Monday, December 31, 2012

Alameda Street Sighting - 2008 ZENN LSV

We now live in a world where the electric car has gone mainstream. Unlike the small leased fleet of GM EV1s or the smattering of electric-converted Ford Rangers and Toyota RAV4s of the 1990s, people are now rushing out to buy Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts (the latter actually a gas-electric hybrid of sorts). Luxury and performance electrics like the Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma sedan now exist and can command six-digit prices. The Tesla Model S just won Motor Trend Magazine's 2013 Car of the Year award, a first for an all-electric vehicle. But it's been a bumpy ride for electric cars, and the road to mainstream adoption is littered with small upstart companies that hoped to make a difference. In a blog that features all manner of cars from A to Z, it seems fitting to end the year with ZENN.

The ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise) low-speed vehicle was conceived much like many of its contemporaries - a proprietary battery and propulsion system engineered into an existing body from an outside supplier. The ZENN is based on the French Microcar MC2, which in its home market was classified as a quadricycle rather than a "real" car. The Microcar was powered by a small diesel engine. The ZENN received six lead-acid batteries hooked to an electric motor, and was certified for up to 25 mph with a range of about 40 miles between charges. Some argue that the ZENN was actually capable of higher speeds but was limited for political reasons. Built in Ontario, Canada, the ZENN was not actually legal in its own country for two years because Transport Canada felt the car was not safe for use at higher speeds.

While ZENN was a fairly credible first offering (remember that Ford's Th!nk and DaimlerChrysler's GEM both resembled golf carts and were limited to the same low speed restrictions) the car was not profitable. Only 500 were built between 2006 and 2010, and it is said that for a while the company was losing $65,000 on every car they sold. Toyota used to lose money on every Prius they sold during that model's early years, but they made up for that loss with profits from selling hundreds of thousands of Corollas and Camrys until the technology became cheaper. Now the Prius line consists of three models and the hybrid technology has trickled into several Toyota cars and SUVs. ZENN was not blessed with having other popular models to help it stay afloat.
Today the ZENN Motor Company is trying to get other manufacturers to adopt its electric vehicle propulsion technology, and working with another company called EEStor to develop a replacement for batteries in electric cars.
The ZENN is a car that I expect to find only in communities that have progressive, environmentally friendly policies and low speed limits. Unsurprisingly, this car was found in Alameda, where the speed limit averages roughly the top speed of the ZENN. The overall design has a very utilitarian look about it. The curved cutout of the door matches the rear wheel arch, a holdover from the Microcar MC1 which had a shorter wheelbase than the MC2. The ZENN has no airbags and few niceties, though options such as a fabric sunroof, air conditioning and fake wood dash trim were available. This example even has alloy wheels and a roof rack that I suspect is aftermarket. All ZENNs came with the triangular caution sticker on the back to prevent other throttle jockeys from slamming into the back of the slow-moving little cars.
To date, this is one of the newest vehicles I've photographed as a street sighting feature, and I'm still left wondering how significant it is in the grand scheme of things. The ZENN is arguably outclassed by a Nissan Leaf in power, range, safety, interior space and even style, but the Leaf wasn't developed on a shoestring budget by an upstart company. And the ZENN is certainly more rare than most vehicles, electric or otherwise. It's an interesting footnote in automotive history.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Oakland Street Sighting - 1987 Yugo GV

I've wanted to write this post for a long time. Think like three years. Basically, ever since I started California Streets I've wanted to feature a Yugo, and today it comes to light. It shouldn't be too surprising when I tell you they are hard as heck to find!
The Yugo has a horrible reputation in the United States as the worst car in history. Is it warranted? Probably not. People love to hate cheap cars that are terrible. Even I like to hate terrible cars. But at the same time I find myself coming to love cars everyone else hates. I'm one of those people whose fantasy garage includes a Ford Pinto and an Edsel and numerous AMC products. Meanwhile I frequently loathe cars that are rock-steady reliable, popular and yet so ungodly boring I can't understand why anyone buys them.
The Yugo came to market in the United States when Malcolm Bricklin decided there was room in the market for a cheap hatchback at the very bottom of the price spectrum. Bricklin had already brought us some stinkers in the form of early Subaru imports (the 360 as a VW Beetle competitor) and the fiberglass Bricklin SV-1 "safety sports car" with its unusual gullwing doors. Now he set his sights on the little Fiat 127-based hatchback built in Yugoslavia by Zastava Automobiles.

"Everybody needs a Yugo sometime", crowed the TV commercials. For a while, it worked. From 1985 to 1991, over 141,000 Yugos found homes in the United States. A base Yugo cost under $4000 new. You got what you paid for. The car was utterly basic, lacking many of the features, fit and finish that Americans expected from a new car. Reviews panned the little car for its poor build quality and reliability. They began to die prematurely - most American drivers probably didn't know that the timing belt had to be changed every 40,000 miles. In one famous - and unfortunately fatal - incident, a Yugo became the only car ever to be blown off the Mackinac Straits Bridge in Michigan. By the 1990s, Yugo was a punchline. US imports stopped when the emissions control system failed federal pollution standards, and then in 1992 Yugoslavia plunged into war. In 1999, NATO accidentally bombed the Zastava car factory instead of the company's arms division.
The funny thing is, in its home market, the Yugo endures. Zastava was still cranking out thousands of them years after Yugo pulled out of the US market. New variants were created, the front clip was facelifted, and you could still buy a Zastava Koral with the same basic body up until 2008.

There are still a couple of Yugos running around my area, but they are very scarce. There is a red one in San Francisco (which I have seen only in photos) and this tan GV (Great Value) model that lives in Oakland. I'm guessing that it's a 1987 model mainly because 1987 was the most popular year for Yugo sales in the US. The tan car's Indiana license plate implies that it drove to California under its own power. I first saw this one while stuck in traffic on the 880 freeway with a friend while trying to drive to Alameda for some car scouting. Only weeks later was I able to go back with another friend and actually photograph the little car. Regrettably, I had to cut my photo shoot short because the parking lot where my friend left his truck was being roped off for the night! The road also functions as an exit ramp from the freeway and was very busy at rush hour. I wasn't about to risk my life running across the street amid fast-moving traffic to take better pictures of a rusty old Yugo. I may go back for a re-shoot sometime if I find the car again.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Santa Cruz Street Sighting - 1973 Volvo 1800ES

If I asked to you name a Volvo sport wagon, chances are you'll come up with the 850 T-5R wagon, or perhaps the later V70R. But the first sporty Volvo wagon was actually more of a shooting brake, a two-door affair intended as a send-off for the aging but much loved P1800 sports coupe. I've previously featured a P1800 coupe and even done a "Best of the Rest" post on five others. But this is the first 1800ES wagon I've had the chance to shoot in detail. Given the rarity of the ES, of which only 8,078 were built between 1972 and 1973, I'm glad I did.

I've had an interest in these wagons since high school. One of my classmates drove a beautifully clean 1800ES and treated it like a race car. I often saw the cherry red Volvo zipping around town. Since then I've been a fan of the wagons, perhaps even more so than the coupes. A blue one was usually parked on a street corner near the subway tracks in Oakland when I rode BART into the city for university, and for a long time I debated photographing that one.

One day I was exploring Santa Cruz with a friend who seems to have what I call "Spotter Sense". Basically he makes completely random turns while driving through an area and about half the time he stumbles upon something cool parked on the street. This was one of those. It's a 1973 model whose owner seems to have had enough of it. From across the street, the little Volvo looks great. Up close, there are some noticeable flaws, namely a dent just above the grille that looks like someone sat on the front of the car. There is a small amount of rust bubbling forming in the rockers and more rust on the wheels. For the most part, though, the body is straight and in good condition. I love the color. While this is based on a body design dating back to the late 1950s, the wagon back flows well and looks sporty with its long, low roofline maintaining steep windshield angles and swept-back pillars. Instead of a traditional wagon hatch with a tailgate, the 1800ES functions like a Ford Pinto Runabout with a glass panel that lifts up with a chrome handle. Say what you will about the blocky federal side markers; they're not pretty. I'd say the cool chrome fender mirrors offset the ugly, though.
I'm not certain I'd pay $5000 for this car but for that money you get a sweet '70s shooting brake with a good engine, new transmission and potential as a good starting point for a project.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Oakland Street Sighting - 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III

For years now, Mercedes-Benz has been running holiday season commercials depicting Santa Claus driving a red Mercedes as his Christmas sleigh. An SL roadster? How pedestrian. Santa's too pimp for that. A fat man who dresses in red and white fur and gets little people and animals to help him do his work needs something big and classy. And in proper pimp car fashion, the car should match Santa's favorite wardrobe. The jolly old elf also has to make his rounds delivering toys to millions of kids in one night, so he needs something powerful and fast, with a large trunk for the bag of gifts.

Enter the 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III.

The Mark III was never my favorite Continental iteration, but it was perhaps the closest the Mark ever came to being a muscle car. It was based on the Thunderbird sedan platform and, while it was a portly personal luxury coupe weighing nearly 4900 lbs, the new Continental packed a 460 V8 engine producing 365 horsepower. This barge was hardly a garbage scow. It was a luxurious cruiser that could get out of its own way. One of these cars featured in the 1976 David Carradine movie "Cannonball" - it didn't quite survive the film but it did some exciting fast driving while it lasted.
I rather like this red and white example which is visually stock aside from a set of chrome wire wheels which actually look pretty decent. I like that they're a reasonable size and are mounted on whitewall tires that suit the look and feel of a vintage luxury car. The only other modification I see looks like dark window tint. The paint is probably recent and isn't the best-quality spray job I've seen, but it looks great from across the street.
If Santa wants to go incognito this Christmas, a red and white Continental Mark III with tinted windows seems like a very good choice indeed.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Santa Cruz Street Sighting - 1934 Ford V8 Pickup

It's late December, winter has officially begun in the northern hemisphere and for many of you, a look out your window yields a view of snow. As you don your foul weather gear to go shovel the front walk and scrape the ice off your windshield, think of how lovely California is this time of year. Ha! It's storming and cold as I type this. But I digress. Let's pretend the weather's still nice and take a look at this 1934 Ford V8 pickup from Hula's Island Grill in Santa Cruz, photographed on a beautiful day back in October.

This was one time I was glad to be stuck in traffic. I spotted something very old and red down a side street I'd never explored before, and only saw it because traffic was moving slowly. I headed over to check it out. What it turned out to be was a truck with the kind of patina a vehicle earns from nearly 80 years of use on the California coast.

I'll start by saying I love this truck. It has character. It has so much character I have no idea what color it was originally and the differential housing looks like Godzilla took a bite out of it. The front license plate is from 1963 and the rear plate is nearly new. The turn signals and brake lights look like they're decades more recent than the rest of the truck. The hubcaps are long gone. The side window looks like someone took a potshot at it. You can see daylight through the door frames. If this old beast could talk, it would have some colorful stories and would probably swear like a sailor while telling them.
This is one of my favorite Santa Cruz sightings.