Classic Profile: The Kissel Speedster

Gene Husting with his 1920 Kissel 6-45 Speedster in a 1950s-era photo | Courtesy of Steve Evans
Gene Husting with his 1920 Kissel 6-45 Speedster in a 1950s-era photo | Courtesy of Steve Evans

The Kissel Motor Car Company may not be a well-recognized marque today, but it is owed a debt of gratitude from every red-blooded American car guy.

The reason is the company’s introduction in 1919 of its Speedster (later nicknamed the Gold Bug Speedster) which cemented in the American mindset the idea of the sports car. Continue reading

Potential money pits: High-maintenance classics

The miracle of depreciation has put a tempting array of classic exotics within reach for many of us. Be warned, though, that very often, the check you write for the purchase is just the first of many checks that you’ll write if you make a poor or unlucky choice. Keep in mind this maxim: The cheapest examples almost always wind up being the most expensive in the long run. Here are four that famously can be punishing on the wallet:

1.1966-80 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow:  At around the cost of a loaded Ford Focus for a nice one, it’s hard not to be tempted by the old money, English drawing room, upper crust looks of a vintage Rolls-Royce. But go in with your eyes open:  A simple brake service can exceed $1,000, with the special Rolls-Royce brake fluid going for $125 all by itself. Try to substitute something from your local auto parts store and you could be looking at $3,000 or more to repair the damage. Should the guy in the Excursion be less than deferential to your Roller when parallel parking? That famous Parthenon-like grille in front is about $2,500 used if you can find one. The hood ornament alone can cost more than $1,500 should anyone decide to make a souvenir out of yours. Ouch.
2.1975-85 Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS: At around $30,000, this lovely thing represents one of the lowest points of entry to the storied Ferrari brand. Fortunately, Thomas Magnum probably never had to foot the shop bill to maintain his employer’s 308. If he did, he’d likely have had to pawn the Hawaiian shirt and moustache. While Ferrari 308s have gained a reputation for being reasonably reliable cars as Italian exotics go, they are maintenance-intensive and things do break, particularly with the oldest now  approaching 40 years old. That lovely combination switch that operates the turn signals and pop-up headlights? They can cost close to a grand (and they do fail from time-to-time).  A belt service including the all-important timing belt needs to happen at least every five years or 30,000 miles. Ignore it and you could be on the line for a $15,000-plus engine rebuild.  At three to five grand to perform, it’s easy to see how people can tempt fate on this. And 308s without a documented recent belt service are all but sale-proof.
3.1968-72 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3: The 6.3 is the closest that Mercedes ever came to building a Detroit-style muscle car back in the day (albeit a four-door one). Sporting a huge 384 cubic-inch V-8 with fuel injection and over 300 hp, the 6.3 was capable of a sub-six second 0-60 run and a 14.2-second ¼-mile time. All of this came at a huge price, though, both in acquisition costs and maintenance. A complete rebuild of the air suspension system can cost more than $5,000, as can the wonderfully complex pre-computer, mechanical fuel-injection system. At least the parts are available. Unlike other manufacturers that tend to abandon their classic models, Mercedes-Benz through its dedicated Classic Center will happily supply any parts needed.
4.1961-74 Jaguar E-Type: The E-Type is actually nowhere near as chronically troublesome as its reputation would suggest. This gorgeous car still seems to take a punch on a regular basis (most recently in a plot arc of AMC’s “Mad Men,” where a suicide attempt was botched because the car wouldn’t start). It is, however, a fairly complex car that takes kindly neither to abuse nor fools with tools. Burn out the clutch in your E-Type and you may wish you hadn’t been born. The list of things that have to come off of or out of the car to do the job is longer than the Unibomber manifesto. The entire massive clam shell hood, headlight and front fender assembly known by the British term “bonnet” is just the tip of the iceberg. It has to come off simply to get at the engine and transmission, which also need to part company with the rest of the car — along with three grand or so of your kid’s college fund.

Car designer Peter Brock to lecture at Blackhawk

Peter Brock will sign copies of his recent Corvette Sting Ray book | Brock Racing Enterprises
Peter Brock will sign copies of his recent Corvette Sting Ray book | Brock Racing Enterprises

Car designer, author, racing-team owner, photo journalist – Peter Brock has excelled at all his pursuits, starting at the age of 19 when he joined Bill Mitchell’s group of stylists at General Motors, where he became a leading force in the creation of the Corvette Sting Ray.

Brock will present a lecture at noon Sunday at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville, Calif., focusing on his time as one of the youngest designers ever hired at GM Styling and how he worked with Mitchell, Harley Earl, Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole in producing the groundbreaking 1963 Sting Ray.

Part of the museum’s Spring Speaker Series, the lecture by Brock coincides with the 34th annual “A Legend on Display” car show presented by the Northern California Corvette Association, which takes place in the museum plaza. More than 100 cars are expected.

Brock's 1957 sketch helped launch the Sting Ray | General Motors
Brock’s 1957 sketch helped launch the Sting Ray | General Motors

Brock will be available to sign copies of his 2013 book, Corvette Sting Ray: Genesis of an American Icon, in which Brock gives an insider’s look at how the Sting Ray came about, and the many competing decisions that went into its design.

A sketch made by Brock in 1957 was picked by Mitchell as the focus for the second-generation Corvette and spawned one of America’s most famous show cars, the Sting Ray Racer of 1959. It also provided the direction for the eventual production Sting Ray that appeared to manic acclaim in the fall of 1962.

Brock is most-famous among racing fans for his work with Carroll Shelby, who hired the young designer as the first employee for his performance and racing endeavors. Brock accepted the challenge from Shelby of creating a version of the Cobra roadster for high-speed performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The result — the iconic Cobra Daytona Coupe — succeeded in beating reigning Ferrari for a GT-class win at Le Mans. It also was the first American car to win the FIA’s GT World Championship.

Brock ran his own racing team at one point, under Brock Racing Enterprises, which campaigned Datsun 510 coupes to conquer Alfa-Romeo and Porsche in Trans Am 2.5 competition. The BRE Datsuns became famous for taking their blue-and-orange livery into victory lane.

For more information about the lecture, the Corvette show and other events at the Blackhawk Museum, see www.blackhawkmuseum.org.

Eye Candy: The Art of Bugatti at the Mullin museum

Photos by Larry Edsall

If you have clicked your way intentionally onto this page, you likely recognize the name Bugatti because of the automotive artistry of Ettore and his son, Jean. In the early years of the 20th Century, first the father and then father and son and, after Jean’s death while testing one of the their cars, the father again created cars that were the fastest on the track and the most beautiful on the road.

Today, those cars are cherished by collectors. Foremost among them is Peter Mullin, who turned a building in an industrial park in Oxnard, Calif., into an elegant museum to preserve and showcase not only the Bugattis’ cars but others produced during the Art Deco era.

Beginning late in 2012, the Mullin Automotive Museum staged a special exhibition of the work of French aviator, architect and automobile designer Gabriel Voisin.

Recently, the museum opened its newest exhibition, The Art of Bugatti, which not only displays an amazing array of automobiles but adds the artwork of the other Bugattis, especially Ettore’s father, Carlo, who was acclaimed in Europe for his silver smithing and his artistic woodwork in furniture, cabinets and musical instruments as well as his paintings, and Ettore’s brother, Rembrandt, who was renowned for his sculptures, particularly bronze depictions of animals.

Also included in the exhibit is work by Ettore’s other children, L’ebe, the writer; Lidia, painter and sketch artist; and even Roland, born 13 years after Jean, the child for whom Ettore designed the famed “baby” Bugatti and who eventually would manage the Bugatti factory in the years following World War II.

Visitors to the exhibition also can see artifacts that include the wooden molds used to cast metal components for Bugatti cars, a recreation of the 100P airplane developed by Ettore Bugatti and Belgian engineer Louis de Monge, and the stunning metal bodywork commissioned by Mullin for the Type 64 chassis Ettore Bugatti didn’t have time to complete.

For information on visiting the museum, see the www.mullinautomotivemuseum.com website.

Today is the license plate’s birthday

Some of the historic license plates at the Petersen museum | Larry Edsall
Some of the historic license plates at the Petersen museum | Larry Edsall

April 25 is the birthday of the automotive license plate in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New York was the first state to require license plates on motor vehicles, beginning April 25, 1901.

At the time, the census bureau reports, there were fewer than 15,000 motor cars in the entire country. Today, there are nearly 250 million cars, trucks and buses in the country, and all of them wear license plates.

“Many automobile license plates proclaim glories of the issuing states; others spell out something dear to the drivers but indecipherable to anyone else,” the census bureau’s news release reports.

Regardless, it continues, “Those plates and the basic ones handed out by motor vehicle departments are requirements to drive on public roads.”

Oh, and if you want to decorate your plate — or plates, depending on the state in which you reside — the census bureau reports there are 38,000 auto parts and accessories stores that can sell you decorative license plate frames.

For more such trivia, you can visit www.census.gov.

To learn more about license plates, you can visit the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which has an entire exhibition on the history of license plates. The Petersen’s exhibition opened late last year and runs through December 7.

The famous 1928 Massachusetts plate | Larry Edsall
The famous 1928 Massachusetts plate | Larry Edsall

The highlight of the Petersen’s exhibition is the 1928 Massachussets license plate, which many of that state’s residents blamed for the lousy fishing season that year.

It was in 1928 that the Massachusetts department of motor vehicles added a fish symbol to the state’s license plates, but positioned the fish so it was swimming away from the word “Mass.” After a poor season for fishermen and an anglers’ uproar, the person who designed that plate was fired and the following year the fish pointed toward the state’s name and the fishing industry prospered.

Such tales are shared in the “License Plates: Unlocking the Code” exhibit.

“There really is educational value to each plate in this display,” said Jeff Minard, a license plate historian who worked with the museum on the display. “At the same time, time, these unique pieces are displayed as art for everyone to enjoy.” 

Honda helping another drive-in theater stay in business

Project Drive-In helps fund digital projector in Pennsylvania | American Honda
Project Drive-In helps fund digital projector in Pennsylvania | American Honda

When you think “classic cars,” Honda probably isn’t one of the first automakers that pops to mind. Although, there was an immaculate mid-’70s CVCC that drew a lot of attention a few years ago when its owner proudly drove it up and down the avenue during Detroit’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

And someday, Honda’s S2000 and Acura’s NSX are going to be considered classics, and Soichiro Honda’s early sports cars — the S500, S600 and S800 of the 1960s — would be cherished parts of any collection.

But an Accord or Civic, not so much.

So why are we writing on the ClassicCars.com blog about Honda? Because of something the American arm of Honda has done to preserve a wonderful part of American car culture, that’s why.

Many people aren’t aware of the fact that Hollywood no longer is distributing its films on, well, film. 35mm is out. Digital is in. Theaters are getting digital versions of movies these days and the digital projection equipment needed to show them costs movie theaters about $75,000 per screen.

It’s our mission to save this decades old slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us.”

— Alicia Jones

That is an expensive but a justifiable business expense for your local cineplex. But what if you’re the owner of an old-fashioned drive-in with only short, seasonal business? Can you justify spending that money? Can you even come up with that much money in the first place? Or do you simply have to shut down and either let your land go to weeds or sell it to some strip-mall or fast-food developer?

Well, someone at American Honda decided to do something about it. As Alicia Jones, manager of social marketing for Honda and Acura at American Honda Motor Co. told us, “Cars and drive-in theaters go hand-in-hand, and it’s our mission to save this decades old slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us.”

It was last year that we spoke with her. At the time, someone at American Honda heard about the plight of the American drive-in theater owners and got the automaker to pledge to fund five digital projectors for America’s remaining drive-in theaters. In addition to its own pledge, Honda established Project Drive-In so others could contribute and also help to decide which drive-ins got that new equipment. The other part of Project Drive-In was letting drive-in fans vote on which theaters would get those new projectors. Some 2-million votes were cast via the Internet.

Once upon a time, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. A year ago, only 368 of them were still in business.

As it turned out, between Honda’s contribution and additional monies raised, not five but nine drive-ins got new digital projection equipment.  Here they are: 

  • Cherry Bowl Drive-In, Honor, Mich.
  • Graham Drive-In, Graham, Tex.
  • McHenry Outdoor Theater, McHenry, Ill.
  • Monetta Drive-In, Monetta, S.C.
  • Ocala Drive-In, Ocala, Fla.
  • Saco Drive-In, Saco, Me.
  • Starlite Drive-In, Cadet, Mo.
  • Stateline Drive-In, Elizabethton, Tenn.
  • 99W Drive-In, Newberg, Ore.

But that’s not the end of the story. It turns out that there was some money leftover and those funds, with an additional $5,000 donation from AutoTrader Group, will help Brownsville Drive-In in Grindstone, Pa., become the 10th facility to get a digital projector and thus continue showing movies to people watching from inside their vehicles.

“With the drive-in season about to begin, the timing couldn’t be better for the Grindstone community to celebrate a small business where families can share the cinema experience together under the stars,” Honda’s Alicia Jones said.

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Porsche’s ‘rolling museum’ to visit Pebble Beach

A Porsche participates in the Mille Miglia | Porsche Museum
A Porsche participates in the Mille Miglia | Porsche Museum

Porsche calls it a “rolling museum.”

“It” is a showcase of Porsche racing cars that takes them from their stationary positions within the Porsche Museum in Germany and puts them on roads and race tracks, not only at Europe’s top classic car events this year but also in northern California.

From May 15-18, a 550 Spyder, two 356 coupes and a 356 Speedster will participate in the annual Mille Miglia rally in Italy, the Porsche Museum  announced. Among the drivers for the 1,000-mile rally are Porsche chairman Wolfgang Porsche and famed endurance racer Jacky Ickx.

June 6-7, famed Porsche racers Walter Rohrl and Hans-Joachim Stuck will drive a 911 Carrera 2.7 RS and a 911 Speedster across southwestern Germany in the Paul Pietsch Klassik.

Porsche's 917 at Goodwood in 2013
Porsche’s 917 at Goodwood in 2013

Later in June (26-29), Porsche will participate in the “Turbo” theme of the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, and not only with a 959 Group B rally car, a 964 Turbo, a 993 Turbo and the “Baby” 935, a car that gets its nickname from is scaled-down 1.4-liter engine, but with two 917s — the 917 KH that produced Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans and a 917/30 Can-Am series racer.

July 6-7, a 911 Carrera RSR Targa Florio, a 935/77 Group 5 racer, a 911 Turbo Cabriolet and a 911 Turbo 3.0 will go from the museum to the Le Mans Classic.

Porsche itself is the featured marque for the Ennstal Classic that takes place July 10-12. In addition to several 356s from the museum, Porsche will send a 911 2.2 Targa, will have Rohrl in a 718 WRS, Ickx in a 550 A Spyder and current works racer Marc Lieb in a 1998 Porsche GT1 for the Chopard Grand Prix von Grobming. The program includes a hill climb, touring drives through the Tauern Mountains, and the grand prix race through city streets.

Cars from the Porsche Museum will participate in the sixth Schloss Bensberg Classic scheduled for July 18-20, traveling to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in the U.S. in mid-August, and from August 21-24 parting in the Sachsen Classic, a classic car rally from Zwickau to Chemnitz in Europe’s Vogtland region.

Porsche says its “rolling museum” is part of its philosophy of making sure all the vehicles in its museum are roadworthy and “thus fulfill the original purpose for which they were built: to be driven.”

Photographers focus on a Porsche during Mille Miglia rally
Photographers focus on a Porsche during Mille Miglia rally

California Mille gets set for thousand-mile tour

Alfa-Romeos and a Jaguar XK soar through the curves during a previous Mille | California Mille
Alfa-Romeos and a Jaguar XK soar through the curves during a previous Mille | California Mille

The 24th annual California Mille starts April 28 for a four-day, thousand-mile classic car tour of scenic countryside and challenging back roads across the middle of California.

“It’s kind of a cross-section of California landscapes, really a mix of the Coast, the Sierra Nevadas, Napa Valley wine country, Sacramento river delta and Central Valley,” co-director David Swig said of the drive route. “So it will be quite a diversity of roads and landscapes. We change the routes every year to give people something fresh and new roads to drive on.”

For the second year, the California Mille is headed by David and Howard Swig, sons of the late Martin Swig, the irrepressible old-car enthusiast who founded the California version of Italy’s famed Mille Miglia road rally. Martin Swig died in July 2012. His sons vowed to keep the premium event going unchanged.

Rally cars displayed at the Fairmount Hotel | California Mille
Rally cars displayed at the Fairmount Hotel | California Mille

As ever, the grand sweep of 80 vintage sports, race and touring cars is the star attraction of the road rally. On Sunday, the day before the rally departs, the public is invited to enjoy a free show of the rally cars from noon to 6 p.m. in front of the Fairmount Hotel on San Francisco’s historic Nob Hill. More than 10,000 people are expected to see the rare field of entries.

“This year’s Mille may be the most signi?cant compendium of classic cars we’ve ever had,” David Swig said. “Along with some 13 Alfa Romeos, 11 Porsches, 6 Jaguars and half a dozen Ferraris – largely vintage ‘50s and ‘60s – we have a ’52 Tojeiro Roadster, a ’28 Bentley, ’57 Kurtis Kraft 500KK and a ’38 Lancia Aprilia.”

David Swig said that for his own rally car, he picked two distinctively different possibilities: a brawny all-American vintage race car or a nimble Italian sports coupe with unique California Mille history.

A pair of red 1950s Jaguars on the road | California Mille
A pair of red 1950s Jaguars on the road | California Mille

“I’m going to drive whatever car is ready to go, but at this point it looks like we’re going to drive a ’51 Chrysler Saratoga, which is a car similar to the car that John Fitch drove in the 1951 La Carrera Panamericana race,” he said. “It looks like the car that John Fitch drove. It has Halibrand magnesium wheels and a 331 Hemi, which is pumped up a little bit. All period stuff in the style that they would have run back in the early ’50s. Still drum brakes and all that.

“If that for whatever reason is not ready to go, I’m going to drive a car that my father drove on the first California Mille, which is a little Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce. But I’m really hoping to take the Chrysler because we already have quite a few Alfas and Porsches and small sports cars. Sometimes it’s nice to take something that’s a bit out of the ordinary.”

David Swig, 29, and his brother Howard, 26, along with Dan Radowicz and Ron Wren, have taken on the task of keeping alive the spirit of the California Mille after the death of Martin Swig, who was well-known in classic car circles for his unflagging enthusiasm and gregarious demeanor.

“Basically, my brother and I grew up fully immersed in the car world from all different aspects,” David Swig said. “It was and continues to be a full-immersion experience. He certainly passed on his passion to me and Howard.”

Martin Swig started up the California Mille after taking part in 1982 in the Mille Miglia of Italy, a road-rally re-enactment of what was formerly a full-on thousand-mile road race, which was run 24 times from 1927 through 1958 under the same name (Mille Miglia is Italian for “thousand mile”). The 24th year of the California Mille is therefore considered a notable milestone.

Bonhams readies London motorcar, automobilia auction

The 1927 Bentley 3-Liter Speed Model Tourer is one of the stars of the auction | Bonhams Auctions
The 1927 Bentley 3-Liter Speed Model Tourer is one of the stars of the auction | Bonhams Auctions

Coachbuilt Bentleys and an off-road truck built by Lamborghini highlight the Bonhams Collector’s Motor Cars and Automobilia Sale, scheduled for April 28 at London’s RAF Museum.

Bonham’s sale opens with a high-end collection of vintage automotive literature, posters, artworks and pre-war mascots, including a selection of valuable radiator ornaments by French glass designer Renè Lalique.

More than 70 classic cars will be offered after the automobilia sale, with a wide range of values and conditions, from a three-wheeled economy panel van and “barn-find” Jaguars to rare restored Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Alvis motorcars.

Macho Lamborghini LM 002 off-roader | Bonhams Auctions
Macho Lamborghini LM 002 off-roader | Bonhams Auctions

A classic 1927 Bentley 3-liter Speed Model Tourer with coachwork by Vanden Plas and painted a brilliant red will cross the block with an estimated worth of $170,000 to $250,000. A 1956 Bentley S-Series Continental Sports Saloon with shapely streamlined styling by H.J. Mulliner will also be offered, estimated at $470,000-570,000.

An unusual 1949 Bentley MKVI 4¼-Liter Countryman Shooting Brake with a woodie-wagon body by Harold Radford is valued at $120,000-150,000.

The 1987 Lamborghini LM 002, an over-the-top four-wheel-drive SUV known in the U.S. as “Rambo Lambo,” is valued at $130,000-200,000. One of just 328 LM 002s produced between 1986 and 1992, this one was originally owned by Italian racing driver Mario Ricci.

For more information about the Bonhams sale, visit the website at www.bomhams.com.

Secrets of the Chevrolet El Camino

1959 Chevrolet El Camino
1959 Chevrolet El Camino

Lately, Chevy has been in the business of either resurrecting or actually doing justice to nameplates of the past (see the new Impala, SS and Camaro).  Still in the wilderness, however, is the much-loved El Camino. Part car, part pickup, hope springs eternal that it might make a comeback. But until then, here are some things most people don’t know about it:

  • President Clinton Owned One: The 42nd President of the United States drove a 1970 El Camino with a bed lined in Astroturf. Enough said.
  • GM Still Builds It: Well, sort of. GM’s Australian division, Holden (which gave us two of the last great cars to wear the Pontiac badge, the G8 and the final GTO), builds the very El Camino-like Holden Ute, which is badged as a Chevy in the Middle East. Rumors persist that if the El Camino name returns to the U.S. for 2015, it will be based on this car.
  • It Had a Forgotten Twin: The GMC division offered the El Camino’s identical twin from 1971-87 under two names, the Sprint and Caballero.

    1979 Chevrolet El Camino
    1979 Chevrolet El Camino
  • Ford beat Chevord beat to the Punch: Ford often seemed to have the better idea first (the Mustang beat the Camaro to market, the Bronco beat the Blazer, etc.), and so it was with the Ranchero, the first post-war coupe utility to hit the market in 1957. But it was the more flamboyant El Camino, which debuted two years later in 1959, that really captured the public’s imagination. It outlasted the Ranchero, too, staying on the market for eight more model years.
  • It Could Embarrass Some Real Performance Cars: For a few model years during the horsepower wars, Chevy offered the El Camino with some of the high-performance engine options from the muscle car Chevelle. This reached its zenith in 1970, when a select few people actually ordered an El Camino with the famous LS6 option, which consisted of a 450-hp, 454-ci engine.  Capable of quarter-mile times of around 13 seconds, LS6 El Caminos are highly sought after today by collectors of American muscle.