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Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Car Search Part 3: Divergent Approaches to Fun

Our previous posting was focused on cars offering a fun driving experience, and mostly involved cars you could enjoy flinging around corners.  But there are other enjoyable aspects to old cars, and one of them is that old cars, like new puppies, have an innate ability to invite comments and stories from total strangers.  I've found this to be so true that if you're the kind of person who wants to avoid interaction with strangers, then you probably have no more business driving around in a vintage car than you have walking downtown with a new pup at the other end of the leash.  Most of the cars in this posting are of special value because of the stories attached to them and the stories they invite.  In fact, where there were other finalists the decision went to the best story, not always to the best car.  These cars are not here for their dynamic qualities, so our descriptions will be brief, and when there are special performance or engineering aspects we'll note them.  The dates in parentheses do not always refer to all the years the cars were produced; instead they relate to the model years I can recommend.

**Hudson Hornet (1951-53)
These low, streamlined Step-Down Hudsons were among the first truly new postwar car designs, appearing in 1948.  A '49 model enabled the cross-country adventure in Kerouac's On the Road, and the Hudson legend got another boost from Marshall Teague's dominance of stock car racing with the Hornet which was introduced in 1951.  So with the big 6 cylinder Hornet you get both Kerouac and NASCAR bragging rights.  Other finalists: 1948-49 Hudson Commodore Eight, 1949-50 Nash Airflyte, 1951 Studebaker Commander Starlight Coupe.

***Panhard Dyna Junior (1952-56)
Though it took its name from the postwar Dynavion show car, France's front-drive Dyna Junior had to content itself with 40 hp from a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine.  Panhard fans always remind you about the roller bearing crankshaft.  No matter; according to my 1956 Road & Track Road Test Annual, zero to 60 still took 26.2 seconds. Other finalists:  Not really; nothing else looks this much like it would be driven by a circus bear...

**Studebaker Starliner (1953-54)
Raymond Loewy stands next to his industrial design firm's most famous product, Bob Bourke's Studebaker Commander Starliner Coupe from 1953.  In a poll taken of Detroit car stylists decades later, it took top honors as the most beautiful American car.  There was also a Starlight Coupe with center pillar, and both coupes were available as Commander V8s or Champion 6s.  Visually the main difference is the vertical bars in the '54 grille; under the skin, however, the '54 had a stiffer frame to deal with some flexure issues on the '53 Starliner, so the '54 is my choice.  Other finalists: 1963 Studebaker Avanti R-2.

**Citroen DS-19 (1956-75)
Engineer  André Lefebvre and designer Flaminio Bertoni may have come up with the most memorable car design of all time when they conceived the DS.  Here we do need to talk about the engineering and the dynamics:  Like previous Citroens the DS is front-wheel drive, but here allied with a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension actuated by an engine-driven pump which also assisted the disc brakes and the steering, the latter featuring a distinctive one-spoke wheel.   When introduced at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the DS (Goddess) seemed like a space ship from a more advanced planet.  Other finalists:  Not in a category of one.  If driving an old Caddy limo to the coffee shop will prompt passerby to tell you about their high school proms, driving up in a DS will likely net you some alien abduction stories.

**Imperial (1957-59)
Virgil Exner's designs for the 1957 Forward Look Chrysler Corporation cars sent shock waves through the GM design studios, and none more than the Imperial with its uninhibited fins, curved side glass and Jetsons Go Baroque detailing.  On top of that, the legendary Hemi V8 was up to 392 cubic inches, bigger than Cadillac, and the torsion bar suspension provided decent handling for such a big car.  Convertibles are scarce, and always were.  Other finalists:  1955 Chrysler 300, 1960 Dodge Polara convertible or 2 door hardtop.

**Lincoln Continental (1961-63)
Driving one of these might be the next best thing to commanding your own aircraft carrier.
Elwood Engel's design for the 1961 Continental established a new template for elegant restraint after an era of bombastic excess (see "When the Sixties Really Began" from Nov. 15, 2015 in these pages).  The four-convertible is unique among postwar American cars as it was a true pillarless convertible; the top mechanism is fiendishly complex and involves miles of wiring. The sedan is just as elegant and the center pillar improves rigidity.  But both models were built like bank vaults, and all were road tested before being delivered.  Other finalists: 1964-66 Imperial convertible.

***Simca 1200S Bertone (1967-71)
This was a high-performance (105 mph) version of the little Simca 1000 coupe from 1962.
That car, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and built by Bertone, was briefly imported into the US, and the 1200S has a cult following in France.  The 82 hp engine is in the rear, but as with the Alpine Renault A310 in the previous post, the radiator is in front, which helps avoid overheating.  In a way, that makes it a more practical choice than the related Fiat 850 sport coupes and spider, which still have the radiator in the rear.  If you drive it to a "cars and coffee" event in Silicon Valley, it's guaranteed to be the only one there, and you can't safely predict that about a McLaren or a Lambo.  Other finalists:  1967 Fiat Abarth 1000 Spider.

***Mazda Luce R130 (1969-72)
Giugiaro also designed the Mazda Luce which appeared in 1965 and anticipated the shape of future products like the BMW Bavaria.  When the R130 Luce coupe appeared in 1969, it had a similar shape to the Luce sedan but two different features:  a twin-rotor Wankel engine similar to the one which had just appeared in the NSU Ro80 (see "The Future in the Rear View Mirror" in these pages), and front-wheel drive.  Unlike the rear-drive, 4 cylinder Luce line, it was made in small numbers, around a thousand cars in four years.  It's the only front-drive Mazda rotary.  Other finalists: 1966-70 Honda S800 roadster.

Photo Credits:
Hudson Hornet:  Christopher Ziemenowicz on Wikimedia
Panhard Junior:  Wikimedia
Studebaker Starliner:  Studebaker Corporation, on cruise-in.com
Citroen DS-19:  Wikimedia
Imperial:  barnfinds.com
Lincoln Continental:  Wikimedia
Simca 1200S:  picautos.com
Mazda R130:  Wikimedia

The Car Search Part 2: The Fun Factor

Today's effort is essentially Part 2 of Doing the Assignment; the assignment was to suggest some fun-to-drive replacements for a VW Thing that lives in Los Gatos, California.  We'll use the 5-star rating system defined in yesterday's posting to assess the escalating level of difficulty in restoring and owing these cars, and remind our readers that concepts like fun and beauty are highly subjective.  Now let's have some fun…

*Lotus Elise Series 2 (2001-11)
Experts agree; this thing is fun to drive.  Not a surprise, as it was designed for no other purpose; a lightweight, mid-engined tool for carving up switchbacks that offers only enough space for two smiling people and their weekend bags…your sheepdog and those sheets of plywood will need to go in the chase vehicle or stay at home.  The Series 2 was imported to the States, while the earlier Rover-engined Series 1 (1996-2001) stayed in England and Europe, with about 150 cars built for the Asian market by Proton in Malaysia. The Toyota engine offers reliability as well as smooth power, and the chassis design formed a basis for the (much more expensive, even used) Tesla Roadster.  This was the most popular Lotus in the American market, eclipsing the sales of the first Elan.  I interviewed an owner in Boulder, CO who uses one as her daily driver, and it's her all-time favorite.

**BMW Z-1 (1988-91)
The plastic-bodied Z-1 roadster was designed with high structural side sills for rigidity and impact protection; this led to the trademark doors which drop into the sills.  The windows automatically roll down when the doors are lowered, and the car can be driven with the doors open, but not legally in the US.  Never imported to the US when new, it's now legal to bring one in owing to the 25 year DOT limit.  The smooth 168 hp ohc inline 6, five- speed gearbox and front suspension are stock E30 series 325, while the multilink rear and flush belly pan were novelties.  Owing to the 45,000 Euro price tag and the subsequent arrival of cars like the Miata, sales were not as high as anticipated and only 8,000 were built.  Wonderfully comfortable seats, and all kinds of potential for performance upgrades...

***Alpine Renault A310 (1971-85)

Jean Redele's Alpine A110 became a collector's trophy by winning the Monte Carlo Rally and the World Rally Championship. The more practical & spacious A310  has  only recently generated some interest from collectors, and is an easier car to enjoy on a daily basis; claustrophobic rear seats are even provided for (smallish, let's hope) children.  The original 1600cc pushrod hemi 4 (127 hp) sat at the rear of a backbone chassis clothed with a fiberglass body fronted by an impressive full-width array of flame-throwing rally lights.  Late in 1976 came the 2.7 liter V-6 with 150 hp, and top speed went up from 131 to 137 but the car lost the full-width lighting. People who like the adrenaline rush provided by the background threat of animal oversteer (in other words, people who like Porsche 911s) will enjoy driving this car.  

**Lotus Elan +2 (1969-75)
If you think of the backbone chassis of the Alpine Renault turned around with the engine at the front and a driveshaft going through it to the rear, you've got the concept of the Lotus Elan, possibly the best car Lotus made prior to the current run of Toyota-engined GTs.  The lightweight, rigid chassis and 1600cc Ford engine block with Cosworth-designed twin-cam head made for a car that is still in my Pantheon of best-ever drives.  And I'd recommend the Plus 2 because the extra 12 inches of wheelbase makes for real room inside for the front occupants, as well as the slender, elegant proportions you see below.  Another advantage is that prices on the Plus 2 are not up with the 2 seater Elans, and that to compensate for the weight penalty of the longer body, a 130 hp Big Valve engine was made available in 1971.  UK and European markets got the final offering, the Plus 2S / 130-5 with a five-speed gearbox, and that, along with a galvanized replacement chassis if needed, could be the best combo.

***Lancia 2000 HF Pininfarina (1969-75)
The front-drive Fulvia V4, especially in HF or Zagato form, has attracted lots of interest from auctioneers lately, but the bigger, torquey flat-four Flavias and the later offshoots, the Pininfarina 2000 coupes, would be more relaxing to enjoy on a long trip.  Vignale built some Flavia convertibles and PF some Flavia coupes earlier in the series, but the object of my attention is the PF 2000 coupe which was built from 1969 on.  The elegant, glassy shape enclosed a well-outfitted interior with reasonable room for 4, and the 140 hp fuel injected HF made good use of the 5 speeds and 4 disc brakes.  

*Alfa-Romeo Series 105 (1962-75 for the series)
The 105 Series takes in a bevy of different-appearing cars which are all fun to drive.  My favorites are the Duetto (1966-70) which Dustin Hoffman drove in The Graduate, and the Zagato-bodied Junior Z pictured below (1970-75).  The series also included a run of square-rigged but very engaging sedans with the classic aluminum twin-cam 4 in displacements of 1300, 1600, 1750, and 2000cc.  There was also the delightfully balanced (dynamically and visually) Giugiaro-penned GTV built by Bertone and offered in the US thru 1974.  But the ones I sampled were the Duetto 1750 and a 1600 Junior Z*, and they were both so responsive it felt like they were alive.  A simple chassis design with a well-located live rear axle, 4 disc brakes and 5-speed transmission made good use of the eager engine.  The Junior Z was never officially imported, and the other Alfas were non-imports in 1968 and 1970 while the factory sorted out emissions, but now you could import any European market car from that period.  And any of these Alfas would be fun to run...

*Footnote:  The Junior Zagato was made in 1300 and later in 1600 versions, and the latter is rarer, with 402 built from late 1972 through 1973.  Alfa was still selling new ones as late as 1975, so that's the date we chose.  The 1300 Junior Z was considered a Series 105, while the 1600 version with 4 inch longer tail was a Series 115.  

Photo Credits:
Lotus Elise:  Wikimedia
BMW Z-1: carbase.com
Alpine Renault A-310: youtube.com
Lotus Elan +2S:  Lotus Cars
Lancia 2000 HF: movitcars.com
Alfa-Romeo Junior Z:  Wikimedia

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Car Search Part 1: A Rating System

One reader writes that he's tiring of his VW Thing, and wonders what might be more fun. Something vintage and Japanese like a Honda S800, or old and British like a TR-6?  Or something more modern like a Mazda RX-7 or 8?  Or maybe an old Yankee land barge like a Hudson Hornet or Nash Airfllyte?  Well, Duke Ellington said that good music was beyond category, and that's probably true of cars too.  It's not for this writer to say that a '70 Alfa Junior Z is inherently more fun than, say, a '55 Imperial limo.  Indeed, it's possible to imagine having some kinds of fun in the latter that would be very difficult in the former.  However, it may be helpful to set up a rating system for evaluating possible automotive purchases.  I'm going to suggest a five-star rating system based upon ascending level of difficulty, and essentially reduce the measurement of difficulty to the one-dimensional challenge of finding spare parts.  At the summit of our Challenge Scale, however, we'll have a rating which may deter some purchases, as it assigns a value to the possible emotional trauma associated with restoring certain kinds of old crocks.  Once I've described the system I'll apply it to some example cars.  Here we go:

*One Star:  Drivetrain and body parts are available from the manufacturer, who is still represented in the US market.  One example would be the Acura NSX.  

**Two Stars:  Drivetrain parts (at a minimum) are still available in the US, even if the model in question was not officially imported.  Examples range from imports like the BMW Z1 to some domestic cars like 60s Lincolns and Cadillacs.

***Three Stars:  The car has been out of production for so long, and / or is so rare in the US, that parts are usually acquired by finding and dismantling a parts car.  I once had a Lancia Flaminia that fits into this category.

****Four Stars:  Drivetrain and body parts are only attained by making them.  Here one thinks of all manner of Twenties and Thirties classics, from Bugatti and Delage GP cars to Stutz Super Bearcats, and some more modern cars like early 50s Ferraris and Maseratis.

*****Five Stars:  Purchase of a vehicle in this category could potentially destabilize the purchaser's marriage, familial and even professional relationships.  If you've read this far, you've likely already pined for a car in this category, and it's lodged in your memory like a lost love from a soft-focus summertime of wasted youth.  It would be disrespectful of me to suggest any names. Far better to observe a silent Moment of Sadness before we proceed…

Today's examples would all offer a driving experience markedly different from that of an early 70s VW Thing, and also from each other.

*Mazda RX-7 Third Generation (1991-2002):

Yoichi Sato's design still looks clean and modern a quarter century later, and at 68,500 units was made in similar numbers to E-type Jaguars, but only offered in the US from 1993 thru '95.  Still, there should be enough of a selection available here to avoid Japanese market cars with their right-hand drive.  All had a 1.3 liter twin rotor, twin turbo engine with horsepower ranging from 255 to 280.  Think of a Miata with 300 extra pounds, but twice the power…

**Peugeot 504 Pininfarina Cabriolet and Coupe (1969-83)

If the Mazda is an authentic sports car for carving turns in the mountains on weekends, the PF Peugeot is a suave boulevardier suitable for the beach promenade.  Both coupe and cabrio share advantages of the sedan which was once familiar Stateside: a sturdy engine, nice handling and ride from 4 wheel independent suspension and disc brakes.  PF designer Aldo Brovarone gave these cars elegant proportions and clean details (avoiding the odd bent trunk from the sedan) and created a car that symbolized lounging on the Cote d'Azur as well as the original Mercedes 230SL.  Like Aldo Cello from those old wine commercials, he may not have spoken any French, but he knew what women liked.  Engines varied from 1.8 liter and 2.0 liter inline 4 (with carbs or injection) to the PRV V6 which also appeared in Renaults and Volvos.  I'd take the cabrio with the V6.  A victim of the OPEC oil crisis, it was made in less than 1,000 units from '75-'77.

***Fiat 2300S Ghia Coupe (1961-68)

Sergio Sartorelli's design echoed Ghia's (and Virgil Exner's) work on the Dual Ghia L6.4 prototype, and Aurelio Lampredi's sturdy pushrod inline six was good for 150 hp. and 120 mph in the S. Some versions had Abarth tweaks for rallying; all had 4-wheel discs & live rear axles like the contemporary Alfa 2600.  The interior was as luxe as those on senior Lancias and Alfas, with leather seats and full instrumentation.  A charming car; and a possible door opener to the Concorso Italiano for $25K to $38K.

****Delage D6 3 liter postwar (1947-53)

The D6 is the Dodge of French classics in a certain way, sturdy and reliable (unlike their GP cars) and lagging in market value until the recent boom.  Even now they're behind Delahaye or Talbot unless you find one bodied by Figoni or Saoutchik.  You might, however, be charmed just as easily by something like this 1947 Vutotal pillarless coupe by Letourneur et Marchand.  Their ready-to-wear line was bodied by Autobineau (think of an early 50s Mercedes), all with the Delahaye-derived pushrod 6 and Cotal pre-selector transmission.

*****Abarth Simca 2000 (1963-65)

Like many an object of unreasonable desire, the Abarth Simca 2 Mila is not what she would appear.  Because of exposure to Fiat Abarths, people expect modified Simca engines here, or at least Simca engine blocks.  But the position of "Abarth" in front of "Simca" is a clue; the cars were designed to reflect racing glory on Simca, but had engines designed and built entirely by Abarth, twin cam inline 4s of 1300, 1600 or 2000cc mounted behind the Simca transmissions (a weak link).  The floor pan was a shortened version of the Simca 1000 and the 2 Mila (short nose shown) was available in Stradale or Corsa versions.  The latter, making around 202 hp, handily beat the Porsches in the European Hillclimb Championship, and may be considered a bargain at 1/6 the price of those same Porsches today.  Alloy bodies look like Zagato but were mostly by Sibona and Basano.  Does the French chassis and transmission disqualify it from Italian car events?  Who cares?  I want one…

Photo credits:
All photos Wikimedia except Peugeot (classicdriver.com)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Etceterini Files Part 7----- Almost Famous: OSCA

A couple of years ago, I called a guy about a Citroen DS-19 he had for sale.  We talked about the Citroen for awhile, and it struck me that this guy knew a lot about old cars, so I asked him if he had any other interesting cars.

"Let's play a game, OK?  You name a make of car, and I'll tell you if I have one."

I started naming cars, and we blasted past Abarth ('yep"), Allard ("two"), Jaguar ("you need to ask?"), Lotus ("of course") and then I decided to name my favorite obscure car:  OSCA.

"I actually have two OSCAs.  Come and have a look at that Citroen and I'll show you the other cars."

So I called on an old friend who also likes cars, and we went over to have a look.  When we arrived we saw a pretty standard-looking suburban house with a couple of garages and an outbuilding or two.  The Citroen, the object of my quest, shared outdoor space with a few other makes in various stages of repair.  Our friend met us at the front door and showed some photos of his SCCA racing career on the walls.  But once he opened the garage doors and we wandered inside, I felt much like I had as a high school student, when a gallery owner on Chicago's Michigan Avenue had opened up his storage room to preview a collection of Matisse canvasses he was cataloguing for an exhibit.  There they were, one great painting after another, paintings I'd seen in books, just leaning against the walls…

And here, on jack stands, a Morelli-bodied OSCA MT4 (Maserati Tipo, 4 cylinder) with the trademark cheese-grater grille from the mid-50s awaited completion of a long, painstaking rebuild...

…aiming at a result like this.

A sleek, low S187 from the late 50s looked ready to race again, but it was hemmed in by a Lotus Eleven, MGs, and an Allard...

It had once been raced by the Briggs Cunningham team in the 750cc class.

And so the time had come to recollect the glories of the OSCA, which was Almost Famous during the Golden Age of American road racing.  The Maserati brothers founded their first firm in 1914, an inauspicious year for Italy, Europe and humanity.  They began making spark plugs, and after the Great War ended, they made racing cars under contract to Diatto, but when that company quit racing in 1926, the brothers took their last design for Diatto, a 1.5 liter twin cam, and raced it successfully under their own name.  It quickly led to orders for more race cars, but staying competitive meant frequent expenditures on new designs and new tooling.  By 1937 the brothers were seeking a more reliable source of income, and sold their company to the Orsi family, agreeing to stay on as consultants for 10 years.  Racing success in these interwar years included back-to-back wins for Maserati at the Indy 500 in 1939 and 1940.  Two years after World War 2, the consulting contract ended and three of the brothers (Ernesto, Ettore and Bindo) began to build racing cars again.  Because they'd essentially sold the Maserati name along with their car factory, they showed a real sense of humor by giving the firm the deadpan name Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobiletranslating roughly to "workshop specializing in car construction."  The brothers were soon designing, building and testing racing engines. Among the forgotten efforts of their workshop was the 4.5 liter V12 originally developed as a GP engine to be shared with Gordini (see "Etceterini Files Part 6" in these pages), and which led to this brutally focused, Zagato-bodied coupe, essentially a Formula 1 car in a road car suit, built for Clemente Biondetti in 1951...

A spin-off of this engine was an inline 6 for Formula 2; the basic engine architecture was shared with Gordini.  Only a handful of the Formula 2 cars were built, along with 3 sports cars using the same engine.  These 2000S cars outwardly resembled the 1.5 liter MT4 which Stirling Moss employed to catapult OSCA (and himself) to fame, by winning the 12 Hours of Sebring outright in 1954.  Driving Briggs Cunningham's car as prepared by Alfred Momo (see "The Etceterini Files Part 5" in these pages), Moss and co-driver Bill Lloyd blew away opposition that included Jaguars and Ferraris with nearly three times the power.  Overnight, lots of name drivers in American road racing wanted OSCAs, and those who could afford the sticker price ($9,000 to $10,000) bought them.  Somewhere around 6 dozen of the MT4 series were eventually built; here's Stirling Moss making OSCA famous (well, almost) at the old airfield course in Florida...  

As a way of utilizing that name recognition to reach a wider market, the Maserati brothers planned a joint project with Fiat, with the Torinese giant agreeing to manufacture an engine of OSCA design for use in Fiat roadsters as well as in a road-going OSCA GT car.  Other than a handful of coupes, most of which wound up on race tracks anyway, OSCA had never made a serious touring car (with heater, bumpers, etc.) before.  The first fruits of cooperation with Fiat appeared in 1959 as the Fiat-Osca 1500S, and they gave Fiat a high performance "halo car" to entice Americans and increasingly affluent Europeans (something it later tried with the Ferrari-engined Fiat Dino V6). Fiat soon increased engine size a bit for the 1600S, and the OSCA GT cars, when they appeared in the early Sixties, shared this displacement, though the OSCA version of the engine was a bit different, with forged connecting rods and other tweaks for anticipated race duty.  A couple of the resulting OSCA 1600 GTs were bodied by Touring Superleggera (black car below), a handful by Fissore, and most fetchingly, several dozen by Zagato with the signature double-bubble roofline. Note that on the silver gray Zagato, the air extractor vents for the cabin are integrated with the headroom-enhancing bubbles.  

Zagato also built a lower, sleeker version of the 1600 GTZ which was more focused on road racing.  Go ahead; pretend you don't want one...

Stirling Moss wanted one, and found a rare FS372 with desmodromic valves (mechanically opened and closed, another way for the Maserati bros. to bankrupt themselves on R & D).  Here he is in the Bahamas, demonstrating his baby about 57 years after that Sebring win...

In an ideal world, this is where the story would end.  Happy collaborations, increased sales, solvent Maserati brothers.  Fiat sold thousands of the Fiat-Osca, but the brothers had trouble breaking into three figures with their own version, and as noted above, they couldn't resist spending money on racing car development.  So in 1963, they sold their enterprise again, this time to motorcycle manufacturer MV Agusta, which made the odd decision (as evidenced by the photo below) that what the world really wanted was to pay OSCA prices for cars that looked a whole lot like Fiats.  It was all over by the end of 1967.

Postscript:  Privacy considerations prevent me from sharing the identity of the OSCA owner.  If you're lucky, you may meet him at the races someday yourself.  He's such a nice guy that he'll be happy to share some of his vast knowledge about rebuilding old machinery, or even offer to give you a Citroen, as long as you'll just tow it out of his life...

Photo credits from top:

1.)   Denée Foti
2.)   Wikimedia
3.)   Denée Foti
4.)   racingsportscars.com
5.)   carbodydesign.com
6.)   media.crash.net
7.)   Bonham's Auctions
8.)   2000gt.net
9.)   forum.autohoje.com
10.) Wikimedia
11.) classiccarcatalogue.com 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Whatever Happened to the Good Old Station Wagon?

Back around 1960 or so, one of my grade school pals recoiled in horror when his dad threatened to buy an International (Harvester) Travelall, a forerunner of what would now be called an SUV.  "But, Dad, that thing's just a truck."  Just a truck; that pretty much said it all. Back in 1960, none of us would have predicted that well within 5 decades thinly disguised trucks would be a mainstay of the Cadillac and Lincoln lines, and that station wagons as we knew them (rear-wheel drive, simulated wood siding, thrumming V8 power, and a low enough profile that you ducked your head when getting in) would eventually vanish from the Ford, Chevy and Dodge lines.  In the minds of mid-century kids, station wagons were just as cool as cars, only a little more useful when we wanted to go camping or canoeing.  Trucks, though, were farm implements...

Two old friends called yesterday from their home near Stanford to ask what kind of new car they should buy.  As their kids are grown and they already have a nice BMW coupe to drive to official functions like weddings and funerals, I told them to buy a new Mazda MX-5 Miata.  Not too expensive, and the only car to make both Automobile Magazine's All-Stars list (the fun factor) and the Consumer Reports Top Ten (the reliability factor).  "No", they replied, "we need something that will fit our tandem Jack Taylor bike."  I knew better than to suggest a minivan, and before I could suggest an SUV, they clarified, "No SUVs.  Those things are just trucks."  Apparently the Mid Century Mind is still alive and well, even though some of us have trouble remembering where we left our car keys…

So I plowed through the online catalogs and car mag test reports, and leaving out the SUVs and crossovers realized there aren't many real station wagons left.  First of all, I eliminated the Minis (too small for that bike) and, though I like my Subaru Legacy wagon, in 2016 you can only get it as an Outback (8.7" of ground clearance) and, come to think of it, my friends won't need the standard all-wheel drive either.  I like the new Tesla Model 3 but there's a waiting list and I'm not sure the bike would fit.  The VW Golf Sportwagen is smallish but might almost do the job.  At $22k to $27k it seems reasonable, and the recent diesel scandal may have left VW outlets in a dealing mood.  Passat wagons are no longer available stateside, and the Audi Allroad has mandatory AWD, and 50.5 cubic feet of space goes with a fairly steep tag of $42k to $45k.  The tasty BMW 328 wagon has a similar wheelbase to the Audi at 110.6", more space at 53 cubic feet, 20 more hp at 240, and costs the same at $42,650.  All-wheel drive's mandatory at BMW, which in my experience leads to more frequent tire replacements.  So if it has to be a wagon, I'd settle on the Volvo V60 in the non- Cross Country, front-wheel drive version.  The same 240 hp as the BMW, but easier on tires and easier on the starting budget at $36,150.  Less storage space than the Audi or BMW at 43.1, but you can take the front wheel off the bike and stack the suitcases…

But my favorite program would still be to leave that Jack Taylor tandem (a lovely collector's item) at home and put two Moulton collapsible bikes in a new MX-5 roadster and then head for the hills, or better still, down Highway 1 to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur.  As an added benefit, having separate bikes for two people will allow those independent explorations so essential to personal growth. RIght?

Photo credits:
1954 Chevrolet Nomad Motorama show car:  General Motors, reprinted at 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Future in the Rearview Mirror: Tesla Model 3 vs. NSU Ro80

The recent unveiling of the popular-priced (well, $35k anyway) Tesla Model 3 has reminded those of a certain age (old enough to remember attending Jefferson Airplane concerts, for example) of another time when we were expecting the imminent replacement of the reciprocating internal combustion by something better.  The reception of the Model 3 can be summarized as a gaggle of glowing reports about its performance, packaging and range, and a whiff of disappointment about its form and detailing.  In short, it looks like the Tesla engineers reminded the stylists that no large front air intake was needed, but the stylists got the memo late in the design process and erased the grille at the last minute… 

A few critics had apparently been expecting a more fearless, groundbreaking design, something equivalent to the Citroen DS-19 in 1955.  Or to today's subject car, the NSU Ro80 from 1967.  It appears that the Tesla crew prioritized engineering a flawless drivetrain over inventing a brave new look to house it.  This is probably better than producing a mind-blowing exterior shell with under-performing mechanicals.  Exactly that happened back in the era of light shows and communes, when the Teutonic engineers at NSU, known mostly for microcars and motorcycles, dreamed up the first mass-produced passenger sedan with a Wankel rotary engine.  NSU had pioneered production of the engine for automotive use in their tiny Wankel Spider in 1963, and Japan's then-obscure Mazda had released their Cosmo, a coupe for 2 (compact) passengers, a couple of years later.   

A quarter century after the birth of NSU's problem brainchild, one Ro80 loyalist commented that if anyone noticed his car at all, they probably thought it was a late-model Ford Taurus.  Indeed, many of the car's features which had startled with their freshness in 1967 had become commonplace  by the early 90s.  The revolution starts at the front of the car, with compound, covered headlight units matching the contours of the tapered snout.  Designer Claus Luthe produced an intuitively aerodynamic form, with wind-tunnel testing revealing a Cd of 0.35; this was tuned down to 0.34 in production versions.  By the 1980s, this rounded wedge form with low belt line and tall, glassy cabin had entered the design mainstream, along with the car's front-drive format, 4 wheel disc brakes (inboard at the front, as would be adopted on Audi's 100), and power rack & pinion steering.  The encircling belt line crease (seen on earlier NSUs and first on the Corvair) is here shorn of chrome and integrates the door handles into the form, as well as forming a shallow ledge over the tail lights and license plate recess.  The new car quickly gathered praise from automotive journalists, winning European Car of the Year for 1968, and thousands of orders from customers.  The twin-rotor engine was noted for its smoothness and responsiveness if not for fuel efficiency (15 to 18 mpg). NSU still had a backlog of orders to fill when the first complaints about reliability came in.  The apex seals which formed the contact between the rotor tips and the sides of the chambers in which rotors revolved suffered from early failure, and NSU had to replace hundreds and then thousands of them under warranty.  After awhile, Ro80 drivers meeting on the road would flash a finger count of engine rebuilds through the windshield.  These rebuilds and replacements quickly bankrupted the little company, and VW-Audi took over.  Improved apex seals like the graphite-aluminum type used by Mazda greatly increased engine life and lowered oil consumption, and the Ro80 lived on as the sole NSU production model through 1977.  By the time the new, improved Ro80s began to acquire a good reputation, the 1973 OPEC oil embargo reduced the demand for fuel-thirsty cars.  The Ro80 is now attracting notice from car collectors, and will always stand as a cautionary tale about the risks designers and engineers face when sketching out a bold new future on a blank sheet of paper, or computer screen…

Photo credits:
Top:  Tesla Motors
Middle + bottom:  Audi-NSU