Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the American Motors Corporation as a truly American enterprise. In 1983, Renault of France bought a controlling interest in the company, bringing to an end some of the most stunning shoestring budget innovation that the American auto industry had ever seen. Here are five of our favorite oddball AMCs:
John Kraman was raised in automobile crazy Los Angeles during the 1960s and he never grew out of his obsession with cars. He has been the full-time consignment director for Mecum Auctions since 2006. Since 2008 he also has been a commentator and analyst for television coverage of Mecum auctions. His personal collection of cars includes a 1964 Pontiac GTO, a 2014 Mustang GT, a 2010 Corvette C6 and he is looking at Hemi and Six Pack Mopars. He enjoys riding motorcycles and handling guitar/vocals for the classic rock band Redline 7000. Follow J.K. on Twitter at @CarKraman or watch John in action on NBC Sport’s coverage of the Mecum auctions.
I know you love design. Name three cars, one from each decade (’50s, ’60s and ’70s) that you feel that embodies wonderful design.
There are many automobiles from the ’50s to ’70s that are considered landmark designs. However, a few truly define and represent pinnacle status for their time.
The ’50s saw a rapid evolution of both performance and design featuring lavish chrome and towering tail fins. I feel the 1959 Cadillac is the ultimate example of this era because of it’s almost comical proportions. Cutting edge and trendy when new, and almost immediately considered out of fashion after a few years, the 59′ Cad today is highly regarded as the icon of the Atomic Age.
In the 1960s, with the emerging Baby Boomers starting to drive, the debut of the Ford Mustang in April 1964 was nothing short of sensational. Here was the perfect design and price point for appeal to the youth market and was received with record sales. In fact over one million Mustangs were sold by 1966 and established a legend that continues in production today.
My favorite design from the 1970s is the Pontiac Trans Am. With engine performance on the decline Pontiac refined the handling/braking and wrapped it all in a wild package with spoilers, stripes, decals, and that giant “Screaming Chicken” hood graphic! Of course as the star of the hit movie, Smokey and The Bandit, the TA was exposed to a huge audience with sales peaking just under 100,000 sold in 1979.
If money is no object, name three cars you would park in your dream garage.
Classic American Muscle is my No. 1 love! My 3 choices are all from 1969 and represent the wildest performance cars available at that time from the Big Detroit 3. First up I’d choose a Dodge Charger 500 (or Daytona) with the mighty 426 Hemi, then a 427 ZL1 COPO Camaro (only 69 built), and finally a Boss 429 Mustang.
Would you drive those dream cars or keep them parked?
All three would be kept tuned up and ready to rumble with a twist of the key. Drive them? Absolutely!
Auction myth or reality: “When the top goes down does the price go up?”
Reality. Convertibles are regarded as the most valuable versions of vintage cars with only a few exceptions. The 1963 Corvette Split Window Coupe is worth more than the Convertible and the Mustang 2+2 Fastbacks from ’65-’66 are rapidly reaching the values of the Convertibles.
What do you feel makes the collector vehicle hobby such a “fraternity”? Does it transcend socioeconomic status? In other words: Will a rich car guy talk shop with the average Joe?
It seems to me that the fraternity exists between fans of the same brands! Not unlike sports rivalries, many enthusiasts are extremely loyal to their brands and do not discriminate for economic reasons. Try putting a Camaro and Mustang fan together for a discussion and see what happens!
The original air-cooled VW Beetle lasted an incredible 58 years in production, during which time it was fundamentally unchanged. It’s a record that will likely never be approached, let alone broken. Although nearly everyone of a certain age has at least one Beetle story or fond memory, there are a few things still not generally known about the beloved car. Here are five of our favorites:
- The original classic Beetle didn’t leave production until 2003: Although it was last sold in the U.S. in 1979 (by which time the water-cooled Rabbit had replaced it), the original air-cooled Beetle was produced in Puebla, Mexico, until 2003. It’s essentially identical to the cars produced in Germany for export to the U.S. in the 1970s, but it is illegal to try to import a Mexican Beetle into the U.S. because they don’t comply with recent emissions and safety laws.
- It was conceived by an infamous dictator: The original Beetle was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler. Keen to put ordinary Germans on the newly constructed autobahn superhighways in their own cars, a subsidized savings plan involving a coupon booklet was devised. When a family filled their booklet, they were supposed to get their car. WWII intervened and all pre-war Beetle deliveries were limited to Nazi party officials. Private owners didn’t get their hands on a Beetle until after the war.
- Germans don’t remember it as fondly as we do: The connection with the dictator who brought ruin to their country as well as the fact that it serves as a reminder of the lean times before the West German economic miracle took hold means that post-war Germans don’t have the same warm and fuzzy feelings about the Beetle that American ex-hippies do.
- The Beetle will float: The Beetle may have been inexpensive, but it was never cheap. Gaps were tight and doors sealed well. Additionally, it was a unibody car with a very flat floor with few openings. All of this meant that the car would actually float for at least several minutes after hitting the water before turning into a small U-boat.
- Subject of groundbreaking ad campaign: The Beetle was the subject of one of the most influential ad campaigns of the 20th century. Most recently lampooned on the TV show “Mad Men,” it was among the first national campaigns to utilize irony and self-deprecating wit. A tiny black-and-white photo of a Beetle in a sea of white space with only the headline “Think Small” was the first of the ads introduced in 1959 by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.
Once again, you’re at an auction (in this case, it’s a Silver Auction) and you can afford to bring home only one of these classics. Your choice involves 1957 models from two of Detroit’s upscale brands — a two-tone green Buick Century and a red-and-white Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. Which one do you want, and why?
One of America’s favorite pony cars, the Camaro has an interesting past with more than a few buried facts and secrets hiding just below the radar. Here are five of our favorites:
- The Camaro was almost called the Panther — It took a while for Chevrolet to come up with a final name for the Camaro. For quite some time it was referred to internally as the Chevrolet Panther. In end, Chevy’s preference for names beginning with a “C” won out, and the Panther name died as part of an elaborate PR campaign.
- The Camaro was actually a Canadian Import — Like William Shatner and Michael J. Fox, the seemingly All-American Camaro was actually stealth Canadian. From 1993-2002, the Camaro and its twin, the Pontiac Firebird, were built in St. Thérèse, Quebec, a Montreal suburb.
- “Camaro” means nothing — The name was actually a contrived moniker, much like “Camry” and “Corolla.” Although some claim that it is French slang for “friend,” neither the GM product people (nor most French-speakers, for that matter) are aware of this.
- “Outpaced” the Mustang — Although the Camaro came 2½ years after the Mustang and was often outsold by the Mustang, it has a healthy lead in the Indianapolis 500. The Camaro has been the official pace car at Indy six times, versus just three for the Mustang. Only the Corvette (12) has paced more 500s than the Camaro.
- Current Base V-6 Puts V-8s of old to shame — Amazing as it may seem, the 2013 base six-cylinder engine, at 323 hp, puts out more ponies than the most powerful small-block V-8 in the original car (295 hp). In fact, it probably makes nearly as much power as the fiercest big block V-8 of 1967, the 396 cubic inch, 375 hp. In modern “net horsepower” (measured with mufflers and accessories hooked up), the new six and the old big-block V-8 are probably just about even.
Exotic styling. Limited production numbers. Breakthrough technology. Outstanding dynamic dexterity. Fun to drive. Bonus points if the top goes down or can be removed.
Each of those is an attribute that applies for separating mere used cars from desirable classic cars. And each of those attributes applies to our suggested Future Classic for this week. That car is the Tesla Roadster.
Exotic styling: Although they may share only 6 percent of their components, the Tesla Roadster was pretty much based on the Lotus Elise.
Limited production: Tesla reportedly built fewer than 2,500 of the electric-powered two-seat sports cars.
Breakthrough technology: Did you read that previous sentence? “Electric-powered.” At first, Tesla used AC Propulsion’s electric power train, but then it developed its own state-of-the-art system.
Outstanding dynamic dexterity: Try zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds, and that’s only in a straight line. With mid-rear “engine” architecture and rear-wheel drive, the Tesla Roadster can turn nicely as well.
Fun to drive: Duh, plus nearly 245 miles of range on a charge (well, depending on just how heavy you are with your right foot).
Bonus points: Yes, the top can be removed.
Automobile magazine reported that the Tesla Roadster “exploded off the line, pulling like a small jet plane… like driving a Lamborghini with a big V12 revved over 6,000 rpm at all times, waiting to pounce (but) without the noise, vibration, or misdemeanor arrest for disturbing the peace.”
“Why? Despite the flat-out sprints, the drag racing, the donuts, the top-speed runs, and dicing through traffic like there’s a jet pack strapped to the trunk, Pacific Gas and Electric—which generated power for the Tesla—released into the atmosphere the same amount of carbon dioxide as would a gasoline-powered car getting 99 mpg. And the Roadster didn’t break. It didn’t smoke, lock up, freeze, or experience flux-capacitor failure.
“Over the past ten decades, no company has been able to reinvent the car — not General Motors with the EV1, not Toyota with the Prius. And now, a bunch of dudes from Silicon Valley have created an electric car that really works — as both an environmental fix and a speed fix.”
A Future Classic, indeed.
Silver Auctions’ March sale at Fountain Hills, Ariz., included 191 vehicles. Among them were a couple of post-war American luxury cars. Given your choice, would you bid on the 1947 Cadillac Club Coupe (blue car) or 1948 Lincoln Continental (red car)? Which would you want in your garage? Tell us why via the “Share your comments” box below.
Editor’s note: As part of the centennial of its historic 1-2-3 sweep of the 1914 French Grand Prix, Mercedes-Benz has provided the following summary of its 120-year history in auto racing competition and the accompanying photos:
From history’s first automobile race in 1894 to its various contemporary involvements in motor sports, victories by the racing and rally cars from Merceds-Benz are a testimony to innovative technology, the drivers’ will to win and efficient teamwork.
Outstanding moments in the brand’s racing history include:
- participation in the world’s first car race in 1894,
- the first Grand Prix victory of a Mercedes at the Nice Race Week in 1901,
- the 1-2-3 finish of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in the Grand Prix of Lyon in 1914,
- the age of the supercharged cars after 1922,
- above all, the era of the Silver Arrows before and after the Second World War
These, as well as rally races and several record-setting speed runs, are the foundations of the current success in Formula 1, the DTM (German Touring Car Masters) and customer sport.
“Involvement in motor sport cannot be seen in isolation from the work that is being done every day in laboratories, workshops and factory buildings,” Mercedes said in its 120 years of racing news release.
“There are close links between motor sport and first-class products in all other areas that work in both directions: knowledge gained from the development of competition vehicles is transferred to series production – and vice versa.
Many technical innovations that open up new avenues in automotive engineering have their roots in pioneering developments from motor sport engineers.” — Mercedes-Benz
Many technical innovations that open up new avenues in automotive engineering have their roots in pioneering developments from motor sport engineers.”
“In a broader context, this mutual exchange still applies today… Engineering expertise in motor sport pairs up with the passion for sporting competition. Customer preferences and markets are changing in the global environment and the company constantly adapts to these changes. Many technical innovations that open up new avenues in automotive engineering have their roots in pioneering developments from motor sport engineers…
“Without the backing of the team and the brand neither the best drivers nor the best racing cars can win. In motor sports every race therefore demonstrates anew that it is the collective input that makes the difference between success and failure. The team, the technology and the tactics must dovetail smoothly.
“Consequently the significance and fascination of the races does not end with the checkered flag: a brand that fully commits itself to motor sports and wins victories worldwide as Mercedes-Benz does promotes its products far beyond the confines of the racing circuit. This is zat Mercedes-Benz and was also appreciated by its predecessor brands: the Benz annual report of 1907/08 stated: “We consider the extra cost of racing an absolute necessity to defend the position befitting our make in international competition.”
Mercedes’ anniversary news release notes that auto racing was born 120 years ago in France, and that the “System Daimler” – a two-cylinder V-engine built in France under license from Gottlieb Daimler’s original plans – powered the victorious automobiles from Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor. Vehicles powered by Daimler engines took the top positions in the world’s first races from Paris to Rouen (1894) and Paris–Bordeaux–Paris (1895).
Soon, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) and Benz & Cie. were involved in racing, with the first Mercedes winning at the Nice Race Weeks in 1901-1903 and that the 200-hp Benz racing car — the famed “Blitzen Benz” (Lightning Benz) was the first automobile to break the 200 km/h (125-mph) speed barrier, which it did in 1909.
DMG won the Grand Prix in Dieppe in 1908, with a pair of cars from Benz finishing second and third (the companies were rivals at this point, but later would merge). DMG also posted the first 1-2-3 sweep of a race in 1914 in the French Grand Prix at Lyon.
The amalgamation of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and Benz & Cie. in 1926 to form Daimler Benz AG also merged the successful motor sport activities of the two brands. This era of the late 1920s was dominated by the supercharged Mercedes-Benz sports cars, which won all major events.
The S-Series cars were known as the “White Elephants.” Next came the famed Silver Arrows, with Rudolf Caracciola driving a short-wheelbase SSK to victory in the Mille Miglia in 1931.
The era of the Silver Arrows lasted from the 1930s to 1955, interrupted by the Second World War. Brand historians use the name Silver Arrows to refer to a whole family of racing cars, record-breaking vehicles and racing sports cars .
Before the war Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows dominated the European Grands Prix. In 1952, the brand returned to motor sport with the 300 SL racing sports car. Formula One championships were produced in 1954 and 1955 and the sports car world championship was added in 1955.
To focus on the development of new passenger cars, the Stuttgart-based brand withdrew from motor sport for several years. However, private teams, with support from Mercedes-Benz, continued racing and had a strong presence on the international victory podiums. A range of different vehicles made their mark in various competitions: in the early 1960s, the “Tailfin” saloons and the 230 SL dominated international rallying. The G-Model won the Paris–Dakar rally in 1983. Heavy-duty commercial vehicles from Mercedes-Benz were equally successful at rally races, endurance runs, and in the European Truck Racing Championship.
In addition to these racing cars and racing sports cars, the company produced record-breaking vehicles. Some were based on research vehicles, such as the C 111 (C 111–II D of 1976 to C 111–IV of 1979). Others were derived from production vehicles, such as the 1983 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16, which set three world records and nine best-in-class records in Nardò in southern Italy.
In the late 1980s, Mercedes-Benz returned to circuit motor sport and won two Group C racing sports car world championships. At the same time, the brand also competed in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) and later in the International Touring Car Championship (ITC). Between 1986 and 1996 Mercedes-Benz won three championships and was runner-up four times.
Since 2000, Mercedes-Benz has competed in the reorganized DTM, racing to overall victory in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2006. In 2003, the team claimed the first three places, with Bernd Schneider as the overall champion. Mercedes-Benz repeated this triumph in the 2010 season with Paul di Resta as the winner.
After celebrating major victories in Group C racing and in the DTM in the early 1990s, Mercedes-Benz returned to Formula 1 in 1994 – at first via the teams Sauber-Mercedes (1994) and McLaren-Mercedes (since 1995). During this period world championship titles were won by Mika Häkkinen twice (1998 and 1999) and Lewis Hamilton once (2008) and Team West-McLaren-Mercedes won a constructors’ title (1998). Mercedes-Benz also finished as the runner-up 10 times.
A new era dawned in 2010: Mercedes-Benz returned to Formula 1 with its own works team.
The following are 10 major moments in the early history of Mercedes-Benz’ involvement in motorsports:
Photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz
As any Pontiac enthusiast would tell you, the 1964 Pontiac GTO was never supposed to happen. The legend of how the groundbreaking muscle car came to exist against all odds will be told time and again this year as the performance icon celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Although there were muscle cars that came before, the 1964 Pontiac Tempest Lemans GTO is credited with starting the trend of sporty, youth-oriented performance cars from Detroit that ruled during the tumultuous 1960s. GTO is what sparked the muscle car wars among the major U.S. brands.
But to bring the original 1964 GTO to market, Pontiac had to sneak it under the conservative noses of General Motors management and deliver the cars to dealers without official approval. The whole story is told in Glory Days, the autobiography by Pontiac’s acclaimed marketing guru, Jim Wangers.
Wangers is now known as the Godfather of the GTO, not because he invented the car but because of his aggressive marketing campaign that made everybody sit up and take notice. One of the important personalities who helped Pontiac come back from its near demise during the 1950s, Wangers was instrumental in building Pontiac’s image as General Motors’ style and performance division.
Pontiac finally was axed from GM’s lineup in October 2010 after a decline that Wangers blames on poor management that lost sight of Pontiac’s “excitement” mission.
Wangers credits the creation of the GTO to a trio of inspired Pontiac engineers: Bill Collins, Russ Gee and the remarkable John DeLorean, who would soon head the GM division. Their template was the redesigned Tempest, Pontiac’s smallest car.
“The idea of stuffing a big engine into a smaller or lighter-weight car was hardly original,” said Wangers in a telephone interview with ClassicCars.com. “The aftermarket had been doing it for years. But we were the first manufacturer to do it on a production basis.”
The key ingredient was replacing the Tempest Lemans’ standard 326-cubic-inch V8 with a 389 that produced 325 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque in 1964, or 348 horsepower with the Tri-Power option. The GTO came with trendy Redline performance tires, hood “scoops” and a bold GTO badge on the left side of its grille. A number of styling and performance options were also available.
Timing was everything with the original GTO, Wangers said, with a burgeoning population of young people who were looking to break away from the old ways of doing things, including driving.
“They were on a quest for personal mobility and for personal mobility with a little fun and a little enthusiasm,” Wangers said. “Then along came a set of wheels that was pretty exciting. A set of wheels that was not just exciting but reasonably priced. That’s really what combined to offer us the opportunity to move so aggressively in that direction.”
But that direction was not so obvious to the corporate heads of GM, who had earlier imposed strict rules and regulations that limited engine size and horsepower to all but the automaker’s biggest land yachts. The idea of producing an intermediate-size performance model with a large, powerful engine was heretical.
GM was also under pressure from the government because the company commanded so much of the automotive market in the 1950s, about 55 percent in the days before significant numbers of imports arrived on the scene.
“So GM management was always concerned with their bigness and their aggressiveness. The last thing they wanted to do was to go out and promote performance,” Wangers said. “Promoting fun driving to young people could have been considered to be socially irresponsible; here’s GM trying to kill our kids with these high-performance cars.”
In the spirit of the rebellious 1960s, the Pontiac people took secret advantage of a loophole in GM’s rulebook that would allow them to offer the car not as a separate model but as an options package for the Tempest Lemans. That way, they could stay under the radar as they introduced this new kind of performance car to the public without waiting for approval from the higher ups.
“So the cars were in the hands of the dealers, 5,000 of them, before the corporation ever knew that it existed,” Wangers said. “For one of the divisions to sneak, so to speak, a special car into the market, it couldn’t be done today. In this case, we had control over some of our assembly activities.
“We didn’t initially inform the corporation, and they first heard about it from the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile divisions, because when the Pontiac dealers got their hands on these cars, the first thing they did was take it over to their buddies at the Olds or Chevy or Buick dealership and said, ‘Hey, look what I got.’”
When the GM honchos found out about the ruse, they summoned the Pontiac guys to headquarters to explain themselves.
“They gave us 30 days to put together our presentation,” Wangers recalled. “Well, during that 30-day period after the car went into the field, the dealers had quite an experience when Pontiac got more than 15,000 orders for the new car. The dealers got one or two depending on the size of the dealership, and when they realized what they had, they turned around and said, ‘Hey, get us 10 more of these.’
“When we showed that to the corporation, our meeting was over. They said, ‘Well this is ridiculous, we’re sure not going to kill that.’ Then they turned to Chevrolet, Buick and Olds and said, ‘OK, you can have one, too.’”
Pontiac would sell more than 32,000 GTOs during the 1964 model year.
GTO would stand alone for a year before the other GM divisions introduced their competing versions of midsize muscle cars. Pontiac had been able to quickly design and introduce the GTO, Wangers said, because the stock 326cid V8 in the Tempest Lemans had the same block as the 389cid, including the motor mounts, making it simple to install the bigger-displacement engine.
But for the other divisions, their bigger performance engines were entirely different from the standard engines, requiring re-engineering of such things as the motor-mount locations.
“Stuffing that bigger Pontiac engine into that intermediate size car was not a problem. But when Chevrolet, Olds and Buick went to work and tried to duplicate that, they realized that they had different engines with completely different sets of motor mounts,” Wangers said. “So even though they had muscle car answers to the GTO in the model year 1964, it wasn’t until well into 1965 before they appeared with the bigger engine in an intermediate car.”
Ford and Chrysler also would respond in the ensuing years, and the horsepower wars were on.
At 88, Wangers is having a busy year traveling around the country for appearances at GTO club events and other anniversary celebrations. He already has been hosted by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, Calif., for exclusive speaking engagements.
“I was fortunate enough to be there and live through it,” he said. “There are not too many of us left.”
Tom Szymczyk, the editor of The Legend Magazine – the official publication of the GTO Association of America – said he’s looking forward to Wangers’ appearance at the GTOAA Convention from July 1-5 at the Monroeville Convention Center in Monroeville, Pa.
“We’re making a big birthday party out of it,” Szymczyk said of the national convention.
By the way, it was John DeLorean who came up with the name GTO, taking the letters from the iconic Ferrari 250 GTO race car, which stirred protests from Ferrari enthusiasts and sports-racing fans. For the Ferrari, GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omologato, Italian for Grand Tourer Homologated for that racing class.
The Pontiac GTO wasn’t a race car, per se, though it was raced a lot from stop lights. But the name was an inspired move. GTO quickly became synonymous with Pontiac performance for American drivers, and it still rings true today.