Saturday, April 30, 2016

1978 Pontiac Catalina - Aping the Others

Downsized for 1977, the Pontiac Catalina was Pontiac's entry-level full size automobile and competed directly with similarly priced and equipped models from Buick, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that in many cities across America, several radio stations are owned by the same company. In any given market there are probably three if not four but rarely more than that owning and dominating any city for radio listening and advertising dollars. While there is no limit on the amount of AM and FM signals any one company can own in general and in any city in particular, what is restricted is the amount of potential advertising dollars any one company can control in the market. Lest a radio company, or group, become a monopoly. Back in the 1970's, General Motors was so large that many considered it a monopoly; GM was not a monopoly in the 1970's - it was just a very successful manufacturer of transportation devices the core of which were automobiles.
This car shares much structurally with the Chevrolet Impala, Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile 88 and offers little more than styling to be differentiated from it.
However, if any group of radio stations today, these massive groups, incidentally, are a fairly recent phenomenon, ran their operations like General Motors did in the 1970's, safe to say that they would not have any stations that were truly and consistently competitive.
Identical exterior as well as interior dimensions with again only styling differences to be differential. Styling differences that were ultimately expensive to produce since there were so many unique bits and pieces to design, engineer and manufacture.
Let's take for example a market of approximately three million people and said operator has four radio stations in the group. A best practice is for that cluster to have four radio stations that don't compete against each other. Or, if there's any chance that there is any competition, the stations are different enough from each other than they still stand apart as brands. Otherwise, that group is competing against themselves and with other choices for listening from other groups, more than likely the amount of listening for either of those stations is greatly diminished. This ain't rocket science, Marconi. Therefore it's baffling as to how General Motors for fifty of sixty years after World War II, had brands that competed fiercely with each other. Brands so similar in fact that many people would not be able to tell a Pontiac from a Buick let alone tell you that there's any difference between them.
An oddity of GM of yore, all divisions manufactured their own engines rather than have a central engine division making engines for the entire company. This 301 cubic inch V-8 was manufactured by Pontiac and while GM divisions did begin using engines produced by other GM divisions in the late 1970's, Pontiac had to absorb the manufacturing expense of a unique engine that shared nothing with similar sized engines from other divisions.
The General Motors of today is doing as well as it's doing for several reasons the least of which is an economy that appears to be at least cautiously robust. It all boils down to product and while it's debatable that Cadillac can really make a go of this selling automobiles that while excellent, are supremely overpriced thus missing the mark on making their wares great values, like Lexus and Infiniti did when they first launched, GM's products today are the equal of anything in the world today. GM's success today also boils down to lanes; their three remaining automobile divisions all have distinct lanes that each of the divisions is able to exist in with minimal concern that one division, or brand, is aping the other.
Most of GM's 1977 downsized full sized cars are lauded for their packaging and design. You could take exception to this Pontiac dash cluster that has a clock front and center on the driver's side of the dash while the most important gauge, the speedometer, is far left of the steering column.
After all, if even if the Cadillac XTS, Buick Lacrosse and Chevrolet Impala share much DNA and keen eyes can spot similar architecture in their styling, an Impala buyer is more than likely not going to be cross shopping an Impala with either the Buick or Cadillac.
A vestige of the 1970's, fuel fillers behind the rear license plate. When engineers began moving gas tanks in automobiles up closer to the passenger compartment to make them safer upon rear impact,  the filler pipe moved back to the side of the car.
That wasn't the case even up to just before GM's reorganization; GM had too many brands hawking way too similar products targeted at the same customers. While GM did have unique brands like Saab and Hummer, those brands were far too niche to be profitable. Especially in the economy of the late 2000's. Pontiac, incidentally, went into the brand dumpster with Saab, Saturn and Hummer as part of the reorganization.
"Catalina" was a once storied nameplate at Pontiac. Pontiac, which closed when GM reorganized in 2009, hadn't put the model nameplate on a car since 1981.
And while I'm still of the opinion that GM needs to ditch Buick, it's wonderful to see GM flourish to the extent that it is today. As recently as ten years ago, did we even think today's GM was possible?

Friday, April 29, 2016

1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit - Anything Was Possible

Here's a plum beautiful little memory machine that's as perfect today as it was when it was new in model year 1977. A Pontiac Firebird Esprit, which was, essentially, the Firebird version of the Camaro Type LT. It even has a 350 so the original owner knew how to have some fun. But, oh, those whitewalls.

I see this car in this impeccable shape and I'm (oh god no) 13 again. Much like this old Firebird, that, at least for me, sounds a lot better than it actually really was. Funny thing about memories though, no matter what, we rarely look back on them with out some sort of fondness. Memory makers like this often stoke the coals and spur other fond memories. I wonder if fondness can be cloaked in a shroud of dread? If nothing else, I look back at 13 year old me and see that at least I had a blind faith in that that anything was possible for indeed, it was and nothing, come hell or high water was going to stop me. Maybe I was naive too. Anyway, with regards to this Esprit, anything was possible as long as you had the where-with-all and means to turn it into a garage special Trans Am. Difficult back in the day of early emissions regulations but doable.

Much of my miserable teenage angst years were spent dreaming of cars like this not knowing that they were softer, less powerful versions of their fire breathing brethren. Many of these could have their doors sucked off by a Buick Electra but then again the Esprit, much like the Camaro LT wasn't about tire shredding performance. However, back to 13 year old me, I also wondered what the life of someone who owned one of these would be like. To me, if you had a car like this it meant you came from someplace, you were someone. You were supremely taken care of and your future was secure, yours seemingly for the taking. Excuse me, but, how did that work out for you? 

Kids today don't have the same passion for automobiles in general and for cars like this in particular that my generation had. That's because cars don't represent freedom and independence like they used to - cell phones do all that and more. If a kid wants to escape mom and dad or the world in general, all they have to do is fire up the wifi. I have to be honest and say that I don't know where my passion level for cars would have been when I was a kid had cell phones been around. Then again, I probably wouldn't even have had a phone or if I did, it would have been a 1974 Mercury Comet equivalent of a cell phone. Y'all, that ain't no pity party; it's just the cold hard facts.

I've had so many wonderful experiences in my life and I attribute my drive to over achieve and my appreciation of what I have because of my harrowing childhood. Trust me, the details of it you'd find boring and inconsequential. A harrowing childhood that had me looking at cars like this, with this absurd interior color combination, and believed them to be impossible to attain. Metaphorically and as well as realistically. 

I never set a course with any clear cut plan to succeed or over achieve but subconsciously, selfishly even, set forth to be nothing but happy. 13 year old me saw flashy cars like this and just assumed that those that drove them were happy or at least successful or benefited from someone else's success. Those people were lucky more than anything and at my ripe age, I can tell you that in the long haul, it's better to be good than lucky. 13 year old me would agree too.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

1969 Cadillac Coupe deVille - Countdown to 1986

"Best of's a Cadillac"

1986 was Cadillac's nadir, so to speak. That's based on years of missteps and circumstances beyond their control that culminated in a line up of automobiles that included the Chevrolet Cavalier based Cimarron (above) and the all new for 1986 Eldorado and Seville (I actually liked that little Seville). The styled in a high school shop class, front wheel drive DeVille and Fleetwood were in the second year of HT 4100 powered infamy, the wraps were coming off the inexplicable Allante and the only rear wheel drive sedan they had was now powered by a puny Oldsmobile 307. The only thing that Cadillac had going for them was "tradition" and they were bundling their entire steaming mess together with an oxymoronic advertising slogan playing off that sentiment.   

That table set, let's take a look at today's subject, a car that I actually adore, a 1969 Cadillac Coupe deVille.

There were many "last great Cadillacs" before the storied brand slid below under water in 1986. This 1969 Coupe DeVille is certainly one of them although there were obvious signs that Cadillac was taking on water. 

The exterior styling certainly was still "Cadillac" with all the requisite clich├ęs that made a Cadillac a Cadillac. You'll even find vestigial tail fin lights on every Cadillac available today.

Adhering to a three year model cycle that was de rigueur at General Motors for years after World War II, the 1969 Cadillacs were the second year of a three year model cycle that, in and of itself, was an update of their all new for 1965 models.

The new for 1968, who-cares-about-gas mileage, pre smog 472 V-8 was still amazingly responsive and seemingly destined for engine immortality. Funny thing happened on the way to heaven. Cadillac enlarged this engine to 500 cubic inches for 1970 with plans to go as large as 600 cubic inches. The issue with this engine was that it didn't offer any significant increase in performance above and beyond anything similar from Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac or Chevrolet.

Where the cracks in the foundation were obvious were here in the cabin. Hard to believe that this is the interior of General Motor's top-of-the-line automobile at any time in its history let alone one from an automobile when General Motors was allegedly still at the top of its game. Feel the cheapness as you run your hands along the plastic injection molded dashboard.

Forty seven years of wear, tear and just plain old atmospheric deterioration certainly doing no favors to this chintzy, granny's paisley sofa cloth interior. Leather lined Cadillacs of this vintage weren't that luxurious when new either.  In my opinion, the high grade vinyl or what was called naugahyde  on Buicks of this vintage was much nicer. What were you buying exactly for twice the price of a Chevrolet Caprice?

You can almost hear and feel the hollow clickity clack, click-click-click of the cheap plastics of this dashboard that wouldn't look out of place in a Caprice.  

If you didn't know this was a Cadillac already and were asked to guess what car this back seat came from, would you say, "Cadillac" based on this photograph? Note the over spray on the pin for the door latch. This car is for sale for $12,995 by the way. Here's the listing on ebay.

Here's an exclusive touch you wouldn't find on any other GM product at the time - windshield wiper controls on the driver's door. Did come in handy when wanted to work the wipers when you were standing outside the car, though.

In many ways, this car is like an elegant restaurant that serves the same food much less expensive restaurants sell. Same could be said for just about every Cadillac made after, say, 1955 as many of the performance and creature comforts that were once exclusive to Cadillac had trickled down to lesser models on the GM pricing ladder. As GM stopped plowing profits back into engineering to keep Cadillac "The Standard of the World", the gap narrowed between Cadillac and even Chevrolet to such a point that the  only thing going for a Cadillac was the fact it was a "Cadillac".

Usher in the age of Cadillac's infamous, "Best of all it's a Cadillac" ad campaign that began in 1982 and was mercifully gone after their nadir in 1986. In many ways, Cadillac is still recovering from 1986 as they struggle to sell their fabulous modern cars that are arguably, and remarkably, better than anything from Germany. Problem today is that Cadillac can't find enough buyers willing to pony up the premium price for a Cadillac but they are willing to pay a premium for a BMW, Audi or Mercedes. Reason for that goes all the way back to Cadillac's nadir that took decades to achieve just as it will take decades for Cadillac to reverse that sentiment.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

1973 Pontiac Bonneville - Sexy Beast

Pontiac and Chevrolet were always connected more so than the other GM divisions as they offered a very similar lineup of cars. Pontiac, though, had a way of taking what Chevrolet started and did something different with it.  Didn't say different was always good but in the case of this 1973 Pontiac Bonneville coupe it most certainly was.

The lack of a vinyl top and this light blue color accentuate the sharp, clean lines of a very underrated design. No doubt the damn car was too big but it looked great being too big nonetheless. 

This 1973 Bonneville, as did all cars sold in the United States starting in 1973 were required to do so, suffers the ignominy of a 5 mph "safety bumper" bolted to the front end. Despite the battering ram on the front, the car works aesthetically since the overall design was unchanged from the unfathomably large and delicious new-for-1971 design. Still, the 1971 and 1972 models are better looking because of much more delicate front end treatment due to a smaller front bumper.

That all changed when GM not only grafted a safety bumper onto the rear end of this car for 1974, per government regulations, they did away with hardtops. They also sliced and diced and kneeded the overall design far more than they should have making it look even larger than it already was. Suddenly, what had been a fairly sporting looking big car became as attractive as a wannabee Cadillac deVille.

Cars like this were dinosaurs even before the first gas shock in the fall of 1973. Understand it's not like people all of a sudden realized that their cars got terrible gas mileage when the price of gas doubled. It's just when the price of gas spiked and it stayed spiked, lovely dreadnoughts like this became huge (no pun intended) liabilities. Figure 8-11 miles per gallon on average with this car.

Years ago, customers could custom order their cars with the options they wanted as opposed to buying a car that had a package of options like today. This led to some very unusual combinations of options like what our subject has. For instance, while it has a power windows, and while they were available, it does not have power door locks. Our subject has a Pontiac 400 V-8 with a four barrel carburetor and a 2.56 "economy ratio rear axle". Odd to have a 2.56 axle and a four barrel carburetor, the four barrel would negate any fuel savings brought on by the high axle ratio, It also has a dome/map light, tilt wheel, AM/FM Stereo radio and Pontiac's "Radial Tuned Suspension" handling package that included a rear anti sway bar. Power front disc brakes were standard, rear drums. Love the power bench seat - we all move together.

From 1971 to 1975, Pontiac had three full sized cars with the Bonneville, which had been Pontiac's top of the line model from 1959-1970, sandwiched between the Grand Ville and the Catalina.

Sexy beast.



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

1979 Buick LeSabre "Turbo" Sport Coupe - Could Have Had a V-8

A "turbo" is a pump that recirculates exhaust gas onto a turbine that draws additional air into an engine's combustion chambers to increase an engine's power and efficiency. Put in those terms it doesn't sound like some exotic world beating device that helps to improve a small engine's  performance while using practically no additional fuel, does it? However, somewhere along the way between the first turbocharged car sold in the United States in 1962, a turbocharged Chevrolet Corvair of all things, and the introduction of the Turbo 3.8 Litre Buick LeSabre Sport Coupe in 1978, not only where liberties taken with the spelling of the word "liter", "turbo" tacked onto an automobile came to connote that said automobile was capable of not just improved performance but a level of performance akin to warp speed.

Buick fanned the flames of turbo mania when this 306 horsepower turbo V-6 Buick Century paced the 1976 Indianapolis 500. If it could pace Indy race cars, imagine what it would be like driving to church on Sundays! However, the engine in this pace car was a specially tuned Buick Turbo 3.8 Litre V-6 that engineers dialed up the boost to 22 psi to help make that 306 horsepower. That engine was never made available for sale to the general public. The biggest problem was the amount of boost; in an every day driver, 22 psi in a mid 1970's V-6 would ruin the engine very quickly. 

What we did get was this - a "Turbo 3.8 Litre V-6" with 6 psi of boost making 170 horsepower. What with not even a third of the boost of the Pace Car, slightly more than half the horsepower and even with an aggressive for its time 3:23 rear axle, it was safe to say this Buick LeSabre Sport Coupe would have had great difficulty pacing the Indianapolis 500. Incidentally, today's turbos typically have 12-15 psi of boost and, many times, are teamed in tandem.

Not that Buick marketed this car as a car that could pace the Indianapolis 500 but what they indirectly marketed was a car that would perform at a higher level than at least the base LeSabre powered by a 135 horsepower, Pontiac 301 V-8.

That was not the case. Judged by the most important criteria for engine performance, that being the pressure the driver and passenger feel on the seat back when gas pedal is pushed down, the little 301 was the stronger engine off the line and right through roughly 45 miles an hour.

It was at around 45 miles an hour that the turbo had spooled up enough boost to make a difference. And then the difference was only fairly moderate compared to what the 301 could offer. Let's not even mention the fact that Buick offered their lovely 350 V-8 on this car as well but we are talking the late 1970's and a big V-8 meant bad gas mileage. The Pontiac 301 certainly has it's detractors, but with a 3:08 rear end, trust me, it was more than ample to move this car. Love that our subject car still has its original smog pump. 

We all know that EPA mileage ratings are as flimsy as new car window stickers but the turbo V-6 was rated at only 3 miles per gallon better than the 301. Real world economy with the 301 was between 14 and 16 miles per gallon and its power delivery, while not to be confused with a 455 Stage 1, was at least smooth and linear not herky-jerky on again off again like you would experience with a turbocharged engine. To get full performance out of car as large and heavy as this LeSabre Sport Coupe would require constant mashing of the gas pedal to build up boost; that mashing would lead to real world fuel economy worse than the 301. As bad or worse than the 350? Bet on it. Why any one bought this car when they could have had at least the 301 V-8 is beyond me. Especially after driving the cars back to back. Read about a Buick 350 powered 1979 LeSabre here. 

Even the best of turbocharged engines today operate differently, or unusually, compared to engines that are not turbocharged - the power, again, is either ON!! or it's off (I'm not a fan); modern electronics not to mention fuel injection help to reduce what's known as "turbo lag". The unusual drivability of the LeSabre Sport Coupe combined with the availability of smoother responding engines no doubt led to very limited sales of these cars making them quite unique today. Especially unmolested originals like our subject car. Most Buicks powered by this carbureted engine that are still around today are going to be under the hood of the much smaller and lighter Regal and Century Sport Coupes.

This otherwise very handsome LeSabre, which comes equipped with a heavy duty touring or "sports suspension" and awesome Buick rims, is for sale with a pie-in-the-sky asking price of $15,500. Another example of someone either thinking they have a pot of gold on their hands or they're really not interested in selling the car. Based on the condition of this car in these photographs and had it have the Buick 350, this car would be a steal at around $7,500. As such, it's an over priced albatross. Here's the listing. Happy bidding.

Remarkably if not admirably Buick continued to manufacture and refine "Turbo 3.8 Litre" engines through 1987 but they installed them in their much smaller and lighter intermediate size coupes. Years of continued refinement of the engine ultimately leading to the "legendary" Buick Grand National and GNX. Read about them here. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Planes, Trains and a 1986 Chrylser LeBaron Town and Country Convertible

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a 1987 "road comedy" written, produced and directed by John Hughes. The film stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a high strung marketing executive, who meets Del Griffith, played by John Candy, an eternally optimistic, outgoing, overly talkative shower curtain ring salesman. They share a three day adventure getting Neal home to Chicago from New York City in time for Thanksgiving. Along the way, they to rent a car.

They don't just rent any car, though, they rent as perfectly cast an automobile as the DeLoreon used in the "Back to the Future" movies - they rent what appears to be a Chrysler Town and Country convertible.

Much like the DeLoreon in the Back to the Futures, someone in central car casting had a keen eye for automobiles that were a rolling joke at the time "Planes" was made. While the "LeBaron" in the film was modified enough to satisfy Chrysler's demands that their car not appear as one of their models, more on that in second, what was a timely and hilarious cultural reference has more than stood the test of time in. You see a DeLoreon today and you say,   "Back to the Future". You see a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, even if you don't know what it is, and you say, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles". Of the two cars, however, the LeBaron was far more reflective of the 1980's than the DeLoreon was.

The LeBaron being far more reflective of the '80's since it was part of Chrysler's K cars series that were seemingly everywhere in the 1980's. You never saw that many DeLoreans back then because there really weren't that many of them to begin with. Hard to say if the car itself was famous or were the made infamous because of drug trafficking charges levied against John Z. DeLoreon. Mr. DeLoreon, incidentally, was acquitted on all counts.

Whether automobile pundits liked them or not; for the record, they didn't. The K's were very successful despite the fact they really weren't very good automobiles. Much like the Model T, they offered buyers affordability and they stayed reasonably bolted together long enough for at least the original buyers to pay them off. The K's styling, or lack thereof, was by design; the cars were simple, practical, no frills automobiles targeted at a middle America that was struggling to recover from the double-dip recession of the 1970's. Nothing building confidence like little victories.

The original Chrysler LeBaron K car convertible, which came in 1982, added some calculated whimsy to the staid lineup. With regards to the Town and Country models - the attempt to ape the "woodie" Town and Country's of the late 40's and 50's was a stretch for us Generation X'ers; the silly wood grain only making an already homely automobile downright absurd. Then again, this car was targeted at those who remembered the grand Chrysler Town and Country's of yore and not 1980's twentysomethings. Still, the wood grain wallpaper and plastic molding made for a car as funny looking as John Candy was just funny in general. Again, the car was perfectly cast to be the "Automobile" in "Planes".

Back to Chrysler, they were none too fond of one of their models being used for what was certainly nothing more than a circus clown car. Therefore, what we think is a Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country in the movie is actually a LeBaon customized enough to satisfy Chrysler's demands that a LeBaon not be used in the film. Say what you will, it's still a Chrysler Town and Country woodie convertible.

Note that the car in the movie looks different from most LeBarons - dare I say it almost looks good. Almost.

That's because from the back of the doors to the rear bumper and including the convertible top, the car is actually a Dodge 600 (above). The 600's slightly longer wheelbase gave the movie car much-improved proportion and balance. It's subtle but it makes a big difference.

For comparison, here's a Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country convertible in it's unmolested, stubby glory. Again, from where the B pillar is or would be on back, the LeBaron featured in "Planes" is a Dodge 600.

The car featured in the film is also not badged as a Chrysler but rather a "Gran-Detroit" owing again to the fact that Chrysler did not want their nameplate attached to the car. Note the lime green paint - not a factory option on these cars. It's a tribute to the Griswold's "Wagon Queen Family Truckster" which also featured wood grain applique and plastic wood trim. John Hughes wrote the short story the original "Vacation" movie was based on.

The passage of time has not been kind to the car that saved Chrysler and the LeBaron convertibles have come to define 1980's car kitsch much in the same way the AMC Pacer defines the 1970's. If there's anything positive to say about them it's that they were notable for being the first factory-built convertibles since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.

Unlike the K car, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was greeted with critical acclaim upon release, a revelation since Hughes was constried in Hollywood as noting but a teen angst filmmaker. It got two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert with Siskel declaring it John Candy's best role to date. It has 94% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and is featured on Roger Ebert's Great Movies collection. It's also one of only a handful of movies that I would be stuck on a desert island with and be perfectly content to watch over and over.