Monthly Archives: February 2011

As Seen on Craigslist – 1966 VW Squareback

I don’t know that much about old Volkswagens, so I’m not sure if this is priced right.  I do know that VWs are prone to rust, and I’ve never seen a wagon like this in person, so I’m going to assume this is somewhat rare.  It’s probably slower than sin, but any breakdown could be fixed with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, and you’d surely have the only one at your local car show.  If you were feeling clever, you could strap some luggage and a fake grandma in a lawnchair to the roof while blasting a German translation of “Holiday Road” for some laughs.  Regardless, it’s a station wagon in a great color, and it has horizontal blinds in the windows, for God’s sake.


On Chrysler’s Comeback

In case you missed the full version of Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl commercial, here’s the full two-minute spot:

It’s complete with a gravelly-voiced narrator, images of industrial ruins and Joe Louis’ fist, and a somewhat surprising appearance by Eminem and a choir, and I’m a little ashamed to say that it gave me goosebumps when I first saw it.  It’s weird to call a video put together for the sole purpose of selling something “moving,” but it’s just that.  I’m unabashedly pro-American cars, even if that position has become virtually untenable as the industrial landscape of the U.S. changes and the phrase “made in America” becomes so muddled as to be useless.  The question “what is an American car?” quickly becomes a “Ship of Theseus” paradox – at what point is a car built by an American company no longer an American car, if the components (or even the car itself) are assembled elsewhere?  Similarly, if Toyota builds Camrys in Kentucky and sources many of its subcomponents from American suppliers, is it still a foreign car?

As confusing as it is to root for a Chrysler that is now owned by an Italian car company and is using white rappers and popular notions of the American industrial spirit to shill rebadged Sebrings, I can’t help it.  While most media outlets love to lambaste Chrysler and GM for relying on the government to bail them out when thirty years of their own poor management and decision making (as well as those pesky unions) put them in that position, the truth is a little deeper than that.  I’m not an expert on Chrysler’s corporate history, and it is foolish to draw a straight descending line from their early-80’s bailout to the near-collapse of 2008-09, but I know this much: the “merger of equals” with Daimler-Benz in 1998 will go down in history as the most disastrous merger ever (including the AOL-TimeWarner mashup).  Daimler, weary of treating Chrysler like an illegitimate step-child and unable to devote equal time to both Mercedes Benz and their American diversion, unloaded the now cash- and new-product-strapped automaker onto Cerberus Capital Management in 2007.  Daimler kept control of the day-to-day operations of Chrysler while Cerberus did what private equity groups usually do best – strip away inefficiencies in an attempt to flip the company for a profit.

The point of all this is that Chrysler entered the worst economic downturn in 70 years with the oldest, least competitive vehicle lineup of any major automaker.  They were already relying on leases and fleet sales to prop up the sales of unwanted vehicles, while Cerberus was bleeding them dry by not investing in engineering and design.  In an industry where product is everything, Chrysler was seriously lacking.  As proof of this, Fiat’s first order of business once they took over was to rush development of new designs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and updates to existing cars, like the 300 and Charger.

I was born into a GM family, but I’ve expanded my horizons as I’ve aged.  While there’s still enough of the the old “Buy American” mentality ingrained in me that I don’t think I could actually buy a foreign car, at least I now appreciate the good ones and don’t begrudge anyone for their choices in transportation.  I know “made in America” is often hollow and meaningless when it comes to cars.  I know Chrysler’s ad agency is treading a fine line between uplifting and maudlin, and patriotic and jingoistic.  But I also know that Chrysler has a slew of new cars coming out, and I hope they sell by the bushel – because everyone loves a comeback.

As Seen on Craigslist – 1967 Cadillac Deville Convertible

Bust out the thin ties, fedoras, and martinis, ’cause we’re going on a roadtrip.  You have no idea the self control I am exercising by not grabbing my phone and calling about this car.  Yeah, it’s triple brown, and yeah, the seats are ripped, but damn if I don’t love me some mid-60’s Cadillac convertible.  It’s supposedly been sitting for 20 years, so all the fluids will need flushed out and all the belts and hoses will need replaced, but so what?  For a total investment of $7000 (assuming you paid the full asking price), you’d have the ability to cruise endlessly at the speed of your choosing behind that gorgeous, forward angled and stacked headlight front clip that screams “get out of my way, Philistine, before I chew you up the same way I am this highway.”

Sure, I would prefer black or dark blue, and the ’66 model has a cooler interior, but $6000 forgives a lot of sins.  I just keep telling myself it must be full of rust, or a scam, or has a horrible rod knock.  That’s the only way I can sleep at night without this behemoth in my driveway.  But what if it’s fine?  What if it’s just been sitting in somebody’s grandpa’s garage and they’re just now cleaning out the place?  Please, somebody talk me out of this.

My Next Car – Last Hurrah of the W-Body

I’m not actually sure how seriously I would consider a 2006-09 Impala SS, 2005-08 Grand Prix GXP, or 2004-05 Bonneville GXP for my next purchase.  These were the last high-performance variants of GM’s “W” chassis, which dates back to 1997 (and originally debuted in 1988).  In a perverse sense, these cars are interesting because they represent the (hopefully) last vestiges of the old, “bad” GM – basic platforms prostituted and copied to within an inch of their lives in an attempt to amortize tooling costs and maximize profitability, but in the process destroying any real autonomy or uniqueness between GM’s divisions.  See this for a breakdown of the various cars GM built on the W-body frame.

The Impala is the last car still built on this chassis, and is the roomiest and most comfortable of the three.  The SS model is powered by a front-wheel-drive version of GM’s 5.3L LS V8, which is basically the same engine in most GM pickups.  Straight-line acceleration is great and GM had 20 years to perfect the suspension design, so these relatively large cars handle quite well, especially when equipped with higher-rate springs and shocks on the performance models.  The Impala also benefits from a more restrained (if a little sterile) interior treatment, making it feel quite roomy.  The Grand Prix GXP also comes with the 5.3L V8 and is more aggressively styled, although the “cockpit” style dashboard, angled toward the driver in an attempt to emulate the groundbreaking 1969 Grand Prix, leads to a claustrophobic feeling from the driver’s seat.  The Bonneville GXP actually utilizes the same 4.6L Northstar V8 as my current Cadillac DTS, so I’m familiar with this great (albeit older) engine design.  It is also afflicted with the same closed-in dashboard effect and Pontiac’s desire to fill the dash with ovoid tchotchkes in an attempt to differentiate itself from other brands.  Since these cars typically represent the top of their respective model lines, used cars are usually well-equipped and cared for.  And since GM churned out a couple billion of them in an attempt to stave off their own demise, low-mileage examples are easily found.

At the end of the day, these cars are hampered by their older 4-speed automatic transmissions, dated styling, and the stench of flop sweat that emanates from GM’s flailing attempts to keep afloat at the end of the last decade.  However, they are relatively cheap, durable, great in the winter, and reasonably fast.  They have excellent interior room and would make a perfectly suitable daily driver with enough oomph to make freeway onramps and country roads fun.  If my primary choices aren’t viable when I actually sit down to buy a new car, I could do worse than one of these three.  Faint, if damning, praise, but that about sums up the domestic auto industry during this period.

Disc Brake Project Progress Report

Finally, some real progress.  I was able to spend some time in the garage last night, intending to get the rear hose replaced (thereby finishing off the rear brakes) and get the driver’s side front brakes apart.  However, once I crawled under the rear axle and got a look at the rear hose, I noticed two things: first, the line nut and hose coupling are covered in undercoating overspray, and second, the hose itself is in good condition.  I chose to not fix what ain’t broke and leave the old hose in place.  I still have the new hose I bought, so I’ll be ready to replace it when it inevitably blows a week after I get the car back on the road.

With that decided, I moved to the front and removed the wheel.  The drum came off without a fight, and I was faced with the myriad springs, washers, and other doodads that hold the brake shoes in place.  Before I dug in too far, I decided to go over the instructions that came with my disc brake kit, and discovered that I didn’t need to disassemble the brakes – I could just knock the ball joints loose and remove the entire brake assembly, backplate, and spindle in one fell swoop.

At this point it became more of a paleontological expedition than an exercise in automotive repair.  After chiseling away at the rusty coupling for a few minutes, I snapped the brake line where it attaches to the front hose.  Unfazed, I removed the castle nut from the tie rod end and began mercilessly beating on it with my three pound sledgehammer (aka the BFH).  After a dozen or so whacks, it fell away with a satisfying thunk.  The next step involved loosening the castle nuts on the ball joints, but they were encased in 44 years worth of petrified grease and road grime.  I needed a large screwdriver and hammer to literally chisel away at the fossilized hunks in order to access the nuts.  Once loose, I positioned a small jack under the lower control arm so the spring wouldn’t decompress and fly through my skull, and used a pickle fork (a large forked chisel) to pop the upper and lower ball joints loose from their press-fit on the spindle.  Once that was accomplished, I was able to remove the entire spindle and brake assembly from the car:

Think I could get some promotional money from Maxwell House?

Once that was out of the way, I could examine the wreckage:

Not shown - 5 pounds of fossilized grease

It’s clear that I now have a few things to add to my “while I’m at it” list: as I suspected, the tie rods are fairly worn and are easy to replace.  Likewise, the sway bar links are ancient and shot, which is easy enough to fix.  Finally, the control arm bushings are split and worn, and this is the only chance I’ll ever have to access them.  This will entail the use of a press or some creative work with my bench vise.  At that point, I will have the front suspension entirely disassembled down to the frame, so stay tuned.

As Seen on Craigslist – 1953 Mercury Woody

I’m not going to fault the seller here – the car in this ad is the very definition of “project car.”  But God help the poor soul who actually hauls this shell and a U-Haul full of spare parts back home, especially if he’s married.  “Happy Valentine’s Day, honey bunch, I bought a rusty, dented, glassless station wagon (sans interior), and it came with a whole truckload of extra parts!  Can you believe somebody was practically giving this away on Craigslist?!”  I hope a mattress fits in the back buddy, because you’re gonna be sleeping there for the next few nights.

Actually, I am going to fault the seller a little bit.  Where I come from, in order to be a “woody,” the car must actually, you know, be made of wood.  The pictures sure look like steel to me, unless there’s some obscure African hardwood that turns flat black when you cut it.  Anyway, the ad makes it sound like there are enough parts to build four of these things, but there are undoubtedly a fair number of unobtainable 1953-Mercury-specific parts that aren’t indiscriminately piled in this gentleman’s driveway.  Sometimes the car hobby is a vicious circle – this fellow almost certainly bit off more than he (or any sane person) could chew, and now, for any number of reasons, he needs to get out from under it – by foisting it on some other schmuck who has visions of flathead Ford-induced tire smoke wafting out from under the massive flanks of this wagon, but who will likely end up in the same position after staring at an unchanging pile of parts for a few months.

As Seen on Craigslist – 1966 Bonneville

This looks like an overpriced but nice car, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Why is there a dog in the first picture?  Does the dog come with the car, or is he extra?  Has the dog somehow gotten attached to the car and refuses to let it leave, so you have to take him with you if you buy it?  Was there a picture of the dog on the seller’s memory card and he couldn’t figure out how not to upload it with the others?  So many questions, and yet, no answers.

Anyway, back to the (much less interesting) car.  No one can deny that full-size convertibles are one of those quintessentially American inventions – no other developed country has the physical space and ego to accommodate such a barge.  As such, just looking at this thing has me thinking of chewing up endless freeway miles through the deep south on the way to New Orleans or Mobile or Memphis.  Sadly, 17k is WAY too much for this car, even if it is spotless – especially since the ad contains the deadly “custom built” modifier.  Typically “custom” is shorthand for “no one likes the atrocities that have been committed to this car other than me.”  The pictures don’t show anything too egregious, but I’m assuming there is a unicorn embroidered into the back seat or perhaps a scantily-clad Viking princess airbrushed on the trunk.  Knock it down to 12k and some Raoul Duke wannabe will snatch this thing up.