Monday, December 27, 2010

San Ramon Street Sighting - 1973 Jensen-Healey

I'd venture that not many people know the relationship between the British Jensen-Healey and California. The story is this: When Austin-Healey stopped building their 3000 roadsters, Kjell Qvale, owner of British Motor Car Distributors in San Francisco, suddenly had no small British roadster to sell. He went to Donald Healey and Jensen Motors and invested money in the company, reminding them of the golden rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. With the help of Healey's son Geoffery and Jaguar designer William Towns, the Jensen-Healey roadster was born.
The new car had a 2.0 liter Lotus four cylinder making 144 horsepower and a four-speed manual transmission (or a Getrag 5-speed on later models). Where the classic Austin-Healey was beautiful, if dated, the Towns-designed Jensen-Healey was blocky and modern for its time. It looked like a typical Towns creation, long and low, but at least it didn't resemble a rolling suppository like his later Railton F29 Claremont (Google it). Interiors were basic, although you could get some woodgrain dash trim if you wanted it. In any given model year, you could order your Healey in five or six colors. Red, Yellow, Pacific Blue, and White were the only ones which persisted from 1972 until '75. Other colors included Oakland Green, Moss Green, Tangerine, and Mustard. Black and gold were not offered at any point, nor were any two-tone color schemes that I can find, meaning this particular car has been repainted. The stock 13-inch wheels have also been custom-painted to match the car, and the convertible top has probably been changed as well, since these cars were only available with black tops from the factory. The fact that every model year was nearly identical and the colors are non-stock does little to help correctly identify the model year, so this may not even be a 1973.
Jensen went belly-up after about 10,000 Jensen-Healeys had been cranked out. Strikes, emissions and the gas crisis killed the company. Rust, shoddy build quality and engines whose timing belts caused them to self-destruct killed many of the cars. Qvale went on to push a couple more failed roadster projects while expanding his dealership empire at home. In 2000, his son Bruce started selling Qvale Mangusta sports cars, a rebadged De Tomaso BiguĂ  from 1996 with a Firebird V8 and love-it-or-really-hate-it styling by Marcello Gandini (the guy who gave us the Countach). The car was pretty much a failure with fewer than 300 sold.
But I digress. Overall condition of this Jensen-Healey is fair. The first time I saw this car it was, in the tradition of all great British roadsters, broken. The next day it was fixed and sitting out in front of the house, so I grabbed my camera and snapped some pictures. The body's mostly straight with the exception of rock chips and a nice dent near the top of the driver door, and the hood could stand realignment. I'd also wager that the muffler is not original.
The day I shot this car was also the last time I ever saw it, so I hope the owner is taking care of it. It needs some work but appears that it's receiving the care a quirky vintage sports car deserves.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1967 Buick Skylark

Whoever wrote that song "Time Is On My Side" must never have owned an old car in the city. Time's never on your side, especially if the car needs work and you don't have the time or money to give it love.
This 1967 Buick Skylark is one of the sad examples of time not being on the owner's side. I first saw this car in summer 2007 and photographed it while passing by. It was in semi-decent shape with a straight body, a full coat of paint, and rust only on the bumpers. What a difference three years makes. Now the corners and edges are bashed up, the body is rusting, and the bumpers have only gotten worse. it appears the seal under the trunk lid leaks now, too, necessitating the use of duct tape to keep it dry. There's also copious duct tape over the cowl vents. It's even rolling on the same tires it had three years ago. It's really too bad, because this was a cool car. I've seen precious few vintage Buicks around in street-parked, street-driven condition. Everyone saves the Chevys and to a lesser extent, the Pontiacs, but less common cars like Buicks and Oldsmobiles seem not to get as much attention.
Here at California Streets I actively scout out cars via Flickr and Google Street View, and by taking "freestyle" walks, and this one was re-found quite by accident. I didn't even know until three months later that I'd snapped the same vehicle three years prior. Coincidentally it was shot on the same day as the '64 Thunderbird and '68 Continental featured this past week.
I hope this mid-'60s GM midsizer gets some TLC soon before the fog and salt air eat it alive or it dies from general neglect.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1967 Ford Cortina 1600 GT

Out of all the Ford products I've spotted in this state, this is easily one of the most obscure. It's a 1967 Ford Cortina (Mk II) 1600 GT. if you live in the US, you've probably never seen one, but Ford sold over 16,000 of them in the States in 1967. That was the year the Cortina became the best-selling car in its home market, the United Kingdom. That's right, the Cortina was a British Ford. It slotted below the compact Falcon in Ford's American lineup and was pretty much the only four-cylinder Ford available in America at the time. So why didn't it succeed here?
Well, take a look at it. The styling is very simple, perhaps even more so than the original 1960 Falcon. It's boxy and utilitarian, with just two body creases to spice it up a little. The chassis and powertrain are also simple, just a 1.6 liter Kent crossflow four cylinder making 88 horsepower and driving the rear wheels. It was small, lightweight and relatively austere when other economy cars in America were offering more power, style and size. The Beetle handily outsold it. Even GM's Opel Kadetts, introduced to America in 1967, soon spanked the Cortina in sales.
From what I've read, the Cortina's problems were similar to what plagued other British cars of the era. Electrical systems had a tendency to cause fires, and despite England being a ridiculously humid country with cold and wet winters, Cortinas had little to keep them from rusting or getting water vapor in the engine distributor. This combination of factors prevented many Cortinas from surviving to this day. In 1971, the Cortina was dropped in the United States, replaced by the Pinto. We all know how that ended. In its home market, the Cortina continued production in various forms for another decade, holding the title of Britain's best selling car until around 1981.
History has been kind to those Cortinas still on the roads. Owners frequently slap Minilite wheels and racier rubber on them, stiffen up the suspension, and take them out to track days. Apparently these little cars are quite tossable and lend themselves well to racing. The Lotus-tuned Cortinas are the rarest, sportiest models and have a well-documented racing pedigree. Making a Lotus replica out of a regular Cortina would involve a unique Lotus-tuned 1.6 engine, a host of drivetrain and suspension mods, and some aluminum body panels, as well as a special paint job with a green spear on the side and a flat black hood.
As an example of the breed, this one is pretty solid. It appears to be an original black-plate California car bought at Marty Franich Ford in Watsonville (a dealership still in business today). I have no clue what the deal is with the Portuguese (not Polish - thank you Mr. Laia) front plate. Aside from an unfortunate smack on the rear end which the skimpy little bumper failed to absorb, the body is in remarkably good condition. The fragile chrome around the grille is intact, although one of the grille bars is bent. says it's very difficult to find one of these with a straight front end. This example also appears to have the Lotus Cortina-style "high top" dash housing the fuel, oil, temperature and amperage gauges in a central pod. Paint is Ermine White, and looks dirty but still shiny and thick. All chrome is there, including the wheel arch trim, and the original hubcaps, which look nearly new.
Pound the dent out of the rear end, straighten the bumper and stick the license plate light back in its socket, replace the fuel filler cap, give it a wash and a wax, and you have yourself a nice little Cortina.

Monday, December 20, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1968 Lincoln Continental

Nowadays one might refer to an AMG Mercedes or BMW M sedan as "Bad-Ass Class". What is Bad-Ass Class? It's a luxury car that looks bad-ass, usually one that's crazy fast. Well, this isn't crazy fast, but it is classy, and it. Is. Bad. Ass.
It's a 1968 Lincoln Continental.

By the late-'60s, the Continental had lost the pure European-inspired 1961 design that remains so timeless today. After 1965 it looked more like a glorified Mercury with its coffin nose, Coke-bottle body swoosh and full-length character line, but hadn't lost the presence that made it instantly identifiable as a full-sized, uniquely American luxury sedan. Power came from a monster 462 cubic inch big block V8 driving the rear wheels as God intended. This is no pansy luxury car.
Contributing to the "bad-ass" factor is this car's matte black paint treatment, smooth black vinyl top, blacked-out grille and toothy front license plate. The owner has kept the original full factory hubcaps and wide whitewall tires, a smart choice. I personally don't like 1961-69 Continentals on gigantic rims; it tends to cheapen the look of an otherwise beautiful car. I also respect the owner for keeping the body straight, clean and unmolested with all door handles and trim intact. I'd lose the small bumper stickers and Nor-Cal rear window decal if it were mine. The little I can see of the interior looks to be in great shape, and the lack of head restraints confirms it as a 1968 model. This is one of the last great suicide-door Continentals (they were marketed as "Continental doors" much the same way the Rolls-Royce Phantom has "coach doors"); the feature would disappear for the all-new 1970 model, never to return except on a 2002 design study.
Thanks to the multitude of emissions, fuel economy, safety and whatever other regulations passed over the last forty years to make cars boring, we'll never see another luxury car like this again. We plebs are supposed to aspire to what now, a Chevy Volt with leather? A Lexus HS250h?
Call me crazy, but when it comes to Bad-Ass Class, I'd prefer this over a new BMW M5. It's just such a cool beast of a car.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1964 Ford Thunderbird

I'll admit it, I have a number of automotive guilty pleasures. One of them is the 1964 Ford Thunderbird, a car whose styling doesn't mesh all that well but for some irrational reason I love it. Take a close look at the design. The grille clashes with the headlights, the roofline seems too formal and square compared to the sculpted body, and it looks like a stylist got confused and nearly put a Chrysler Pentastar upside down on the trunk lid. Had this been a Town Landau model it would have had big silly S-shaped landau bars on the C-pillars, too. The ride is mooshy, handling and braking are terrible (four-wheel drums!) and even with a big 390 V8 I could take it off the line in my Focus.
So why do I like it? The short answer is, I have no clue. It's probably because of exposure to - get this - Maxis/Electronic Arts PC games. That's right, check the cover of Streets of SimCity. There's a '64 T-Bird on it. In SimCity 3000 Unlimited's Building Architect Tool, a powder blue '64 T-Bird was one of the available vehicle props. In The Sims, one of my downloaded objects was a pale green '64 T-Bird. Maybe someone at Maxis had one.
This example itself is questionable, because normally I dislike cars in caramel-gold-brown, and the hubcaps and narrow whitewall tires look as though they came off of a 1980s LTD Crown Victoria. But you know what? I like them. I like this car. All it needs is just a little realignment of the grille. And better brakes. And to pay that parking ticket. And maybe the hot 427 that was rumored to have been dealer-installed in a few of these babies. Now that's cruising.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Petaluma Street Sighting - 1981 Toyota Celica GT Sunchaser

Some of you may be old enough to remember that from 1977 until the early 1980s, it wasn't really possible to buy a new convertible in the United States. I'm not that old, but I do research.
I guess late in the disco era, with hairy men in tight jeans going nuts for T-tops and car thieves slicing up ragtops, nobody wanted convertibles anymore. Then came the '80s and apparently someone decided it was time to offer convertibles again, but not right away. If you wanted a convertible you could always contract a coachbuilder to chop the roof off your coupe and turn it into a ragtop. That's what led to stopgap quasi-verts like this 1981 Toyota Celica GT Sunchaser.
Built by the Griffith company with the full blessing of Toyota, the Sunchaser is an unusual specimen. Instead of a full folding convertible top framework with fabric covering, the Sunchaser features a removable targa roof section and an unconventional ribbed fabric and plastic rear window that snaps into place. With both the rear window and targa section removed, the remaining bit of B-pillar and roof structure creates a "basket handle" roll bar that keeps the body from collapsing into itself.
The Sunchaser is quite rare, with only about 2000 built between 1979 and '81. This being an '81 model, it may be one of the last produced. Each Sunchaser has an individually numbered dashboard plaque. It was parked in a neighborhood watch area (you know, the kind where paranoid neighbors call the cops if they see you doing "suspicious" activity such as walking around taking pictures), so I didn't spend too much time loitering around it and didn't peek inside.
Condition isn't too bad for a street-parked car of this vintage in a hot, dry climate. I bet that a good wash and wax would bring out whatever shine remains in the Bright Red paint. Looks like the front valance has had a few dates with a parking stop and it could stand being straightened. It also needs a new chrome grille surround. Overall though, the body is remarkably straight for a 29-year-old Toyota. Normally I wouldn't bother with this generation of Celica, but a Sunchaser is the exception to my rule.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1956 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe de Ville

There is just something about a vintage Cadillac. They have what you might call... presence. Cadillacs of the 1950s have more presence than most, with tailfins and massive bodies often festooned with chrome, the ultimate symbols of luxury and conspicuous consumption in America. If you drove a Cadillac, you had really made it. The only other cars that could touch it in its day were Continentals and Imperials. Nothing else came close. Standard of the world, baby!
Well, as you most likely know, Cadillac got kicked off that pedestal as standard of the world about three decades ago, and has been scrambling ever since to claw its way back up the luxury car mountain. No longer can you buy a car like the '56 Series 62 Coupe de Ville pictured above. The only two-door Cadillac currently made is the new CTS Coupe, which looks like they brought in Richard Teague to design it. He's the guy who penned the Gremlin, by the way. The last Caddy coupe you could buy was the 2002 Eldorado Touring Coupe, a FWD beast with a massive blind spot and a body designed in 1992. Not to mention the last edition's badging abbreviated the name to ETC, announcing to the world that you drove a Cadillac Et Cetera.
Cadillac really has come a long way since this car was built. The CTS Coupe will run circles around this Coupe de Ville, and the CTS-V Coupe will run circles around the regular CTS Coupe. But in the styling department, neither comes close to this borderline baroque land yacht. Inspired by the twin tails of the WWII P-38 Lightning fighter plane, these tailfins date from midway in the fin era, before they became truly ridiculous. In fact, Cadillac fins didn't grow very much from their inception in 1948 till 1956 when this car rolled off the line. However, come 1957 the fins would go crazy, peaking in 1959. Aside from the fins, the design is pretty standard for a car of the mid-1950s. Tall, relatively boxy body with slab sides, huge chrome bumpers with bullet-shaped "Dagmar" protrusions, all that is typical. Surprisingly, the amount of side trim is pretty restrained compared to the gaudy, tri-tone, zig-zag-sided competitors. As far as performance is concerned, you got a 365 cubic-inch cast-iron V8 good for 285 hp, and a Hydramatic four-speed automatic transmission to motivate 4,445 lbs of Detroit steel. Zero to 60 time isn't likely to be your first concern when driving this. More likely, you'll be looking for a runoff area that doesn't include solid objects when it comes time to stop or turn quickly.
Condition of this Coupe de Ville is pretty decent from what I can see. There's visible wear from age and mileage, some rust peeking out from behind the side trim and under the doors. Speaking of the doors, it would be a good idea to check the fit of the driver door, and get the windows lined up properly so the car doesn't leak like a sieve when it rains. It's all intact though, with the exception of the left quarter panel trim, and the left taillight which appears ready to fall off. Some of the gold grille paint is still there. Color is... not my taste. It's not awful, but come on, this is a Cadillac. It appears to be stock Tahoe Blue, though, and mostly in decent "daily driver" shape with a Cascade Gray or Sonic Blue roof. Maybe it was a spring release, when carmakers would offer limited runs of cars in silly pastel colors. Oddly enough, it appears that a proper black Cadillac was not offered that year. You could get really dark blues, greens, greys, and maroons, though. I applaud the owner for keeping the wide whitewall tires and original full wheelcovers, as well as maintaining the original black-on-yellow California plates. Now polish up the chrome to a lustrous shine and take it out on the highway. Since this car was parked near the start point of the 2010 California Mille road rally on Nob Hill, I surmise the latter is just what the owner did, albeit as a spectator of the pre-race car show. Go for it! You can still freshen the old girl up in time for next year's Mille.

Correction: Further research revealed that this car actually lives in SF. Mega points for street-parking a car this old and this big in The City full time!