Category archives: Features

Vehicle Profile: Black Panther Camaro

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While Ford was fighting off the early successes of the Chevrolet Corvair and Chevy II with their introduction of the Mustang in August of 1964, GM began work on a counter-punch experimental project named XP-836. The XP-836 project directly targeted the Ford Mustang mystique and the new youth market that emerged from almost nowhere in the eyes of GM marketers. The surprising popularly of Ford’s Mustang framed the XP-836 project from the very start and incorporated the “Mustang formula” in the early years of production.

In the winter of 1965, the XP-836 project turned out a prototype car based on some cobbled-up Chevy IIs. While crude, the new Chevrolet was shaping up to run well along side Ford’s Pony car. Now named the “Panther”, the project and the proto-types were written about in great length by the automotive press with all the excitement of a pending rivalry with the Mustang.

img-article-1Given a name that the public could latch onto, the “Panther” was quickly being promoted as GM’s Mustang-fighter. Sometimes called “Chevy’s Mustang” the “Panther” evolved conceptually using much of the Mustang marketing formula.

Now branded with the “Panther” script and leaping-cat emblems similar to that used by Jaguar, the proto-types advanced with an outward confidence that Chevrolet’s sleek new cat would be chasing down the Mustang. By early 1966, Ralph Nader was doing a hatchet job on the Corvair, and GM management sought to tone-down the image of their new car in hopes of not drawing the attention of safety crusaders with the aggressive “Panther” name.

Seeking a “clammier” image for the new car, the marketing department looked to their current line of Chevrolet monikers, the Corvair, Corvette, Chevelle, and Chevy II for inspiration. Desiring another “C” name brand, merchandising manager Bob Lund and GM Car & Truck Group vice-president Ed Rollert poured through French and Spanish dictionaries and came up with “Camaro”. Meaning, “warm friend”, the new name offered GM an excellent label to compliment the current Chevrolet line and introduce their new car with a much tamer image. Though the “Camaro” name was replacing the various project names the car had been developed under, outside the company some controversy over the meaning of the new name was causing a potential image problem for the new car. In an unprecedented national conference call with some 200 journalists, GM released the ” warm & friendly” Camaro name to the public ahead of the cars introduction to dealer showrooms. The effort was successful in quashing any “image killing” interpretations of the new Camaro moniker.

In 1967, amidst the phenomenal success of the Ford Mustang, General Motors pulled off a sensational introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro by delivering over 212,000 units to dealer showrooms that year. Keeping in fashion with the Mustang formula, the Camaro was offered with a laundry list of options at both the factory and dealer level. Camaro customers could custom build their own car with a host of options previously only available on Chevrolet’s higher-line models.

Desiring the same custom performance treatments being offered by Shelby America for the Mustang, Camaro enthusiasts looked to the dealerships in hopes of finding these performance options. Happily, the folks at Toronto-based Gorries Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealership answered the call to incorporate their race knowledge into the new Camaro. The result was the “Black Panther” Camaro.

Vehicle Profiles: Jeep Willys

1946 Jeep Willys

The versatile “JEEP” (or was it “GP”, short for general purpose vehicle or maybe even a nickname borrowed from Popeye’s sidekick of the same era), was the nickname given for the launch of the 4X4 vehicle which was designed and built by several of the WWII era automobile manufacturers of the time.  A venerable little vehicle, requested by the U.S. military leaders of the time, specifically for the troops to use during WWII. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “it was one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during WWII”, which he also credited with being a big part of the allied victory as a whole. In fact, even the Russians were so inspired by the useful small vehicle that they designed several variations of it shortly after the war, as did many other countries and manufacturers worldwide. No other vehicle in history has spawned so many descendants than, the little “Jeep” that could, of WWII history.

As convoluted a story as to who really gave it, its true beginnings, is the origin of the name JEEP. Several versions of where the now infamous name came from, range from a cartoon character named Popeye, who had a strange, yet clever little sidekick named Eugene the Jeep, who was small, jungle like, character who could maneuver quickly about and had the ability to solve the most difficult problems with ease. Or, possibly from sound of the U.S. Military designation of “GP”, which referred to general purpose or government purposes use. Or, was it the slang term, “Jeep”, which was commonly used by soldiers for any untried or untested piece of personnel or equipment, such as a new recruit, a new weapon or new field gear, etc. Whatever it was, it stuck and history has been made ever since the introduction of the 4WD “Jeep”. The world over has also recognized it as a symbol of rugged individualism, born by necessity, in the good old U.S. of A.

Back in July of 1940, the war in Europe was well under way when, the U.S. Army reached out to some 135 U.S. automobile manufacturers and challenged them to create, design and build a vehicle to some pretty daunting specifications. It had to be four wheel drive, be able to carry a crew of three, have a wheelbase of 75 inches (this was later changed to 80 inches) and a width (or track) of 47 inches, powered by an engine of at least 85 ft.lbf. of torque, have a fold-down windshield and able to carry a payload of at least 660 pounds.  Also requested, and possibly the most difficult criteria to meet, was the empty G.V.W. of 1,300 pounds.  Only three of the 135 companies felt they were up to this challenge and supplied bids to the U.S./ Army, they were Willys-Overland Motors, Ford Motor Company and American Bantam Car Company. Even though Bantam won the bid, all three companies actually manufactured their similar, yet individual designs of the vehicle for the Army, mainly due to the quantities they demanded and the extremely short time-frame in which they required finished products, in order to supply our troops and allies overseas.

By July of 1941, however, the U.S. War Department had decided to standardize the vehicle for ease of production, logistics and mainly for parts replacement out in the field. They ultimately chose the Willys model “MA” (Military Model A, mainly due to it’s more powerful 60 hp, 105 ft.lbf., “Go-Devil” engine) but had them incorporate the best design features of the three manufacturers into one new model, which they designated as the “MB” (for Military Model B). The rest, as they say, is history and over 647,000 of these “JEEP” type vehicles were produced during WWII by the three different companies. Most every 4WD vehicle of today can credit the innovations and versatility of the “JEEP” for their existence. And that’s the way we do it here in the good old U.S. of A.

Find a classic Jeep Willys that you love!

Vehicle Profile: Shelby GT500: Mustang at Full Gallop

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The Shelby GT500 more than lives up to its name.

Let’s start with its first name: Shelby. As in Carroll Shelby. As in bib overall-wearing, chili-cooking, Le Mans race-winning, Ford GT40 team-managing, Shelby Cobra-creating, Corvette-beating, Ferrari-beating, Viper-inspiring, Ford GT- godfathering, heart transplant-receiving, Barrett-Jackson auction feeding frenzy-causing Carroll Shelby himself.

Though the Shelby GT500 is built in a Ford Motor Company assembly plant and is not tweaked in Shelby’s own shop, Shelby was involved in the vehicle’s design and development and this pony deserves the Shelby name that’s branded across its rear flanks. Even Ford engineers will tell you that the reason this pony puts its power to the pavement is because of Shelby’s personal involvement in the project. In fact, the only place on the car where it says “Ford” is on the faux 1960s-style gas cap mounted between the rear tail lamps.

Middle name: GT. As in Ford Mustang GT, which is the donor chassis for this car. Though like Shelby himself, this chassis has undergone a heart transplant, which in the case of the car meant inserting a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 engine where the normally aspirated 4.6-liter V8 would have gone.

And now for the 500. As in five hundred horsepower! That’s right. This Shelbyized and supercharged version of the Mustang GT pumps out 200 more horsepower than the standard breed of this pony car platform.

And that’s not all. The Shelby GT500 also is equipped with 14-inch Brembo brakes – basically the same setup as the 200-mph Ford GT supercar – as well as track-tuned suspension pieces, some altered steering gear, traction control, a special front fascia, larger radiator, intercooler, front “splitter” and larger rear wing, white Le Mans stripes, 18-inch wheels with asymmetric tires – the rears put more rubber on the road so those 500 horses can be used more effectively.

There are changes to the interior, too, most notably — at least for driving enthusiasts — the swap of the locations of the speedometer and tachometer, so you can hold the wheel with your left hand and shift with your right and still see the tach.

Audio enthusiasts also will be delighted because the car comes with a 500-watt “Shaker” system with six-CD player and MP3 jack.

Oh, yes, the Shelby GT500 also comes only with a six-speed manual transmission. If you can’t drive a stick, you can’t drive this car. And this definitely is a car that enthusiasts will want to drive.

Although I have to admit, just driving it around town and cruising down the highway, I wondered if the car really did have 500 horsepower to offer. Why, I averaged 17 miles per gallon overall and was getting 21 on the highway.

Trust me, this car really does make 500 horsepower, and you feel it when you downshift to pass, or when you come off the line like a lightning bolt.

Work on the Shelby GT500 was done by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (many of the same people who had just finished crafting the Ford GT supercar), with Shelby participating in the design and engineering tweaks. Much of the on-track testing was done on the road course and drag strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Shelby’s shops are located.

Shelby himself took part in regular test drives and debriefs.

Shelby, of course, was responsible for the famed GT350 and GT500 Mustangs of the 1960s. The Shelby GT500 celebrates the 40th anniversary of those cars and marks his reunion with Ford, a reunion that also results in the Shelby GT and Shelby GT-H and soon will result in the beginning of production of the Shelby GT500KR, the King of the Road version of the GT500.

The Shelby GT, GT-H and KR all are or will be modified within Shelby’s own facility, and all are or will be available in limited numbers. On the other hand, the Shelby GT500 is produced in the same factory that builds all new Mustangs, and thus some 10,000 copies are available for the 2007 model year, with around 9000 planned for 2008 and another 9000 for 2009.

The car can be as docile to drive as a base Mustang V6, or as delightful as you’d expect a 500-horsepower pony car to be.

One thing I really liked about the car was that on those occasions when you’re simply cruising around town, you never have to worry about the stupid first-to-fourth transmission lockout that comes with another manually shifted American icon, the Chevrolet Corvette.

Another thing about the car that I appreciated was its seats, nicely bolstered for ripping around an autocross course but also very comfortable for long periods of freeway driving.

The rear seatback is split so either side or both can be folded down to expand the cargo floor. But even with the seat in its upright and locked position, the trunk has plenty of room for a couple of suitcases. Sure, no adult is ever going to want to sit in that back seat, but it’s there if you have children, pets or simply need a place to put a briefcase or gym bag.

Base price on the Shelby GT500 is in the low $40,000-range. Even with the unconscionable markup dealers are getting, this 500-horsepower pony represents a real bargain compared to the more than $69K it takes to get a 505-hp Corvette Z06 or the more than 80 grand it costs for a 510-hp Dodge Viper.

And did I mention that it lives up to its first, middle and last names?