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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Truth in Advertising: Sports Car Craftsmen at the Colorado Conclave

It may be apparent by now that the writer of this essay series has some gripes with modern cars. Beyond the often impenetrable mysteries of their software-hardware interface, there is the problem of modern materials and finishes. The prevalence of molded plastic bumpers and trim pieces, when combined with the now-fashionable matte paint finishes, often contrives to make modern cars (even expensive ones like Porsches and Mercedes) look like full-scale plastic replicas of themselves. Perhaps in a wry commentary on this trend, a Colorado-based outfit called Sports Car Craftsmen has taken to displaying a very real Austin-Healey Sprite (the famous Bugeye current from 1958 to 1961) as a full-size scale model of itself, complete with a box like the ones which still house model cars displayed in toy stores. And compared with the veracity of most modern advertising, especially the political kind, the claims on Sports Car Craftsmen's packaging constitute a near-riot of truth-telling...

For example, while SCC trumpets the working head and tail lamps and "detailed engine compartment and interior", they note that though the hood and doors are operable (indeed, the front fenders go up with that bonnet; see 3rd photo from bottom), the "trunk does not open" (there's no external trunk lid on a Bugeye). They also admit that batteries are not included…other than, apparently, the one that starts the car. Finally, seized by a somewhat British passion for understatement, SCC notes that this "fun for all ages" car will cost "quite a bit more than $12.99."  

This year's All-British Conclave, held in Arvada, Colorado's Oak Park on September 17, featured plenty of fun for less than $12.99, as the show was free unless you wanted to exhibit your car. That costs $20, and five bucks more for a same-day registration.  Although the show is not limited to cars in running condition, some exhibitors spend time, effort and dollars in getting them that way. For this somewhat lazy writer, efforts were limited to washing the car and petitioning the crew at Sports Car Craftsmen to install some new tires…the car is on the left in the photo below, awaiting them. 

Visitors to SCC can enjoy a small-scale, indoor version of the All-British Show in the main space upon entering; this includes an MGA Twin-Cam, an MGB original enough to serve as a restoration reference car, the nearly irresistible Sprite documented in the Conclave photos, and a TR-4 in similarly immaculate condition.

The show often continues outside SCC, with a line of completed cars awaiting pick-up.  The silver blue Austin-Healey 100-4 in the last photo below is an early example of Gerry Coker's seductively curvy design.  The car has been in the same family for decades, and it appears they have followed SCC founder and master mechanic Paul Dierschow's advice: "Make sure you drive the car."  In general, that's a better way to go than keeping your car in a display box…

Photo credits:  All photos by the author.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Roadside Attraction: Cruise Room at Denver's Oxford Hotel

"No one goes there nowadays…it's too crowded."

                                                 ------------Yogi Berra

Mr. Berra, of Yankee Hall of Fame fame, was talking about a restaurant in NYC when uttered that famous line decades ago, but he might've said the same thing about the Cruise Room in Denver's Oxford Hotel today…

After a baseball game at nearby Coors Field on a mid-September Friday night,  you  could barely navigate from one end of the windowless,  noisy,  glowing room to the other.  Was it always this busy?  Not officially, anyway…

The solid and somewhat stolid Oxford, completed to a design by Denver architect  Frank Edbrooke in 1891, always had a bar.  During Prohibition, which began in 1920, there was no bar listed among the Oxford's features, but there was a secret speakeasy located where the Cruise Room is now (remember that lack of windows?) and it was accessed by secret panels and a subterranean tunnel. One can't be sure what the building inspectors would've said about the fire exit situation with those secret panels, but the business thrived.  One day after Prohibition ended, on December 6, 1933, the Cruise Room opened, complete with visible entry and exit doors, and an Art Deco interior design inspired by a bar on the Queen Mary and designed by architect Charles Jaka.  The long, narrow room has a plan shape allegedly inspired by a wine bottle

Full-height bas-reliefs by Alley Hensen depict toasts of many nations; the last image below commemorates China with a stylized dragon.  A German-themed panel was taken down during World War II because one of the characters looked too much like Hitler.  This panel was replaced with one commemorating Ireland.  

Rose-tinted overhead lights illuminate walls restored to their original peach color in 2012, and reflect a rosy tint in the polished glass and metal surfaces.

During the major restoration of the hotel initiated by Dana Crawford and Charles Calloway  during the early 1980s (a project on which I worked with Denver architect Mark Hoskin), there was never any doubt that the Cruise Room should be retained in its 1933 form, in preference to the earlier speakeasy, which might have been more consistent with the stylistic themes of the hotel in which it is housed. In some cases, after all, authenticity is more desirable than mere historical consistency*…If you visit the Cruise Room on a weekend, you may not be able to maintain a quiet conversation over the background din, but you'll have plenty of visual detail to ponder while you enjoy your drink.  As Yogi Berra noted, sometimes you can observe a lot just by looking

*Footnote:  For more reflections upon the question of authenticity versus originality, you may want to see "Authenticity vs. Originality: A Tale of Four (or Five) Bugattis" from June 11, 2017.

Photo credits:

Top:  the author
2nd:  wikimedia
3rd:  jetsetter.com
remainder:  the author

Saturday, October 14, 2017

MG EX 186 at Colorado Conclave of British Cars

Each September, British car enthusiasts convene an all-British car show in Arvada, Colorado, roughly midway between Denver and Boulder.  As you'd expect, a lot of green cars show up, and some of them are pretty rare.  Past examples have included vintage machines from Alvis, Bentley, Frazer Nash and HRG.  This year, one of 75 Aston Martin DB-4 GT coupes showed up, a refugee from the Swinging London of the 1960s.  But there was an even rarer car on the lawn on at Oak Park, and that was this MG EX 186...

During the late 50s, when MG director John Thornley and design engineer Syd Enever were preparing the troubled launch of the twin-cam version of their MGA and also designing the MGB as its replacement, they also managed to produce a racing prototype aimed at an overall Le Mans win. This seemed possible because of the 2.5 liter limit imposed on pure racers (as opposed to slower production cars) after the catastrophic accident during the 1955 running of the 24-hour race. This goal appeared a tall order to some because even MG's new twin-cam engine gave away a liter of size to the bigger cars, but the design team was banking on light weight and a low, aerodynamic profile to bring victory within reach.  Design included a modified MGA chassis with De Dion rear suspension*, 4-wheel disc brakes, and a light, low-drag body of aluminum alloy.  On the latter, MG's metalworkers went through expensive, and almost comical, contortions to use stock lighting units, forming complex creases into the car's shell...

This near-obsessive attention to detail might have been better spent on the new 1.5 liter twin-cam engine, which upon release in the new-for-1958 Twin Cam MGA road car, soon acquired a reputation for melting pistons, fracturing tappets, and consuming large quantities of oil. The aluminum head with polished cam covers was a pretty thing to behold, though, and during the Twin-Cam's brief production run, MG and its British Motor Company parent managed to track down most of the mechanical gremlins.  Not soon enough, however, to repair the damage to the new engine's reputation...

EX 186 was aimed at competing at Le Mans for 1959, but had been conceived and built without approval by MG's parent BMC.  By the time BMC's racing-averse management found out about it, the problems with the new twin-cam engine were so well-known that production was discontinued after 1960, with only 39 of the 1,788 MGA Twin-Cams listed from that last model year.  BMC's top brass, having axed the troublesome Twin-Cam, next decreed that the brand new EX 186 needed the services of the crusher...

Fortunately, the little car's fate never came to that.  Instead, MG employees contrived to get the racer sent in a box labeled as car parts to the San Francisco BMC distributorship run by Kjell Qvale, famed for racing MGs on the West Coast.  He stored car for half a dozen years, and then sold it to enthusiasts who licensed it for road use. In 1982 the car's Colorado owners* found it and began a painstaking, long-term restoration project (restoring a car can take awhile when many of its parts are completely unique). They now have a completely functional car for warm sunny days on winding mountain roads, and for wowing visitors to car shows.  And they'll never meet themselves coming down the road...

*Footnotes:  For the story of another prototype car saved from the crusher, see our post "The Italian Jobs Part 4: Saved from the Crusher" from March 13, 2016, which tells the saga of an Italian-bodied, rotary-powered Corvette... Along with EX 186, MG also designed a new lightweight tubular chassis to fit under a standard-appearing MGA shell.  This car was named EX 183, and we're not sure where it is.  EX 186, however, has been lovingly restored over several years by owners Joe and Cathy Gunderson of Littleton, Colorado, and we want to thank them both for sharing information on this (literally) unique car.

Photo Credits:  All photos by the author.