: no two-tone paint job, please, and either Chevy Rally wheels, Z-28 stock wheels, or minilite type vintage mags. But then this is not a “garage queen”; it’s a regular driver, has numerous dings, and an interesting crude hood cut-out for the after-market air cleaner. I’ll gladly take this for a car parked on the street.

I could go on way too long talking about the elegant lines and proportions of this car. But the front end is brilliant; the contours of the hood and fenders as they drop to that protruding nose. And that unusual windshield compound curve with a hint of a dog leg. Nobody was doing that since 1961. But my favorite part is that delicious front fender line as it tightly hugs the wheel and delicately nips and tucks into the head light. Unfortunately, that detail was ruined with the 5-mph bumpered 1974s.

The 1970 Camaro was anything but a poseur. It (not the Vega) set a new high for American passenger-car handling. The whole platform, and especially the suspension and steering were extensively re-engineered. The result was superb for its time. And not just in the race-track oriented way like the max-performance versions of Detroit’s pony cars, the previous Z-28 and Boss 302 Mustang. Ultra-stiff springs and a fast manual steering ratio are great on a smooth track, but in real world driving, especially on uneven surfaces, most muscle cars of the era were profoundly compromised.

Even the base version of the Camaro offered a level of balance, steering precision and feel, stout brakes, stiff body structure, and reasonable chassis compliance that finally brought US cars into world-class levels (of course, the ‘vette had been there since ’63). It was a huge step from the Falcon/Chevy II/Valiant based gen-1 pony cars. So good, that even at the end of its unusually long twelve year production run, the gen-2 Camaro was still being praised for its all-round handling competence, if not the performance from its de-smogged engines.

Chevrolet positioned the new Camaro much more as an all-round sports car/GT tourer than the ’67-’69 muscle/pony cars. You could still get a big-block 396 (actually a 402) SS Camaro, but it was no longer at the top of the horsepower pecking order. That would be the brilliant LT-1 powered Z-28. Whereas the previous Z-28 was a limited production Trans-Am race series homologation special, with a very peaky 302 engine, the new Z-28 essentially took the role of the old SS model. Even the THM autobox was finally welcome (if not preferred) in the Z.

The 1970 LT-1 350 cubic inch (5.7 liter) engine was the crowning glory of the Chevy small block V8, its ultimate evolution until the all-new LS-1 replaced it some twenty years later. All the goodies developed in the sixties for the Corvette were present and accounted for: four-bolt block, big-valve heads, solid-lifter cam, aluminum intake, 780cfm Holley, and that lumpy idle. It was rated at 360 hp (gross), but essentially the same parts in the smaller 327 used to be rated at 365 hp. It probably churned out at least 310 of today’s net horsepower. At 3150 lb., the Z-28 had a 10 lb/net hp ratio, resulting in a 0-60 of 5.8 seconds, and a ¼ mile of 14.2 @100 mph (C/D stats). Superb, for a small-block, non-understeering, great-handling car of the times (big-blocks need not apply).

And what has forty years of progress delivered? The porky 2010 Camaro has a slightly better 9.15 lb/hp ratio, and delivers the 0-60 in 5 seconds flat, and the ¼ mile in 13.5 @ 103 mph (Edmund’s stats). Stickier tires probably account for most of that. And GM’s sticky fingers account for the price difference. The 1970 Z-28 cost $3,412 ($18.7K adjusted) complete with the go-fast goodies. A new SS starts at $31K. In 1970, that was money well invested: Z-28s go for $40K-$80K today.

The timing of the gen-2 Camaro’s arrival was less than auspicious. The whole performance era was peaking and about to crash under the weight of insurance, smog-controls, and a change in attitudes, especially once the energy crisis hit. But it was exactly because of the gen-2 Camaro’s balance of qualities that allowed it survive, and actually prosper the whole decade, right through 1981. Well, it did almost die after the 1973 model year because the new 5-mph bumper and other safety regulations seemed like a huge obstacle especially in light of weak sales. But that’s the makings of another Curbside Classics.

For the brief golden period of 1970-1973, new Camaros graced us with their svelte elegance. And a few are still at it today, giving us a lasting lesson on how ugly and malformed way too many new cars are today. Raw attraction is all too often crude, hormonal, and indiscriminate; but true beauty is self-evident and timeless, like good art, a beautiful woman, or an inspired car.

As I got ready to leave, the Camaro had a parting thought for me: “Folks who can’t tell the difference between attraction and beauty should be held accountable for their bad taste.” Like getting stuffed into the trunk of a 2010 Camaro, perhaps, I suggested. “Yes,” it replied, “along with Pamela. That should teach them a lasting lesson.”

More New Curbside Classics Here

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Auto-Biography 23: Caravan of Love Sat, 30 Jun 2007 11:51:37 +0000 92grandcaravan.jpgUnless you live under a highway, an empty box has no intrinsic value; it’s what’s inside that counts. The Dodge Grand Caravan we bought in 1992 was little more than a big dumb box on wheels. But by the time I got rid of it fifteen years later, I’d filled the Caravan with a lifetime of family memories.


Unless you live under a highway, an empty box has no intrinsic value; it’s what’s inside that counts. The Dodge Grand Caravan we bought in 1992 was little more than a big dumb box on wheels. But by the time I got rid of it fifteen years later, I’d filled the Caravan with a lifetime of family memories.

Needless to say, it all started with the birth of my youngest son. Since I delivered Will at home myself (the midwife was stuck in traffic), the memories of his delivery are all-too vivid. I’ll skip the details here. Suffice it to say, his arrival triggered a strong and sensible desire for three door transportation.

Harboring well-founded suspicions about Chryslers’ reliability, I had my eye on a Toyota Previa. But Stephanie had exacting specifications: our minivan had to have room for a large stroller behind the last seat AND the bass-viol of one of the school carpoolers. The Dodge Boys’ best vanquished the Toy.

Back in ’92, demand for Caravans outstripped supply; we paid close to list price. Today, our $22k would be worth $32k. I see new Caravans advertised for under $20k. That 40 percent drop in transaction price says a lot about Chrysler’s woes.

Anyway, I should have skipped the optional four-speed transmission and ABS brakes; I’d have saved money up front and endless trips to the dealer. I went through four rubber-band “Ultramatic” transmissions before receiving one (at 88k miles) that lasted the duration.

The Caravan’s Bendix ABS brakes were so notoriously unreliable (and unsafe) that Chrysler was forced to offer a lifetime warranty. Which I used on a regular basis, returning to the dealer every couple of years to have the ABS pump replaced.

The last time, just six months ago, was almost comical. I reckon it would have been cheaper for Chrysler to buy back the remaining ’92-’93 ABS-equipped Caravans rather than constantly replace the offending unit.

Don’t get me wrong: Chrysler’s minivans were a breakthrough in 1984. A big box with car-like feel, performance and handling was new and overdue. (VW’s van was the ultimate wheeled box, but lacked the requisite passenger-car characteristics.) The Dodge Caravan made boxes both palatable and madly popular, especially when the long wheelbase version and V6 came along.

It was the family bus, and I’ve always enjoyed being a bus driver. From our very first family vacation to dozens of school field-trips, from guided tours all over California and Oregon to canoe trips to Waldo Lake, right to this spring’s full-family trip to the Portland car show, every time I heard the Caravan’s sliding door slam shut on a load of passengers, I felt fulfilled.

Looking into the rear-view mirror and seeing a half-dozen sleeping heads keeled-over in all directions while streaking across the high desert at the ton made me feel wonderfully alive and perfectly useful.

My utility was obvious enough when I repaired the Caravan’s smashed-in front end using a come-along and junk-yard parts. My older son had the inevitable first rear-ender; the van wasn’t worth collision coverage. The Dodge ended looking up like a veteran boxer’s face: functional, asymmetrical and not very pretty.

During the same son’s amateur cinematography phase, the van was as a rolling camera platform, shooting from the opened side door. Unfortunately, a spirited braking maneuver sent the door crashing forward, never to close with again with its original precision.

My younger son and I yanked the seats out and turned it into an impromptu camper for rambling trips into the Sierras. The Caravan became the inspiration for a Dodge camper (soon to appear).

For the first eight years, the Caravan was Stephanie’s ride. When we sold the Jeep and bought the Forester, she fell in love with the Subie. Since I work from home or use my old truck for building projects, the van I never wanted fell into my hands.

As a tall not-quite-dead white man, I began to increasingly appreciate the roomy front seat real-estate. So I started using it as a dry and warm alternative to the breezy pick-up in Oregon’s long wet winters. Lumber, sheets of plywood and drywall, appliances, you name it, it all slipped readily into the big box. I grudgingly suffered its practicality on weekdays, knowing that the Forester was on tap for weekend recreation.

One day, a couple of months ago, I just couldn’t face the plodding Caravan any more. I had to have something that brought a smile to my face, even on the run to Home Depot. It had to be efficient and haul my gangly fifteen year-old son and his friends around without feeling their knees in my backside.

The solution was another box, but smaller and frisky: a (gen 1) Scion xB. I’m off to a running start, filling it up with memories.

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Auto-biography Part 1: Revelation Sun, 28 Jan 2007 02:17:33 +0000 deville.jpgMy first memories are of the womb. The enveloping warmth, the soothing sounds that correlated to alien activity. I remember the sensations of being propelled: forward, stop, turning, forward again, the gentle g-forces rolling me delicately from side to side, ensconced in my snug compartment on all sides, conscious of the rounded form that surrounded me. My first ride was a VW.


My first memories are of the womb. The enveloping warmth, the soothing sounds that correlated to alien activity. I remember the sensations of being propelled: forward, stop, turning, forward again, the gentle g-forces rolling me delicately from side to side, ensconced in my snug compartment on all sides, conscious of the rounded form that surrounded me. My first ride was a VW.

I was a toddler. My mother had set me down in that deep little well behind the rear seat of a family friend’s split-window Volks. As I lay directly over the transmission, inches from the blower cooling the little boxer engine, I was one with the car. Every detail is as fresh today as it was then: the textures, shapes and most of all, the sounds. I can still hear the transmission whine and motor music overlaid with the howl of the blower. From then on, I would always call out “VW” when I heard one pass on the street below.

I was born in Innsbruck, Austria in the early fifties. We didn’t have a car. There was no TV. I was car-crazy, left alone with my powers of observation, accumulating vital knowledge. I would make my mother walk around any parked car that I didn’t recognize until she could find the tell-tale logo or emblem.

I had an intimate relationship with every vehicle in the neighborhood. I gazed at them endlessly, trying to discern some additional personality characteristic or trait in their physiognomy. My favorite one was a Tatra 87, a revolutionary Czech car from the 1930’s. I was entranced by its futuristic aerodynamic body, rear air-cooled V8 and dorsal fin.

The highlights of those first seven years of my life: occasional trips in the tiny cars common to that era.  Back then, a VW was a standard size car. Many, like the 600cc 26hp Lloyd my godfather drove, were much smaller; smaller than an original Mini. How did four adults and three children aged 12, 10 and 6 fit? They just did (My 6’4” godfather kept the cloth sunroof open whenever possible). I guess there was a reason why Europeans were all so slim back in the day.

My first intimate encounter with an American car arrived when we hired Herr Miller and his black 1949 Oldsmobile taxi for a confirmation outing. For a child used to automotive constriction, entering the Yank tank was like stepping into another, much larger world. I was quite literally shocked; who could imagine a vehicle with so much interior room? I have a photo of the party: my parents, two aunts, my grandmother, two older cousins, my sister, the driver and my brother and me. All eleven of us piling in was the reverse of a circus’ clown car act, and just as delightful.

My automotive education was occasionally punctuated by authentic automotive exotica. My father’s English colleague once arrived in a black Jaguar MK II. The exotic foreigner inspired awe and fear. After so much emotionally reserved Teutonic styling and friendly little machines, the big Jag seemed like a larger version of its totemic hood ornament, ready to pounce and devour its onlookers.

Another vehicular experience that could– that should have been the peak experience of my first seven years turned into one of my greatest disappointments. My father’s med-school buddy had married into money. His wife had bought him a brand new Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. He brought his motor by for a visit. I feasted on every exterior and interior detail. I entered that hallowed space– only to be rudely removed so that my father could savor a hair-raising ride with the financially fortunate amateur rally driver.

And so my first peak automotive experience had to wait until one bright spring day in 1960 when I stumbled upon a land yacht parked in front of an historic hotel in Innsbruck. The chartreuse 1959 Cadillac deVille two door hardtop was the length of at least three Lloyds, with soaring fins and a roof that seemed to float above the body.

I’d never seen anything remotely like this four wheeled beast. Who knows how long I stared at every chromed detail, trying to comprehend its language. I totally lost myself in its mysteries. What was it trying to say to me? The closest object in my limited aesthetic data bank: Austria’s many florid Baroque/rococo churches. But they were all about the glories of heaven. Is that were this came from? Surely when Jesus returned to earth, this would be the ride The Father would give him for the journey.

Another intrigued onlooker brought me back to reality and explained the more earthly origins of the Cadillac. Within weeks of this transforming event, my father suddenly announced that we were moving to America. Car heaven, I thought, here I come.

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