Monday, May 27, 2013

Buick Town Monday- Setting The Pace at Indianapolis

This week, Buick Town Monday happens to correspond with Memorial Day weekend, so let's take a moment and remember some of Buick's role in this iconic American Experience. Buick was one of the first manufacturers to take part in racing at the Indy track, and won several events in 1909, two years before the first Indianapolis 500 of 1911. Many, many Buicks were also raced at Indianapolis including factory sponsored racing engines as recently as the 1980's.

But Buick has also served as the Official Pace Car at Indianapolis on no fewer than six different occasions, and created some very special cars to suit the role.

The first Buick Pace Car was a 1939 Roadmaster Series 80 Convertible Sedan. It used Buick's most powerful 320 cubic inch OHV straight eight engine in a slightly smaller chassis for high speed performance. Although nearly stock in appearance, The Roadmaster had no trouble maintaining the high speeds required of a Pace Car.

The next time Buick was selected as Pace Car was 1959. This was a great opportunity to showcase the all new 1959 Buick with its swept back fins. A white Electra 225 convertible with red bucket seats was specially prepared for the event. Following the race, the car itself was presented to race winner Rodger Ward.

The 1975 Buick Pace Car wrapped itself in the red, white and blue. A loaded Century Colonnade Coupe with 455 V8, bucket seats, and T-Tops was chosen and finished off with a patriotic red, white and blue flag-derived paint scheme which was very much in keeping with the Bicentennial mania that was sweeping the country. In addition, white Le Sabre convertibles were supplied for race executives and a fleet of replica Century coupes, with the same cosmetic treatment, were offered through Buick dealers.

Buick was the Pace Car again in 1976, but this time the technology was all new. The 1976 Century Pace Car featured the first Turbocharged V6 engine which was specially developed for this high speed application. This concept would lead to turbocharged V6 engines in the 1978 model year, and ultimately to the legendary Buick Grand National. It was finished in an aggressive color scheme of silver, red, and black, and again replicas were offered through Buick dealers, but they had conventional 350 V8 engines.

The Buick Regal was chosen as the 1981 Indianapolis Pace Car, again showing off Buick's V6 power. This time, a highly modified 4.1 litre V6, conventionally asperated, developed 281 horsepower and helped further establish the performance reputation of the Buick V6. The actual pace car had a Targa-style roof with an integral roll bar, and was finished in a unique color scheme of silver and dark maroon with bright red and orange trim.

Buick's most recent trip to Indianapolis was in 1983. That year a special Riviera Convertible was chosen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Buick's personal luxury car. A special color scheme of two shades of tan, a leather and suede interior, a fuel injected turbocharged V-6 engine and even genuine wire wheels set the car off. A replica coupe called the Riviera XX was offered through Buick dealers, although only 500 were ever made.

So when you sit back and enjoy the 102nd anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, remember that Buick has been a important part of the Indianapolis story sine the very first days, and that Indianapolis has played a big part in the development of some very important Buicks.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Behind The Wheel: 2013 Buick Encore AWD- Compact Crossover with the Soul of a Buick

When I first saw the new Buick Encore, it seemed to me to be the answer to a question that nobody had yet asked- Is there really a place in the market for a compact Buick crossover?  Based on the GM Gamma II platform also shared with the Chevy Sonic, the little bubble of a Buick is an adaptation of the Opel Mokka, and a version is about to go on sale as the Chevrolet Trax in markets outside North America. I must admit that first impressions made me wonder if GM's little Korean crossover was little more than an exercise in badge engineering.

But I agreed to give it a closer look, and to my surprise, I liked it- a lot. My test car was a top of the line Encore AWD with the Premium Group ($30,440). It was literally stuffed with features including voice activated Intellilink, Bluetooth. Bose audio, satellite radio, heated seats, leather trim, six way power seats with power lumbar and manual recliners, noise cancelling insulation, 60/40 split rear seat, full instrumentation (with ice blue ambient lighting), dual zone climate control, 10 air bags and even a heated leather wrapped steering wheel. It was, in other words, a Buick.  Added to the base were chrome wheels ($995) and navigation ($795) plus metallic paint ($195) for a total of $32,425. That's a lot of coin for a little car, but it's a LOT of little car. It is, in fact- a Buick. A small one, but a Buick in content and character.

The exterior styling is handsome, with a signature waterfall grille flanked by blue accented Halogen projector headlamps and even portholes on the hood. There’s a flourish on the rear fender line that’s reminiscent of the coke-bottle shape of Buicks in the sixties. The overall look is clean, purposeful and premium. It really looks like a Buick.


And it’s a Buick on the inside as well. Behind the wheel the first thing one notices is comfort- the driver's compartment is very roomy and the seats are luxurious. They're more like captain's chairs than buckets, trimmed in an attractive two tone leather, with an armrest on the driver's seat that reinforces the notion. The cabin is well appointed with dark grey toned woodgrain with handsome stitched accents and ice blue theatrical lighting touches. It sets a high tone.

Unlike many other small crossovers and SUVs that crowd the front seat to make room in the second and third rows, this one puts the comfort in the front seat and makes the rear seats more occasional in nature. They’re a bit tight, and the rear compartment is on the smaller side, but the split folding rear seat helps. It’s not the right choice for the Gayby Brady Bunch, but excellent for couples and empty nesters and perfect for weekend trips.

The powertrain is the Ecotec 1.4 liter Turbo, mated to a six speed automatic and offered with available AWD. Turn the key and it chirps happily to life and sings softly. It's smooth as silk, and while no racehorse, it makes for a sprightly little combination with the turbo nicely filling in the expected flat spots. The active noise cancellation is very impressive- the cabin is eerily quiet, the ride was on par with a much longer wheelbase car, and it was quite stable in the Exotic Tradewinds of Palm Springs as well. It’s EPA rated at 23 City/ 30 Highway and while I only had few short highway trips, my city mileage was in line with the estimate. It’s worth noting that the FWD version does a bit better with estimates of 25 and 33.

By the time the week was up, I realized that I was going to miss the Encore. Far from what I expected, it’s a compact crossover that pampers the driver. The combination of interior luxury and technology, roomy driver’s compartment and compact exterior size makes sense for a lot of people, myself included. My mind harkens back to the 80s when the Buick advertised their Skylark Limited as the “Little Limousine.” Is the Encore the 21st Century equivalent? I won’t quite go there, but it’s certainly the compact crossover with the soul of a Buick.

2013 Buick Encore AWD
Five-passenger, AWD Utility
Powertrain: 138 hp 1.4-liter Ecotec Turbo I4, six-speed automatic transmission
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels: 18”/18” alloy f/r
Brakes: disc/disc fr/rr with ABS
Must-have features: Interior room, comfort
Fuel economy (est.): 23/30 mpg city/hwy
Assembly: Bupyeong, Korea
Base price: $26,450

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Eleven Buicks for Eleven Decades

With the 110th Anniversary of the incorporation of Buick Motor Division speeding toward us like an Intercooled Grand National, the time seemed right to look back on their long and illustrious history and see some milestones- I've chosen eleven significant Buicks out of eleven decades.

First is the car that made the company- the sturdy, moderately priced Model 10 runabout of 1908-1910. Introduced at a base price of $900 and offered as roadster or touring, the Model 10 was an instant hit and lifted Buick up to a solid #2 in the industry for sales. It cannot be argued that the sporty Model 10 put Buick on the map as a volume producer of automobiles.

The Master Six was introduced in 1925. That year, Buick eliminated four cylinder models and concentrated on two different six cylinder offerings. The Master Six, seen above with comedian Harold Lloyd and wife Mildred Davis, established Buick as a leader in upper middle class transportation, a place where it remains to this day.  

The Depression hit Buick and other premium manufacturers hard, but the boys from Flint bounced back. They introduced the Series 40 in 1934, renamed it Special for 1935 and gave it (and the whole line) modern new styling for 1936. The '36 Century (shown above) was capable of 100 mph. They backed up their new look with a new Ad Agency, Kudner Advertising, that knew how to sell. The Glory Days of Buick began in 1936.

The modern production Hardtop was born in 1949 with the introduction of the Roadmaster Riviera Hardtop Coupe. Although only 4.343 were sold for 1949, the style was an instant hit (as was all new styling on the Super and Roadmaster models) and Buick went on to produce a one million hardtops by 1955.

Buick had a banner year in 1954. They introduced their high compression engine for 1953 in the Super and Roadmaster lines, and brought it across the board in 1954. Handsome new styling, panoramic windshields, the V-8 engine and the reintroduction of the sporty Century added up to a home run, and Buick passed Plymouth to take third place in sales. Then they followed it up with a record setting year in 1955 as well. 

The 1959 Buick was totally new from stem to stern, and represented the most radical styling they had ever attempted. Giant delta wing fins, floating rooflines with massive areas of glass, and diagonal headlamps gave the '59 Buick a look unlike any other car on the road. Three new series were introduced for 1959- Le Sabre. Electra and Invicta. It was a courageous car that was almost too daring for the motoring public, and was not a market success, but is considered a styling tour de force and highly prized today.

The compact 1961 Special saved the company from extinction, nothing less. Buick had suffered badly in the postwar recession and Buick leaders were charged with the task of either pulling it out of the slump or shutting it down. The smart little Special did exactly what it was asked to do, selling just shy of 200,000 copies in its first year. 

 Once Buick's survival was assured, it was time to do something dramatic. A modern classic on the day it was introduced, the iconic Riviera of 1963 was not only Buick's entry into the Personal Luxury segment, but also an image defining statement for all Buick models. It was a home run all around and is considered a modern masterpiece.

Performance cars were the rage in the late 60s and early 70s, and the mighty 1970 Buick GSX is among the very fastest production cars of all time. Available with two different 455 engines, the optional Stage 1 produced 360 hp and a whopping 510 lb/ft of torque. It's known in performance car circles as the "Hemi Killer."

The 1975 Sky Hawk is the smallest Buick of a generation, and one heck of a contrast to the mighty GSX. It's significant as a reminder of the rapid change in the early 70's- from "What'll she do?" to "What'll she get?" and represents the reintroduction of the Buick V-6 engine back into the line up, a move that would pay significant benefits in the years to come.

Performance made a comeback in the 80s, and Buick was right there. The legendary performance car of the decade was the V6 powered Buick Grand National, and the special limited edition GNX which was billed as  "The Grand National to End All Grand Nationals. Only 547 of these monsters were produced, and featured independent rear suspension, a special high output version of Buick's 3.8 liter V6 engine with a ceramic turbocharger, and a list price of $29,290. They've just crossed the $100,000 threshold on the Classic Car Auction Circuit and continue to inspire people today. 

In fact, strong rumors are circulating about the return of the Grand National and the GNX as rear wheel drive performance sedans for 2015. If that proves true, perhaps Buick's best days are still ahead of them. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pizza to Go

Life with my Mother, Miss Patsy, was never ordinary. She had a genuine enthusiasm for life, and a unique flair that expressed itself in every living day. She believed in having fun, and in making a statement.

Even a mundane task such as being dropped off at school would reflect her art of living. Imagine an elementary school in the late 1960's. A line of avocado green and harvest gold station wagons with wood grain siding are lined up to discharge America's youth for a day of learning.

Alongside pulls a midnight blue Camaro SS convertible with a red leatherette interior and white bumblebee stripes. The top is down. The non-matronly driver is Miss Patsy. She is wearing hip-huggers, a white leather belt, and a knit tank top blouse. She has a Winston in one hand and her beehive hairdo is lacquered to the point of hurricane preparedness. She has more than a passing resemblance to Cousin Serena. And so begins another day of school.

Fast forward to the mid-seventies. The Camaro has been replaced by a little five-speed Porsche with a removable top. It's a spring day and we are headed into town to pick up a pizza. She's having fun putting the little car though its paces- the strong clutch and racing style gearbox. She's not being reckless, but is holding the gears and driving spiritedly- like putting a thoroughbred horse through its paces.

About a mile from the pizza joint, we spy a police helicopter overhead. "They're not interested in us" she says. We gaze overhead and they do indeed seem to be following us. "Here's where we lose them" she says as she downshifts to second and executes a power turn into the parking lot.

The helicopter lands.

Miss Patsy looks a bit white faced at this point. I turn to her and ask, "Can I have the money now?" I begin to wonder if I'll be baking her a cake with a file in it. Now that I think of it, she does look good in stripes.

One of the Officers approaches. "Nice car" he says with a wink, then turns and walks to the door.

They had ordered a pizza too.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Ghastly

Robert Redford as Gatsby with a Rolls-Royce, 1974

Yet another remake of "The Great Gatsby," the timeless Twenties novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about star-crossed romance, longing, and bootlegging, opened this week to decidedly mixed reviews. This time, the film is an over the top vulgarpocalypse, by director Baz Luhrmann who is either ignorant of history, unable to read the book upon which his film is based, or just guilty of directorial malpractice.

The yellow Rolls-Royce Phantom I from the 1974 film

Let me give you a revelation- the Twenties were not the Thirties. The Twenties were a whoopee decade, with a soaring stock market, endless prosperity, and paradoxically, prohibition. The Thirties were the hangover that followed the drunken excesses of the decade that preceded it. Depression, joblessness, poverty for millions of people. Gatsby is set in the Twenties. The story falls apart in the Thirties.

1933 Auburn Speedster and Duesenberg replica in the 2013 film (Warner Bros)

Automobiles play a very important role in Gatsby. Fitzgerald specified a yellow Rolls-Royce Tourer for Gastby, and a roadster for Jordan Baker. So how did Baz come up with a Duesenberg Model J for Gastby? They even weren't introduced until the 1929 model year and were made through 1937. And who thought they could put Jordan Baker in a 1933 Auburn Speedster? This isn't rocket science, guys. There weren't Duesenberg Model Js and Auburn Speedsters in 1922. So are you telling a 1922 story with cars that won't be made for seven to ten years, or have you moved the story to the Thirties and hoped we wouldn't notice?

The Duesenberg replica in the 2013 film (Warner Bros)
Time impossibility aside, there's still another major problem with this- Gatsby would NEVER have chosen a Duesenberg J, even if it existed- it had the wrong image. The Mighty J was indeed a powerful and impressive car, but it was far too flashy and vulgar for Gatsby. Gatsby WAS nouveau riche, and desperately wanted to be a blue blood.

Chrome plated exhaust pipes snaking out of the hood were simply not the path to old money. The Rolls-Royce was the blue blood choice- very expensive, but more understated and more accepted in high society. For Gatsby, The Rolls-Royce was the only choice. Fitzgerald didn't just pluck the name out of a hat- he knew what he was doing.

A pair of Duesenberg convertibles from the 1949 version

It's not the first time that this mistake has been made. The 1949 Elliott Nugent version starred Alan Ladd and a pair of Duesenberg Rollston SJ convertible coupes- but this inaccuracy was corrected in the 1974 Robert Redford film directed by Jack Clayton. The 1974 version starred a Rolls-Royce Phantom I that, while slightly newer than the story, was of the correct era and most closely fitted Fitzgerald's vision of any of the film versions So Baz unlearned what had been learned and somehow this is progress.

And then there's the snicker when I noticed that the Duesenberg in question was a knockoff. Call it a replica, call it a tribute, I call it a fake. It's a pile of fiberglass on a Ford F-150 truck frame, and oddly that's slightly comforting to me. I admit that I'm critical of cars in period films, but it seems like someone other than just myself should have asked what the hell they were doing. Call me a car snob, you can't remake "The Love Bug" with a Prius or "Smokey and the Bandit" with a Camry. I don't know what movie Baz made with his plastic faux Duesenberg, but it wasn't "The Great Gatsby." "The Great Ghastly" is more like it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

One Year Later- Palm Springs Automobilist Facebook Page Has First Anniversary

 Quite a little milestone for us as the Palm Springs Automobilist Facebook Page went live one year ago today. In that year, we've had over 5,700 fans join our merry band, shared over 3,300 cool photos, and grown to the point where our posts reach over 100,000 people weekly.

To commemorate, we're sharing our first live photo above- it's the special gold painted 1956 Eldorado Biarritz from "The Solid Gold Cadillac" starring Judy Holliday. It got us rolling on May 6, 2012, and we've been far too busy to look back.

This 1959 Chevrolet advertisement was our first cover photo. It's an awesome photo that shows the amazing depth of Chevy's product line for '59. Except for the Corvette- all of the entries are based on the all new '59 Full Sized Chevrolet, even the brand new El Camino, and who doesn't love the bat winged Chevrolet madly? Our folks sure seem to.

And here's our top photo of the year. Of the 3,300 plus photos last year, this lovely portrait of Annette Funicello with her candy custom painted '57 Thunderbird was our most liked and shared. A great tribute to a lovely lady.

We've got the rest of the top 10 photos of the year and lots more over on the Palm Springs Automobilist Facebook Page. We hope that you enkoyed the year as much as we did and look forward to more!