Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Death of Styling

When automobiles first meandered onto the roads their designs were purely mechanical. Car bodies were designed simply to fit over the running gear and provide rudimentary protection for the passengers. Aside from some high-end European luxury cars, most automobiles were simple and bland. Henry Ford famously offered his working man's Model T in only black paint to further simplify the manufacturing process of something that was regarded as an appliance.

In America, General Motors is usually credited with being the first mainstream manufacturer to embrace the idea of 'styling' with the formation of the "Art and Colour" division, headed by a talented young man named Harley Earl. With some successes and a few flops this new department catered to the notion that, in a sea of competing brands, the implementation of attractive and unique visual impact could help sell more cars. And it did.

The pinnacle for automobile styling to me were the 1950s. Earl, Bill Mitchell, Raymond Loewy (who designed the Coca-Cola bottle) and others embraced the 'jet age' with not just tail fins but creatively creased body panels, cheerful two-tone paint schemes and lots of chrome--sometimes to excess. Even the much-maligned Edsel of 1958 showed creativity and uniqueness, but it's failure ushered in an era of more conservative styling in the 1960s.

The decade of the Corvair and Mustang still embraced styling as a means of distinguishing one car from another. Suspension and drivetrains had progressed only marginally from  the preceding decade but the monocoque 'unibody' was slowly taking over from the traditional body-on-frame type of construction that harken back to the buggy era. Though some homogenization between similar brands started to take hold, the designs were still unique and few would confuse a Chevy with a Pontiac.Cars of this era today still mostly look fresh, appealing and distinctive.

The troubled 1970s brought us a flood of imports all bearing their own unique twists (or clever copies) of design. While American cars stumbled about trying to retain buyers by utilizing gimmicks such as 'opera windows' and half vinyl roofs, Japan, Inc. brought in cars like the Toyota Celica, Datsun B210 and 240Z. BMW showed us what a proper sedan should be. Volkswagen introduced us to the Rabbit, a genius take on what was called the 'hatchback'. Where the domestic designs showed desperation, the imports showed us another way to look at simplicity in design without resorting to total blandness.

Where things went wrong, in my opinion, was the 1980s. With the implementation of CAFE standards and continued emphasis on fuel economy the wind tunnel began to dictate car design. The Audi 5000 was the first of the cars that begat the Ford Taurus, a design that catered to smooth lines over attractiveness. Though these cars were highly successful I don't think most buyers bought them because they had eye appeal. The 'euro' look brought us the 1979 Mustang, a car that was ultimately successful but was the first to depart from the design elements that brand had carried from it's inception in 1964. The SN95 Mustang of 1994, though a clumsy design by today's standards, returned many of the Mustang's design cues such as the side scoops and return of the pony emblem to the grille. Most other vehicles continued as slaves to the wind tunnel, becoming ever more egg-shaped in their need to eek out another .1 mile per gallon. To distinguish one car from another designers took to creating 'brand' specific grilles. Audi and Lexus are the two most visual offenders in this, with ridiculously large air inlets that detract rather than enhance the look of their cars. Unable to crease sheet metal solely for the purpose of appearance designers now give us panels creased to work with the passing air as the primary goal. The results are rarely truly appealing and often become quickly dated.

All of this contributed to the popularity of the retro styling craze we recently enjoyed but is now sadly waning. In a sea of egg-shaped pods with side creases that swoop to oblivion the retro look stood out. The Challenger, Mustang and (to a much lesser extent) Camaro may be regarded as copies of old designs...but they were good designs that have stood the test of time. The blandness and occasional offensiveness of current automobile styling is just one factor in the demise of the car as we know it. An over-abundance of technology and sterilization of the driving experience also contribute. Though cars today may perform better than ever before I am finding it more difficult to care.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Less Is More

In an upcoming entry I'll discuss my belief that automotive styling is, for the most part, dead. I believe the success of the retro craze--which has now mostly dissipated, it seems--was a response to the uninspiring designs of a majority of today's cars. A modern take on a classic look proved to be a sales success, yet some persist on taking classic looks and making them barely recognizable.

A large part of it is the desire to personalize one's own car. When Detroit (or Stuttgart or any other factory) cranks out tens of thousands of a model they are often differentiated only by color. In the 1960s manufacturers assisted owners in creating an individual car via the long option list. Ticking certain boxes while ignoring others could result in a car being "one of one", or at least one of very few. The chances you would encounter an identically optioned car in your area of residence would likely be quite small. These unique build sheets of equipment today make some cars more valuable and interesting than others. Unfortunately in the quest for cost containment the option sheets have typically shrunk to a few 'packages'. Though a Pony Package S197 is rare-er they are hardly rare.

Today's solution lies with the aftermarket. For any moderately popular model of vehicle there will be catalogs and web sites teeming with personalizing accessories for your vehicle of choice. When I first picked up a catalog for S197s I was astounded by the myriad of 'billet' aluminum doodads one could screw or snap onto their car. Having attended a fair number of shows I've observed some cars that appear to have rolled through the Mustangs Unlimited warehouse with a super strong magnet in the trunk (of course, billet aluminum doesn't respond to magnets but you get the point). Little dress-up items like door lock knobs are nothing new and have been around since J.C. Whitney first put out a catalog. I succumbed to adding an aluminum shift knob and door lock pulls to my own S197 to replace parts that were worn or cheap looking. These little touches move it slightly away from production line and make it my own along with the dual exhaust conversion, GT rear bumper, GT500 rear spoiler and little plastic chin spoiler I added under the front bumper. I'm not certain I'm done sticking things onto the car as the blackout rear deck panels beckon along with tail lamp trim to match. But my endeavors to change the car's appearance are held in what I believe to be strict accordance with the spirit of the original design. S197 harkens back to the 67-68 Mustang, and to a lesser extent the 69-70 models. Most of my changes are in keeping with that specific style of vehicle and thus look like 'factory' options to my eye.

Where I often cringe are seeing the addition of an array of scoops, spoilers and skirts that significantly change the appearance of the base vehicle. Though I like and respect the changes someone like Chip Foose may make to a classic production car it often seems that these 'catalog' parts do little to improve upon an original design. The featured car above has an 'Eleanor' kit which is an assemblage of parts that try to make a classic car look like...I'm not sure what. It isn't really modern. It isn't mimicking a race car. The Eleanor package seems to have a purpose of simply making the car 'different' and I don't think it works at all.

Side note:  bad enough the car is--to me, anyway--hideous; that it isn't a real Eleanor (which is a 1973 Mustang and a topic for a future entry) adds further insult.

Changing up a car so drastically has me beg the question:  If you bought a classic or retro Mustang because of the way it looks then why are you so intent on changing how it looks? my own changes/additions to my S197 then make me a hypocrite? I suppose this comes down to "It's your car; do with it as you like". Just don't expect the rest of us to like what you've done. If your motivation to personalize is to make it more pleasing to yourself I suppose I have no quarrel. If customizing your car is done simply to get the attention of others then I think you need to review your thinking.

The artists that penned these cars had great vision and talent, no different than the engineers who designed the engines under the hoods. Perhaps some things are best left to the professionals. Sometimes less is more.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Is "Roadkill" Saving The Old Car Hobby?

When I was coming of age in the 1970s with a rabid interest in cars of all types my parents frequently took me to antique car shows. I always had an interest in old machinery of all kinds and developed a healthy respect for history and preservation. One of the unintended consequences of being exposed to the world of restored cars was that I developed a single-minded view that historic vehicles should remain as originally built and--with rare exceptions for 'survivor' cars--returned to as-new condition. To allow a vehicle to languish with signs of age and neglect was nothing short of a crime.

With the completion of my first--and only--restoration of my Fiat 124 Spider I found myself with a very pretty car that replicated perfectly the feel of a 1970 inexpensive Italian sports car. It also had it's share of shortcomings as a result. The bright red paint and new chrome was beautiful but it came with a burden; the constant worry of damage from a flying stone or too-close jacket zipper. Worse still was my paranoia of water and salt that might reignite the ever-present rust lurking beneath the surface of any old car. Though I enjoyed the car for two dozen years the constant pampering to preserve it's appearance detracted somewhat from the joy of using it.

As adulthood brought increased drains on time and finances subsequent 'projects' often became simple tasks of preservation. My 1965 F100 was a delightful truck but with a slowly failing repaint and small blossoms of corrosion. I had to accept that I could not give it the proper restoration it needed in the near future and sold it on after ten years. Too nice to keep outside but with too many body issues to ignore, it fell in-between usable classic and show-worthy collectible. I distanced myself from old cars and trucks, choosing instead to buy S197 and relish the classic look with modern durability and no ill effects from fifty or more years of having lived in the world.

During my constant browsing of all things Mustang I came across the YouTube videos for Motor Trend's online show "Roadkill". Co-host David Freiburger has long been associated with Hot Rod magazine and the cars that grace their pages. The apparent premise of "Roadkill" is to find old cars on the verge of death and resurrect them to the point of being useable without the bother or expense of fixing the cosmetics. Though some of the projects would certainly be ill-advised or bordering on the absurd they are always fun to watch as well as educational. One of the show's repeating propositions is to enter a junkyard, find an interesting car or truck and resurrect it to driving condition. Predictably my favorite of these is the 1969 Mach 1 they nicknamed 'Disgustang', a car filled with various types of animal excrement. Though a hilarious series on car repair it also resulted in the saving of a classic otherwise destined for the crusher. Donuts and burnouts were generated with glee. The car was ridiculous fun despite it's haggard appearance.

Apparently my enjoyment of the shows is not singular. Search 'junkyard rescue' on YouTube and you'll find many other videos by others mimicking the "Roadkill" script. Channels such as Junkyard Diggs and Dylan McCool prove equally compelling. The great thing about these channels is that the participants are typically young guys of a generation many of us have dismissed as not being interested in the same cars we are. It is greatly heartening to see a twenty-something guy getting dirty and resurrecting some forgotten vehicle of the 1960s or 1970s. Cars and trucks even I wouldn't have thought were worth bothering with are finding their way back onto the road. They may not ever shine brightly or win trophies at car shows but they are not getting lost to the crusher...and are teaching another generation about how great old stuff can be.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

More Is Less - The Unloved 4-Door Sedan

Growing up in the 1970s it was by then generally accepted that 'cool' cars were two door hardtops. This trend had a few small steps in the 1950s from cars like the Studebaker Hawk or even the tri-five Chevys. The pillar-less look became de rigueur and even became applied to four door sedans and wagons. Into the sixties with the advent of the pony car and other sporty coupes the more practical four-door became the car for people who preferred practicality over style. In other words, people who didn't much care about cars or style bought them.

Today the four door sedan is ubiquitous, even in a sea of SUVs. Two door cars sell poorly unless they are sporty cars like Mustangs. So undesired is the two door car today that Dodge manufactures the Charger as a sedan. This is not to say that cars with more than two doors are necessarily boring. The Cadillac CTS-V, Impala SS, Taurus SHO and any number of German cars all provide performance in a multi-door package. There has been a near one hundred eighty degree shift in buyer wants and demands since the heady pony car days of the 1960s. Yet if you are a fan of cars from that period no one will understand you purchasing or restoring a sedan. They aren't regarded as cool and you will find yourself ostracized frequently in a manner familiar to any six cylinder Mustang owner.

With the popularity of sixties muscle/pony cars the prices have risen to sometimes frightening levels. Many enthusiasts are priced out of the market. If you really want a Chevelle, Satellite or Falcon but can't pay the entry fee for a two door hardtop is the four door sedan really an option? Drivetrains were fairly standardized and most anything can be bolted into any chassis. Buy-in is cheap and parts for sedans are not in high demand which should make them affordable (though not necessarily easier to find). The extra doors are practical for families or eminently useful for race cars as roll cages are easier to install and the extra space can be handy for hauling tires and equipment to the track. Lastly, for a certain few of us the uniqueness in a sea of two doors may actually be an attraction.

The Australians regard our obsession with coupes as a little peculiar. Throughout much of the muscle car era they had to make do with high performance versions of standard four door cars such as the Falcon pictured above. Dressed in appropriate muscle car wear and sporting a shaker scoop it is readily apparent what the car is built for. Respected down-under, that same car in the U.S. would likely generate snickers and heads shaking in disbelief. However, I suspect the Aussie Falcon owner is having just as much fun as the American who has two fewer doors.

As I daydream about a future build of a 1960s classic I contemplate the necessity desire to have a two door car as a base from which to work. A sedan would easily cost half as much. Collectible vehicles are often much more about vanity than the machinery itself. The same struggle I had with choosing the V6 Mustang would be repeated with the 1960s Falcon. The question is which is more important--the performance or the appearance?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Meeting Your Heroes

At fifty-three years of age few things make me 'giddy'. Yet here I was riding the Metro into Washington, D.C. to come face to face with an inanimate object that I regarded as a celebrity. My wife and I had driven S197 down from Pennsylvania then boarded the Metro train into the city itself, not wanting to deal with the generally horrid parking situation of the nation's capital. We got off at the National Mall where Bullitt was reportedly on display in a glass case. After climbing the stairs I looked around, not at all sure where exactly Bullitt might be. I had not felt this sort of excitement and anticipation for years.
After some confused wandering I finally caught sight of the display hosted by The Historic Vehicle Association. The exhibit itself was simple but impressive:  a lovely glass display case with the story of the car on placards around the base plus a few kiosk towers with additional information. The arrangement was honestly superior to seeing the car in a museum setting as you could completely circle it and even peer underneath. I later saw photos of the display case lit up at night and it was truly a beautiful sight. Only the reflective nature of the glass detrimentally affecting photography was a negative.
I was a single foot away from the exact same car I had watched countless times on television and computer screens. A car once driven by a man who loved cars, motorcycles and racing as much as I did. Before me was a time capsule you could drive that would take you back to San Francisco in 1968. I was glad we had arrived fairly early in the day and few people surrounded the exhibit so I was able to get a good look.
Bullitt was no spring chicken. The paint patina showed the harsh reality of time a bit more than perhaps photos depict. There were far more dents than I expected and a few rust holes. The headliner was missing. The replaced front bumper, valance and fuel tank looked notably out of place. Bullitt exhibited the wear of several decades but still remained muscular and imposing. The gaping mouth of the grille still looked determined. "Give me another Charger to chase," it seemed to say.
Old Mustangs generally do not age well. They are made of rust-prone metal and economy car parts that were never meant to last more than ten or fifteen years at best. Bullitt did not escape the predictable effects of FoMoCo's cost controls. Despite this the car still retains it's presence. You can almost feel McQueen nearby, watching over it.
I circled the car many times that morning. We spent the day visiting some sights in the capital and then returned for a final look at Bullitt before heading home. I wanted to savor it as much in person as I could for there is no assurance we may ever meet again. Dozens of people wandered past as I stared. Many did not know Bullitt the movie but nodded half-knowingly when they saw it was in a Steve McQueen film. A few onlookers I overheard spouting nonsensical 'facts' about the car to impress those they were with. I also had conversations with two other men who were probably my age or slightly older. We all knew the car, the movie and what it meant. We shared our knowledge and admiration in reverent tones and nodded solemnly while staring at the object on the other side of the glass. For a handful of us we had finally met a childhood hero.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Bullitt Mustang and Why It Matters

Growing up car obsessed I made it a point to watch every car movie I found out about. This was not so easy back in the 1970s before streaming video, cable channels, DVDs or even VHS tapes. The only way to see films during that period was in the theater when they were released or on late night television. During a discussion with some adult friends about movies with cars I was told I had to see Bullitt. I'd never heard of it, probably because it was released when I was all of four years old. Luckily, not long after being told about it I found it playing on television. I sat through quite a bit of a detective story featuring an actor I'd heard of but knew little about: Steve McQueen. Finally, McQueen gets into his 1968 Mustang fastback and is followed by two thugs in a Dodge Charger. The next ten minutes changed my life.

Much has been written about the chase through San Francisco and how it set the standard for nearly every car chase that followed. I won't elaborate on it here. The most important thing to me was that from that point onward there would only ever be one pinnacle Mustang, a 1968 Highland Green fastback. Over the years I became a bit of an aficionado of car chase movies. I watched and re-watched them, studying the camera angles, the driving prowess and the mistakes. I read everything I could about the cars used and the stunt men who drove them. Naturally, I also had a curiosity to what happened to the original vehicles used in the production. Most often the cars were completely used up and scrapped or sometimes returned to the manufacturer who provided them. The Bullitt Mustangs (there were two), however, were something of a mystery. Nobody seemed to know for certain what their fate was, although somewhere I read a rumor that one existed in a barn in New Jersey. Oh, to be the guy who found that car!

In 2017 the carcass of the Bullitt stunt car was found in a Mexican junkyard. It returned to the U.S. where it was restored but having seen photos of the remains I oddly remained unexcited about it. The 'jump' car had been pretty badly damaged during filming and what remained was mostly a shell with a serial number. I was glad it had surfaced but was never particularly excited about it.

In January of this year I had a completely different reaction when the Bullitt 'hero' Mustang that had been in most of the beauty shots and driven by McQueen was brought into public view after remaining hidden for fifty years. The most incredible thing about the hero car was it had never been restored nor modified. After being exhaustively verified by multiple sources that proved it was THE Bullitt Mustang the car was shown to the world at the Detroit Auto Show. The incredible story of this car can be read here. The intoxicating blend of history, car movie icon and my love of unrestored original vehicles affected me like nothing else I can remember.

The Bullitt Mustang is more than just a car or a movie prop. I have unapologetically referred to it as The Most Famous Car In The World. No other single car in popular culture comes close. I don't count the 'Bandit' Trans Am or 'General Lee' Charger because they were not single cars (somewhere around 300 Chargers were used over the span of the Dukes Of Hazzard television show). There were only ever two Bullitt Mustangs, one of which barely existed before a massive restoration. The hero car was and is an icon. Anyone who knew anything about cars and car movies knew:  1968 Mustang Fastback, Highland Green, GT390, Torq Thrust wheels.

That this car had survived intact was both incredible and inspiring. It was almost as if here was a car that had proven you could cheat death in some way. I'm not sure how else to explain it. The tired patina of dull paint and oxidation is a direct timeline to the days of McQueen smoking the tires in front of the cameras. Bullitt the car is a time machine that takes us back to a different era with different heroes, a time when very daring men drove ill-handling cars at high speeds for no purpose other than to thrill a theater audience. The Historic Vehicle Association who authenticated Bullitt has the motto 'This Car Matters'. All of the cars they authenticate matter...but Bullitt matters to so many of us because it was a pop culture phenomenon.

The story I link to above is a fascinating one. Why it remained hidden for so long may be explained in the upcoming documentary film being done about the car. Many people have criticized the Kiernans for keeping the car secret for so many decades. Having read as much as I could about the car and the family that owned it I have become more understanding. Bob Kiernan--and now his son Sean--have been stewards of a colossal piece of American popular culture. They may not have done as we would have preferred but in the end I think they 'done good'. Sean Kiernan has promised to share the car with the world. That task comes with incredible responsibility. A lesser man would have taken the easy way out and put it on the block at Barrett-Jackson. The value of Bullitt? Certainly in the millions, and that can be a pretty terrifying thing for an average guy from Tennessee to cope with.

Bullitt is to be displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. next month. I will be there to see it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Poseur, or Righting a Wrong?

One of the things that always bothered me about my V6 Mustang was the single outlet exhaust. While the original six cylinder Mustangs had a solo exit it was partly due to the engine being an inline six instead of the common 'vee' configuration of today. Running duals with a straight six is possible but not terribly common. Making a set of twin outlets for a V6 is generally easier. For the S197 there are several companies that actually make conversions that bolt on with relative ease.

My desire for dual pipes was based solely on the aesthetic; I thought the single muffler and tailpipe simply made the car look unbalanced from the rear. Six cylinders or not, the car--a Mustang--simply should have twin pipes at the back. I had no delusions of a dual system increasing power by itself nor was I particularly interested in making it louder. The rather large displacement 4.0 does make a nice almost-but-not-quite V8 burble through much of the rev range. My worry was that a different system may make it sound less like an American small block and more like an Asian sports car.

Much like the pedestal spoiler I disliked so much the single muffler gnawed at me. Unlike the wing, I couldn't see it while I was in the car but I knew it was still back there looking wrong. The spoiler was an inexpensive fix; the pure vanity exhaust would set me back north of $650. The longer I had the car, the more I wanted to change it. Just as I was about to pull the trigger something unexpected happened.

I received an email from the parent company of American Muscle. They were seeking a 4.0 Mustang for an upcoming video that would compare three different exhausts. The lucky car owner would be able to pick one of the three to keep upon completion of the filming. With zero hope of being picked I filled out the application and emailed it back. I never, ever win anything.

The folks at American Muscle had apparently not been advised I was on some sort of eternal banned-from-winning list and chose my car to use. I was stunned, then ever-so-pleased. I spent hours scouring YouTube for sound clips of the various choices as I tried to make a selection. Arrangements were made, dates were set, changed, then finalized at last. I dropped off my car for three days that turned into a week and a half, though no fault of AM; the weather conspired to make filming outdoors difficult. I didn't mind as S197 is no longer used for anything but weekend fun. I wound up with a free Flowmaster system nicely installed on my car. Additionally, at some point it will be 'internet famous' when the video goes live on their channel. A win for everyone.

Sharing my good fortune with others on social media quickly resulted in the typical mild teasing to the expected 'shoulda just got a V8' commentary, some of the latter who seemed to think it was somewhat dishonest to put duals on a non-V8 Mustang. Sort of 'false advertising' was the likely rationale, or I was simply trying to make it something it is not.

At the risk of sounding defensive--or perhaps I actually am--my Mustang is hardly the only non-pony V6 car out there with dual outlet exhaust. It is commonplace for pedestrian sedans from Ford, Hyundai, Honda and many others to have twin exits protruding from beneath the rear bumper. Nobody questions it; in fact, I doubt most people even take notice. Though once a performance necessity the dual exit exhaust system has morphed into a styling cue available on numerous cars with no sporting pretensions. But, install duals on the 'lesser' pony car and its like those Joker memes from Batman--"Everyone loses their minds".

One must remind themselves on occasion that it is your car and the only person you need please is yourself, though I do take some pleasure in knowing the obsessive-compulsives that may follow me will no longer be bothered by the lopsided appearance of my Mustang's posterior.