Monday, April 30, 2012

Who's Your Caddy

            Even when it was first begun in 1902, Cadillac was a car line known for luxury. Even though the earliest model was nearly identical to the Ford Model T, the brand soon garnered a reputation of having some of the most well-built and luxurious cars on the market. After it was purchased by General Motors in 1909, it was steered toward being that company’s top of the line automobile offering.
            For much of its first seven decades Cadillac was always at or near the top of all luxury cars, especially those made in the United States. While the 1950s, 60s and into the early 70s saw a staggering growth in the size of this car as wheelbases stretched to ridiculous lengths, the power plants that accompanied them didn’t evolve as well. Add to that the numerous new regulations that swamped the auto industry on the heels of the 70s oil crisis and Cadillac saw its performance, and its sales, drop.
            Through the 1970s and 80s these cars were big, bulky and slow. Seeing themselves as the luxury line in the GM stable they couldn’t easily downsize the way a Chevrolet or Pontiac could; though to a slight degree they tried.
            The cars of this era were still large and heavy but bore the added burden of new clean air emissions regulations that, for a while at least, all but killed the American muscle car. Still, Cadillac’s reputation and name recognition managed to draw in more than a few buyers. Among them was my father who, during this time, had become a true blue Cadillac man. This would change in the 1990s when he began driving Mercedes but during this time when I was first getting my driver’s license (which came in 1972), he was a Caddy man.
            Yes, I had my own cars during this time: a VW Beetle and a Ford Maverick. But when it came time to take a girl to homecoming or prom guess which car I got to drive. That’s right, the Caddy. For that reason (no, nothing ever happened in the back seat or even front seat of my dad’s car) I still harbor a fondness in my heart for these series of Cadillacs.
            The cars pictured here were plucked from some car shows from last summer and reflect the trend that many of this era Caddy is becoming a collector car. So keep your eyes out and hopefully you’ll see a few at shows near you.

Friday, April 27, 2012

From Dealer to Manufacturer

            What would possess a car dealer to begin manufacturing their own line of cars? In 1921, Cecil Kimber, the sales manager of Morris Garages started overseeing the production of customized versions of the Morris cars sold at the Oxford dealership. The first of these customized cars bore two names. One was the original manufacturer, Morris. The other was derived by Morris Garages owner William Morris who used a shorthand name of his shop and added the badge MG.
            While there is some dispute of when MG itself actually began as an independent car manufacturer, the company itself was believed to have been formed in 1924. There are records of a newspaper ad as early as 1923 though this could have just been an ad for the shop’s customized Morris autos.
            What isn’t in dispute is the fact that, almost from its inception, MG began making a name for itself as a builder of superior automobiles. Through much of the 1920s it created custom coachwork for Morris frames and engines. Eventually they broke away from that, either commissioning components or making them for themselves.
            By 1929 MG had begun making a small “midget” car based on the frame of the Morris Minor called the M-Type. With this car they started making noise in the international racing world. Though never a big player in this end of automotive manufacturing, they did well enough to garner a great deal of attention for their cars.
            During the late 1930s the company began making the highly successful T-Series Midgets, which, after production resumed following World War II, were successfully exported worldwide. This drew further attention to MG.
            In 1952 MG became part of the British Motor Corporation. Three years later the brand released a highly popular two seat roadster called the MGA. If that little sport about was successful, it was nothing compared to what was to come. Starting in 1962 the MGB began hitting the streets (see tomorrow’s blog). An MGC followed but, despite having a larger engine, was not as nimble as the MGB and production only lasted from 1967 until 1969.
            A year before the MGB was rolled out, MG began selling the MG Midget. This was essentially a slightly revamped Austin-Healey Sprite. This, unfortunately for the MG marque, started to become the norm under British Motor Company (and subsequently British Leyland which BMC became) as the MG badge was used strictly as a sales tool of other cars under that huge umbrella.
            Eventually the MG brand fell into disuse in North America. Though it still existed in some parts of the world, for all intents and purposes it had ceased to exist.  The Rover Group revived the MG name in 1992 with the MG RV8 and three years later with the MGF. Today the MG Rover Group is technically a stand-alone company but the brand that once made the most popular sports car roadster of all time has but been forgotten. Except, that is, by collectors who still thrill in owning and driving these wonderful cars.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sometimes a B is Better Than an A

            The 1960s were a heady time for sports cars around the world, especially in England, where any number of roadsters and small coups were zipping around the rainy roads. One of the more successful models was introduced in 1962 by an established manufacturer of sporty cars. Founded in 1921 by Cecil Kimber and named for the car dealership for which he worked, Morris Garages, MG quickly became a popular brand throughout the country. While there were some sales throughout the rest of the world, it was that car introduced in 1962 that made a large impact in foreign markets, especially North America.
            The MGB was designed to replace the MGA which had been in production since 1955. By the time MG was ready to replace that car, the company had been taken over by the British Motor Corporation. BMC set out to redesign the MGA and turn it into their mass produced high volume seller. They succeeded.
            With an extremely light weight on a slightly more than seven foot wheelbase, the MGB was powered by a 1.8 liter four cylinder engine that generated a more than adequate 95 horse power. It was quick with very good handling and proved those traits (though with tuned motors) by running well at endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
            But it was on the road, driven by the everyday driver, where the MGB really excelled. It was affordable, had wonderfully smart looks and bit of an animal in its soul. People saw them, drove them and then bought them in droves. Indeed, over half a million were sold between its release and 1980 when it was finally retired.
            Originally released as a two seat roadster with a cloth convertible top, a coup version with 2+2 seating was introduced in 1965. Not that those “plus two” rear seats would comfortably fit an adult but they were there for those who wanted it. A six cylinder engine was made available in 1967, along with an all synchromesh gearbox, only to be topped with a V 8 in 1973.
            As was the fate of many sports cars during the mid-1970s, new regulations in the USA forced engineers to made some dramatic changes to the MGB, such as adding large rubber covered bumpers which caused the car’s height to be raised. This greatly affected handling for the worse and took some of the “thrill” out of owning and driving a low slung sports car.

            Because of their reputation and reliability, as well as the availability of parts, the MGB continues to be a strong collector car today. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Little Sports Cars that Could

            While Jaguar was the torch bearer of British sports cars through the middle decades of the 20th century, those who wanted that type of car but couldn’t quite reach for the Jag did have other options. Just a small step behind the Jaguars were cars that sprung forth from a joint venture agreement set up between the Austin division of the British Motor Corporation and the Donald Healey Motor Company.
            Donald Healey was a successful race car driver and a noted auto engineer who, in 1945, following the war, created his company along with two friends. The three rolled out their first sports car in 1946, relying on heady design and 2400 CC four cylinder engine. By 1948 they were turning out what they claimed to be the fastest production car in the world which topped out at 104.7 miles per hour.
            Even with these successes the Donald Healey Motor Company was still hanging on, underfunded as so many small startups are. So when the British Motor Corporation wanted to get into building sports cars the marriage of the two was more than logical.
            The first car rolled out by this team was the Austin-Healey 100 which, unlike Healey’s previous cars, was built in bulk, rolling out 100 cars per week off the BMC plant lines. While a less expensive Austin engine was used, performance didn’t suffer. Healey saw to that as the 100 could top out at 103 mph.
            Over the next couple of years, minor tweaks were made to the 100, including churning out more horse power. What started as a 90 horse power Austin engine soon turned into a 132 horse power version in 1955.
            The 100 in its various guises was soon supplanted by the 3000 which was introduced in 1959.  Now running with a 2.9 liter engine, the 3000 eventually managed to top out at over 120 mph. A bit too domestic to be a true track day racer, the 3000 was still a sports car in every sense of the word.  In 1967 the 3000 ceased production. This was partly due to new legislation in the U.S. that would have required extensive re-tooling for the car to be exported there.
            That wasn’t the end of Austin-Healey, though. In fact, a year before the unveiling of the 3000, the company had rolled out the Sprite. While mechanically under its skin it was basically the same as the MG Midget (a ploy BMC was using to keep costs low and minister to both brands at the same time), there was something very special about the Sprite. It was perhaps the cutest looking car ever designed.
            Running on a tiny 948 cc four cylinder overhead cam engine that pushed a mere 43 horse power, this was something very different than what Healey had gone for with previous cars. The Sprite could hit all of 84 mph but Healey still managed to produce a taunt little sports car complete with a “raspberry” exhaust note.
            The Sprite sold well until it was discontinued in 1971. When Healey and Austin had originally signed their agreement it was for 25 years and so, in 1972, when that agreement ran out, the marque ceased production. Donald Healey went on to design for the Jensen Motor Company while Austin’s parent company, BMC, through a series of mergers, became British Leyland.
            Still, the legacy of the Austin-Healey lives on. This line of small sports cars that outperformed bigger and stronger machines can still be seen at car shows all over, attracting attention wherever they go.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Most Beautiful Car Ever Made

            Every once in a while a product comes out that literally shakes an industry’s marketplace. This happened in 1961 when, in March, Jaguar rolled out a new model to replace the XK series. It was the E Type. Initially it was designed to be only an export, primarily to North America where, for familiarity sake, it was dubbed the XKE.
            Upon its release, Enzo Ferrari supposedly called it “the most beautiful car ever made.” Perhaps he was being honest but there is more than a passing resemblance between the E Type and a certain 275 GTB that was release three years later. (Shown here for comparison.)
            The E Type that rolled out in 1961 wasn’t actually the first of its breed. In fact, the first E Type was a racer created to replace the D Type racer in 1956.  When Jaguar “retired” from racing the decision was made to turn the E Type into a production model.
            Initially the car sported the famous 3.8 liter six cylinder XK motor that supposedly was tested in its first year as taking the car to 150 MPH. The car itself was small, light and, though it started out with some cooling and electrical problems that were fixed within three years, it sold well, partly due to its sporty nature and partly because it was so affordable. By 1964, not only had Jaguar ironed out some of the problems with this little street hugging gem but they decided to drop in a 4.2 liter engine to give it more power.
            When the car was first developed it was done completely as an open roadster. While the first cars that rolled off the line included drop top convertibles, a fast back coup was also available. That silhouette remained and has become one of the most recognizable and iconic shapes in all of sports car history.
            Technically there are three series of Jaguar. Series 1 ran through 1968 and saw a few additions and changes along with way. Perhaps the most noticeable was the addition of the longer 2+2 version which stretched the wheelbase from 96 inches to 105 inches and added a back seat that really wasn’t large enough for anyone over the age of seven to sit in.
            There are some who classify the 1967 and 1968 models as Series 1 ½ because of the changes made primarily for the North American audience. Jaguar, though, does not classify this as a different series.
            Series 2 began in 1968. There were a lot of cosmetic and electrical changes to the car, particularly redesigns of the dash and switches to meet American regulations. It was still the same 4.2 liter inline six and, even with the changes, the cars managed to stay at about the same curb weight.
            It wasn’t until 1971 with the introduction of the Series 3 models that a major change occurred. Jaguar had made the decision to switch from their traditional straight six engine to a larger V 12 for all of their models. This included the E Type.
            The new 5.3 liter V 12 caused there to be some changes in the E Type offerings. The shorter wheel base of the two seater was discontinued. Beginning in 1971 the only models offered were the 2+2 and the convertible, which was using the same frame as the larger four seater.
            Changing to the larger, more powerful V 12 which generated 241 horse power, provided the lightweight Jaguar with more than enough muscle to make it absolutely scream down the road. Unfortunately it also proved to be counterproductive in the North American market as new regulations were already in the works to conserve fuel and decrease engine power.
            Despite its changes and ultimate replacement, the E Type was consistently considered to be one of the top sports cars, selling over 70,000 models. Its look is so inspiring that the Museum of Modern Art actually purchased one for its permanent design collection. But judge its beauty for yourself. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Missle From Japan

            In 1970 Nissan Motors USA sprung a car onto the American market that shoot the sports car scene at the time. While Detroit was churning out pure muscle cars and pony cars, this little known Japanese company introduced the Datsun 240Z.
            With a 2.4 liter inline six that churned out 151 horse power and 146 foot pounds of torque, the 240Z was more like a European sports car than anything that had been seen coming out of Japan (and very little had been seen coming out of Japan as yet). With a wheelbase of a mere 90.7 inches and a curb weight of less than 2400 pounds, this car could top out at over 150 miles per hour.
            If the car looked more European than Japanese it is because the body work, by designer Yoshihiko Matsuo was “borrowed” heavily from Sergio Scagliette’s Ferrari 275 GTB/4 design that was introduced in 1966.
            Updated for 1974 with 2.6 liter single overhead cam straight six engine and a whole host of features that added to the weight, the renamed 260Z lasted only one year in the USA for a couple of reasons. Primarily it needed to be changed to conform to new stricter emissions and fuel efficiency laws. In addition, the changes to the 260Z took away from the car’s performance.
            In 1975 the 280Z came to market, driven by a fuel injected 2.8 liter inline six that growled out 150 horse power and 163 foot pounds of torque. Along with a number of sport luxury features, the 280 Z became one of Datsun’s (and later when they changed their release name officially to Nissan, it was one of theirs, too) best selling cars in the American market.
            My uncle down in Florida was one of the many people who bought a 280Z. When my brother and I went down for a visit during my sophomore year in college, he tossed me the keys and said, “You pay for any tickets you get.”
            I held the keys so I was the one who got to drive it first. We headed to the lightly traveled roads outside of Ocala and got the chance to see what this car could do. And it could do all that we wanted. At one point I remember heading down a long straight stretch of road with the speedometer long since pegged and the tach running out of room near 7000 rpm. Suddenly (though I knew it was coming because these roads are open and flat), a sharp left hand turn approached. Believe me, when you’re pushing 100 mph it comes sooner than you realize.
            Backing off the gas and applying the brakes I slowed enough to downshift into fourth and then into third which, if I were a better driver at the time I probably wouldn’t have had to do. I took a clean line through the turn and hit the gas, jumping back to fourth before doing it again in a crisp right turn that was on me in a heartbeat.
            A couple miles later we came to a main road and I pulled into a gas station to top it off and hand the keys to my brother, Steve. We were both smiling like crazed maniacs. Which, as early 20 somethings we were.
            Years later a friend let me drive his 300ZX. It was nice but it wasn’t the same. More sport luxury than sports car it handled well enough but lacked the adrenaline pumping excitement and exhaust note that the 280Z gave. That was one of the first great drives of my life.
            Somewhere, and I’ve looked all over for it, I have a picture of me standing next to that 280Z. Trust me; the car looks a lot cooler than I did at the time.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Monterey

            Into 1950, the Mercury Eight series was the main engine driving this line of cars. That was the year the manufacturer introduced the Monterey, a high end two door coup that was designed to tap into a new market of buyers. In 1952 the Monterey became a separate line wearing its own badge and was slotted as Mercury’s top of the line model.
            The Monterey came, in 1952, with the famous 255 cubic inch Ford Flathead V8 power plant. Two years later in 1954 it was given a 256 cubic inch overhead cam Y Block V8 that pushed 161 horse power. In 1953 a Siren Red Monterey convertible became the forty millionth car produced by Ford.
            In 1955, with the introduction of the Montclair, the Monterey was no longer the top of the line Mercury automobile. That didn’t stop the company from pushing the car and adding upgrades throughout its line. In fact, Mercury borrowed the 292 cubic inch 188 horse power V8 engine from the Thunderbird as the Monterey’s standard power plant. That was upped the following year with an optional 312 cubic inch V8 capable of producing 235 horse power.
            A two year cycle had begun for the Monterey. A third generation car was made showing a drastic redesign on a longer wheel base was manufactured for the 1957 and 1958 model years. 1959 and 1960 saw a fourth generation of the Monterey.
            Changes slowed somewhat after that with changes to the body style, larger engine offerings and more features and safety equipment being made both standard and optional through 1974 when the car was discontinued. The car was still selling well when it was discontinued. Over seven million of the full sized models were sold between 1969 and 1974. But the fuel crisis and new government standards and regulations made Ford rethink all of its full sized cars and one of the casualties was the Monterey.

            The Monterey shown here is a 1953 model that featured that unique front bumper and one of the first MercMatic automatic transmission offering.