Sunday, June 18, 2017

Little Red Corvette - Achilles Heal. Or Trailing Arm.

Most of the issues facing third generation Corvettes, also known as "C3's" stem from function following form; clearly the designers won 9 out of 10 arguments with engineering when these cars were first being developed. Of all the problems these cars have, though, the worst is one that was not mandated by any design element or feature.

The problem is their independent rear suspensions. First seen appearing on 1963 Corvettes, this "trailing arm" rear suspension, which also features a transverse leaf spring, was an improvement over the live axle of first generation of Corvettes and enabled drivers to drive their cars fairly "hard" on race tracks and smooth roads. However, unlike modern multi link or even double wish bone suspension systems, trailing arm suspensions are marginally better than live axles when it comes to real world roads. What's more, its rather complex design was prone to failure and repairing it time consuming and very expensive. The failure points are the bushings at the end of the arms and the metal shims that hold the arms rigid against the frame of the car. This is not the rear end from our car. 

We first noticed something was awry with the rear end of our car shortly after we purchased it in 2012. Around town the car bounded about with charming, old school ease. The steering was tight and while it turned with a fair amount of "dialed in" resistance at low speed, it also responded with a "darty-ness" that made the car handle like an over powered go cart; quite fun.

However, the shocks are dead and the rear end feels dangerously loose, it's as if it has a mind of its own. There's also a guttural groaning that comes from back there even after the shortest of jaunts that has me concerned. It's gotten so bad that I hear the groaning even backing out of our garage.

What I've surmised is that on our car the bushings (arrow) on the trailing arms need to be replaced in addition to new shims needing to be installed. The groaning stems from the arm rubbing against the frame of the car. It's really bad on the driver's side. To do this overhaul correctly will require the complete removal of the "TA" from the car. Now, I love a good project but this will test my humble mechanics skill sets and will be, without doubt, the largest and most complex automobile project I will ever undertake. Incidentally, I guesstimate to have the job done professionally would run me well over $2,000 if not clost to $3,000. If I do it, it might run me $150. $200 tops for parts. Good thing I'm "handy". The above picture of a "TA" is not from our car.

My wife and I enjoy driving our Corvette but not nearly as often as we'd like. The punishing ride of dead shocks along with the rear end flailing about in any direction it wants to go in except the direction the rest of the car is going makes our Little Red Corvette quite an exhausting handful to drive. She sure is pretty, though. 

I plan on making the "TA" rebuild Job 1 this winter. Wish me luck. Something tells me that I'm going to need it. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

1973 Chevrolet Caprice Estate - Crazy John

A guy I used to know who was a hanger on in the circle of friends I was a part of in high school drove around in his parent's 1973 Caprice Estate that was just like this. He was a year older than all of us and he had his license so his "in" into the group was that he would take us wherever we wanted to go. The sense of freedom was exhilarating even if it was in his mom's station wagon. The problem was the guy was completely insane. 

His name was John and while we were all a little crazy the difference was John was really, I mean really nuts. Add alcohol and god knows what else to his muddled mind and it's a miracle none of us were killed whenever we went out with him. Imagine as many as 8, maybe 9 teenagers out and about in this thing while the driver drove it as though he was an impaired driver at the Indy 500 or in a demolition derby. 

The way he drove that car you'd swear it had more under the hood than just a 400 V-8; the car felt amazingly powerful and fast. Of course it did because he was always flooring the gas and he kept the transmission in "1" to maximize acceleration by not allowing the transmission to upshift. 

He'd also like to shift the poor car from drive to reverse and back with regularity. Seriously. We'd be doing 45 miles an hour and the maniac would throw it into reverse. Amazingly, the oh so skinny 78X15 right rear tire would start a reverse smokey burnout and the big car would come to a split second stop and then start going backwards. A second or two after that he'd slam the gear selector down in to "1" and floor the gas. Another second and a half later we were accelerating forward as fast as the car could go. Eventually, the car stopped being able to go in reverse. Geez, I wonder why? Made for some interesting parking maneuvers let me tell ya. 

That was the craziest thing he did to the car, per se. He also found great delight in driving it into curbs and over curbs, over sidewalks too. How he drove over all was so recklessly I can't believe that nothing really bad ever happened at least when we were all with him The speeding and weaving in traffic that he did was incredibly dangerous not to mention the drag racing; he'd race or pretend to race just about anyone with many of us in the car. We're talking the early '80's in a 1973 Chevrolet with a big, torquey V-8 and 3.08 axle. It's not too hard to fathom that that car had better acceleration than just about anything else on the road at the time. 

The act grew tiresome, though and we'd see less of him when we all started to get our own licenses. That only made him do even crazier things whenever he'd be out with us. The last time I went out with him he drove over a group of ducks that were on an island or tree lawn near my house killing them all. He took great offense at my ranting tirade because he thought it was the damn funniest thing he'd ever done. 

John did come from a very messed up family but then again so did a lot of us. Thing is, none of us who came from "tough" households did anything nearly as insane as half the stuff that he would do. And I'm just talking about stuff we knew about. I always felt that what he was doing was to draw attention to himself - problem is that the outrageous antics get old and people who do nutty things for attention have to keep inventing new ways to stand out.

Again, Crazy John was a hanger on of our group and he would come into and out of the group with a fair amount of regularity. As we got older and we were all driving, when we would see him he'd brag about stuff he was doing and some of the stuff was truly alarming. Mostly burglary and vandalism; we thought nothing of it because none of it we thought could be true. Just "Crazy John" looking for attention by making up stories of nutty things he was doing rather than making us part and parcel to his shenanigans. Turns out, he wasn't bragging.

John eventually wrecked the Caprice; something I recall about him drag racing and losing control and wrapping the car around a telephone pole. Somehow he escaped injury and the bent and mangled car was somehow still running and fairly driveable afterwards. Got to love those GM "B bodies". Actually, the Caprice Estate was built off GM's C body chassis but I digress. 

Last I knew of the guy he was in jail for something or other and that has to be thirty years now if not more. I can't find him anywhere on the Internet all though I wonder why I search for him. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and makes you do things you really should think twice about doing. I think it's just morbid curiosity that gets the better of me. Seeing that I can't find him anywhere I have to assume Crazy John is dead. Would not surprise me. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

1972 Chevrolet Impala - I, Don Quioxte

Many child psychologists theorize that our ability to reason develops between the ages of 6 and 8. I believe that my ability to at least attempt to reason and be "fully aware" occurred around the time I was 8 years old. While I know that I was drawn to automobiles prior to my 8th birthday, the first automobile that I truly latched onto and was "fully aware" of, not unlike a baby chick bonding with the first thing it sees when it breaks through its egg shell, was a picture of a 1972 Impala sedan that I saw in a book on new cars that my brother had bought me for Christmas. When I saw a far more attractive two door Impala on the road, with my memory banks loaded with fresh, wet and very impressionable cement, the bond was instant and permanent. That's the only reason why I can think of why I would find such a hulking automobile that really does nothing well, to say nothing about how ordinary it looks, even remotely interesting.

Sadly, it's probably just part of human nature that whenever we get something that we've longed for, I mean, longed for, we quickly grow tired of it to the point that we become ambivalent. That's why I would never pursue one of these land yachts that have been one of my oldest and dearest automotive dreams for almost as long as I can remember. Being fully aware of human nature, I'd hate like hell to ever have one of these and be like, "meh, whatever." By the way, I'm not a convertible guy but if I was ever to happen across a '72 Impala and it was a convertible I wouldn't kick it out of my garage. In all of its massive, shuddering jigglieness. You ever drive one of these? If the the fixed roof models are a handful to drive just imagine how all over the place one sans its top would be.

Chevrolet's "standard" sized car went through a remarkable growth period in terms of physical size between 1955 and 1971. What started out as a relatively tidy, 196 inch long automobile in 1955, that's roughly the same size as a contemporay Toyota Camry, grew to 209 inches long by 1958, 213 inches for 1965 before ballooning to a whopping 220 inches for 1971. Add in the "safety bumpers" that began in 1973 and these behemoths measured more than 225 inches long before the great downsizing epoch of 1977. 

Blimps like this are what I grew up with and like that freshly hatched chick, this is what I accepted at a tender age and thought would be forever. Alas, I was wrong. Very. Wrong. In many ways, 1972 was a pivotal year for America as it was the last year of the post World War II boom this country experienced. It was the year before the shit hit the fan what with Watergate and its subsequent fallout and the first gas crunch just around the corner, just likethat, America went from being the envy of the world to being all but castrated. And no, our current situation is completely different - let's not go there. That castration or what some refer to as "malaise" lasting more than a decade. 1972 was also the year before the federally mandated safety bumpers became a garish reality and three years before the ignominy of catalytic converters. Funny how now we acknowledge that "cats" have gone a long way towards saving the environment. Anyway, at least the end of the Vietnam War was in sight 1972.

If I came of age to reason at 8 years old, I came of age to drive less then ten years later and I found these cars terrifying to drive. It wasn't that they handled poorly for certain they handled better than most people would give them credit for today; it was their sheer size that sent a chill down my back. Might as well have been an 18 wheeler as far as I was concerned. Seeing over that incredibly long hood, especially for someone of average height like myself meant that I hoped and prayed that I wouldn't hit anything when I drove anything this big. Still, I was and I am still drawn to these big ole beauties and like Don Quixote, will continue to love pure and chaste from afar. 

This '72 Impala with allegedly just 46,000 on the clock is for sale down in Miami with an asking price of $24,500. I would love to talk to the person that would drop serious mint condition Corvette money on something like this. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

2017 Toyota Corolla - Rental Special

It's not very often that I get to drive a new car or something that I could can say is  even "modern". And by "modern", to me, that's anything that has Bluetooth. Don't laugh. My "fleet' of wrecks averages nearly 22 years of age and three of my cars have cassette decks. Two of the cassette deck cars don't even have a CD player. So, I jumped at the chance to spend some time behind the wheel of the 2017 Toyota Corolla my wife rented for her weekend jaunt into western New York for her college class reunion. Incidentally, when my wife called me before renting it to ask me if she should rent it, a Hyundai Elantra or Hyundai Veloster, I emphatically recommended she grab the Veloster and leave the two Granny sedans in the dust. Turns out she drove the Veloster around the rental lot and returned it because she had difficulty seeing out of it. At least this Corolla is not not some sullen tan or creme color. Or worse yet, red. 

One look at this fairly tall "little" car and you can immediately appreciate why cross over utilities have the appeal that they do. Despite a "freshening" for 2017, the Toyota Corolla's styling is still as drab and boring as it gets in any vehicle class these days. Toyota may sell a good number of these things but I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who buys one because they like the way it looks. This car has about as much curb appeal as a washing machine; who buys a washing machine because of the way it looks anyway? This is a good washing machine, don't get me wrong, but, again, this car is first and foremost an appliance. Even the most mundane of today's cross overs, let's take the Buick Encore for instance, is hands down more interesting looking than this car. I did not say it was a better vehicle but given a choice between an Encore and this blah looking sedan and you can see why cross overs sell as well as they do.

Inside, behind the handsome steering wheel the dash is arranged so that renters, save for finding the side mirror adjuster, can find what they need intuitively. The TV screen in the middle of the dash, while functional, takes up an incredible amount of real estate and I've yet to see any automobile, low, middle end or high end, that has a dash designed around one of these damn screens that looks any good. The best I've seen is where the monitor pops up and down in the dash and even those are pretty clunky looking.

Why the screen for the backup camera is in the middle of the dash and not center to the driver is beyond me. I hate the idea of looking down and away while moving in any direction but at least you're looking at something that pertains to your driving; as convex as the camera is. I believe Audi is working on an interface where there's a screen in front of the driver that jogs back and forth between a speedo cluster and screen for the backup camera, Nav system etc. These things are here to stay but they need to be integrated into the design of dashboards better. All this stuff is gimmicky and expensive to repair too when it goes on the fritz. And it will. I don't have any of it and I honestly don't want it. Except for Bluetooth. Gotta have Bluetooth.

The seats in the Corolla were firm, supportive and quite comfortable. If my '77 Corvette had these seats I'd drive it more. I'm not a fan of the huge head rests and just like many "modern" sedans that I've driven lately, those tall head rests combined with the B - pillar (post between the front and rear doors) make for a jarring optical illusion that someone's head is lurking over my right shoulder whenever I check my blind spot.

I didn't sit in the back of this car but the front of the cabin felt cavernous. I'd have to imagine that the back would feel a tad squished compared to a Camry that has a wheelbase three inches longer. Might not sound like a lot but even an inch makes a difference back there. At 183 inches long, Corolla is 8 inches less large than a Camry but it feels just as big as a Camry. I never felt cramped in this thing the way that I've felt cramped in a Yaris, Kia Rio or Chevrolet Sonic.

The best part about this car, aside from it being quite feature rich, was its handling and braking. Remarkable. It's so out of this world fantastic that you have to be driving an older vehicle to fully appreciate how well this thing tracks, turns and stops. It's light, smooth and effortless yet also gives plenty of "road feedback". It's hard for me to brag about the work I just completed on one of my Camaros to improve its handling when a modern low end car can run circles around it on the track. Even my Monte Carlo's handling feels leaden compared to the Corolla. The handling on the Corolla is so good and so natural that it's almost too good - the car feels impersonal, clinical almost. That's said, it's really terrific and 20 years ago this car would be considered an out and out sports sedan. Here in 2017, remarkably, it's just another car.

The Corolla's 1.8 liter in line four was smooth but hardly sporty sounding which is fine considering the clientele that buy Corollas let alone it being a rental. Our "LE" was saddled, though, with a wretched CVT or Constant Velocity Transmission. It should be called a CMT for "Constant Moaning Transmission" because it seems that's all it does; it moans and groans as it constantly fights to find a good ratio to maximize performance and efficiency. And it does not sound like its doing such in a pleasing sounding way either. Should it? Well, no but at least you would think it should do what it's doing and not sound like something's wrong with the car.

What's more, from a red light this car feels very underpowered - that's unusual in today's cars and I blame the damn CVT. I'm not a fan of these things and if I was to shop for a new car I'd literally steer clear of anything with a CVT. I think they're horrible. At least they help the car get very good gas mileage. My wife had to return this car with a full tank and she calculated her mileage to be over 46 mpg. While I find that absurdly high, she must have somehow gotten trip odometer reading wrong, no doubt our little bowling ball on wheels here does do very well on gas. EPA rates Corolla at 37 mpg highway.

My wife rented this car from Enterprise out at Hopkins Airport and after I picked her up she couldn't stop gushing about how much she loved it. That's telling because she rarely gushes about a car. She raved about the way it handled and felt safe and secure in it. She loved the super high gas mileage too ; and I wasn't about to get into it with her about how her math had to have been wrong. She said she'd buy one of these in heart beat if it was up to her. It is a lot of car for the money too. Fully loaded you'd be hard pressed to find a Corolla for more than $25,000. A comparable cross over with as much stuff as a Corolla has would run you $40G. And I am not kidding you either.

Just wish there was something we could do about the way it looks. Lexus does a wonderful job of dressing up plebian Toyotas but they don't build a model on the Corolla's platform. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Chevette - To a "T".

If we count the four "Y-body" offerings from General Motors introduced in 1960 and 1961 as being completely separate models, (Chevrolet Corvair, Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F85 and Buick Special) the original Chevrolet Nova and Vega, GM tried a half dozen times to come up with a small car before they rolled out the Chevrolet Chevette in 1976. And...they were all terrible. Some worse than others but generally speaking they were dreadful. The Chevette, however, was GM's first stab at a small car that really wasn't that bad. Our subject is a 1984. 

Given how bad GM's first attempts were it's understandable to those of us who lived through ignominy of the Chevette that we would think it was just another half assed attempt by GM to push out an economy car. To those of us who wouldn't be caught dead in one no matter how good or less bad it was, it was half assed. I mean, c'mon. Look-at-this-thing! However, the Chevette was really different and in a good way different from GM's past attempts at small cars that were either scaled down versions of larger automobiles or worse, were wonky engineering projects gone oh-so-wrong. 

It was different because GM used a new platform that they had developed in conjunction with Isuzu and their European affiliate Opel; two companies that had a more than a fair amount of experience building small automobiles. GM finally realizing that they needed help building a small car or their bean counters surmized that they could save a ton by using the same platform or chassis around the world as they used here in the United States. What became known as the "T-car" underpined a number of small automobiles around the world beginning in 1973 before GM launched the Chevrolet Chevette on it for model year 1976.

What's curious is that most if not all of the Opels, Holdens, Isuzus, Vauxhalls and even Daewoos, subjectively, were far more handsome than any Chevette ever was. Take this 1983 Seahan (Daewoo) Maepsy for instance - not  too shabby looking and all of her bones are the same as you'd find in a boxy and not so good looking Chevette. Five bolt rims too. 

Our subject here has five bolt rims out back because the owner had the rear end rebuilt and along with the repacking of the pumpkin came five bolt spindles. Makes this car look almost sporty. Anyway, with all those pretty designs off the same platform scattered around the world, makes you wonder why we got stuck with this, does it not? 

The least of Chevette's design issues was its functional interior. Everything you need and nothing that you don't right there in front of you. Look, a change holder. 

Chevette had ample cargo space that would make buyers of some of today's "cute utes" green with envy. Seat back folds down too. 1976-77 Chevettes, incidentally, came only as coupes. 

My biggest takeaway on my time behind the wheel of several of these years ago was Chevette's handling prowess. Good brakes too. Didn't take too much to steer or stop one of these 2000 pound near micro cars but Opel's deft hand at engineering handling paid off nicely. It went exactly where you pointed it. Damning by faint praise? Not at all. And if these cars were better looking younger me might not have been as off put by them as I was. These cars kind of like that 98 pound weakling in high school who was quite the athlete. 

If Chevette had an achilles heel, aside from the styling (or lack thereof), it was its lack of poke. We take the performance of today's cars for granted - even the least expensive and least powerful of today's automobiles have a modicum of performance that compared to what a Chevette had would seem out and out decadent. The trade off was superior than average fuel economy. Even compared to the most miserly of today's non hybrid vehicles, Chevette's mileage rating of 40 miles per gallon highway was impressive. All Chevettes were powered by Isuzu sourced engines. Even the 55 MPG highway rated diesels. 

The Chevette was the perfect car at the right time for General Motors; it literally fit the country to a "T". Within a couple of years after it was introduced we were embroiled in another gas crunch and the Chevette became the best selling small car in America in 1979 and 1980. As the economy improved and gas prices finally stabilized and actually fell through the '80's, sales of the Chevette and it's clone, the Pontiac T-1000 declined sharply as well. Low gas prices and an onslaught of far superior vehicles coming ashore from Asia and Europe doing no favors for the "T". GM finally pulling the plug on them after 1987 with more than 2.8 million of them sold world wide. 

Ask any car savvy millenial (good luck finding one) what they think of GM's first "good" small car and you'll get an obstinate "are you kidding"? Which is really telling in a world where many small cars have about as much pizzaz as a Chevette; another reason cross overs are selling so well today is because they're just flat out better looking than cars. If they were to drive a Chevette they'd be even more obstinate given how crude a Chevette is compared to a new Chevrolet Sonic for instance. However, if they'd give you the time of day and allow you to explain how historically significant the Chevette was, as boring as the envelope was that it came in, they'd perhaps come to the understanding that everything has to start somewhere and the road to GM building "good small cars" started with the Chevette.