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.              

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Demise of the Coupe

When I went car shopping recently, I noticed a lack of coupes.  Trucks, crossovers, and sedans dominated the scene.  The only coupes I looked at were the Nissan Altima, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang.  I know there are a handful of other car companies that make coupes, but the number of models, and the volume of coupe sales has dwindled sharply from twenty years ago.   

File:Packard 120 Eight Business Coupe 1936.jpg

The concept of the coupe originated in the 19th century as a closed carriage with a single seat.  Later  it became a term used to describe an enclosed car with seats for two or three people.  A number of car companies in the 1930s and 1940s made what they called business coupes, cars with no rear seat built for traveling salespeople, or folding seats like the kind you get with an extended cab pickup truck.  The lack of a back seat is what made the car different from a two door sedan, which, like a coupe, had two doors but also a full back seat.   

Perhaps the zenith of the coupe came and went with the original Ford Mustang.  Launched exactly 50 years ago, the Mustang was an instant hit and has since become an American icon.  Based on the Ford Falcon sedan, it was marketed as a 2+2 coupe, the "+2" designating the small, occasional use backseats. 

Growing up, there were coupes everywhere.  By then the concept of a coupe had merged with a 2 door sedan and the two were used interchangeably.  Just about every popular car was offered in sedan and coupe form--midsize and full size family cars like Oldsmobiles, and even smaller cars like the Plymouth Reliant and Ford Tempo.  There were also a number of sporty cars to compete with the Ford Mustang and its main rival, the Chevy Camaro--the Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Ford Probe, and Mitsubishi Eclipse were popular at the time.  Today, with the exception of the Mustang and resurrected Camaro, all those cars are gone. 

In 2004, Mercedes launched the CLS, a "four-door coupe" based on their midsize E platform.  It didn't matter that a four-door coupe was an oxymoron, or that the car was no more capable than an E55.  The CLS looked sensational and started a trend.  Today there is no shortage of four-door coupes, including cars from Audi, BMW, VW, and Jaguar.  Ford jumped on the bandwagon with the new Fusion, as have other sedans, like the new Chrysler 200, and Chevy Impala.  

I suspect the primary reason for the demise of coupes is the shift in consumer preferences, but it may also have something to do with the styling and capabilities of the modern sedan.  Gone is the square, upright styling of yesterday's sedans.  It's been replaced by a sleeker look that has blurred the lines, making four door cars as desirable as the coupes of yesteryear.  But while the number of coupes sold in the market continues to diminish, I doubt they will ever completely go away.  Coupe styling, no matter how striking, or well executed on a four door car, will always be a compromise.  Sedans will always lack the purpose-built look of a two-door sports car or grand tourer.  They will never have the wild sense of romance and adventure, never have their names uttered in the same breath as the Porsche 911 or Jaguar XK.  

True two-door sports cars and GTs offer the promise of an adventure, a spur of the moment trip to wine country, a drive to the Florida Keys by way of Miami Beach, or weekend getaway to ski.  A sedan, even one labeled a coupe, is still a sedan and the automotive equivalent of date night.  Yes, there is the promise of adventure, an opportunity to go interesting places, but at the end of the evening you still have to go home and pay the baby sitter.