Posts Tagged General Motors

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: 1961 Chevy Bel Air

1961 Chevy Bel AirThe best part of summer? People bring their cool cars out of hibernation. I found this beauty, a 1961 Chevy Bel Air two-door, at the local beach.

Most people know the “Tri-Five” (1955, 1956, and 1957) Bel Airs, which are probably the most iconic American cars ever produced. Chevy continued using the name as one of several trim levels on its full-size cars until 1976.

The Bel Air was all new for 1961, even though it had undergone a complete redesign just two years earlier. Cars were the iPhones of the 1950s and ‘60s; companies were always refreshing them to encourage people to trade their “old” ones in.

The ’61 full-size Chevys were the first cars designed under the influence of Bill Mitchell, who went on to design the Buick Riviera and ’63-’67 Corvette Stingray.

In 1961, the Bel Air was the midlevel model; it was more expensive than a Biscayne, but cheaper than an Impala. A base six-cylinder two-door sedan cost $2,384, while a loaded V8 “sport hardtop sedan” cost $2,661.

The most powerful engine available on the ’61 Bel Air was a 348-cubic inch V8 with up to 350 horsepower. Judging by this car’s hood scoop and jacked-up stance, it probably has more power under the hood.1961 Chevy Bel Air

The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” comes up a lot when discussing old American cars. This beast is definitely cooler than any new Impala or Malibu, but it was also made in a time when people weren’t expected to survive crashes.

None of that really matters, though. This is a cool American muscle car out on the sreet for everyone to enjoy. That’s all that really matters.

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Highway robbery

CTS-V WagonSometimes, the best ideas come from history. Thankfully, the 2008 recession is starting to fade, but many people are still out of work and there is no legislation in place to stop the banks from going back to their old ways. What to do?

Analysts compared the recession to the Great Depression, and that is where the answer lies. Depression-era Americans hated banks as much as their descendants, so they weren’t too upset when outlaws like John Dillinger started robbing them. Why couldn’t that work today?

Several individuals sued banks for illegally foreclosing on the plaintiffs’ homes. Some even walked into local branches and took furniture as their payment after the banks were defeated in court and refused to pay damages. This seems like the next logical step.

Many people have criticized President Obama for bailing out failing companies instead of letting them fail, which would be appropriate punishment for their financial irresponsibility. But Obama’s bailout of General Motors and Chrysler actually gave us the tools to get our money back.

Dillinger may have been a Ford man, but GM and Chrysler make some pretty good getaway cars. The Cadillac CTS-V wagon has 556 horsepower, and plenty of room for loot. A Chevy Volt will get you across the state line while the cops are still filling up their cruisers. The Chrysler 300 looks like it was designed by Al Capone.

Obama hasn’t made much progress in prosecuting the financial concerns that caused the recession, or in passing legislation to prevent the same thing from happening again. He is obviously waiting for real Americans to take matters into their own hands, instead of getting the government involved. I don’t think he’ll be sending the FBI after the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.

So go rob a bank; it’s your patriotic duty. Just remember: when choosing a getaway car, buy American.

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Other People’s Cars: Vauxhall Astra

In America, when people think “police car” they usually have a Platonic image of a Ford Crown Victoria in their mind. In England, people feel the same way about the Vauxhall Astra.

The Astra is a compact, competing with the Honda Cvic and Toyota Corolla. It’s actually built by Opel and rebadged as a Vauxhall for the British market (both companies are divisions of General Motors). It was actually sold here a few years ago as a Saturn.

Like most European cars, police-spec Astras are usually equipped with diesel engines for economy. Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson quipped that using diesel hatchbacks doesn’t make the British police look very cool, asking “how would the Blues Brothers have looked in that?”

The Astra may not look very intimidating, but it does look pretty good. Econobox or not, it’s one of the best looking police cars around, a rare styling hit for GM in a mainstream segment. I still wish they had found a way to sell Astras under a different brand in the U.S.

While the Crown Vic is a more badass car, a V-8 powered land yacht probably isn’t suitable for police work on the tight streets of London. They are much narrower than the ones in American cities; a bigger car might have trouble weaving between black cabs and wheezing Ford Transit vans in a pursuit.

In many respects, England isn’t that different from the United States; in London, they print McDonald’s coupons on the back of bus tickets. But the automotive landscapes in the two countries are still worlds apart. You’ll never see an American cop driving an Astra, or a Bobby driving a Crown Vic.

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the first post of the new year, why not begin with an ending? Kim Jon Il was not the only newsworthy death to occur in the last couple of weeks of 2011, because the automotive world lost one of its most enigmatic names: Saab.

In reality, the death of Saab wasn’t really news: Sweden’s other volume carmaker had always had a troubled existence. It started out as the automotive division of an established aircraft manufacturer, designing small cars powered by two stroke engines (the type found in dirt bikes). These early cars, including the 92 and Sonnett series, were beautifully designed, but not very practical. Kurt Vonnegut opened a Saab dealer on Cape Cod and later wrote angrily about the company’s products.

Saab finally achieved success in the 1980s with the 900. This was a small, pseudo-luxury hatchback with front wheel drive and a turbocharged engine. Everything about it, from the styling, to the turbo, to the floor-mounted ignition, was quirky. As with its earlier cars, Saab let engineering take precedence over convention, but this time it actually worked.

Sadly, it would not last. Saab was bought by General Motors in 1989, and GM decided that Saab should not design its own cars. From the Opel Vectra-based second-gen 900 to the 9-7x SUV, every Saab since the GM takeover has been a rebadged version of someone else’s car. In 2009, GM unloaded Saab onto Dutch boutique carmaker Spyker and the company struggled through various financial crises until it went bankrupt in December.

Reading it all back, it doesn’t seem like Saab was a very good car company. It was badly managed and made few genuinely good cars. Saab’s last two cars were a large sedan, the 9-5, and a rebadged Cadillac SRX, the 9-4; the world isn’t being deprived of anything amazing. Yet car fanatics everywhere, myself included, had to stand up and take notice when Saab went bankrupt.

Why? Everybody loves a good story. Saab was an underdog, an independent car company breaking away from the corporate establishment. It tried to be different and, at the very least, kept people entertained with the possibility of quirky Swedish cars that did away with convention.

That promise didn’t always come to fruition, but it was fun to dream. By objective standards, Saab probably deserved to die. But the automotive landscape will be a lot less interesting without it.

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