Friday, August 26, 2016

1976 Chevrolet Impala - Just Like Us

If you're of a certain age then perhaps you may have an appreciation for this 1976 Chevrolet Impala coupe. While I'm not going to say that "we" are dying off just yet, I will say that we are the last of a breed of people that like these stupefyingly large automobiles if for no other reason than people worship memories of their childhood that they can actually see and feel. We have no use for those memories and our minds are cluttered with memorabilia from our youth like a junked up dusty attic; even if we could we would never get rid of them. How else to explain why anyone would find something as ungainly and ultimately impractical as this car something to wax nostalgic over? 1976 was also the last year for these gigantic automobiles that were, amongst the largest automobiles ever mass produced. So this car is, in fact, like "us", the last of a breed.

While I see this car and I'm 11 or 12 years old again, and everything that that entails, this is far from a favorite car of mine. Chevrolet's 1974 update of the 1971 "B-bodies" being, in my opinion, far from graceful and fairly botched in execution. Pontiac similarly screwed up their B's as well; Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac doing a far more graceful job of integrating a "B" pillar into the design of their cars and getting the massive 5 mph "safety bumpers" to blend into the design. I find this car as appealing as I do El Caminos; always something slightly off about them too. This blue on black color scheme is hard to digest as well  and the fender skirts on an entry level automobile don't row my boat either. My wife thinks I love all old cars and especially old Chevrolets. Case in point, I don't.
Amazingly, even in 1976 there were three engine options available on the Impala. There was a top of the line 454 big block, a 400 small block with a four barrel carburetor no less and what our subject here has, the base 350 cubic inch V-8 with a teeny, tiny two barrel Rochester carburetor. Making all of 145 horsepower for 1976, this car was also saddled with as low as a 2.29:1 rear axle ratio which may have done a little for improved highway fuel economy but nothing for accelerating away from a stop light. We recently looked at a 1974 Caprice with a 454 which, according to contemporary road tests, could accelerate from 0-60 a good 4 seconds quicker than a comparable car equipped with this engine. That's a considerable difference. You'd pay for that at the pump, though. Big time.
It's interesting how what was "all the rage" back when new is now, at least from a collectability stand point, a liability. 1971-1973 Impala coupes were all "hard tops", in other words, they were fixed roof automobiles that because of the lack of a center pillar or what is referred to as a "B pillar", had the stream lined profile of a convertible with the top up. Great looking cars but for 1974, GM added a center pillar that literally sectioned off the back of the car from the front and gave what was once an almost sporty looking car a chopped off appearance like, again, an El Camino. It made for a cozy rear seating area and no doubt added some much needed solidity to these cars but it ruined the design. This car worth perhaps not half what a 1971 model would list for in comparable condition. At least they had the good sense to keep that concave rear windshield. If you agree with my sentiment about these updated Impalas and Caprices, we do take some solace in the fact that Ford messed up their cars even more so that GM did. Forget Chrysler. They had no idea what they were doing in the 1970's.
While a must for most cars, our subject's six way adjustable bench seat is unaccompanied by power windows or a tilt steering column. I don't see a power lock binnacle either on the passenger door so this is just another example of ala carte options ordering that customers could do years ago. Didn't mean the dealership would get the order right, though. Many people I knew who "custom ordered" their new cars got them delivered with the option order incorrect. Not unlike a waiter brining you your dinner with a side of cole slaw when you wanted fries. Easier to send the plate back than have the dealership retrofit options on a car.
Oddly enough, our subject here has fender skirts which tells me that this was probably a late model year stripped down Caprice they sold as an Impala. That or the skirts came as part of an appearance package that came with that blasted vinyl roof. Gotta love those rubber protectors on the bumpers. This car needed to go on a diet and it did big time for model year 1977.

Interestingly, the older I get the more I find myself not wanting for these old '70's boats like I used to. I love to look at them and wax nostalgic over them but like that girl you had a crush on years ago you're sure now liked you too, that "want" fades as you get older. At least that's the case with me. Sure, I'd love to have an Impala coupe in my fantasy garage but it would not be a clumsy oaf like this 1976 blue bomb. Make mine a brown or dark green stripper 1971 or 1972; it's not going to happen either way but as long as you're dreaming, might as well make that dream exactly what you want.  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

1972 Oldsmobile Toronado - Stick 'Em, Stick 'Em til They Bleed

Had I been of the age and certainly of the means to purchase a near two and half ton, two door, four passenger personal luxury car in the early 1970's, I have to think I'd go for a 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado like this over something a bit more practical or more conventional like a Ford Thunderbird. The ostentatious Cadillac Eldorado of this vintage would have been clearly out of the question.

I love the lines of these 1971-1972 Toronados the same way I love the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. Vinyl roof be darned too. Many believe that Oldsmobile either aped the Eldorado for this design or there was some corporate rhetoric to keep the '67 Eldorado alive somehow as Cadillac pushed the Eldorado into the parade float lane starting in 1971. Oldsmobile was onto something with this redesign - it was the best selling Toronado of all time.

Now, if I'm truly me, though, as an adult in 1972, I'd probably opt for a gently used '67-'70 Eldorado versus springing for a brand new Toronado. Then again, I'm not about conspicuous consumption so I doubt I'd want something as glitzy as either sitting in my driveway lest someone think I was showing off. Although...I really like this car; who cares what people think. Chances are something a tad more modest like an older Thunderbird would have fit the bill for me back then. I'm also a big fan of the 1966 vintage Buick Riviera; that was a gorgeous car.

Then again, back then, older used cars came with a lot of headaches. American cars were horribly built and with their fairly limited warranties expired, the second that anything acted up owners more often than not would reach for their check books and spring for something new rather than make expensive repairs on an old car. The old adage against used cars back then was, "why buy someone else's problem"? These days you rarely hear of anyone complaining about how unreliable or what a "lemon" their car is. That sentiment alone makes this 44 year old survivor even more remarkable. Have to wonder how much of this car mechanically is original. 

The Toronado debuted for model year 1966 as the first front wheel drive automobile produced in the United States after World War II. The last before the war being the Cord 810/812. Oldsmobile was GM's "engineering division" and the "oh wow" factor of front wheel drive fell mostly on deaf and ambivalent ears; folks bought or didn't buy the original Toronado for the same reason they buy or don't buy conventional cars - styling. The original Toronado's styling was very off beat dare I say strange; personally I think it one of Bill Mitchell's rare missteps. Subsequent toning down of the space age design proved all fruitless until the 1971 spirit-of-Eldorado redesign.  Reminds me of what my old sales manager used to say to wrap up every Monday morning sales meeting, "Stick 'em, stick 'em til they bleed".

Contemporary road test reviews of the Toronado lamented its soft suspension and the car's tendency to understeer; this wasn't a performance car. It was also noted how large the car was too without really any real benefit to interior room and single digit gas mileage. Making note of bad gas mileage on an near luxury car pre Gas Crisis I being particularly interesting. And with By 1971, the Toronado's front wheel drive was all but a footnote. 

Again, if I were an adult back in the early '70's, I know that me being me, I'd have my eye on one of these. Handsome car and living in the snowy upper Midwest or Northeast, front wheel drive certainly has its beneifts. So, chances are, after that old Thunderbird I'd have bought started to flake on me, I'd go for a five, six year old 1972 Toronado in the late '70's. Bad gas mileage unreliability and all. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2002 Jaguar X-Type - I don't care...I drive a Jag.

BMW, Mercedes Benz and other executive makes all have "entry" level or junior models that are unmistakeably smaller versions of senior models.  Few would argue that a Mercedes C Class, for instance, is any less a Mercedes than an S Class is; wish I could say the same for the CLA but that's a blog for another day. Audi has the A4, BMW has the 1 series, Lexus the IS, Cadillac the ATS and so on and so on. The most difficult thing to accomplish when an exclusive brand of any type offers something that is "down market" is to be convincing enough with that less expensive product that it is every bit as good as what it is aping; just less of it. Since I find examining failure to be far more interesting than gushing over success, lets take a look at an exclusive brand's abject failure at going "down market", the infamous 2001-2009 Jaguar X-Type. Our subject here is a 2002 vintage model.

At first, Ford's purchase of Jaguar in 1989 was a god send for the storied but troubled British luxury car builder. Up until then, Jaguar's were regarded as being glamorous automobiles but altogether horribly engineered and sloppily assembled. Since they sold in such small numbers here in the United States, Jaguar's notoriously bad reputation didn't seep across the Atlantic in the same way that Cadillac's here in the 1980's were generally considered lousy; whether they deserved it or not. Trust me they did but Cadillac's image here in this country has always been far more expansive than Jaguar's image has ever been and will ever be, good bad or indifferent. Jaguar was able to skate by here in the U.S. behind a seemingly bullet proof shield of Hollywood invincibility. It's tough not to be enamored of that hood ornament.

Ford spent lavishly on modernizing Jaguar's factories and brought much of what they did behind the scenes up to at least late twentieth century standards. They also, wisely at first, kept much of Jaguar's stable at the time in tact which included just the XJ6 sedan, they're called "saloons" in Britain by the way, and the two passenger XJS. Ford's 1996 replacement of the XJS, the XK8, was so fantastic that it did the seemingly impossible - it made people forget the hoary but oh-so-stylish XJS. In 1999, Ford introduced the mid sized S-Class which was another solid hit for Jaguar despite the use of the very good but the ultimately bourgeois "DEW" platform. Fast forward  to 2001 and the introduction of the X-Type - with not one but two solid singles, dare we say doubles, in the late '90's, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, it literally all started with what Ford used to underpin the X-Type. While the "DEW" platform, one could argue, was a chassis that was a Jaguar first and foremost that Ford used on the 1999-2006 Lincoln LS and later the 2002-2005 Thunderbird, the X-Type used the same chassis that Ford used on the very good but plebian Ford Mondeo. Not familiar with the Mondeo? Perhaps then you've heard of the Ford Contour or Mercury Mystique? While not nearly the travesty that was the Chevrolet Cavalier based Cadillac Cimarron, the crying shame was that Ford had clearly sullied the once proud Jaguar marque with something that was clearly not a Jaguar.

Critics panned the X-Type despite it having all the virtues of the Mondeo because it was clearly a dressed up Ford and was priced more like a Jag than Contour. X-Types were not cheap but they were less expensive than an S-Class and they looked just enough like a "Jag" that snooty, buyers could drive down Hollywood Boulevard or Park Avenue and, at least to themselves one would think, believe they were driving a Jaguar.

Jaguar's current head of advanced design, Julian Thomson, told that basing the X-Type on a front-drive car while giving it styling that was meant for a rear-driver lead to proportions that "were plainly wrong." I don't necessarily agree with that sentiment, you can have a front wheel drive car look every bit as handsome as a rear wheel drive, look at the new for 2017 Volvo S90, but I get what he's saying - this is an odd looking little car. Ford's European head of quality, Gunnar Herrmann, has also said that the X-Type was "a fake Jaguar, because every piece I touch is Ford." That sentiment I whole heartedly agree with.

Years ago I worked with a woman who drove one of these and she had a devil of a time with it. It broke down constantly and she complained, more like bragged, constantly about spending $900 a month for it. Wowza. When I told her of its dubious reputation and that it was a mundane Ford undernearth she scoffed at me, "Look, I don't care...I drive a Jag".

Remarkably enough, the X-Type limped along through 2009 even going through a fairly extensive and are I say handsome restyling in 2005. Not enough to stem the tide of a fairly horrific public relations gaff, though. Ford sold Jaguar to India based Tata in 2008.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

1969 Mercury Montego - Over My Dead Body

Part of the process of dealing with aging parents and grand parents is what to do with precious family "antiquities" after they pass. It's particularly tough when family members have issues with letting go of "stuff" that they are sentimentally attached to. 

My wife mentioned to me recently that a woman she works with had a car in her garage that she wanted to get rid of. She said it was a Mercury Montego or "something" that had belonged to her late grandfather. Turns out it was more than "something"; it was something else. It was a 1969 Mercury Montego MX convertible. Wow.
The Mercury Montego of this vintage were produced from 1968 through 1971. They and were the middle model of a three tier mid size lineup for Mercury that included the base Comet and top of the line Cyclone. 

You don't see many Montegos of any vintage these days not to mention 1969 convertibles. In fact, you didn't see many back then either. Mercury, a division of Ford, produced only around 17,000 Montego coupes for 1969 and far fewer convertibles.

This car spent its first thirty years in the south west getting baked in the sun. When "Papa" moved back east in the late '80's, he took his car with him. The combination of searing sun and heat and then soul crushing cold up here doing the car's finish and interior bits and pieces no favors. Somehow the vinyl seats have survived and appear to be ok, although,  they are a bit springy.  The interior, save for the carpeting, is dirty but in other wise decent shape. The upside to this car is that despite being up here as long as its been, with it being a family heirloom, it's never seen a snowy, winter day. The type of snowy winter days chock full of metal eating Cleveland winter road brine. This car is rust free. This car has only been turned over intermittently in the eleven years since "Papa" passed away. 

I dumped some fresh gas in the 4 barrel carburetor of this big 351 "Cleveland", hooked up my spare battery and remarkably, the old beast eventually belched and gasped to life with a glorious broken muffler symphony. It wasn't pretty but it sounded mean as hell in all the right ways. I backed it out out of the garage and found the brakes to be completely shot; good thing the parking brake still worked otherwise I may have been forced to throw it in park and damage the "Ford-O-Matic. You'd never know it had power steering either - there was no fluid in the reservoir; the pump screaming it's fittings off too. 

The thing that concerned me the most about this old car was that convertible top. Not only did the mechanism not work, the top itself, as you can see, it's completely wasted. The dirty interior, the bad brakes and steering, even the phlegmed up engine I can all deal with. But this top? Huh-boy.

I tried to be as tactful as I could be. I told her that a tune up, new gas tank and fuel lines and overall haul of the brakes and steering might run four, maybe five hundred dollars tops. I told her that that convertible top, even if I could fix the mechanical issues, would run at least a grand to replace. This would make an interesting "rat rod" but I'm not a fan of convertibles. So, not interested in the car, I offered to help the woman sell it on consignment. I enjoy working on cars so all she might have to foot the bill for was parts. She closed her eyes, shook her head, bit her lip and said with a sigh that she'd talk to her dad. I could tell she really wanted this thing gone.

A week or so went by and I didn't hear from her. I finally called her to ask if and when she wanted me to start working on getting the Montego in shape for sale. She told me that her dad told her, "over my dead body are you going to sell my father's car". Stuff.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

2009 Dodge Ram - There's Somethin Bout A Truck

 And there's somethin bout you and me and the birds and the bees
And lord have mercy, it's a beautiful thing
Ain't nothin bout it luck, there's somethin bout a truck
                                                          -Kip Moore, Somethin' Bout A Truck 

Growing up twenty five minutes or so east of Times Square in the 1970's and '80s, no one I knew who wasn't a tradesman of some sort drove a "truck" like this 2009 Dodge Ram. Those few that did endured a fair amount of ridicule something to the affect of, "what are you, sum kinda hillbilly"? Might be old age settling in enabling me to be even more open minded or its my now more than ten years living in the Midwest, but I have fallen long and hard for simple work trucks like this. While I still have a hard time fathoming why anyone would drive a pickup as a daily driver who didn't need it's abundant utility, I love the balanced proportion of the design of these regular cab, short bed pickups.
Extended cab trucks with longer beds might offer more utility than our subject here can muster but then again, their proportion and balance of design goes out the tailgate. If I was to spring for a truck it would be something like this. Why buy a jack hammer when all I need is a hammer?
Of the Big Three's pickups,  I find the Chevrolet Silverado to be the most handsome although the Ford F series has been outselling it for years. Dodge is a distant third despite this fetchng "big rig" front end that they've been producing in some form or another since 1994. Prior to this design, Dodge truck design was clearly influenced by whatever Chevrolet or Ford was doing. Toyota and Nissan have been offering very good full size pickups for years now too and as fine appliances as they are, they don't sell nearly as well as the trucks from the Big Three.
A ram charging hood ornament first appeared on a Dodge car in 1933, the first Dodge Ram pickup debuted in 1981. Prior to that, Dodge pickups had been designated "B" series from 1948 to 1953, "C" series from 1954 to 1960 and "D" series from 1961 to 1980. The lack of engine badging on our subject here tells me this thing may very well be a 3.7 liter, SOHC V-6 powered two wheel driver. A slow poke engine and two wheel drive? Yikes. Not exactly the type of thing you want to be driving come winter here in north east Ohio.
The rust spots, the finish coming off the wheels, the littered interior (which I did not photograph) and this very expensive to replace headlight lens tells me everything I need to know about this truck; it's a no frills work-a-day hauler that's ridden hard and put a way wet. Still, I want it. Crummy V-6 and all.
As much as I like these trucks, I can't imagine ever owning one and being able to "pull it off"; my younger son said that I'm not cool enough to drive a truck. Thanks, son. Nothing quite as humiliating as driving something that some people would scoff at you for driving but I really would enjoy it's utility as much as I'd enjoy it's near perfect balance and proportion. Would be weird from a guy from Long Island to suddenly drive a truck but whatever. Insert cheesy trumpet "wah-wah" when I say that there really is, "Somethin' 'Bout A Truck".

Friday, August 12, 2016

1983 Mercury Cougar - The Exception To The Rule

I've got a number of problems right now with my 2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and if I was not  inclined to fix the problems myself, all that's wrong with it would run me about $2,000 if I had it done at a shop. Quite a chunk of change to drop on a fifteen year old car with almost 120,000 on the clock. Makes me wonder what I'd do if, heaven forbid, I needed to find something cheap and quick to replace it with. How about this mint condition 1983 Mercury Cougar with an asking price of $3,000?

With only 73,000 on her, what could go wrong?  And for $3,000 I could get a "new-to-me" new car for just a grand more than what it will "cost" me to fix the Monte. Hmmm. Now, if I was really in the market this might be tempting even if it's never been a favorite of mine. Imagine that, a two door car I didn't like. Exception to the rule exhibit A right here, folks. Let's take a closer look at this thing which is actually quite nice.   Love the km/h part of this speedometer. Hysterical.

Introduced in 1983 along with the very similar Ford Thunderbird, what made a 1983 Cougar a Cougar as opposed to a Thunderbird was it's dog leg rear window, curved opera windows and slight bulge on the trunk lid. This was daring stuff for 1983 and a radical departure from the boxy (but not good) Cougar that came before it that was, for all intents and purposes, virtually indistinguishable  from a Thunderbird.   

The front end is slightly different on the Cougar as well but you'd only notice the differences with the cars parked side by side. In your mind's eye at least the Cougar and Thunderbird, which had only been attached at the marketing hip since 1976, were the same car. Kids, that thing sticking up from the top of the header panel is a "hood ornament". Even though it's not on the hood. 1970's-1980's kitsch at its finest.

The interior of this car is it's great selling point. Supple leather on a 1983 Cougar? Who knew? I don't see a power seat switch anywhere, that's crucial to five foot nine me, but I'd be hard pressed to believe that you'd have a leather interior without a power seat adjuster - at least on the driver's side. I see a tilt column as well. Can this car get any better? Hope the AC works. I know the power steering pump needs to be replaced. That's easy and cheap.

Another great selling point is that our subject has the optional "5.0 Liter EFI V-8 engine". While not producing that much more horsepower and torque than the standard and carbureted 3.8 liter V-6, you at least could pound your chest and say your car has a V-8. And this is not just any old V-8 either but a Ford 302; albeit with early 1980's fuel injection. Don't even think about converting to a carburetor; not worth the hassle. That hood prop bugs me. A hood prop on a personal luxury car? C'mon.

The story is always the same with these odd ball survivors. Grandpa's last car that he drove to the day he died 15-20 years ago and "we just didn't have the heart to get rid of it". Either that or it was used lightly by another family member and for whatever reason it needs to go now. This interior sure is comfy looking. Note how high the drive shaft tunnel comes up into the rear seating area. This car is for sale by someone who bought it at an estate sale. How come I can never find gems like this at estate sales? 

Mercury died a long, slow miserable death because of cars like this that were little more than badge engineered clones of something else. This isn't a bad car; frankly, it's a nice riding and handling automobile it's just no different really than a Thunderbird. Why'd they bother? Had I need for it, this would make for a cool first car for a teenager, I might be so inclined to look past the odd rear end styling and plunge into those luscious leather seats and stab the gas so that fuel injected 302 had a chance to breathe. If you're interested in this, here's the listing.  I'd hurry, though. You're not the only looking for a cheap old car in great condition. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

1974 Chevrolet Caprice 454 - Blurred Lines

Even as far back as the seminal 1955 Chevrolet, which took many styling cues from Cadillac and was called by many a junior or baby Cadillac, what defined a luxury car versus something more common was becoming hard to define. Fast forward a mere decade later to the introduction of the Caprice, which was originally a top of the line trim level on the Impala, and those lines became blurrier still. For 1966 "Caprice" became its own model for Chevrolet. This all said, by 1974, a 454 cubic inch Caprice was all but Cadillac don't  you think? Scratch your noggin on this - was this a dressed down Cadillac or was the Cadillac a dressed up Chevrolet Caprice?

Platform sharing has been going on since the dawn of the automobile and even horse drawn carriage builders used the same templates for lesser and more expensive wagons and coaches. Today, there are many similarities between a Cadillac XTS and a Chevrolet Impala to say noting about the Buick LaCrosse; they're all the same car as far as I'm concerned. The cost spread between the three is nothing short of eye watering too especially when you consider that a loaded 2016 Impala LTZ soars past $40,000. However, percentage wise, the cost of a Cadillac vs. Chevrolet is pretty much the same today as it's always been.

I've never quite understood the snob appeal of prestigious makes and models of automobiles; for my money, if I can have the same car as you, "Mr. Got It", and not spend nearly as much then that's the way to go. That's why I'm drawn to this big ole beast since I, personally, look at it as a dressed down Cadillac. I can't honestly say that I like this 1974 Caprice better than a 1974 Cadillac but if I was to purchase one over the other, believe me, it would be because I like one better than the other and not to give off the impression I was well off or not.  For my money the 1971-1973 hard tops are just better looking cars regardless of whether or not they're a Chevy, Buick, Cadillac or whatever.

Cadillac cut their prestigious teeth on offering buyers amenities that you couldn't get on lesser cars like Chevrolets. Electric starters, windshield wipers, air conditioning, power steering and brakes; the list goes on and on of luxurious accoutrements once exclusive to high end automobiles. Once every day models like Chevrolets, for instance, could be had with big dollar options, it certainly made the value proposition of a Cadillac vs. anything lesser certainly harder to quantify.  

General Motors offered this car in a dizzying number of configurations across their five automobile divisions years ago. All of them just different enough from each to make them distinctive yet similar in a familial sort of way. A 454 Caprice was really no different from a Pontiac Gran Ville with a 455, 455 cubic inch Oldsmobile 98, 455 Buick or the Big Dog Daddy, 472 cubic inch Cadillac. All of those big engines being very different from one another. The 455's, incidentally, in the Pontiacs, Olds and Buicks being as different as the 454 in this Chevy was from a Cadillac 472. Why? Good question.

I've never been able to get my arms around why GM made their similar looking cars different where customers could not see that they were different. As if a Chevy 454 was any better, at least in this application, from a Buick or Oldsmobile 455. If these cars were distinctive looking to the point where they didn't resemble each other at all but shared the same or similar engines, wouldn't that have made more sense?

Point is mute, of course. The market has changed so much over the last forty years that it's all but impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be able to buy the same car in so many different iterations years ago. Even after GM downsized these cars, they did the same thing offering slightly different takes on similar designs. Legend has it that GM knew that their full size cars were too big and had already begun their downsizing plans before the first gas crisis hit in October of 1973.
So, what would it have been back in the day for ya? A 454 Chevy or something a bit more prestigious looking; something with more snob appeal like an Oldsmobile or dare I say a Cadillac? Tell you what, thrown me the keys to a five year old Buick any day of the week. No one would ever accuse you of showing off and you wouldn't be skimping on anything either.