Tuesday, July 26, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - Fiat Giannini 500 TV

I noticed I've featured a long streak of American cars with very few imported vehicles sprinkled here and there. So here's something utterly, undeniably Italian: the venerable Fiat 500. Fiat's "Cinquecento" (500) city car is one of the more recognizable designs to come from the country shaped like a boot, up there with the prides and joy of Maranello and Sant'Agata. Produced from 1957 until 1975, the 500 was perfect for the narrow alleys and congested streets of Rome and Turin. Outside of Italy, in cities all over the world where parking space was at a premium, one could probably find a Fiat 500.
In the United States, however, it was a different story. Officially, one could only get a 500 here from 1959 to 1961, and they were kind of goofy looking with bigger bumpers and oversized headlights that jutted out above the hood like bug eyes. Not that any of the changes would help if you got hit by an insert-name-here American car. By American standards the 500 was too miniscule, too loud, too underpowered and too basic inside. In a country where the much larger VW Beetle struggled to get up to highway speeds with double the horsepower (54hp), the Fiat must have seemed even more palsied with only 23(!) on tap. I can imagine that tiny, low-power formula working just fine on winding cobblestone streets ten feet wide running past sidewalk cafes, where the biggest hazard is some yahoo on a moped. Now, import that same car into a place like San Francisco, where the streets are wider, the cars are bigger, and the hills are a whole helluva lot steeper. Does that classic "city car" formula still work?
This Fiat looks to be a later model, built sometime after 1966 (the year the company changed its logo to a rhomboid shape containing the word FIAT in italicized letters on a dark background). That only narrows the model down to the last decade or so of production. Regrettably I can't tell the outward differences between a 500F, 500L or 500R without looking at badges or researching year-to-year changes.
What throws another wrench into the works it that this car carries the badging of a Giannini 500 TV, a hotted-up version tuned by Domenico Giannini. If it's legit, that makes it a fairly rare car, but those badges can be bought for about $100 online from companies such as MrFiat.com, and nearly everything else one would need to make a credible replica of an original Giannini car can be sourced brand new depending on how much money one wants to spend on a car smaller than an original Mini.
This car is likely one of the many imported from Europe over the years. It's in good shape, probably rather nicely equipped as 500s go. The paint color is likely not stock since the last year a green color was offered was 1964, before Fiat changed their logo. It's taken a bit of a smack on the front end below the hood, but the body is otherwise straight. It appears to have the tubular bumper extensions which were introduced in 1968 on the 500L, but lacks the L's extra front bumper guard so it may be a '72-75 500R. I'll keep you posted if I find out.
In the meantime I'll continue to wonder how this car managed to reach the top of the hill it was parked on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1964 Mercury Comet

While we're on the topic of modestly sized, moderately priced cars slightly more prestigious than their bargain-brand brothers, let's take a look at this 1964 Mercury Comet. Based on Ford's mainstream Falcon, the Comet offered a more stylish variation on the theme using the same underpinnings and powertrains. If that sounds familiar, you're right. The new-for-'64 Mustang followed a similar formula.
This was the era when Lincoln-Mercury was having a bit of a problem coming up with a strong identity for the Mercury brand. Note the grille on this car. It bears a resemblance to the 1964 Lincoln Continental, yes? In the '60s, Mercury was an aspirational brand, creating cars "In the Lincoln Continental tradition" so that their vehicles were built to a higher standard - Lincoln's standard. If you were a Ford-family buyer you probably aspired to own a Lincoln someday instead of a Cadillac. And if you weren't quite wealthy enough to buy a Lincoln, you bought a high-level full-size Ford or a luxurious big Mercury that sort of looked like a Lincoln for less money. If Mercurys were seen as cheap Lincolns by the company that made them, what was the point of the brand? They weren't bad looking or bad cars, they just needed a strong identity of their own. It's like if Buick had announced that they were building cars in the Cadillac Fleetwood tradition.
I suspect this '64 was an early-build car ordered in 1963, judging by the BQC-prefix black license plate. Black plates were first issued in 1963 with the prefix AAA. It's equipped with the 260 V8 and what appears to be the optional column-shifted automatic transmission. Color is probably code Z Platinum Beige Metallic. I'm pretty impressed by the overall condition of this car, with its straight body and all badging and trim present and intact.

It's a curious design for the era - a car which mimicked the Continental for the last year in which the Conti had an eggcrate grille, a car which kept a rear-end design reminiscent of the multiple bullet taillights on the '62 Comet. (The Comet would become more square with stacked headlights and a cleaner body design for '65, a model I tend to prefer slightly more than the '64). The body is still basically Falcon, enough so that the doors are apparently interchangeable between models. It's more stylish than the plainly sculpted Falcon, but is the Comet ultimately better looking? Given my fondness for Falcons of this era, I'd say it's still open for debate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1965 Buick Special

Following the 1964 Olds F-85 Cutlass is a similar car from its sister division, Buick. This is a 1965 Buick Special. I've always found it unusual that Buick would name their lowest-priced model the "Special", since that name would connote something, well, special about it. Perhaps what was special was that the cheapest car offered buyers a modest mid-sized platform which could then be tailored to the buyer's needs and desires after the fact, without charging extra for all the bells and whistles of the fancier Skylark or larger luxury models. Buyers could make the car special on their own.
The owner of this car seems to have done a few interesting things with it, turning it into a budget muscle car. Unfortunately he appears to be fighting a tough battle against the body damage that impacts (no pun intended) every corner and almost every panel. The entire vehicle wears a coat of gray primer and the body filler on the right quarter panel makes me wonder how much steel is actually there. At the same time though, despite the beaten exterior he might have a 300 cubic inch Buick V8 underhood, or maybe a Chevy 327 from a contemporary Malibu (same basic car), or even a GM crate 350 with a four-speed. He may have great plans for this car. Or maybe it's just a fun cruiser that makes a lot of noise and can be parked on the street without fear or guilt. If he can get the body straightened out it should be a nice little car - not to mention a less commonly seen alternative to the Chevy.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass

It's easy to note that throughout American automotive history, most buyers have favored bigger cars. Value used to be determined by how much sheetmetal you got for your dollar. Cars were advertised based on how much longer, wider and heavier they were than the competition. So you got cars like this 1964 Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass, an "intermediate" that's the same length as a new, full-size 2011 Ford Taurus. It was bigger than earlier Cutlasses, and more powerful to compete with midsize cars like Ford's Fairlane.
Prior to 1960 if you wanted a compact car in the US you probably bought a Volkswagen. Or maybe one of the first imported Toyotas or one of the little European sports cars the servicemen were bringing home from the Continent. Then in the late '50s the American companies discovered that not everyone wanted (or could afford) a chrome laviathan for grocery shopping. Imported cars had gained an irreversible foothold in the US market and Detroit wanted to maintain their market share. GM's initial answer was the 1960 Corvair. Then in 1961, a trio of models slotting one rung higher in the hierarchy debuted. One of these was the Olds F-85, riding on the coattails of the jet age with its fighter-inspired name. The two-door sport coupe model, for whatever reason, was called the Cutlass and the name stuck.
The Cutlass in the early '60s was surprisingly advanced. It employed unibody construction and, from 1962-63, could be had with a turbocharged aluminum V8.
Sadly, as GM is prone to do, the car seems to have been a little underdeveloped and customers weren't ready to pay the price premium for the turbo, so for '64 it was back to a conventional perimeter frame and naturally aspirated engines. Kind of makes you wonder what could have been, had they continued development until the technology was more reliable and the costs came down. The latter half of the '60s, of course, would prove to be a very interesting time for the Cutlass with the introduction and development of the 4-4-2 and Hurst models.
This car is one of three '64 Cutlasses I've seen in San Francisco. It's a somewhat rough example, a daily driver in an inhospitable urban environment. Being a plain-jane Cutlass it likely has the standard Buick-built 225ci V6 or a 330ci V8, and a two-speed automatic transmission. Less of a muscle car than Grandma's grocery getter, I doubt many people give it a second glance when they head down the quiet side street where it lives. The Catholic Radio bumper sticker all but seals the deal on its sedate nature. Of course, it would be hilarious if the owner was hiding something massive and powerful under the hood with a custom suspension set up for maximum grip and braking, all hidden under that Bondo'd body and behind those stock wheel covers. But probably not.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1965 Rambler Classic 770 Cross Country

Rounding out this "Independents Week" grouping is another American Motors product, a 1965 Rambler Classic Cross Country 770 wagon.

If it reminds you of another Rambler I posted once, that's because it's very similar to the white Classic 770 which I misidentified as a 1966. The mistake was due to the unusual way in which AMC placed the trim level badging. Notice that on the 1965 model, the 770 badge appears on the leading edge of the fender, but only on the driver's side. The white car had a small rectangular 770 badge underneath the "Classic" fender emblem on the right side. This yellow car has no such trim badging on the right side. That indicates the white car was a 1965 model with a passenger-side fender from a '66. In my other feature I thought the car's chrome side spears were 1966 items. However, this is not the case. Side spear trim between 1965 and '66 was the same on the 770, and my research was flawed. Lower-level Classics like the 660 had a trim spear which ended midway across the front doors.

My favorite detail of this car would have to be the vintage "LBJ for the USA" bumper sticker on the rear hatch window, advertising Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential campaign. This car's condition is very good for its age; it could almost pass for an unrestored "survivor" - except that no bright yellow paint color was offered by the factory in 1965. The front license plate frame from Sanford Rambler hints at the car's history. Sanford Rambler, founded the year this car was built, was a dealership located in Tacoma, Washington. The dealer remained in business until 1983. This car's license plates were issued around 1999 or 2000, so it may have moved to California around that time.
Today, this Rambler lives in San Francisco's Mission District. Sadly, a photo search on Flickr during the writing of this feature reveals that, in the time since my pictures were taken, the LBJ sticker has aged badly. It makes me wonder if it was a fairly recent addition, since the car is a 1965 model and Johnson ran for president in 1964. Either the car was brand new when the sticker was added, or perhaps someone bought an original bumper sticker at a later date and put it on the car to be hip. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but you can still get original '64 LBJ campaign stickers on eBay for under five bucks. If I were a hipster trying to be ironic, I'd probably have put on a Nixon/Agnew '72 sticker instead. But that's just me. It's still a cool car either way.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1972 AMC Hornet SST

Second in this "Independents Week" grouping is an American Motors product, a 1972 AMC Hornet SST two-door sedan. For the past few years now, I've been a big fan of the Hornet and the various models it spawned since its introduction in 1970. The Gremlin, Spirit, Concord and Eagle can all trace their roots back to the Hornet. The first Hornet I fell in love with was the red 1974 Hornet X hatchback coupe James Bond drove in The Man with the Golden Gun. Since then I came to appreciate later-model cars like the 1977 Hornet AMX and 1980s Eagle Sport 4x4 wagon. Most recently, though, the early Hornets are growing on me. The Sportabout wagons are my favorite body style of this era.

In 1972 the Hornet was marketed as a value leader, and all Hornets that year were SSTs. This example is equipped with any one of two straight-six engines or two V8s. Since no badges indicate the engine type, it could be any of them. The color is a curious shade of orange called D5 Butterscotch Gold, with the optional vinyl roof.
It's said that these cars aren't especially rare or valuable. Over 27,000 Hornet 2-doors were built in 1972. So where did they all go? I suspect that the "tough little car" from AMC didn't receive much love from buyers who mostly purchased them just for economical transportation and used them up over the years. It's a shame, too, because you could order a smart-looking little Hornet X with a hot 360 ci V8 and had a low-budget mini-muscle car (in the context of the early-70s, that is).
This is one of the oldest Hornets I've seen in a long time, and it's a pretty nice example for a daily driver. It looks like it could use some touch-up paint, a good wash and wax, and a date with a Ding King. I'm sure it's a perfectly capable, reliable grocery getter and certainly has more character than the Honda Civic across the street.