Saturday, August 29, 2015

1973 Pontiac Grand Prix - Gone. Long Gone.

The new for 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix was the embodiment of a all too brief period of optimism in America in the early 1970's. It's new but at the same time familiar confident face told America that all was well and the future was bright and shiny. Fitting, since things were looking up for America after the brutal 1960's what with our involvement in Vietnam finally ending, albeit ambiguously, Nixon being reelected in a landslide and gas being thirty six cents a gallon. With the average household income in 1973 at $8983, $47,596 adjusted, and all things being equal, what works out to $1.46 a gallon in today's money was still a really good deal for gas. We can then understand why 10 miles per gallon in most American cars was acceptable. If you read the tea leaves correctly you could also see that the handsome 1973 Grand Prix was also a bellwether; it for told of pending problems and an American automobile industry ill equipped to deal with them.
The OPEC oil embargo of October 1973, a political quagmire that slashed oil production inducing long lines at gas pumps, quadrupled the cost of a barrel of crude and increased the price of gas ultimately by almost twenty cents a gallon. While Henry Kissinger was able to negotiate an increase in oil production that eliminated the long lines, he was unable to lower prices.
What became known as the first energy crisis also turned whimsical, claustrophobic, two ton, two door 5 1/2 passenger coupes like this delicious 455 cubic inch Grand Prix into gas guzzling pariahs. Even before the first gas crisis there was widespread sentiment about America's reliance on foreign oil but would have thought the spigots would ever get turned off?

Sales of these 10 mile per gallon, V-8 American cars screeched to a halt and the economy went in the dumpster as all of a sudden everything became more expensive. In other news, Nixon got implicated in the Watergate scandal and all of a sudden America's sense of optimism was gone. Long gone. While gas prices stabilized for a time through most of the rest of the decade, a second oil shock in 1979 further added to America's doldrums.  It would be only until we were deep into the Reagan administration that a cautious America would again have any of the sense of itself that it had after World War II.
President Carter, in his now famous and at the time much derided "Malaise speech" of July 1979, said that there was a crisis of confidence in America. Only after all these years do we appreciate fully how correct Mr. Carter was. Could you blame the country for feeling slightly beaten down? 
One thing is for certain, unlike America's confidence, which we've learned can take a beating but is if anything seemingly eternal, the Grand Prix as we knew it in 1973 never came back.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

1980 Buick Century - Dad's Car (revisted)

You'd think I'd stumbled across a Ferrari 250 GTB or something given the scene I made a couple of weeks when I came across this 1980 Buick Century in the parking lot of our local supermarket. Nostalgia is quite powerful. Best we proceed with caution.

These cars are so rare that I had trouble finding images of them back in January when I did my first piece on 1980 Century's. It's as if, unlike say a 1956 Buick Century, no one cares about these Buick Century's. After taking my pictures and anxiously hoping to be intercepted by the owner, all the memories came back about this little Buick that my Old Man purchased used in the height of the second gas crisis in ten years back in 1982.
Exacerbated by the stunningly miserable mileage his 1972 Cadillac was getting, my father found his Century, which was silver on maroon not the gawd awful old man gold that this thing is, at the Hertz Used Car lot on Sunrise Highway in Baldwin (NY) in the winter of '82. Reasonably priced and promising stratospheric gas mileage from its then exotic sounding "V-6", we, and I say we since I was of driving age at the time, found the V-6 to not only not deliver on its promise of V-8 power and smoothness, but it also got gas mileage not befitting a car that was purchased almost solely for its gas mileage. Or so we believed. At 12-14 mpg it was certainly better than the, I kid you not, 3 miles per gallon the Cadillac got, but certainly not the 20-25 miles per gallon he thought he would get. In hindsight, the gas mileage we did get was entirely plausible whereas what we thought we would get entirely unfeasible.
The car was also geared for snappy acceleration but once out of first gear it was all over. Flaccid best described everything about this car from its performance, creature comforts to styling. While there was probably nothing wrong about this car a small block Chevy couldn't fix that was out of the question back then for a number of reasons. These days too; who would go through an engine swap for this thing? I've seen Century wagons hopped but the sedans? Not so much.
As much is written about how amazing GM's 1977 B bodies where, you don't hear enough about how half baked these A's were. Odd ergo dynamics, uncomfortable seats, rear windows that didn't roll down and generally shoddy build quality; these cars sucked. These sedans were the real bread winners for Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile but who knows how many people bought them and decided to go Toyota and Honda afterwards and never looked back. I've yet to meet anyone who had one, even the coupes, who had anything positive to say about them.
Cadillac didn't get an A body but it would have been interesting to see what a Cadillac Seville on an A body would look like. Probably not much different than a Century was from a Cutlass sedan or LeMans or Malibu now that I think about it. 
I waited for the owner for about five minutes after I finished with my photo taking. I also noticed the car was for sale for a very optimistic $2900. I didn't call him. 
That's my father in his Buick Century in front of our house in Baldwin, New York around 1983.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What Happend to Two Door Cars ?? And The Rise of Crossovers

I read a column in the most recent issue of Car and Driver about the fact that cross over sport utility vehicles are now the best selling type of "automobile" in America. Makes sense when you consider everything these appliance like little "cute-utes" have to offer. They're easy to drive, are very practical, have all wheel drive, are relatively easy on gas (especially the hybrids) and have a modicum of savoir fare or style that larger SUV's have in a much more manageable package. Designed for a woman but men like them too, they're the automotive "everything" unlike anything we've ever seen before. As a "car guy" who grew up with "utility first" station wagons, I feel as though the world has gone to hell in a hand basket.
About ten years ago or so I had a feeling the market was shifting when I asked my neighbor's then 15 year old daughter what kind of car she wanted when she got her driver's license. Imagine my incredulity when she said she wanted a Chevy Equinox. Ugh. When I asked her, jokingly as to not insult her, why she wanted to drive what I considered a mom-mobile she replied that she wanted something big and safe that she could handle and also something she could haul all of her friends around in. Oh. Hmph. Well, appears that millennials might be a tad more pragmatic than us Baby Boomer/Generation X types. Who'd have thunk that?


Alls I knows is is that back in my day I wanted to be as far away from anything "family-car" as I could get. Y'see, my family personified the dysfunction in dysfunctional family and with my old man driving  a 1968 Ford Ranch Wagon just like this frumpy blue fedora, you might begin to understand why I flinch at the words, "family car". 
That's why I like coupes; they're cool above and beyond anything else. Those who drove them when I was a kid were, to me at least, the debonairs who weren't afraid to put themselves first. Sorry, as selfish as that may sound, I believe it's perfectly fine to hold onto your individuality even if you have a family. You need a van to haul stuff or a truck for a project? Go rent one. Back in the day, cars like this 1977 Ford Thunderbird, as remarkably impractical as they were, ruled the roost. Now, were folks back then more self centered than they are now or were station wagons really that bad? 

So, why did coupes fall out of favor? Driven almost purely as fashion statements, for there is certainly nothing inherently practical in a two door car regardless of how many passengers it can carry, ugly lumps like Ford's new for 1980 Thunderbird didn't help matters. Combine that with GM's semi-abortive 1978 downsizing of their A body intermediates, and the coupe or personal luxury car began it's long, slow, inevitable decline.
In Ford's case, these Fox bodied Thunderbirds were infinitely superior to anything that came before it; even the hot selling LTD II based 1977-1979 Thunderbirds. Didn't matter much, though. To those who put projecting some sort of image above all else, personal luxury cars/coupes, suddenly began to look like leisure suits. Enter the age of the sport utility vehicle to replace padded landau half roofs and opera windows.
It's so bad out there these days for us coupe people the only domestic coupe on the market, and I'm not counting pony cars like Mustang, Camaro and even Challenger, is Cadillac's very expensive (and small) ATS coupe. There is no Thunderbird, Monte Carlo, Grand Prix etc. I plan on doing a deeper dive in the near future on the history of the two door car. Stay tuned.
I asked my wife the other night that if I could get her any car she wanted what she want. She didn't waste a half second telling me she'd like a two door Mini Cooper. Is it any wonder we've been married 23 years and counting?