Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1984 Excalibur Series IV Phaeton

One often-forgotten niche in automotive history is the Neo-Classic, a new car built to mimic the style of long, luxurious cars of the 1930s while employing modern technology in its construction. They were popular for a time, mainly in the 1970s and '80s, and were usually built using fiberglass bodies and parts supplied by various manufacturers from Detroit and abroad. Such small coachbuilders as Zimmer, Clenet, Spartan, Gatsby, Panther, Gazelle, Sceptre, Tiffany and several others came and went, their models often loosely resembling a 1920s or '30s Mercedes roadster and incorporating full fenders, fake external exhaust piping out the hood sides, wire wheels, external spare tire shells. Some utilized middle sections taken from such contemporary cars as Volkswagen Beetle convertibles (Clenet), Nissan 300ZX (Spartan II), Mercury Cougar and Ford Mustang (Zimmer), and MG Midget (Sceptre). One might call them the "retro" craze of their day, much like the factory-built retro cars of the late 1990s and early 2000s such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Ford Thunderbird. One of the original, and biggest names in neo-classics was Excalibur.

The Excalibur story began in 1963 with a concept car designed to bring people to the Studebaker auto show booth. Designer Brooks Stevens was given a Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible chassis to work with, and he created a 1930s-flavored roadster styled like a Mercedes SSK. Apparently since Studebaker was then the US distributor for Mercedes-Benz, this was okay. However, upper management wasn't okay with such a seemingly random, non-canon design being represented as the future of Studebaker, and the "Mercebaker" had to be displayed by itself in another area of the 1964 New York Auto Show. Stevens talked to New York Chevrolet dealer Jerry Allen who agreed to market the car, but with one caveat -- it had to be Chevy-powered. From that point on, all Excaliburs came with Chevrolet V8s (and soon would be built on custom frames with GM suspension components). They were wild executive performance cars - once available with a powerful 454 V8 and a Muncie 4-speed manual transmission, built to a standard rather than a price.
By the 1980s, though, things weren't looking too good. The model line had been expanded to include the Phaeton model seen here, and the car was packed with more bells and whistles than ever before -- but prices had been increased dramatically to keep up with production expenses and thanks to emissions regulations the car was saddled with a low-performance 305 strangled by smog-control equipment and a 4-speed automatic.
In 1986 Excalibur went bankrupt and passed through a series of owners, none of whom had much luck with the company. It lingered until 2003 when Excalibur was again acquired and diversified into building various fiberglass automotive products and replacement parts for maintaining existing Excalibur cars. Apparently it's still around in some form, but not presently building cars.

I came across this 1984 Excalibur Series IV Phaeton a few times while walking to an evening class on Post Street. It always parked in the same spot in front of a hotel on Stockton Street (only a couple of blocks from where a 1959 Edsel is rumored to live). This one features the removable hard top which came standard on Phaeton models in addition to a folding convertible top. It attracted a ton of attention, stopping dozens of people in their tracks to photograph it, call their friends about it, and speculate as to what it was. I find the license plate and rear-window pirate sticker to be a little cheesy for a car that in its day cost twice as much as a contemporary new Corvette. The Excalibur was probably the second- or third-most-expensive coachbuilt neo-classic after the rarer, more exclusive Clenet and (possibly) the Zimmer Golden Spirit. The Zimmer is one of the few neo-classics still made today in very small quantities. A number of the other competing brands were homebuilt kit cars that never approached the level of quality or value of the Excalibur, and these cars can still fetch more than $40,000 in good condition today.

Maybe Studebaker should have listened.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1966 Peugeot 404 Cabriolet

Of all the cars that have come out of France, there have been very few that I liked. This is one of my favorites, a 1966 Peugeot 404 convertible. It is also an important milestone, my 150th California Streets feature.

Being a night shoot, and a rainy night no less, and saddled with a backpack, no tripod and a camera that didn't like focusing in the conditions, I had some trouble getting consistent photos, and a lot of them I ended up rejecting because they were blurry and couldn't be saved. Call it a "404 error" if you will. The rest were photographed from the street curb, trash cans, corner mailboxes and whatever else I could find that was solid and relatively horizontal.

Being an obscure French car you can figure I had to research it in order to write this. I'd never seen a 404 convertible before, and had only seen one sedan - dead under snow in a driveway in Canada. So while taking a different route home from class one evening, diverting through Jackson Square, I became pretty excited when I happened upon this well-maintained red '66 convertible. People thinking of snappy little red European roadsters of the '60s will probably think of something like the Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider or Fiat 124 Sport Spider - both of which were introduced the same year this car was built. And all three were penned by famed Italian design house Pininfarina.
The 404 convertible could be had with mechanical fuel injection until 1968, a rare option in those days but one which, interestingly, was found in the majority of 404 convertibles. Most 404s were sedans and wagons with carburetors and manual transmissions (though a ZF automatic was available on a limited number of cars). According to the 404 Owner's Club, a mere 10,389 404 convertibles were built during the 404's original 15-year production run - out of over 1.8 million cars. Of those, only 1,520* coupes and convertibles are known to still exist. I suspect this is because 404 coupes and convertibles were constructed differently than sedans and wagons, making bodywork components such as fenders more difficult to replace. Le Club 404 describes restoring these cars as "really not easy, and a budget to rival a Jaguar restoration". I guess that says it all.
I'd love to find this car again and re-shoot it in better weather. She's a beauty.

* As of September 2011 (thanks to Mike Tippett of Le Club 404)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1952 Citroën 11CV Traction Avant

Every once in a while a car comes along that I genuinely don't know much about at all. I research the heck out of it to try to determine what it is. Usually it's an obscure European model that wasn't changed much during a long production run. Sometimes it's a car that was rare to start with in the American market and is only more rare now. And sometimes it's French.

This satisfied all the requirements for confusing me. It's a Citroën Traction Avant for starters. But there were multiple sedan body styles of the TA: a 4-seat Légère (light), Normale (large) and 8- or 9-passenger Familiale (extended sedan, almost a wagon) - as well as different engine displacements and trim levels (7CV, 11CV, 15CV). This one looks like an 11CV Légère, the smallest model. What year is it? You tell me. I hate sounding ignorant, but I have no clue what model year this car is. It has a 1934 California license plate, same as the first year of the Traction Avant's production. However, it also has a large rear trunk as seen on models made twenty years later. That's right, the Traction Avant series lasted until 1957, and was even sold alongside the groundbreaking Citroën DS after 1955.
In the United States the Traction Avant was another underpowered European curiosity that couldn't be fixed at your average shop. In its home market, the car was the perfect taxi or limousine. During WWII, if the model kit companies are to be believed, the TA was used as a staff car by both the French and Germans. In all, over 759,000 cars were built.
It would be unfair to call the Traction Avant old-fashioned in some ways, since it was extremely revolutionary in its time. It featured front-wheel-drive, four-wheel independent suspension and a sleeker, lower profile with steel unibody construction that allowed easier ingress and egress without the need for running boards. The bonus of this packaging was a large interior space with a flat floor. I have an old book of cutaway illustrations which depicts a Traction Avant carrying a cage containing two sheep in the back seat area. Remember, this was a car introduced in 1934, when half the cars in Europe still had body structures framed with wood. Even in 1957, most cars still utilized a body-on-frame design and rear-wheel-drive. But then again, French cars have almost always been known for innovation and quirkiness.
I suspect this example is a mishmash of different parts. It bears Citroën script badges on the front grille and trunk lid - details I can't find on any other examples on the internet. The wheels are consistent with a mid-1950 production date going by the Lambert Nivelle 14-spoke wheels in place of the standard Michelin enclosed steel wheels. However it has post-1952 turn signals, bumpers, and windshield wipers, as well as the aforementioned larger trunk lid; a pre-1954 black steering wheel and post-1954 chrome fuel filler cap and wiper arms (but no chrome trunk lid hinges). Amusingly, the owner has topped off the mind-bending era jumble with a modern CHMSL (Center High Mounted Signal Light) also known as a third brake light. It's probably useful on a car with such small taillights.

Of all the street sightings I've spotted, this car was one of the most exciting for me simply because I'd never seen one before. It doesn't even matter what year it is. It's just cool.

Special thanks to http://www.cats-citroen.net/citroen_tractionavant/ as a great resource on the Traction Avant, and many other Citroën models.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Los Angeles Street Sighting - 1970 Toyota Corona Mark II

Rounding out this series of quote-unquote "Big Three" Summer Road Trip Wagons is one from the most recent addition to the top-seller podium: Toyota. For a few years, Toyota pulled ahead of GM in North American sales, taking the #1 spot. That lead, of course, imploded when the entire news media and blogosphere jumped on Toyota for its unintended acceleration scandal, and subsequent recall of just about every Toyota model sold in the US for some problem or another.

I haven't posted many old Toyotas here at California Streets, probably because I always wonder how significant some of them are. What's the age/rarity cutoff for a historic Toyota versus one that's simply old?
In the case of this circa 1970 Corona Mark II wagon, I think the answer is simple. When the heck did you last see one of these? I can tell you when I last saw another one: May 2010, in a parking lot, beat to hell and jacked up on a 4x4 truck frame with copious amounts of steel diamond plate and huge tubular bumpers. Not how most people picture an old Japanese car. Predictably, I spotted this one in Los Angeles, kitty-corner from the Petersen Automotive Museum in the heart of the classic import scene. Toyota began its gradual conquest of the United States car market in the city of Torrance, only 20 or so miles away.

While it's old, interesting and probably pretty rare, I seriously doubt the owner cares very much about that fact. The bumper stickers in the back window tell us that they are more interested in vegetarianism and stopping animal lab testing than how the car looks. The car is probably a kick-around that was picked up cheap and gets reasonably good fuel economy without falling apart. It does look as though the salt air of the coast has gotten to it in a few places, though, and I have no clue what happened to the front doors but it looks like a frat boy jumped up and down on the hood. Fun detail: note the keyhole in the passenger side fender, used for arming and disarming an old-style car alarm. My dad's old truck has one of those. The half-length roof rack is an interesting touch as well and the front end styling reminds me of a cross between a 1971 Celica and an early AMC Gremlin.

It's not too late to restore her, but it would take a lot more massaging or replacement of body panels than the car's market value is worth - it would have to be a labor of love. Perhaps someday the right person will come along and save it.

...And for those of you who didn't believe me about the 4x4 Corona, here it is.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1959 Chevrolet Brookwood

Second in my series of quote-unquote "Big Three" Summer Road Trip Wagons is an example from General Motors. this Crown Sapphire Metallic 1959 Chevy Brookwood two-door wagon is one of a trio of cool '59 Chevys owned by a collector on Potrero Hill.
I first found out about the '59s via Flickr, scouting for old cars in the City. It seems a number of folks have photographed a green Impala coupe parked on Potrero, and I knew it was within walking distance of one of my drawing classes at the Academy of Art University, so one evening after class I headed out in search of it. What I found instead was this Brookwood.

The Brookwood was the cheapest wagon in Chevrolet's lineup in 1959, based on the low-trim Biscayne model. The 2-door wagon was far less popular than the 4-door wagon (accounting for 11% of all Chevy wagon sales that year at 20,760 produced). Given that both wagons were the same length and seated the same number of passengers, one might ask why the 2-door wagon existed at all. Upon closer inspection it seems there's a good reason for that - customers could also order a sedan delivery version with blank panels instead of rear windows or even the new-for-'59 El Camino coupe utility pickup, both of which were based on the two-door wagon.

Despite the Brookwood being small potatoes in the brand hierarchy, the rakish tail fins, large wraparound windshield and defiantly elaborate styling details set it apart from anything else on the road. Even the script badges bearing the make and model names look classy. Classic script emblems are an endless source of fascination for me. The owner of this car seems like he enjoys cars, and has customized this one with dual chrome turn-down exhaust tips and chrome half-circle headlight covers. The stickers in the windows are mostly vintage hot-rodding brands and racing events. I'd like to see this car cleaned up a little, at least benefitting from some rust repair, but the condition is remarkable for an apparent unrestored survivor. I also like the body-color steel wheels with dog dish hubcaps and simple base-model chrome side trim. With a 348 V8 this car would be a pretty cool budget cruiser with room for all your stuff, whether you like picking antiques or picnics and tea.