Monday, October 31, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1999 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster

As a boy growing up in the 1990s, I had my share of supercar posters. Porsche 993, Ferrari F355. I collected models of my favorites as well, some of the more stratified exotics. Ferrari F50, Jaguar XJ220, Dodge Viper RT/10. But few came close to the Lamborghini Diablo in terms of insane performance, instant name recognition and sheer curb presence. It was to the schoolboy of the '90s what its older brother, the Countach, was to the kids of the '80s.

It's hard to believe that the Diablo came into being while Lamborghini was owned by Chrysler Corporation. (Almost as hard to believe as Chrysler now being owned by the company that owns Ferrari and Maserati, the latter of which once had a joint-venture with Chrysler in the form of the LeBaron-based TC by Maserati, but I digress.) Designer Marcello Gandini had clear plans for the new Lambo's design direction, but Chrysler executives made him soften the car's lines. It was, after all, a car for a different decade than the angular Countach. The end result was a slightly rounded, wedge-shaped, 200-mph supercar that looked fantastically modern, exotic from every angle and featured Countach-style scissor doors. Even today it's a stunning car.

If memory serves, I spotted this 1999 Diablo VT while on break from my evening class on Post Street near Union Square. I whipped out my camera and went crazy trying to capture every amazing detail of the car, fittingly parked in a loading zone which I assume was pole position for the valet stand at the fancy Farallon restaurant. It's not just an all-wheel-drive Diablo VT, it's a late-model with the exposed headlights (sourced from a Nissan 300ZX). Oh yeah, and it's a Roadster to boot. Fantastic. I always hated the driving dynamics of the rear-wheel-drive, more powerful Diablo SV in Need For Speed: High Stakes, and as I understand it the Diablo was never really built to handle as well as it drove in a straight line. It seems fitting to use the image and name of a fighting bull on a car that does its best to kill you. But God, just look at it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Livermore Street Sighting - 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air

Some time ago I put up a poll asking readers for input regarding cars photographed near, but not in, car shows. Most respondents said that any car parked on the street is fair game. Now, I could easily cheat and photograph every old car I see parked near the county fairgrounds when the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association puts on a show. Lots of people bring out their cars but are reluctant to pay Goodguys' entry fee to show their vehicles within the fairground gates. But likewise, I've long been reluctant to call those "street sightings" even though they technically are. Readers can expect to see more cars like this in the future, photographed near (but not in) car shows. To avoid diluting my collection of "legit" sightings, I'm figuring on limiting features like this to no more than one per month. Enjoy!

I came across this sharp 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air about a block away from a more localized car show, Livermore's annual Nostalgia Day. It's become one of my favorite local events over the last couple of years due to its large yet manageable size, informal feel and free admission. This car was, in all likelihood, a spectator's vehicle which stood out from the line of everyday cars at the curb like a sore thumb on fire. I couldn't help but document it. I blame my good friend at The Automotive Way, who got me hooked on '58 Chevys.

I used to be hit or miss on these cars, with their heavy body design dripping with chrome, unusual folded-over tail fins, and that huge toothy grille in the front. Over time, they've come to grow on me. The mid-range Bel Air lacks some of the gingerbread of the new-for-'58 Impala, which I like; but it also lacks the Impala's six taillights, which I prefer over the Bel Air's four. It was available with three engines, including the new 348 cubic inch big block V8 for plenty of grunt. Since this is a mild custom car, I have no way of knowing which engine it has, but if that hood once hid a 348 it's probably still there. If it were originally a six-cylinder car I wouldn't be surprised if the owner has retrofitted a chromed-out 348 or dropped in a modern GM small block crate V8. I'm really liking the vintage style chrome 5-spoke wheels and thin whitewall tires. There's really not much about this car I'd change.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1976 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu Classic

In modern times, Chevrolet has played fast and loose with the word "classic" in its model names. Anything with the word "Classic" in its name now effectively means an obsolete model held over for another year either to ease the entry of a controversial new model or to simply move last year's old inventory. Case in point, the 2004-05 Chevy Classic, which was a carryover 1997-2003 Malibu with "CLASSIC" on the trunk lid in place of the Malibu badge. It was sold primarily to rental fleets while the awkwardly-designed 2004 Malibu took over.
There was a time when Malibu Classic meant something, and the mid-1970s were that time. Chevy's Chevelle coupe lineup had received a new "Colonnade" design language for 1973, with the Malibu making up the mid-level trim model and the new Laguna took the top luxury spot. In 1974 the Malibu Classic was introduced, sporting luxury touches not found on regular Malibus. In 1976, the Classic was given four stacked rectangular headlights and a new diamond-pattern grille in place of the plain horizontal grille bars and dated single round lights of the base car. Also part of the Classic package was a hood ornament; the vinyl landau top was apparently optional. This car rides on Chevy Rally wheels that, as far as I know, were not stock on the Malibu Classic that year but are a popular (and if I might say so, good-looking) add-on.
This car has potential. It needs the bumper re-chromed, and a new grille. I don't much care for the combination of silver and maroon, but my dad's '66 Mustang was originally silver with red interior, so I guess it can work. Speaking of Mustangs, there's a bonus early Mustang convertible in one of the pictures for all you readers who've been waiting to see one. And if you squint really closely, you can also see the blue 1974 Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV I featured a while ago. My primary concern for this car is that the owner pay close attention to the vinyl top. Those are notorious for getting water under them and rusting out the roof, and this one is starting to bubble and peel around the rear window. Get that checked out!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1964 Volvo PV544

Flickr has proven itself to be a valuable resource for locating interesting cars. Often, going in search of one (or several) vehicles results in finding none of the ones I planned for, yet finding something entirely different. In this case, my search for an early-'60s Pontiac yielded instead an early-'60s Volvo, more specifically a circa-1964 Volvo PV544 (and eagle-eyed readers will notice that it took two visits to get all the pictures for this feature).

American cars are almost too easy to write about, simply because American cars tend to change significantly enough every model year to easily tell apart. European and Japanese cars aren't quite so elementary, and some companies, such as Volkswagen and Volvo, capitalized on their seemingly unchanging design and marketing strategy. The PV544 was built for 8 years without significant bodyshell changes, and that model was based on the PV444 which dated back to 1943! Volvo believed in building sturdy cars that offered substance over style, vehicles built for Scandinavian winters and terrible roads. These cars also had some success in rallying, a tradition that carries on to this day with some owners. Developments were made mostly under the skin, with improvements made to the engine, lights, electrical system, wheels, and other components over the course of the production run.

This car, featuring 544 D wheels (identifiable by their smooth body-color rims and red hubcap centers) and lacking "B18" badges on the grille and trunk lid, is likely to be a 1964 model. The badges, indicating the 'B18' 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine, were removed in 1964, probably as a cost-cutting measure. Silver-painted, slotted steel wheels were introduced around the same time and are often fitted on earlier cars. This similarity of models means that many parts are compatible with other model years. Other identifying details which would help pin down the exact year of manufacture are on the inside, a place I didn't nose around. The license plate is also of no help, as it's a 1970s-issue combination.
In all, the body is in good shape (unsurprising, as these are tough cars) and it looks to be well cared-for. It's probably a good alternative for someone looking for classic 1940s styling in a car twenty years newer, or perhaps a person looking for a vintage economy car with character - and who doesn't want a Beetle.

Monday, October 24, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1969 Citroën DS21 Pallas

I've thus far been fortunate to come across not one but three Citroën DSs in San Francisco. Of those, I've been able to photograph two of them in depth. The first was the grey 1970 DS21 I spotted in the Lower Haight, another was a clean black example I caught driving in the east Mission near Potrero Hill (only got one or two shots of that while it was stopped in traffic). And then there was this one, found near the famous twists of Lombard Street on Russian Hill.

I first found out about this car when I saw some lovely high-resolution shots of it on Flickr, and I knew I'd have to find it. It took a few tries to locate it, but eventually I managed to track it down. You wouldn't believe how tricky it is to chase a parked car, even one that lives there. The pictures looked wonderful. Then I found the car, and darn it if it hasn't been through the wringer. I expected some bruises; I mean the poor car lives on the street. I didn't expect the entire right quarter panel to be missing. It certainly begs the question of what the heck this car's gone through, with random dents, gouges and bent trim pieces all over -- and yet the interior, based on my quick and basic visual inspection, looked nearly mint. Viewed from the front passenger 3/4 angle, the car seems almost perfect, until your eye travels back to the gaping hole where once there was shiny, brown-painted sheetmetal.

I am guessing that this example is a 1969 model based on the color (Brun Ecorce, supposedly a rare, 1969-only color) and the metal trim plates over the front corner indicator mounting locations. Other areas in which this car differs from the grey 1970 car are the lack of side markers/reflectors, and all rear-facing light lenses are red (the 1970 model has white reverse lights and orange rear indicators atop the C-pillars). This car also has chrome side trim which wraps around the rear end reflectors, a feature which came with the luxurious Pallas trim level. The most drastic difference is the interior. The 1970 car has a more modern dash design with three primary gauges set deep within individual tunnels, while this car has everything set within a smaller rectangle, and has a more open feel at the expense of a smaller glove compartment. Also note the location of the (aftermarket) radio clear on the right side. Hope you like the station, because unless you have a passenger or long arms, it's going to stay there for the duration of the trip. And no, the rubberized steering wheel wrap isn't stock, nor is the third brake light mounted in the rear window.

Considering that I have never liked the styling of the Citroën DS enough to gush the same praise others have for it, I have always respected it as a revolutionary car. If this car saw a proper restoration It would surely be the star of the block. I wonder if the hydropneumatic suspension still works.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1974 Chevrolet Vega 2300

Rounding out 1970s Economy Cars week is this 1974-75 Chevrolet Vega 2300 hatchback. It was GM's effort to beat the Japanese at their own game, building a practical, affordable domestic compact with a plethora of body configurations and a lightweight aluminum engine block. The engine was the car's main stumbling block, since its lack of steel cylinder wall sleeves (an $8 per car savings) allowed piston motion and heat to ruin the engine. According to GM engineers, the culprits were brittle valve stem seals and an undersized radiator which, if the owner ignored his fluid levels, together could let coolant and oil run low and make the engine overheat, penetrate the head gasket with antifreeze and cause the pistons to scuff the cylinder walls all to crap. The early cars simply weren't tested for owner neglect and the Vega was designed too quickly and too cheaply to correct everything before production time. The subsequent flood of warranty repair claims cost GM millions. The engine problem was rectified later, as were many other problems, but the Vega never lost its tarnished reputation and was later replaced by the nearly-identical Monza in 1978. The attractive miniature-Camaro styling introduced in 1971 was updated in 1974 to make the car more current, compensating both for the fact that the Feds mandated gigantic 5-mph bumpers and the fact that the Camaro had also been restyled. Still available were the Vega 2-door sedan, 2-door hatchback, Kammback 2-door wagon, and a sedan delivery with blank window panels.

This hatchback is in decent condition for its age, with a relatively straight body and minimal rust (a common problem on early Vegas, rectified around the time this car was built). It wears a set of Retro Sport four-spoke wheels and a rear ducktail spoiler. I have a soft spot for the Vega for a couple of reasons. One, my mother's first car was a robin's egg blue '72 Kammback with a 4-speed, and she loved it. It was comfortable, drove well, and survived several instances of people crashing into it. That was well before my time, though. The other reason I like them, is because they have a large engine compartment and will happily accept a small-block V8. That's probably why one sees so few stock Vegas in decent condition, because good examples have been retrofitted with more powerful engines and used for racing.
I'm reasonably certain this car has the stock engine still, because the front end would be sitting lower with a bit of extra weight in it. I hope this car actually has an engine in it, because that front end is really high up, and I don't think it's the flat tire in the back causing it to look that way. As rare as these little cars are now, I'm just glad to see one at all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1973 AMC Gremlin

Coming from the other end of the spectrum from yesterday's immaculate 1970 Toyota Corona is this 1973 AMC Gremlin. American Motors products are becoming scarce in San Francisco, and this is arguably the saddest one in town. The Gremlin was a comedy of errors that was rumored to have been penned by Richard Teague on an air-sickness bag while on a flight, was named after a troublesome creature that sabotages machinery, and was introduced to the public on April Fools Day, 1970. It was created by cutting all the useful space out of a Hornet coupe, marketed as an economy car, and then offered with a V8 and sporty option packages for a wonderful mixed message, none of which really made sense. That's probably why the Gremmie is so universally panned by critics, and precisely why I love it.

This Gremlin has lost most of its paint, to the point that it looks as though someone attacked the poor thing with a wood chisel and left it to rot, but it probably looked rather smart in its day in metallic Pewter Silver with a roof rack and twin black "hockey stick" tape stripes that run from the leading edge of the hood, up along the beltline to the C-pillar and end at the roof. It's not the hotted-up "X" performance model, just a basic Gremlin with dog-dish hubcaps over steel wheels, likely powered by a straight-six. The original fuel cap, embossed with the signature pot-bellied gremlin character and easily stolen, is gone, replaced by a nondescript locking cap. The plastic grille is ruined, and the driver's door is rusting through at the bottom corners, but it looks like there may yet be time to save the body. I'm fascinated by the patina on this thing, but no way in hell would I want to drive it. The tags were current, so I guess it gets driven still, possibly by someone who can't afford to restore it. I understand that. Some folks are content with anything that runs, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially if money is tight and the most important thing is that it starts in the morning for the drive to work. This car has given its owner a lot over the years. I would like to see it receive some attention someday though, before it blows away in the wind.