Monthly Archives: January 2010

1983 Audi 100

The Audi 100, introduced in the States as the 5000, will go down in history as the car that made unintended acceleration famous. Yet this wrongly maligned automobile did at least as much for design as it did for the bank balances of the nation’s attorneys.

Back when the 100 was unveiled, the world had adjusted just enough to Ayatollah-era reality to want some speed and style along with its fuel efficiency. The new 100 arrived at precisely the right moment, blessed with a magnificent shape, a limousine-sized interior, and a drag coefficient so low (0.33 in U.S. trim) that it puny 2.1-liter, 100-hp, five-cylinder engine could push it to 107 mph and still deliver 23 mpg in hard driving.

And there’s more. The 100 was the first sedan to popularize flush side glass. It wasn’t the first to have it – that honor goes to the Giugiaro-designed Isuzu Impulse, introduced in Japan in mid 1981 – but the 100 was the car that suddenly made everything else on the road look old.

The 100 had barely reached the showrooms when other manufacturers began scrambling to push their cars’ door glass as far outward as the limits of technology would allow. Even now, eight years later, surprisingly few makers have managed to achieve that goal with as much finesse as Audi. Nevertheless, flush glass is now de rigueur on everything but econoboxes: if you don’t have it, you don’t have style. And there’s nothing the lawyers can do about that.

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1975 Volkswagen Golf

How do you follow a warm, cuddly leg end like the Beetle? Volkswagen wisely decided on something completely different. Herbie the Love Bug was replaced by a businesslike, front-engined, front-drive, water-cooled sedan that looked like a stylized shoe box.

Indeed the Golf, known as the Rabbit on our shores, was a bona-fide member of the “folded paper” school of design. Its flat panes and sharp creases virtually defined the term “econobox.” The shape was not without controversy: many professional designers still hate it, citing the Maserati Ghibli or just about anything else as a better example of the folded-paper genre.

The public, however, had other ideas. The world was still reeling from Fuel Crisis 1, and functional, industrial style was in. The Golf clicked. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose genius was then in full bloom, the Golf was a purposeful device that shouted “efficiency” but was actually a joy to live with. The boxy Fiat 128 came first, but it was the Golf that legitimized the folded-paper look for all the people who wouldn’t know a Ghibli from a gimlet.

So perfectly attuned to the times was the design that it was cloned by several car-makers. The Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, the French Talbot Horizon, the Mazda 323, and the Fiat Strada were virtual Xerox copies. No other automobile in history has inspired such a chorus of fawning imitators. There’s no arguing greatness when a design starts multiplying like, um, rabbits.

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More Clout for Calibra

Sleek, attractive, and well finished, the Opel Calibra coupe came out of the box a pretty strong offering for the GM Europe team. Its 150-horsepower 2-liter 16-valve twin-cam four gave the top-line model an 8.2-second 0-60-mph capability and a top end of 138 mph. But the playing field changes quickly in the sport coupe game, and with Volkswagen fitting its new Corrado with a 178-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6 and Ford launching the 227-horsepower Escort RS Cosworth, GM felt it was time to give the Calibra a stout under-hood upgrade. Enter the Calibra Turbo. With the addition of a force-feeding system, engine output jumps to 204 horses and torque to 207 pound-feet. Matched with a new Getrag six-speed gearbox, it’s sufficient to propel the Calibra-in either front- or all-wheel-drive configuration-0-60 mph in under 6.5 seconds and push it to speeds in excess of 150 mph. Torque is so plentiful that sixth gear is useable from as low as 2000 rpm. Comfortable, quiet, and competitively priced, the Calibra Turbo is destined to be one highly sought player.

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Why All Cars Look Alike

Do all car stylists meet once a month in a big bar somewhere to compare designs? Do all initial styling sketches get processed through some kind of blandness mainframe, where they are digitally neutered to achieve a numbing stylistic consistency? Or is maybe just one guy doing the styling on all new cars worldwide, and manufacturers only act like they’re coming up with their own designs?

What other possible explanation can there be for how amazingly similar most cars look?

It’s a reasonable question. At any given point in styling history, you can find the same recurring themes in cars supposedly designed a world apart. Oh, there are some visible small-volume exceptions, but most models produced in large quantities have a certain homogeneous character. This isn’t because designers can’t think of anything interesting to show us, it’s because the narrow and restrictive requirements of mass production and the surprisingly unpredictable nature of the public taste make it so.

Automotive styling is by necessity a fine, high-stakes balancing act. Lead times are long, and predicting future tastes is a black art. To get a feel for this, try to picture what sort of styling will be popular in model years 1997 through 2000. That’s the stuff they’re working on now; you’d better start sketching right away, because the people in Product Planning and Engineering will want to see what you’ve come up with by the end of the week.

There are no easy answers. Suppose you’re working on a nice little high volume coupe. You’ll want something that causes a stir when it hits the market, but will wear well during a four-year model run. You’ve got to try to beat the 18-month barrier, which seems to be the usual honeymoon period a competently styled new car enjoys before it starts to look like some relic Charlton Heston would’ve dug up in Planet of the Apes.

Daring styling gets old fast, and it’s harder to hit the moving target of public taste with a high-power pin-point shot; if you miss, you really miss. It’s more effective to lay down a shotgun blast – you get better coverage that way, even if you’re a little off the mark. The downside of this is that we end up with a largely homogeneous  crop of new cars each year. The upside is that most of these designs wear like gray pinstripe suits – inocuous but workable.

The glory days of bland, interchangeable styling are numbered, however. As manufacturers move inexorably toward greater market segmentation, they’ll pursue us with smaller-volume models able to take a more daring approach. This will be a good thing for people who like pretty cars, because there will be more to choose from.

My only fear is that the stylists will keep right on attending those monthly beer-drinking sessions and every one of those daring, low-volume cars in the late 90′s will look just like the Dodge Viper.

Vette Reaches Million Milestone

It’s taken 39 years, but one bright morning in early July, Chevrolet execs rolled out the red carpet as the one millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Zora Arkus-Duntov is considered by many the father – and most certainly the savior – of the Corvette, even though, Chevrolet says, he didn’t get attached to the Vette program until about 1956-57. A revered guest at the Bowling Green festivities, he conducted the ceremonial “first start” of the millionth Vette’s engine, which occurs well down the final assembly line. Not surprisingly, the 5.7-liter LT1 V-8 fired up right on schedule, and Zora gratefully clasped his hands over his head in silent thanks before hundreds of cheering onlookers. In fact, the engine start sequence was staged two more times for video and still photographers.

Bowling Green Plant Manager Paul J. Schnoes and UAW Local 2164 President Billy Jackson drove the car off the line to the wild applause and popping photo strobes of a huge crowd, including Kentucky Governor Brereton C. Jones. Chevy General Manager Jim Perkins said, “Although the Corvette has never achieved more than two percent of Chevrolet car sales in any of its 39 years, it has added luster,excitement, and pride to all Chevrolet vehicles.” Its success has traced rays all over the sales chart, though. It took 16years, until Nov. 19, 1969, to make the 250,000th Vette, a gold convertible built in St.Louis. It only took eight more years, until March 15, 1977, to achieve the 500,000th car, a white coupe. Six years later, on Oct. 26, 1983, another white coupe was born as the 750,000th Corvette. Now nine years later, on July 2, 1992, the millionth Vette rolls into history.

Three factories have built Corvettes over the decades. The first 300 cars, all ’53s, were built in Flint, Michigan. The ’54-’81 models were fabricated in the St. Louis plant. The Bowling Green factory was erected in time for the ’82 model year, and Vettes have been made there ever since. The aborning National Corvette Museum will be built across the street from the plant, and the millionth Vette will eventually be on display there.

The historic ’92 Corvette carries the same white exterior, red leather interior, and black top as the first ’53 model, and two additional models identical to it were also built. The 999,999th will be raffled by the Corvette Museum, while Chevrolet will keep the 1,000,001st.

Dodge 5.2 Liter V-8 with Multiport Electronic Fuel Injection

In 1992, Dodge unleashed its new 5.2 liter V-8 with multiport electronic fuel injection and upped its performance ante from 165 to 230 horsepower in one fell swoop. For ’93, there’s even more fast iron in store. The 5.2-liter Magnum V-8 is joined by a big brother motor with 5.9 liters of displacement. That’s 360 cubic inches for those of us who never went metric, and is by no coincidence the same size as the popular Mopar motor that debuted in ’71. Of course, back then, a 360 V-8 was considered rather small. Today, however, it’s the biggest thing in the ChryCo stable, excepting the gargantuan 488 cid Viper V-10.

1937 Cadillac Fleetwood Sedan

When Jim Drummond of River heights bought this 1937 Cadillac Fleetwood Touring Sedan from his friend, the late George Ewing, back in 1990, the car included an amazing amount of history.

Originally purchased by Ben Winks of Waterloo, Iowa on November 9, 1936, this beauty sold new for a whopping $2,770.50.

Winks died in 1939, and the car was stored away for many years. In what was surely the deal of the 20th century, in October of 1959 Winks’ son Leo bought the car from the family estate for $160.00, it had only 10,000 original miles on the odometer.

The junior Winks drove the big Cadillac until 1970, then sold it to James Bentley, also of Waterloo, Iowa. Ewing bought the car from Bentley on January 28, 1970 and brought it to Winnipeg.

Since purchasing the car in 1990 from Ewing, Drummond has painstakingly preserved the originality of this rare and beautiful machine. With the exception of a paint job a number or years ago, this is a bone stock, factory original. Finished in Oshawa Blue, the big Fleetwood features a 346 cubic-inch flathead V-8 engine linked to a 3-speed manual transmission with a floor mounted shifter.

Drummond reports that the engine pumps out 135 horsepower at 3400 rpms. Although this beauty was built for comfort, not speed, even though it is more than 70 years old, the car still cruises at highway speeds with ease. Additional factory installed equipment includes a ratio with the antenna mounted under the running board, a heater, and twin side-mount spare tire covers.

Today, the car has only 61,600 original miles, and is always a big local show and shines.

Drummond, who is the president of the Manitoba Classic and Auto Club, is a retired estate and financial planning services director from Sun Life, so rest assured this beauty has been appraised considerably more than the original purchase price.

The Lincoln ’49 Coupe

There are no reliable production numbers for the various Lincoln body styles built in 1949, Hoines is pretty sure his ’49 is quite rare.

“I’ve never seen another ’49 Lincoln and I’ve never seen another Lincoln coupe,” he says.

He has heard that about 10 percent of Lincolns built in ’49 were two-doors, which would make his car one of fewer than 4,000.

It took Hoines a long time to get possession of his dad’s car. On the passing of the elder Hoines, the car was left to one of Murray’s elder sisters, who looked after it well and kept the bodywork and paint in good condition. “I always wanted it,” Murray confesses and says it finally became his in 2006.

Ford products of this vintage have always been something Hoines was interested in. “I had a ’50 Merc for 23 years,” he points out. Although the Lincoln is a fairly rare specimen, Hoines set out to put his own personal stamp on it and succeeded in creating something of a period piece in the process.

Viewed from the front, ’49 Lincolns always had something of a sad look to them, thanks to the drooping headlight openings and the downward curve of the grille.

Hoines replaced the grille on his ’49 with the toothy grille from a ’53 DeSoto, lowered the stance of the the coupe a couple of inches and changed the wheels – all normal mild-custom changes popular in the late ’50s.

“I grew up in that era,” Hoines says, calling his modifications “pretty typical of my teenage years. Nobody had really built mag wheels yet, so we used to knock the centres out (of standard wheels) and turn them around. That gave a deep look to the wheels.

The car’s power plant was changed too. “It’s a very nice-running engine actually, but it was a little slow and quite a gas-guzzler,” Hoines says of the original 152-horsepower V-8.

Although he says he thought about hopping up the Lincoln mill, he finally decided it would be better to pull it out and plug in something more modern.

As a member of the Rollers car club, Hoines gets good use from the Lincoln in the summer, although its registration and insurance as a collector can restrict the amount of mileage he can drive.

His vision for the car, Hoines says, hasn’t gone unchallenged, although he insists that the car can be put back into near-perfect stock condition with very little trouble.

“I didn’t cut one piece and I still have  the original parts.”

“I got quite a bit of grief from a few people when I started to make the changes. They thought it was sacrilege. They said, ‘You can’t do that!’ I said, ‘Care to watch me?’ he says, smiling.