Tuesday, December 31, 2013

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1958 Packard Hawk

Today marks the final day of another year. For the last post of a dying year, let's examine the last gasp of a dying brand. This is a 1958 Packard Hawk.

In 1954, Packard entered into a deal to purchase Studebaker. It seemed like an odd combination but Studebaker wanted the luxury carmaker's money and Packard wanted Studebaker's mass-market dealership network. The ultimate plan was to merge Packard, Studebaker, Nash and Hudson to form a larger conglomerate that would have been competitive with the Big Three, but it was not to be. When the big merger fell through, Studebaker-Packard Corporation and Nash-Kelvinator/Hudson, now American Motors, were left to struggle by themselves. American Motors shed the Nash and Hudson brands, relying on the new Rambler marque and a focus on economy. Studebaker-Packard attempted to cover both ends of the market with regular Studebakers and luxury Packards. The Packard name and reputation had been waning for a long time, ever since the 1930s and '40s when the company introduced low-priced, smaller cars to bring new buyers into the brand. After 1956, Packard ran out of cash for new models. In their final two years, Packards were chromed-out Studebakers with a few visual changes using fiberglass and/or leftover parts. Buyers weren't fooled. By 1958 the writing was on the wall and Packard was doomed.

The last Packards were things like this, a Studebaker Golden Hawk with a fiberglass catfish snout and a supercharged 289 cubic inch V8 producing 275 horsepower. Those were big numbers for the time, and it could almost outrun the ugly. Speed wasn't enough to outrun fate as prospective buyers ran the other way, deterred by its fish face, Studebaker platform and impending orphan status. Only 588 Packard Hawk coupes found owners.

Today the Hawk is rarer than ever before, with good examples few and far between. Parts are very hard to find to restore cars like this one, which is rough around the edges. Maybe the door trim can be sourced from a Studebaker, but where are you going to find another fiberglass nose? And the unique Hawk badges are all missing, as is the PACKARD lettering from the front. I'm not sure what's going on with the giant spiderwebbed bullet hole in the windshield. It kind of looks like a decal. As '58 Hawks go, this one can be described as either subtle or bland. Most of these cars appear to have come from the factory with a gold or silver metallic coating inside the tail fin cove, and a little more chrome trim. The Studebaker on which it was based was a handsome enough car and should have been a fine starting point if the styling budget had been higher. The luxurious Packard gained such novel items as padded arm rests ... on the outside. Literally, the arm rests sit on top of the doors exposed to the elements. Only one is left on this car, a feature I didn't even notice until the owner pointed it out when he saw me photographing his cars. The body is in decent condition, making a restoration fairly simple apart from the rare and unique Packard-only pieces that are probably long gone. A source on the Antique Automobile Club of America forum says that as of 2008 there were 249 confirmed Hawks left. So restoration candidates like this one are still out there and a few parts cars likely as well.

The owner of this car is a bit like the collector I like to refer to as "Fifties Guy". He owns a bunch of eclectic 1950s and 1960s cars that are in fair to good condition and driven regularly. He also owns the '56 Packard Patrician I featured a couple of years ago, the last "real" Packard. This Packardbaker is one I'd been wanting to find for a long time.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1962 Magirus-Deutz Mercur 125A Fire Pumper

Over the last few years I've noticed a mysterious influx of German fire trucks in San Francisco. One was a Mercedes-Benz 508D which last I checked was owned by Make Magazine. Someone found an old Opel fire truck in the Sunset District and now we look at this 1962 Magirus-Deutz Mercur 125A fire pumper which hails from the same general area.
The Magirus-Deutz is an unusual choice for an urban vehicle, but it was exactly what its owner wanted. A blurb on the New York Times online Collectible Cars section describes the truck as an air-cooled 7.5 liter diesel V6 with a manual transmission, all-wheel-drive and great off-road. As a pumper truck, it uses a VW Beetle engine to drive a portable auxiliary pump capable of moving 200 gallons per minute. The primary water pump can handle 600. According to the owner, the truck served the Wiesbaden fire department in Germany, then later transferred to the Sinntal-Sannerz area. The owner purchased the truck, shipped it to Nova Scotia, and drove it down to the US and across the country to California.

I first found out about this truck on Google Street View. It was a crazy find and I knew I needed to track it down for real. What are the odds of finding another 50-year-old obscure German fire truck in this state? At first glance I was perplexed and disappointed to see the Mercur badge affixed to the front. With part of the R broken off, I thought someone was trying to be funny and stuck on some emblem from a 1950s Mercury car. After a lot of Googling I couldn't find any American Mercury badges that matched. Turns out that Mercur is the actual model name of this truck. Magirus is the manufacturer, known abroad for their firefighting equipment (they invented the swiveling turntable fire truck ladder) and Deutz AG provided the diesel engine. Magirus trucks were named after planets because some models had planetary gears in the rear end.

This truck is a little rough around the edges, but I expect a tough old 4x4 service vehicle to show some wear. It's very unusual, very cool and I think inherently interesting.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas from California Streets!

Wishing all my readers a very happy and safe holiday and a wonderful new year.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Danville Street Sighting - 2005 Chevrolet SSR Indy 500 Parade Truck

In 2002 General Motors decided to discontinue the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. The F-body coupes and convertibles were popular budget sporty cars, especially among young buyers looking for rear-drive V8 power. But the body and chassis dated to 1993, the interior was hopelessly antiquated and the competition was upping their game. So what did GM build to replace them? Well, in the case of Pontiac, nothing. Pontiac had things like the Grand Prix GTP, but no sporty coupes that could truly replace the Firebird and Trans-Am in the middle years of the 2000s. Nobody thought a Sunfire or Grand Am GT was a substitute for a Trans-Am. For Chevy, though, GM was readying an all-new performance two-door. Hoping to take advantage of the retro styling craze popularized by the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser and 2002 Ford Thunderbird, Chevy rolled out the SSR (Super Sport Roadster).
A pickup truck.
...With a retractable hardtop.
...Patterned -very- loosely after the 1947-1953 Advance Design Series pickups.

The new truck was based on the Trailblazer SUV chassis and debuted with a 5.3 liter V8 engine and either a 4-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission. I rode in one on a handling course in 2004 at a GM "Auto Show In Motion" event, and was disappointed by the truck's roly-poly nature, heavy weight and high center of gravity. This was supposed to replace the Camaro? And then there was the price. The old Camaro was considered an affordable muscle car. The new SSR seemed destined for middle-aged men only at a cost north of $40,000.

Chevy tried to bolster the SSR's image by pacing a few races with it. It paced the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and several NASCAR events. In 2005 an Indy 500 edition was produced, apparently in a run of 100 vehicles. All were painted Slingshot Yellow and equipped with a 390 horsepower, 6.0 liter V8. According to sources at SSRFanatic.com, only 33 were used as parade lap trucks, one for each driver who participated in the race. A total of 74 were used at that year's '500 Festival' for various purposes, after which approximately 40 were sold and the rest re-used for other races with different decals. This particular vehicle is #55 as indicated on the windshield and (hidden) behind the rear license plate. The actual pace vehicle at the '05 Indy 500 was a Corvette; no SSR ever paced the 2005 Indy race.

This truck is still relatively new, so it's understandably in very good condition except for one thing. The door graphics have faded significantly, the rich red now a dull pale pink. The owner has also added a trailer hitch. These trucks are not altered from stock form apart from the striping and stickers; the paint is a regular production color and even the wheels are stock. The windshield banner is original. I've read that reproduction decals are available for the body but in an effort to deter 'counterfeit' pace cars the original supplier will not sell them unless a customer can provide proof of ownership of a legitimate vehicle.
The SSR was an unusual footnote in performance car history. Not many were sold due to high price and impracticality. It wasn't really that useful as a truck, either. I still see them from time to time, but they rarely blip my radar. This is the first one I've seen on the street that was affiliated with a famous race event. I must admit I'm disappointed it didn't turn out to be a real pace vehicle, but if it carried a famous Indy driver for the pre-race parade lap it could still be something special. It's too bad I couldn't track down which driver rode in which numbered truck.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Collector's Corner - Maisto 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

As Christmas approaches and parents flock to Costco for the $12.99 Maisto Special Edition 1:18 scale diecast models for their children, it seems appropriate to reflect on one of the Maisto models I received for Christmas as a kid. This is a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.

The '59 Eldorado is a perennial favorite at Maisto. It has been re-issued many times in several different colors since around 1993, both in stock form and as a customized "All Stars" release. Among the early colors available were a stereotypical Pepto-Bismol pink, timeless black, a medium blue and a red with tan interior. Then there was a solid white version with a brothel-red interior. I really loved this thing as a kid, probably because I was nuts for '50s cars. I played with it a lot, and somehow it mostly held together. The casualties were a broken tailpipe and the trunk hinge retainer that kept the trunk lid in place. By some miracle nothing else came off that couldn't be pressed back into position.

By all accounts this is a budget model. If you're looking for a museum-quality '59 Cadillac, buy one from Auto Art or Precision Miniatures. This car is fairly kid-friendly with no sharp edges, though there are plenty of small parts that can break off easily. The proportions are a bit iffy. To me it looks like the front end is wrong somehow, and the windshield seems too low. The chrome body trim gets points for being an actual separate piece, but sacrifices points for the ridiculously heavy-handed application of chrome on top of the tail fins. The piece is about three times as thick as it needed to be and could probably have been achieved with silver paint. The fin chrome can also be easily be removed by a child. Ask me how I know. The seats tilt forward for access to the back seat. Those too can be pulled out easily by a child, as can the engine's air cleaner.

Speaking of the engine, the 390 cubic inch V8 is replicated in blue and black plastics with only the air cleaner painted. The unpainted firewall fashioned from the same red plastic as the interior tub hurts the realism of the engine bay, particularly with details like the brake master cylinder and steering column left plain red. The one thing that does look good in plain red are the spark plug wires, an item frequently ignored in low-priced models. The lights are a mixed bag. Front lights are so-so with multiple mounting pegs clearly visible. The rear lights are well done, albeit rounded off so the bullet-shaped tips don't poke little baby fingers. Body decals are limited, with stickers serving as the license plates, hood badge and hubcap centers; tampo printing makes up the Eldorado fender lettering and the little wing shapes above the headlights.

The interior is acceptable for a budget model, made of soft-touch plastics and containing enough detail to satisfy a young collector. The windshield visors are flexible and won't just break off if you try to move them. The trunk contains the shell of a spare tire but don't try to remove it. There's nothing there.

I give Maisto a lot of credit for giving their models some pretty resilient paintwork. The fact that this survived my childhood from about age 5 onward with so little damage is impressive. Granted, it was one of my favorites so that may have figured in taking care of it. It still has a place on my display shelf.