Saturday, January 30, 2016

Dale Earnhardt Intimidator #899 at 100,000 Miles

 Chevrolet made donations totaling more than $660,000 from the sale of each Monte Carlo SS Dale Earnhardt Signature Edition to the Foundation for the Carolinas, a charity selected by the Earnhardt family. Earnhardt died on February 18, 2001 in a crash during the last lap of the Daytona 500 - just months before a limited production run of 3,333 of these cars was to begin. My car was built in November 2001 and is #899.  

According to legend, and who knows if its true or not but it's fun to talk about, the original owner of my car, who lived in the Dayton, Ohio area, bought it and used for it approximately 18 months and then mothballed it believing the car would appreciate in value.  After six years of somewhat slower depreciation than normal, due in large part to the car's pristine condition as much as anything else, the original owner traded the car in with not even 15,000 miles on it.

The car was then purchased by, now again, according to legend, a Cleveland area nightclub owner who bought it as a gift for one his "dancers". Apparently, that dancer was either not fond of the car or the massive gift in general so he traded it into a Buick dealership in Akron. That dealership had difficulty selling it for the premium price it was asking so it sat on their showroom floor as a decoration. There it sat until I came along more than two years later looking for a relatively inexpensive car with low mileage. Ironically, as much of a car guy as I am, I have no interest in NASCAR or, no disrespect intended, Mr. Earnhardt. I just like the car (I had a 2001 SS years ago) and I even went so far as to ask for these "3's" on the C pillars to be removed. The dealership refused for two reasons; out of respect for Earnhardt and also it would have left shadows on pillars.

It was, frankly, a gamble paying $11,000 cash (plus trading in my Taurus for $1,500) for an at the time eight year old car. I paid cash for it since I couldn't get a loan that made sense for a car that old with a book value so low - and a retail price so high. Not a good combination. The gamble was that if I wrecked it, I'd be out at between $4,000 and $6,000. No gap insurance was available either so yeah, that was a real leap of faith. My wife and I were diligent in paying ourselves back for the car and did so inside of two years.

I've had the car now going on six years now so it's amortized itself quite nicely. My cost of ownership has been absurdly low since the car is totally paid off and any repairs it needed I've done myself. The only time it left us stranded was when I first got it; the original battery needed replacing at a most inopportune time. So, there we were - that white trash family working on their car in a mall parking lot.

Over years there has been some additional drama. There was the short circuited ABS hub (no ABS and no traction control) and the busted wind shield wiper transmission that would leave the wipers in the up position when off.  I recently replaced the driver's side power window switches too. Currently the check engine light comes on but that allegedly is due to a faulty thermostat that I have yet to get around to replacing.

If you're wondering, I have no plans to get rid of this car since, as cliched as this may sound considering it's NASCAR trimmings, it's been such a  winner. The jacket will go when the car goes too and with two kids in college, that's not going to be for a while. Here's to another 100,000 miles. Rest in peace, Mr. Earnhardt. 

"The Dale" crossed over 100,000 miles back in October east bound on 480 by Hopkins airport.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1982 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Diesel Wagon - Robin, To The Engine Hoist!

Had I been as old as I am now when the GM/Olds Diesels debuted, I have to believe I would have embraced them for everything they had to offer - all the comfort and room of traditional, or should I say "new traditional" full size cars with the fuel economy of much smaller cars; despite the horrible performance and the additional cost of the Diesel engine. I had no love for them at the time because they were not the big, gas burning V-8's I grew up with and adored. 

Didn't love them then and I certainly have no less disdain for them now. This charming, Olds 350 Diesel powered bomb is for sale in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that's in the eastern part of the state, with an asking price of $650. That's a fair asking price for a car that could go for as little as $200 if not $150 given that the car has not run in 20 years. Owner says the engine may be seized. 

Just as well the engine is seized. No sense in even attempting to start this engine given that it has to go even if it was running. Did the head bolts break off? Fuel lines rust out? Does it matter? Robin, to the engine hoist! 

I love station wagons and this car is interesting to me only as an inexpensive way to own one but even some things are so far gone that they're not worth salvaging. Never mind the struggle of pulling the engine, fuel lines and tank - replacing that cracked dash is a much bigger hassle. 

Brake lines and probably all of the steering components would have to go too seeing how long this thing has been sitting. I don't mind the time I'd have to put in and everything could be done on the cheap for maybe $2,500. That would include a big, gas burning V-8 from a junk yard, fresh fuel lines and new fuel tank, new brake lines, re-manufactured steering cylinder, new steering hoses, new radiator, transmission and differential flush. Might want to change the shocks and springs too while I'm at it. 

After I did all that what would I have? A 1982 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon I laid out upwards of $3,000 for that still needed tires and a paint job. 

My wife is patient with my projects - but not that patient. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Oldsmobile Firenza Wagon - Jagged Little Pill

When it comes right down to it, the only thing that really matters about an automobile is how reliable it is. That's why I separate all of the cars I've owned into two groups; reliable (good) and not reliable (bad). Now, reliable cars might not be exciting or interesting necessarily but I'll take a boring reliable car any day over some hot thing that breaks down (and breaks your heart) on a constant basis. Speaking of heart breaks, have I introduced you to my 1977 Corvette? With that we swallow today's jagged little pill, a 1984 Oldsmobile Firenza. Wagon.
The Firenza was the Oldsmobile version of the front wheel drive GM "J body" series that debuted in 1981 as 1982 models. Here in the United States, the Firenza shared much with the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird and Buick Skylark and, oddly enough, the Cadillac Cimarron. Worldwide, GM applied the platform to vehicles in subsidiaries from Japan, Korea, Germany and Australia. The primitive little cars sold in droves here and overseas as well and you have to wonder why since there were infinitely better cars available from Japan and Europe at the time. Then again, it was the 1980's and there were still plenty of people who would buy anything that GM sold. 
Of everything that GM did wrong in the 1980's, the GM J bodies were actually one of the things GM did right. Or less wrong. Save for the Cadillac image crushing Cimarron, the J's were fairly sturdy little cars that delivered on their promise of better fuel economy and nimble performance. Well, relatively nimble performance; there's only so much a 2.0 liter, 86 horsepower in line 4 can provide even to a car that weighs less than 2500 pounds but rack and pinion steering, MacPherson struts and the packaging efficiencies of front wheel drive were modern marvels in a GM car back in the early 1980's.
There are a myriad of reasons why GM's market share plunged from nearly 63 % in 1980 to below 45 % by 1990. Cars like this cheap little Oldsmobile certainly didn't help matters much but, again, they did far less damage to GM than, for example, the X bodies or the Olds Diesel fiasco did. If that's damning by faint praise so be it but I'll never forget how much Mr. Neubeck, the kind older gentleman who lived across from my family back on Long Island, liked his Firenza. Mr. Neubeck bought a brand new Firenza wagon just like this off the showroom floor at Mack Markowitz Oldsmobile and loved it til the day he died more than 15 years later bragging every chance he got about how reliable the car was.
One of these days I'll blog about the Taurus my family bought in 2002 that never gave us a hiccup in the almost 9 years we owned it. Might not have been the most exciting car in the world and I was so bored with it that I made a habit of attempting to trade it in for something more interesting but my practical side always prevailed. That Taurus going into the "good" folder just like Mr. Neubeck's Firenza. Wagon.

GM's domestic market share is currently at, approximately, 20%.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

1990 Cadillac Brougham - All Is Forgiven

Cadillac had many so many missteps in the 1980's that it's hard to keep track of them all; and you know that they'd rather we forget about them. V-8-6-4, the Cimarron, Oldsmobile diesels, Buick V-6 powered DeVilles, the 1986 Eldorado. The oddly interesting (now more than then) Allante too. All that and under the onslaught of competition from Asia and Europe and it's amazing Cadillac is around today. It's amazing they even survived the 1980's.

Of all of Cadillac's 1980's missteps, however, none did more damage to their image - Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Chevrolet all  suffered from the ignominy of the Oldsmobile 350 Diesel disaster -  than the "HT 4100 Power System".

The 249 cubic inch, "High Tech 4100" V-8 was originally developed for use in Cadillac's forthcoming front wheel drive sedans that were targeted for sale in 1982. However, with those sedans delayed until at least 1983 (they debuted in the spring of 1984 as 1985 models) and in light of the V-8-6-4 and Oldsmobile Diesel fiascos, Cadillac decided to use the small engine in all of their cars starting in 1982.

210 pounds lighter than the 368 cubic inch, or 6.0 liter, Cadillac gas V-8 it replaced and with an EPA gas mileage rating 2 miles per gallon more, the HT appeared to be the modern marvel that Cadillac needed at the time and seemed to be fitting with Cadillac's legacy of technological advancement; as tarnished as that image was at the time. That image didn't just get more tarnish thanks to the HT, it got completely shellacked. There were two major problems with the HT. First, while the HT produced a similar amount of horsepower to the 6.0, the HT's 200 foot pounds of torque, 70 less than the 6.0, was woefully inadequate to power cars that weighed near two tons (Eldorado/Seville) or more than two tons. In the smaller, lighter front wheel drive sedans it was intended for it was actually quite ample. What's more, the engine was prone to leaking and catastrophic sudden failure.

If Cadillac did anything right in the 1980's it was that beginning in 1986, they dropped the HT from their rear wheel drive "Fleetwood Brougham" and installed an Oldsmobile gas 307, or 5.0 liter V-8 - something you could argue they should have done in the first place. With 50 some odd more foot pounds of torque than the HT, 5.0 liter Fleetwood Broughams were still under powered but at least they didn't implode like the HT's did.

A name change in 1987 to just "Brougham" and mild redesign in 1990 along with that bullet proof Olds V-8 helped to right somewhat a ship that had run ashore. Cadillac was finally making baby steps back towards respectability. 

Major strides were taken in 1990 when a 175 horsepower, Chevrolet 350 V-8 engine with electronic fuel injection was made optional. Hallelujah. While 175 horsepower is relatively minimal compared to today's over powered cars, compared to the 135 hp HT, even the 145 of the massive old 368, the Chevy 350 powered Brougham was nothing short of remarkable. 275 foot pounds of torque on tap down low didn't hurt either. Interestingly, there was also little fuss made about a Cadillac being powered by a Chevrolet engine. Thirty or even twenty years prior, that fact alone would be cause for scandal. By 1990 it went by almost unnoticed. Suddenly, all was forgiven.

Cadillac cognoscenti were overjoyed that their Cadillac had returned to its place of former glory, prestige and opulence. Well, not really, of course but again, compared to anything Cadillac had pushed out since 1980, the 1990 5.7 liter "Brougham" was a gift from the car gods.

This lovely '90 "Brougham" is for sale for just a hair under $10,000 in bucolic Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Here's the listing. If this was only a coupe I'd probably beat you to the punch.

Why anyone would have bought this car instead of a Lexus LS400 or Infiniti Q45 for similar money at the time is beyond me but whom am I to argue? I was not of the age and certainly of no financial means to purchase any luxury car at the time but I remember being happy that my darling friends at Cadillac had a least done something right. Again.

Monday, January 18, 2016

1988 Buick Electra T-Type - The More Things Change...

"the more things change, the more they stay the same,"
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr-

If you're familiar with Buick's recent advertising where twenty somethings and even an adorable "granny" are perplexed by what a Buick is, imagine what "blue hairs" thought of a Buick Electra T-Type back  in the mid to late 1980's.

When people think of sporty if not fast Buicks from the 1980's, the turbocharged G body Grand National and GNX usually comes to mind. The "C body"  Electra T-Type, which was purportedly targeted at "younger" buyers than those that would have bought the car this car replaced, were remarkable for how well they performed and how different they were from what they replaced. These cars were also Buick's attempt to market an automobile to those who'd appreciate a "performance" sedan akin to BMW or Mercedes; at a fraction of the cost.

Problem with the BMW crowed, then as now, is that they wouldn't be caught dead in a "Buick" or anything domestic. They also have no problem with over paying for a status symbol so the value proposition was meaningless to them. Those that did buy these were faithful who'd bought "Buick" or GM for years; and would continue to do so come hell or high water. Or, perhaps, until they drove a BMW or Mercedes Benz for the first time.

With the Electra T-Type, buyers got a "gran (no d) touring suspension" which included larger wheels, tires and thicker front and rear anti-sway or stabilizer bars than what was available on non T-Type Electras. The steering ratio was slightly quicker and there was  a more aggressive, 2.97:1 final drive ratio no doubt to give the impression that the T was more powerful than "lesser" Electras. There were also some trim tidbits like a "sport" steering wheel and unique colors and trim available.

A BMW they weren't but compared to the floaty, boaty, C body Electra it replaced, even a non T-Type Electra, these were drivers cars in ways that even the haughty GNX couldn't match. I'll never forget the look on my sixty something year old father's face the first time he drove the used 1987 Buick LeSabre he would purchase. At first incredulous to the little car, he fell in love with it on his first stab of the gas pedal.

My father was no yuppie; he was of the generation who saw "Buick" as being a prestige brand and not the blue hair brand that Buick was attempting to thwart then just as they are today. It was remarkable that he and many of his generation appreciated these cars for what they were even if his generation bought these cars in spite of what they looked like. "If only it looked more like a Buick" he lamented often.


Well, Dad, your wish was Buick's command. GM upsized their H bodies in 1991 adding acres of girth fore and aft to all of them making them look more like "a Buick". Or a modern Buick that fit my father's generation view as to what a proper Buick should look like. While over the last twenty five years or so big Buicks like this blew the doors off any "younger targeted" Electra or LeSabre T-Type from the '80's, you'd never confuse these cars with anything targeted at a "younger" buyer.

Have to wonder what the future holds for Buick. If history repeats itself, twenty five years from now we'll see another round of these commercials.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

1960 Cadillac Eldorado - Simply Beautiful

A simple girl with heart so pure, 
I'll dance with you when rain doth pour.

I've seen you smile and felt you cry,
Know one day you too will fly.

Your Soul so white, yet streaked with black,
Hope so great my heart hath cracked.

I'd suffer hells fury, weather heavenly wrath,
If only I could show you the path.

This world needs your beauty, it screams for your charm.
Only you can keep it from harm.
                                                                        -Allistair Solomon                        

1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 - The Bee's Knees

I wish my taste in old cars leaned more towards exotic and high performing makes and models of Europe and Asia instead but I yam what I yam.  Here sits the single greatest automotive desire of my misbegotten youth. A 1979 Camaro Z28. In brown, no less. This car is the apple of my eye, the grand fromage, the cat's whiskers, the bee's knees.

I know better now of course but what did I know when I was a kid? I've only driven a handful of these cars in my life and I remember the first one I drove like it was yesterday. I thought it was enthralling. Powerful with jack rabbit like reflexes, great brakes. And the styling that was to die for.

What did I know? At that time I was tooling around in a 1974 Mercury Comet so even a rusted dump truck would seem sporty in comparison. More recent drives reveal to me this car's primitive underpinnings. Body on frame, rear drums, coil springs up front, leaf springs out back and emissions gear clogged 350's. Boy, that sounds like fun, don't it?

Much like my 1977 Corvette, you need to appreciate these cars for what they are and not for what they're not. At the time, they were relatively stout performers.
Over the last twenty, twenty five years or so, there's been a movement to not modify collectable cars but instead restore them to what they were when they were new. I get that but I also have no problem with updating engines and suspensions as long as the car appears to be stock. This car has a 1990's vintage LT-1 engine that has been retrofitted with an aftermarket intake manifold and four barrel carburetor. I've seen this done before; I have to image this is cheaper and simpler than installing a new fuel pump for the fuel injection. A little retro to go with the update of an old car. Pretty neat.
Updated on the inside while still looking old school on the outside is what will keep "The Bee's Knees" rolling for many more years to come.  
When bees flit from flower to flower the nectar sticks to their legs. The phrase "bee's knees" means sweet and good, because the knees of the bee are where all the sweet, good stuff is collected.  


Friday, January 8, 2016

Gotcha Covered - The History of Vinyl Automobile Roof Coverings

Here's another example of the odd collection of automobiles I run into at the tiny gym I go to here on Cleveland's "west side". This is a very base model, 1996 vintage Mercury Sable that is interesting for two reasons. First, it's a base model Sable that is in remarkably good, almost original condition; usually a nondescript sedan like this that's twenty years old would be beat to death by now. And I say it's a very base model since it has a column shifter, cloth interior, and no "24V DOHC" badge on the front fenders denoting the optional 24 valve "Duratec", 3.0 liter V-6 engine. Secondly, and more importantly it's interesting because it has what is known as a "simcon", a simulated convertible top.

These are also known as a carriage top or quite simply a vinyl roof. At the end of the day, this bizarre after market installed option, that was meant to imitate a convertible, on a sedan no less, takes me back to the wretched opera windowed and vinyl topped wonton styling excesses of that post muscle car world I grew up in. Running into this old Sable has also given me the impetuous to finally do a deep dive on a subject I've been meaning to cover for a while; an unofficial history of vinyl roofs on cars. As you'll quickly see, there's a lot more to it than you ever thought. 

With the ascend-ency of closed-bodied cars in the early 1920's, car makers sought all steel roofs. The initial attempts with boxy, upright car bodies of the period like this 1924 Model T failed due to air turbulence literally drumming on the top of the car. That drumming phenomenon similar to what you can experience today by lowering a side window an inch or two while driving, was exacerbated by the bolt upright windshield. As long as flat tops remained with those straight windshields, the solution was to cover them in canvas or coated fabric roof covers that would flex gently but wold not "drum". Look closely and you'll see this Model T's roof  is canvas.

That didn't mean that people couldn't have some style to go along with their canvas or rubber-vinyl tops. This 1928 Ford Model A is decorated with the same canvas/vinyl like material found on all flat topped cars of the era but it has landau bars to emulate the folding mechanism of horseless carriages. Nostalgia is nothing new, after all. 1928 Ford Model A's like this were the first documented, factory installed "carriage top" cars; or a top that imitated the folding top on horseless carriages.  These tops did not retract. Packard soon followed Ford's lead and began decorating their coupes with simulated convertible tops as well.

Fast forward some 70 years and that carriage theme was, at least 20 years ago, still going strong.

The decoration of flat topped cars with said carriage tops was gaining in popularity through the early years of the depression era until, finally, the advent of fixed steel roofs like those first found on the 1933 Oldsmobile. Within three years, almost all automobile manufacturers in the United States adopted the new "Turret Top" design. These new "Turret Top" styled automobiles, free from the drumming of air turbulence because of their raked windshields, simulated convertible or carriage tops fell out of fashion. 

Ford made an abortive attempt in 1950 to introduce a vinyl-leather top clad automobile. Ford's Crestliner, Mercury Monterey, Lincoln Lido and Cosmopolitan had an optional vinyl top that supposedly emulated a convertible. The option didn't sell well and Ford dropped it after the 1951 model year. Pictured here is a 1951 Lincoln Lido.

Convertible top automobiles seemingly always having a sporting flair, for 1957, Cadillac experimented with a vinyl roof to add a touch of elan to their new range topping Eldorado Brougham.

Whether it was prestigious Cadillac introducing a styling trend or the fact that the Eldorado Brougham looked so much better with that vinyl top than the Fords did, public reaction to the new-age vinyl look was so strong that GM began featuring full vinyl as a factory option on their 1962 Oldsmobile Starfire (above) and Buick Skylark. 

Ford also introduced a vinyl topped Thunderbird "Landau" Coupe in 1962 complete with landau bars like the 1928 Ford Model A had. 1962 was only 34 years after 1928 so landau bars no doubt evoked a significant amount of nostalgia amongst prospective buyers. 

For 1963, GM offered vinyl tops on Cadillacs, the Chevrolet Impala and the Pontiac Grand Prix as well as continuing to offer them on the Oldsmobile Starfire. While Ford offered a vinyl top on their 1963 Galaxie 500, vinyl tops were suddenly so in vogue that when Ford introduced their seminal Mustang in the spring of 1964, a vinyl top option was offered. 

Starting in 1965, GM even offered vinyl tops on four-door sedans. Vinyl tops became so popular throughout the rest of the 1960's that by 1970, vinyl was available on every type of automobile available from muscle cars to station wagons. Even economy model Ford Pintos featured vinyl top options. The look didn't so much emulate a convertible any longer as much as buyers simply liked the look.

The vinyl material used to cover automobile roofs was usually elk-grain in texture stretched form fittingly in a thin, un-padded layer. That was up until 1975 when Cadillac began offering padded vinyl tops featuring a thick layer of flexible padding covered with a smooth, glossy layer of vinyl material. 

As the 1980's became the 1990's and traditional American luxury cars changed from square to rounded designs, vinyl roofs fell out favor much in the same way they fell out of favor in the mid 1930's. Chrysler hasn't offered a factory installed vinyl top since 1992 and, allegedly, the 2002 Lincoln Continental (above) was one of the last automobiles produced in the United States that offered a factory installed vinyl option. 

With the seismic shift in the automobile market in the last ten years or so towards cross over sport utility vehicles, it's unlikely we'll ever see factory vinyl again. As for after market installers? Seems as long as there are takers they're around for good. 

Although I'm not a fan of vinyl topped cars in general, I had gone out of my way to remove a vinyl top from a car that I had years ago, there are some cars, not many, that actually look quite handsome with them. Take this 1971 Cadillac for instance.  Lovely with or without a vinyl top, I believe this car wouldn't be quite as striking without it. Yes, that's me.