Great American cars

  • 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
  • 1937 Cord 812
  • 1966 Chevy Corvair
  • Baker Electric
  • Plymouth Barracuda
  • Chevy Volt
Date:1 June 2010 Tags:, , , , , , , ,

We lost our way with American cars, and I’m not sure where. I do know that the US led the world in automotive technology for many decades. People rave about the French 1937 Citroën Traction Avant. But it was a four-cylinder that could barely do 112 km/h. My 1937 Cord 812, with its supercharged V8, cruises at 120 km/h. Its pre-selector gearbox has a fourth-gear overdrive. I drive my 812 just like I drive any modern car.

I would argue that, at one point, the 1949 was the most advanced car in the world. At a time when Rolls-Royce had an F-head six-cylinder with a manual shift, the Cadillac had an OHV V8 with a four-speed Hydra-matic, air conditioning and power windows – options people could only dream about on European cars.

My ’67 Chrysler Imperial has a 260 kW 7,2-litre V8, front and rear air conditioners, electric seats and power windows, for less money than a ’67 six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 250 SE with manual windows and few options.

Looking back, I think that where we really started to lose it was with the Chevrolet Corvair. Introduced in 1959 by Chevy general manager Ed Cole, the rear-engine Corvair was built to mimic the best of Europe: Porsche, VW and Tatra. They even called it the “American Porsche”. It had an air-cooled turbocharged 134 kW fl at Six and a four-speed gearbox. Was it as good as a Porsche? No. But at half the price, it was a real bargain.

When consumer advocate Ralph Nader went after the Corvair with Unsafe at Any Speed, he also went after all American cars. The Corvair was just one chapter. But in a classic case of the denial being worse than the crime, General Motors was so incensed about this upstart young lawyer that they hired investigators to follow him and tried to entrap him with prostitutes. After a Senate subcommittee looked into it, the whole thing blew up. GM chairman James M. Roche had to apologise to Nader, and all that bad publicity caused the Corvair’s demise.

When the National Highway Traffi c Safety Administration did a study in 1971, the Corvair was deemed as safe as its contemporaries, particularly 1965 and later models, which had four-link rear suspension instead of spooky swing axles. The damage, however, had been done. From then on, the Big Three played it safe. It was, don’t try to make anything different – put the engine in the front and a live axle at the back. And that’s pretty much where it stayed.

There were a few exceptions, like the ’66 Olds Toronado, the fi rst American full-size front-wheel-drive car since the Cord. It was a 287 kW sport coupé with sensational styling. The drilled wheels of the Toronado mimicked the hubcaps on the Cord. There was nothing like the Toro except for the Cadillac Eldorado, but the innovative versions only lasted a few years, and then Detroit built a lot of boring, safe, unexciting models.

That’s changing. I’ve driven the new Chevy Volt. It’s different from the Prius in that it’s a fully electric car with an electric generator powered by a 1,4-litre petrol engine. But unlike the Nissan Leaf, the Mini E and some of the other electrics, this is a car you could drive from LA to San Francisco, with the petrol engine kicking in when needed. I think that’s a real breakthrough. And I applaud GM for taking a risk with such new technology.

It’s fun to see engineers running car companies again, rather than accountants. GM has real engineers in place now, like Mark Reuss, its new US president, and Tom Stephens, who’s in charge of GM’s global product operations. These gearheads are now calling the shots. That’ll help the turnaround.

And there are already imitators, like the upscale Fisker, which essentially uses a Volt-style powertrain but in a fancy body style. That sort of technology will be the way to go. In the 1900s, people believed electricity was the best way to power a car. It was quiet; there was no pollution compared with horses dumping manure; you could park one indoors without suffocating anybody. You just couldn’t go very far.

The other thing that killed the electric car the fi rst time around – and most people don’t know this – is that women loved them. You could just get in it; there was no hand-cranking. You simply stepped on the pedal and away you went.

Clara Ford, Henry Ford’s wife, wouldn’t drive a Model T. She drove a Baker Electric. So, EVs had fancy interiors with cut-glass fl ower vases. And, like today, you can’t sell a man a woman’s car. Hybrids have a similar image: “You got a speeding ticket in a Prius – what’s funnier than that?” That was the big joke when those cars fi rst came out. But the Tesla Roadster, which can hit 200 km/h, helps to dispel that.

The last days of old technology will always beat the fi rst days of new technology. At the Isle of Man TT races, where they’ve raced motorcycles for over 100 years, they now have electric bike races. Instead of doing 206 km/h laps, the e-bikes lap at 137 km/h. Of course, some of them drain the batteries in one lap, but they’re getting there.

Vintage Hemi ’Cudas and GTOs that get, like, 26 litres per 100 km will become the motorised toys of the new millennium. You’ll have fun with them on weekends. But during the week, you’ll drive your little electric whatever-it-is to and from wherever you work or shop.

In Hollywood, I knew things had changed when I went to the Academy Awards and everybody started pulling up in Toyota Priuses and other hybrids. Nobody wanted to arrive in a big Rolls- Royce or a Maybach any more.

We’ll always have luxury cars, but that big Lexus LS 600h hybrid seems redundant to me. There’s really no need for that car other than to clear people’s consciences. We Americans want everyone to know about the good work we’re doing anonymously. So you show up in a huge limo, but ohhh, seeeeee, it’s a hybrid. And “hybrid” will come to be like the word “turbo”. You go to a store, pick up a men’s hair dryer, and it’s a turbo model. Hybrid will become just another word that people use to describe whatever:

“Oh, it’s a new TV hybrid.” It lets you combine anything. When I was a kid, a hybrid meant an Iso or a Monteverdi with European styling and suspension and Borrani wire wheels along with a big American V8 powerplant.

With hybrids and other new technology, the car has changed more from 1986 until now than it did from 1900 to 1986.

It’s funny when kids come over to my garage and I take out a box of Weber carburettor needles and they go, “What’s thaaaat?” Then they take out a laptop and plug it in, and they’re actually tuning the fuel-injection system and ignition. Then it’s my turn to say, “What the heck is thaaaat?” I guess that’s progress

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