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Date: Friday, 15 Oct 2010 03:12

There's a scene in The Matrix that I find very compelling and a metaphor for this particular Car Lust. In this scene, our heroes are walking down a virtual sidewalk filled with a steady stream of completely homogenous professionals garbed in black, white, and dark gray. It's an image of mindless conformity. But then, as a splash of colorful contrast in that colorless setting, there appeared a splash of vivid color--a beautiful woman, clad in a slinky red dress. The effect was so seductive that one of our heroes was distracted into a potentially fatal mistake.

I would compare my work commute to that virtual sidewalk. For a car lover, commuting to work on a crowded interstate is a bit like what I imagine it must be like for an epicure to browse through a greasy-spoon buffet--there's lots of selection available, but very little of it is truly exciting. Yes, every so often I spot a Ferrari 360, an Alfa Romeo 8C, or a Jensen Interceptor knifing through traffic, but for the most part I share my commute with anonymous modern sedans and SUVs, their characterless curves cloaked in stealthy Earth tones.

I was commuting in that drab setting yesterday when, in a flash, I saw my own lady in red. It was a scarlet Alfa Romeo Milano V-6 and it was oh-my-God perfect.

You know how the lady in red in the Matrix caused our hero to do a potentially fatal double-take? Well, I was so thunderstruck that I nearly swerved and caused an Alfa Milano/Audi Coupe GT pileup. I'll bet that specific accident doesn't happen very often.

Not everybody finds the Milano as spellbinding as I do, and I'm guessing its styling has something to do with that. The Milano was introduced in 1985, just as smooth, aerodynamic styling was beginning to revolutionize the way cars looked. The Audi 5000 had already demonstrated to the world just how purposeful an aerodynamic sports sedan could look, and the brand new Ford Taurus was bringing the same religion to the domestics. Within a year, even quirky Saab would introduce a sleek, smooth sports sedan--the 9000 Turbo.

In that context, Alfa Romeo's sports sedan looks like a chunky, angular, oddly proportioned oddity, with a trunkline that looks oddly ... broken. Neither does the Milano have the sensual grace of such Alfa Romeo greats as the Spider or Giulietta, or even the blocky aggressiveness of the GTV-6 sports coupe. What the Milano has on its side is distinctiveness and a feline stance. For better or worse, it looks like no other sedan on the road.

The Milano's dynamics were much less controversial; they were just flat-out excellent. The Milano handled more like a sports car of its time than a typical four-door sedan, primarily because underneath the skin that's eactly what it was. The Milano brought to the party four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a limited-slip differential, and a suspension tuned for agility, but it all worked because the Milano had excellent fundamentals. Many sporty sedans of the time had front-wheel-drive and were front-heavy as a result; the Milano featured rear-wheel drive and only 2,900 pounds of curb weight, distributed evenly between front and rear.

To give that some context, consider the fact that this four-door sports sedan, capable of transporting a family and its gear across the continent in comfort, weighed less and had a more neutral weight distribution than a Porsche Boxster.

In Europe, where the Milano was sold as the 75, it was available with a variety of four-cylinder engines and even a few diesels. In the U.S., however, Milanos came exclusively with Alfa's glorious V-6 in 2.5-liter or, later, 3.0-liter displacements. Regardless of displacement, that V-6 was a thing of beauty, combining an eagerness to rev with a soul-stirring soundtrack.

In its most powerful 3.0-liter form, the V-6 generated 183 horsepower and pushed the Milano from 0-60 in 7.7 seconds and up to a top speed of nearly 140 mph. A modern V-6 Hyundai Sonata can easily beat those numbers, but at the time that was Porsche 944, BMW 635CSi, and Ferrari Mondial territory--stirring performance for a four-door sedan.

The 75 sold well worldwide, but the Milano was far from a mainstream sports sedan choice in America. Between its niche popularity, fickle Italian reliability, limited Alfa Romeo service options, and lots of abuse from boy racers, there aren't many decent Milanos left on the road. That's why both commenter Tommy's Dad and I were so gobsmacked when we independently stumbled across red Seattle-area Milanos yesterday with which we fell in love; mine on the road and his on Craigslist.

I love my Coupe GT and am not in the market for another quirky car at the moment; and even if I was considering a 1980s Italian car it would be a Fiat Spider or an Alfa GTV-6. Yet the siren call of the Milano is such that I'm now wondering how I could work a Milano into my life, possibly as an impromptu track car.

It would be an awful idea, right? Right? Somebody, please talk me down.

The picture of the red Milano after the jump is from the Craigslist ad; the black Milano picture came from a Milano specs page. The video clip below is from Top Gear's Alfa Romeo challenge, in which Jeremy Clarkson picked up an extremely ragged Alfa 75, beat the snot out of it, and loved every minute. Now that's what I'd love to do with a Milano.

--Chris H.

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Date: Thursday, 14 Oct 2010 23:29

There's a scene in The Matrix that I find very compelling and a metaphor for my particular strain of Car Lust. In this scene, our heroes are walking down a virtual sidewalk filled with a steady stream of completely homogenous professionals garbed in black, white, and dark gray. It's an image of mindless conformity. But then, as a splash of colorful contrast in that colorless setting, there appeared a splash of vivid color--a beautiful woman, clad in a slinky red dress. The effect was so seductive that one of our heroes was distracted into a potentially fatal mistake.

I would compare my work commute to that virtual sidewalk. For a car lover, commuting to work on a crowded interstate is a bit like what I imagine it must be like for an epicure to browse through a greasy-spoon buffet--there's lots of selection available, but very little of it is truly exciting. Yes, every so often I spot a Ferrari 360, an Alfa Romeo 8C, or a Jensen Interceptor knifing through traffic, but for the most part I share my commute with anonymous modern sedans and SUVs, their characterless curves cloaked in stealthy Earth tones.

I was commuting in that drab setting yesterday when, in a flash, I saw my own lady in red. And, as you might expect, this seductive automobile was Italian and also red. Specifically, it was a scarlet Alfa Romeo Milano V-6 and it was oh-my-God perfect.

You know how the lady in red in the Matrix caused our hero to do a potentially fatal double-take? Well, I was so thunderstruck that I  nearly swerved and caused an Alfa Milano/Audi Coupe GT pileup. I'll bet that specific accident doesn't happen very often.

Not everybody finds the Milano as spellbinding as I do, and I'm guessing its styling has something to do with that. The Milano was introduced in 1985, just as smooth, aerodynamic styling was beginning to revolutionize the way cars looked. The Audi 5000 had already demonstrated to the world just how purposeful an aerodynamic sports sedan could look, and the brand new Ford Taurus was bringing the same religion to the domestics. Within a year, even quirky Saab would introduce a sleek, smooth sports sedan--the 9000 Turbo.

In that context, Alfa Romeo's sports sedan looks like a chunky, angular, oddly proportioned oddity, with a trunkline that looks oddly ... broken. Neither does the Milano have the sensual grace of such Alfa Romeo greats as the Spider or Giulietta, or even the blocky aggressiveness of the GTV-6 sports coupe. What the Milano has on its side is distinctiveness and a feline stance. For better or worse, it looks like no other sedan on the road.

The Milano's dynamics were much less controversial; they were just flat-out excellent. The Milano handled more like a sports car of its time than a typical four-door sedan, primarily because underneath the skin that's eactly what it was. The Milano brought to the party four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a limited-slip differential, and a suspension tuned for agility, but it all worked because the Milano had excellent fundamentals. Many sporty sedans of the time had front-wheel-drive and were front-heavy as a result; the Milano featured rear-wheel drive and only 2,900 pounds of curb weight, distributed evenly between front and rear.

To give that some context, consider the fact that this four-door sports sedan, capable of transporting a family and its gear across the continent in comfort, weighed less and had a more neutral weight distribution than a Porsche Boxster.

In Europe, where the Milano was sold as the 75, it was available with a variety of four-cylinder engines and even a few diesels. In the U.S., however, Milanos came exclusively with Alfa's glorious V-6 in 2.5-liter or, later, 3.0-liter displacements. Regardless of displacement, that V-6 was a thing of beauty, combining an eagerness to rev with a soul-stirring soundtrack.

In its most powerful 3.0-liter form, the V-6 generated 183 horsepower and pushed the Milano from 0-60 in 7.7 seconds and up to a top speed of nearly 140 mph. A modern V-6 Hyundai Sonata can easily beat those numbers, but at the time that was Porsche 944, BMW 635CSi, and Ferrari Mondial territory--stirring performance for a four-door sedan.

The 75 sold well worldwide, but the Milano was far from a mainstream sports sedan choice in America. Between its niche popularity, fickle Italian reliability, limited Alfa Romeo service options, and lots of abuse from boy racers, there aren't many decent Milanos left on the road. That's why both commenter Tommy's Dad and I were so gobsmacked when we independently stumbled across red Seattle-area Milanos yesterday with which we fell in love; mine on the road and his on Craigslist.

I love my Coupe GT and am not in the market for another quirky car at the moment; and even if I was considering a 1980s Italian car it would be a Fiat Spider or an Alfa GTV-6. Yet the siren call of the Milano is such that I'm now wondering how I could work a Milano into my life, possibly as an impromptu track car.

It would be an awful idea, right? Right? Somebody, please talk me down.

The picture of the red Milano after the jump is from the Craigslist ad; the black Milano picture came from a Milano specs page. The video clip below is from Top Gear's Alfa Romeo challenge, in which Jeremy Clarkson picked up an extremely ragged Alfa 75, beat the snot out of it, and loved every minute. Now that's what I'd love to do with a Milano.

--Chris H.

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Date: Monday, 11 Oct 2010 13:18

As always, this is the place for the random, off-topic discussion that doesn't really belong anywhere else.

I just want to remind everybody that we'll have an Our Cars week upcoming. From my announcement last week:

---

I'm delighted to announce that we'll be holding another Our Cars event in the next few weeks and are now accepting reader submissions. For those unfamiliar with this somewhat awkwardly named feature, the Our Cars feature is our semi-regular reader-powered feature, in which readers are invited to share the stories about their own cars that they have loved and despised over the years. Car Lust's contributors will likely chime in as well, but this is really about readers sharing their stories.

It's also worth mentioning that virtually all of our Car Lust contributors began their career with this blog by contributing Our Cars posts. If any of you are interested in contributing to this blog, Our Cars is the way to start.

So, if you're interested in participating, here are some suggested steps and guidelines:

  • Choose a car (or, I suppose, multiple cars) with which you actually have some personal experience. Ideally, this would be a car that you personally owned, but it's possible to put together a great Our Cars post on a car that you drove regularly--like a friend's car, a company car, or a parent's car.
  • Tell the story of why you found that car interesting; the more the car interests you, the more it will likely interest the rest of us.
  • Don't feel bad if the car you'd like to write about isn't a supercar; most of us find everyday cars as interesting, or potentially even more interesting, than exotic hardware.
  • Include some pictures to help us follow the story and appreciate your car. Ideally, they would be pictures of your actual car, bu representative images are fine as long as you credit the source.
  • E-mail your piece to me at the e-mail link in the right column.
  • If you're looking for some good examples, read this, this, and this. Or, simply browse through all of our Our Cars posts; the farther back you go into the archives, the more reader-submitted posts you'll see.

--Chris H.

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Date: Wednesday, 06 Oct 2010 12:59

From a little out-of-the-way building somewhere between Hollywood and Burbank, California, comes the work of one of the best custom automotive builders in history.

Mr. Dean Jeffries was born not far away, in Compton, Calif., the mecca of custom car design; presently he operates Jeffries Auto Styling. His career started with automotive pinstriping, and one of his first notable car modifications was to paint "Little Bastard" on James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder.

Race car owner and promoter J.C. Agajanian hired Dean to stripe cars, and took him to the 1952 Indy 500. Mobil Oil hired him to paint race cars, and he would also paint and stripe helmets of racers such as Jim Rathmann, Parnelli Jones, and A.J. Foyt. He also worked with Carroll Shelby on the Cobra, and gained fame for painting flames on cars.

Today, some of us TV addicts can remember "The Green Hornet," a short-lived 1966/1967 TV show about a comic book crime fighter, played by Van Williams. His trusty chauffeur and karate-wielding bodyguard Kato was none other than a young martial-arts legend named Bruce Lee

Of course, what's a chauffeur without a limousine, so The Black Beauty was built by Mr. Jeffries. Originally a 1966 Chrysler Imperial, the lines of this car are timeless and look clean and fresh today. The car had many "extra features," but those green headlight covers still arrest my eyes every time I look at them.

The car was stored in Britt Reid's garage, who was The Green Hornet's alter ego in everyday life, just as Clark Kent is to Superman. To keep it hidden from the general public, the car spun on its roll axis and was concealed under the floor. My cousin always said that this was impossible, as a carburetor could not be stored upside-down and expected to work at the turn of a key. But maybe valves would shut off any fluids entering or leaving the intake manifold. Who knows--after all, this is Hollywood, anything is possible.

Coming in January, 2011, "The Green Hornet" hits the big screen. The producers, writers, and staff were smart enough to retain the '66 Imperial's good looks for the movie, though many real vintage Imperials gave their all for the film. From the movie trailer, it looks like some of the "extra features" of the car have been both retained and updated.

The Black Beauty was not the only famous vehicle to come out of Mr. Jeffries' shop. We all remember these:

Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees! ♫  If you're old enough to remember that song opening a zany musical/comedy show in 1966, then you'll surely remember their hip cruising machine, The Monkeemobile.

We have all heard the story that The Monkees could not play instruments or sing when they were first formed. But at least they all could drive.

Without today's emissions, bumper, and most current safety regulations, Mr. Jeffries was free to customize the car with very few constraints. Or, maybe I should say "cars." Two Monkeemobiles were originally built, one for the TV show, and one to tour, and the two were not exactly identical.

According to Wikipedia: "TheMonkeemobileis a modified Pontiac GTO that was designed and built by designer Dean Jeffries for The Monkees, a pop-rock band and television program. The car features a tilted forward split two-piece windshield, a touring car T-bucket-type convertible top, modified rear quarter panels and front fenders, exaggerated tail lamps, set of four bucket seats with an extra third row bench where the rear deck should have been, and a parachute. The front grille sported the GTO emblem." And yes, I copied that right off the web.

Like so many other 1960s custom cars, the Monkeemobile was available in a 1/24th plastic kit for anybody to build, as was most everything else that Mr. Jeffires built. And why not? He was also a consultant and designer with AMT Models on many of their custom automotive kits.

"Holy impossible network executives' deadlines, BATMAN!" Ah, savor The Batmobile, maybe the most famous TV car of all time. George Barris seems to have received much of the media coverage and credit for this small screen icon, but Mr. Jeffries was actually building it. The rush to finish the car by yesterday's call time was overwhelming, Mr. Barris had the resources to get the project ready at warp speed, so it was turned over to him for completion.

Luckily, the Batmobile has enough ZOWIE!!! to get over its BIFF.  Watching the car tumble and roll in heavy Bat-driving can make one dizzy, especially compared to the tighter suspensions of today's cars. And one of my favorite Bat-scenes was watching the Caped Crusaders perform the Bat-Turn, followed by rapid dispatch of the Batmobile Parachute Pick-Up Service van.

Speaking of warp speed, Mr. Jeffries designed more than just cars for TV shows. Starships are also on his resume, and he built the most famous one of them all, "Star Trek"'s USS Enterprise, NCC-1701.

The imaginary machine features pulsating warp drive nacelles, a saucer-shaped main hull, and a somewhat cylindrical-shaped engineering section. This craft has graced both large and small screens, as well as the desks and bookshelves of many of today's NASA engineers, astronauts, and Car Lust contributors.

Mr. Jeffries is also credited for building other vehicles for movies and TV shows, including "Damnation Alley," "Ark II," and "Space Academy." One of his vehicles has been used in multiple TV science fiction shows.

Our favorite Double-Naught Spy, James Bond, has also crossed paths with Mr. Jeffries. In "Diamonds Are Forever," Agent 007 decided to take Willard Whyte's Moon Buggy out for a spin, creating all the usual havok. This was 1971, right in the middle of our moon exploration program, and EON Productions needed a timely lunar surface roving vehicle, of course.

So Mr. Jeffries designed and built the vehicle, and did exactly what the producers asked him to do--he built a vehicle for a soundstage. Then the film crew got the bright idea of taking it outside into the desert for a chase scene. And not being designed for virtual moonscapes, it often broke down. In one scene you can see a wheel, now broken off of the moon buggy, roll past the camera--a rare blooper in a Bond movie.

The Moon Buggy was for sale recently. I would have loved to have it as a farm vehicle. No cow would have ever escaped me.

I don't know if or when I'll be in Los Angeles again, but I'm going to stop by this man's shop if I can. Actually I've driven by it a few times long ago and never knew it. Next time, I'll be ready, with camera in hand and a phaser set on "fun.".

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

The first portrait/image is from ImperialClub.com. The Black Beauty photo is from Automopedia.org. The Monkeemobile image is from www.assets.speedtv.com.  The Batmobile image is from Images3. TV's Star Trek USS Enterprise image is from Blogspot.com. Willard Whyte/James Bond's Moon Buggy picture is from 007Magazine.co.uk.

Author: "--"
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Date: Monday, 04 Oct 2010 16:43

As always, this is the right place for the random conversation that doesn't belong anywhere else.

I'm delighted to announce that we'll be holding another Our Cars event in the next few weeks and are now accepting reader submissions. For those unfamiliar with this somewhat awkwardly named feature, the Our Cars feature is our semi-regular reader-powered feature, in which readers are invited to share the stories about their own cars that they have loved and despised over the years. Car Lust's contributors will likely chime in as well, but this is really about readers sharing their stories.

It's also worth mentioning that virtually all of our Car Lust contributors began their career with this blog by contributing Our Cars posts. If any of you are interested in contributing to this blog, Our Cars is the way to start.

So, if you're interested in participating, here are some suggested steps and guidelines:

  • Choose a car (or, I suppose, multiple cars) with which you actually have some personal experience. Ideally, this would be a car that you personally owned, but it's possible to put together a great Our Cars post on a car that you drove regularly--like a friend's car, a company car, or a parent's car.
  • Tell the story of why you found that car interesting; the more the car interests you, the more it will likely interest the rest of us.
  • Don't feel bad if the car you'd like to write about isn't a supercar; most of us find everyday cars as interesting, or potentially even more interesting, than exotic hardware.
  • Include some pictures to help us follow the story and appreciate your car. Ideally, they would be pictures of your actual car, bu representative images are fine as long as you credit the source.
  • E-mail your piece to me at the e-mail link in the right column.
  • If you're looking for some good examples, read this, this, and this. Or, simply browse through all of our Our Cars posts; the farther back you go into the archives, the more reader-submitted posts you'll see.

--Chris H.

Author: "--"
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Date: Thursday, 30 Sep 2010 11:43

Is this the original Pregnant Roller Skate? Internet sources say no, pegging the VW Beetle as having earned that CB radio moniker among truckers. On the other hand, this was the first car I had heard referred to by that nickname back in the '70s and whenever I see one these days--rare though that is--that's what I think of it as. To be honest, back in the days of its introduction to the U.S., a lot of us probably saw the Civic and many of its Japanese subcompact brethren something like the dinosaurs viewed a diminutive little mammal in a certain Far Side cartoon: laughing their heads off while one of them noticed the first few snowflakes starting to fall. Yeah, yeah we were wrong.

Then again, I still can't say I can work up a lot of enthusiasm for the car itself other than as an historically interesting object that started off one of the great success stories in American business. It was tiny, rusted out soon after driving it off the lot (at least in the Midwest), and had fairly unexceptional 0-60 times. Still, as the years have rolled by, I guess I've developed a certain fondness for the little bugger, maybe a bit like Austin Powers finally did with Mini Me by the third (otherwise best forgotten) movie in that series. Part of this has to do with my association here, delving into the forgotten cars of the past, but I am also part of the Civic owner base, at least by marriage if not blood: my Spousal Unit has driven a Civic for several years now, and I have come to view it as an absolutely brilliant car in its simplicity and functionality.

So, I write this missive as something of an ode to youthful folly and the wisdom of old(er) age. I won't go too far into the weeds on the particulars of the car itself, which would probably be boring anyway with such a straightforward little car, but simply give a few specs, a little history, and a couple of pictures to take you, gentle reader, back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when big cars were expensive, small cars were cheap, and the Little Car That Could foreshadowed an epic struggle pitting some Japanese upstarts against the titans of the U.S. auto industry.

Honda first set up shop in the US on June 11, 1959 with an unassuming little storefront in Los Angeles named the American Honda Motor Co. Inc. The company had been founded by Soichiro Honda to make motor bikes; literally motorbikes, they were basic bicycles fitted with engines. Eventually, Honda produced the successful Honda Cub and other models, but soon moved into the automobile business. The first model to hit the US shores was the N600 a diminutive little kei car that garnered little interest (or buyers). Then in 1972 (as a 1973 model) came the first Civic with the advertising catchphrase  "We make it simple." Yes they did.

The original Civics had a whopping 1.1-liter engine (that's 70 cubic inches) putting out 50 horsepower. Not to worry. though, engine capacity soon zoomed to nearly 1.5 liters and a thumping ... 60 horsepower. Not like it needed a lot of power, it only weighed around 1500 pounds. Still, it had power disc brakes in front, independent suspension fore and aft, and a 4-speed manual transmission standard (that eventually grew into a 5-speed manual and a 2-speed "Hondamatic" auto). The engine was also mounted transversely and the car had front-wheel-drive, so it had pretty good interior space despite its small size.

Overall, it probably outperformed the domestic competition, such as the Vega and Pinto. Its secret weapon, if you could call it that, was the CVCC engine. This was a special engine developed by Honda to meet American emissions standards without a catalytic converter. The CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) had an extra valve near the spark plug which increased the fuel in the mixture near the plug while the rest of the cylinder contained a leaner mixture. Because of the design of the combustion chamber, the lean/rich sections were kept separate which allowed for stable engine performance while burning more of the fuel and thus putting out fewer hydrocarbons and CO. It was a neat little trick that kept the price low, the engine reliable, and obviated the need for performance-robbing (and expensive) catalytic converters.

Options were few, involving little more than A/C, a rear wiper, and radial tires. As they said, simple.

But it was enough to get a foot in the door to the US market and, especially during the oil shocks of that decade, 40+ mpg looked pretty good to a lot of buyers, especially when the domestic competition was more or less woefully inadequate. The Civic grew over the next few decades but generally kept to its roots of  simplicity, offering buyers an entry-level car that performs well and doesn't break down very often. As well, the lineage has produced some memorable models, including at least one apparently perfect one. It has truly been a model line that stayed true to its roots while still evolving to keep up with the competition.

Despite this drive for simplicity (or maybe because of it) the Civic has become a favorite of tuner-boys everywhere, souping up the engine--often beginning with just a few tweaks of the engine software--and dressing them up as well as any old-fashioned muscle car or hot rod aficionado. Unfortunately, this also makes them a prime target for thievery since the parts are hot commodities. C'est la vie, I guess.  

As I say, I'm also a Civic owner by marriage--though I'm not the primary driver. The Spousal Unit bought a Civic  HX new in 1996 (a 1997 model, pictured). To my eyes, the '96-2000 generation is the most attractive all around. The shape looks simple, aerodynamic, no fuss, no muss, just enough styling to keep one interested but not enough to date it within two years. The HX was the high-mileage model, although at 115 horsepower it had a bit more oomph than most of the other Civics. It was rated at 34-37 MPGg city and 38-44 highway, but it has regularly gotten in the mid-40s with mostly highway commuter driving. Until recently, anyway--it needs some work, but it's still in the high 30s. And all without the added expense of a hybrid!

True, it's pretty basic, no A/C, ABS, or a lot of other junk, but then again it's a workaday commuter car (we mostly take the Mustang II out on the weekends). It's still on the same clutch (knock wood) and has only had one O2 sensor problem the whole time. After 14 years it's the same as it's always been: Simple, basic, reliable and highly efficient transportation. It's simply a brilliant car.

Credits: The yellow Civic at the top is a '73 from CarGurus.com, the storefront is from Honda's own web site, and the ad is from AdClassix.com.

--Anthony Cagle

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Date: Tuesday, 28 Sep 2010 05:23

In my recent post on Cars Of The Future, circa 1970, I alluded to (and linked to a photo of) the car that appeared prominently in the British TV series UFO--and a couple of the commenters also mentioned it. The UFO car is an interesting story in itself, and it seems like a natural follow-up to my piece on cars that looked like UFOs.

For those of you who aren't old enough to have been there, UFO was a 26-episode series made in 1970, the first live-action TV series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who'd previously given the world the fanciful "Supermarionation" puppet shows Supercar, Fireball XL-5, and Thunderbirds. Set in the distant future year of 1980, UFO was the story of a top secret international agency with the wonderfully British name "Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation"--SHADO, for short--and its struggle to protect us from hostile aliens. SHADO had two missions: keep the aliens off the Earth, and, to prevent mass panic and social disorder, keep the people of Earth from finding out about the aliens.

Here's the title sequence, which should give you a feel for what it was like. The car appears at 0:09 or so.

Intended for grownups, UFO was much darker in tone than the Andersons' kid-friendly puppet shows. The basic premise was rather bleak--the aliens were out to enslave humanity for use as involuntary organ donors, and SHADO really couldn't defeat them, only hold them off. The episodes tended to have downer endings and the main characters were generally unhappy people, discouraged by the futility of their job and haunted by their personal demons--none worse so than SHADO's head man, Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop).

That description makes it sound better than it really was. UFO seemed very impressive if you were a ten-year old SF nerd starved for something more than Star Trek and Lost In Space reruns you had memorized because you'd already seen them twenty times each. If you take off the rose-colored glasses, UFO still has its moments, some of them good, others more on the order of "so bad it's good."

UFO is science fiction, in the sense that much of the "science" in the show is pretty fictional.The aliens come to Earth in giant, spinning, silver gumdrops and wear dorky red spacesuits--not exactly the stuff of nightmares. The 2001-ish spaceships and space scenes in general are well-executed, but the very plausible and realistic Moonbase is implausibly crewed by eye-candy moon-babes with purple hair. A submarine that launches a fighter plane from underwater is a cool concept, but in practice it looks like a cheap special effect. The character-development subplots are often more melodramatic than dramatic, and the actors play everything so grim and serious that the only one who seems to be having any fun is SID the talking radar satellite. Oh, and for an organization whose very existence is supposed to be a closely-guarded secret, SHADO has a very curious practice of painting its name in large letters on all its equipment.

Well, this is "Car Lust," so we should talk about the cars. The car most prominently featured in UFO is the brown coupe which Commander Straker uses as his daily driver. That's the one you see in the video, and in the picture at right. It was identified in contemporary PR materials as being turbine powered, and a tubine sound effect was dubbed in for the engine noise. As portrayed in the series, it also has power-operated gullwing doors and a built-in mobile phone.

There is a second car also seen in the show that uses the same body shell, but has a different grille and headlight arrangement. It's painted a girlish pastel lilac (!) and driven by different characters in different episodes, most commonly by Straker's assistant Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billingham).

Fans sometimes call the brown one "UFO-1," but if you bought the Dinky Toys version, the box just called it "Ed Straker's Car."  The cars are never identified in the show as being any particular make or model. Given the identical body shells, they would appear to be badge-engineered corporate siblings built on a common platform. Maybe Straker's car was an Austin and Foster's was its Rover counterpart, or vice versa, or maybe they're both the same make and model, but from different model years.

The cars were built in 1968 as props for the Anderson-produced feature film Doppelgänger, which is better known under its alternate title, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun. Three futuristic cars were built by putting a custom aluminum body on the running gear of a Ford Zodiac. They had a full interior, including an elaborate instrument panel made mostly from Rover components.

The bodywork was designed by Derek Meddings, the visual effects director on Doppelgänger, and constructed with the help of some German automotive stylists and race driver Alan Mann. The styling was more curvy than the usual Car Of The Future look, but still quite futuristic. After the filming of Doppelgänger finished, two of the three cars were repainted for use in UFO.

Those who worked on the production say that the cars were hard to drive. They were built as props, not as transportation, and the interior had been designed to look pretty on camera without regard for functionality. The pedals were so far from the non-adjuatable driver's seat that only a very tall person could reach them. The doors were unpowered, and not even counterbalanced, making them hard to open. To give the illusion of powered doors, a prop man would stand to the side, just out of view, and open them manually, and then the sound effects people would dub in an appropriate mechanical noise to complete the effect.

These weren't the only automobiles seen in the series. Two blue six-wheeled miniature minivans, called "SHADO Jeeps," had recurring roles. Here we see them next to Straker's coupe in the SHADO employee parking lot:

Other vehicles used in the series to "fill out" scenes in streets and parking lots were "present day" (that is, 1969-70) cars; ordinary vehicles that might plausibly still be on the road ten years later, or sports cars that could pass for something from the future if you only saw them briefly or in the background. In one episode, a woman abducted by the aliens and turned into a sleeper agent drove a Porsche 914; in another, Commander Straker's 10-year old son was run over by a speeding Ferrari 275GTB. Note also the "raygun gothic" '63 Corvette barely visible behind the left-hand truck in the photo above.

After production finished on UFO, the gullwing cars passed through several different owners, and have been variously restored, neglected, and fixed up again several times. One owner even went so far as to make the "Fostermobile" street legal and use it as his daily driver! As best I can tell, both are still intact, but presently in need of restoration, and neither is on public display.

They almost became production vehicles, though. A startup venture called "Explorer Motor Company" was formed to sell a fiberglass reproduction of the "Strakermobile" called the "Quest." The project got to the point of making fiberglass molds from one of the UFO originals, but then Explorer ran out of money. No Quest was ever built, not even a prototype. A pity, that.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

All the pictures used came from the very comprehensive UFO Series Home Page created by Marc Martin.

One of the things that Langner discovered is that when Stuxnet finally identifies its target, it makes changes to a piece of Siemens code called Organizational Block 35. This Siemens component monitors critical factory operations -- things that need a response within 100 milliseconds. By messing with Operational Block 35, Stuxnet could easily cause a refinery's centrifuge to malfunction, but it could be used to hit other targets too, Byres said. "The only thing I can say is that it is something designed to go bang," he said.
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Date: Monday, 27 Sep 2010 07:30

Take off your coat, pull up a chair, and join us here in the back of the Car Lust garage for some hot apple cider and good conversation.

Here's a trio of discussion-starters:

  • Ford is discontinuing its "Panther platform" large rear-wheel drive cars (Ford Crown Victoria & Police Interceptor, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Lincoln Town Car), and will close the plant that builds them about a year from now. The Panther is the oldest automotive platform still in use in North America, and the last to use traditional body-on-frame construction (other than trucks and SUVs). Over at The Truth About Cars, they marked this passage by declaring last week to be "Panther Appreciation Week." (Click that link and you should get a list of all their Panther Week articles.) Our own David Drucker has also written a pair of influential articles (1, 2) about the glories of his Panther-platform Mercury Grand Marquis.

  How about you--got any good Panther stories to tell?

  • This, on the other hand, is just plain wrong.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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Date: Tuesday, 21 Sep 2010 05:30

I remember The Car Of The Future from when I was a kid.

The Car Of The Future of those days was usually a two-seater, most likely mid-engined, and probably powered by something wild like a turbine or a Wankel rotary or (for all I knew) a dilithium fusion reactor. It was low-slung, with a sharply-pointed nose and crisp aerodynamic lines and a dashboard straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Often as not, it did not have conventional doors; it would have gullwings or flip-up doors or maybe even the whole top half of the car would slide off like the canopy of a fighter plane.

You saw these futuremobiles at car shows, on the cover of magazines like Popular Mechanics, in a few SF movies and TV shows, and of course in the Hot Wheels catalog. (My personal favorite Hot Wheels toy was an open-top roadster interpretation of the future-car look.) Most of the full-sized ones were show cars, but a few were put into production. Those were all high-priced exotics--but it was only a matter of time before the design concepts and engineering from those Cars Of The Future trickled down and everything on the road looked like that. I just knew it was going to work out that way. In fact, I couldn't wait to grow up so I could drive one of these magnificent roadgoing spaceships.

With your indulgence, I'd like to set the WABAC machine to sometime around 1970 and take a closer look at some of those Cars Of The Future--and at the future that didn't quite happen.

The first car to have what I think of as "Car Of The Future" styling seems to have been the one pictured at left: the Lamborghini Marzal of 1967.

Yes, that's right, I said 1967.

Sure doesn't look much like 1967, does it? You could be forgiven for thinking that it's a Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works prototype for a four-passenger suborbital hypersonic midlife crisis rocket plane ("The perfect gift for the man who has everything") and not a car that's now old enough to be having a midlife crisis of its own.

The Marzal was designed by Marcello Gandini and built by Bertone. It was based on a Miura chassis and powered by a straight six that was more or less half of a Lamborghini V-12. It has six--count 'em, six!--headlights and probably the best outward visibility of any car made in the last fifty years. The glass roof and nice wide windsield are supported by slender A-pillars. The gullwing doors were mostly glass--right down to the door sills! The only drawback to all this glass is the "greenhouse effect" it produces on a sunny day. There doesn't appear to be any way to roll down or flip open any of those windows, so one hopes the Marzal has really good, really high-capacity air conditioning.

Believe it or not, the Marzal wasn't built as a show car or a styling exercise--Lamborghini intended it to be a production model. Sadly, that that did not come to pass. The one and only Marzal was exhibited at car shows and used as the pace car for the 1967 running of the Grand Prix of Monaco (where it was driven by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier), then squirreled away from public view for almost thirty years. It reappeared in 1996 and now resides in the Lamborghini museum.

The next year, Alfa Romeo rolled out the mid-engined Carabo ("Beetle") show car, also designed by Mancello Gandini. They may have named it "Beetle," but this boy sure ain't no Volkswagen. Low and angular and faintly menacing, with tinted windows and an aggressive air scoop and rear louvers that resemble the exhaust nozzles on a Klingon battlecruiser, the Carabo looks more like something aliens would drive to the grocery store--assuming, of course, that the little green men have grocery stores on their planet in the first place.

The Carabo is also notable for being the first car (or at least one of the first cars) to use doors that open by swinging up in a vertical plane, an arrangement later made famous by the Lamborghini Countach. Sr. Gandini also designed the Countach, so it's no surprise that there's a certain family resemblance between it and the Carabo. In fact, it might not be too far off to think of the Carabo as the first draft of the Countach.

That same year, the mighty Giorgetto Giugiaro unveiled one of the first of his sharp-edged "folded paper" designs, the Bizzarrini Manta show car. A re-bodied Le Mans endurance racer, it's within a couple inches of the Ford GT40 in all its major dimensions. The Manta is powered by a 400-horsepower Chevy V-8, which means it can go at least as fast as that radically raked front end makes it look.

I particularly like the little details on this one; the spaceship-girder trim on the rocker panel, the sculpted louvers over the engine room, and the wraparound rear bumper really set it off. The Manta was repainted in sea foam green while it was still on the show car circuit in the 1960s, but I prefer it in the original silver-gray you see here. Even today, and even in sea foam green, it still looks more like 2068 than 1968.

Something like the Manta would be the high point of many a stylist's career, but Sr. Guigiaro was just getting warmed up.In the next six years, he designed the equally futuristic Abarth 1600, Alfa Romeo Iguana and Caimano, the Bora, Merak, Boomerang, Coupe 2+2, and Medici for Maserati, the Lotus Esprit, and this lovable little shuttlepod, the Porsche Tapiro from 1970. The Tapiro was an exciting one-off show car built on the platform of the rather un-exciting Porsche 914. It had gullwing passenger doors and gullwing engine bay doors--and both sets of doors had dramatic large windows that wrapped around into the roof to make it even cooler.

The Tapiro also had a rather unique fate for a show car. Unlike the ones built only for display which lack small mechanical details like, say, an engine, the Tapiro was a fully-functional street-legal vehicle. After completing its time on the car show circuit, it was sold to a Spanish executive who used it for his daily driver. With the less-than-ferocious stock 914 drivetrain under the exotic sheetmetal, one suspects it was nowhere near as fast as it looked (though the handling would have been pretty sweet), but the owner seems to have been satisfied with it. Unfortunately, the Tapiro's attention-getting looks proved a little too attention-getting for its own good: the car was firebombed by protestors angry at the owner's company! The remains are in the possession of an Italian museum, awaiting restoration.

In case you were wondering, this Car Of The Future stuff wasn't just an Italian thing. GM built two mid-engined Corvette prototypes, and came pretty close to putting one of them into production. Still more futuristic concept cars appeared from Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Renault, Holden, and Citroen. Even AMC (yes, that AMC) got into the act with the lovely mid-engined AMX-2 and -3 prototypes.

Toyota's contribution to the genre was the EX-III


The EX-III was said to have been designed for long distance high speed cruising, and it's obvious Toyota's engineers and designers spared no effort in getting the drag coefficient as low as possible. (They even went so far as to streamline the underbody.) It also came out extraordinarily pretty, and it wouldn't look out of place next to some of today's low-drag concept cars.

Mazda also had a futuristic concept car, the rotary-engined (of course!) RX-500. The overall styling theme was more Corvette than Carabo, but in terms of trick doors the RX-500 is the undisputed champion. Mazda gave it both Lamborghini-style passenger doors and gull-winged engine compartment hatches.

Back in 1970, Mazda circulated publicity photos of the RX-500 in three different colors: the understated silver gray shown at right, a bolder screaming baby duckling yellow, and that '70s favorite, rich avocado green. Everybody naturally assumed that at least three RX-500s had been built. When the "sole survivor" was taken in hand for restoration a few years ago, the restorers discovered three layers of paint on the body panels: silver, yellow, and avocado. In reality, there was only one car, but it had been painted different colors for different photo shoots. Restored to its original glory by some of the men who built it, it's now on display in the Hiroshima City Transportation Museum.

You don't normally think of GM's British subsidiary Vauxhall as the place to go for daring and original thinking, but their Styling Research Vehicle built in 1970 is pretty daring and original. It may look like a two-seater, but it actually has four seats and four doors. The rear seats are accessed through well-disguised "suicide" half-doors that have no external handle and can only open if the front door is opened first--the arrangement you see today on the MINI Clubman, Mazda RX-8, Honda Element, Toyota FJ Cruiser, and certain Saturns. It's said that the SRV has sufficient room for four full-sized adults to fit comfortably, even though it's only 41 inches high. Those small side windows might make the rear passengers might feel a little closed in, though.

All of the cars we've looked at so far were about 40-45 inches high. That's about as low as you can push the roofline and still have a driveable car.

Or is it?


This is the Lancia Stratos Zero, which stands a mere 31 inches high. See those dark rectangular things just aft of the front wheel? Those are the side windows. You can just make out the steering wheel through the windshield. That should give you some idea of how the driver squeezes in there. Oh, and doors? There are no doors. You enter by flipping the windshield up and climbing over the front bumper.

As radical as it is, even the Stratos Zero is not the wildest Car Of The Future from this era. That distinction belongs to our next guest, the Ferarri Modulo:


Where cars like the Marzal and Tapiro and EX-III embrace the clean, sharp-edged, optimistic high-tech look of 2001, the Modulo is more like something out of A Clockwork Orange. This streamlined spacefaring go-kart stands only 36 inches above the road surface--and yet it has a V-12 engine, making it probably the baddest go-kart ever to roll on asphalt. Access to the bench seat (!) in the passenger compartment is by means of a canopy that pops up and shifts forward, as our two lovely product representatives will now demonstrate:


It's now the future, or rather, what was "the future" to us back then, and things have turned out very different from what my 10-year old self was led to expect. It's true that you can get a low-slung gull-winged spaceship on wheels of the sort I was car-lusting for back in the day, but they're expensive and not terribly common. What's common is not all that futuristic.

Where's the shiny hi-tech future they were promising me, the one with cities on the moon and robot butlers and high-speed monorails and a Tapiro in every driveway? What went wrong? Why didn't the cars of 2001 end up looking like cars from 2001?

I can think of a few reasons. For one thing, the Cars Of The Future we've been looking at are rather impractical vehicles. They were designed to attract attention, not to serve as a suburban mom's "family taxi." Even the largest of them, the four-seaters such as the Marzal and SRV, don't have a lot of space for luggage or groceries. Gullwings can be practical and liveable if they're designed right, but Lambo-style flip-up doors are probably a little tricky to open when you're carrying two shopping bags and a toddler. As for the cars with a slide-off canopy or flip-up windshield, well ... imagine that you're running out to your Modulo in the middle of a summer thunderstorm. You pop the canopy open, and it rains all over the carpet and the dashboard and the hand-woven sisal floor mats and the rich Corinthian leather upholstery, and then you get to sit on a wet seat in the rain while you fold up your umbrella so you can finally get the @#$%^& canopy closed, and--well, I think you get my point.

Manufacturers need to build cars that people actually want and can afford if they're going to sell enough of them to earn the money with which to keep the business in business. These cars may have drawn crowds at the auto shows and gotten the design majors all excited, but at the end of the day there's only so much demand out there for high-dollar two-seat mid-engined four-wheeled spaceships useful only for joyrides on sunny summer afternoons--usually not enough demand to justify the tooling and production costs.

Even if the demand was there, a lot of the truly exotic design elements would probably violate 21st-century safety standards. Take the Marzal, for example. The all-glass gullwing doors are uber-cool, as the kids like to say, but where in that all-glass door can you put the side impact beams? There's no room in those delicate A-pillars for the curtain airbags, either. And let's not even think about what it's going to take to bring that front bumper into compliance with the new EU pedestrian safety rule.

For another thing, this was also the time when the "personal luxury" coupe was reaching its peak popularity. Like the cars we've been looking at here, personal luxury coupes were flashy and extroverted, but a 1970 Monte Carlo was worlds away from the Tapiro in terms of style. Instead of looking to the future, personal luxury coupes embraced the past, adopting styling cues that were references to the high-end luxury cars of the '20s and '30s, "radiator" grilles, "formal" (vertical) back windows, (simulated) wire wheels, carriage lights, "woodgrain" interior trim, and so on. Even the ubiquitous vinyl roof was a reference; it was originally meant to mimic a convertable with the top up.

I've never been a fan of the personal luxury look, but it was very much in tune with mainstream tastes. Most non-enthusiast car buyers, circa 1972 or so, would have preferred to park a Cutlass Supreme in their driveway instead of a four-wheeled UFO like the Vauxhall SRV. The Cutlass may have lacked artistic merit, it may have been crassly blinged-out and unforgivably baroque, but at least it looked normal.

Finally, there was a little something called the 1973 oil price shock. The cars we've been looking at were high-performance sports cars, or, at least, cars (like the Tapiro) that wanted to make you think they were high-performance sports cars--and most had high-performance fuel consumption to go with the horsepower. With the price of gas spiking upward (and, in the USA at least, insurance rates on high-powered cars going up just as fast), there was soon a lot less interest in fuel-guzzling exotics.

Still, the Cars Of The Future did have some lasting influence on automotive design. Giorgetto Giugiaro's "folded paper" look, first seen on exotics like the Manta, carried over onto his more down-to-earth designs like the Sirocco and Golf (Rabbit). By the end of the 1970s, the Guigiaro look became something of a trend in itself. Other stylists followed his lead toward cleaner, sharper, simpler lines. They didn't always take the concept as far as Guigiaro did, but if you look at any manufacturer's model-year catalog from about the mid-1980s on, much of what you see will have at least a touch of Guigiaro about it. To give just one example, my beloved '85 CRX was not styled by ItalDesign, but it looks like it could have been.

The aerodynamic lessons learned in building things like the SRV certainly came in handy as drag reduction became a bigger part of the quest for fuel economy. There's a little of the EX-III in the wind-cheating shape of today's Camry and Prius--and, truth be told, a little more of that futuristic EX-III vibe might take some of the boredom out of the Camry.

Designers of the twenty-first century, take heed! Many more of your 2011s could use some of that 2001 feeling, but it's never too late to embrace the future. I see no good reason why todays minivans can't have gullwing doors and Bizzarrini Manta bumpers.

(And when you're done with that, we need to get cracking on those monorails.)

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The image of the cover of Irwin Stambler's Automobiles of the Future, published in 1966, comes from the delightful Paleo-Future blog. The vintage publicity photos of the Marzal, Carabo, Manta, Tapiro, EX-III, RX-500, SRV, and Stratos Zero came from the excellent collection at LotusEspritTurbo.com. The pictures of the Modulo came from the design blog Genomicon, whose proprietor, Nick Taylor, also got that Clockwork Orange feeling. The vintage beauty shot of the CRX came from the image gallery at The CRX Page.

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Date: Monday, 20 Sep 2010 11:30

As usual, this is the place for the off-topic conversation that doesn't belong anywhere else.

I just returned from a one-week vacation, and am about to go into a week-long training, so I'm still trying to get caught up and make sense of things. Thanks for bearing with me!

--Chris H.

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Date: Friday, 03 Sep 2010 05:06

Do you want to build your own car someday? I do. Maybe that's a dream of most of us Car Lusters. After all, what's more mechanically personal than building your own ride?

I don't want a big, complicated kit car kit ... a friend of mine has one that has sat in pieces in a warehouse for a time frame that is now measured in decades. And it would have been a grand thing--a replica of a 1930s Mercedes--if he had ever finished it.

I'd like to build something that takes just a little more time to assemble than a model car, doesn't require glue, and actually runs. Something that I would actually build in whatever color and trim I want, and something that I would complete. And it would have to be street legal so I could enjoy the car.

So what fits this bill? How about a kit car from the 1940s or 50s ... maybe a King Midget! Long before the Smart Car or the Miata hit our highways, these pint-sized cars roamed the roads. Of course, that's also long before we had interstate highways.

And, one of the best things about starting a King Midget assembly project is that about by the time you're bored with it, you're done.

OK, I don't have computer-controlled robots to spot-weld the thing. No Hayden-Schweitzer paint system or bake ovens. Coming down the final assembly line? Sorry, I don't have an assembly line at all. If I'm lucky, I'll have enough 4x4 wood post scraps and concrete cinder blocks to set the thing on while I'm building it. Out in the yard, of course.

The story of the King Midget began when Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt met in WWII, the big one, while in the Civil Air Patrol. After the war, they got together and decided they wanted to build a small car that anybody could afford. Can we say a then-modern Model T? Soon they marketed their cars as "The World's Most Exciting Small Car" and "The World's Number One Fun Car."

Their first car, the 1946 King Midget Model I, held just one person. At that time it was a kit only, and contained the frame, axles, springs, steering parts, patterns for the sheet metal, and the ever-handy assembly manual. You had to find the motor.

A couple of years later, from the late 1940s until 1951, they would assemble the car for you with a six-horsepower engine at the factory for a small fee.

I saw some of these in a film about The Marx Brothers. They were racing some kids and, of course, Groucho cheated. But in good spirit the kids won anyway, and Groucho humbly conceded.

Somewhere around this time, the King Midget folks were also making motor scooters. I feel that's worth mentioning here, but I don't want to get too far off on a tangent with them.

In 1952, the King Midget Model II was launched as "The 500-pound car for $500." It was a basic vehicle with a hand-operated start cable on the left, outside the car and behind the seat. There was a black three-spoke steering wheel, brown plastic seat upholstery, no speedometer, and no reverse.

It was this model which eventually offered their automatic transmission, reverse, electric starter, safety glass/tinted windshield, a folding top, steel winter doors with sliding Plexiglas windows, a hot air heater, a speedometer, turn signals, and optional hand-operated controls for disabled persons. That's quite an impressive options list!

There was also the golf model, complete with two golf bag racks, extra wide traction tires on the rear, special low gearing, foot rests on the front fenders, and an extra-quiet muffler system.

The 1957 King Midget Model III, which may be the most familiar King Midget model to most of us, was not a kit car--it was only sold finished, and for about 900 bucks. Or what they called finished, anyway. Though it was a fully-assembled, driveable car, it was stark enough to be completed and personalized as the owner wished.

All Model IIIs had unit body construction, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and at least a 9.2-horsepower engine. OK, it's not the total kit car I'd love to have, but it's close enough. There's plenty of room left for personalization with this motorized microbe.

Maybe by today's standards it could be called a kit car ... close for me enough, anyway. By the time I got through taking one apart and putting it back together the way I wanted, surely it would qualify. And don't call me Shirley.

The Model III design was used until the end of King Midget production, but it was upgraded as the years rolled by. Eventually, the cars had a 12-horsepower engine with a 2-speed automatic transmission, plus reverse. 

Notable options included doors, electric wipers and washers, a radio, carpet, floor mats, seat belts, and new body colors. I didn't see any information on towing packages, retractable hardtop roofs, automatic climate control, or electronic navigation systems.

Imagine dropping a Hemi into one of these things. That is, if the frame would support one. Well, OK, maybe dropping an 600cc or so motorcycle engine in there with about 50 horsepower might make more sense.

Inside the Midget Model III, as in all of these cars, the interior is pretty much what you make of it. This cream-colored car is a Deluxe model, indicated by the gleaming two-spoke steering wheel. The wood dashboard is similar to a Triumph Spitfire, just smaller.

Just one thing--I'd have to move the speedometer to right above the steering column as I'm not a fan of center-mounted gauges. The panel also looks like there would be room for other instruments and a clock, as well as a radio, if they were cut in carefully.

It's also good that these cars were automatics. That windshield wiper is hand-operated, so fumbling with that and a shifter lever while you're texting and making coffee and breakfast might be just a little too much for even the best of us to do while we're driving.

The King Midget line grew to be a versatile platform. But production ended in 1970 due to Federal emissions and crash requirements, which was probably a good thing as most other cars had become larger, heavier, and faster. About 5,000 had left the factory by then.

Are King Midgets glorified go-karts and/or golf carts? In my opinion, heck no. They are street-legal motor vehicles, mostly antique cars today.

They have quite a following, too. Though not quite as large as a Sharkfest or similar gathering, people truck and trailer (and drive) their prized cars to King Midget Jamborees to swap stories and share a unique fellowship.

Like "jumbo shrimp," the "King Midget" name just doesn't make a lot of sense. But that's part of the charm of these miniature motorcars. In our present day, these vehicles don't make a lot of sense on most of our highways either. Yet a custom King Midget, especially with the golf package, would surely be a blast at an RV or retirement community. Might even have a race or two.

So I'd better get working on one soon, before I have to move there!

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

Many thanks to the International King Midget Car Club, Inc. for technical information, some of which was copied from their site. The King Midget exploded view is from MidgetMotors.com. The woody King Midget image is from Carestoration.com. The King Midget Model I photo is by HowStuffWorks.com. The Model II image is by Rides.Webshots.com. The red King Midget image is from Farm1.Static.Flickr.com. The engine bay image is from RiverCityRydes.com. I took the interior photo at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. The King Midget group image is from Farm1.Static.Flickr.com.

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Date: Wednesday, 01 Sep 2010 05:33

It was 1981, I was plopped down in front of the tube, only about half paying attention while I was reading Larry Niven or some such, and there was this puff piece running on the evening news about this new high-dollar sports car that was about to go on sale. I looked up out of curiosity and--woah! wait a minute!

What I saw on the screen looked like the car Dr. Heywood Floyd must have driven to the spaceport to catch the Pan Am shuttle to Space Station V. I could scarcely believe what the announcer was saying about it.

This is for real? It's going on sale? On this planet? In my lifetime?

It probably goes without saying that I immediately wanted one. Badly.

Most people think of the DeLorean today as either a prop in a popular movie franchise, or as the punchline of a joke. That's unfortunate, because there's so much more to the story. The DeLorean Motor Company was one of only two start-up automobile manufacturers since 1946 that have managed to actually sell a mass-produced car to American consumers. (The other was Bricklin.) That was no small accomplishment, and the car itself was, as we will see, an interesting and credible piece of machinery with great potential for further development. Sadly, all of that was soon overshadowed in late 1982 by the company's collapse and associated scandals.

The story of high-flying, fast-talking maverick auto executive John Z. DeLorean and the drug bust and financial hijinks that brought him and his company down has been chronicled elsewhere, by better chroniclers than me. I'd like to concentrate instead on the car, that Irish-built street-legal stainless steel spaceship on wheels that looked so Lust-worthy on TV in 1981.

Officially, it was the "DMC-12," but nobody much ever called it that. The "12" designation was chosen early on as a reference to the projected MSRP, $12,000, but by the time it actually went on sale, inflation and cost overruns had pushed the price up over $25,000 and everybody including the manufacturer just called it "the DeLorean."

The styling was done by Giorgetto Giugiaro, founder of ItalDesign, one of the most influential stylists of the last fifty years. (How influential? Just take a look at his resume: he or his firm designed the De Tomaso Mangusta; the Maserati Ghibli; the Lancia Delta; the VW Scirocco; the Isuzu Impulse; the Lotus Esprit, the MINI Cooper and Clubman, and, ... well, you get the point.) In the darkest depths of the 1970s, Guigiaro's crisp "folded paper" designs were among the few bright spots. At a time when Detroit was piling on the Rolls Royce-wanabee radiator grilles, opera windows, carriage lights, and other symbols of faux elegance like there was no tomorrow, and Japanese automotive design was still going through its "Bride of Gojira" phase, Guigiaro's style was neat, clean, and well-proportioned, an object lesson in "less is more." Exotics like the Esprit or the various Maseratis looked appropriately futuristic, of course, but even his more everyday cars like the humble Mk. I Rabbit had a little bit of that twenty-minutes-into-the-future thing going for them. Cars like that were a welcome sight in a world plagued by Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes with landau vinyl roofs.


Guigiaro did the first version of the DMC-12 in 1976, and came back to "freshen" it in 1979 as the car was being readied for production. The basic shape is a low, sharp wedge which has a certain family resemblance to the Esprit. It's the kind of design that never stops looking futuristic no matter how old it gets. The nose sat about an inch too high on the production cars--a last-minute change in anticipation of a federal bumper-height regulation that never went into effect--but that was the only flaw in the looks department.

The car's two most distinctive visual characteristics weren't Guigiaro's ideas, though, they were laid down in John Z's original specifications. After leaving GM, DeLorean eventually became one of its more relentless critics, taking the General to task for building cars that didn't last. (He may have felt a personal need to atone for the dreadful Vega, one of his big projects as Chevrolet Division General Manager.) He often talked about the concept of an "ethical car," one that wouldn't rust away or self-destruct just after you made the last payment. 

When it came time to build a car with his name on it, DeLorean put his investors' money where his mouth was and specified SS304-grade stainless steel outer body panels over a composite substructure--materials which, of course, don't rust. To emphasize that the car was built out of stainless steel, the body panels were left unpainted and given a wire brush finish. It certainly looked cool, especially on sunny days, but in practice the "natural metal" finish was something of a mixed blessing. The stainless steel wouldn't rust, but it did show fingerprints, and it was hard to repair dents and scratches and have it look right.

It also meant that every DeLorean looked exactly like every other DeLorean. To give buyers a sporting chance at individualizing their cars, DMC offered optional tape-stripe graphics packages. It also experimented with a transparent lacquer that would have "colorized" the body panels without completely covering the brushed metal texture, but due to durability issues it was never offered to the public. Some DeLorean owners have had their cars painted, and as the photo above shows, they can look rather sharp that way.

The DMC-12's other great distinction was its gullwing doors, a feature it shared with the Bricklin and the Mercedes 300SL. John DeLorean claimed the gullwings were a safety feature because they allowed for better side-impact protection than conventional doors--but no one ever quite believed that. It was obvious from the start that the gullwings were there to look pretty and draw attention, and they easily accomplished that.

They also worked surprisingly well as, you know, doors. The ill-fated Bricklin had used an electrically-driven hydraulic power door-opening system which proved unacceptably fragile and cantankerous in daily service--and which also quickly drained the battery, leaving the doors stuck and the car immobilized! To avoid those sorts of problems, the DeLorean's door had no power mechanism, relying on a torsion bar and a gas strut (such as you see on hatchbacks) to hold it open. Because they're manually operated, DeLorean doors work even if the car loses power. They are very easy to open and close, and only require about a foot or so clearance on the side, meaning that you can get in and out of your DeLorean in quarters that would be too tight for a car with conventional doors. The torsion bars are effectively unbreakable, and even if the gas strut fails, it's not a disaster--the door will still open and close, it just won't stay in the "up" position by itself. If that happens, just replace the strut and you are back in business.

The engineering underneath is a story in itself. The original specification was for a mid-engined car using resin composite material--in other words, a fancy grade of industrial plastic--for all of the structure under the stainless steel. The plastic substructure unibody would be formed by a new process called elastic reservoir molding (ERM), on which John DeLorean owned the patent. It was also hoped that the ERM process could be licensed to other users, earning income that would help finance the development of the car.

A number of different engines were considered, including a Citroen inline four and a two-rotor Wankel. DeLorean ultimately settled on a 2.85-liter DOHC aluminum V-6 made by Renault and also used by Peugeot and Volvo. It was usually referred to as the "PRV" engine, after the initials of the three manufacturers. The version of the PRV used in the DeLorean was fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and kicked out 130 net horsepower at 5500 RPM and 160 pounds of torque at 2700 RPM. This was decent specific output for the late '70s, and while the small-displacement PRV wasn't exactly fire-breathing muscle-car material, it beat the snot out of any V-6 General Motors was making at that time. (Ask me how I know.) Though a good enough engine on its own merits, the PRV was chosen mostly because Renault had the production capacity to build as many as DeLorean thought it might need, and other vendors didn't. The PRV engine was mated to a Renault transaxle, either a 5-speed manual or a three-speed automatic.

Selecting the PRV led to a complete re-engineering of the car. The PRV was a heavier engine than DeLorean had been expecting to use, and it couldn't be mounted in a mid-engine position. The only way it would fit inside the body envelope was to put it behind the rear wheels. It wasn't too long before the engineering staff realized that the proposed plastic unibody might not be strong enough to hold the weight of the PRV engine--or to meet federal crash standards. (Computer simulations suggested that a 25-mph barrier crash would result in the complete destruction of the vehicle and its occupants.) It also was becoming painfully apparent by this time that the ERM process, clever as it may have been, wasn't really suitable for automotive mass production.

DeLorean went to Colin Chapman in 1978 and retained Lotus to re-engineer the car. The result of this was that, under the skin, the DeLorean ended up looking an awful lot like a Lotus. The final design had a fiberglass body under the stainless steel. This sat on on a Lotus-style backbone frame which in turn held the engine and transaxle and all the other mechanical bits. The backbone-style frame meant that the passenger compartment had a massive center console running between the bucket seats, just like you'd find in a Lotus.

A DeLorean's interior is nevertheless a remarkably roomy place. John Z. DeLorean was six-feet-four, and understandably insisted that he be able to fit in the car named after him. I'm not quite as tall as he was, but I'm a fair bit heavier, and when I sat in one two years ago I fit just fine. There was enough room between the gullwing door on my left and the Great Wall of Chapman on my right to hold me without feeling tight, but not much more than that. (If you have claustrophobia, this is probably not the car for you.) The outward visibility isn't all that great, especially to the rear, but that's also true of competing two-seaters of that era such as the Esprit or the Ferrari 308. The ergonomics of the driver's position and control layout are rather good, though the instrument panel itself practically screams "Disco era!"

So what was it like to drive one?

Shortly after the DeLorean came on the market, Car & Driver ran a series of tests comparing it to a 280ZX Turbo, a C3 Corvette, a Ferrari 308, and a Porsche 911. The cars were put through the usual battery of timed speed runs and other proving ground tests, then run against each other on the Waterford Hills Raceway circuit, then given a final frenzied workout on "an impossible, real-world stretch of Ohio asphalt":

"We will tell you only that it is one of the most devilishly tortuous and narrow tracts of pavement ever to give meaning to the words "lumpy" and "unpredictable." It has everything you could ask in order to drain the color right out of anybody's face. It also has one stop sign in the middle of nowhere (which was religiously obeyed); it has virtually no sources for interference except one tiny town with a much-reduced-speed succession of right-angled turns; and, oh, yes, it has a 2.5-mile stretch in the middle across high country that can be taken nigh onto flat-out, except maybe for the big, blind, bounding whoop-dee-doos at about the two-mile mark."

Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

The results were reported in the December 1981 issue, in an article by Larry Griffin that is one of the most entertaining and vivid test-drive accounts ever to appear in a car magazine. (The first five paragraphs, in particular, are absolutely delightful.) C/D's conclusion was in line with what the other buff books found when they tested the DeLorean: it wasn't a great car, at least not yet, but it was a competent and reasonably well-executed one.

That's not to say it didn't have its shortcomings. Despite a genuine Lotus frame and suspension design, the car's handling wasn't quite up to Lotus standards. This was mostly because of the rear-engine layout, which put the heaviest components at the extreme back end (the front/rear weight distribution was 35/65) and gave the car moment of inertia issues. Though not as treacherously tail-happy as an old-school Porsche 911, in spirited driving the DeLorean developed what C/D called a "Corvairish tendency for the tail to make mild, unwanted advances toward passing its front at awkward times." It could also get antsy at high speed on rough pavement, which C/D attributed to a possible lack of stiffness in the body mounting.

Straight-line performance also left something to be desired. The DeLorean may have looked like a warp-drive spaceship on wheels, but the styling was making promises the drivetrain couldn't fill. DMC claimed an 8.5 second 0-60 time, but no independent tester ever got close to that figure. It was more like 9.5 seconds 0-60 with the five-speed, and top-end acceleration was decidedly anemic. Part of this was because the gear ratios and the final drive (3.44:1) were chosen for fuel economy rather than acceleration, but it was mostly because the PRV in base trim just wasn't quite enough engine for a vehicle with supercar ambitions. If you were more concerned with arriving in style than with how fast you got there, a DeLorean would get the job done--but at a sticker price of $25,600 in 1981 dollars, it was kind of expensive for a car of such relatively modest capability.

DMC had already sort of tacitly admitted this, and was marketing the DeLorean more as a boulevard-cruising "personal car" (in the sense of a first-generation Thunderbird) than as a pure sports car. DMC also engaged Legend Industries, a maker of aftermarket performance parts, to develop a twin-turbo version of the PRV engine. The turbo never made it into production, but those who drove the prototypes on the test track at the Belfast factory say the turbo made the DeLorean go at least as fast as it looked.

Overall, then, the DeLorean that rolled out in 1981 was a decent sports(ish) car that just needed a little refinement, a few more horses in the engine bay, and perhaps a price cut. Despite its performance shortcomings, and some early build-quality issues that were quickly dealt with, it still sold in respectable numbers. Nevertheless, within a few months after the car went on sale, DMC flat-out ran out of money. 

What went wrong? There were a lot of contributing factors. As the car went on sale, the U.S. economy was in a deep recession, which reduced demand. John DeLorean had ambitions of selling as many as 30,000 cars a year, which would have been a major accomplishment even in a booming economy. DMC had paid a market researcher for a focus-group survey, the results of which suggested (inaccurately, as it turned out) that demand for the car would not be price-sensitive. Since that was just exactly what John DeLorean wanted to hear, he ignored contrary evidence and threw common sense to the winds and put too much faith in his ability to sell flashy, pricey cars in a slow economy. DMC ordered a huge inventory of parts and kept the production line running faster than the cars were selling--and didn't throttle back on output soon enough when cash started to run short. The company's accounting--particularly the inter-company accounting between the various entities making up the DeLorean empire--ran in a decidedly loosey-goosey fashion, so DMC's managers probably didn't have the facts they needed to understand the situation even if they'd taken off the rose-colored glasses.

Sadly, there is also significant evidence of acts of fraud on the part of John DeLorean and Colin Chapman which diverted money out of the project--though neither of them was ever prosecuted for it, Chapman's accountant ended up doing time in a British prison for his role in the affair. It's estimated that $17 million or so went missing, a sum which at least one insider figured would have been enough to get through that rough patch and keep the business going well into 1982.

Even with all that, DMC and its car might still have been salvageable through some sort of bankruptcy or reorganization process, but that all changed for the worst when John DeLorean was arrested in October of 1982, accused of trying to raise capital to save DMC by trading in cocaine. Within days, radio stations were running a parody commercial for a "DeLorean Snowmobile," featuring "razor sharp" styling with "a stainless steel finish as smooth as a mirror" and a built-in car phone "to call your attorney." The public image of the whole DeLorean enterprise was irrevocably ruined. No one was going to try to save the car or the company now.

Consolidated International--best known as the parent company of the Big Lots store chain--acquired and sold off the remaining finished cars in 1983. The production tooling was scrapped, but the huge inventory of unused parts--stainless steel panels, fiberglass body assemblies, frames, crated engines, and so on--was kept intact, and sold to a succession of parties who made the parts available for retail sale. This made ownership or restoration of a DeLorean relatively easy as such things go; no matter what might need fixing, you could still get the parts for it.

There was a happy ending of sorts, at least for the car itself. The factory parts inventory ended up in Texas, in the hands of a man named Stephen Wynne. Mr. Wynne formed a new DeLorean Motor Company, which does more than just sell NOS parts and restoration services. If you have at least $57,000 or so to spend, the new DMC will happily build you a factory-fresh DeLorean with all zeroes on the odometer. Available options include a hotted-up 197 HP engine, a modern stereo with iPod capability, Bluetooth connectivity (to call your attorney?), and a backup camera.

It gladdens my heart that street-legal stainless steel spaceships on wheels are once more for sale on this planet in my lifetime. What makes it all particularly sweet is that once you adjust for inflation, the base price for a new DeLorean in 2010 is actually slightly less than it was in 1981. Who says there's no such thing as progress?

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The official DMC publicity photo at the top, the vintage advertising images, and the magazine scans are from the invaluable Tamir's DeLorean Site. The shot of the DeLorean and Bricklin showing off their gullwings is from Flickr user toolnorth. The photo of the blue DeLorean comes from member louielouie2000 of the DMCTalk forum. The chassis photo comes from the DeLorean Museum website. The interior shot is from Auto in the News. The last image comes from the new DMC's website.

Author: "--"
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Date: Monday, 30 Aug 2010 16:30

As always, this is the place for random conversation that doesn't really belong anywhere else.


This weekend I had the opportunity to drive a rental Chevy Cobalt and was surprised by how competent it was. It certainly wasn't anything special, but it drove home the point that there really isn't such a thing as a bad car nowadays. My favorite rentals have probably been either the new Ford Fusion I drove around Las Vegas last year--it was shockingly good--or the zippy little Mitsubishi Mirage I mercilessly thrashed around Memphis about a decade ago.

Do you have any interesting rental-car experiences you'd like to share? What's your favorite rental car?

--Chris H.

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