Posts Tagged classic cars

Even cheap cars can be cool

1972 Datsun 510 SedanA common narrative in the car industry these days is that “Millennials” don’t like cars. They’re more interested in playing with smartphones, the experts say.

Yet there might be another explanation: there are no appealing cars.

Whether they’re a recent college graduate or a high school student competing with a mother of two for a job at McDonald’s, young people today aren’t exactly having an easy time in the job market.

So it stands to reason that if a Millennial is looking for a new car, they’re probably looking for something cheap.

With a base price of $12,780 (including destination), the 2014 Nissan Versa sedan is one of the cheapest new cars around. It’s also tragically boring.

From its flabby exterior to its modest powertrain, the Versa seems to have been designed with indifference; a car built to a price. Then again, what else can you expect from the bottom of the market?

If you shopped for a small, economical car in 1971, you could have picked up a Datsun 510 two-door sedan–the Versa’s direct ancestor–for $1,990, according to Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. That’s about $11,000 today.

2013 Nissan VersaAt first glance, the 510 doesn’t seem better than the Versa. It’s not fast, it’s not pretty, and compared to the average car of 2014 it’s as basic as Tevye’s milk wagon.

Yet the 510 excels where it counts.

For one, the 510 is known as a great car to drive; Datsun used the BMW 1600 as a benchmark, after all. It was even raced by the likes of Paul Newman and Bob Sharp.

The simple styling has endeared this boxy Datsun to many, who view it as honest and, yes, cool.

The 510 is on its way to becoming one of the first truly collectible Japanese cars. Do you think collectors will pay attention to the Versa in 40 years?

Clearly, a cheap car can be cool. The Versa isn’t, which may be partly why Millennials don’t want to buy it and other cars like it.

Nissan itself seems to recognize this. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, the Japanese automaker unveiled a pair of concept cars, the IDx Freeflow and IDx NISMO.

Nissan IDx Freeflow / IDx NISMOTake one look at these square show cars and it’s hard not to think of the 510. The performance-oriented NISMO version even wears a variation of the 1970s Datsun racing colors.

In its press materials for the IDx pair, Nissan said it involved Millennials in the design process, and found that they wanted a basic, more “authentic” car. Sounds a lot like the 510 to me.

A production IDx wouldn’t replace the Versa or any other entry-level Nissan, but hopefully the concepts will show that subjective qualities are just as important as practicality, fuel economy, or reliability.

If people are going to continue viewing their cars as more than just interchangeable appliances, carmakers have to give them a reason to.

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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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Other People’s Cars: Zimmer Golden Spirit

Zimmer Golden SpiritHere’s a car that’s so tacky, it defies witty explanation.

The Zimmer Golden Spirit is the product of two of the most dangerous forces in the car industry: retro styling and startup companies.

The Zimmer is a “neo-classic;” a car sub genre popular in the 1970s and 1980s that married exaggerated vintage styling with modern components.

That’s why, even though this Golden Spirit looks like a cartoon version of a Duesenberg, it’s actually a Lincoln Town Car.

That blending of elements apparently appeals to some people, including the owner of this example, which I found sitting on the field of the New Fairfield (CT) Lions Car Show with other, more normal cars.

Normality isn’t a good things when it comes to cars, though; it’s already populated the world with enough Toyota Camrys. If nothing else, the Zimmer Golden Spirit shows that not every car has to make sense.

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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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