Saturday, November 21, 2009

mercedes boy

Just returning from a rocket day to Los Angeles where I got gasoline on my hands and played with cars. I helped my friend Jeff drop off his very nicely kept 1976 Mercedes 450SEL for servicing. The 450 series is the car that, in my opinion, established Mercedes as THE car to own in Hollywood. Interesting car. Big, safe, impressive but really quite bereft of power accessories- manual a/c and manual seats even- but still a superb driving car. He followed me in the SEL's baby brother, his low mileage Avocado metallic 1976 450SL. Daphne the Spaniel rode shotgun in her car seat in the cubby behind the seats of the SL. It was fun chasing through the west valley in our little blue plate caravan of 70's power rides. A reminder of the days when Mercedes ruled the world. Sad that the current car is so pale in comparison.

After that, I brought his 87 560SL back to the desert. So it was pretty much a 107/!!3 day for me. I'm amazed that at my totally average height I'm actually tall for the 107, and hit my head several times on the roof. But once inside, quite a lovely and nostalgic ride home. Desert night and the sporty little SL are well suited. Still as handsome today as ever. What fun these little roadsters were.

Monday, November 16, 2009

sign of the cat

Spent some time last Saturday photographing this low mileage 1977 Cougar for a friend. I have to say I am particularly pleased with the way this photo came out- it seems to capture the essence of the Personal Luxury car and while I first tried to shoot around the Pontiac Grand Prix in the background, I now admit that I like it being there.

I'm not a photographer by any account, just having some fun on a Saturday afternoon- but doesn't that Cougar look alluring?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Downsized- GM in the Eighties

This post was commissioned for the 2009 Great Autos "Totally Eighties Weekend" Car Show. It was the center spread of the program.
1981 Chevrolet Citation
The eighties began early for General Motors. It was spring of 1979 when GM launched its all new front wheel drive X-Body compacts. The 1980 Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark models were received with wild acclaim. They were over a foot shorter and several hundred pounds lighter than the models that preceded them, based on a state of the art front wheel drive platform. And they were a vision into GM in the eighties.
Downsizing had started off well for the General. The full sized models of 1977 had been a huge success. When the intermediates followed a year later,they were slightly less surprising but equally well received. Both full and mid size models remained rear drive, perimeter frame offerings, so in essence they simply made the parts smaller. The X cars would be their first foray into compact front wheel drive offerings. It was the first step in an ambitious program that would, by mid-decade, revolutionize the family car.
The introduction of the X Body established what would be a common shortcoming of the 80's products to come from GM. They weren't quite ready for their close up, Mr. De Ville. Rushed to market before fully ready, the Citation and it's sisters suffered an embarrassing seven recalls before calendar year 1980 even began. One of these was for brakes, and there would be two more subsquent for a total of three recalls for braking system. The teething pains had little effect on demand initially, but over time tarnished the public's interest in the X body cars.
1982 Chevrolet Celebrity

The first derivative went slightly larger. The front drive intermediate A-Body was introduced in 1982. The Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and Pontiac A6000 were introduced in early 1982. Larger and heavier than the X-bodies, these cars were spared the teething pains of the X bodies and went on to become sales successes for each division. The Olds and Buick versions were produced for so long, some wondered whether the cars were old enough to legally drive themselves.

The compacts arrived next. Nicknamed the J cars, the four siblings were produced based on a European platform borrowed from Opel. They arrived with premium content levels, and premium prices. The Chevrolet Citation and Pontiac J2000 were launched first, in late 1981. They were joined in the spring by the Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Firenza.
The 1984 Cadillac Cimarron

The late fall brought a fifth - the highly contented and contentious Cadillac Cimarron. It was the smallest postwar Cadillac ever built, and the first Cadillac since 1953 with a standard manual transmission. And the fact that it was a Cavalier in a dress (albeit a really pretty dress) tells you a lot about the psyche of the General at that moment in time.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact time that represents the darkest moment, but I think I could narrow it down to the 1985-1986 time frame. During this time, the largest GM products were phased out and replaced with front wheel drive unibody successors. The C-bodies came first, the Buick Electra, Olds Ninety-Eight and Cadillac de Ville front drive offerings arrived as early 1985 models in the summer of 1984.
They were attractively styled, well received, and full of teething pains. Little "customer dissatisfiers", like power windows that crashed to the bottom of the door and shattered, serpentine drive belts that flew off at highway speeds, climate control systems that set themselves to 72 degrees and auto fan no matter what the customer had selected, a fuel pump that was louder than the optional Bose stereo, and most of all a newly engineered automatic transmission that did everything but shift. Workers joked that they were installed with velcro, but it wasn't funny. Customers bought those cars in good faith, but were driven away by all of the nightmares. I spent many hours on the phone listening to frustrated and angry owners.
These luxury triplets were followed up with family sedans a year later. The Delta 88 and Le Sabre and Bonneville all arrived with a year, and then that same year the highly profitable E/K body personal luxury cars were replaced with the most unsuccessful products ever launched by General Motors.
The 1986 Buick Riviera T-Type

Very small and stylistically undistinguished, the Buick Riviera, Olds Toronado, and Cadillac Eldorado and Seville were designed with the premise in mind that gas would be three dollars a gallon when they made their debut. The resulting design theme called for the smallest possible exterior dimensions. They arrived into a world of $1.19 per gallon gasoline, and American car buyers who liked some size and distinction in their luxury products. They did not sell. To be fair, they were very highly contented cars that drove well and were full of bells, whistles, and computers. The Buick had a fully integrated CRT information center in the dash and a price tag of almost $20,000. There was even a letter to Buick dealers suggesting that they not park the Riviera too close to the Somerset Regal on the showroom floor, as they looked too similar.

The Leader who Couldn't- Roger B. Smith

One man takes the credit or blame for General Motors at that time- Roger B.Smith. Smith, who was named by CNBC as one of he worst American CEO's of all time, was head of the company from 1981 to mid-1990. Or from 46% market share to 34%, depending on how you care to view things. He had joined GM in 1949 as a junior accountant, and had become the company's treasurer by 1970, and vice president the following year. In 1974, Smith was elected executive vice president in charge of the financial, public relations, and government relations staffs. He ascended to GM's chairmanship in 1981.
Smith quickly started putting his stamp on the company. He dismantled the divisional staffs and threw their operating autonomy in the trash, instead creating two large divisions: C-P-C, the Chevrolet Pontiac Canada Group, and B-O-C, the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac group. The immediate result was organizational paralysis due to confusion. Suddenly the nameplates that sold the cars no longer had control over the design of them. One of the by-products of this was standardization (cheapening) of the components, so that two year old cars had exhaust systems falling off and collapsing springs.

The first major product of Roger's reorganized GM was the GM10 mid size car, which began development in 1982 for a 1988 debut. By the time his vivisected engineering team brought the product to market, it had cost seven billion dollars. Initially offered as only a trio of two door coupes (Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix), they were nicely styled but woefully underpowered.
The 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport SE, aka Dustbuster

It would be two years before four doors were added, along with a Chevy version, the Lumina. This platform was also the basis for GM's first Minivan, a plastic bodied offering nicknamed the Dustbuster. These vans had dramatic styling but very limited practicality. Most women would not reach to even wash the windshield at a self service station. And interior room was surprisingly limited for a minivan. They GM 10 program became successful once it was past its initial shortcomings, but never really justified its development costs.
Small but not cheap- the 1986 Cadillac Eldorado

Certainly no division saw more change during the decade than Cadillac. Cadillac had been extremely successful in the 1977 downsizing of its core products, and the restyled 1979 Eldorado was a smash hit. They began the 80's by introducing the very controversial razor edge Seville, which was both revolutionary and significant for sharing no body panels with other GM models. As a statement of the times, it was introduced with a Diesel engine as standard equipment, but was offered with the V8-6-4 in 1981 and made standard with the disastrous HT-4100, the high tech "little engine that couldn't" in 1982. That year also saw the debut of the Cimarron, which, although a marketing mishap was actually the very nicest of the J body compacts. Then the second round of downsizing hit, with the downsized FWD De Ville and Fleetwood of 1985, and Eldorado and Seville of 1986. It is difficult to hold a 1986 Cadillac brochure without openly weeping.
Fortunately, once realizing their circumstance, they elevated their sights and engineered their way out of it. The 4.5 Litre engine introduced in 1988 was a good long-life engine. The slighly upsized and handsomer 1988 Eldorado/Seville and the much larger 1989 De Ville were highly successful. And while it never sold in numbers, the Italian bodied Allante was a prestige boost.
It would be a disservice not to note that the 80's were a very challenging decade. Fuel prices and supply threats caused the General to attempt to make changes in a moment's notice and rush programs to market, but rushing is something giant seldom does well. And especically amidst the platform conflicts and infighting created by Roger Smith, it was something that GM ultimately proved incapable of.
Many of the issues that launched the crippled automaker into bankruptcy in 2009 began back in the 80's under the incompetent eye of Roger. That General Motors even survived the decade is testimony to it's hard core devotees that continued to love her, even as she erred.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

fifty-six chrysler

A repost from April, 2007. Originally seen on World O' Jeff

My friend John had a truly world class collection of automobiles, but the car that held the most memories for me was a 1956 Chrysler.

Okay, considering how the collection also included Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg and Ferrari, I should be a bit more formal- it was a 1956 Imperial Town and Country Station Wagon. John used to tell boyhood tales of riding in a neighbor's 1953 Town and Country. It just so happened that the neighbor was none other than Willametta Keck Day, heiress of Superior Oil Company, and that he and the Day offspring rode to school with a uniformed chauffeur behind the wheel. Perhaps that is why it made such a strong impression on him. He vividly recalled it being red in color, with genuine chrome plated wire wheels and a little silver horse as a hood ornament.

I recall that the fifty-six made its appearance about ten years ago, At that time, it was a bit dowdy in faded battleship gray with an interior that looked like it was made of discarded stadium blankets. But John was determined to relive his childhood, and that meant that the Dowager was going to be a Debutante. The wagon was stripped to bare metal and repainted in a rich Ruby red. All the chrome was replated and a beautiful black leather interior was sewn. A rare accessory clock was added to the steering wheel hub. The crowning glory was a set of chrome plated wire wheels with wide whitewall tires.

John was very proud of the marvelous wagon and I recall when we took it on an inagural trip to lunch. My first time behind the wheel was on the way back from lunch, after cocktails. I piloted the big car through Laurel Canyon in heavy traffic. The hemi engine purred like a kitten and although it was a handful in the hills, our mutual fluidity seemed to be in harmony. Perhaps the martinis helped.

There were many outings after that- Huntington Library, one crazy night at a Drive-In Movie, a dry run for a Rolls-Royce car rally we were organizing, even a very fast trip across Mulholland attempting to keep up with John's partner Ken in a Ferrari 275 GTB. The Chrysler did remarkably well, pulling into the driveway mere seconds behind the six carburetor Ferrari.

John especially loved to drive the cars on his "exercise route" through the Studio side of Burbank, Griffith Park and Forest Lawn. The big red Chrysler was a familiar site to the locals as it paraded by. Of all his cars, I believe he enjoyed driving the Chrysler the most.

Last July I drove the Chrysler for the last time. I had received permission from Ken to drive the wagon to John's memorial service. I fought back tears as I turned the key. The old wagon came to life and burbled happily. I gently grasped the steering wheel and drove the short distance to the familiar entrance of Forest Lawn. I turned left and steered for the Old North Church. The car motored up the hill with a reassuring tone from the exhaust. It felt both very familiar and terribly strange at the same time. I positioned the majestic red fifty-six Chrysler wagon immediately in front of the Church. I knew John would have parked it there.

Monday, November 2, 2009

bulldog dominatrix intimidator

A repost from my happy commuting days in LA.....

This morning in traffic, I was cut off my a massive black SUV. The nameplates on the back announced it as a Bulldog Dominatrix Intimidator SE. The SE is significant, as this denotes the upscale model whose interior is upholstered in baby seals and the wood trim on the dash comes from the rainforest.

Of course, traffic was stopped so the behemoth had no where to go. I maneuvered along side to see a blonde woman in a suit with what appeared to be a cell phone in each hand. Or perhaps she was sending a fax. Possibly to herself. She gave me a sheepish grin of apology, which is more than one usually gets in LA.

My mind flashed back to a novelty song I wrote in 1997 as a joke. It's interesting to me that I haven't changed a word since. My apologies to Eliza Doolittle fans worldwide:

All I want is an S-U-V
Great big tall thing so I can see
And get 5 m-p-g
Oh, wouldn't it be practical?

Bolt a brush guard upon the grille,
Add a roll cage in case we spill
While climbing Beverly Hills
Oh, wouldn't it- be practical.

Oh, so practical with the luxury
of all-wheel-drive
It might come in handy when
I'm stuck on the 405

Call it brilliant or just dumb luck
Getting rich dames to drive a truck
See Grandma run amok
Believing that

It's practical.
Practical, practical
Anything - but practical

(Photo credit- Canyonero Motors)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

still plays with cars

The oldest picture I have of myself is from my first Christmas. I am three months old and asleep inside my little red wagon. I am tightly hugging the sides. In many of my earliest pictures I have a toy car in my hand. That did not change as I grew older. I was a CCCA brat at ten, and wrote articles for them in my teens. At age eleven when most boys want to go to football games, I begged my father to take me to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg reunion. Thankfully he did.

The addiction continued into adulthood. I worked for almost 20 years for a big three auto company and owned more than 30 classic cars over the years. The list is too long to name. It began to cool off after I did a career change a few years back that demanded much more of my time, then in an attempt to cut my commute I moved closer to work. It was with trepidation that I gave up my two car garage.

I spent two years in the People's Republic of Santa Monica, the most auto-unfriendly city this side of Manhattan. It was a great location to be close to work, and I loved the ocean dearly and there was a lot of cool architecture, so I adapted and put my energy principally into photography.

When I picked up a super cool little '65 Corvair Monza, it took my carport (3/4 covered- aargh!) and my daily driver did battle on the permitted streets of my neighborhood, where it had to be moved twice weekly to accommodate street cleaning and got horribly dirty under the stately trees. In short order, the charming 'Vair was dispatched to offsite storage and shortly thereafter sold. You don't play with your toys when they aren't home.

Fortunately, the crumbling economy intervened and my company started closing branches like they were hemorrhaging money or something. (Oh, right- they were). At the end of summer I no longer needed to be on the West Side and began rethinking my options. I've always loved Palm Springs and have told myself a hundred times I'd move there in a minute if I had the chance. Suddenly, that chance arose and thirty days later I found myself under desert skies. I knew I was in for an adventure.

What I didn't realize is that I have a ton of car club friends from over the years who live here. My first Friday in town was spent at an awesome dinner party in a giant garage surrounded by 70's Cadillacs and Lincolns. I have old car friends who live less than a mile away. And we play with cars. In my first month, I've been to two car club dinners, a weekend Concours, and had a car brochure party at my place. I spent yesterday helping a friend work on his '77 Thunderbird, getting my hands dirty again. The highlight was taking his pristine '76 Grand Prix to the auto parts store. What a dream to look out over that long-ass hood.

So I hope you'll follow along as I rediscover my roots. Adventures, recollections, events and reflections on the current industry from my long lens perspective. I'll start this out with some reprints of essays and articles I have previously written, then after that it'll get rolling on its own.

He still plays with cars. Who knew?