Thursday, September 24, 2009
I first found this 1975 Pontiac Catalina in summer of 2007 when I was on a road trip with my friend Colin, who coincidentally operates his own blog much like this one. We had made a grand circle tour from my hometown in the East Bay to Las Vegas to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco before dropping me off back at home. En route to Golden Gate Park, we passed a baby blue full-size Pontiac parked on a street. I snapped two quick pictures of it from the car and never saw it again.
Fast forward to May 2009. I was wandering around the city with my camera as I often do when I have free time, and lo and behold, I happened upon a gigantic baby blue full-size Pontiac parked in a different part of town. I took a dozen or so pictures and went home. Turns out it was the same car. The last two years have been mostly kind to this behemoth. The paint and pinstriping are the same. The original hubcaps and license plate are still intact. The parking permit and bumper sticker are the same ones the car wore in 2007. The front turn signal reflector lenses haven't been fixed. It has some minor rust in the rockers but it appears not to spread since I last saw it. The only immediately noticeable difference is a driver mirror which has been replaced by a Cadillac unit that probably originated on a Fleetwood Brougham.
The Catalina name was introduced in 1950 as a hardtop body style for the Chieftain Eight and Deluxe Eight lines. In 1959 Catalina became its own model as a member of Pontiac's full-size line, replacing the Chieftain name. The Catalina was also sold in Canada, but as the name Catalina refers to an island off of Southern California, Canadian models were called Laurentian. In similar fashion, the higher-trim Bonneville (named for Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats) was named Parisienne in Canada.
By 1975 the Catalina was still the least-expensive full-size Pontiac on GM's corporate B-platform, slotting below the Bonneville and the luxurious Grand Ville. For those who wanted more luxury features in a budget-conscious package, a Catalina Brougham could be ordered. Standard features for 1975 included a 400 cubic inch V8 producing a rather underwhelming 170 horsepower (this was 1975, after all). Catalinas also now came standard with radial tires, electronic ignition, and catalytic converters. The full-size line received a styling facelift which eliminated the faux-Mercedes grille and wasted front-end space of 1974. It would also be the last year of round headlights on all models, as GM began its transition to rectangular lights in 1976 (round lights were still installed on base model Catalinas without the "Custom Trim Option"). The Catalina would cease to exist after 1981, having sold 3.8 million cars since 1959.
This car is extremely lucky to be a 1975 model, and therefore exempt from emissions testing in California (all vehicles older than 1975 are exempt). Pontiac V8s proved unable to pass California's new 1977 emissions standards, regulations which have only become frustratingly more stringent over the last 30 years. I can't begin to imagine how many perfectly good 1976 models have been fed to the crusher simply because they couldn't pass a smog test.
Roll on, Catalina. Run over a Prius for me.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
If any company doing business in the US at the dawn of the 1980s had small cars down to a science, it had to be Volkswagen. VW helped put the world on wheels with its Type 1 (Beetle), Type 2 (Microbus), Type 3 (Fastback, Notchback and Squareback). But even the People's Car had to have a top model, and in 1974 the Passat (German for "Trade Wind") was born. It was available in a variety of body styles including a two or four-door sedan, a three or five-door hatchback, and a station wagon. In North America the first generation of Passats were marketed as the Dasher between 1974 and 1981. Following the model's refresh for 1982, the name was changed to Quantum, and then, in 1986, to Passat. It remains Volkswagen's large-midsize sedan in the American market.
The 1980 Volkswagen Dasher hatchback you see here was designed by the Italian design studio Giugiaro. That's a big deal in the car world, especially for an economy car. It's a clean and straightforward design, plain but not overly so. Practical yet classy. Basically, it's German. This Dasher wears "fuel injection" badging, so it is powered by the 1.6 liter four-cylinder producing 78 horsepower, most likely coupled to a 4-speed manual gearbox. It's in surprisingly good condition, with only scuffs on the bumpers and dust on the body as evidence that it actually gets driven. Even the wheels are kept clean.
Tan seems to be a common color on these cars, if the cars themselves can be called "common". I have only seen maybe three Dashers of this era, and one was in a museum. The other was also tan, and it was a five-door model found right here in Castro Valley several blocks from where I shot this one.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
These days one expects to see BMWs everywhere. I once sat down to dinner at a window table in a restaurant in my town and counted over 40 BMWs driving by during the meal. And I think I was only counting E46-generation 3 Series models. But once upon a time, BMW was just "one of those foreign cars" and most Americans aspired to own a Cadillac if they wanted luxury.
BMW started out small in the US. Literally. They got their start in their home country by selling a rebadged British Austin Seven called the BMW Dixi 3/15. After WWII, BMW rebuilt itself into a major producer of cars for Europe. It gained a niche status in the United States in the 1950s thanks to cars such as the 507 sports roadster and the silly-looking Isetta bubble car (made famous in American pop culture as the car driven by Urkel on the 1980s sitcom, "Family Matters"). BMW also built, and continues to build, motorcycles for sale around the world. Perhaps the first real mainstream hit in the US came in 1961 with the New Class series. The 1500, 1600 and 1800 sedans, 1600 coupe and later the 2002 coupe, cemented BMW's place as a producer of small, fun to drive premium cars. One interesting footnote in the New Class series was the 1965 2000C/CS, a low-slung coupe built for BMW by German coachbuilder Karmann. It was powered by a 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. What made it interesting, aside from its unusual front end styling, was its status as a more luxurious vehicle than most other New Class models. In 1968 the 2800CS (E9) was introduced, with a more conservative front end to match the Bavaria sedan (E3) and equipped with a more powerful 2.8 liter straight six.
The 2800CS was the first of several models in the E9 series, which continued until 1975. Only 6,283 2800CSs were built between 1968 and 1971 (and if Wikipedia's production numbers are correct, only 641 were sold in the US). I don't know how to spot year-to-year design changes so I can't get any more specific than that. But think about that. Only 641 in the whole United States, and many are likely gone now. Of course, the 2800CS is only one of several E9 models, but it was the first one to be offered with a six-cylinder engine and classic good looks.
This CS is a beauty. She wears classic silver paint and looks pretty darn good for her age. The body is straight and free of rust or dents. The wheels appear to be original but could stand a good cleaning. I found this car outside of an auto service center on a quiet alley, where it sat awaiting attention. I've always had kind of a soft spot for these cars; I think they're very pretty. And having seen at least three or four E9s of various model designations puttering around town, I had no idea how rare they really are. It makes me very happy to see one on the street, especially since those who have them generally keep them in very good condition.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Many Americans have fond (or perhaps not so fond) memories of family road trips in a big station wagon. The Family Truckster has since given way to the SUV, but some folks still hold on to their big old wagons. This 1972 Chevy Kingswood Estate Wagon is a prime example of a fixture of yesteryear still lurking on the streets in the 21st century. And in eco-centric San Francisco, no less!
The Kingswood was the top-level full-size wagon in the Chevy lineup, comparable to the Caprice in luxury features and price. It rode on a 125-inch wheelbase and was huge in all dimensions. The Kingswood and its platform mates were the biggest wagons General Motors had ever produced in terms of cargo capacity. It had 106 cubic feet of space between the front seats and the rear tailgate, enough room to carry a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood with the back seat folded down -- and that's with the tailgate closed. With an optional rear-facing third row seat, the Kingswood could seat up to eight passengers.
The Kingswood came standard with a 400 cubic inch big block V8 engine routed through a single exhaust pipe. In 1972 that engine barely produced 200 horsepower, if even that much. One of the wagon's more novel features was a "clamshell" tailgate that, unlike many wagons with side-hinged door-type tailgates, hinged down and then disappeared into the body.
This wagon wears a deep metallic green which, like many old cars in urban areas, appears to have been sprayed by Earl Schieb. It's as if everyone either has about $199 to spend on paint, or they just don't care about a nice paint job. Unfortunately, there's little incentive to drop $3,000 on paint when dents and scratches are inevitable on the mean streets of the city. The body of this big old battleship is pretty straight and doesn't suffer from visible structural rust or body damage. A couple of custom touches that left me amused or puzzled are the whip antenna and the little metal lightning bolts on the doors. From what I can see, the interior looks remarkably nice for its age. The vinyl seats have either been replaced or are exceptionally well looked after.
Big wagons like this are popular with demolition derby racers, so they're becoming much less common now. They are thirsty and hard to park. So why drive a '72 Kingswood in San Francisco instead of buying something newer?
How many new cars, or even the biggest SUVs (pickups don't count), can carry a 4x8 sheet of plywood with the tailgate closed?
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Remember the '58 Oldsmobile post where I mentioned that 1958 was a weird year for the auto industry, whose designs are often criticized for being really strange? This is pretty much the poster child for "ugly" in 1958. Most will disagree with me and point fingers at the new-for-'58 Edsel, but that's too easy. Besides, I like the Edsel.
The 1958 Mercury Monterey was a freshened version of the new-for-1957 full-size model, a car which was also rather unusual to behold. One of the things that made the '57 Mercury different was that it took advantage of the government's new headlamp rules, which allowed cars to have four headlights. Only a few brands featured the quad lights in 1957, and those that did often limited the special new lights to their more expensive models. Mercury was no exception, and only certain cars had quad lights (they were optional on many models, and standard on the opulent Turnpike Cruiser). Most of the industry did not catch up until 1958, and some still made quad lights an option for that year. Mercury was one of Ford Motor Company's mid-price brands, so Mercury and Lincoln both received quad lights in 1957 and continued them in '58, when Fords and the all-new Edsels also got them.
The Monterey was one of Mercury's lower-end models, above the base Medalist but below the more luxurious Montclair and Park Lane range. It was powered by a 312 cubic-inch Ford Y-block V8 or the optional 383ci "Marauder" or 430ci Lincoln engines. It was a very large and heavy car, fairly quick in a straight line with the right engine but heaven help you if you had to stop. While that's a frightening prospect today, it was par for the course in 1958.
So then, the '58 Mercury really isn't a bad car. It's just a weird car. Mechanix Illustrated road tester Tom McCahill summed up the '58 Mercurys as "the most different-looking cars on the road". That's putting it kindly. From its clumsy front end with its dainty quad headlights atop massive square bumper-grilles to its squinty, angry-looking taillights, there isn't much to love in its design. Which is sad, really. I rather like the car's midsection, with its nifty wraparound windshield and large wraparound rear glass. There is a certain elegance to the taillight design, too, when viewed from the side. The "Mercury Man" badges are a nice touch as well. However, the weird blocky front end spoils nearly every angle of the car.
All styling complaints aside, this is a beautiful example of an unrestored 51-year-old car. The robin's-egg blue paint is undoubtedly not original, since there's some visible overspray on the stainless steel C-pillar trim, but it's a good color for the car and may well be a match for the original paint. The interior is worn and could use some work but is mostly intact. This car is one of several vehicles which belong to a collector in San Francisco, a collection whose members will continue to feature here in the future as long as I keep finding them.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
San Francisco is home to many quirky old imports, most of which seem to be Toyotas. But the city has its share of Datsuns too, as evidenced by this 1971 Datsun 1200 Coupe I spotted parked on Steiner Street near the famous Painted Lady Victorian houses.
The Datsun 1200 originated from the second-generation (B110) Nissan Sunny and was introduced in the United States in 1970 for the 1971 model year, as a competitor to the Toyota Corolla. It was available as a two-door sedan or a fastback coupe. The 1200 was powered by a 1.2 liter four-cylinder engine producing 69 horsepower, linked to a 3-speed automatic or one of three different manual transmissions. It was the cheapest new car in the US at the time of introduction and the most fuel-efficient in 1973 (nearly 38 miles per gallon highway). Approximately 44,000 a year were sold in the US and Canada between 1971 and 1973. After 1973 the 1200 was replaced by the B210. These little cars remain very popular in Australia for rallying, though most in North America are long gone.
The body on this car has held up well for its age, with surprisingly little visible rust, body damage or parking dents. Perhaps the biggest mark against it is the Earl Schieb paintjob which has covered some of the chrome badging and gotten overspray on a few body details that weren't masked especially well. To its credit, though, the color the owner chose suits the vehicle and the paint looks pretty good from across the street.
This car is still in the hands of its original owner, and while it may not necessarily have lived its entire life in San Francisco, it lives there now. I can only imagine how many miles it has traveled or what stories it might tell. The owner was very cordial and she seemed happy that I showed an interest in her little runabout. She was especially helpful in that I didn't know what model or year it was until she told me. I appreciate owners who are like that! If you're reading this and this car belongs to you, thank you.