Friday, August 25, 2017

Pleasanton Street Sighting - 1988 CMC Tiffany Classic

This week we're looking at cars from the 1980s that are uniquely a product of their time. Well, maybe not. Neo-classics have been a thing for decades. Ever since the Excalibur of the 1960s, people have been building cars that evoke the golden age of 1930s luxury and sports roadsters. Over the years we've seen the Clenet, Spartan II, Sceptre, Zimmer Golden Spirit among dozens of others, even such modern oddballs as the Mitsuoka Le Seyde and the SixTen Spirit. More exacting or approximate replicas of 1930s cars were also made, like the Auburn Speedster, Cord, Duesenberg II, Bugatti 35X, Mercedes 500K and Jaguar SS 100. Usually neoclassics use fiberglass parts on a donor body with contemporary chassis and drivetrain. They range from professionally coachbuilt cars to do-it-yourself fiberglass kits. A company called Classic Motor Carriages offered numerous products during the 1980s, ranging from Shelby Cobras, '34 Fords, Porsche 356 Speedsters, MG TDs and Gazelle "1929 Mercedes" roadsters. Perhaps the most extravagant of all of these was the Tiffany Classic.

The CMC Tiffany Classic Coupe was built based on a Mercury Cougar body and powertrain. Unlike most CMC products, the Tiffany was coachbuilt at their factory using a new vehicle rather than sold in pieces via mail order. The cars started at $32,990 (about $68,000 today). You received a car with a fully loaded Mercury Cougar body and interior, fuel injected 5.0 liter V8 and automatic transmission. The retro styled parts were fiberglass, with real leather straps on the trunk lid. The Elite trim level came with actual gold plating on the grille and the option of a power moonroof. CMC stopped building the Tiffany Classic after 1988 and retooled it as the Destiny, based on the Ford Mustang convertible.

Classic Motor Carriages had a troubled history. George Levin took over the company in 1978 when he bought out Tiffany Motor Cars and gained the tooling for the Gazelle kit car. In 1983 Levin purchased kit car builder Fiberfab and expanded the CMC business portfolio with more products. CMC offered the option of ordering DIY kits or factory built turnkey cars and made a lot of money at it during the '80s. Unfortunately that started to go sideways in the 1990s and the company was closed down and liquidated following a very expensive fraud lawsuit. CMC reincorporated as Street Beasts but that too was liquidated after several years due to lawsuits. Near as I can tell, George Levin apparently got out of the car business and ended up taking part in a billion-dollar investment fund Ponzi scheme. Levin was convicted in civil court in 2015 for securities fraud.

Classic Motor Carriages is long gone but the cars remain as the legacy of a man who found a way to exploit a popular market niche. It's a shame the company wasn't able or willing to take better care of customers in its later years.

Photographed May 2016

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Danville Street Sighting - 1987 Mitsubishi Starion Turbo

This week we're looking at cars from the 1980s that are uniquely a product of their time. What says '80s more than anything? TURBO.

This is a 1987 Mitsubishi Starion TURBO. It has TURBO SEAT BELTS.

Sports cars from the '80s are just fun. They're usually angular, wedge shaped, often with flip-up headlights and spoilers aplenty. And if it's turbocharged, you better bet that it has a huge callout TURBO badge or sticker somewhere on the body. This Starion ticks all those boxes. And I love it.
One of the first things that drew me to this car is the color. Most Starions and their captive import identical twins (the Dodge/Plymouth/Chrysler Conquest) seem to be red. This one is beige. But it's not a repaint and it's apparently not beige. Because according to the color options for 1987, I think this is Palermo Gray. There is another shade called Shetland Beige, which mysteriously is more gray than Palermo Gray is beige. And Palermo Gray is a rare color. Starions were sold in two variants, a narrow and wide body. Intercooled turbo cars received the widebody with flared fenders. The narrowbody version logically was the lower spec, lower performance model. We've previously looked at one of those here, so now is the chance for its big brother to shine.

There are some details I've always liked one these cars. The alloy wheel design is simple and pleasing to me. The interior is an appropriately aggressive mix of black plastic, black leather, silver metallic accents and orange instrumentation. There is an unapologetically large manual shifter with a square ribbed rubber shift boot. Note the nice bolstered leather bucket seats with adjustable support at the front. And did I mention the TURBO seat belts? I love those for how cheesy they are. It appears to have automatic belts for the shoulder harness, a product of that short-lived period when manufacturers encouraged seatbelt use by making the car put it on you whether you wanted it or not. And like all good '80s halo models, the dash is awash in buttons and switches for all the electronic gizmos.

I've seen this Starion a number of times around my area. It turned up for sale and was generating a lot of attention on the street at the time I photographed it. Since then (as of this writing) I've seen it driving at least twice. It's a rare and very cool car and I hope it found the right buyer.

Photographed March 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017

Danville Street Sighting - 1987 Cadillac Cimarron

My local iHeartRadio station has been advertising heavily of late. They're celebrating their one-year anniversary of their broadcast format, 1980s rock and pop music. So this week I'm featuring only cars that are firmly products of their era... the '80s.

First up this week is a car that many still believe should never have been made. It's the Cadillac Cimarron. Or if you go by the sales literature, "the Cimarron, by Cadillac".

Several years ago I did a "Best of the Rest" post called The General's Privates. It was dedicated to rarely seen versions of General Motors J-body compacts that I had photographed in passing. Most were Cimarrons. In recent years a good Cimarron specimen has become pretty scarce. I found this one for sale in Danville, advertised with only 76,000 miles. It looks like an older person owned it judging by the low mileage and good condition apart from, well, let's face it. My grandma bumped into a lot of things with her last car. This one has found a few solid objects in its time but is very well kept.

The original 1982 Cimarron was what happened when GM took a Chevy Cavalier and put a few Cadillac badges on it. A little nicer interior with leather seats and air conditioning, some extra chrome stripping, slightly beefed-up suspension, optional sunroof, optional trunk rack. Standard 1.8 liter four-cylinder Cavalier powerplant with four-speed manual transmission. In a Cadillac. And you could delete the dashboard clock for credit on the order form. In a Cadillac. Oh yes. The new car didn't even have the traditional stand-up hood ornament, just a Cadillac crest tacked on the center of the grille. What it did come with was a $12,000 price tag (nearly $32,000 in 2017 dollars).

Cimarron grew up a bit over the course of its production run. It was quickly refreshed and upgraded with a new grille, halogen fog lamps, new 13-inch alloy wheels, an extra gear for the manual and larger 2.0 engine with fuel injection. The 2.8 liter corporate V6 was added as an option for 1985, and finally became standard for '87. New composite halogen headlamps and restyled fascia were added to give the Cimarron a more modern, less "Chevy" appearance. Buyers could also get a proper Delco/Bose stereo system and 14-inch wheels, and the option of cloth seats if they wanted to save a few pennies or just not burn their backside on hot days. By that time the Cimarron was getting to be a somewhat decent premium compact. But it was still a Cavalier underneath it all and there was almost no one left to fool into thinking it was an actual Cadillac.

The business case for the Cimarron could have worked. Chrysler successfully developed their small, boxy, front-wheel-drive economy K-Cars into relatively luxurious LeBarons. Chrysler believed that small FWD luxury cars were the future. Ford didn't have a very good time experimenting with small Lincolns and certainly never tried making a Lincoln version of, say, the Escort. The Ford Granada-based Versailles sedan of the late 1970s is remembered today only because hot rodders like to use the rear axles. Compact luxury cars were a difficult lesson for domestic automakers to learn, one that they're still learning today in order to compete in the global market. The Cimarron showed that you can't rush a product and expect people to love it.

Photographed June 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1966 Mercury Comet 202

Around the city it seems like the favored kickaround classics are the Mopar Dart/Valiant twins and the Ford Falcon. They're tough, simple, reliable and practical. And in a town where parking spaces are nigh impossible to find, a small footprint and solid bumpers are helpful. While Falcons are relatively plentiful in urban environments, a Mercury Comet is a little less common. Here's a '66 Comet 202 sedan.

The 1966 Mercury Comet was the first year of a new generation that saw the car reclassified from a compact to a midsize. The styling had been previewed in 1965 with the adoption of stacked quad headlights and rectangular taillights. The 1966 body introduced a hint of a Coke-bottle shape and smoothed out some of the prior car's hard edges. It was made longer and wider, marketed for better highway performance. Where the 1965 Comet was a Falcon twin, the '66 was paired with the Ford Fairlane. The '66 Falcon was smaller and rode on a shorter version of the Fairlane platform. The 202 was the base Comet model this year but was available with three engines: a 200 cubic inch "Big Six", 289 small block V8 or 390 V8. This one has one of the V8 options, probably the mild 289.

A couple of years ago I featured a 1967 Ford Falcon that I described as having been around the block and hit everything along the way. This car isn't quite at that stage yet. It's been bumped and banged a number of times but the passenger side and rear end are still in relatively good shape. It's nice to see that it has all of its original badges and hubcaps. I'm curious where the fourth headlamp went, though. I had to find and photograph the car twice to get the full walkaround view my readers like.

So how rare is a 1966 Comet 202 sedan? Ford sold 182,000 Falcons and 317,000 Fairlanes that year. Mercury sold 170,426 Comets. Of those, the base 202 four-door sedan accounted for 20,440 cars. How many of those do you think have survived? Not a whole lot, probably.

Photographed March and August 2014