Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lost History - California Junkyards, Part 1

Over the years I've been to a number of self-service auto recycling centers in northern California. The bigger yards tend to be a cross-section of the most popular and generic cars from the last twenty years - Ford Tauruses with dead transmissions and/or blown head gaskets, worn-out Buick LeSabres and Dodge Intrepids, sun-baked Honda Accords with 200,000 miles and work trucks beat to hell and back. You know how it is. But among the generica there's often a sprinkling of interesting older vehicles thrown in.
Sadly, most of these places don't allow cameras for liability reasons, a policy I find ridiculous. I see no harm in publishing my photos now since every car in the pictures is long gone. Even the yard they were photographed in is now defunct. Please forgive the less-than-stellar photo quality produced by a disposable film camera and a 1.3 megapixel cell phone camera. Here are my best California junkyard sightings from the eastern Bay Area (that I managed to photograph).

1951 Chevrolet coupe

1963 Rambler Classic 660
1963 Rambler Classic 660 Cross Country
1968-69 Dodge D-Series pickup
1969 Chevrolet C/10 pickup
1970 Chrysler New Yorker
1970 GMC 1500 Custom pickup
1970-72 Honda N600
1972-73 Datsun 240Z
1972 Ford Torino wagon
1972 Mercury Marquis
1972 Toyota Corona
1974 Datsun 610 wagon
1974-75 Ford Pinto
1974-77 Mercury Comet
1978 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham
1980-89 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Maloney Executive (?) limousine
1980 and 1981 Chevrolet Citations
1985-89 Merkur XR4Ti

Thursday, May 17, 2012

San Ramon Street Sighting - 1971 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible

Imagine you're a General Motors marketing executive circa 1970. You're planning a new model for the Pontiac division, one that will be a full size car even more luxurious than the top-line Bonneville. Naming a car after a large dry lakebed worked great, but it didn't sound especially luxurious. "Ville" is a good start, it's French and that sounds fancy. And if something is fancy it's "grand", so someone came up with the name Grand Ville. I suppose it translates to "large town", which makes sense given the amount of real estate this car takes up.
The Pontiac Grand Ville was sold from 1971 to 1975 and had a longer wheelbase and unique design differences that set it apart from its corporate siblings and lesser stablemates. Early Grand Villes came standard with a big honking 455 V8 under that long hood.

I'll be honest, while I consider myself a bit of a Pontiac fanboy I never liked the 1970s full size cars much. They always struck me as too much styling in all the wrong places. And yet, for some reason this was one of the most enjoyable cars I've photographed for this blog. it just carries itself with both a grace and a certain degree of badassness that betrays the awkward front end design and huge size. It's a boulevard cruiser that isn't afraid to smoke at least one tire every now and then.
This example isn't the straightest one out there, but it is nevertheless a very rare car. Fewer than 1,800 Grand Ville convertibles left the factory in 1971, and I've seen only a scant few Grand Villes of any kind, in any condition, in the last few years. The front fender on this car is arguably its weakest point, otherwise the body looks good for its age. I really like the glossy black paint with black interior and Pontiac Rally II wheels with thin whitewall tires. And you know what? That goofy pointed prow with its eggcrate mustache is actually growing on me. I'd like to see this one cleaned up with the fender repaired, preferably cruising by on a sunny day or rolling up at a cruise night.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1968 Austin America

Five years ago I was wandering in San Francisco's SOMA (South of Market) neighborhood near the ballpark and happened upon a funky little red hatchback that piqued my curiosity. It turned out not to be a hatchback at all, but rather a two-door sedan. The car was for sale and, being the idiot I was, I didn't pay attention to the window sticker and only took a few pictures of the car. At the time I'd only seen two other examples of the Austin America; one of those was a non-running example at a swap meet in Pleasanton and the other was a rusted junker at a self-service wrecking yard in Hayward.
The 1968 Austin America I saw that day in 2007 would prove to be an elusive one. When I started writing and actively searching for interesting cars to photograph for California Streets, the America was high on my list. But it always got away from me. One day in 2010 I saw it driving, then nothing. I put it in my "Best of the Rest" post for British cars because I figured I'd never catch it standing still again. Then in January this year I was taking some friends around town and there it was. So I parked my car and quickly went to photograph the unusual little Brit.


The Austin America was never especially popular in the United States. It was sold for only four years, from 1968 until 1972. Roughly 59,000 found homes during that time. It was a small, miserly car when small wasn't fashionable and gas was cheap, and it was a British car in a country that wanted cars that ran. US sales were dropped just in time for the 1973 OPEC oil embargo that might have given people a reason to buy it. The America was based on the Austin 1100 (which spawned a host of badge-engineered stablemates available in various body styles and for a while was one of the most popular cars in the UK). The America was only available as a two-door sedan and made do with a 1275cc four-cylinder making only 60 horsepower. And while famed design house Pininfarina styled it, the proportions are odd and the overall appearance, in my opinion, is rather homely.
Still, this little Austin seems to have lived a fairly charmed life in the Bay Area. It retains the original black California plates and a dealer plate frame from E.F. Sweeney British Cars in San Rafael, just across the bridge to the north. The paint is starting to fail on the hood and front fenders, leading me to wonder if the paint is an older repaint, but the body is remarkably rust-free for a 40-plus-year-old English car. Either the owner has a good relationship with his or her mechanic or the Lucas electrics have behaved themselves these many years. It seems risky to use an old British car as a daily driver, though for sure it is an utterly unique, smog-exempt commuter with a touch of class. I'm glad I found it again.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Best of the Rest - Volvo P1800s

The Volvo P1800 coupe is one of the most distinctive designs the company ever made, and while I'm not versed well enough in Volvo to know exact model years, here are the top five P1800s I've photographed on the streets of California.

Oakland
San Francisco

San Francisco
San Francisco

Santa Cruz