Archive for category Old Stuff

Other People’s Cars: Maserati Biturbo

Maserati BiturboIt was two days before Thanksgiving (and one day before Hanukkah). You could smell the anxiety in the air. The streets were stuffed with cars stuffed with stuffing. And someone decided it was a good time to take this heap for a spin.

This car is just as insubstantial as it looks. It’s old, Italian, and thus, unreliable. It’s a Maserati Biturbo.

No, really. It’s a Maserati. Can’t you see the trident emblem on the side?

That disparity between expectation and reality is one of the reasons why Biturbo routinely ends up on “World’s Worst Car” lists. Don’t take it from me, though. Here’s what Top Gear host and man-with-access-to-car-crushing-objects Jeremy Clarkson had to say about it:

I think people are too hard on the poor Biturbo, though.

Sure it’s hideously unreliable, but so is every other Italian car. It’s not very pretty (this example’s fake hood scoops don’t help matters) but that straight-edged styling was in fashion when the Biturbo was new.

The Biturbo isn’t a sleek sports car, but Maserati has made practical sedans before. It still makes the four-door Quattroporte and Ghibli.

The Biturbos fatal flaws were its poor execution and the fact that it wore a Maserati badge. Without that badge, it would just be a small turbocharged performance car.

That’s something that people seem to enjoy with a Saab or BMW badge, but it’s not quite good enough for the hallowed trident.

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Backtracking

CDOT MULet me tell you a little about railfans. These people–who spend most of their spare time photographing, riding, and talking about trains–are a highly sentimental lot.

Growing up obsessed with all things vehicular, I quickly learned that not all trains are created equal. The old, obsolete, and rare are always more interesting to fans.

This makes a lot of sense: older fans are nostalgic about the trains of their youth, and everyone is nostalgic for a time when railroading was more romantic.

Just like classic car enthusiasts who love 1950s Chevys and Buicks, railfans love the streamlined E-Unit and F-Unit locomotives GM was producing around the same time. Their shape is easily as recognizable as a tail-finned Bel Air; it even adorns railroad station signs in the New York metropolitan area.

Rarity is also a factor. It’s just too easy to take a piece of railroad equipment for granted when it’s common, but as older things are retired, they become more of a catch.

Which brings me to the Metro North Railroad electric-mulitple unit (EMU) cars I found humming away in the caverns of Grand Central last week during rush hour.

These older cars are quickly being replaced with new M7 and M8 models, but will anyone miss them when they’re gone?

Metro North Railroad MUThese cars never generated much enthusiasm among railfans when they were new, nor do they have much historical importance.

Younger generations also aren’t as prone to sentimentality when it comes to vintage machinery as their predecessors.

Still, they’re becoming increasingly hard to find on the commuter runs into and out of New York City. Will that rarity make them more attractive?

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What makes a car a “classic?”

1975 Mercury MonarchI picked up the latest issue of Hemmings Classic Car today, and found an unusual mix of vehicles on the cover.

A gorgeous 1962 Chrysler New Yorker wagon was the main attraction, but it shared space with a 1991 GMC Syclone and a 1977 Mercury Monarch.

Any vehicle over 25 years old is considered “vintage” (which makes me feel rather dated), but you don’t need to attend the Pebble Beach Concours to know that “vintage” and “classic” are not the same.

Cars from the 1960s or earlier have the strongest hold on the “classic” title, but lately I’ve noticed many cars from the 1970s and ’80s making their way into classic-car discussions.

This is partially because of economics: as cars get older, they become rarer and more expensive. Many of the most desirable classics have been priced out of the average enthusiast’s range, leaving him or her to get creative.

It’s more than that, though.

No one is going to deal with the trials and tribulations of an old car, unless they really want to.

People often collect cars (and other things) to recapture their youth, and not everyone grew up during the age of tail fins.

The nostalgia factor is often masked by a car’s other positive qualities; you don’t need to be a child of the ’60s to appreciate a first-generation Camaro.

However, as newer cars transition from cheap transportation to potential collectibles, people’s personal attachment to them becomes more apparent. Why else would you buy a Mercury Monarch?

The Monarch, and its Ford Granada sibling, have been the butt of many jokes, but perhaps that will change as people become nostalgic for the days of the Carter Administration.

If that happens, old car mavens will still be able lament about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” but people might answer “good.”

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Manhattan car adventures

I spend a lot of time wandering around Manhattan, because I never know what I’m going to find. Last weekend, I headed to Alphabet City to check out the new (and slightly more spacious) Obscura, as seen on T.V.

On the way, I found plenty of other neat stuff, including a Hungarian bookstore and a few cool cars.

They’re not new, they’re not collectible and, out of context, they’re not even necessarily that interesting. It’s hard to say exactly what makes this random assortment of cars cool, but they definitely are. If you’re as obsessed with cars as I am, there’s something life-affirming about seeing an unusual model among the sea of beige Toyota Camrys.

Here are a few islands in that sea, in glamorous cellphone pic style.

Volvo Amazon

Volvo Amazon

Plymouth Valiant

Plymouth Valiant

Ford F-Series

Ford F-Series

BMW M3

BMW M3 (E46)

Buick Skylark

Buick Skylark

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Other People’s Cars: Willys Jeep Truck

Willys Jeep TruckPeople in my neck of the woods (that’s not just a figure of speech) drive a lot of trucks, but none quite as awesome as this vintage Jeep. I’ve seen a few of these things in various places, and they always seem to be painted the same shade of green. I don’t have a problem with that.

Willys-Overland built this truck in an effort to capitalize on its purchase of the rights to build Jeeps. Willys and Ford, of course, were the two companies that built military Jeeps during World War II, although the actual design came from the American Bantam Car Co.

After the war, Willys put the Jeep into production as the CJ (Civilian Jeep), and quickly realized that it had a hit on its hands. The SUV boom had begun.

The CJ’s four-wheel drive traction was impressive, but not everyone wanted to drive around in a tiny two-seat convertible with rock-hard suspension. Willys built a slew of Jeep-based vehicles in more conventional body styles to attract more sales.

In addition to the pickup truck pictured here, there was a Willys Jeep Station Wagon and the slightly absurd Jeepster convertible. All three combined the original Jeep’s ruggedly simplistic good looks with a bit of 1950s flair.

Willys Jeep TruckThe Willys Jeep Truck went into production in 1947, but this example appears to be a facelifted 1950-1961 model. These trucks started out with the 134-cubic inch “Hurricane” inline-four; bigger inline-sixes came later.

Willys/Jeep continued making the truck until 1965. Today, if you want a Jeep pickup truck, you’ll have to buy a Wrangler and an aftermarket conversion kit.

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Other People’s Cars: Volvo 780

Volvo 780What do Volvo and Lamborghini have in common?

This car (admittedly not the best specimen) forms a tenuous link between these two polar opposites of the automotive world. That’s because it was designed by Bertone, the same Italian coachworks that was responsible for the Lamborghini Miura and Countach.

It’s a Volvo 780, a coupe version of the Swedish company’s popular 760. In the late 1980s, Volvo wanted a car that would push it further into the luxury market while still maintaining the brand’s core values, such as safety and subtlety. That’s exactly what buyers got with this car.

It may look like nothing more than a 760 minus two doors, but the 780 made quite a statement when it debuted in 1987. It was Volvo’s first two-door car since the ill-fated 262C, and despite looking just as angular as anything else from Gothenburg, subtle tweaks (such as a 1mm lower roof) ensured that it was completely different from other Volvos.

Today, despite the massive expanses of flat surfaces, the 780 does look much more trim than a typical Volvo. The proportions juxtapose traditional Volvo cues, like the accordion plastic bumpers and square headlights and taillights. It still looks like a Volvo, but one designed to do something other than haul camping equipment.

Volvo 780 Bertone badgeHowever, while the 780 looked fast, it wasn’t. During the car’s 1987-1991 production run, two engines were offered: a 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four and a 2.8-liter V6. The V6 was similar to the engine used in the DeLorean DMC-12, which should give you any idea of just how little performance this car had to give.

The four-banger produced 175 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque, or 188 hp and 206 lb-ft, depending on the year. The V6 was rated at 145 hp and 173 lb-ft. The only available transmission was a four-speed automatic.

The 780 was based on ordinary, non-sporty Volvos anyway. Like most coupes derived from existing sedans, it was primarily for looking good.

And look good it did: It may seem like it was designed by an angry architect, but straight, crisp lines were all the rage in the ‘80s. This was the decade of the Subaru XT Coupe and TVR Tamsin, after all.

This 780 isn’t looking so good, but despite the tree growing through the front end, it’s still worth a second look. Only 8,518 780s were built, making this car quite rare.

In fact, this particular car has been a bit of a white whale for me. Several years ago, I found out that it lived near me and I tried to track it down. When it finally appeared earlier this week, I was much happier than was strictly appropriate.

Volvo 780 frontAfter all, when else are you going stumble upon a junked car with genuine Italian coachwork?

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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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