Friday, December 6, 2013

And Then There's Mauve

Yes, it's a pun, and it's a color. More of a scale than a color. Somewhere from purplish rose to greyed grape, the universal element being a shade of purple. Sometime the word itself is included in the color name, like the "Mauve Metallic" 1966 Charger above, other times the color is given an ethereal and evocative name- as in Chevrolet's 1965 "Evening Orchid." The best name of all was probably Cadillac's "Persian Sand" of 1959.

Of course we're talking about Mauve, the purplish pinkish pastel that wormed its way into our hearts, minds, and cars beginning in the late 50s, and for ten or so stylish years appeared on our showroom floors. More sophisticated than red, cooler than blue, and always in the best of taste, we lift our hats to the many shades of  Mauve: 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Volkswagen GTI - The Hot Hatch Turns 30

I don’t buy modern cars these days, because between press cars and the small flock of Mercedes diesels that tend to follow me home, there's just no need. But it’s pretty inevitable at a party, someone will ask me “What car would you buy today” or “What was the first new car that you bought?” And the answer’s pretty much the same - the Volkswagen GTI.

I was a recent college graduate in a terrible job market when the first US Market GTI made its appearance for the 1983 model year. Made in Westmoreland PA, it had several key changes from the Euro version and had to overcome the “Americanized” image that was diluting the Rabbit’s market appeal. To say that it did was an understatement. I was enchanted with that snarky, sassy little hot hatch and had to have it. Finally one showed up at the local VW Dealer- it was black with a sunroof and was built on the fourth day of production. I was toast. It was the first new car I bought for myself. And I recall it more fondly than any car I’ve ever owned.

I was piling up tons of miles on it so I decided to trade it for a second-gen in the summer of 1985. Longer wheelbase, more sophisticated, understated Teutonic interior, and actually faster but didn’t seem it, and it had a revolutionary new option- power steering. I liked the second one a lot but didn’t adore it- and ultimately went to work for a Big Three company that frowned upon it.

I guess all the VWs I’ve driven in the last couple of years have been benchmarked against the GTIs in my memory, and I’ve made note of characteristics that remind me of the GTI, so with the little hot hatch turning 30, I asked for a 2013 to evaluate.

My test GTI was a German-assembled Tornado Red four door with sunroof, Nav, and DSG dry-clutch automatic, and from the first twist of the key, it made me smile as if 30-years-ago me were driving it. Of course, everything is different, and much more advanced, but it’s downright surprising how familiar it all feels.

Let’s start with the shape- yes, it’s more aerodynamic now and the LED-accented projector headlamps are pretty hard to ignore, but basically it’s the same red-accented box-on-a-box hatchback shape it’s been all along. It has more of the shape of the '85 than the '83, the wheels are bigger and the tires are meatier- they’re now 18s, but squint just slightly and it’s still a GTI.

That familiarity extends to the interior as well. The plaid fabric is homage to the original German GTI- both of mine had 80s strobe fabric- but the thickly bolstered seats are instantly familiar, as is the whole driving position- including the shift linkage and steering feel. It fit like a glove. It seemed perfectly appropriate to set the Sirius radio to 80s on 8 and leave it there all week.

It may be familiar, but of course it’s really all modern. The 2.0-liter TSI engine develops 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, more than twice that of the original. It can do 0-60 in about seven seconds, which is light years ahead of the original’s 10 seconds, and it features electric power steering and traction control and stability control and cross differential control all the other modern conveniences that we can’t do without, although we never used to know we even needed them.

The test car came equipped with VW’s DSG dual-clutch automatic, which was a point of controversy. I’ve always had manuals in my GTIs and would have preferred the six-speed stick, but the DSG was all that was available for my Oprah moment. And to me, it’s about as much fun as having Aunt Marybelle sitting next to me watching- it likes to keep revs under 3,000 and is always about two gears ahead of where I would like.

Thankfully, there are two solutions- the Sport mode holds the gears much longer but constantly wants to play chicken with your right foot. Basically, it won’t upshift unless you lift off the throttle, which is more distracting than just slapping it over into manual mode and shifting the damn thing yourself. I must admit that if I still lived in LA, I’d probably go DSG, but otherwise I’d save myself $1100 and just opt for the six-speed.

As a follow up, VW managed to send me a six-speed stick Jetta GLI for comparison it was exactly what I expected- short, precise shifts and a feeling of absolute control that the DSG never quite yields. Kudos to VW for the six-speed, it only confirmed my preference for the stick.

And once on the road, it drove like a GTI should- long revving (especially in Sport mode), quick handling, surefooted and absolutely glued to the road. The best attribute is everything- it’s just such a well-balanced and pleasurable machine. A special shout out to the brakes- which feature vented rotors in front and solid ones behind- but had a super responsive feel and brought the little screamer down quickly and with excellent feel.  

Thirty years ago, VW brought the hot-hatch to America with the GTI- a snarky performance car that you could strap two car seats into and enjoy your daily commute. The car has certainly changed over the years, but the mission hasn’t. And with the new generation due to arrive late next spring, I'm eager to find out if the GTI's personality remains intact. After three decades, I'm thinking that VW has it down.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Story of Ruth- A Very Special Buick Super

Ruth Helm and her new Super in Palm Springs, April 1954

A car can be more than just a car. Sometimes it's a time machine as well, like the story I'm going to share with you about a very special 1954 Buick. Not a Buick Special- but a special Buick indeed.

"The Beautiful Buy"

It was the spring of 1954 in the little farming town of Caney, Kansas, which was located in the Eastern third of the state just north of the Oklahoma border. Buick advertised itself in 1954 as "The Beautiful Buy" and the local grocer, Joe Elliott was much impressed with the new Buick line up. There were only Ford and Chevrolet agencies in town, so he decided to drive over to Coffeyville and have a look. He stopped by the market to get some cash from the safe and also to pick up his only grandson, Blaine Jenkins- to accompany him on the twenty mile trip. Blaine had just turned twenty and loved automobiles more than anything. He was studying architecture at the University of Kansas but had just applied to Art Center in Los Angeles and wanted to design cars. However, that day he and his Grandfather were focused on just one car- a new 1954 Buick.

They checked out all the cars in the showroom in Coffeyville and it turns out that they both were both taken by the same one- a new 1954 Super sedan in a color called Casino Beige with a green top. Mr. Elliott summoned the salesperson and signaled his intentions with a roll of bills. Soon he and Blaine were on the way back to Caney in the handsome new Super. To this day, Blaine recalls how thrilling the drive home was.

Motor Trend profiles the 1954 Buick

It turns out that Joe Elliott wasn't the only person enamored of the new '54 Buick. Halfway across the country,  in Hollywood, California- a lady named Ruth Helm was driving her 1948 Buick convertible past the Phil Hall Buick Showroom in on Sunset Boulevard, when a brand new Super convertible caught her eye. Coincidentally, this Super was also finished in the handsome Casino Beige, with a two tone green interior. She telephoned her husband Harvey at work that very afternoon to tell him she had seen a new Buick that she wished to buy.

George Burns and Gracie Allen

Ruth seldom telephoned Harvey at work. As the Head Writer of the George Burns and Gracie Allen Television Show, Harvey was pretty busy working on a new show every week. Besides, Ruth had her own income serving as the President of the Hollywood Democratic Club as well as being a Personal Assistant to actor Eddie Albert. But nonetheless she phoned Harvey- who like much of Hollywood was a Buick owner himself, and told him of the beautiful new car. He told her that it's her money, and by all means to buy it if she wanted it.

The new Super in the Desert- Palm Springs, April 1954

Ruth drove the car out of Phil Hall's Showroom on March 31, 1954. Almost immediately she and Harvey took it on a spring trip to Palm Springs, where they stayed with George Burns and Gracie Allen at their desert home. Of course they took pictures of the beautiful new Buick that she placed in her photo album. The album shows several other trips as well- La Jolla, Half Moon Bay, and what appears to be Lake Tahoe. The big Buick was an excellent road car, and the three of them traveled well together.

Harvey Helm and the Super in La Jolla, 1956

Harvey and the Super at Pigeon Point, Pescadero CA 1956

Now these stories might seen totally unrelated but fate has a way of making people intersect. Back in Kansas, young Blaine had been accepted into Art Center and was preparing for a move to Los Angeles. His Mother suggested that she look up her old College Roommate there, a lady she knew as Ruth Van Eaton- but Ruth was now Mrs. Harvey Helm. Blaine arrived in Los Angeles in the fall and did indeed look up the Helms. His first memory was seeing her nearly new 1954 Super convertible- in the same Casino Beige that his Grandfather had. Sitting beside it in the garage was Harvey's new 1955 powder blue Century convertible, suggested that they had indeed been pleased with Ruth's purchase.

Harvey, Ruth's niece and Blaine clean out the garage, 1955.

The childless couple took Blaine under their wing and became his honorary extended family.  Both of Blaine's parents had been only children, so he came to regard the Helms as the Aunt and Uncle he never had. He recalls chauffeuring Ruth in the '54 and riding with Harvey in the blue '55. He tended bar for their Hollywood parties and met any of the celebrities of the day, and they all watched the Burns and Allen Show together on Tuesday nights. He had one special memory of accompanying Harvey to the VIP opening of Disneyland in 1956- it seems that being the Head Writer for Burns and Allen had its perks.

Blaine and Harvey head to Disneyland, July 17, 1955

But his time in Los Angeles was growing short. Graduation from Art Center neared and Blaine was offered a job at General Motors at the brand new Technical Center in Warren. He bade the Helms and their pair of convertibles farewell and drove East to start his career. And quite a career it was- becoming first a designer and later a Studio Chief, working on many, many Chevrolet and later Oldsmobile products including the Mako Shark and nearly every Corvair. Creating the first Monza, the first Caprice, and the first Ninety Eight Regency were just a few among his many accomplishments.

Ruth's Lubricare card from Phil Hall Buick

From time to time, travel would take Blaine to Los Angeles and he would look up the Helms. He kept in contact with Ruth even after Harvey passed away in 1965. Ruth got herself a new Buick in 1968, but being unimpressed with the trade allowance she simply kept the old '54, and the two cars sat side by side in her garage. Her health declined and they eventually stopped corresponding.

And then, in the Autumn of 1976, Blaine Jenkins got a letter from Los Angeles. It was from the Helms' family attorney, advising Blaine that Ruth Helm had passed away in late summer- and that he had been left the Buick in her will. The purpose of the letter was to politely ask if he indeed wanted the car, which at that point had sat unused inside the garage for several years and was valued by the Estate Appraiser at a mere two hundred dollars. Blaine didn't hesitate for a second and advised the attorney that he did indeed wish to have it. It took a few months for everything to be settled, but by the spring of 1977 a dusty old Buick was on a truck to Detroit.

"Ruth" arrives in Detroit, 1977

The Buick, which Blaine called Ruth after his friend- arrived looking a bit neglected. The original paint was thin and the top was worn. Careless movers had dented the bumper and broke the grille. The interior had some seams coming apart and the carpet was worn through. But all in all, it was a straight, solid, and rust free example of a 1954 Super convertible with just over 80,000 original miles- and one of only 3,343 produced. He got it running and drove it for a few seasons, before taking it down for a proper restoration.

The Super in Unrestored condition, 1980

The car was largely disassembled and stripped down, Except for a past repair to the passenger door, it was in remarkably good condition. It was refinished in the original Casino Beige and the bright work was polished and replated as needed. The top frame was restored and a new top and well were sewn. The engine and transmission came out and both were rebuilt and detailed. But the green interior was largely reused. The seats were resewn and the door panels simply cleaned. New carpeting and rubber was installed, and the dash and garnish moldings repainted. The only change from original was the addition of a set of chrome plated wire wheels, which were a correct factory option for the car.

Under restoration in 1986

Going back together, late 1986

Resplendent Ruth upon completion, 1987

Blaine is long retired from General Motors, and lives in Palm Springs with his partner of 38 years, Philip. He's owned a number of classic cars over the years but there's one in his garage that he will never part with. After all, he's had it for thirty seven years- almost twice as long as the original owner did. Even more remarkably, the Super hasn't been in the stream of commerce since Ruth Helm handed over a check almost 59 years ago to the day. The Buick shines as brightly as it did when the restoration was completed almost 25 years ago.

Blaine is recovering from surgery these days and doesn't drive himself, so I make it a point to drop by and take him for a ride in the Buick he has known for almost six decades. The Buick rolls along on glistening wire wheels, incapable of processing the passage of time. I glance over at him when we drive, and I'm not sure if it's Joe Elliott or Ruth Helm that he's visualizing riding along with us.

Blaine, Philip and "Ruth" March, 2013

As I said, a car can be more than just a car. Sometimes it's a time machine as well.

Special Thanks to Casey Shain of the Art and Colour Blog for photo restoration. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Quick Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Volt- EV Hold Everything

The year is winding down and suddenly there’s a flurry of last minute cars filling my driveway. One that’s always welcome to drop by is the Chevy Volt- one of my favorite cars, and in my opinion nothing less than the reinvention of the automobile. Although I covered it pretty thoroughly last year, there have been a couple improvements so I was eager to have another shot behind the wheel.

Last year I specifically challenged myself to use the Volt for a week as an everyday car without using any gasoline. It wanted to see what everyday driving would be like, and while I did put some thought into my daily travel- I organized my trips to eliminate duplicity, I didn’t do anything that wasn’t good common sense.

This year the Volt is different, and so was my plan. For 2013, The Volt is equipped with a new driving mode called EV Hold. The European-market Opel Ampera had it last year, and now we get it as well. EV Hold will bring up the engine and hold the battery in its current state of charge.

When its it useful? Highway trips. The Volt is most efficient as an electric car at speeds below 50 mph, speeds that would get you run over on a freeway. EV Hold allows you to drive between cities as a gas car (I averaged just over 40 mpg in my test) and switch back to electric upon arrival- thus using the Volt most efficiently.

I set the Volt into EV Hold mode and pointed the nose for Los Angeles. It worked like a charm. The Volt was smooth and quiet in EV Hold mode with its 1.4-liter generator whirring away, I averaged 39.5 heading into LA and 41.4 coming back. And once I got off the highway, I switched back into electric mode and drove around Burbank with a full 38 miles of range, and then switched back to gas and drove home.

So a car that I very much liked before works even better thanks to a simple enhancement. EV hold makes the Volt work even better by giving the driver the choice of when to use battery power and when to bring up the generator. It’s made a great car even better.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quick Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI- The Undiesel

I like the Beetle, and find it much better looking and better trimmed than its “New Beetle” predecessor. And by now, it seems like I’d driven just about every variant of the Volkswagen Beetle except I hadn’t yet been behind the wheel of the TDI, so when the offer was made I eagerly accepted.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. I’ve had countless diesels over the years ranging from Mercedes 123s to Oldsmobiles, so I’m pretty used to the diesel animal. I’ve gotten a tan from the WAIT light over the years and have fine-tuned my ear to the chortle. But what they sent me was totally alien. Yes, it was the 2.0 TDI, with 140 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft of torque. And it said diesel on the price label. But outside of some pretty impressive low end torque, it sure didn’t act like a diesel.

In fact, I called it the Un-Diesel. It didn’t clatter, it didn’t chortle, there was no familiar diesel smell at all, it didn’t even have a wait light- in fact, the only starting procedure was to turn the key. Mated to VW’s DSG dry-clutch automatic, it performed like a reasonably powerful gasoline engine. The only time I was even aware that it was a diesel was on the freeway (the 42.6 mpg caught my eye) or at the gas pump where the DIESEL FUEL REQUIRED sticker reminded me that it was, in fact, a diesel.

There's one other place where I noticed that it was a diesel- on the window sticker. You'll pay a hefty premium for the TDI- it's priced $4,200 above a base Beetle, and that makes me do some thinking. Yes, it’s rated at 28/41 mpg (with the DSG automatic) - but that's a big wallop for an economy car, and with the cost difference only a serious freeway flyer is going to make this thing pencil. For the same price, I’d take the R-line with its 2.0 Turbo.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Edsel- Remembering Ford's Murder Victim

Labor Day 1957- The Russians announced that their Intercontinental Ballistic R-7 Missile could reach the west. The report of a successful test flight was announced on August 26 and dominated the news headlines of the week, until September 4th when the Americans announced their own bomb. It was called "the Edsel." and it the day chosen for its introduction was designated as "E-Day."

The Edsel, a medium priced car offered in four series, was positioned between the Ford and the Mercury on the Ford ladder. Its lower priced series were based on Ford, the upper series based on Mercury. It was the most researched car in Ford's history. And it was a thundering flop that lived only three model years.

Many post mortems have been performed on the ill fated Edsel and blame has been assessed: the controversial styling, the inexperienced dealer body, production snafus and the deep postwar recession. All are certainly factors, and had a role in the ultimate failure of the marque. But there's even more to the story.

The Edsel arose out of a concept known as the Breech Plan. It was conceived by Ford executive Ernest Breech, who was one of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids" who were brought in to save the company after the death of its founder in 1946. Breech had a reputation of being a trouble shooter and strategist, and he felt that Ford was missing too many segments of the market uncovered. He was a close friend of Henry II and it was not a surprise when Breech was named Chairman of the Board in 1955.

The Breech plan called for an alignment along the lines of General Motors- the Low priced Ford, a low-mid priced offering, the Mercury (migrating somewhat upmarket), the Lincoln, and a Super Lincoln. The board approved the plan in 1955, and of course the new low-mid priced offering ultimately became the star crossed Edsel.

Robert S. Macnamara was another of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids", who were brought in to save the company after the death of Henry. Macnamara was a Harvard MBA accountant whose expertise in cost management brought him huge accolades and reinforced his power within the ranks. And he strongly opposed the Breech Plan and the Edsel. Macnamara felt that the Ford Motor Company should concentrate on maximizing volume on the Ford nameplate (upon whose sales he just happened to be paid) and opposed the Edsel whose success he saw as distracting from his livelihood.

He was powerful enemy who made his displeasure known to all within earshot, both inside and outside of the company. Fairfax Cone, president of the Edsel's Advertising Agency wrote in his memoir that while in detroit for the Edsel's launch, he asked Macnamara what he thought of the yet-to-be-introduced new car. He wrote that he was shocked that Macnamara's response was "I have plans for phasing it out."

One cannot downplay the importance of such a powerful opponent. In the early fall of 1957, when Edsel was hoping for a strong launch, Macnamara offered strong dealer cash incentives of up to $750 on Ford cars, making the Edsel effectively $1000 more than a Ford. He succeeded in getting the Mercury, Edsel and Lincoln divisions merged and from there steered the downfall of the brand- first with consolidating Edsel products onto the Ford chassis only for 1959, and then reducing the make to a very slightly differentiated Ford for 1960.

Of course there were many factors going on in the market place in the late 1950's. The economy was in a deep recession. The controversial styling was a factor, but a similar look had given Studebaker record sales a few years back. Production quality was spotty. Dealer discounts on Fords made Edsel intenders into Ford drivers. And once the first comedian referred to the car as an "Olds sucking a lemon", the carefully crafted image began to shake.

First year Edsel sales of 61,000 were well below expectations, yet nonetheless represented the second best new nameplate introduction up to that time. But Macnamara was harping daily on what a disaster it was and now it needed to be dropped, and support within the company for the Edsel eroded daily. Edsel found its budgets slashed, its staffs reduced, and its options severely limited.

On November 14, 1959, Edsel became Ford's first murder victim.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cadillac Elmiraj World Premiere at Monterey

The Cadillac Elmiraj concept coupe made its world debut in Carmel last night. Your humble servant was thrilled to be in attendance but was armed with nothing more than a cell phone camera. But take a look at the surfaces and angles that make up Miraj- it's absolutely mesmerizing in person. (All photos property of Jeff Stork.)