Friday, October 17, 2014

The $15,000 Question: Land Rover Series III

I've always had a soft spot for the old Land Rover, but thought I had gotten it out of my system until a friend from San Antonio texted me a picture of one recently.  Rough, crude, and basic to a fault, the original Land Rovers had more in common with a Farmall tractor than today's Range Rover.  The first Land Rover appeared in 1947 and was Great Britain's answer to the World War II Army Jeep.  It was rugged and designed to be simple enough to repair in the most remote locations.

Part of my fascination for the original Land Rover stems from "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."  The Marlin Perkins hosted show featured a animals in their natural habitat.  Each week Marlin, and his co-host Jim, would be on location in the African Serengeti or in the Amazon.  They would use Land Rovers to get to remote locations, chase down animals to be tagged and released, and occasionally get out of harm's way. 

The original Land Rover evolved gradually, adding power, creature comforts, and  weight, but the basic formula remained it production for over 60 years.  It's direct ancestor, the Defender, looks relatively identical to the original model and is still in production today.  Ultimately though, the Land Rover's days are numbered.  It was eclipsed long ago by more comfortable utility vehicles, commonly known as SUVs, including it's kid brothers, the Range Rover and Discovery.  Sales have dwindled since the early 1970s, partly due to the demand for more comfort, but also because of safely regulations.  It hasn't been imported to the US since the late 1990s and will finally be phased out in 2015 because of legislative reasons.      


Today you can buy an original Series II or Series III Land Rover for under $15,000.  The vehicle is slow and crude, even compared to a basic Jeep Wrangler, but is easy to work on.  It can be used as a daily driver, with the only serious drawback being a dearth of parts in the US. 

Think of it as a four wheeled version of the late Steve Erwin, a rough and tumble vehicle that is up for adventure and will do just about anything.         

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cadillac is not Itself

This is what a Cadillac should be: Large, stately, supremely comfortable, smooth, and powerful.  A car to serenely consume the miles, soaking up potholes and ruts without unsettling.  It's buttercream frosting on a three-tiered layer cake. 

The above 1953 Series 62 sedan highlights those qualities.  Audacious compared to some of its understated European contemporaries, it has a sense of occasion about it.  Compared to it, Cadillac has lost its way.  A Caddy should not be an all out performance car capable of storming the Nurburgring.   

To be fair, Cadillac has to build cars that satisfy the broadest swath of its target market, an arena filled with quality products from BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes.  All of these products are good.  To stand out, your brand has to match up favorably to the competition.  This is why new BMWs are less precise than their brethren of yore, why Lexus is sharper, why Mercedes brought AMG in house, and why Cadillac has shed buttercream in favor of the Paleo diet. 

But in doing so, Cadillac has lost touch of what makes a Cadillac.          

Friday, March 7, 2014

Engine Transplants

One of the cool things about hot rodding, is transplanting a better engine in an existing car.  The concept has been around for decades--people have been dropping bigger, more powerful engines in everything with wheels, since at least the end of World War II.  Transplanting a small block Chevy or Ford V8 is the most common thing, but you'll also see people use everything from Oldsmobile Rockets, Chrysler Hemis, and Buick Turbos or Nailheads, to more exotic fare like Jaguars, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

File:Dax Boss 302 - AC Cobra Replica - Flickr - mick - Lumix.jpg

The most successful example of this concept is the AC/Shelby Cobra.  In the early 1960s, Carroll Shelby took a British roadster, the AC Ace, and dropped a 260 cubic inch Ford V8 into it.  The result was the birth of the legendary Shelby Cobra, which dominated the sports car racing scene.  Today, original Cobras exchange hands for prices ranging from the high six-figures up into millions of dollars.

In the spirit of hot rod engine transplants, here are five cars, I would love to perform surgery on.  I doubt any of these cars would fetch Cobra money, but they would be fun to own.

1. The 1963-65 Buick Riviera.  The first generation Riviera is one of the best designs to come out of Detroit.  Styled by Bill Mitchell, it was his interpretation of what would happen if you crossed a Ferrari with a Rolls Royce.  The original car had either a 401 or 425 cubic inch Buick Nailhead V8, which provided decent power for its time.  But today's minivan has more power and would embarrass the Riviera at the drag strip.  However, if you dropped in a modern GM crate motor and transmission, you could easily rectify the situation.

File:Jensen Interceptor Convertible 1974.jpg

2. The Jensen Interceptor.  Originally matched with a Mopar 383 or 440 V8 and three speed automatic, I can't help wonder what this car would be like with the modern Hemi and a six speed manual.  Or would a powertrain from a Viper fit?  Either way, an updated Interceptor would give a modern Aston Martin a run for its money, while being much cooler to drive.

3. Ponitac Fiero GT.  GM finally got the Fiero right... and then they cancelled it.  I wonder what it would be like if you dropped in a V6 from a Toyota Camry.  The idea really isn't that far fetched--Toyota and GM collaborated for years on cars like the Toyota Corolla/Geo Prisim and more recently the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe.  Plus, if the Camry's V6 is good enough for the new Lotus Evora, it should be good for the Fiero.

4. Fiat X1/9.  A mid-engine car and contemporary to the Pontiac Fiero, the X1/9 was largely dismissed as a hair-dresser's car because it was grossly underpowered.  But it looks exotic, which is no suprise since the car was penned by Marcello Gandini, who also designed the Lancia Stratos, Lamborghini Miura, and Lamborghini Countach.  All it really needs is more power--something in the form of a modern Fiat Abarth powertrain, or one of any number of Honda/Acura four cylinder engines.

5. Delorean.  The weak link in any Delorean is its under-powered Renault V6, which is ironic because John Delorean made his name as the father of the original Pontiac GTO.  Today Deloreans are prized for their originality, so it would be a sacrilege to replace the engine.  But that doesn't stop me from dreaming what a small block Chevy V8, or even something as exotic as a Ferrari V8 out of a wrecked F355 would do for the car's performance.              

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Demise of the Coupe

When I went car shopping recently, I noticed a lack of coupes.  Trucks, crossovers, and sedans dominated the scene.  The only coupes I looked at were the Nissan Altima, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang.  I know there are a handful of other car companies that make coupes, but the number of models, and the volume of coupe sales has dwindled sharply from twenty years ago.   

File:Packard 120 Eight Business Coupe 1936.jpg

The concept of the coupe originated in the 19th century as a closed carriage with a single seat.  Later  it became a term used to describe an enclosed car with seats for two or three people.  A number of car companies in the 1930s and 1940s made what they called business coupes, cars with no rear seat built for traveling salespeople, or folding seats like the kind you get with an extended cab pickup truck.  The lack of a back seat is what made the car different from a two door sedan, which, like a coupe, had two doors but also a full back seat.   

Perhaps the zenith of the coupe came and went with the original Ford Mustang.  Launched exactly 50 years ago, the Mustang was an instant hit and has since become an American icon.  Based on the Ford Falcon sedan, it was marketed as a 2+2 coupe, the "+2" designating the small, occasional use backseats. 

Growing up, there were coupes everywhere.  By then the concept of a coupe had merged with a 2 door sedan and the two were used interchangeably.  Just about every popular car was offered in sedan and coupe form--midsize and full size family cars like Oldsmobiles, and even smaller cars like the Plymouth Reliant and Ford Tempo.  There were also a number of sporty cars to compete with the Ford Mustang and its main rival, the Chevy Camaro--the Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Ford Probe, and Mitsubishi Eclipse were popular at the time.  Today, with the exception of the Mustang and resurrected Camaro, all those cars are gone. 

In 2004, Mercedes launched the CLS, a "four-door coupe" based on their midsize E platform.  It didn't matter that a four-door coupe was an oxymoron, or that the car was no more capable than an E55.  The CLS looked sensational and started a trend.  Today there is no shortage of four-door coupes, including cars from Audi, BMW, VW, and Jaguar.  Ford jumped on the bandwagon with the new Fusion, as have other sedans, like the new Chrysler 200, and Chevy Impala.  

I suspect the primary reason for the demise of coupes is the shift in consumer preferences, but it may also have something to do with the styling and capabilities of the modern sedan.  Gone is the square, upright styling of yesterday's sedans.  It's been replaced by a sleeker look that has blurred the lines, making four door cars as desirable as the coupes of yesteryear.  But while the number of coupes sold in the market continues to diminish, I doubt they will ever completely go away.  Coupe styling, no matter how striking, or well executed on a four door car, will always be a compromise.  Sedans will always lack the purpose-built look of a two-door sports car or grand tourer.  They will never have the wild sense of romance and adventure, never have their names uttered in the same breath as the Porsche 911 or Jaguar XK.  

True two-door sports cars and GTs offer the promise of an adventure, a spur of the moment trip to wine country, a drive to the Florida Keys by way of Miami Beach, or weekend getaway to ski.  A sedan, even one labeled a coupe, is still a sedan and the automotive equivalent of date night.  Yes, there is the promise of adventure, an opportunity to go interesting places, but at the end of the evening you still have to go home and pay the baby sitter.                        

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Little Demon that Could

During my formative years, my parents owned a 1971 Dodge Demon.  It was the family hand-me-down car that I called the "Dentmobile" because just about everyone managed to put a dent in it at one time or another.  My grandfather, who bought the car new.  My aunt who learned to drive on it.  My mother who drove it every day for nine years.  And once I side swiped it with a trailer I was pulling behind a riding lawnmower. 


There was nothing special or fancy about the Demon.  Except for an automatic transmission, it was as basic as basic transportation gets.  School buses and U-haul trucks are more lavishly equipped.  The Demon didn't just have rubber floor mats, it had rubber on the floor in place of carpet.  Heat and ventilation were abstract theories--there were vent boxes below the dash opened for fresh air, but they let in other things like leaves and water.  The heater had two speeds, "Low" and "Hi".  Both settings were equally feeble and blew as much air as a hamster through a straw. 

The Demon had one redeeming quality--stalwart dependability.  Powered by a 198 cubic inch Slant 6 engine, it always started on the second try, coughing and settling into a lumpy, agrarian  idle.  One cold January, my aunt and uncle visited from Phoenix.  The temperature dropped below zero the day they were supposed to leave, and their rental car failed to start.  My parents offered to take them to the airport in my dad's Oldsmobile Cutlass.  But it too failed to start.  Only the Demon, sitting at the bottom of the driveway under fresh snow, dormant since before Christmas, started.  On the second try. 

When I was in high school, my parents gave me the choice of the Cutlass or the Demon.  I chose the Cutlass because it had bucket seats and the Olds 350 Rocket engine.  But I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had taken the Demon.  It probably would have needed less care and feeding.  The Cutlass was a thirsty beast with gas mileage measurable in feet per gallon.  It also racked up a daunting list of repairs, requiring just about everything, including a transmission rebuild.  Adding it up, car payments on a new Cutlass would have been cheaper.

In the early 1990s I happened upon the Demon again in midtown KC.  It was the same car, rustier than ever, its blue paint faded like acid washed denim jeans.  It sported all the same dents, plus some new ones, and still had the bumper sticker my family added that said, "Mom knows best, buckle up."  

Twenty years later, I still think about that Demon.  It was a simple car, one with only one objective: providing basic, dependable transportation.  That idea seems quaint and old fashioned today.  In an era where the cheapest new cars come standard with air conditioning and power windows, the idea of rubber floor mats and vent boxes seems as antiquated as hand cranks and magnetos.  There probably will never be a market for a car that basic in the U.S again.  

Even so, I'd like to think that Demon is still out there somewhere, coughing to life on the second try and ambling down the road.