Friday, August 27, 2010

Couture Cars: Designer Wheels and Special Editions of the 70’s-

by Jeff Stork

Part II of the series. For Part I, go here.

High Gear

It all broke loose in 1976. Ford took the driver’s seat with the debut of the Continental Mark IV Designer Series. Four distinctive models, each with its own color scheme, designer identification, and distinctive special features chosen by a prominent designer: the Cartier Edition in triple pearl gray, the Bill Blass in Navy Blue and Cream, the Givenchy in Pale Turquoise accented with White, and the Emilio Pucci in Maroon with a silver landau top and Pucci fabric on the sunvisors. Each included alloy wheels, landau tops, and ultra plush velour interiors as standard with leather as a delete option. And each were very pricey- $2000 with velour or $1500 with leather. Yes, probably the first time in history where leather was a credit option. Very profitable, popular and prestigious entries, they accounted for 27% of Mark IV sales that year.

Other manufacturers noticed and the popularity of special models increased. Cadillac went for the velvet rope of exclusivity and produced exactly 200 identical Eldorado Bicentennial convertibles, with identical color schemes and dash plaques, and launching a specially trimmed Eldorado Biarritz coupe at mid-year.

Sporty Pontiac released a limited edition Trans Am SE, in black with gold pinstriping and trim, which was warmly received but would later become a sensation when a certain Burt Reynolds film was released. And sadly, the company that started it all seemed to back off at this point, as the Cassini Matador was replaced by a trim level called Barcelona, and the Cardin and Gucci were long gone, although the popular Levi’s editions would remain.

Ford shifted into high gear in 1977 and never looked back. The Continental designer series were totally revamped to suit the new Mark V. Cartier retained its cool and elegant triple Dove Gray look, The Bill Blass was newly suited in Navy Blue and Chamois Orange, including a Chamois landau top and special pigskin grained chamois leather. Givenchy got a completely new look in Midnight Jade with a Chamois forward roof section and Emilio Pucci started the year with a black and white ensemble of black paint, white landau and white leather interior. Pucci was always a limited demand item, but when the Adam-12 look failed to inspire it was replaced with Navy and Dove Gray at midyear. Such is the prerogative of fashion. The new styling and the Designer Series were a smash hit together- Continental sales hit 80,000 units and a large and very profitable percentage of them were Designer Series models.

The big news at General Motors was tiny indeed. The Chevette Sandpiper, in Cream Gold with triple yellow striped reef cloth interior (including yellow dash pad, headliner and carpeting) and special Sandpiper decals on its rear fenders marked the smallest special edition out of Motown. It sold in appropriately tiny numbers and was not continued. But the Trans Am SE went stratospheric, having been featured in Smokey and The Bandit. It soon became known as the Bandit T/A.

AMC, the little car company who so often couldn't, made one more stab at the market with the Matador Barcelona II Coupe. It featured two tone paint, a padded landau roof, stand up hood ornament and even body colored bumpers. This one deserves a video- have a look

Next- Part III- Winding Down

Thursday, August 26, 2010

chevy cruze: is it chevy's jan brady?

I spent some time last week in Washington DC with an all new Chevy compact sedan. No, not the Volt- the other one. The Cruze. C-r-u-z-e. No, I know you haven't heard of the name. It's new. In fact, It's an all new product which will be sold globally under the Cruze name, replacing a patchwork of different nameplates.

It's based on the front drive GM Delta II platform (same as that attention grabbing Volt) and will be produced in several countries, with the North American Chevrolet version coming from the retooled Lordstown, Ohio plant. Cruze will go on sale in the third quarter of 2010.

The Cruze will offer many choices- perhaps too many. Five different models- one more and they'd tie the Brady Bunch. And there really is a sixth because the much touted Volt is based on the same Delta II platform, which makes the whole Brady analogy totally fit. The Cruze is the Jan Brady of Chevy.

And it all makes sense, With the Volt wearing the Marcia Marcia Marcia "Look at Me" crown, the capable and competent Cruze is Jan- second fiddle to her more newsworthy and headline grabbing sister, but for many, many people a much better choice based on sound technology and superior affordability. And while the Doug Simpsons of the world may line up to spend $35,000 plus for the Volt, the George Glasses will probably be getting the better deal. I suspect in the long run, Jan will eclipse Marcia's popularity.

Cruze trim levels range from the Cruze LS at $16,995 base through the slightly more stylish Cruze LT with the 1.4T and alloys at $18,895, the LT2 adds leather leather, bluetooth, USB and more a $21,395 and for those who demand it all, the Diana Ross of Cruze is the LTZ with auto climate control, parking assist, 18" alloys and four wheels discs at $22,695. And for those who really need to channel their inner Diva, the RS appearance adds lower body fascia wrap, fog lamps and spolier to any LT or LTZ for $695. And for those Al Gore supporters, there's the $18,895 ECO with a standard six speed stick and expected 40 mpg EPA highway fuel economy.

I wouldn't say that the styling screams "Chevrolet!", keeping in mind the global intentions, but it is clean and contemporary, with the signature bisected Chevrolet Grill up front and gold bowtie badge flanked by jeweled headlamps. The sides are clean, and the roofline tapers smoothly rearward. The car features a wide stance and the wheels seems to fill up the wheel wells nicely (standard size is 16"), especially with the optional 17"s and 18"s. After all, bigger is better up to a point. Wheels. We're talking wheels here. The rear seems the least distinctive part of the style, again cleanly styled but didn't seem to speak any specific brand character. However, one must note that the styling of its Cobalt predecessor screamed "rental", so please don't think I was displeased with the new look at all. Clean and contemporary, and light years ahead of some of the entries of the recent past. Besides, Jan looked nice but Marcia was the glamour girl.

A big change one I climbed inside. Gone was the one piece molded door panel and black plastic everything you touch. The interior has a two toned theme on the dash and door panels, the materials are a HUGE (that word again!) improvement with soft touch dash facing and the current GM HVAC and audio controls which are very nice and tactile. The optional Navigation system (which I did sample) integrates nicely into the display, although I found the map a bit small. Still this is a Cavalier successor, and we're discussing the Navi screen. That's called progress. Speaking of progress, comfortable and well tailored seats. Ahhhh. Much nicer than the Chevy compacts I remember. Overall impression is very comparable to the Buick Regal I drove last month (and liked) although slightly smaller in scale.

Power for most Cruze models comes from the new Ecotec 1.4 Litre Turbo with variable valve timing, which produces 138 hp and 148 lb/ft of torque, mated to either a six speed manual or six speed automatic transmission. In the Cruise Eco variant, the car is expected to deliver 40mpg highway, with other versions likely achieving mid-thirties. The 1.4 Turbo is fitted to LT, LTZ and ECO models. The base LS utilizes a 1.8 litre conventionally aspirated engine developing 136 hp, and 123 lb/ft of torque. We did not drive that particular configuration.

The Chevy folks took time to point out the many safety features of their newest compact, including ten air bags (two front, two head curtain, four seat mounted side impact, and two front knee bags) along with collapsible pedals (yay!) stabilitrak electronic stability control and a bunch of GM favorites like Tire Pressure Monitoring, DRL's and automatic headlamps. Additionally, about 65% of the body is made of high strength steel and GM anticipates that the car will achieve five star crash ratings in every country in which it is sold, so it should be up to the rigors of Jan's paper route.

Driving impressions come from a day on twisty rural roads in suburban Virginia. I drove a targeted variety of Cruze models, those being an LTZ with Nav and one without. So I'm an option Queen. I admit it. But at least I mixed up the colors.

The 1.4 litre turbo 4 cylinder is silky smooth at idle and pairs well with the six speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is smart and shifts are smooth. we're light years ahead of the Cobalt and Cavalier. The ride is smooth and controlled, and I far preferred it to the Corolla S which was provided for comparison. Interior materials were much nicer as well. I especially liked the soft touch dash and the door panels which are much more substantial feeling than the Toyota or the Cobalt. We were also provided with a Civic sedan for comparison, and it had a ride and handling more on par with the Cruze, but I can't get used to the Star wars instrument panel and the A-pillars that seem to me modeled after the old Gm Dustbuster minivans. The little Chevy held its head high against the gold standard of the compact class, and that is simply something I've never been able to say before.

Jan Brady for Class President! Now what will they do for Cindy?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

sunday driver: amc matador barcelona

There on the field at Motown 2010, surrounded by over 220 fascinating and unusual cars, cars with fabulous design, incredible color, loving restoration, and impeccible provenance. How could one possibly choose a favorite?

And then I saw IT.

It must have known of my unabashed love for weakly branded products, of my glee upon seeing a botched facelift, my delight in watching the overmarketing of what was had been, in fact, a most plebian chariot.

I've already written about the exciting Oleg Cassini Matador Coupe, how AMC slapped a few logos and some copper paint on a Matador Coupe in an attempt to cash in on the cache of a designer label. Well as time passed they cut Oleg out of the deal to save on coin, and created the Barcelona Matador, and the really wild Barcelona II, with a landau top and painted bumpers.

And for 1978, they decided the world needed a Barcelona SEDAN. Yes, the lowly sedan, fresh from service on Adam 12, fitted with cow catcher bumpers and a coffin nose, became the basis of the overpimped Barcelona package. Same Golden Ginger Metallic over Sand Tan color scheme. Same woodgrained gauge faces. Same individual comfort lounge seats in velveteen crush fabricx with woven accent stripes, same grain on the vinyl roof, same two-toned sport wheels and an absolutely wild two tone pattern which bears no more relation to the lines of the car than the safety bumpers did. Special Barcelona insignias and hood ornament set off the look. AMC emblems proudly affixed front and rear, but who needs them- who ELSE would have made this car?

Barcelona- Because Spain is EXACTLY like that.

Monday, August 16, 2010

rides of the king

How else would a gearhead mark the anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing than by taking a look at some of the fabulous cars he owned? Elvis loved cars and bought them on a whim, sometimes for strangers. He is famous for buying his mother a pink Cadillac, but preferred black and white for himself. In his own stable, Cadillacs and Lincolns dominated- mostly Cadillacs in number and Elvis and Cadillac are linked in the minds of many, but his favorite car in the '50's was his 1956 Continental Mark II and in the seventies, the King also loved him some Stutz Blackhawk. In fact, the last photo taken of him was driving his beloved black Stutz. So on the thirty third anniversary of his passing, remember the King via some of his coolest rides.

Driving his yellow 1955 Cadillac:

The 1955 Fleetwood purchased by Elvis for his mother, Gladys Presley:

Elvis and his white 1956 Continental Mark II:

Elvis' $100,000 1960 Cadillac Limousine, customized by Barris:

Another Barris Custom, Elvis' 1965 Cadillac Eldorado convertible:

Elvis and two of his Stutz Blackhawks, the white 1972 and the black 1973:

The last car purchased, his 1977 Seville, at Graceland and being driven:

Another pose of the 1977 Seville:

The last known photo of Elvis- Aug. 16, 1977 at 12:28 AM, returning home in the Stutz Blackhawk:

Elvis's funeral procession- the 1977 Cadillac hearse and parade of white 1977 Cadillacs:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

priscilla on the prarie with twins

I spent the weekend in the Michiana shores with longtime friends and twin Clenet bloggers Ron and Mario and see what automotive adventures we could find. Saturday morning we were up early loading Priscilla, their 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty-Special Brougham (jeez, is that enough names?) for a run to Kankakee, IL for a driving tour with the Chicago Lambda Car Club boys. Mario drove, Ron navigated and I deployed footrests and tested picnic tables, because that's what a journo does. All for you.

We steered south of Chicago for a rendezvous at the 1947 Jaenicke's Root Beer stand in downtown Kankakee for tire kicking and root beer. It's a way cool place, obviously a de-franchised A & W Root Beer stand, still in its signature orange. A delicious selection of cars began to assemble. besides Priscilla, there was a 9,500 mile 1973 Eldorado coupe in Taupe and companion Cotillion White 1976 convertible, a sky blue 1964 Imperial, a heavenly 1962 Imperial in Silver Lilac that I acquired for a client and helped restore back in 1992- it was great to see it looking so pristine. Lots of fun rides- when was the last time you saw a '61 De Soto coupe? Best color went to a 1972 Monte Carlo whose orange matched the hot dog stand, and oldest was a sweet 1941 Cadillac sedanette.

After everyone chugged their root beer, we went down the block to tour the Bradley House, a Frank Lloyd house on the river which was recently restored and only opened for tour this summer. It was great to see such an intact example and recall just how revolutionary Wright was in 1900.

From there we toured to a local park for a picnic and even a delightful pontoon boat ride on Kankakee river. All in all a delightful time with friends both two legged and finned. Photo link is here. Thanks to Ron, Mario, Priscilla and the LCC Lake Michigan guys for a great day. As my summer tour draws to a close, I must admit that the people of the midwest have been terrific. I'm really going to miss them.