Friday, October 17, 2014

The $15,000 Question: Land Rover Series III

I've always had a soft spot for the old Land Rover, but thought I had gotten it out of my system until a friend from San Antonio texted me a picture of one recently.  Rough, crude, and basic to a fault, the original Land Rovers had more in common with a Farmall tractor than today's Range Rover.  The first Land Rover appeared in 1947 and was Great Britain's answer to the World War II Army Jeep.  It was rugged and designed to be simple enough to repair in the most remote locations.

Part of my fascination for the original Land Rover stems from "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."  The Marlin Perkins hosted show featured a animals in their natural habitat.  Each week Marlin, and his co-host Jim, would be on location in the African Serengeti or in the Amazon.  They would use Land Rovers to get to remote locations, chase down animals to be tagged and released, and occasionally get out of harm's way. 

The original Land Rover evolved gradually, adding power, creature comforts, and  weight, but the basic formula remained it production for over 60 years.  It's direct ancestor, the Defender, looks relatively identical to the original model and is still in production today.  Ultimately though, the Land Rover's days are numbered.  It was eclipsed long ago by more comfortable utility vehicles, commonly known as SUVs, including it's kid brothers, the Range Rover and Discovery.  Sales have dwindled since the early 1970s, partly due to the demand for more comfort, but also because of safely regulations.  It hasn't been imported to the US since the late 1990s and will finally be phased out in 2015 because of legislative reasons.      


Today you can buy an original Series II or Series III Land Rover for under $15,000.  The vehicle is slow and crude, even compared to a basic Jeep Wrangler, but is easy to work on.  It can be used as a daily driver, with the only serious drawback being a dearth of parts in the US. 

Think of it as a four wheeled version of the late Steve Erwin, a rough and tumble vehicle that is up for adventure and will do just about anything.         

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cadillac is not Itself

This is what a Cadillac should be: Large, stately, supremely comfortable, smooth, and powerful.  A car to serenely consume the miles, soaking up potholes and ruts without unsettling.  It's buttercream frosting on a three-tiered layer cake. 

The above 1953 Series 62 sedan highlights those qualities.  Audacious compared to some of its understated European contemporaries, it has a sense of occasion about it.  Compared to it, Cadillac has lost its way.  A Caddy should not be an all out performance car capable of storming the Nurburgring.   

To be fair, Cadillac has to build cars that satisfy the broadest swath of its target market, an arena filled with quality products from BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes.  All of these products are good.  To stand out, your brand has to match up favorably to the competition.  This is why new BMWs are less precise than their brethren of yore, why Lexus is sharper, why Mercedes brought AMG in house, and why Cadillac has shed buttercream in favor of the Paleo diet. 

But in doing so, Cadillac has lost touch of what makes a Cadillac.          

Friday, March 7, 2014

Engine Transplants

One of the cool things about hot rodding, is transplanting a better engine in an existing car.  The concept has been around for decades--people have been dropping bigger, more powerful engines in everything with wheels, since at least the end of World War II.  Transplanting a small block Chevy or Ford V8 is the most common thing, but you'll also see people use everything from Oldsmobile Rockets, Chrysler Hemis, and Buick Turbos or Nailheads, to more exotic fare like Jaguars, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

File:Dax Boss 302 - AC Cobra Replica - Flickr - mick - Lumix.jpg

The most successful example of this concept is the AC/Shelby Cobra.  In the early 1960s, Carroll Shelby took a British roadster, the AC Ace, and dropped a 260 cubic inch Ford V8 into it.  The result was the birth of the legendary Shelby Cobra, which dominated the sports car racing scene.  Today, original Cobras exchange hands for prices ranging from the high six-figures up into millions of dollars.

In the spirit of hot rod engine transplants, here are five cars, I would love to perform surgery on.  I doubt any of these cars would fetch Cobra money, but they would be fun to own.

1. The 1963-65 Buick Riviera.  The first generation Riviera is one of the best designs to come out of Detroit.  Styled by Bill Mitchell, it was his interpretation of what would happen if you crossed a Ferrari with a Rolls Royce.  The original car had either a 401 or 425 cubic inch Buick Nailhead V8, which provided decent power for its time.  But today's minivan has more power and would embarrass the Riviera at the drag strip.  However, if you dropped in a modern GM crate motor and transmission, you could easily rectify the situation.

File:Jensen Interceptor Convertible 1974.jpg

2. The Jensen Interceptor.  Originally matched with a Mopar 383 or 440 V8 and three speed automatic, I can't help wonder what this car would be like with the modern Hemi and a six speed manual.  Or would a powertrain from a Viper fit?  Either way, an updated Interceptor would give a modern Aston Martin a run for its money, while being much cooler to drive.

3. Ponitac Fiero GT.  GM finally got the Fiero right... and then they cancelled it.  I wonder what it would be like if you dropped in a V6 from a Toyota Camry.  The idea really isn't that far fetched--Toyota and GM collaborated for years on cars like the Toyota Corolla/Geo Prisim and more recently the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe.  Plus, if the Camry's V6 is good enough for the new Lotus Evora, it should be good for the Fiero.

4. Fiat X1/9.  A mid-engine car and contemporary to the Pontiac Fiero, the X1/9 was largely dismissed as a hair-dresser's car because it was grossly underpowered.  But it looks exotic, which is no suprise since the car was penned by Marcello Gandini, who also designed the Lancia Stratos, Lamborghini Miura, and Lamborghini Countach.  All it really needs is more power--something in the form of a modern Fiat Abarth powertrain, or one of any number of Honda/Acura four cylinder engines.

5. Delorean.  The weak link in any Delorean is its under-powered Renault V6, which is ironic because John Delorean made his name as the father of the original Pontiac GTO.  Today Deloreans are prized for their originality, so it would be a sacrilege to replace the engine.  But that doesn't stop me from dreaming what a small block Chevy V8, or even something as exotic as a Ferrari V8 out of a wrecked F355 would do for the car's performance.