Friday, November 20, 2009

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1956 Mercury Montclair

Many old cars have an interesting story to them. The story behind this 1956 Mercury Montclair Hardtop Sport Coupe is a sad one. It sits, day in and day out, on a street under the Central Freeway flyover in front of a Best Buy store in San Francisco's SoMa (South of Market) district. The plates are recent and registration is current but I have always seen it in the same spot over the last two years. I suspect this old Merc isn't used so much for transportation as it is for shelter.
In an apparent effort to save its paint and steel from total ruin, the owner has mysteriously covered large swaths of the car, including its hubcaps, in clear packing tape. But the tape doesn't stop there. It continues up over the rear and passenger-side glass, as if intended to deter the prying eyes of passersby, The driver-side windows are not covered and the windshield just has a standard folding sunshade to cover it. The tape produced such an opaque wall that I had no idea the owner was sitting in it at the time I photographed it. This blog is not intended to make light of the sad and very real problem of homelessness, only to admire the cars I find on the streets of California. For its owner's privacy and to save them a bit of dignity, I have obscured the plate number and photoshopped them out of the driver-side picture.
The 1956 Mercury Montclair represented the final year of roly-poly, solidly mid-1950s designs from Mercury. It was a subtle refresh of the 1955 model (itself a reskin of the 1952-54 model) and featured minor exterior trim changes and a restyled grille. Almost all of Detroit would subscribe to a "longer, lower, wider" design aesthetic for 1957, with ever more outlandishly chromed and finned styling. Mercury became arguably one of the uglier brands as the '50s wore on, with barges like the massive 1957 Monterey Turnpike Cruiser taking over from roles once held by the Mercury Sun Valley or Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria and Sunliner, By 1958, Mercury was a big, angry-looking, blocky car that made the somewhat dated '56 models look relatively neat and trim.
Montclair was a new model for 1955, named after upscale Montclair, New Jersey. It was Mercury's top model in 1956, with more features, more trim and unique color combinations not available in the lower models. Montclairs received a 312 cubic inch V8 good for at least 225 horsepower. A three-speed Merc-O-Matic automatic transmission was an available option. The Hardtop Sport Coupe was the most common '56 Montclair body style, with 50,562 produced. Few have been preserved, however, so these are difficult cars to find today.
The detailing on the '56 Montclair is interesting. Fifties cars frequently wore crazy chrome ornamentation to set them apart and this one is no exception. A long lightning bolt runs from the grille to the taillights, bisecting the car in a way that actually doesn't look half bad and would lend itself well to one of the two- or even three-tone paint jobs popular at the time. This one appears to have been two-tone from the factory, wearing a pale yellow body color with a white roof and another white accent in its own special chrome-rimmed area atop the doors. There is no mistaking this car for anything but a Mercury, with a large stylized chrome "M" on the hood with a small "Mercury Man" inset at the center. The Mercury Man also appears in the encircled crest emblems on the front fenders.
This Montclair has had a rough life, wearing its red badge of courage in the form of countless dents, creases, scratches and a mightily screwed-up left quarter panel that desperately needs a proper repair. Despite the damage, its chrome still tries to shine through the surface rust and its whitewall tires fight off the city's dirt and grime on a daily basis. If cars could talk, I can only imagine what stories this one would tell about its life - and the man who may well call it home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1961 Chevrolet Corvair Monza 900

Name me a car available today with a rear-mounted engine, rear-wheel-drive, manual transmission and sporty performance.

You said Porsche, didn't you? Understandable. Now, let's add "available with four doors" to the criteria. Narrows things down a bit, doesn't it?

Fifty years ago, a rear-engine configuration was still pretty exotic. It was almost never attempted on American cars in that era, reserved almost exclusively for imported cars such as, yes, the Porsche 356, the Volkswagen Beetle, and various little Fiats.
Come 1959, US automakers realized a market existed for compact cars. They trotted out a number of utterly conventional small cars such as the Ford Falcon, some of which were available with a V8 and whatnot but most were six-cylinder grocery getters. Very few domestic four-cylinder cars existed back then, limited to cars like the new-for-'61 Pontiac Tempest. The Tempest's four was created by hacking a Pontiac V8 in half.
Chevy rolled out an all-new compact for 1960, and it certainly caused a stir. Where Ford's Falcon was plain, slow, square and basic, with a straight-six and bench seats, the new Corvair was far more interesting. It had the engine in the back, an air-cooled flat-six, and featured four-wheel independent suspension. It was available in sedan form initially, then the line branched out to include a coupe, convertible, wagon, van and pickup truck. Early Corvairs produced only 80 horsepower and weren't much for performance until the Monza trim level came out, and that made all the difference. The Monza was introduced late in the 1960 model year and featured bucket seats, a four-speed manual and 15 more horsepower. By 1962, the Monza could be had with a turbocharger, upping power to 150 hp. The Corvair was fast becoming Chevy's budget sporty car and the Monza became the best-selling Corvair.
The Corvair was such a radical design that Chevy catered to those who couldn't handle the fact that the car didn't have a grille. On 1960 models, customers could equip their Corvairs with a dummy "grille" between the headlights. You could still see the painted metal behind the fake grille, so it was pretty much pointless. The Corvair was the first compact to offer air conditioning, which became available in 1961.
For all its innovations, the Corvair had a tragic flaw. Early models had a swing axle rear suspension and rear-biased weight distribution. So if you lost it, you could very well flip the car. My high school history teacher once rolled a '67 Corvair coupe that way.
Ralph Nader called out the Corvair's dicey handling problems in his 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed. Nader's book pretty much sank the Corvair to a level from which it never recovered. By 1969, a combination of public distrust and general neglect by its creators doomed the Corvair.
This pale yellow Corvair Monza 900 convertible appears to be a 1961 model, going by the chrome trim spear between the headlights. I found it parked in the Haight just south of the Panhandle. This was about as loaded a Corvair as you could order in 1961. Color appears to be code 943 Goldwood Yellow (a 1964 color), or possibly some other shade of yellow the owner found appealing. Code 925 Coronna Cream would be the closest 1961 color. Interior is black vinyl bucket seats. It wears a set of wire-look spinner hubcaps (although one seems to have gone missing). They are Chevy items but, as far as I know, aren't stock. Like most street-parked classics in The City, it bears the battle scars of an urban environment. There is also light surface rust on the bumpers and in a few spots on the body. It would clean up really nicely with some paint touch-ups and a bumper rechrome. It also needs a new grille badge and a stock set of hubcaps.
This is at least the fifth Corvair I've seen parked in San Francisco. Others will be featured here at a later date.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

San Ramon Street Sighting - 1956 Continental Mark II

The hands of fate have not been kind to all of the old iron on California's streets. Contrary to popular belief, cars do rust here when not taken care of. Case in point: this rare 1956 Continental Mark II. Only about 3000 of these European-inspired boulevard cruisers were built between 1956 and 1957, and they were exclusive to the rich and famous -- because only the rich and famous could afford the $10,000 asking price.
Today this example is in a sorry state, but at least it still runs. The owner seems to be a Lincoln Mark series collector of sorts as he also has a Mark III in similar condition. I remain hopeful that he restores them both in the future.
The Continental Mark II was an experiment by Ford Motor Company to build a unique personal luxury coupe capable of taking on the best from Europe. It was not badged as a Lincoln like its predecessor or its successors, but as its own exclusive brand under the Continental name. Costing about three times as much as the average car in its day, it was a toy reserved for the elite. Elvis Presley owned two.
Styling was a departure from the chrome-laden barges typical of American roads at the time. The lines were kept simple with a minimum of ornamentation. The garish fins and toothy grilles of Lincoln's competitor, Cadillac, were a far cry from the contemporary and elegant Continental.
It subscribes to a mixed aesthetic for design. Long hood and short rear deck follow the European formula, while the humped trunk lid hiding a spare tire was something of an homage to the original 1942 Continental. The fuel filler is hidden behind the left taillight. Exhaust exits through oval ports in the rear bumper below the taillights. On this car the exhaust has either been routed out the left side under the rockers or has become disconnected and fallen. It still wears whitewall tires, although the trademark hubcaps are missing.
There were a few changes between the 1956 and '57 Continental, virtually none of which can be seen on the surface. This one is likely a '56 without air conditioning going by the lack of an air intake vent behind the door, where the body kinks upward. It could be a '57 for all I know, as '57s had the air conditioning intake behind the grille.
These cars came loaded with a lot of things we take for granted in cars today. Power windows, power mirrors, power seats, power steering and brakes, power radio antenna, full carpeting and "Travel-Tuner" AM radio were all standard features. Air conditioning was a factory option equipped in roughly 75% of Mark IIs. Two-tone paint was optional but limited to a different color for the roof. Power came from a 285 horsepower, 368 cubic-inch Lincoln V8 routed through a three-speed Turbo-Drive automatic transmission. The engine was retuned for 1957 to produce 300 hp. The cars were hand-built and the quality showed. The expense and effort that went into them were so great that Ford lost money on every Mark II that rolled off the line. The Mark II was never intended to make money, though. It was not intended to be a sporty performance car, either (Mark IIs handled better than standard Lincolns but had weak brakes and 0-60 acceleration was somewhere in the 12-second range). It was supposed to be a showcase of the kind of luxury cars Ford was capable of building.
The Continental Mark II, while not technically a Lincoln, was very important to Lincoln and heavily influenced their future models. The four-pointed Continental star emblems and ornament remain the symbol of Lincoln to this day. Throughout the early 1960s, Lincoln Continentals wore handsome European-inspired lines with eggcrate grilles and relatively little chrome. Around the mid-sixties Lincoln started to lose their way, as their cars began to resemble lesser Mercurys. By the time the Continental Mark III arrived in 1968, Lincoln was trying to imitate Rolls-Royce with its upright waterfall grilles. Soon Lincoln was just another company producing luxobarges on the same platforms as generic Fords and developed a reputation for cheapness of materials and outdated chassis.
This example was probably very fetching back in its prime, wearing code 01 Black paint with what appears to be red or brown leather interior with white or cream accents. Mark II Interiors were understated two-tone affairs with seats upholstered in broadcloth, nylon, stitched Matelasse fabric, or vat-dyed Bridge of Weir Scottish leather. Forty-three interior combinations were available.
It will be interesting to see if this car - or Lincoln itself - one day reattains the level of quality and elegance it once had.