Friday, August 29, 2014

1985 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham - Blue Hair

The target customer of these cars, "The Blue Hairs" were people like my father, a World War II veteran born in 1923. Dad had two Cadillac Sedan DeVilles in his 74 years; a blue on black 1972 and black on red 1979 that was very similar looking to this '85 Fleetwood Brougham. Both were horrible automobiles but that mattered little to my "Greatest Generation" father who was blind to everything that a Cadillac, in the 1970s and 1980s at least, wasn't. He saw it for what he believed it to be or was. That Cadillacs were statements that one was successful or that they had "arrived" regardless of whether or not they were great or even decent cars or not. He bristled when I told him that they had become little more than a tarted up Chevrolet. He got his Irish up even more so when I droned on about how bad Cadillac engines had become.

Be that as it may, Cadillac had something for everyone in 1985. On one hand, for starters in 1985 anyway, Cadillac sold re badged DeVilles they called "Fleetwood Broughams" that, in essence at least, were targeted at folks like my father who didn't want their Cadillac to be anything different than it had been for the previous 40 years or so.  It was big and ostentatious like all Cadillacs had been. Well, save for the 1975 vintage Seville but that's a story for another day.

On the other hand you had these "new", small, front wheel drive Cadillacs that offered buyers, to quote the brochure, "traditional Cadillac luxury in a sleek, contemporary 'feeling'". That would be appropriate copywriting had The Little Cadillac DeVille been anything approaching handsome like the 1975 Seville but this is what they looked like. This is what Cadillac offered buyers that they believed might be lured into BMW and Mercedes Benz showrooms. Is it any wonder GM went bankrupt in 2008?

Cadillac's two pronged approach worked inasmuch as Cadillac sold just as many DeVilles, Fleetwoods and Fleetwood Broughams in 1985 as they did in 1984. It did not work inasmuch as Cadillac's market share did not grow at all. So if success is not failing, job done.

They don't make 'em, literally, like this anymore and that's a good thing. Figuratively speaking, though, they - meaning Cadillac - do make this car today with their shamefully marked up and mildly disguised XTS which is little more than a Chevrolet Impala meets Buick Lacrosse. I wonder why anyone would pay the extra money for an XTS when for almost half as much money they could drive almost as much car but then again. As I told my father years ago that his beloved Cadillac was nothing more than a chromed up Chevy, some things never change.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mattel X-15 - The Pain. Oh, The Pain

 The object of my childhood dreams

I don't think I could have been any more clear with Santa when I told him, point blank on that late December weekend before Christmas in 1969 that I wanted a Marx Big Wheel. I even went so far as to tell him that there were other Big Wheels out there but the Marx Big Wheel was the one I wanted. 

Not the object of my childhood dreams 
So, Christmas morning when I found this fully assembled Martian tricycle under the Christmas tree I was most perplexed. My angst was two fold since growing up in John and Betty's house, not showing extreme appreciation for something they did for us could get your head, feet and hands chopped off. Even on Christmas morning. What's more I knew that with this thing fully assembled, meaning my father had actually lifted a finger to do something and it being under the tree, there was no way I'd get my Big Wheel. My disappointment, as hard as I tried to hide it, was apparently palpable. "Well," said my mother incredulously as she took a long drag on her filter less cigarette and talking while blowing the smoke at me simultaneously, "they were out of Big Wheels and the man said this was better because it's heavier since it's made of metal."  I was mortified and terrified at the same time. Through my tears I was able to squeak out a life saving, "'s cool!"  Save nothing for the fact that I now I knew that Kris Kringle couldn't be trusted.
My X-15 looked very much like this one
Late that Christmas day the X-15 sat gathering dust and my mother threw me out of the house demanding that I try it out. Obligingly, I carried the back breakingly heavy monster down our front stoop and onto the walkway. Fist thing it did was get stuck in one of the myriad cracks in the broken concrete slabs of our walk way. The bizarre rear steering of the X-15 doing little to help it get over the juts and ruts of that perilous ribbon of moon craters in the front of our house. The "joystick" slapping back and forth perilously close to my face as I pedaled; I feared for my cheek bones. What's worse, a friend saw me pedaling this monument to weirdness and yelled, mockingly, to me, "Nice Big Wheel, Charley! Hahahahaha" My worst nightmares were coming true; I was drawing attention to myself and not the good kind. The pain. Oh, the pain.
This X-15 looks like it was left out the rain one too many times
The Matell X-15 borrowed its name from from the NASA rocket plane that set numerous speed and altitude records in the 1960's. Like the Marx Big Wheel, the Mattel X-15 was direct pedal drive to the front wheel. The similarities ended there.
Rear steering for the sake rear steering. There was no benefit.
Whereas the Marx Big Wheel is little more than a plastic tri-cyle and steered conventionally the X-15's steering is by the rear wheels through a cantilevered A arm setup that banks the thing when you move the steering "joystick". The further you moved the stick the greater the bank. The banking increasing in proportion to the degree of turns helped to keep the rider upright.
My X-15 looked like this one because I never took care of it.
This thing flipped over quite easily at speed and that could be quite fun if you crashed onto grass from the sidewalk or street. Not so much fun if it was onto the sidewalk or street. Or a tree. 
Ultimately, I have no idea what happened to my X-15
I never enjoyed standing out like a soar thumb riding the X-15 while everyone else rode their Big Wheels. I did appreciate, though how solid it was in comparison to the soft, flexible Big Wheel. However, once I found out how much fun this thing was to flip over on the big hill  behind my house, especially when it was snow covered, I was almost ok with the X-15. Almost.
I never did get my Big Wheel.

Parenting lesson taught; if your kid asks for something specific as a gift, nothing else will ever do.




Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1984 Mercedes Benz 380 SL - Some Things Never Change

Here's a gem from back in the day that looks as good today as it did back when it shiny and new. This 1984 380 SL looking even more spectacular given that it's based up here in car devouring North East Ohio.

I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen Florida plates on this baby let alone these older, vintage 2003 Ohio plates that I see a fair number of melting from rust. There is some sentiment up here that road salt, or brine, used in abundance to keep roads safe during winter months never goes away. It lies in wait the blacktop and cement bubbling to the surface whenever it rains spraying our unsuspecting cars with its rust making solution.

This masterpiece of German engineering is flawless. At least from what I can tell. These SL's have a reputation for rust and, again, given this is Cleveland, an old Benz in this shape is even more remarkable. The better the condition the more it's worth, of course. You don't see many of these around these days that are in bad shape. What's more, if you see one if great shape, like this one, it's most likely original. These SL's are very expensive to repair let alone restore.
She's only a 380 meaning she has a 3.8 liter V-8 making all of 155 horsepower. A Buick 3.8 liter V-6 of the same vintage put out only five less horses and similar torque. Albeit with far less smoothness in operation. SL stands for "sport" and "leicht" (light). Sport and light may have been true on older SLs. Our beauty here weighed in at more than 3500 pounds. Light by todays standards, a modern SL pushes down north of 4500 pounds, not so much by even 1984 scales.
Back in the '80s, nothing said "I got it" more than a Mercedes Benz SL. Some things never change.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Buick Reatta - What Were They Thinking?

Seeing this little Buick reminds me of a program director I worked for years ago who, when something would go wrong, would slam us (metaphorically) with his signature admonishment, "what were you thinking?".

I have to wonder, with regards to the Buick Reatta, "what were they thinking?" Buick, that is. Not whomever bought one for while I'm not a fan of the Reatta, I can appreciate that someone could be. My issue is with who approved this obviously niche-niche-niche targeted vehicle for production in the first place. Did General Motors really think that a two passenger, pseudo sporty, weird looking Buick would sell? What were they thinking?

As long as I've been on this green earth, Buick has had identity problems and they have been forever trying to change perception as to what a "Buick" is. Just recently I saw a commercial for the Buick Verano where a stereotypical looking grandmother barks out, "that's not a Buick!" What is a Buick anyway? A sporty, junior Cadillac? Then what was Oldsmobile? Alfred Sloan's ladder of marques for GM could be as confining as it was supposed to define what each brand was supposed to be. Years ago being the rung in the ladder either below Cadillac or above Oldsmobile meant that Buick's could get quite stodgy, frumpy. The Buick Grand National and GNX, which were discontinued just as this thing went on sale, played against that type but muddied the idea of what a Buick was just the same as the Reatta. Is Buick for old people or young people? Can you be both? Reatta was supposed to be a vehicle that would show the world grand dad could still cut the rug. To a point. Modest underpinnings and weird styling (did the team that designed the front ever meet the team that designed the back?) can only do so much but for the all important image, Buick wanted the world to know that this was not your father's Buick.

Reatta's biggest problem, aside from the lack of a cohesive design and whether or it was a good idea in the first place, was cost. A two passenger Reatta cost upwards of $5000 more than the car it was based on, the four passenger Riviera. All the hoopla about handcraftsmanship and superior build quality in the world couldn't coax "near luxury car" buying Buick customers to cough up the extra money for Reatta and its two seats as opposed to the Riviera's four. Or depending on the size and number of the grand children you had, five.

Sales of the pricey, two passenger, odd little Buick were, not surprisingly, disastrous. Buick selling just 4700 Reatta's in 1988 against a business case projection of 20,000.  Peak sales were in 1990 when 8500 Reatta's found buyers. A figure reached in part by the introduction of a convertible whose styling did away with the coupe's odd bread basket handle profile. The Reatta was a dead end for Buick and GM quietly dropped it for 1992. 
Buick then as it is now is a division of General Motors and one would think GM launched an automobile with at least some degree of market research revealing that there was an untapped market for a two passenger, bath tub shaped pseudo sports car. Did they do any research? If they did and it came back that a two seat Buick was viable something got lost in translation. Chances are, as is the case so many times when "corporate" makes mandates, like with that beaten down radio station with that tactless jerk program director I worked at years ago, there was no research.   
What were they thinking?
Reatta was Buick's second two passenger automobile. Their first was the Model 46 business coupe  they introduced in 1940. It lasted four model years, same as the Reatta.

To the best of my knowledge that guy never worked in radio again after that station went dark.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

1995 Chrysler LeBaron GTC Convertible - The McRib of Convertibles


Chances are if someone asked you if you know what a Chrysler LeBaron is something like this would pop into your mind.

Twenty plus years ago, these things were everywhere. It got to a point that if someone said they had a convertible chances are it was a LeBaron.

What we see today as a whimsical indulgence was once more practical than anything else. Before air conditioning became a mainstay in even the most mundane of automobiles, convertibles were a most efficient way to ventilate an automobile. An expensive way to ventilate a car too. Manufacturers always pushing the extra cost of making a convertible onto customers. The additional cost factor adding to the allure or elan of convertibles.
Convertibles fans are diehards (much like Corvette and Porsche people) and they're more than willing to put up with the shit everything a convertible has to offer. Good and bad. I'm not crazy about convertibles because what you give up in structural integrity, convenience and even top up driving dynamics far outweighs the moments when you do have the wind in your hair (beating the living crap out of you). I also feel like I look ridiculous when I'm driving by myself in a convertible with the top down. But that's just me. Today, there are hard top convertibles available that combine the allure of convertible design with much less compromise. Also, there's minimal buffeting from the wind that was all too common place in convertibles years ago. These LeBarons, in particular, were notorious for making you feel as though you had your head out an open car window when ever the top was down while the car was moving.  If the Chrysler LeBaron was a fast food menu item, it would have been McDonald's "McRib". A cheap, fairly dumbed down version of a much more expensive item.

Personally, I'm as ambivalent towards about these LeBarons as I am about convertibles in general. While certainly a significant improvement in design from the boxy K car it replaced, these "J body" (K car variation)  LeBarons were a size and a half or two too small all around.  I'm not a advocate of size for the sake of size but in the case of this little Weeble roadster, a little extra size here and there would have made all the difference in the world. Behind the wheel, these LeBaron's were hardly sporting machines. Pleasant if not boring.
Part of what made these cars as sedate as they were was weight. There is a significant curb weight gain to reinforce a roof free automobile. That significant weight dampening the performance of the car. Not that many buyers of these cars probably cared anyway.

I can't imagine something like this working today but thirty years ago plus when Chrysler came out with their first LeBaron convertible, not only were personal luxury cars still viable the market was "reeling" from the discontinuation of convertibles after 1976. Chrysler stepped up and filled a artificial chasm in the marketplace with these inexpensive if somewhat stylish convertibles.

Chrysler replaced the LeBaron convertible with the Sebring in 1996.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

There Is Nothing Grand About A Pontiac Grand Am

Would I find this car as horrible has I do if it was called anything other than "Grand Am"? I can say with all confidence that I would most certainly would not.
"There's nothing grand about a Pontiac Grand Am" is not entirely true. An apple of my philandering automotive eye, the original Pontiac Grand Am was introduced in the fall of 1972 as part of GM's new for 1973 "A body" mid sized models. Known as "colonnades" for the new "B pillar" or column (hence colonnade), these cars were derided for their sheer bulk, styling excess and spacial inefficiency (big on the outside, small on the inside). The Grand Am, though was the beautiful swan in a Great Lake of ugly ducklings. However, despite being sexier and cooler than the Grand Prix, Buick Regal/Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass and more masculine than the overdone LeMans and Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Grand Am sold poorly. Pontiac dropped it unceremoniously after 1975. 
Somebody in Pontiac's model naming department (who names cars anyway?) must have had a serious jones for "Grand Am" because Pontiac brought the nameplate back for another three year run starting in 1978. Now on GM's newly downsized "A body" platform (later called G body), the 1978 Grand Am was but a mere shell of the '73 model but it was a breath of manly, Royal Cophenhagen tinged air compared to the homely lump they put "GRAND AM" on next.  
My drive of a friend's fresh from the showroom, "N-body" '85, just like this little shitter, had me quoting the car salesman from National Lampoon's "Vacation" who was trying to sell Clark Griswold on the virtues of the "Wagon Queen Family Truckster". "If You Hate It Now, Wait 'til You Drive It". 

Wouldn't you know it, though? "The Little Car That Could Not" sold in droves. And then some. So much so that during it's inexplicably long twenty one year production run, many times it was one of the best selling cars in America. Right up there with the Taurus and Camry. So what's in a name?

Nothing really. You can't accredit the "N-body" Grand Am's sales boom to it's name any more you can blame it for the first two versions lack of success. The N-body or "little" Grand Am sold well because, primarily, it was cheap; significantly undercutting far superior wares from Japan and Europe. Throw in some practicality (the first Grand Am was available as a four door, by the way) and the not so grand Grand Am took off. Even my in laws bought one. A white on grey, 1994 3100 V-6 powered "SE" sedan. Its styling acceptably benign, its overall character one of resigned complacency. They rolled their eyes whenever I waxed nostalgic for the Grand Am of yore.
Such is the fate of fanatics of whether it be music, film, sports teams, food, cars. The list goes on. What us "experts" find intriguing being miles away from what John Q. Buying Public finds most important. John Q looking for automobiles that are little more than inexpensive, stoic appliances.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Chevys - The Doppelganger

My Sunday morning routine is pretty simple. Coffee, walk the dog, drive to the gym in the red Camaro we bought for our boys to use, workout, hit Giant Eagle for bagels and muffins and head home. Last Sunday morning, however I deviated from that scintillating agenda to drop $20 gas in what I lovingly refer to as "The Old '96er". Despite my constant lecturing to the contrary my 17 year old son, the primary driver of The Older 96er, has a habit of letting the tank get down very low. Modern, fuel injected automobiles not taking kindly, I remind him constantly, to running out of gas so my generosity was as much "prophylactic" as it was charitable. With Costco being on the far side of town it meant taking the long way home. That long way home had me stumbling across The Old 96er's doppelganger. 

You don't see many "fourth generation" Camaros anymore especially up here in Rustville Cleveland. The body on these Camaros might be of a rust proof fiberglass/plastic blend but the undercarriage is  rust friendly iron. To find another fourth generation Camaro is rare; to find another red one just like The Old 96er is just flat our freaky. Finding it so arbitrarily only adding to the delightful randomness of the whole experience.

Chevrolet and Pontiac's 1993 update of the 1982 Camaro and Firebird went a lot deeper than just a swoopy, plastic body but this body is all anyone really remembers. A delightfully handsome design that came at a time just as the market for these types of cars was starting to wane. Another example of GM's incredible bad timing and product planning that led ultimately to bankruptcy. GM pulled the plug on these cars after 2002.

There's little to distinguish a 1993 Camaro from a 1996 Camaro. However, while The Old 96er has aged gracefully, this '93 looks like it's been put a way wet. Very wet and very often. My "put away wet" vernacular suggesting this car was neglected and abused more than actually driven hard.

Staying youthful looking takes a combination of hard work and luck. Hard work in terms of exercise, diet and clean living. Luck in terms of being born with great, rust proof genes (we all know those people who are born with those great jeans. We secretly despise them.) You don't see many 18 year old Camaros like mine here in Cleveland not to mention a 21 year old Camaro like our well worn doppelganger. Our lovely "Old '96er", on the right, has spent much of it's life pampered by loving owners up to an including me. Who knows what the doppelganger's story is. I'm sure it has some tattoos in some unsavory places.

"Camaro", in case you've wondered, is a made up word. Legend has it that Ed Cole, then president of GM, came up with the name one morning while taking a shower. Us fans of car wish the origin of "Camaro" came from some place with a tad more mystery and intrigue. Perhaps Camaro is a code word for soap on a rope?
Doppelganger sounds like a made up word too but according to wiki -- 
noun: doppelgänger; plural noun: doppelgängers
  1. an apparition or double of a living person.
    "he has a doppelgänger named Donald, his invented twin brother"