The T/A at 50

Gary Smith reviews a book:

“I don’t think You’re man enough to take on a car like this.” Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) has just walked into Pete’s Dependable Used Cars somewhere in Idaho. He eyes up a Cameo White ’73 Trans Am with a red “shaker.” “It’s a repo. Three thousand and change,” says Pete. Seconds later, the Trans Am is flying through the western countryside, stolen. Movies made the Trans Am an American legend.

Tom Glatch tells the inside story of the Trans Am’s impact on the culture (and sales) through it’s starring role in several motion pictures and TV shows. Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot drove a Cameo white ’73; John Wayne’s Brewster Green ’73 in McQ; and David Carradine’s red ’73 in Cannonball. 1977 introduced Burt Reynolds drove a black TA “Bullet” in Smokey and the Bandit, along with Hooper. “Ain’t nobody can fly a car like Hooper.” Steve McQueen drove a ’80 TA in Hunter. Steve died four months after the film was released. In the early ’80s David Hasselhoff starred in the TV series Knight Rider that featured KITT, the talking Trans Am. Tom reveals many inside details about the making of the films, how the cars were procured, and what became of them.

The book quotes many designers and engineers who had something to do with the Trans Am. Norm Inouye drew the famous flaming bird graphic based on a sketch by Pontiac Studio Chief Bill Porter. After a flaming initial rejection by Bill Michell, it finally became an option beginning in 1973. Porter recently commented, “I think it may have saved the car. In the mid-seventies, everything was going against the Firebird, and I’ll put he case forward that the Trans Am bird saved it.”

Mitchell’s Pegasus

Enzo Ferrari gave Bill Mitchell a 347 horsepower V-12 from a Ferrari Daytona 365 GT/B4 for his customized Firebird, Pegasus. The motor was a tight fit, and the author states that the firewall was moved back nine inches to accommodate the longer engine. However, you can clearly see that there were no modifications made to the interior or the wheelbase of the Pegasus. The V-12 was shoehorned in by taking up the space occupied by the stock fan and fan shroud.

1989 Turbo Trans Am

As an added bonus the author devotes several pages to the development of the 1989 Turbo Trans Am, the fastest four-seat American car of the 1980s. Pontiac built two Trans Ams in 1986 with the Buick Turbo 3.8-liter engine. But for the engine package to fit, the passenger-side fame rail was modified to make room for the exhaust downpipe. Production was not feasible, because the car would have to be re-certified at great expense to meet government crash standards. Using the standard Trans Am transmissions was also a certification issue.

The PAS team was brought in to see if production would be possible by other means. Bill Owen of Buick, the primary engineer behind the Turbo V-6 engine, came up with the idea of using the cylinder heads from the front-wheel-drive 3300 V-6 to narrow the width of the engine and make room for the transmission bracket so that the entire Grand National engine/transmission package would fit, along with the different heads. With this, the first production-ready Turbo Trans Am was born. Lloyd Reuss, executive vice president for GM’s passenger car group at the time, drove the gray-on-gray prototype and decided he wanted it to be the 30th Anniversary Trans Am.

Pretty interesting stuff. There are a lot of similar insights in the book.

By the way, in the gallery there is a shot of five ’77 TAs and a GMC motorhome that was part of the Trans Am Territory promotion. It is included in Michael Lamm’s great book, The Fabulous Firebird. One day at GM Design they picked out several TAs in the parking lot for the shot. The yellow TA was my car.

The Trans Am was named for a racing series of the same name, which included such pony cars as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and AMC Javelin, each of which was limited to a 5-liter V-8 engine.

We owned very mild versions of two of these. Our first new second car was a brown 1973 Javelin with the 304 V-8 and automatic. It was the first car I, uh, legally drove. It had bucket seats and console, which was cool. It did not have power brakes, which one could get used to; it also didn’t have a parking brake indicator light, which led to a few interesting moments when one tried to drive without releasing the parking brake. It was fun to sit in the front seats of that car, but not so much in the back.

Note: Not our actual car.

Twelve years later, my mother got a red 1985 Camaro, because her oldest son kept using the 1975 Caprice, about which I have previously written. The Camaro had the 2.8 liter V-6 and automatic. It was an unusually reliable car for a GM product of the day; the only problem I recall with it was that the shifter knob kept coming apart until a recall. The problem that fit in the category of Feature, Not Bug was that that Camaro was so low that I had to put my hand on the ground first to get out.

Note: Not actual car, I think.

Between Javelin and Camaro ownership, the motorheads at my middle school (none of whom of course could legally drive) there was an ongoing argument about the Trans Am and the Corvette. The late ’70s C3 had the L-48 350 V-8 engine standard, with the L-82 350 V-8, with 40 more horsepower, optional. The standard Trans Am had a 400 V-8 with the same horsepower as the L-48, with the “T/A 6.6” V-8 adding 20 more horsepower.

Both cars are an example of 1970s taste, such as it was:

 

You could logically guess that I pined for the Corvette. I was a subscriber to Motor Trend magazine (motto: Every Car’s Great!), and when it reviewed the ’77 I pored over every word, including the red bubble on top of the antenna for the AM/FM/CB radio. (Don’t ask me how I remember that, good buddy.)

The reason the Trans Am became so popular in the late ’70s wasn’t just “Smokey and the Bandit” (starring ’70s icon Burt Reynolds), but because there were few other choices for a hot car. (“Hot” as in high performance, such as it was in the day, not “hot” for stolen.) Besides the Corvette (which was more expensive and lacked any back seat, as opposed to pony cars’ Back Seat in Name Only) … well, AMC killed the Javelin, and Chrysler killed the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. Chevy killed the Camaro Z-28 in 1975, only to bring it back in late 1977 after noticing Trans Am sales. Ford’s Mustang II was based on the Pinto, and without a V-8 until 1975, one year before Ford introduced the Cobra II package powered by a 140-horsepower V-8.

The ultimate Trans Am is the Special Edition T/A, available in black with gold bird thing on the hood or gold with black thing on the hood. According to this site, the correct combination — the T/A 6.6, 4-speed manual and T-tops — was chosen by 2,699 buyers.

 

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Eight cylinders and it uses them all …

I’ve written before here about the most superior engine design, the V-8 engine.

Along that line, Hotcars has 20 potential V-8 car purchases for $10,000 or less, including …

Even though it seems like Americans have a monopoly on producing this epic piece of machinery, the rest of the world has an appreciation for it as well, using it only for their finest models.

However, it’s not cheap to purchase something with eight thumping pistons under the hood. Even work trucks and base trim muscle cars can be rather pricey. For cheap V8 power, one must look at the used market. While a new vehicle with such a powerplant will likely start above $30k, it’s fairly easy to find a used model with similar power at a third of the price. With that being said, it’s worth remembering how much more it will cost to insure and fuel a vehicle with eight thirsty cylinders. Although, there’s nothing else that moves a car quite like a V8, especially when such an experience can cost less than $10k.

20 CHEVROLET CORVETTE C4

The formula for building a competent sports car is rather simple. Use a strong powerplant in combination with buttoned-down suspension and a lightweight design. One of the few American offerings that follows this philosophy is the Chevy Corvette. Its body doesn’t weigh much thanks to the fiberglass panels, which pair well with its unique leaf spring suspension design. When put together, it makes for an excellent sports car. However, the most important part of a Corvette is its motor. Powered almost exclusively by Chevy small block V8s, the best Corvettes accelerate as well as they corner.

The model’s strength heavily depends on which motor resides under the hood. The C4 Corvette launched in 1984 came equipped with only 205 limp horsepower. While that V8 was later revised to produce up to 245 horsepower, the LT1, the predecessor to the legendary LS, is the engine to seek out. This motor’s 300 horsepower rating means this aging Corvette can still tear up the street. While the newer LT1 models will cost more, it’s well worth the extra cash.

The C4 is not my favorite Corvette, in large part due to the ridiculous instrument panels …

… but that can be fixed, for a price. (As with everything else.)

18 FORD MUSTANG GT

What American muscle car is more iconic than the Ford Mustang? It has been in continuous production since it was introduced in 1965. As a result, there are many Mustangs that can be had for well under $10k. For those who want some classic V8 muscle, there are many original Mustangs that are surprisingly cheap, if a bit rough around the edges. And that kind of money can also buy a very clean Fox-Body Mustang with the iconic 5.0-liter V8. However, if a buyer is willing to purchase something that’s a little less clean, they can opt for a cheaper Fox-body and use the left-over money to turn it into a track destroying monster thanks to the model’s huge aftermarket selection. While newer SN95 Mustangs are definitely cheaper, they aren’t as modifiable as the older Fox bodies or as attractive as the newer 2005 through 2009 cars.

It doesn’t hurt that these models also have a wide selection of modifications available. While Coyote 5.0-liter ‘Stangs are out of this price range, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with older examples.

17 CHEVROLET CAMARO

With the exception of the Ford Mustang, the longest running muscle car is the Camaro, having been produced uninterrupted from 1969 to 2002. The model did return once again in 2010, now sporting a retro look. However, these newer examples have yet to depreciate into affordable territory and, obviously, the classic models can get quite expensive. If there is anyone who still wants a Camaro that offers Corvette power, strong acceleration, and impressive handling for under $10k, then the fourth-generation model is a perfect choice.

This version entered production in 1993, but the one to look out for is the 1998 to 2002 model. Originally, this Camaro came with the C4 Corvette’s LT1 V8, but the way the engine was crammed under the hood made it difficult to work on and it was not as powerful, nor as fuel efficient as the motor that came after. For 1998, Chevy decided to throw in its new LS1 V8 that was more powerful, being rated at 335 horsepower and being capable of achieving decent highway fuel economy with its efficient, computer-controlled motor in conjunction with its slippery body design. While the four-speed automatic is capable of delivering powerful acceleration, it’s the six-speed manual that will really unlock this car’s performance.

16 DODGE RAM 1500

Out of the American Big Three, Ram tends to be the lowest volume seller when it comes to trucks. With Ford being the most established brand, Chevy providing a more traditional truck experience, and Toyota offering its usual undying, if outdated, experience that it’s known for, Ram has a tough time competing. On the surface, the Ram’s main appeal is its unique looks. Starting with its 1994 redesign, the Ram’s styling shifted towards its now iconic semi-truck inspired look with low headlights and a tall crosshair grille. It was further refined in 2002, and, a year later, the model received Chrysler’s new 5.7-liter Hemi V8. This new motor was good for 345 horsepower, which put the Ram’s new optional V8 shockingly close to the other brands’ performance trucks of the time. That powertrain combined with the truck’s tough looks gave the Ram 1500 a very muscular presence, and Dodge saw an opportunity.

To capitalize on its redesigned truck’s new powerplant, Dodge released a few special edition models, such as the Rumble Bee, Daytona, and GTX, all referencing classic Mopar muscle cars. As most of these were less desirable single cab models and are getting a little old, it’s easy to find such Rams for under $10k.

15 BMW 5 SERIES

If there’s one thing that BMW is known for, it’s for producing high-quality sports cars that are surprisingly practical. Despite the company generally building performance vehicles, it manages to keep its models’ styling fairly subdued while retaining an instantly recognizable look. Perhaps the company’s best combination of performance and practicality is the 5 series. For many years, it has provided owners with a driver-oriented experience with the practicality and comfort of a luxury sedan, with the M5 being the quickest option. Unfortunately, M-power is not within our budget, but there are still plenty of V8-powered 5 series available for under $10k, as long as the model is more than a decade old.

Although the 5 Series never came standard with eight cylinders, there were plenty of buyers willing to shell out the money for the extra oomph. Power was dependent on which V8 was equipped.

While any of these motors make for a quick sedan, it’s still worth remembering that this is a premium German luxury sedan and that repairs may be quite expensive should they come up, but the experience may be worth it.I drove a 1994 540 once, with, as a bonus, a six-speed. It was fast, but smooth, but fast. I recall ripping down a suburban street at 73 mph in a 35-mph zone due to my not noticing how fast I was going.

14 DODGE CHARGER R/T

Today, many companies have moved away from sedans and are instead focusing on crossovers and SUVs. However, Dodge is still selling its 12-year-old Charger to demonstrate how good sedans can be. Besides being a large four-door with plenty of room, one of the Charger’s biggest draws is its optional Hemi V8. These days, everyone is drawn to the model’s 707 horsepower Hellcat trim, but that beast of a motor is understandably worth a lot of money. In comparison, the car that launched over a decade ago can be found for only four figures while still rocking V8 power. Even though the 2006 Charger R/T made a comparatively small 340 horsepower from its 5.7-liter Hemi, it’s still a powerful and practical performance option that remains quick in comparison to its contemporaries.Weighing in at around 4,000 pounds, the Charger is more of a smooth cruiser and highway pulling machine rather than a canyon carver. For those who want even more power, the SRT8 model sends 425 horsepower to the rear wheels and sports stiffer suspension and bigger brakes. That said, only high mileage SRT8 cars will clear out tight budget. If you need more practicality, Dodge also sold the Magnum, which was basically the wagon variation.

13 FORD CROWN VICTORIA

Used American police cars are often a good bang for your buck, which unsurprising given that many of these vehicles have a V8, are rear-wheel-drive, and have little else. America’s most popular police car over the last decade was the Ford Crown Victoria; the last old-school American sedan.

When it comes to chassis design, the Crown Vic utilizes a ladder frame, which is only used on pickups and full-size SUVs these days. Even though such as layout certainly doesn’t help the model’s driving characteristics, it’s part of the reason of why these cars simply won’t die. This large dinosaur packs a V8 under the hood that makes up to 250 horsepower. While that’s hardly a huge number, it’ll certainly get this big car down the road easily. In its Police Interceptor form, nobody can tell between a decommissioned model and an active unit, meaning that nobody will pass you. However, for those who want a vehicle that can just float over the bumps at the cost of performance, civilian models are also quite cheap. It’s easy to buy a Crown Vic for under $5k, let alone 10.

11 LINCOLN MARK VIII LSC

One of the biggest hurdles that American luxury car companies have to get over is appealing to younger audiences. These brands previously offered large, inefficient, and uncompetitive land yachts that were far more attractive to old people rather than their grandchildren. The most outdated type of vehicle these companies pushed out was the personal luxury coupe; two-door cars designed to be as large, comfortable, and ostentatious as possible. These cars certainly challenged the idea that coupes were meant to be sporty. As the popularity of this segment decreased, Lincoln tried to inject some performance into its Continental Mark series.

The Lincoln Mark VIII may not look like much, but it is hiding some impressive muscle under the hood.

If that’s not enough, the engine’s time in the Mustang has resulted in a wide selection of aftermarket parts, so long as they fit in the Lincoln’s packed engine bay. The versions to search for are late-model LSC trim cars, which produce 290 horsepower and feature body-color trim rather than the ugly chrome that came standard. Regardless of year or trim, many Mark VIII’s cost less than $5k. …

10 FORD F-150

The quickest selling vehicle in the world is the Ford F-Series. Jatco Dynamics studied the best-selling cars of 2017, and the F-Series was at the top of the list with over a million trucks finding owners. It even outsold models that are available in more countries than the Ford truck. Given its ridiculous popularity, the F-150 often the first truck to come to mind when thinking of light-duty pickups. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of F-Series available on the used market with varying degrees of luxury and practicality. The biggest hurdle is the price. Trucks are highly popular in today’s automotive world, so used examples still hold a lot of value despite their age.

F-150’s from the early 2000s are the most likely models to fall within the $10k price limit. Models from this generation were offered with two V8 options, a 4.6-liter, and a 5.4-liter. As expected, the larger motor produces more power, but it may not be the best choice for those who want something long-lasting. Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords reports that three-valve 5.4-liter motors can wear prematurely due to a bad camshaft phaser, and its spark plugs are so difficult to replace that FourWheeler wrote a how-to guide on how to change them. While the 5.4-liter may be more powerful, the 4.6-liter V8 may be the smarter choice.

PONTIAC GRAND PRIX GXP

It’s not hard to find people who miss the Pontiac brand, mostly due to the company’s past models. It offered the powerful and sleek Firebird Trans Am and the muscular GTO, making it GM’s performance company. At least, that’s what it used to be. Towards the end of Pontiac’s existence, too many of its cars became rebadged Chevys and its few memorable performance models were imported from GM’s Australian Holden division. While the Aussie muscle options are excellent vehicles, they tend to run well over our price range. However, the last real performance Pontiac does fall within the price limit and it has classic American muscle under the hood. The late-model Grand Prix was generally not much to speak of. In the past, the hottest Grand Prix was a supercharged V6 GTP model. For 2005, a new GXP trim was released featuring 5.3 liters of LS horsepower.

While it is rather unfortunate that the Grand Prix was a front-wheel-drive car, and 303 horsepower is a lot for the front wheels to handle, Pontiac used high-performance shocks, and special, wider front tires to mitigate unfortunate handling effects caused by the layout, according to Car and Driver. However, these cars can suffer from transmission problems, so prospective buyers should get theirs inspected.

CHEVROLET SILVERADO

There are many aspects where Chevy can easily be mocked. Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the company was well known for producing low-quality vehicles. There are many examples of its models having laughably bad interiors and poor quality control. However, the company does build quite a few workhorses that can run for many miles just on general maintenance. Perhaps the longest lasting and best-engineered powerplant to come out of the company would be its small block motors, which go by the LS and Vortec names. Of course, it’s no surprise that Chevy uses these power plants to move its Silverado pickup. While the model comes standard with a V6, many pay extra for the reliability and power of the small block motors.

Besides producing over 300 horsepower in many of its various designs, the Vortec engine is capable of running for a couple hundred thousand miles without much trouble.

Even though brand new trucks are considerably quicker and more powerful than their ten-year-old counterparts, such aged examples still have plenty of V8 muscle under the hood. For extra power, Chevy offered the stout Vortec Max motor in various trims. However, the asking price on a used Silverado depends on the vehicle’s cab size, engine choice, and mileage, so availability will vary.

CHEVROLET SUBURBAN

It’s no secret that the car market is shifting towards SUVs and crossovers. This process has been slowly progressing over the last few decades as buyers learned that they can use bigger, taller, and seemingly tougher vehicles to haul their family around. Perhaps the model that had the greatest influence in this change was the Chevy Suburban. Not only does it share its name with a type of residential area, but it can also seat up to eight people while providing plenty of space behind the third row. It would be easy to assume that the Suburban would only be successful while gas was cheap, but even expensive fuel didn’t stop this truck-based family hauler from selling. It’s practicality and general reliability (at least in older examples) have earned the model quite a reliable consumer base. Of course, the most important part of such a large vehicle is an equally large and torquey motor. Unsurprisingly, the Suburban has generally employed a Chevy small block V8 as its base motor.

During the 2000s, Chevy offered a heavy-duty Suburban with an optional 8.1-liter big block V8 for those who want something with a little more torque.

Of course, year and condition affect the value of a used Suburban, but it shouldn’t be difficult to find examples that fall under $10k. …

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE

One of the most well-known SUV companies in the world is Jeep. For many years, it has produced a wide selection of off-road oriented machines, with the Wrangler being its most capable model. That small box on wheels can easily bounce over any terrain given its extremely basic chassis and axle design. However, the Wrangler has become a classic of sorts which has driven up its value. It also doesn’t tend to be a practical vehicle, and only has six cylinders at most, making it ineligible for this list. However, the first truly modern vehicle sold by the brand was the Grand Cherokee, as it was designed to be somewhat luxurious while still being able to tackle rough trails. Jeep managed to build a vehicle that could drive well on the road and provide a sophisticated interior all while sitting on tough solid axles that have impressive articulation. For power, the original Grand Cherokee was offered several powertrains, with either a durable, but rather underpowered straight six or a 5.2-liter V8. While these motors were powerful enough for a ‘90s SUVs.

Jeep would later stuff in a 5.9-liter V8 that was good for 245 horsepower, making it one of the quickest SUVs available at launch, according to Autotrader

For the price, it’s hard to find a similarly refined and capable truck. …

CHEVROLET CAPRICE

For many years, the Crown Victoria reigned supreme over the police, taxi, and traditional full-size sedan markets, primarily due to it being the only ‘modern’ offering throughout the 2000s. However, that doesn’t mean that the Crown Vic was always the sole choice for interested buyers. In fact, during the ‘90s, Chevy’s Caprice was generally the preferred choice over the similarly geriatric Ford. On the surface, the Caprice is nearly identical to the Ford, as it was a giant car based on an ancient platform with a corporate V8 under the hood. However, the motor is what makes the Chevy more intriguing than the Crown Vic.

While the final generation Caprice started out with a reliable but feeble Chevy small block engine, the model received a Corvette-derived LT1 V8 for the 1994 model year.

Even though this motor was detuned to produce a comparatively low 260 horsepower, that was enough to make this big boat surprisingly quick despite its size. Given the age of these vehicles, it’s not hard to find them for well under $10k, or even $5k. Furthering its appeal, the Caprice was also available in a wagon and performance-oriented Impala SS trim, though these models can command higher prices, but will generally remain under the budget.

TOYOTA LAND CRUISER

Toyota is often well-known for building long-lasting and tough vehicles, and its most impressive model in this regard is the Land Cruiser. In the beginning, the Land Cruiser was a Jeep-like vehicle with a strong focus on off-road capability. Over the years it became a more practical four-door SUV, but it never lost its trail tackling capabilities. While the US lost the utilitarian Land Cruiser long ago, the more modern and luxurious examples are still impressive machines. Newer examples and classics still quite valuable, but there are plenty of Land Cruisers from the late ’90s and 2000s are ripe for the taking.

While such models are becoming popular again, there are plenty of high mileage examples that can be purchased for a quite a low price. While a few hundred thousand miles on a normal car is usually something to worry about, the Land Cruiser will still have plenty of life left in it. Using Toyota’s 4.7-liter V8, this large SUV is sufficiently quick and smooth. Despite its plush interior and soft ride, the Land Cruiser is still more capable off-road than many other modern alternatives. If Land Cruisers are difficult to find, look for the Lexus LX470, as it is basically the same vehicle, just with different badges.

HYUNDAI GENESIS

It’s pretty amazing how far Hyundai has come since its introduction to the American market. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, the brand was most well-known for producing cheap models with debatable quality and longevity. However, only a few years later, that same brand would release a rear-wheel-drive performance coupe, a full-size luxury car, and the Genesis sedan. Today, Genesis has become a new premium brand for Hyundai and Kia, separating the luxury models from a potentially less desirable brand image. Regardless of whether or not that’s a good idea, the original Genesis sedan is a strong offering, even if its brand isn’t known for such cars.

For 2009, the large sedan was first released sporting an optional 4.6-liter V8; a rare sight under a Hyundai hood. Early models are the most affordable, and during these early years, the Genesis’s V8 produced 361 horsepower, which was good enough to propel this rear-wheel-drive sedan to 60 in 5.5 seconds, as found by Motor Trend.
Even though some may have reservations about purchasing a near decade-old Hyundai, it’s proven to be a reliable car, with USNews giving it a five out of five in reliability. While it’s a slim margin, early V8 Genesis sedans can be had for less than our $10k limit.

I drove a Genesis once. I was surprised at how nice it was, and how much like the V-8 sedans U.S. automakers used to built it was.

 

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.

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

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