August 31, 2015 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on Roadtrip Misery in the Red Bug, or Why I Reenlisted
I was the proud owner of a bright red 1972 VW Super Beetle, which replaced my beloved 1968 Plymouth Valiant Signet. The Bug had dealer-installed air conditioning (I lived in South Florida), but from what I could tell, the electrical system was not beefed up to deal with this additional load. I was used to replacing voltage regulators every few months, as the contacts kept pitting and welding themselves shut. I also added a CB radio (oh, did I mention this was about 1976?). To keep the electrical noise to a minimum (moving the antenna as far away from the engine as possible), I attached a long whip antenna to my front bumper, which meant the optimum radiation pattern was behind me. Appropriately, my handle was Redbug. The “Redbug” got a lot of unwanted attention, as it had one of those extractor exhaust systems, from which the fiberglass packing had long since blown out. It was loud. Amazingly, I was never stopped for noise pollution. Read more
June 30, 2013 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on Miami’s Automotive Gem – Miami’s Auto Museum at the Dezer Collection
A recent issue of Old Cars Weekly contained an article about an automotive museum located in North Miami, the Dezer Collection, about 60 miles from my home in Palm Beach County, Florida. I knew about this museum for some time, but was taken aback at the admission price of $40 to see the entire collection, housed in two buildings. Admittedly, operating a museum of any kind is a very expensive labor of love. Acquisition, restoration, decoration, and the rest are costly, not to mention the cost of utilities, property taxes, etc. That said, I had to be in Fort Lauderdale that morning (about halfway between my home and the museum), so I had a good excuse to go. Read more
April 28, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on Diesel Delights
I love my diesel car! There. I’ve said it. Yes, those slow, smoky, stinky diesels with the filthy gas pumps, and the warnings from service station attendants (cashiers) who sometimes run outside to caution me not to put diesel fuel in my car—that’s only for trucks! Well, maybe that was yesterday’s diesel. Today’s diesel cars have come a long way, baby. Modern diesel-powered cars, usually supplied with turbochargers, can really push you back in your seat if you understand the limitations (more later). Read more
April 13, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on Odd and Interesting Cars as Seen in 1960s Fort Lauderdale
I don’t know what it is about South Florida, and Fort Lauderdale in particular. It’s a magnet for so many things: insurance fraud, mail fraud, illegal gambling, drug distribution, and political corruption on a scale that would exhaust a whole team of district attorneys, though Palm Beach County, where I now live, is trying very hard to beat Fort Lauderdale and Broward County’s sleazy record.
I was four years old when, following the death of my father, my mother bundled us all up in our brand new ’59 Chevy Parkwood Station Wagon and moved us to Fort Lauderdale in July of 1959. After living in Indianapolis, this truly was a paradise, and especially for lovers of oddball cars, both foreign and domestic. Read more
March 23, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on My Rides From Heck
Larry Grinnell talks about his misadventures with his first few cars.
I’ve been a car nut (many of my friends would just say that I’m a nut—I’m in the process of interviewing a new set of friends) for a lot of years, and I’ve had encounters with lots of interesting iron–especially my first two cars.
There I was, 16 years old. No job, no car, no prospects, and my senior year of high school to get through (yeah, I skipped a grade, but that’s another story for another time). I was an active member of my local antique car club, getting to the meetings by either caging rides from other members who lived close by, taking the bus (for what limited service was available before the county took it over), or, once I got my license, borrowing one of the family cars. Read more
March 18, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on David E. Davis Returns to Car and Driver Magazine
The July issue of Car and Driver, venerable automotive fanboy mag, added a new contributing editor to its masthead. David E. Davis, Jr. (never “Dave”) was editor in chief of Car and Driver (henceforth C/D) from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. He took the magazine to some of its greatest heights as well as some of its most outrageous moments. After working as an advertising copywriter and magazine writer, Davis took over C/D in the mid-60s and transformed a Road & Track clone into a unique and iconoclastic voice of the motoring press, and one of the flagship publications of the Ziff-Davis publishing empire. Read more
March 17, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on How I Got to Sit in the Enola Gay and Other Youthful Excursions
My siblings and I spent several weeks with our sister and brother, Jan and Art, in McLean, VA, every summer. On one of these visits, one evening my parents and adult siblings went to a party. Their regular sitter was unavailable to take care of my kid sister and brother (MyMac Magazine’s own Guy Serle), my niece and nephew, Chris and Doug, and of course me, at the ripe old age of 13. Our substitute sitter, Rick Smith, was the younger brother of one of Jan’s regular sitters (whose name escapes me at the moment). Read more
March 17, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on iPhones and Local Events for “Car Guys”
I took advantage of a rare treat today. I paid a visit to Cars of Dreams, a private museum dedicated to cars of the 50s and 60s, owned by S. Florida resident John Staluppi, who owns a number of car dealerships in the Northeast US. He only opens this museum to the public three times per year, and also makes his wonderful museum available to an additional small number of private events throughout the year (I attended a lavish party that was part of the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction event back in 2008).
His automotive tastes parallel mine for the most part—especially the great chrome barges of the 50s. Some highlights include a nearly complete collection of Chrysler 300 lettercars. These were among of the first musclecars, but unlike the relatively inexpensive musclecars from the 60s (Roadrunners, Mustangs, Malibus, etc.), the Chrysler 300 was a very expensive, luxurious supercar. Using the best engine and carburetion technology available at the time, the first model, the 1955 C-300, offered the well-heeled customer 300 horsepower, using the legendary Hemi engine of 331 cubic inches, with twin four-barrel carburetors (don’t even ask about the mileage!). Subsequent models used lettered suffices, so that the 1956 model was a 300-B, the ’57 a 300-C, and so on, until the end of the lettercar series in 1965 with the 300-L. These were limited production automobiles; usually fewer than 2,000 were produced each year. Well, Mr. Staluppi has acquired examples of all but the final two years. It’s interesting to note that it took a large hemi V-8 and 8 barrels of carburetion to achieve 300 horsepower. Ford is now achieving the same 300 horsepower with their stock V-6 offered in their new Mustang.
Other outstanding cars in the Cars of Dreams collection include two 1960 Dodge Polaras—a convertible and a two-door hardtop, both with the extremely rare D-500 option of twin four-barrel carburetors attached to long tubes that impart some supercharging effect without the addition of an actual supercharger. There are several lovely Buick Roadmaster convertibles of 1955 and 1957 vintage, and the exceedingly rare 1958 Buick Limited convertible. The Limited was a one-year only model that tried to outchrome and out Cadillac the Cadillac brand. This is one of my favorites from the collection. Unfortunately, Buick introduced this model into the 1958 “Eisenhower Recession,” and a general disdain by car buyers of the overwrought, overchromed, and overweight cruisers of the time. This recession effectively killed the Edsel (there is one Edsel in the collection) before it had a chance to make it on its questionable merits, and spelled final doom for the Desoto brand (no Desotos in the Cars of Dreams collection). There are a number of Corvettes in the collection, including the first car owned by Staluppi, a 1964 model. There are also examples of Plymouths, Fords, Chevrolets, a bathtub Nash from 1950, flashy Pontiacs, firetrucks, police cars, a ton of 60s musclecars, and much more.
Below, view a ten-minute video about this amazing museum on YouTube.
The museum was opened today (November 7th 2010) to benefit the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, who sponsored a Classic Car, Truck, and Motorcycle show in the vast parking lot adjacent to the museum (which was a former department store). I’m sure I can speak for the community in thanking Mr. Staluppi for making his exceptional museum available to the public, and I can certainly understand why he limits access to just a few days a year. There are just too many opportunities for damage to the cars and the delightful décor, which was not designed for high traffic, and just the basic wear and tear to everything that a museum such as this would cause.
Oh, I did say I was going to talk about the iPhone. I am, in the context of visiting this museum. I figured, what the heck—I’ve got my nice new iPhone with a built-in multi-megapixel camera, which includes a spotlight-flash. The overall lighting scheme in the museum is somewhat subdued, with carefully adjusted spotlights on each car. This created a challenge for my iPhone’s camera. When using available light, the images were pretty dark (maybe some time in a photo editor will improve things). When I tried to use the “flash”, it created hotspots, especially when it hit some of the excesses of chrome that make up most of the cars from the 1950s. So, in a nutshell, my results were mixed, and I probably would have had much better luck with my regular Nikon S8000 digital camera. This is something you iPhone 4 users out there need to consider. From what I’ve seen thus far, the iPhone 4 camera is better suited for well-lit inside areas or for outside photography. Or maybe it just couldn’t deal with the acres of chrome…
Sadly, as of December 2012, the Cars of Dreams collection is no more. Owner John Staluppi decided it was time to move on to other things. The auction, managed by RM Auctions, brought record prices for most items in the collection. It will be missed. There were few places where such a wonderful collection of the best of the 1950s and 1960s could be seen.
March 17, 2012 by Larry Grinnell · Comments Off on Love Them Furrin Cars!
In this blog, I wax nostalgic about those wild and wacky imported cars of the 1950s and 1960s that came to American shores.
Back in the 1950s, following the devastation of World War II, many European and Asian countries were working hard to get back on their feet, financially and every other way. One key item in this was the need to bring in foreign currency to bolster their own currency. Even the victors in Europe were bankrupt. The cry in England was “export or die!” Also in England (and elsewhere), precious raw materials (and war debt) needed to be paid for in “hard currency” (US dollars or precious metals like gold), which resulted in a policy that limited the amount of finished goods available to the local population–so that the vast majority of manufacturer’s production was exported, which brought in more hard currency to pay war debt and to import raw materials, etc.
The Marshall Plan, beginning in 1948, brought in much investment and access to low-interest loans to again help get these destroyed countries back on their feet. Germany’s “economic miracle” couldn’t have happened without access to grants and cheap loans to rebuild their devastated national infrastructure.
Most of these countries figured out right away that exporting automobiles to the U.S. would be a direct path to riches beyond their wildest dreams. What they didn’t count on was the fact that:
- Americans really didn’t like those little “furrin cars,”
- Road conditions in the US were more suited to larger, overbuilt, slow-revving power-plants and pillowy rides on those long stretches of highway and rapidly appearing superhighways, whereas the “foreign jobs” with their high revving engines and tight suspensions were better suited to urban or short distance travel,
- Many of these cars cost as much or even more than an equivalent American car, so that “pound for pound,” American cars were a better value,
- People who drove those small foreign cars were looked upon with suspicion in a time when McCarthyism still ruled (the stereotypical foreign car owner was a college professor who wore a beret and had leather patches on his corduroy jacket sleeves–very subversive!),
- At 20 cents a gallon or less, gasoline was so cheap, economy was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind–so what if a new Buick got 12 miles per gallon–a new Buick in the driveway sent out the signal you were a success!
Into this mix came the first postwar cars from Germany, France, England, Italy, Sweden, and some of the Eastern European countries.
|1957 Buick Roadmaster||1954 Volkswagen||1954 Austin A30||1960 Morris Minor Traveler|
|1955 Jaguar 2.4||1953 Triumph Mayflower||1950s Ford Prefect||Renault 4CV|
In 1948, the first two Volkswagens were imported into the U.S. Sporting a design that was already almost 15 years old, these woefully underpowered cars with savage handling characteristics, lousy brakes, unsynchronized transmission, and a heater that was little more than a joke (it consisted of air that the engine cooling fan asthmatically moved across the engine cylinders which was then ducted into the passenger cabin) were seen as objects of amusement.
More popular were the sports cars being brought back to the U.S. by members of the American military occupation forces returning home. This is what put the MG roadsters on the map, and what encouraged the management at MG to begin exporting their roadsters and sedans in larger numbers to America. Other British manufacturers began doing the same: Austin, Morris, Jaguar, Standard (parent of Triumph), Ford of England, and others began showing up in showrooms around the US. The British seemed to understand more than most that they needed to make cars that the Americans wanted to buy. They eschewed the mundane little Austins, Wolseleys, Singers, Standards, and other sedans and instead focused on exporting their popular sports cars to the States.
By the early 1950s, French cars like Renault, with their modern 4CV, Simca (formerly Ford’s French division), and Peugeot were being imported. Fiats from Italy; Saabs and Volvos from Sweden; and a whole bunch of interesting cars from Germany, such as the BMW Isetta, DKW 3=6, Goggomobil, Borgward, Lloyd, and the more mainstream Porsche and Mercedes-Benz established their presence in the New World. Later on in the 50s, the French Citroen with its over-the-top styling and brilliant engineering, and Dutch DAF with its unique belt-driven CVT transmission widely used today came upon the scene, just in time to see several venerable American brands like Packard, Nash, and Hudson fade away.
By the mid 1950s, there was no escaping them. Volkswagen and Renault vied for the top sales rung for imports. Volkswagen ultimately won because they made the decision early on to build a strong U.S. presence with a carefully-controlled and managed dealer network with strong ties to the factory. Renault and most of the rest handed out franchises to anyone who asked for one, and did not set up an efficient parts distribution system. They soon discovered this was a big mistake. As mentioned above, these little European cars were not really all that well-suited to American driving conditions, except perhaps for the little Volkswagen. The little 2, 3, or 4 cylinder engines starting at about 40 cubic inches and 20 horsepower (when a Buick had a powerful 364 cubic inch, 300 horsepower V8), were not designed to run flat-out all day and broke quite often. To maintain a semblance of reliability, these little cars required rigorous adherence to the manufacturer’s service schedule, while a typical American car never saw the service bay unless it required repairs. More often than not, when using one of these little French or German or British cars on long trips, American drivers would find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere with the nearest dealer some 250 miles (or more) away, and that dealer might not be able to get parts for a month or more. As you can imagine, that especially hurt the marginal auto brands who had virtually no parts distribution system (anyone got an exhaust expansion chamber for a ’58 Wartburg?). But when used as intended, for around-town use, as a “second car” for the “little woman”, they worked quite well, indeed.
|1960s Citroen DS21||1965 DAF 31||1950s Porsche Speedster||1963 Wartburg 311|
|1961 Simca Aronde P60||1950s Peugeot 403||Fiat 600 Multipla||1959 Saab 93|
|1950s BMW Isetta||1965 Auto Union/DKW 1000||1950s Goggomobil||1950s Borgward Isabella|
Then came 1958 and a brief economic recession, coupled with the American buying public’s emerging distaste at the “planned obsolescence” and complete over-the-top styling of the typical American car of the day. Buyers stayed away from the traditional top 10 manufacturer’s showrooms in droves. The only American manufacturers who were seeing increased sales were Studebaker (briefly pulled out of their death throes, to which they ultimately succumbed in 1966) with their heavily-decontented Scotsman model, and Rambler, who had dusted off the tooling of a 1955 compact and put it back in production as the Rambler American. Among foreign cars, this was the last year that Renault, with their new Dauphine model, beat Volkswagen in sales. This was also the year that Detroit stood up and took notice of the situation, by bringing in cars they sold in other countries to their American dealerships. Buick got the German Opel, which was styled to look like a big finny American car, at 2/3 scale. Pontiac got the British Vauxhall, which, due to poor business and material management, managed to produce cars with steel that had been sitting outside in the elements for months at a time, so they literally shipped cars around the world that were pre-rusted, though owners didn’t see the results of this for a year or two. The 1958/59 Vauxhall Victor looked like a scaled-down ’58 Oldsmobile, which, to some, wasn’t exactly a good thing. Studebaker cut a distribution deal with Daimler-Benz to put Mercedes-Benz and DKW products into their showrooms, which did nothing but harm the Mercedes-Benz brand (and did little or nothing to further the DKW/Auto Union brand), and the deal was cancelled by 1962. In the early 1960s, Chrysler, realizing it didn’t have any “captive imports” bought the only major auto manufacturer in Europe that was willing to be purchased (something that should have set off alarm bells!), Rootes Motors. Rootes was a British manufacturer who had consolidated a number of products prior to the Chrysler takeover, including such “distinguished” brands as Hillman, Singer, Humber, Sunbeam, and the French Simca concern. This gave Chrysler a number of captive imports that they sold through the 1970s, before selling the remains to Peugeot in 1978. Ford offered a number of products from England and Germany at Ford dealerships throughout the 1950s and early 60s, though sales were barely a blip.
Japan was really late to the game. The first Japanese imports didn’t hit California until the late 1950s, and had zero impact in the midwest or eastern US until the late 1960s.
Captive import sales were never all that great, and the blame for that can be placed directly in the hands of the dealer and their sales force. With lower purchase prices, the commissions were less, and for the dealer, the profits were less–on vehicles that were forced on them by the “big boys” in Detroit. Furthermore, the sales force did not receive sufficient training in how to sell these “different” vehicles, so they preferred to steer potential customers toward the “big iron” Detroit products. The old saying went that “for just a few dollars more a week, I can get you into this Buick Special! Why would you want an Opel?”
|1961 Mercedes-Benz 180||1961 Lloyd Arabella||1958 Studebaker Scotsman||1958 Rambler American|
|1959 Opel Rekord P1||1958 Vauxhall Victor||1958 Oldsmobile Convertible||1960s Hillman Minx|
One interesting sidenote of Chrysler’s takeover of Rootes, was the story of the popular Sunbeam Tiger roadster. The Tiger was developed by Carroll Shelby of Ford Cobra fame, as a lower-cost version of the Cobra. Shelby’s engineers took the plucky little Alpine and stuffed a small Ford V-8 under the hood. With Chrysler now in charge, they couldn’t really market a product with the engine made by a competitor, and their own small V8 wouldn’t fit, so they killed the Tiger, in spite of decent sales figures.
|1960 Singer Gazelle||1959 Humber||1960s Sunbeam Alpine||1950s Toyota Crown|
By the end of the 1960s, it was all over for the marginal automakers. With the introduction of American safety and exhaust emission standards, it became much too expensive for most European manufacturers to attempt to compete here unless they had sufficient sales numbers to justify the extensive and expensive modifications to their products to make them legal for sale in the U.S. Additionally, car buyers began expecting more in their new vehicles. The small, crude econoboxes of the 1950s were, for now-prosperous Europeans, a sad reminder of the bad old days. Now they could afford nicer vehicles with larger engines, roomy cabins, and all the conveniences formerly reserved for the wealthy. It took a little longer in Japan, but by the mid 1970s, even cars of the Kei car class (with engines smaller than about 360 cc until later legislation permitted larger engines) were much more luxurious.
All that said, being a “baby boomer” born in the 1950s, I remember oh so well not only the enormous chrome barges of the late 50s that I still love so well, but also the really unusual imports. South Florida, magnet for all things weird and unusual, seemed to be a magnet for these oddball cars, too. In my own neighborhood in suburban Fort Lauderdale during the early-mid 1960s, we had things like a Morris Minor wood-bodied station wagon, a Hillman Minx, a Borgward Isabella, an MG Magnette, a 3-cylinder two-stroke Saab, an early 50s Volkswagen, a Renault Caravelle (a Dauphine with a roadster body–kind of like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear), and in my own parents’ driveway, a Simca Aronde P60 sedan. There were plenty of Fiats and English Fords, too (my older brother’s buddy had a mid 50s Ford Prefect which he used to show off by starting it with the hand crank).
|1950s Volvo PV444||1964 Renault Caravelle||1950s Renault Dauphine||1958 MG Magnette|
Note: all the images I used in this blog came from the Wikipedia Commons site at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Automobile_manufacturers.