Category archives: Vehicle Profiles

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

Vehicle Profile: Lamborghini Diablo VT

The 1st-gen Lamborghini “Diablo VT” was breathtaking to behold and is arguably one of the most beautiful, sexy and extremely-fast, exotic-supercars ever produced! This over-the-top, almost-as-fast-as-a-speeding-bullet, as aerodynamically perfect as anything earthbound could be, fire-breathing beast was designed by the infamous and proud Marcello Gandini, who had also designed the two predecessors in line to the “Diablo”, the Miura and the Countach.  The “Diablo” moniker was drawn from Spanish history and was the name of a famously ferocious, 19th century, fighting bull, which was owned and raised by the “Duke of Veragua”, who also happened to be the grandson and heir of Christopher Columbus! The edict was sent from the top brass at the time (around June of 1985) to design a vehicle that could reach a top speed of 315km/hr (approx. 196 mph, for us metrically challenged folk) and yet meet all the new (and ever increasing) emissions standards and safety regulations of the day. Rumor has it, that after the Chrysler Corporation had taken over ownership of Lamborghini in 1987, (which was right in the midst of designing the “Diablo”) they frowned at the angular design of the new model ( maybe to much like the Countach?) and had their designers in Detroit take a hand at smoothing-out the aggressive angles by massaging the bodywork into a more curvaceous look.

Zero to 60 mph took just over 4 seconds and handling was unbelievably well-controlled, even under the most lead-footed of handlers, due to the perfectly-balanced weight distribution of the rear-facing, mid-engine and “VT” all-wheel-drive system, which automatically/electronically (or manually, depending on how the driver had the controls set) switched traction to the front wheels in the instance the rear wheels broke loose. Even though the “Diablo” overall was larger, wider, stronger and thus heavier than the “Countach”, it was still the fastest production car in the world at the time of it’s debut in 1990. The body was uniquely designed as well, using steel, composite and aluminum panels and retained those tell-tale Lamborghini “scissor-style” doors which opened straight up and angled forward out of the way. The new Lamborghini “Diablo” was also outfitted with more creature comforts and refinements than ever before but remained an icon of all that is Italian in supercar motoring and still draws a crowd every time one is seen in public.

Vehicle Profile: Chevrolet Camaro

Chevrolet Camaro

Sometime during April of 1965, long before any official announcement was made by General Motors’ Chevrolet Division, reports had begun circulating that Chevrolet was preparing to build a vehicle code-named “Panther” in the newly identified Pony/Musclecar category. This mysterious new vehicle was intended to compete directly with the highly successful Ford Mustang. The Ford Mustang was introduced in late 1964, as a “new for” 1965 model, and received rave reviews and huge sales numbers. Not to be outdone . . . GM had an ace up their sleeve to face this Ford rival, head on.

Chevrolet sent the first of two telegrams to 200+ automotive journalists on June 21, 1966, announcing their plans for the “Panther”, using very mysterious language. The first telegram read something to the effect of: “Please save noon of June 28, 1966 for important S.E.P.A.W. meeting. Hope you can be on hand to help. Details will follow .” The telegram was signed by John L. Cutter, Chevrolet Public Relations and S.E.P.A.W. Secretary. On the following day, the same group of journalists received another telegram to the effect of: “Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World will hold first and last meeting on June 28. The (insert city name here) chapter will meet at (insert hotel name here) joining in a national 14 city live telephone conference with Detroit based , Chevrolet General Manager, E. M. “Pete” Estes. Please R.S.V.P. by telephone, etc….”.  This second telegram was also signed by John L. Cutter. Both of the telegrams left many automotive journalists puzzled at the time because none of them had ever heard of S.E.P.A.W. before the two telegrams were sent.

By June 28th, the industry was buzzing with anticipation and excitement about this big, strange meeting. Chevrolet’s General Manager, Pete Estes, would have some fun with this secretive game and make the announcement himself. Now, back in 1966, they used quite a cutting edge means of reaching more people collectively, in the Automotive Journalism society, than ever before possible. Rather than forcing all the 200+ journalists to make a trip to Detroit, GM utilized a new technological advancement by the Bell Telephone Company called two-way conference calling. It was the first time in history that 14 cities were connected together in real time for a press conference via telephone.

After a brief speech about how well things were going for General Motors and how they intended to remain the number one automotive manufacturer in the USA, Mr. Estes then said “Oh yes! I almost forgot! The purpose of this meeting! . . . Gentlemen, as much as we appreciate the tremendous publicity given “Panther” we ask you to help scratch the cat once and forever. And as such, this will be both the FIRST and the LAST meeting of S.E.P.A.W.! Chevrolet has chosen a name which is lithe, graceful, and in keeping with our other car names beginning with the letter “C”, it suggests the comradeship of good friends, as a personal car should be to its owner! Above all, it is the name of our new car line to be introduced on September 29, 1966! To us, at GM, the name means just what we think the car will do . . . GO! ….and here it is!”

At that moment, five beautiful girls came onto the stage, each holding a letter, while Mr. Estes held the sixth letter. While a narrator described to the out-of-towners, that could not see what was going on, Mr. Estes placed each girl in order and then lined up with them for all to see the word CAMARO. There was excitement and amazement and yet many were still puzzled at what it meant and what exactly was a CAMARO? The Product Managers, who fielded the many questions after the announcement about this peculiar, yet immediately likable name, only said (as smug as possible), it is “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs”.

And so, later that year, on Sept. 12, 1966 in Detroit, MI, the new Camaro was unveiled to rave reviews and an eagerly awaiting public hungry for their own GM produced pony/musclecar. And, as stated at the mysterious meeting back in June, the cars were available at Chevrolet Dealerships across the country on or about Sept. 29,1966.

Alrighty then… now for some details about the First Generation (1967 to 1969) Camaro or F-Body (a platform also shared with the new Pontiac Firebird) which was a built on a front-engined, rear-wheel drive platform and only available as a 2-door coupe or convertible. A wide variety of engines were available, ranging from the 230-cid L6 to the ultra rare optioned ZL1 (only 69 were ever made and only for the 1969 year model), drag-race ready, aluminum block 427-cid, big-block V8, or COPO 9560 (Central Office Production Orders) package, which added over $4,000 to the sticker price, which was a lot of money back then. But oh, what fun it must have been to stuff your foot into that one. There were actually over a dozen (14) different engines available during the first three years of Camaro production and some were only available to a choice few specifically for racing purposes.

Some of the available options, such as the RS, was an appearance package that included hidden headlights, revised taillights, RS badging, and exterior rocker trim. The SS, which included a 350-cid V8 engine or the optional L35 and L78 396-cid big-block V8 was also available in SS package. The SS also featured non-functional air inlets on the hood, special striping and SS badging on the grille, front fenders, gas cap, and horn button.  It was even possible to order both the SS and RS packages together to make a Camaro RS/SS. In 1967, a Camaro RS/SS convertible with a 396-cid V8 engine, paced the Indianapolis 500.

The Z28 option code which was introduced in December 1966 for the 1967 model year was the brainchild of Vince Piggins. He conceived offering a virtually race-ready Camaro which could be offered for sale from any Chevrolet dealer. This option package was not mentioned in any sales literature, so it was unknown to most buyers and dealers for that matter. The Z28 option required power front disc brakes and a Muncie 4-speed manual transmission be installed on these models. It also featured a 302-cid small-block V8 engine, an aluminum intake manifold, and a 4-barrel, vacuum-secondary Holley carburetor. Only 602 Z28s were sold in 1967, along with approximately 100 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car Replicas. The origin of the Z28 nameplate came from the RPO (Regular Production Option) codes – RPO Z27 was for the Super Sport package, and RPO Z28, at the time, was the code for a Special Performance Package intended to compete in the Trans Am racing series of the day. Many Camaro’s are raced, and very successfully I might add, in various forms and venues all over the world to this day.

There have been five generations in the life of the Camaro, with a brief hiatus in production from 2003 to 2009, with the awesome, retro-looking fifth generation Camaro making it’s debut in 2010. During the First Generation production run from 1967 to 1969, a total of 699,538 Camaros were made. You know what that means . . . there is a good chance that your favorite model, options and color are still out there and available for purchase .

Oh, hey, did I ever answer the question of the meaning of the Camaro name? When pressed for an answer, over a year later (sometime in 1967), as to how he came up with the name Camaro (which actually means friend, pal or comrade) from a list of over 2,000 words of which to choose, Mr. Estes laughed and casually admitted, “I locked myself in a closet and came back out with Camaro”!

Vehicle Profile: The Scarab

1958 Scarab

One of the most successful, purpose-built race cars in American history has to be the legendary, Reventlow Automobile’s Scarab.  Named America’s Finest Sports Car by the influential “Road and Track” magazine, this beautifully sculpted, aluminum bodied race car was born in the mind of an amazingly talented young man named Count Lawrence Graf von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow (or Lance Reventlow, as he preferred to be known).

Born in 1936, he was the only child of Danish nobleman Count Kurt von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow and American socialite Barbara Hutton. He was born at Winfield House in London, which was built by his mother and named for her grandfather Frank Winfield Woolworth who created immense wealth with his chain of stores by the name of F.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime. His parents’ marriage was a tumultuous one, filled with his father’s emotional and physical abuse of both Lance and his mother, along with his mother’s growing alcohol and drug addiction.

Barbara Hutton, who had inherited the Woolworth department store fortune and was also the daughter of the extremely successful Franklin Laws Hutton of E.F. Hutton fame, was then one of the wealthiest women in the world. The marriage to the Count, Barbara Hutton’s second of seven, did not last and young Lance became the subject of a bitter custody battle. Left to be raised by nannies and boarding schools, Lance Reventlow was six years old when his mother married the world-famous actor, Cary Grant, who took the already troubled boy under his wing. Reventlow’s mother and Grant, unfortunately, divorced on July 11, 1945 and two days later the then nine-year-old was abducted by his biological father and taken to Canada but later returned. Grant remained close to Reventlow, who spent a great deal of time in the Los Angeles area. In fact, by the age of 30, Lance’s mother had been married and divorced a total of seven times.

Given his tumultuous upbringing and fortunate, young Lance had a love for all things mechanical and especially fast cars, racing and airplanes. On a trip to Europe in 1957, with his friend Bruce Kessler, they enjoyed touring all the race venues, renting race cars and even entering a few events. They visited all the top European race factories, including the very successful Cunningham Team’s Lister-Jaguar headquarters. Lance, then 21 years old, saw nothing they were doing in Europe, that couldn’t be done back home in the USA. So he decided to get back to California and start his own racing company. Upon his return home, he immediately set up his company, Reventlow Automobiles, in (Venice) North Hollywood, CA and told his chief mechanic and good friend, Warren Olson, to hire a Dream Team of the best designers and builders of the time to create the race car he had envisioned in his mind, specifically with the idea to beat the big boys from Europe at their own game.

His team, which included the likes of former Kurtis fabricators Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes and engine guru’s Jim Travers and Frank Coon, who would later form TRACO. Lance also called on the help of legendary racer and designer Ken Miles to design the chassis. The final piece of the puzzle was Chuck Daigh, who was hired as both a driver and drivetrain specialist. Lance had one big advantage over the European sourced competition . . . he could build a car specifically for American style stop and go racetracks, which were quite different than their much faster European counterparts.

With this in mind, he asked for a race car that was compact, lightweight and above all, able to put its power to the ground very well. Inspired by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, Ken Miles penned a design for a space-aged frame with enough room for Olson and his men to make their own mechanical design interpretations. The suspension was equally advanced with double wishbones at the front and DeDion axle at the rear. Making an American built race car meant he had to make a compromise and use drum brakes instead of the superior British disc brake systems. The only inconsistency, or non-American component, was the Morris sourced rack-and-pinion steering gear.

The very American Corvette V8 formed the basis for the Scarab’s powerplant. Although by the time Travers and Coon were done with the engine, it was a very different beast altogether. The first order of business was to increase displacement from the original 4.6L (283 c.i.) to 5.5L (339 c.i.) by boring and stroking the little V8. The enlarged displacement engine was even equipped with the advanced-design Hilborn FI unit and the intake manifold sported eight very stylish intake trumpets splayed at all different angles. With all these modifications in place, the V8 was good for anywhere between 360 and 385 bhp, most of which was available from very low rpm’s. The engine was then mated to a Borg-Warner 4-speed gearbox, which had a lightweight aluminum casing. An amazingly curvaceous, aluminum body was styled by then 19-year old Art Center school student Chuck Pelly, which rounded off the sexy package. The completed machine weighed in at a very competitive 1,900 pounds.

The very first prototype, dubbed the MK1, rolled out of the garage early in 1958, incredibly, only a few short months after the team had been assembled and was named Scarab. The name, chosen by Lance himself, was in reference to the Scarab dung beetle of Egypt, which was considered sacred in ancient times. Although not immediately successful, by June of 1958 and for many years after, the Scarabs dominated the racing world and even beat the previously dominant European teams, here in the USA, at some of the most famous venues and exciting races of all time. Scarabs were successfully piloted over the following years by such greats as Carroll Shelby and Augie Pabst (When Lance exited the racing scene in 1962, he leased his facility to Mr. Shelby).

Tragedy surrounded Lance much of his young life and early in his career.  He had became close friends with fellow auto enthusiast and promising actor, James Dean. They even competed in club events all around California and on September 30, 1955 Lance was one of the last people to speak to Dean, when they met on their way to an auto race in Salinas CA. Dean was killed a few hours later in his racing Porsche 550 Spyder.

In 1964, Lance married ex-Mouseketeer, Cheryl Holdridge, who was introduced to him by close friend, singer Jimmy Boyd. The couple managed to remain out of the glare of publicity for several years and attempted to carry on a somewhat normal life. An avid Alpine skier, hiker, sailor and pilot, Lance and his wife,Cheryl, maintained a home in Aspen, CO. It was there, in 1972, while looking at an area to build a ski resort with real estate brokers and an inexperienced young pilot, Lance’s promising young life of only 36 years, would be cut short. According to the NTSB report, Lance was a passenger in a Cessna 206 and unknown to him (Lance was a fully rated instrument, multi engine, commercial pilot with thousands of hours under his belt) the Cessna’s pilot was an inexperienced 27-year-old student who flew into a blind canyon and stalled the aircraft while trying to turn it around. The small plane plunged to the ground, killing Lance Reventlow and all others aboard.

Stay tuned to see “Part 2″, the future of the awesome Scarab automobile…..

Vehicle Profile: The Scarab – Part 2

Thanks to the efforts, admiration, fond memories and sheer determination of Mr. Richard Kitzmiller, president and founder of Kansas based Scarab Motorsports, LLC, (www.scarab-motorsports.com) the amazingly successful, Holy Grail of America Racing History and the original 1958 creation of young Lance Reventlow has been born again. He wanted to remain as close to the original design as possible (by making only a few safety and structural upgrades) in order to honor and maintain the integrity and historical significance of a true legend, which had been created by the vehicle’s designers some 50 years ago.

Mr. Kitzmiller, as Lance had done, assembled a group of rabid motorsports enthusiasts, engineers and designers. They collaborated to re-create, from the original specifications, a modernized continuation line of Scarab front engined race cars for your enjoyment on the street or track. He successfully revived, in true form, the very cars that dominated the racing world, tracks and teams of their hey-day.

Every aspect of the original masterpiece has been painstakingly re-created with only a few modernization updates. These minor updates (which are actually major when compared to the antiquated components used on the originals), are mainly for structural and safety reasons, as well as to utilize current technology. They are, however, difficult to detect from the original by the average admirer, but are easy to spot by a trained professional or a concours judge. These continuation Scarabs are built to exacting specifications and include a strong foundation consisting of a hand-built, tig-welded 4130 Chrom-Moly tube frame, Corvette C-6 uprights and hubs, fitted with custom upper and lower control arms, Wilwood 4-piston calipers and 12.19 inch brake discs front and rear, with a Winters Quick-Change rear differential (very similar to the original used, but much more serviceable) and independent rear suspension.

This re-creation of a legend, features a beautifully hand crafted, curvaceous body, in right or left hand drive configuration, using the most durable aircraft aluminum by skilled artisans of metallurgy in Poland and then shipped to the USA for assembly to the completed, rolling chassis. It also comes with a variety of options including leather interior, roll bar, tire upgrades, custom paint selections, and much more, up to and including a period correct Hilborn FI system. This allows you to personally design the updated Scarab most suited to your individual needs, with all the visual beauty of the original car.

The continuation SCV (Scarab Component Vehicle) from Scarab Motorsports, LLC, is offered as a rolling chassis that does not include an engine, transmission, drive shaft, exhaust system, or battery. The rolling chassis does include standard paint in a choice of two blues with traditional white scallop. Because there are many choices in the powertrain department for your Scarab, they leave that up to the individual to decide upon how they intend to use the vehicle. Many options to complete your personalized Scarab are offered by the company. By exotic car measures, the new Scarab is comparably affordable and considering the fine details, hand-craftsmanship and high-quality components included, you really get a lot for your money.

So, If you want to own a real piece of racing history for yourself, your family and your friends to enjoy and admire, or if you just want to regain your youth and enter the SVRA Racing circuit, there is no better time, nor more exciting vehicle, than the new Scarab.

Vehicle Profile: 1955 Ford Thunderbird

1955FordThunderbird

Henry Ford II’s answer to the successful launch of the Chevrolet Corvette in 1953, came in 1955 as the Ford Thunderbird (1st generation, 55 through 57 T-Bird). Backtrack a couple of short years…. after a visit to Europe in the early 50’s, Henry Ford II decided he wanted to build a 2-seater, convertible sportscar for the American public. He had also heard rumors, to the effect, that Chevrolet was working on a similar sporty concept vehicle made of a new lightweight material and so, he was further inspired to push his designers to come up with a competitive vehicle. He sought out and commissioned Vince Gardner, formerly a top designer with Cord Automobiles, to design a lightweight, 2-seat roadster for the Ford Motor Company. The result was a beautiful, yet European-looking vehicle named the Vega (also, ironically, a name used later on by Chevrolet for one of its models).

The Vega, completed in 1953, ended up a one-off, aluminum bodied, 2-seat sportscar with many styling characteristics borrowed from the Cord/Auburn automobiles including hide-away headlamps incorporated into the front fenders. Unfortunately, it proved to be much too costly to put into production and besides, Mr. Ford was looking for something more modern and American in the style department. So, back to the drawing board and a team of FoMoCo designers came up with the Thunderbird, so named, after a mythical “Bird of Prey”. Oh, and the Vega sat in the Ford Rotunda Exhibition Center for many years in Dearborn, MI, until it was eventually sold at the 2006 Barrett-Jackson Automobile Auction in Scottsdale, AZ for $385,000.

The excitingly new Ford Thunderbird was quickly pushed into production and by October 1954, they began to arrive in dealerships across the country, thus, the 1955 T-Bird was born. Although inspired by and built to compete directly with the Corvette, Ford maintained that it was more a personal luxury vehicle and not just a sportscar. This must have appealed to the public, as in 1955, Ford sold a whopping 16,155 units, against the Corvette’s 700 units for the same year. Complete with its non-functional, yet stylish, hood scoop and front fender vents and borrowing many other characteristics from its Ford siblings of the era; it really took off. One of the few changes for 1956 was the addition of an extended rear bumper area to accommodate a continental kit spare tire arrangement intended to improve trunk capacity. This, however, was dropped in 1957, as it created undesirable steering issues due to the added length and weight in the rear of the vehicle.

During the entire 50 year run of the fabulous T-Bird, 1955 to 2005 (with a brief hiatus from 1998-2001), over 4.4 million units were produced. In fact, one famous racing T-Bird, driven by Bill Elliott, still holds the fastest lap speed record of 212.809 mph in a 1987 NASCAR version of the vehicle, at the Talladega SuperSpeedway . . . A record that has yet to be broken to this day.

Vehicle Profile: Volkswagen Beetle

1961 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle

The Volkswagen “Type 1″, more affectionately (and certainly more descriptively), referred to as the “Beetle” or “Bug”, was first introduced to the American public in 1949. It was 1933 and the demand of Germany’s leader (yes, Der Furher, Hitler himself), that Germany build a state-sponsored “People’s Car” or Volkswagen. He put together his idea of what the vehicle should be capable of and how much it should cost, so the average German citizen could afford it. In fact, a “Stamp-Book” savings program called, “Five Marks a week you must save . . . if to drive your own car you crave”, which some 336,000 Europeans bought into. He wanted a vehicle that would easily carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100km/hr (approx. 62mph) and cost around 990 Reichsmark (roughly the price of a small motorcycle at the time). A tough task to achieve, many designers and manufacturers would try and fail.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was chosen (sometime in 1933 or 1934) as the Chief Engineer of the project and began working on the design immediately. He had in his mind the idea of a vehicle which he had been working on (for several years prior) in his own design studio. By 1938, a factory was set up near the new town of KdF-Stadt (the name was later changed to Wolfsburg), which was actually a purpose-built town, specifically for the workers and their families to live.

Prototypes of the vehicle surfaced as early as 1936 and were built at the time, in a plant in Stuttgart, Germany. Erwin Komenda, the former Chief Designer for Auto Union (now Audi), was in charge of the body design and actually used an innovative device, called a “Wind Tunnel”, to make the car aerodynamically efficient for optimum fuel economy. Unfortunately, by the time WWII started in 1939, they had only produced a handful of units, none of which were delivered to the Stamp-Book holders. Then, by orders of Hitler, all manufacturing was changed to military production to support the war efforts. However, a year earlier, they were able to present a completed “Cabriolet” to Hitler on April 20, 1938 (in celebration of his 49th birthday).

Several military versions of the distinctive round-shaped body, with the flat four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and rear wheel drive were produced at the new factory in Stuttgart during the war. Just before the war ended, sometime in April of 1945, the U.S. Forces had captured the area of KdF-Stadt (renamed Wolfsburg shortly after the war) and its heavily bombed factories.

After the war, the U.S. handed it over to the British who were in control of the “occupation zone” were it was located. British Army Officer, Ivan Hirst, is considered almost solely responsible for the survival of the vehicle in the post-war era. He took one of the vehicles and painted it green (instead of the German military tan) and presented it to the British Army officials and suggested they use them for “light transport” vehicles. They were persuaded it was a good idea and placed an immediate “vital-order” for 20,000 units to be built. The first several hundred units, produced in the still severely damaged factory, went to the German Post Office and personnel of the occupying forces.

By 1955, they had produced the first million Volkswagen Beetles (Type 1’s). Quite a feat, all things considered.  Shortly after the war had ended, several automotive manufacturers from the U.S.A., Britain and France had been offered the company and its facilities, but all declined, with most stating that the little car would never sell or be popular in their markets and some even stated it was not only too ugly, but too noisy.

In fact, Henry Ford II said what they are trying to give us “is not worth a damn!”!  Major Hirst, who had fiercely protected the little car and its factory since the end of the war, would hand over control of its operation to Heinrich “Heinz” Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel Ag. He would run the company, keeping the “one-model” policy in effect, until shortly before his death in 1968 (there being only two successful diversions from that policy . . . the introduction in 1950 of the Type 2 van, camper and pickup models also known as the “Transporter and Microbus” and the 1955 introduction of the Karmann Ghia sportscar). In 1949, the company had been reformed as a trust and was controlled by the new West German government and the government of the State of Lower Saxony.

It wouldn’t be until August of 1967, that the Volkswagen parent company would refer to the Type 1 as a “Beetle” in their own marketing materials for the U.S.A. Worldwide production of the original air-cooled, Type 1 was over 21.5 million units making it the longest-running and most continually produced vehicle of the same design-style platform in history; eventually, surpassing the long-held record by the Ford Model T. The beloved little Beetle was sold in the U.S. through 1980 and was manufactured and sold in other areas of the world through July of 2003. The last air-cooled Beetle to be made was rolled out of the plant in Puebla, Mexico on July 30, 2003. The Beetle went through several minor transformations and upgrades, yet basically remained the same until the end of its run.

In an international poll, conducted in 1999, for the most influential car of the 20th Century, the Volkswagen Beetle came in fourth after the Ford Model T, The British “Mini” and the Citroen “DS”. The Beetle was and still is, famous today for many types of racing and even has special classes and races held in its honor. It is especially suited for the grueling Baja desert events due to its famous air-cooled reliability and great traction. The Beetle has attained “cult” status on a worldwide basis and continues to draw crowds everywhere it goes. Certainly the most famous and beloved of all Beetles is Walt Disney’s, little white “Herbie the Love Bug”, old #53 complete with racing stripes.

Vehicle Profile: Mercedes-Benz 350SL

1980 MercedesBenz 350SL

The Mercedes-Benz SL series began its production run way back in 1954 (actually the series began in 1952, but as a racing version only) and continues through today. The period we are concentrating on here, was produced from April 1971 (1972 introduction in the U.S.) through mid year 1989, which was the longest run in the series to remain basically unchanged throughout the length of its production.

The SL stood for “Sport Leicht” in German, which translated to “Sport Light” in English. Although the original versions were actually, relatively light in weight, that was not necessarily true when they introduced the sporty and luxurious new SL version for 1972. It put on over 300 extra pounds in comparison to it’s predecessor and added many innovations including a new 3.5L, V8 (4.5L for U.S.) powerplant and all the creature comforts of a luxury car.

For 1972, Mercedes-Benz’s SL series would jump from a 2.8L straight, six cylinder engine and into a 4.5L, V8 engine (at least here in the U.S., mainly due to stricter U.S. emissions laws, in order that the car would have enough power to satisfy the American buyers). In fact, from 1972 to 1989 the SLs would have eight different engines (six V8’s, only three of which were used in U.S. models and 2 in-line six’s, none of which were used in U.S. models) available throughout the production run.

The U.S. version of the 350SL actually had a 4.5L, V8 (rated between 180 hp to 190 hp) but was labeled 350SL for 1972 models only and was changed to 450SL badging for 1973 models. This model/engine carried through to 1980 when Mercedes-Benz changed to the 380SL with the 3.8L, V8 (rated at 155 hp) for 1981 through 1985. The final run of the series, 1986 through 1989, had once again, increased displacement to 5.6L, V8 (rated at 227 hp) and a 560SL badge was used. They all came with a three-speed automatic transmission through 1979 and from 1980 through 1989, had a four-speed automatic transmission. All years and models were equipped with a type of Bosch, fuel Injection and all were rear-wheel drive.

While the earliest versions of SL bodies were made of aluminum, all the 1972 through 1989 models were made of sheet metal and were comprised of a unibody construction. They were all a two-seater, soft-top convertible, with removable hardtop and optional rear foldable, “jump” seats. They also had disc brakes all the way around (and in 1980 they introduced the first car with electronic ABS brakes in the USA) and re-circulating ball type steering gears.

In 1982, Mercedes also introduced a driver-side, front airbag system. The front suspension was handled by double wishbone arms, coil springs with added rubber spring buffers and stabilizer bar. The rear suspension was handled by the strange, but effective, diagonal type, trailing-arm, swing-axle, supported by coil springs and a stabilizer bar. Wheelbase was 96.9 inches, front track was 57.2 inches and rear track was 56.7 inches up to 1985 and 57.6 inches (front) and 57.7 inches (rear) after that, through 1989. Overall length was 172.5 inches for 1972 through 1980 models, 182.3 inches for 1981 through 1985 models and 180.3 inches through 1989. Overall width was 70.5 inches and overall height was 50.8 inches for all 1972 through 1989 models. Dry weight was 3,597 pounds for 1972 through 1980 models, 3,460 pounds for 1981 through 1985 models and 3,650 pounds for 1986 through 1989 models.

When it was introduced to the USA in 1972, the Mercedes-Benz SL models were very advanced, luxurious, sportscars directed at a specific upper-class market and they more than filled that niche and some 237,000 units were produced worldwide during the years of 1971 through 1989. It seemed, by the end of it’s run however, that the now 18 year old SL had lost it’s luster and was long overdue for a change. That dramatic change would come in a big way in 1990.

Vehicle Profile: Pontiac GTO

The First true “Muscle Car”? Many will argue it to be the 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans “GTO” (the 2nd generation Tempest, 1964 thru 1967 models)! Even Pontiac itself warned: “To be perfectly honest, the Tempest “GTO” is not everyone’s cup of tea. … It’s suspension is firm, tuned more to the open road than to wafting gently over bumpy city streets. It’s dual exhausts won’t win any prizes for whispering. And, unless you order it with our lazy 3.08 low-ratio rear axle, its gas economy won’t be anything to write home about.” Well, apparently, one man’s warning is another’s ringing endorsement. Pontiac had hoped to sell approximately 5,000 of the 1964 Tempest GTO’s and was overwhelmed when they actually sold 32,450 of them! 18,422 2-Door Hardtops (no pillar), 7,384 Sport Coupes (had a pillar to divide front/rear windows) and 6,644 Convertibles were produced in 1964. The “GOAT”, as it was affectionately referred to, generated a cult following and surprised all of it’s competition!

The design of this second generation Pontiac Tempest LeMans “GTO”, was made possible only by ignoring a General Motors’ mandate that all intermediate-sized cars would not have engines larger than 330 c.i V-8’s. In a grand scheme, which circumvented GM’s “parental approval”, Pontiac’s top-brass made its 389 c.i. V-8, part of a special package only for the new Pontiac Tempest LeMans “GTO”. The name, “GTO” (short for Gran Turismo Omologato) which was begged, borrowed or possibly even stolen from Ferrari, became a special performance model for the new 2nd generation Tempest LeMans line-up.

This new intermediate-sized vehicle from GM was designated the “A” body platform and had a 115″ wheelbase, was 203″ in length, was 73.3″ wide and had a front and rear track of 58″.

To create an engine to power this original “musclecar”, Pontiac built the 389 c.i. V-8 with a special high-lift cam, borrowed the 421 c.i. V-8’s high-output heads and were able to produce 325 hp with the standard Carter four-barrel. The optional “Tri-Power” (three Rochester two-barrel carburetors in a row) with progressive linkage was ordered in 8,250 of the GTO’s (for a small up charge) and were rated at 348 hp. Both versions had 10.75:1 compression ratio and 428 lb-ft of torque. Chrome valve covers, oil filler cap and air cleaners were standard as well as declutching fan, high-capacity radiator and battery. Transmissions offered, were the standard three-speed manual, optional four-speed, both of which used Hurst shift linkages and all came with heavy-duty clutches. A two-speed automatic transmission was also available.

A thicker front sway bar, heavy-duty shocks, stiffer springs all the way around and high-speed 14-inch Red-Line tires were included as standard equipment and 15 body colors were available. An optional “Roadability Group” added sintered-metallic brake linings and a limited-slip differential. All GTO’s came standard with bucket seats and an engine-turned aluminum instrument surround, non-functional hood “scoops” and dual exhaust.

A woodgrain steering wheel, a locking center console and simulated wire wheel covers were among the GTO’s factory options.

Only slight cosmetic changes were made over the next few years (thru 1967), most notably for 1965 and on, the front grille area was changed and “split” to emulate the full-sized Pontiacs and the headlights were changed to an over/under configuration. The rear tail lights also underwent a facelift along with a more slanted rear deck area.

Oh, and the four-barrel GTO’s typically ran from 0-60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 92 mph, while the “Tri-Power” GTO’s were consistently quicker and added a ton of mystique to the car’s overall street-cred! What a great time to be alive and grab ahold of that wheel and stuff your foot into that quick lil’ Goat!!! HOOOOOOHAAAAAAA!!!

Vehicle Profile: 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird

1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird

The 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird is hailed as the “holy grail” of Plymouths and the most sought after of their line of raw-powered Muscle Cars and have sold for several hundred thousand dollars. The Superbird actually exists, largely due to the strong requests (actually demands) of then NASCAR champion, national hero, racing celebrity and multi-talented winning driver/owner, Richard Petty, honorably dubbed “The King”, by his peers.

Petty had always been a staunch Plymouth man, but in 1969, after being denied a Plymouth version of the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona “winged” production race-car, he left Plymouth and defected to Ford’s Racing Team (a move which was devastating to Plymouth’s Racing Team at the time). The Plymouth Racing Team would take this act to heart and scrambled to provide “The King” with what he wanted, and at the time needed, to win in the NASCAR series for 1970. Even though NASCAR changed the rules for competition in 1970, from 500 production units for 1969, to one unit for each manufacturer’s dealership in the U.S.A., this would mean that they would now have to build 1920 units (records show that some 1,935 units were actually produced, give or take). Plymouth wanted Mr. Petty back and pulled out all the stops to make that happen in 1970 . . . they did and it worked.

“The King” and his new winged-warrior, the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, were a force to be reckoned with on the circuit for 1970 winning 8 races during the season and placing highly all year. Unfortunately, due to excessively high speeds achieved and for safety reasons, the powers-that-be at NASCAR were forced to make a decision and this would be the first and last year that these winged vehicles would be allowed to race (with the large displacement engines) in the series. Even though the cars were still eligible and even legal to race body-wise, they were forced to reduce engine displacement to no more than 305 c.i. This rule change, pretty much rendered them non-competitive due to poor power-to-weight ratios that were, well, sickly at best.

But, for that one glorious season, the engineers at Plymouth put their heads together and came up with a design utilizing the front-end of their Coronet models with a huge, yet aerodynamic sheet-metal “beak” attached to it and grafted to the “B-body” of a Road Runner chassis. Also, after redesigning the rear-window and body area (note: all Superbirds came with a vinyl roof to cover the metal-working “scars” left from the installation of the flush-mounted rear glass) and by adding over 40% more surface area (than the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona) to the stabilizer portion of the aluminum wing and tilting it farther to the rear of the trunk area, they were able to achieve the desired aerodynamic results. The wing was also made a bit taller to aid in clearance of the trunk lid, when opened. However, the huge, rear wing was basically useless at speeds under 90 mph, and other than the love-it or hate-it relationship that the general public had with the winged look, it was rarely ever functional at legally posted speed limits.

The 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird (all were 2-Door Coupes) was very similar to their line of high-end GTXs and its drivetrains were similar in offerings.  The standard package included the 375 hp, 440-cid Super Commando V8 with a single 4-barrel Carter carburetor (approximately 1,084 units were made).  Upgrades were either the 390 hp, 440-cid Plus-Six Super Commando Six-Pack V8 with three 2-barrel Holley carburetors (approximately 716 units were made) or the amazing 425 hp, 426-cid “Hemi” V8 with dual-quads, two 4-barrel Carter carburetors (of which only 135 some-odd units were made, again, record keeping in those days was a bit sketchy at best).

That’s a lot of power for a production vehicle, which could be bought right off the lot at your local Plymouth Dealership. These powerhouses were coupled to either a four-speed manual transmission complete with a super-cool pistol-grip shift knob or a TorqueFlite 727 automatic transmission with either column mounted or floor-console shifter. (note: the above production totals are per Chrysler Historical records of street vehicles produced, but are again, sketchy at best and in constant debate as to their validity).

The Superbird used the Road Runner’s “Rallye” style dashboard with full instrumentation, a 150 MPH speedometer, a tachometer and even a clock. However, no air-conditioning, rear window defogger or Ram-Air hood option was available. They did come standard with power-assisted front disc-brakes, rear-facing front fender scoops (which were mounted on the top of the fenders and were there to evacuate air that may get trapped in the wheel wells, as well as, to aid in cooling of the brakes), split over/under tail lights and of course all those cool “Road Runner” cartoon-character decals. They showed the famous bird holding a racing helmet within a circular “Road Runner Superbird” lettering surrounding it (one small decal on the left front headlamp door and a substantial sized one on each side of the rear wing) and a huge “PLYMOUTH” decal on each of the rear 1/4 panels. The car weighed 3700+/- pounds and was 221 inches in length (over 18 feet), 76.4 inches wide, 61.4 inches high and had a 115.8-inch wheelbase.

The Superbird’s winged styling seemed to be a bit much for the general public, not to mention their $4,298 base price tag.  As awesome as the car was on the track or to the people who absolutely loved them, they did not sell well and many dealers were left holding onto them for as long as two years later. It is rumored that some of them were even changed back into standard looking Road Runners and sold sans beak and winged tail-section.