Archive for category Cars

Rich life, poor taste

Bugatti Veyron Super SportIn his review of the new Range Rover Sport on last Sunday’s Top Gear season finale, Richard Hammond described the “Premier League ghetto” of Wilmslow, home to the majority of Britain’s professional football players. Hammond drove through streets lined with jewelers selling diamond-encrusted Rolex watches, dealers selling Aston Martins, and realtors listing multi-million pound homes.

He also passed the wonderfully alliterative Gentry Grooming, whose motto was “grooming for the distinguished gentleman.”

Are professional athletes “distinguished gentlemen?” Even without American steroid scandals, footballers seem to lack the sophistication of the luxury goods and services they buy.

When Ettore Bugatti decided to sell cars to customers, he made a point of choosing them. Legend has it that Bugatti would invite potential buyers to his mansion (adjacent to the factory) for dinner, and if he didn’t like their table manners, he wouldn’t sell them a car.

Things have certainly changed. Anyone with $1.5 million can have a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, the world’s fastest production car. Not only does the buyer not have to be a gentleman (or woman), he or she doesn’t need to have any extra training despite the Super Sport’s roughly 265 mph top speed.

Sometimes I wonder how makers of expensive cars, clothing, and jewelry feel about their products being bought almost exclusively by crass celebrities, or worse. Mercedes-Benz certainly doesn’t want to advertise the fact that one of its most loyal customers was the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-ClassMercedes isn’t responsible for who buys its cars, of course, and people should always strive for excellence in the things they make, even if the people that get to use those things don’t.

That doesn’t make the disparity between item and owner any less jarring. After all, a car isn’t capable of being vulgar, like a professional athlete or randomly famous celebrity. Unless the athlete or celebrity does this to it, that is.

I don’t know what Mr. Bugatti would say if he was alive today, but he remark on the need for taste as well as money. We assume that, because they have acquired wealth, wealthy people have worked hard, and aren’t obligated to do anything except enjoy their reward. But when they’re being shown up by their own possessions, maybe they need to do a little more than that.

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Full Monte

Chevrolet Monte CarloThere’s nothing more American than the “personal luxury car.” Just the idea that a person is entitled to not just basic transportation, but luxurious accommodations, of their own speaks to the abundance of resources available to American consumers.

It’s also a lot of marketing hype: these cars were almost always titanic coupes with remarkably little interior space. They’re put to shame by today’s top choice for solo luxury driving: the prestige-badged German sedan.

No German luxury sedan has quite the presence of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, though. Although it was basically a modified version of other Chevys, it always had a feel and style all its own.

When it was introduced in 1970, the Monte Carlo was just a Chevelle with a stretched wheelbase. Nonetheless, it was considered a step up from its sibling in prestige, and today it’s much rarer, and thus, more interesting.

Chevrolet Monte CarloWhile the 1970 Monte Carlo pictured here was on its way to becoming a classic, things changed. In just 10 years, oil crises and emissions regulations forced Chevy to streamline and downsize its lineup, yielding the fourth generation Monte Carlo.

This car looks pretty baroque compared to cleanly-designed original, but its styling was in fact significantly toned down from a decade of ‘70s excess.

The car was smaller than before and, with the demise of the Chevelle, took up the mantle of Chevrolet performance. It was dressed up with a NASCAR-inspired front fascia and fastback rear window to cheat wind, becoming the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe.

These two cars have little in common, yet they wear the same badge. Drivers of the 1970 Monte Carlo probably couldn’t have predicted that their car would look so different ten years down the road, or that it would eventually transition to front-wheel drive and disappear.

In the interim, these two cars found new owners: a lucky college freshman who wasn’t alive when his ’70 Monte Carlo was built, and an individual with poor taste in custom wheels. They’ve not only outlived the Monte Carlo name, they’ve outlived the entire concept of personal luxury cars.

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Other People’s Cars: Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans AmHas a car ever winked at you?

Jake Kara sent me this photo of a 1980s Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that looks like it’s either trying to get the viewer’s attention, or is having a seizure.

This car has what collectors call “patina,” which makes it look incredibly out of place parked in the center of Monroe, Connecticut, a town with a lot of history and a lot of money.

The third-generation Firebird, produced from 1981 to 1990, is one of those cars that seemingly obligates its driver to grow a mullet. They always seem to look like this car, and always seem to be heading to the local 7-11.

That wedged shape also made third-gen Firebirds popular fodder for “Fauxrrari” body kits, which transformed them into Ferrari Testarossa knock-offs.

This Firebird did have some good qualities, though. It was the basis for KITT in Knight Rider, and it was one of the few true American muscle cars of the 1980s.

The Firebird, and its Chevrolet Camaro twin, were among the few 1960s performance nameplates to survive the purge that took place in the early ‘70s, at the hands of rising insurance costs, EPA regulations, and OPEC.

This car’s “High Tech” aluminum wheels identify it as a 1985 (or later) model, which means it has a 305 cubic inch fuel-injected V8 under the hood. When new, that engine was good for 210 horsepower. That doesn’t seem like much, but keep in mind that a base 1984 Corvette only had 205 hp.

So this car’s owner deserves a little credit for going for the Trans Am and not a regular Firebird, although how they ended up with this example is a question for the ages.

In fact, there’s plenty of mystery surrounding this seemingly unremarkable car. Did that ding in the front bumper come from a dramatic police chase? Why did the driver back into that space in such a photogenic way? Why is the car winking at us?

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Sunday Royals Garage Car Show recap

Aston Martin Vanquish Audi R8 Chevy ApacheLast weekend was Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer and car show season. I spent Sunday at the Sunday Royals Garage Car Show at Lime Rock Park, and saw nearly every type of car imaginable lined up on the same main straight that usually hosts Le Mans prototypes an Trans Am racers.

The show was a little small because of the weather, but there was still an outstanding variety of cars. Here are my top five favorites:

Plymouth SuperbirdPlymouth Superbird

You may have seen Vin Diesel driving this car’s twin, the Dodge Charger Daytona, in the latest Fast & Furious movie. It’s a Plymouth Road Runner with the best aerodynamics the 1970s had to offer, making it the perfect weapon for a NASCAR oval. Today, the Superbird is one of the rarest muscle cars around, so I was excited to see this Hemi Orange example at Lime Rock.

1929 Stutz Blackhawk1929 Stutz Blackhawk

You rarely see a car this old out and about, unless it’s a ubiquitous, mass-produced Ford. In addition to having one of the coolest names ever, the Blackhawk represents a time when most cars of a certain price really were one-of-a-kind, thanks to their custom bodywork. Stutz was also one of the first great American marques, known for the Bearcat sports car and its heated rivalry with Mercer.

Bob Sharp Datsun 240ZDatsun 240Z racecar

It’s hard to argue with a wide-body 240Z in red, white, and blue, but this car had special resonance for me. Bob Sharp was one of the first American Datsun/Nissan dealers, and did a lot to promote the brand through racing cars like this one.

My parents bought our first new car after moving to Connecticut at what used to be Bob Sharp Nissan, so the local connection made this slick 240Z that much more special.

Nissan GT-RNissan GT-R(s)

There were actually three copies of Nissan’s all-conquering sports car at Lime Rock, but that doesn’t exactly make it common. The GT-R is an all-wheel drive, four-seat coupe that can dice with a Porsche 911 Turbo at the Nurburgring, all for a (relatively) affordable price. Unlike that Porsche, or certain Italian cars that will go unnamed, the GT-R really is a performance car that you can imagine living with every day.

1980 Toyota Tercel1980 Toyota Tercel

I heard the show’s MC talking about a 1980 Tercel over the loudspeakers and thought he was joking. I hadn’t seen the car.

Bringing a Japanese economy car to show that also featured an Audi R8, Aston Martin Vanquish, and three Nissan GT-Rs takes a lot of chutzpah, which this little car and its owner had in spades.

The car looks perfect slammed onto those chunky wheels, and under the hood is a souped up engine that was basically made from scratch. They don’t sell many performance parts for Toyota Tercels.

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Other People’s Cars: Oldsmobile Delta 88

Oldsmobile Delta 88This may not look like a very impressive car, but bear with me. You probably have a better chance of seeing a Porsche on today’s roads than seeing one of these babies.

This is a car from a brand that no longer exists and, fittingly, it represents a type of car that is on the verge of extinction.

Ask a kindergartener to draw a car and they’ll probably come up with something like this: a four-door sedan with no curved lines other than the wheels.

At one time, this Platonic automobile really was the most common sight on American roads. If it wasn’t an Olds Delta 88, it was a Chevy Caprice, or a Ford LTD, or a Dodge Monaco.

Today, however, the automotive landscape is much more diverse. Cars try to be all things for all people, which is why we have crossovers that look like tough 4x4s, but are actually based on front-wheel drive sedans, and “four-door coupes” that try to combine style and practicality.

In contrast, the big American sedan has become a niche item. There are still a few around (Dodge Charger, Chevy Impala, Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus) but they are the automotive equivalent of vinyl.

That’s not exactly a bad thing. Today’s cars are safer, faster, and better for the environment than this gas-guzzling Olds, although maybe not as old-school-cool.

Either way, this 88 is a noteworthy sighting. It’s both a historical reminder of a time when cars were expected to have the square footage of a small apartment, and a rare car in its own right.

Oldsmobile may have made legions of these things back in the ‘70s. but you’d be hard pressed to find one on the road today. That’s why I’m glad I did.

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Other People’s Cars: GMC Jimmy

GMC JimmyI was out with my non-smartphone again, so I don’t have a photo of my latest find. So you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure an image of a GMC Jimmy like the one above, but with dark blue paint and blacked-out trim, sitting on Bank Street in New Milford, Connecticut, the same street that was filled with Corvettes for the ending of Mr. Deeds.

The Jimmy was a copy of the Chevrolet Blazer. Like the Chevy, it started out as a shortened two-door pickup with a removable top, making it a de facto SUV. Both models eventually left General Motors’ full-size truck chassis behind, downsizing to the compact Chevy S-10/GMC Sonoma chassis.

The Jimmy had to change over the years as the idea of a convertible SUV fell out of favor (weird, right?), but now that idea is coming back.

Everyone laughed when Nissan came out with the Murano CrossCabriolet, but is it really any more ridiculous than this roofless wonder? The GMC gets a bit of a pass for having genuine off-road capability; it’s following the precedent set by the Jeep CJ and Land Rover Series I.

The Murano is a road-going crossover, so it can’t claim that inspiration. Neither can crossover “coupes” like the BMW X6 and Range Rover Evoque, although the latter at least looks good and has some off-road abilities.

That’s a problem, because removing the “utility” from SUV didn’t work for the Jimmy or its brethren. Vehicles like the Jimmy, Blazer, Ford Bronco, and International Scout were popular because they’re optional tops made them more practical than open-bed pickups trucks.

Once SUVs diverged from pickups and became more refined, the appeal dissipated. That’s why the two-door SUV is nearly extinct.

Will the newer, more car-like crossovers turn this niche around? It’s hard to tell, but the Murano CrossCabriolet definitely won’t look as cool in 45 years as this GMC does now.

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Other People’s Cars: Ford Fairlane Squire

Ford Fairlane SquireI found this gem a few weeks ago while I was in Manhattan for the New York Auto Show and took a photo because its an awesome old station wagon parked on West Side Drive.

I’ve been trying to think of something else to say about it, something more significant, but that’s pretty much it.

The wagon in question is a Ford Fairlane Squire, the wagon version of Ford’s mid-sixties midsize sedan. It was built in either 1966 or 1967, the only two years this body style was made.

I’m not sure which engines were available on the Squire, but I bet this one is having a bit more trouble keeping up with New York traffic than it did when it was new.

Yet it looks just fine parked where it is; like the cool kid leaning against a building with one heel on the bricks.

This is why I like walking around cities. You never know what you’ll find.

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