The first famous film* Corvette

As you know, I am a connoisseur of both Corvettes and movies where cars play prominent roles.

One of the downsides of the latter is the dearth of quality movies with Corvettes in them. No, “Corvette Summer” does not count, nor, probably, “Last Stand”:

For whatever reason, a New York Times book excerpt popped up about probably the first Corvette made famous in entertainment, from the TV series “Route 66”:

Actor Martin Milner was one of those celebrities at whom Chevrolet aimed the 1953 Corvette. Herbert B. “Bert” Leonard was an even bigger target. Leonard had risen through television’s ranks to become an executive producer, the man who developed and ran successful and popular series shows. In late 1953 he introduced a drama starring a German shepherd and a young boy, called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Milner had appeared in television’s Dragnet, and other series and films through the early and mid-1950s. Neither of them, however, was impressed enough to pay much attention to the car until they had to.

In writing schools, instructors teach young talents to “write what you know.” A slice of Leonard’s life, of what he knew from his youth, grew into a very popular series. In a 1982 interview in Emmy magazine with film writer Richard Maynard, Bert recalled a lunch with his friend, Naked City writer Stirling Silliphant in 1959 while that show was in production. As a child in New York, Leonard had a much wealthier friend who was a prep school student. Over lunch he and Silliphant imagined what it might have been like to hit the roads in his friend’s sports car. An idea gelled immediately and by the time lunch was over, they had their show name, The Searchers, and a pilot story roughed out. Leonard and Silliphant had created an idea that took another popular TV series of the mid-1950s Wagon Train into the next decade. In their proposal, they wrote:

The theme – search, unrest, uncertainty, seeking answers, looking for a way of life.

The people – are young enough to appeal to the youthful audience, old enough to be involved in adult situations.

The stories – will be about something, [Italics were Silliphant’s] will be honest, and will face up to life, look for and suggest meanings, things people can identify with, and yet there will be the romance and escape of young people with wanderlust.

The locales – the whole width and breadth of the U.S., with stories shot in the actual locations, a la Naked City. What we did for one city, we now propose to do for a country and for many of its industries and businesses.

In late 1959, Leonard and Silliphant pitched this idea to Columbia-Screen Gems. They were an acknowledged success; Naked City had established new standards for storytelling and cinematography in television. This idea, however, was different. As Screen Gems executives explained when they rejected the series initially, this was “about two bums on the road.”

The Searchers verged on late 1950s European Existentialism, a philosophy that questioned why humans exist. Because he suspected this was a bit too deep for television executives at the time, Silliphant brought it back to more comfortable territory. He concluded their pitch by promising that each episode would be “packed with at least two or three top-staged brawls (built into the character of Buz).” To demonstrate his faith in the idea, Leonard funded the pilot himself. In exchange, if Columbia bought the show, he would own 80 percent of the series.

Screen Gems execs reminded Leonard and Silliphant that New York’s Broadway had recently staged a play titled The Searchers, so the pair adopted the name of America’s emotionally-laden “mother road,” Route 66.

Regular viewers know that the 115 episodes over four years rarely found stories along U.S. Highway 66. That mattered only to those obsessed with detail. Leonard’s crew shot the pilot, called “The Wolf Tree,” in Concord, Kentucky, calling it the fictional Garth, Alabama, in February 1960. The show debuted on a Friday night, October 7, 1960, with the episode renamed “Black November.” By then the production crew was leapfrogging across the country. Leonard, Silliphant, and a production assistant scouted areas that gave them several nearby towns around which to craft two or three episodes. Four weeks later, the production caravan arrived and began filming. Silliphant sometimes wrote from hotel rooms near the locations, delivering script pages that day to the waiting cast, each story faithfully adhering to his promise to show America, its industries and its businesses, and a fist fight or two thrown in for good measure.

The premise of the show was that Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, had just lost his father, a New York City shipping company owner. Stiles, a junior at Yale, educated and thoughtful, well-bred and polite, came home for the funeral to discover a bankrupt business and a legacy that included nothing more than a new 1960 Corvette convertible.

“I’ve been seriously wrong about a lot of things in my life,” Milner admitted in an interview in 1998. “And I said to Bert Leonard, ‘A Corvette isn’t that exciting a car. Why don’t we do this in a Ferrari?’” Milner laughed.

“‘Well,’ Bert said to me, ‘we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting sponsorship from Chevrolet. And there’s a pretty good chance of not getting anything from Ferrari.’”

Milner related this story to documentary producer John Paget while they were completing a retrospective two-hour show tracing the actual route of Route 66. For that production Milner drove a 1960 Roman Red convertible (with white coves), which gave rise to yet another of the countless myths about the television series.

An actor Leonard had used and liked on Naked City, George Maharis, was hired even before Milner to play a dockside employee named Buz Murdoch. Maharis’ character Buz was a native of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, streetwise and cynical, equally quick to react or to joke. Now Buz was jobless. Suddenly uprooted in every sense, the two clean-cut handsome young men, friends from summers working on Stiles’ docks, took off to find themselves.

“Tod says,” Maharis announced in that first episode, written by Silliphant, “if we keep moving we’ll find a place to plant roots . . .. But with me, it’s fine just moving.”

Screen Gems and CBS picked up the series, and listings in publications such as TV Guide identified Milner and Maharis as the principal players. But there were four stars apparent to those who watched the show carefully: Maharis, Milner, the Corvette (often written in to Silliphant’s scripts as a character itself), and The Road Across America. As television historian Mark Alvey wrote in The Road Movie Book, “Route 66 is a tale both of search and flight, and as a serial narrative characteristic of American commercial television, its central meaning lies not in some finite goal at the end of the road, but in the discoveries made along the way.”

The show’s travels rooted much of America to their television sets every Friday for four seasons. The audience’s vicarious restlessness brought Chevrolet back year after year as principal sponsor. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” was more than an advertising jingle for this show—it was close as existentialism was to being the show’s philosophical foundation.

Chevrolet’s advertising agency’s Los Angeles office provided Leonard a pair of Tasco Turquoise blue convertibles. As Leonard and Silliphant had promised, the show hit the road and travelled . . . and travelled. Maharis recalled recently that they covered 40,000 miles each year. Production manager Sam Manners ran a road train, as he explained to show historian James Rosin. A transporter carried the two Corvettes as well as a Chapman Crane, a truck with an arm capable of lifting the camera nearly 50 feet in the air. A station wagon supported the camera for moving front shots; a Corvair missing its front trunk lid served as camera car for rear views. Another dozen vehicles made up the convoy with portable dressing rooms, costumes, and the camera equipment, lenses, lighting gear, and generators cinematographer Jack Marta needed to get each episode on film.

For Chevrolet, it was the natural “vehicle” to promote their sports car. Similar motives attracted GM executives and viewers: There was no need to wait for a vacation to see the country in the family station wagon—hopefully a Chevy. Every week millions of individuals went on an adventure, imagining themselves as the third (or fourth or fifth) rider stuffed into the Corvette between Buz and Tod.

The show provided adventure, with Tod, Buz, and the Corvette as tour guides. Events, tumultuous and timely, befell the two young men just as they arrived in one locale or another. Silliphant, a writer profoundly in sync with America’s psyche, steered them to women’s rights, racial inequality, corporate malfeasance, land and water rights, international espionage, murder, theft, assault, marital and familial discord, war crimes, revolutionary terrorists, drug addiction and abuse, the role of the government in an individual’s rights, and the responsibilities of an individual to a town or nation. The episodes were self-contained, an anthology type of storytelling that introduced conflicts involving guest stars outside the Corvette. By the time the sleek luggage-encumbered convertible left town, all was right with the world and it was time to move on.

In an interview in Time magazine in August 1963, Silliphant said, “The meaning of Route 66 has to do with ‘a search for identity in contemporary America. It is a show about a statement of existence. If anything, it is closer to Sartre and Kafka than to anything else. We are terribly serious, and we feel that life contains a certain amount of pain.’”

The show caused some pain for cinematographer Marta, who worked hard to illuminate actors’ faces in bright sunlight against a pale blue car that reflected so much light. For the 1961–1962 season, the Campbell-Ewald agency provided the show with Fawn Beige convertibles. That darker color choice remained through 1964, when the series ended.

Some viewers picked up the difference between the tones of the cars, even filmed in black-and-white. They noticed that each year the seemingly penniless Stiles and Murdock (who often said they took jobs just for gas money) travelled in a current model Corvette. That question fit right in with, “How can they be in Maine if the show is called Route 66?”

As a title, The Searchers was not “catchy,” just as a Ferrari convertible would have been unbelievable—why wouldn’t Tod sell a car like that and go back to Yale? But Dad’s two-seat American-made Corvette enticed the two young men onto the road, letting Stiles search for roots and Murdock keep moving without taking much baggage or other passengers.

Chevrolet’s design studio began planning updates to the Corvette’s first-generation body even before introduction in 1953. Poor sales slipped the redesign back from the 1956 to 1958, when quad headlights appeared. Stylists Peter Brock, Chuck Pohlman, and others slaved away on the “next” Corvette, first called the “Q” and then nicknamed just “the next one.” In 1961 the car received a new rear end that hinted at The Next One. Quad headlights stayed through 1962 season and subsequent generations. The Sting Ray showed up for the 1962–1963 season and a new one carried on for the 1963–1964 programs.

About every 3,000 miles, Campbell-Ewald replaced the show’s cars, reconditioning them and sending them off to friendly dealers to sell as “executive” vehicles. Sam Manners remembered running though three or four cars per season. With each season’s renewal, new models arrived in time for the caravan to leave L.A. By 1963, that road show had grown to fifty vehicles on the road covering 40,000 miles each year. By then Chevrolet provided Corvettes to Milner and Maharis, Manners, and others for personal use as well.

The car shown here is not a vehicle from the show. Its white coves betray it, as does its unrestored survivor status. Pennsylvania owner Mike Nardo and his father know the history of the car and it did not include television stardom. But Nardo’s car is a survivor with 37,000 miles, a four-speed transmission, and the same factory steel wheels and wheel covers that Tod ended up with after Episode 22. In that show, “Eleven, The Hard Way,” the two men helped a small town confront the risks of gambling in order to save itself. To stake a loan to the town’s auditor in a make-or-break game of dice, Tod sold the wire wheels that drove the car through two-thirds of the premiere season.

The show itself was a gamble. There are reports that CBS didn’t care for it. Network president Jim Aubrey complained to Leonard that the show was “too downbeat,” and that he wanted more “broads, bosoms, and fun.” But, as Leonard told Mark Alvey, Chevrolet “liked the hard hitting show they bought . . . They wanted the reality, the drama, and the movement; not the sexy women and cliché characters.” GM’s marketing studies revealed that the show attracted huge audiences of young people between the age of 10 and 14, a prime target then and now. The show ran for four seasons, surviving the disappearance of co-star Maharis who was suffering with hepatitis brought on by the exhausting pace of travel and six-day shooting weeks. Milner drove on, searching for roots and meaning. The show finally slowed to a halt months after Glenn Corbett, playing Lincoln Case, replaced a still-ailing Maharis. “Linc” was more like Tod than Buz and the interplay and counterpoint that worked so well with Maharis and Milner never reappeared.

Critics have analyzed the show’s writing, its acting, and its stories. Some have compared it to beatnik author Jack Kerouac’s seminal travel story On the Road. Kerouac sued Silliphant and Leonard, accusing them of plagiarism. But as Paul Goodman explained in his book Growing up Absurd, “The entire action of On the Road is the avoidance of interpersonal conflict.” Route 66 was precisely the opposite, and viewer surveys commissioned in 1961 by Chevrolet and other sponsors learned that the audience understood the role of the stars as knights in shining armor, riding in week after week to save damsels—or entire towns—in distress. It is their co-star in this noble pursuit, their trusty steed, their white charger—well, first blue and then beige—that is the subject of this chapter.

The book is …

Legendary Corvettes: ’Vettes Made Famous On Track And Screen, which I have not read, and apparently is not available through the local library system. It appears from the Amazon preview that there is only one other movie/TV Corvette in the book …

… this abomination.

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I should not like this, but …

My blog last week about the Chevrolet Caprice (a French word meaning “behemoth,” I believe) may somehow cosmically have gotten me to see this:

What the what, you ask? This is (apparently because I can’t see if the headlights are rectangular or round) a 1976 Caprice Landau, to which has been added … T-tops.

A T-top, according to Heacock Classic, is …

… a beautiful example of compromise. If you want the open-air fun of a convertible but don’t want to completely sacrifice structural rigidity and add the weight of a drop top, the T-Top was made for you. It’s also not a feature you’ll find in any car being manufactured today. Meaning if you want the red-jeans-wearing, mullet-having, John Cougar Mellencamp-blaring awesomeness of a T-Top, you’re more than likely going to need to buy a classic car.

While many credit GM for the T-Top, it was actually invented and patented by car designer Gordon Buehrig. It was first used in a 1948 prototype by The American Sportscar Company or “Tasco.”

The Tasco Sportscar featuring t-tops

See those wheel covers? They turn with the wheels!

While Tasco had an excellent roof, they never made more than one prototype of the car.

The T-Top wasn’t seen again until GM introduced it on the 1968 Corvette, at which point Gordon Buehrig promptly sued them. While his suit was successful, the settlement is said to be relatively small.

The Corvette’s T-Tops were so well-liked they were cited as the reason Chevy discontinued Corvette convertibles in the 1976 model year and didn’t resume production of them until 1986.

A C3 corvette with T-Tops

What late C3 ‘Vette lacked in forward visibility and stingray badging, it completely made up for in roof-awesomeness.

Perhaps the most iconic application of the T-Top was on the second-generation Pontiac Firebird. Offered for the first time in 1976, these T-Tops were originally provided by Hurst until 1978, when they were replaced by larger, less leaky panels  manufactured by Fisher. The “Smokey and The Bandit” Trans Am, pictured above, features Hurst tops.

Eventually, all of the Big Three American car manufacturers tried their hands at making cars with T-Tops. They even made their way onto less performance-oriented models like the Chrysler Cordoba and seventh-generation Ford Thunderbird. Overseas, this roof is featured on a variety of Japanese and British automobiles, even on quirky utility vehicles like the Subaru Brat and Suzuki X-90 (you may not recognize it without a giant Red Bull can on the back).

While none of today’s car companies have the good sense to make cars with these truly awesome roofs anymore, the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird brought the T-Top into the 21st century, if only just. T-Tops went the way of Pontiac and its Firebird in 2002. Until manufacturers come to their senses, car-buyers with discriminating tastes, i.e. those who adore T-Tops, will just have to look to classic cars to get their open-air performance fix. And that’s just fine by us!

The T-top was only on the C3 Corvette, replaced on C4s thereafter by a targa top, which covers between the top of the windshield and the B-pillar. The bar between hatch panels was because merely cutting off the roof would have made the car unstable. Stiffening from the C4 onward (the C5 was designed as a convertible to which the roof was added) helped deal with that problem.

There is one other GM T-top not mentioned …

… the 1977 Olds Toronado XSR, one of which was built with not just a T-top, but …

… a power T-top. This is the only one American Sunroof Corp. built for Olds, because they couldn’t get the power top mechanism to work. (Imagine GM rejecting new technology because it didn’t work right.) Olds instead sold the Toronado XS, which had merely a sunroof.

I once owned a car with a dealer-installed sunroof. It leaked somewhat, but that was the least of the problems with that car. Sunroofs designed with the vehicle generally don’t leak, but the downside is that power sunroofs reduce headroom, which is an issue for us tall drivers. We have a Honda Pilot that came with a sunroof as standard equipment. It’s cool to drive it with the roof open, assuming it’s not too cold or windy. (The former can be dealt with by, obviously, turning up the heat; the latter is dealt with somewhat with an air deflector that deploys when the roof is open, but it’s best to not have any windows open in that case. The other downside is if your hair is a little bit, uh, light on top.)

The most desirable of the big Chevrolet B-bodies (the Chevy Impala and Caprice, Pontiac Bonneville and Grand Ville, Olds Delta 88 and Buick LeSabre) are the convertibles. (As are the pre-1971 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and the post-’70 Eldorados.) Targa tops and T-tops are the next best thing. Convertibles today are either sports cars (ranging from the Corvette to the Mazda Miata) or otherwise small cars (the late Chrysler Sebring). Detroit doesn’t make big cars anymore, so Detroit doesn’t make big two-doors, let alone big convertibles.

This photo came from this web page, which claimed that the owner had also modified the car’s axles to put on 14-inch wheels (one inch smaller than the originals) for the reprehensible practice of “donking.” (Usually “donking” involves installing much larger wheels, not smaller, as in the case of this Caprice.) If you were going to put different wheels on the Caprice, the logical choice would not be 14-inch wheels, but reproductions of the old Chevrolet Rally wheels. Ironically, Rally wheels were not offered on the ’71–76 Chevy B-bodies, while they were available on everything from Malibus to Corvettes. (The B-body bolt circle was too large. I found that out the hard way.)

Chevy ingenuity, or cheapness: The 1974 Spirit of America Impala, with special wheels taken from pickup trucks of the era.

So for reasons known only to GM, one could not get Impala or Caprice Rally wheels, even though you could get sport wheels on your big Pontiac …

1974 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible with Rally II wheels.

… or Buick, though not, for some reason, the big Olds.

In the foreground is a 1974 Buick Estate Wagon, which has vinyl roof and woodgrain AND Buick styled road wheels.

The B-bodies (built at Chevy’s late Janesville plant, by the way) were designed thusly for 1971. (The C-bodies — the Olds 98, Buick Electra and Cadillac Coupe and Sedan de Ville — were even bigger; “C” probably stood for “colossal.”) The ’71–76 Chevys model offerings did not include the Impala SS, combining both size and horsepower from 1961 to 1969. The Impala SS’ death is too bad given that Chevy could have put together a ’71–76 Impala SS from its own parts bin, using, for instance, its 454 V-8 and the swivel bucket seats and console of the mid-’70s Monte Carlo and Laguna S-3. Of course, someone “restomodding” a big Chevy could do that too, as long as you’ve already departed from originality with your T-top.

 

A top 10 of speed on the screen

One of the media trends facilitated by social media is a list of the top _____ of ______.

While top ___ lists have been around since mass media, late night TV host David Letterman probably gets credit for popularizing them.

I have recently seen a couple of top 10 lists about car movies, or movies where cars play a prominent role. I somewhat agree with one and not the one I can’t find.

Letterman was trying to be funny. Others try to be insightful or merely controversial, since each obviously is merely one opinion and not (usually) based on anything close to objectivity. My list is based on my own subjective opinion of the vehicles involved, along with if a non-car-buff can watch without being bored into slumber.

Anyway, here is my top 10 ist of car movies, which does not include several worthy honorable mention selections, such as “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior,” “Le Mans,” “Grand Prix” (no, those are not two movies about Pontiacs), “Live and Let Die” (in fact one could do an entire list of James Bond movies rated by car chase), “The Driver,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “The Transporter,” and so on.

Number 10:

This was a better movie than “Cannonball Run,” which consisted of fine cars, but not very fine acting.

Number 9:

Not the Nicholas Cage remake.

Number 8:

We didn’t include Reynolds’ “Cannonball Run,” but we will include this because it combines cool car scenes with a compelling story of brotherly revenge. Ned Beatty did a great job as a malevolent redneck sheriff. The sequel, “Gator,” lacks the car chases, though it does have a boat chase.

Number 7:

This might be the best movie overall of this list. The cars are cool, and so is the music for those who grew up in that age. (For those unaware: The ’55 Chevy the future Han Solo crashes in a drag race was the repainted car in “Two Lane Blacktop” of two years earlier.)

Number 6:

Not the Mark Wahlberg remake.

Number 5:

Reynolds returns. (The sequels are not worth your time, however.)

Number 4:

Not the Viggo Mortenson remake.

Number 3:

Number 2:

And the number 1 car movie of all time according to myself:

The greatest car chase of all time, plus young Jacqueline Bisset, oily politician Robert Vaughn, a compelling story, a fantastic Lalo Schifrin soundtrack, and the greatest car chase of all time.

 

The biggest Chevy (non-truck) of all

Long-time readers know my fondness for big, big cars of old, including my former 1975 Chevrolet Caprice, all 18 feet, 4,300 pounds and 11 mpg of it.

Well, I’m not the only one. Riverside Green writes:

A good friend of mine is the “Brougham Whisperer,” Jason Bagge, also known as Mr. Caprice, ha ha! He buys real cars about as often as I buy model cars. Which is to say, a lot. Most of those cars are 1970s land yachts, though not exclusively so. But one of his favorites are the Nimitz-class 1971-1976 Chevrolet Caprice. He’s owned several over the years, but perhaps the coolest one he had is the subject of today’s Klockau Classic. The 1976 Caprice Classic Landau. In triple black, no less!

Living in the Pacific Northwest, he is in a great position to find clean old cars that just need a little love to be really nice. In fact, it’s uncanny. Every time he finds a new car I think, “Holy crap! I haven’t seen one of those since about 1993!” And then he sells it. And then, three months later, he finds ANOTHER one, often times nicer than the last one. The man has a knack for this stuff!

Late last year, he sold this mint pistachio-hued 1974 Chevrolet Impala. It was nice when he got it. But he gave it that extra polish he is well known for in the old car hobby, including an NOS grille, new whitewalls, and myriad other things. At the time I told him this one should be the “keeper.” It was that nice. So of course he sold it. Ha ha!

And almost exactly a year ago, I told him to keep this one, an ice blue metallic 1976 Caprice Classic Sport Sedan. I wrote it up right here at RG, and at the time he still had it. But not long after it was heading to the Midwest, to its new owner in Chicagoland!

But that’s how it goes. He sees a car, performs his magic, enjoys the car a while, someone makes him an offer he can’t refuse, and the car is away and the search for a new classic is on!

Which brings us to the elusive, Broughamtastic 1976 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Landau.

A couple of years ago Jason was scouring the online classifieds when he spotted this. It had been turned into a half-assed lowrider (little wheels but no hydraulics, heh!) but it was a genuine factory triple black Landau (meaning black paint, interior and top, for those of you born before the Brougham Age).

He had to have it. And he got it! And immediately began working on it. The interior was a little rough, but the doofy little wheels were almost immediately ditched, sold, and factory wheels and Caprice wheel covers were sourced. Along with brand new whitewall tires. Naturally.

But those standard Caprice Classic wheelcovers were just placeholders. You see, the Landau package, available on two-door Caprice Classics and Impalas, came with their very own wheel cover style. And were color-keyed to the car’s paint for Maximum Broughaminess.

So of course the “regular” Caprice Classic wheel covers just wouldn’t do long-term. Jason was able to acquire the correct ones, and painstakingly masked them off and painted them to match. Fun fact: The 1976 Landau wheel covers were the standard 1975 Caprice Classic wheel discs, but with painted centers. Ebay is your friend!

In no time the Landau was looking damn fine! As it should be.

The biggest talking point on all 1976 Caprice Classics were quad rectangular headlamps, giving the Caprices a decidedly Cadillac-like look up front. Of course there was a new grille too.

The top of the heap was the Classic Landau, which added an Elk-grained Landau vinyl roof, accent stripes, dual color-keyed sport mirrors, and deluxe bumpers with rubber impact strips front and rear.

Said dual sport mirrors included a remote control for the driver’s side. Rounding out the special features were “Landau” script etched into the quarter window glass and the aforementioned special wheel covers with color-keyed centers and “Landau” center caps.

The Caprice Classic Landau retailed for $5,284 new, and that was before any options were added. But even that base price was a healthy bump over the standard Classic two-door coupe, whose MSRP was $5,043.

At the end of the model year the regular Caprice Classic was the winner sales-wise, but Landau sales were not too shabby either. 28,161 regular Caprice Classic coupes were sold, while Caprice Classic Landau production was 21,926.

Today any stock Caprice Classic from The Year Of Our Lord 1976 is rare, as these automobiles have fallen prey to myriad custom-car aficionados. And said demand has bumped the price of these “Whopper” Caprices in the market. They are certainly no longer the old, worn-out $900 beaters they were circa 1991. Jason will tell you!

When he got done with the car, it looked terrific! He was hoping to source upholstery for the somewhat worn interior when someone offered him a ton of money for it. So with some regret, the car moved on. Too bad. I loved this one. I messaged Jason at least a couple of times, saying ‘keep this car!’ But money talks and…well, you know.

But wait! There’s even more. As we speak a new car has been acquired and is on the way to Jason’s driveway, so stay tuned. You will hear all about it, later this year! Until then, keep calm and Brougham on!

What’s interesting to me is that, other than the “pistachio-hued” Impala, every Caprice here is a ’76. These represent a few of what’s left of the 152,806 Caprices built (many in the late Janesville plant) and sold in the 1976 model year. There were 21,929 Landau coupes, as opposed to 28,161 non-Landau coupes. (We had a non-Landau coupe; I can find no breakdowns of 1975 production by body style.) The four-door Caprice pictured here is a Sport Sedan (as if the term “sport” applies to an 18-foot-long car), notable by the window in the C-pillar and the nonexistent B-pillar, of which 55,308 were built, as opposed to the 47,411 non-Sport Sedan sedans.

Interestingly, perhaps, those 152,806 Caprices represented a huge sales jump from 1975, when 103,944 (including the last 8,349 convertibles) were sold. I don’t know how widely it was known (except perhaps among car buffs) that GM was downsizing its full-size cars for 1977. Perhaps that had something to do with the 47-percent jump in sales. The sales jump is unlikely to have been because of the few changes from ’75 to ’76, including the rectangular headlights and replacement of the instrument-panel-knob pictograms with woodgrain. (Really.)

Bagge has two videos of the black ’76, which includes what is known derisively as the “Mark of Excellence” — a cracked dashboard. This has a 400 V-8, the biggest small-block V-8 Chevy ever made. It doesn’t have the ironic option of the temperature gauge (only because some car buffs looked askance at the 400 for its cylinder head design that was claimed to be prone to overheating) and Econominder, a fuel economy (actually engine vacuum) gauge.

Bagge’s Caprices represent cars no one will ever make anymore. Technologically cars today are much more capable, but most of them are destined to be remembered as much as your previous refrigerator. My Caprice represented my first taste of transportation freedom. Perhaps any car I was able to drive with my new driver’s license might have, but that car did.

Ask not for whom the tolls toll …

The specter of Wisconsin toll roads rears itself again in this Badger Institute news release:

The Badger Institute and the Reason Foundation said Thursday the state should pursue tolling and offered a solution to concerns expressed by Gov. Scott Walker.

“The stars seem to be aligned for Wisconsin to join the ranks of states deciding to rebuild and modernize their Interstate highways using the revenues from all-electronic tolling,” said Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and author of the Badger Institute report Rebuilding and Modernizing Wisconsin’s Interstates with Toll Financing.

“Leaders in both houses of the Legislature representing both parties are favorable to the idea. The Trump Administration’s new infrastructure plan promises to remove federal restrictions on Interstate tolling and encourage states to use toll revenue to match new federal support.”

The Badger Institute has long advocated for toll roads. Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have now embraced tolling as a long-term solution to Wisconsin’s road funding dilemma as well. Gov. Walker expressed concerns about effectively raising taxes on Wisconsin drivers, but Poole noted that Value-Added Tolling would alleviate that problem.

“Value-Added Tolling means only charging tolls once highway customers get improved infrastructure to use,” said Poole. “And it also means not charging both tolls and fuel taxes for the same stretch of roadway.”

For Wisconsin, that would mean the following:

  • Implement electronic tolling to pay for rebuilding specific Interstates and interchanges;
  • Begin tolling only after the new pavement and bridges are ready to open; and,
  • Provide rebates of state fuel taxes to those who pay tolls in the rebuilt corridors.

“Rebates of fuel taxes are simple to calculate via the electronic tolling system,” Poole said. “This should satisfy Gov. Walker’s legitimate concerns about double-charging users.”

A policy study released today by the Reason Foundation ranked each state’s highway system by 11 different categories. Ranking the Best, Worst, Safest, and Most Expensive State Highway Systems — The 23rd Annual Highway Report gave Wisconsin an overall rank of 38th in highway performance and cost-effectiveness.

Badger Institute President Mike Nichols pointed out that there are no other realistic, long-term solutions to the state’s transportation dilemma.

“We need more revenue to prevent widespread deterioration of our roads,” said Nichols. “More debt is not the answer. Over 20 percent of all transportation fund revenues are already used for debt service rather than improving our roads. All told, we spend over half a billion per year just servicing transportation-related debt.”

“Raising gas taxes on everybody isn’t fair or logical either,” Nichols added. “Fuel-efficient cars already burn less gas and soon enough – when the price of electric vehicles plummets – many of us won’t be buying much gas at all. We need to wean ourselves off gas taxes, not increase them.

“All-electronic tolling is a free-market, logical, fair, modern solution. No toll plazas. No toll booths. No lines. Just better roads that get us to our jobs and back home to our families on time.”

Poole also noted that the national board of AAA (America’s largest highway user group) has endorsed Value-Added Tolling, and should be supportive of such an effort in Wisconsin.

Poole participated in a Badger Institute webinar last year on the topic of Interstate Tolling for Wisconsin: Why and How? The webinar, Poole’s slide presentation and other tolling resources can be found here.

All of that flies in the face of other states’ toll experiences. The number of states that have former toll roads that became non-toll roads can be counted on one hand. The actual history is that once toll roads are established, they never go away. The Illinois Tollway Authority is one of the most corrupt features of the corrupt state of Illinois.

That’s one prediction. Another is that drivers will refamiliarize themselves with whatever the parallel road is to the new toll road — U.S. 18 between Madison and Milwaukee, U.S. 12 from the Dells northward, Wisconsin 16 from Tomah to La Crosse, and so on. They will be inconvenienced by slower traffic and driving through towns, but they won’t have to pay tolls.

The proposal includes a fuel tax rebate presumably to address Walker’s wish for this to be revenue-neutral, except that it would take revenues away from fuel taxes that pay for other road work. Ask the road lobby, and it will claim that the bigger issue isn’t Interstate projects, but local roads.

What has not been considered by anyone is that if fixing roads is a priority, then spending needs to decrease in other areas of state government. Walker’s nearly eight years as governor have included no cuts in state employment. Decreasing the annual increase in state spending beats the Democratic alternative, but it is not preferable to actual spending cuts, including transportation areas that don’t benefit most Wisconsinites (i.e. mass transit).

I think this trial balloon will sink in flames like the Hindenburg anyway because the prospects of a politician proposing tolls in an election year is as unlikely as turkeys being able to fly.

 

A car you can’t have, but an engine you can have

What, you may ask, is this?

These are, according to the Hot Wheels Wiki:

The Overbored 454 is a Hot Wheels Original Model by Phil Riehlman. This model resembles a 70’s Chevelle SS that has been tuned. With its 5.0 V8 Psycho Maxter engine with 845 horsepower and a top speed of 275 mph, this muscle car will rule the American street races.

With what engine? According to the YouTube video (and you might want to turn down the volume before you view it) …

This model resembles a 70’s Chevelle SS that has been tuned. With its I-6 (Inline Six) Psycho Maxter engine with 845 horsepower and a top speed of 245 mph (394 km/h), this muscle car will rule the American street races.

Yes, we are discussing a Hot Wheels car here. But fiction requires verisimilitude, defined as “the appearance of being true or real.” (So ignore that 275 mph claim.) It is true that the Chevelle SS was a trim package, but according to this only 7,000 of the Chevelle SS were made with a Chevy six-cylinder engine, and likely none after the mid-1960s.

The Overbored 454 is supposed to be based on a 1970s SS, of course, such as …

1970
1971
1972

… although to me it looks like a non-SS, though a related car — a mid-1970s Laguna S3, due to the sloped nose:

1975
1976

Back to the engine. The six a Chevelle SS might have had was introduced in 1962 for the new Chevy II compact (which means it probably powered my parents’ Nova sedan and wagon), in 194-, 230- or 250-cubic-inch sizes, with gas and air measured through a one- or two-barrel carburetor, producing at most 155 gross horsepower. (There also was a 292 six available, but sold only in trucks and vans.) It replaced the old “Stovebolt” six that powered the first two years of Corvettes. Maybe it could be bored out to 5 liters (about 305 cubic inches, but even with a supercharger and being “tuned” the idea that you could get 845 horsepower out of that engine is laughable, even in toys.

Besides that, what does “454” refer to if not to Chevy’s 454 V-8? That engine was the biggest of Chevy’s commercially available big-block V-8s. The second of the two big-blocks started at 396 cubic inches in the 1965 Corvette, grew to 427 cubic inches, then reached its zenith at 454 cubic inches in 1970. (My former neighbor’s 1970 Corvette owner’s manual listed an optional LS-7 465-cubic-inch 454, though it was never sold by Chevy. The Chevelle SS 454 had to do with just 450 stated horsepower.) That engine wasn’t available in cars after 1976, but it was available in trucks up to the SS 454 half-ton pickup to 1993.

The 454 got sixth place in one online poll of the greatest engines of all time. (Number one was, of course, the Chevy small-block, a version of which still powers Corvettes, Camaros, pickups, SUVs and vans.)

It shouldn’t be news that you can get a lot of horsepower from a 454.

My late friend and broadcast partner Frank, who once sold Chevrolets, could tell you more about 454s, I imagine, than I can without research. Even though Chevy sold 454-powered Chevelles, I imagine they must have been very nose-heavy, since aluminum blocks and heads weren’t perfected yet. Of course, the point of muscle cars was shoving the most horsepower possible into a mid-size (and sometimes compact) car. Such things as handling and braking weren’t priorities. (Imagine driving one of those in the era of drum brakes.) We won’t even discuss gas mileage.

Even though you haven’t been able to buy a big-block in a car in 40 years and a truck in almost 25, it turns out you can still buy a big-block engine from Chevy, with horsepower ranging from 406 from a 502 (for $7,566) to the ZZ572 720R Deluxe, which for $18,531 (minus a $250 rebate from Chevy through Dec. 31) will deliver 727 horsepower to your Chevelle or anything else you can fit it in. According to Chevy, though, the engine requires 110 octane gas and is “suitable for limited forays on the street.” Worse, the 720-horsepower ZZ572 is available with only, in GM’s Connect & Cruise package (with another $500 or $750 rebate through Dec. 31), an automatic transmission.

If you can sacrifice 100 horsepower and can spend another $100 (really), the 620-horsepower ZZ572 can be equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. Or, for $2,000 less, you could make do with just 502 horsepower in the fuel-injected Ram Jet 502. As you know, God intended us to drive V-8s and sticks.

The funny thing about this blog about an imaginary car is that it is based on a car whose resurrection keeps getting rumored, including last year:

If you believe these online sources, GM is also about to bring out a new Pontiac GTO …

… and Oldsmobile 442 too …

… to compete against the upcoming Ford Torino …

… and Mercury Cougar:

 

Our Javelin never looked like this

One of the first Friday posts on this blog was about American Motors Corp., which built cars in Kenosha and Milwaukee until Chrysler bought AMC in 1987.

We owned one AMC product — a 1973 Javelin that looked something like this …

… except that (1) it was a Javelin, not an AMX; (2) it had a 304, not 401, v-8; (3) it had a fatter gold side stripe that started cracking days after we got it; and (4) being a base model, it had wheel covers and not these wheels. It did have bucket seats, a console and a floor shifter, but that was about the only option. (It didn’t even have a parking brake light, which resulted in a moment when a driver — not me — thought something was wrong with the car instead of merely the parking brake being on.)

Subtract the Weather Eye air conditioning, aftermarket radio and clock, and this was the view from, well, between the front seats.

The Javelin and our much larger Chevrolet Caprice were the cars in which I learned to drive. The Javelin lacked power brakes, though that actually didn’t take that much getting used to. The 304 provided decent power and predictably bad gas mileage. As a pony car it lacked any kind of room in the trunk or behind the front seats.

The Javelin was also, it must be said, a poorly-screwed-together car. A trip on a gravel road during a Boy Scout canoeing campout shook out nearly every screw that kept interior parts in their place. In addition to the giant space of nothing where the clock went (AMC was far from unusual in that regard), it had a light underneath the heat controls, but no light bulb or socket. It was also predictably nose-heavy given the iron-block V-8 (there is no such thing as a “small-block” and a “big block” AMC V-8; AMC had three different designs of V-8s, but each generation used the same block, in this case from the 304 to the 401) and light in back.

The only other AMC I can remember anyone having is an aunt and uncle’s Cherokee …

… the two-door version of the four-door Wagoneer, one of which I saw strangely on Halloween.

AMCs are hard to find at car shows, largely because not many were made, and most of those that were made rotted away in the lands of winter. For one thing AMC was, under the leadership of George Romney (yes, Mitt’s father; had Mitt been elected president in 2012 his Secret Service code name was going to be “Javelin”), a lower-priced economy car, such as that was in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t until the older Romney became governor of Michigan that AMC started to build more performance vehicles, including the Rebel Machine and the AMX, which simply was a Javelin with the back seats removed and the back end shortened.)

This is all preamble for what a Wisconsin company …

… has done to a 1972 Javelin (which originally looked like this), as reported by the Motor Authority:

Ringbrothers out of Spring Green, Wisconsin is back with another wild build that was unveiled on Tuesday at the 2017 SEMA show.

The car is a 1972 AMC Javelin AMX that’s been hit up with a Hellcat engine transplant. However, the 6.2-liter supercharged V-8’s 707 horsepower didn’t suffice so Ringbrothers swapped out the stock supercharger for a 4.5-liter Whipple unit that now sees the engine deliver 1,100 thundering horses!

The build was commissioned by antifreeze expert Prestone to celebrate its 90th anniversary, hence the car’s distinct yellow exterior which Ringbrothers likes to call Jalop Gold. That paint, by the way, is applied to mostly carbon fiber pieces. The hood, front fenders, grille, and the front valance all feature the lightweight material.

Other mods include a custom 4-link rear suspension, a 12-bolt axle, side exhaust exits, and a modern braking system.

Jim and Mike Ring, the founders of Ringbrothers, have treasured the Javelin since childhood so they knew immediately that it would be the perfect blank canvas when Prestone first inquired about the build. With only 3,220 ever produced, this car embodies American muscle car history and even in stock form looks darn cool with its low, wide stance.

The build was completed in 12 months, which is relatively quick given the scope of the project. In order to achieve the quick turnaround, Ringbrothers used 3D scanning and 3D printing for the first time, helping them to speed up the development of the plugs and molds.

The 1972 Javelin isn’t the only build on Ringbrothers’ SEMA stand. The company also unveiled a Ford F-100 restomod and a 1969 Dodge Charger dubbed the Defector. The F-100 boasts a 5.0-liter Coyote V-8 crate engine, while the 1969 Charger features a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine.

Clearly I have to check out this place. (For one thing, it’s not far from the two farm markets we visit most falls.) A Hellcat is not an AMC engine, but other than the Indy-car engine (would you believe 1,100 horsepower from a turbocharged 209?), I think it’s impossible to get that much horsepower from any AMC engine. Since Chrysler purchased AMC, it’s more accurate than putting in a GM or Ford V-8.

Given my love for large cars (and the zero legroom of Javelin rear seats), it would be interesting to see the Ringbrothers do a similar project for another AMC …

… the infamous 1974–78 Matador coupe (which, believe it or don’t, was raced in NASCAR). There are some custom Matadors out there …

… but none, I believe, with supercharged Hellcat engines.

Perhaps I could have it painted like the NASCAR Matador …

1974-nascar-5

… which in turn was painted like the racing Javelin:

amc-javelin-trans-am-010

agl1101-680x349

 

The Cash for Clunkers car wreck

Dan Mitchell picks out one thing of the infinitely long list of worst features of the Barack Obama (mis)adminstration:

Three economists (from MIT and Tex A&M) have crunched the numbers and discovered that Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme back in 2009 was a failure even by Keynesian standards.

The abstract of the study tells you everything you need to know.

The 2009 Cash for Clunkers program aimed to stimulate consumer spending in the new automobile industry, which was experiencing disproportionate reductions in demand and employment during the Great Recession. Exploiting program eligibility criteria in a regression discontinuity design, we show nearly 60 percent of the subsidies went to households who would have purchased during the two-month program anyway; the rest accelerated sales by no more than eight months. Moreover, the program’s fuel efficiency restrictions shifted purchases toward vehicles that cost on average $5,000 less. On net, Cash for Clunkers significantly reduced total new vehicle spending over the ten month period.

This is remarkable. At the time, the most obvious criticism of the scheme was that it would simply alter the timing of purchases.

And scholars the following year confirmed that the program didn’t have any long-run impact.

But now we find out that there was impact, but it was negative. Here’s the most relevant graph from the study.

It shows actual vehicle spending and estimated spending in the absence of the program.

For readers who like wonky details, here’s the explanatory text for Figure 7 from the study.

The effect of the program on cumulative new vehicle spending by CfC-eligible households is shown in Figure 7. The figure shows actual spending and estimates of counterfactual spending if there had been no CfC program. Cumulative spending under the CfC program was larger than counterfactual spending for the months immediately after the program. However, by February 1 the counterfactual expenditures becomes larger and by April has grown to be $4.0 billion more than actual expenditures under the program. It is difficult to make the case that the brief acceleration in spending justifies the loss of $4.0 billion in revenues to the auto industry, for two reasons. First, we calculate that in order to justify the estimated longer-term reduction in cumulative spending to boost spending for a few months, one would need a discount rate of 208 percent. Given the expected (and realized) duration of the recession, it seems difficult to argue in favor of such a discount rate. Second, we note that Cash for Clunkers seems especially unattractive compared to a counterfactual stimulus policy that left out the environmental component, which also would have accelerated purchases for some households without reducing longer-term spending.

By the way, the authors point out that Cash-for-Clunkers wasn’t even good environmental policy.

One could also argue that this decline in industry revenue over less than a year could be justified to the extent the program offered a cost-effective environmental benefit. Unfortunately, the existing evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this program was a costly way of reducing environmental damage. For example, Knittel [2009] estimates that the most optimistic implied cost of carbon reduced by the program is $237 per ton, while Li et al. [2013] estimate the cost per ton as between $92 and $288. These implied cost of carbon figures are much larger than the social costs of carbon of $33 per ton (in 2007 dollars) estimated by the IWG on the Social Cost of Carbon [Interagency Working Group, 2013].

So let’s see where we stand. The program was bad fiscal policy, bad economic policy, and bad environmental policy.

The trifecta of Obamanomics. No wonder the United States suffered the weakest recovery of the post-WWII era.

A comment adds:

You missed one more. It was also bad social policy. There are two more things about the program that bothered me deeply.
Firstly, the program removed from the buying public a source of decent used cars. All of those cars were the types of cars that the less-affluent of our society typically buy. Now they had a choice of either keeping a much older clunker going, or doing with out transportation. Because all of the vehicles within their price range of affordability had been removed from the road.
Secondly as a car collector, I hate what it has done to the used parts market. A whole generation of good used car parts was removed from the marketplace. It was a requirement that the engines on these vehicles be run until they seized, and then the rest of the car was mandated to the crusher. This part never made ANY sense to me.
So, this program made a dent in the normal operational fabric of society that will have implications in the decades to come as well.

One of the accusations of Cash for Clunkers was that it would prompt people to purchase cars they couldn’t afford and then would have repossessed, just like the subprime housing crisis that crashed the entire economy.

Well, a few years later, the National Motorists Association reports:

For the past couple of months, there have been rumblings that auto loans are indeed on the same downward spiral as home loans were in 2008.  Fitch recently announced that loans issued in 2015 may end up being the worst performing ever in the history of auto-loan securitizations. Fitch rates the loans as cumulative net losses projected to reach 15 percent, exceeding the peak loss during the 2008 financial crisis.

This is a slow-moving train wreck however because experts are unsure about loans issued in 2016. The auto loan instability has to do with the fact that institutional investors grabbed subprime auto loan securities because of higher yields (similar to the subprime house loan crisis of 2008). These subprime auto loans have been repackaged several times over and stamped with a high credit rating.

Negative equity has hit an all-time high. During the first three months of 2017, the average negative equity per traded vehicles reached $5,195 which is the highest ever according to Edmunds.  Also the highest ever—the 32.8 percent of trade-ins with negative equity.  When the negative equity is then rolled into the new loan for the new vehicle—the consumer starts in a steep hole. In the event of a loan default, net losses soar.

Why all this negative equity? Business Insider says there are three reasons:

1)    Even though vehicle prices have gone up, consumers buy more expensive models because interest rates are low and longer loan terms keep the payments at an affordable monthly cost.

2)    Loan terms are longer. In the first three months of 2017, loan terms reached a record 69 months. Terms between 73 and 84 months (seven years) accounted for 32.1 percent of all vehicle loans in the fourth quarter of 2016, up from 29 percent in 2015 during the same period. Used-vehicle loans accounted for 18 percent, a two-percent increase from 2015.

3)    Used vehicle values are falling. In May, the Used Vehicle Price Index by J.D. Power Valuation Services declined for the tenth month in a row.

Also, just like with the mortgage crisis, many consumers who are seeking funds to buy a car do not really have the credit rating or the money to buy a car but are lured in with less than stellar lending practices. This usually means much higher interest rates for people who are already on the edge financially.

How can all this affect a motorist?

The New York Times recently profiled a subprime auto loan borrower named Yvette Harris who is still paying off her 1997 Mitsubishi even after it was repossessed.  Her auto lender took her to court and garnished her wages in order to pay off the difference of the sale value of the car and the outstanding loan. This is now a common practice of subprime lenders. Unable to recover the balance of loans by repossessing and reselling the cars, some are aggressively suing borrowers to collect what remains.

Why not take the chance on a risky borrower?

If he or she defaults, subprime lenders can repossess the vehicle and persuade a judge in 46 states to garnish the borrower’s wages to cover the balance of the car loan.

The impending subprime auto loan crisis might indeed be worse than the recent subprime loan mortgage crises for individuals. With a mortgage, a homeowner could turn the keys in and walk away. Not so with auto loan debt. Repossession is just the beginning of the quagmire for many car owners caught in the subprime auto loan trap. New York Legal Assistance Group consumer lawyer Shanna Tallarico said, “Low-income earners are shackled to this debt.”

In February, a Bloomberg article stated “To be clear, this doesn’t point to an imminent, 2008-style meltdown. After all, the U.S. auto-loan market is about $1.1 trillion, which pales in comparison with the $8.9 trillion U.S. mortgage market and $8.6 trillion of dollar-denominated corporate credit. And only about one-quarter of the outstanding car loans have been extended to subprime borrowers, who are the ones having the problems.”

Yvette Harris, the single mother living in the Bronx, mentioned earlier says this has been a nightmare. Even after $4,133 of her wages were garnished and she paid an additional $2,743 on her own, the lender still sought an additional $6,500. All for a vehicle that probably has a blue-book value less than $2,000.

 

On National Corvette Day and Drive Your Corvette to Work Day …

click here to read everything I have ever written about America’s sports car …

… which, because life is unfair, is not my sports car.

Today is the 64th anniversary of the completion of the first Corvette. Two days before that