Featured Post

Saturday, August 29, 2015

What Defines a Production Car, and Why Would Anybody Pay $3 Million For One?

At Mecum's Monterey auction two weekends ago, someone bought a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible for $2,250,000.  At last year's Monterey auction, a similar car from 1971 brought a jaw-dropping $3.5 million.  The Plymouth Barracuda was a production car by any reasonable definition; production in 1970 missed 55,500 by one car; 2,785 of those were convertibles.  Only 14 convertibles, though, were ordered with the tire-shredding 426 Hemi engine (named for its hemispherical combustion chambers), because it added about 35% to the cost of the car.  So scarcity, along with a reputation for blazing speed (at least in a straight line) mean that today a car which was a hard sell when new is avidly sought by collectors who dream of finding one in a barn somewhere.  Their odds of being hit by lightning are probably better…Chrysler wasn't the only outfit offering expensive performance options in this era; Ford offered the Shelby Mustangs and Chevy actually offered an aluminum racing engine, the 7 liter ZL-1, in the Camaro.  It had the distinction of being more expensive than the car, adding roughly $4,200 to the Camaro's $2.800 tag, so it took around $7k to drive this Chevy off the showroom floor.  Amazingly, some people did this, and GM built 69 ZL-1 Camaros for 1969.  One of my high school classmates bought one (I'm sure he's wondering where it is now).  All right then, production cars are made in the thousands from standardized parts, but some can be tailored with exotic options.  Does that make them works of art?  Well, at your local high-zoot hotel, let's say the dessert menu offers an ice cream sundae with a Courvoisier topping option to go with the usual standard components (plain vanilla ice cream, nuts, cherries, whipped cream).  The option costs twice as much as the basic sundae. If you check that cognac box, are you getting the equivalent of something tailored by a three-star Michelin chef?  Well, no.  What you are getting is an unforgettably powerful ice cream sundae...
So now, having defined "production car" in my usual shambling manner, we move on to the more arcane task of defining real works of art, those dessert offerings which are somehow more than just plain vanilla ice cream with something special on top.  Here are the Dodge Fire Arrows III and IV. The photo shows 50% of the total stock of Fire Arrows built by Ghia for Chrysler in 1953-'54.
The Fire Arrows were part of a series of show cars created by Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner and Italian coach builder Ghia's Luigi Segre to perk up Chrysler's stodgy image.  The hemi V8 engine was also part of that effort, and the smaller but related Red Ram is under the tapered hood.  There were 2 roadsters (weather protection zero to minimal), one coupe (Fire Arrow III, background) and the convertible IV in the foreground (wind-up windows, radio, folding top).  Both the roadsters were different in detail, so all four Fire Arrows are pretty special.  Fire Arrow III, in perfect condition, was sold at auction in 2011 for $852,500.  Some people thought that was a crazy price.  Take another look at the stock Barracuda convertible in the color shot above it, repeat the phrase "2 to 3 million dollars", and then tell me if you think so.  Here's how Fire Arrow III looks now, just in case you can't decide which you'd rather have.
The Fire Arrow story, like most stories, runs parallel with its era.  Postwar optimism pacing an economic boom, allied with technical progress (and cheap gas) that led to new V8s at GM, Chrysler, Ford and even little Studebaker, coincided with the demise of some European carriage trade marques like Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage,  and Talbot.  This in turn left coach builders who'd been supplying bodies to those old firms searching for more modern chassis with cheaper power, and led to experiments with American power in European chassis.  In Italy, Siata tried Chrysler, Ford and even the 4 cylinder Crosley.  In France, Facel used a Ford V8 in its Comete and then graduated to the Chrysler hemi for its Facel Vega.  The Ghia Chryslers hit the show circuit right before that Facel Vega, and showed that you might save time (and francs or lira) by adopting an entire American chassis, not just the engine.  Maybe you could undercut Ferrrari and Aston Martin by adapting something reasonably simple, strong and powerful; possibly a Dodge convertible...
This Dual-Ghia resulted from that thinking, and it happened when Chrysler, in a close (and probably wrong) call, decided not to put the Fire Arrow into production.  By 1955, frustrated Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth dealers watched as Ford sold over sixteen thousand new Thunderbirds.  Paul Farrago, Ghia's ambassador to Motown, and Eugene Casaroll of Dual Motors (military vehicles and car transporters) decided to develop the Fire Arrow into their idea of a production car.  Their first pass, the Firebomb (this was way before the War on Terror) added real bumpers.  On their second try they added embryonic fins, interior space and headroom, and wisely ditched the Firebomb moniker.  This is the car you see above.  Their goal was to build 150 cars a year to test the market, possibly based on the example of Aston Martin, then building that number of cars, as well as Ferrari and Maserati, both introducing their first production GTs in 1957.  The price was set at $7,750…about a thousand dollars more than Imperial's posh convertible, but a couple thousand dollars less than Lincoln's Continental Mk. II.  Lacking a budget for advertising, they released the first cars in a slow trickle to Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Dean Martin.  At the time, a gossip columnist commented that stars unable to get on the waiting list for a Ghia "would just have to settle for a Rolls-Royce."  But Ghia's small workshops weren't suited to anything like series production (one reason VW had offloaded production of Ghia's VW prototype to Karmann, resulting in the Karmann-Ghia), and the intensive hand labor and expense of sending each chassis on an Italian vacation meant that Dual Motors lost money on every car.  Total production for 1957 and '58 was only 117 cars, which makes the D-G not quite a production car.  Customers, though, were generally happy, and a high percentage of the cars survived because of the easy maintenance and parts supply for the Dodge chassis and running gear.  Ronald Reagan eventually lost his Ghia in a poker game to President Lyndon Johnson, which might have made a good headline if anybody had leaked it, and proved that, while these guys couldn't agree on the need for a big, powerful Federal government, they agreed that big, powerful cars were still in the cards.  Happy clients encouraged Dual Motors and Ghia to try again, this time with the glassy and elegant Ghia L6.4, from 1961 to '63.  By this time, production and transport costs resulted in an eye-watering $13,500 price tag, which was in Maserati territory.  Dual Motors drifted away from the project while Farrago and Ghia soldiered on, selling only 26 cars, mostly to repeat Hollywood Rat Pack clients and affluent swingers.  The classic car market has been slow to catch up with these cars, but finally has embraced them. The red convertible recently brought $412,000 at auction, and the black L6.4 coupe below rolled off the stage for $297,000.  Paul Farrago and Eugene Casaroll might be happy to know that their brainchild is finally earning money.
Photo credits:  Top: Mecum Auction Company (catalog).  
2nd from top:  Chrysler Corporation.
3rd from top: RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog)  
4th from top:  Russo and Steele Auctions (catalog).  
Bottom:  RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog).

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The First Mustang: Ford's Forgotten Mustang I

Looking at today's blog title, you're likely wondering how anybody could forget the first Mustang. You drift into a pleasant reverie, possibly one built on taking your first love to a drive-in, or maybe racing against your neighbor's Corvair on a deserted farm road, strictly under the radar, except that this was before the local cops used radar...  Then you take a glance at the photo below.  Wait a minute here; this car blog guy has clearly been listening to some alien vinyl.  That's not my Mustang.  And indeed it's not.  It is, however, the original Ford Mustang, the one that level-headed engineers and wild-eyed road racing fans at Ford intended us to have.

Some fairly surprising developments were beginning to come to light at conservative old FoMoCo in the early 1960s.  Before departing for the Kennedy Administration, Robert McNamara approved a downsized, International Style Lincoln Continental which echoed the era's minimalist steel and glass architecture.  Ford of England started selling engine blocks to Lotus for their groundbreaking Elan sports car, and this later tied into a "Total Performance" marketing strategy involving nippy Lotus Ford Cortina sedans and Falcon V8s, to participation in international rallies, and by 1965 to Jimmy Clark winning the Indy 500 with a Ford-powered Lotus.  First though, Ford's top brass green-lighted the Cardinal for Ford of Germany, an innovative little front-driver with four cylinders arranged in a vee, an engine design seen only on Italy's avant garde Lancia up until then.  So the stage was already set, in a way, when GM's Chevrolet Division began to sell lots of sporty Corvair Monzas (rear engine, 4 speed floor shift, bucket seats) to Ford's target youth market.  Ford's engineers responded by wondering how they might adapt the Cardinal's front-drive engine and transaxle package to a sporty, mid-engined car.  While the mid-engine layout had just become dominant in Formula One racing cars, nobody had yet released a production car with it.  When Ford's designers delivered their sketches to the prototyping shop, they also included aluminum bodywork with seats as part of the structure, so that it was only the pedals and wheel which adjusted (a feature which took a decade to appear on Maserati's Bora), and side-mounted radiators (which would show up on race cars in the 70s and road going Ferraris in the 80s).  Topping it off were a structural rollover bar (like those on then-new Ferrari sports racers), disc brakes*, and "wobbly web" alloy wheels which look like Ford yanked them off one of Clark's Lotus racers.

When the prototypes were first shown in October 1962, they seemed to herald a stunning turnaround for a company which had only a couple years earlier given up on its misbegotten Edsel.  Car enthusiasts, especially those who wrote for magazines like Road & Track, went wild. Dan Gurney turned in some test lap times which were close to those of contemporary Formula One racers (which also happened to have engines limited to 1.5 liters, the size of the Mustang's V4).  Ford was serious enough about its little auto show star that it released a brochure to underline the point.  The car's fate, however, was not left in the hands of its engineers.  Marketing studies showed that the Mustang would appeal only to a narrow segment of the target youth market, mostly people who read magazines like Road & Track, attended races and rallies as spectators or even participants, and hung out with beatniks in coffee houses (hippies, like mid-engined production cars, were half a decade away).  So the bracingly unconventional prototypes were retired to Ford's orphan garage, while Lee Iacocca directed the engineers to cook up something based upon stock Falcon parts.  As you know, this turned out to be good for the bottom line.  Stateside, the guys (and gals) with the string back driving gloves would never even get the clever little Cardinal, and would wait 8 years for the built-down-to-price Pinto.  You know how that turned out as well.  Around a year after Mustang One went into forced retirement, though, Ford showed racing fans a prototype which, with its mid-engined layout, tapered snout and prominent air intakes, seemed to echo the spare, focused approach of the original Mustang.  It was called the GT40, but it's a completely different story…

*Front discs sourced from English Fords were featured, while the rear initially had drums (perhaps the only conservative engineering feature).  Tubular space frame and aluminum bodywork were built by Troutman and Barnes, and the operational prototype was produced in only 3 months, ready for laps at Watkins Glen.

Photo and drawing credits:  Ford Motor Company

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Review of the Monterey Auction Weekend, August 14-16, 2015

A Review of the Monterey Auction Weekend, August 14-16, 2015
(Used Car Culture vs. the International Art Market)

If any of you were disappointed to hear that this year's receipts at the much-anticipated Monterey classic car auctions were below those from 2014, you may be reassured to learn that this result was largely because the weekend's top earner, a $17+ million dollar Ferrari 250LM, was around $20 million cheaper than last year's trophy Ferrari.  As with last year, the preponderance of the take went to the top 10% of the cars on offer (a bit like the distribution of wealth in modern America).  Surveying the results at the High Art auction houses like RM Sotheby's, Gooding and Bonhams might convey the impression that all the great cars have been vacuumed up by hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley software moguls (many of them have) but there were some bargains to be had this year at Monterey, and at least one timeless classic went for the new-car equivalent of entry-level Lexus money.  Shifting our attention away from the purveyors of taste and tone is a bit like switching from The Fashion Channel to The Fishing Channel, but moving over to Mecum, for example, or Russo and Steele, will tell us what car enthusiasts without Swiss bank accounts might be able to find.

First of all, the bad news.  If you've finally awakened to the fact that pre-DeTomaso Maseratis and pre-Fiat Lancias were nicely engineered, tastefully styled underdogs in the world of arty used cars, your train has already left the station.  The Maserati Ghibli, which summed up the late 60s Jet Set esthetic as well as anything on wheels, is now priced at five to ten times what it brought five years ago, if the coupe which sold for over $300k is an indication.  And a Lancia Aurelia Spider, which Pininfarina seems to have designed for the Jet Set before there was one, went for over $1,900,000.  These prices reflect the expansion of the classic car market beyond the old LA to London circuit to include newly-minted zillionaires in Mumbai and Shanghai.  Will the bubble burst now that the Chinese economy has slowed and the stock market has deflated a bit?  There are signs that we are in a bubble, but it may take more than a decline in the stock market to burst it.  After the crash of 1987, values of antiques, art, and old cars actually went up.  Now, on to the good news, as embodied by a few Honest Used Cars…

Once you come down the spiral staircase from the penthouse suite occupied by the seven-figure vintage racers and eight-figure Figoni-bodied one-offs, the big story in the classic car boom is the ascendency of production cars (vehicles made in the thousands) to the price levels formerly occupied by genuinely rare cars.  For example, a nice (but not perfectly original) '57 Chevy Nomad (a jazzy 2 door wagon that first gave us Sport without any of that dreary Utility) went for over $50k, and an Austin Healey 100-6 (in lovely condition, but not the racier 100-4 or the posh 3000) brought nearly that.  Bathtub Porsche 356 cabriolets have ascended to $200k and beyond (remember, they made around 70,000 bathtub Porsches, most with VW-derived pushrod engines) and Series One E-type Jaguar roadsters now bring $200k to nearly $400k depending how perfect they are (and despite their undeniable beauty, "perfection" is not often a word immediately summoned by "Jaguar.")  By the way, if you look at the overall production of E-types, you find they nearly match the figure for bathtub Porsches.  So, as with the Porsche 356, we have a mechanical and industrial design artifact which is charming, but not all that rare.  (Full disclosure; I've owned the same '67 E-type coupe for 42 years, and it's been a good car, but I'd never consider displaying it in my living room.  Too many oil leaks, for one thing).

Scrolling through the sales, however, I found four cars which tell us something about the transitory border between cars as art and cars as used commodities.  We begin with a '67 E-type Jaguar two passenger coupe, tastefully restored in dark blue with gray interior.  E-type coupes have always trailed the open roadsters in price, but have caught up a bit in the current boom.  This car, a rare "Series 1-1/4" (still with 3 SU carbs, knock-off hubs and toggle switchgear as on the Series 1, but no glass covers over the headlights) failed to make Mecum's $100k to $125k estimate and sold for $80,000.  This may be because people always expect the covered lights on a '67, or the more usual BRG over black color scheme (I think blue over gray is perfect).  If the driving experience matches the appearance and the boom market continues, this car may look like a bargain by next summer.

Next to catch my eye at Mecum was a 1964 Imperial convertible, Elwood Engel's clever restyling of Virgil Exner's 1957 Imperial.  Starting with the old windshield / cowl assembly and ample frame, Engel transformed Exner's finned wonder into a riff on his own brilliant design for the 1961-63 Lincoln Continental convertible, but without that car's 4 doors or fiendishly complex top mechanism.  The Imperial already had curved side glass in '57, so this feature also matches the Lincoln, as do the blade-like fender planes outlined in chrome.  Unlike his Lincoln design, Engel slanted the fenders upward and outward from stern to prow, perhaps a nod to Exner's Forward Look.  The wide whitewalls are an anachronism (they were largely gone by '62) but give the car presence, and the condition doesn't disappoint.  For $42k someone got a truly rare car.  Chrysler built just 922 Imperial ragtops in 1964 (just over 1/4 of that year's Lincoln tally), and from '57 through '66 (my favorite years) convertible production only got beyond three digits once, in the boom year of 1957. Like the letter-series Chrysler 300 convertible which can sell for 3 to 4 times this price, the Imperial has bags of torque and horsepower, and you'll never see yourself coming down the road.
BMWs don't appear in classic auctions nearly as often as Porsches or Jags, so it was a pleasure to see this 1973 BMW 3.0 CS coupe on offer.  Rebuilt as a sort of "resto-mod" (all right, a hot rod), the car was uprated with a 5 speed transmission, bigger and punchier inline six, bigger wheels, and tasteful but non-standard blue paint.  Despite, or perhaps (given the current "originality" vogue) because of these revisions, the glassy, graceful coupe failed to make Mecum's estimate of $35k to $50k, and went out the door for $32,500.  This is below what you'd pay for a new, entry-level BMW, and edging towards used car territory.  If this machine runs as happily as it looks, it's a bargain, especially as all the hard-to-find interior and exterior trim pieces seem to be there.  Full disclosure again: I happen to own one of these, and know how hard some of the pieces are to find.  If the new owner wants to go "original" he or she can find the original style wheels with matching tires, and just keep quiet about the extra hundred horses under the hood.
Possibly saving the best for last, we stop to check out a car which has been rated by engineers, designers and car collectors as a classic from the moment it first appeared in 1936.  Originally designed by Gordon Buehrig as a sort of baby Duesenberg, the front-drive Cord 810 and supercharged 812 series is one of the most significant cars ever.  The Cord was one of the cars exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in its landmark 1951 show, Eight Automobiles (the curators  picked a sedan like this one).  Remarkably, the 812 on offer at Mecum's auction stand had the correct Lycoming V8, as well as the electric pre-selector gearbox featured on the original.  The car looked spotless and correct inside and out, with none of the "improvements" some owners were tempted to add.  And while the closed models usually sell for less than the convertibles, the sedan's smoothly curved roof encloses a private, cozy cabin with its own unique character…all fronted by possibly the most memorable instrument panel design of any car.  This piece, ready for the gallery or a road tour, rolled out the door on period-correct wheels and tires for $42k, quite a bit less than some of the vintage Toyota Land Cruisers offered at this year's auctions.  High art at a used-car price, and my pick for the best deal of the entire auction series.
All photos are from the Mecum's auction catalog, and copyright by Mecum's Auction Company.