Sunday, July 3, 2016

Cars of the American Revolution

Of course it began with American Motors. The Bicentennial of the American Revolution was beginning to appear on the outer edge of the American psyche, and it's only logical that little AMC would be the first to capitalize. However I do believe it was accidental. 

AMC had been trying to create a more youthful image with youthful cars like the Javelin and the AMC, and entered a specially prepared AMX in the SCCA Trans Am racing series. As an attention getter, the car was painted in bands of red, white, and blue- a scheme so effective that they offered it as a limited availability option for sale on the production AMX.

The SC/Rambler of 1969 was another image car from AMC, this time done in conjunction with Hurst. The little Rambler coupe had a 343 V8 stuffed under the hood and a series of performance mods so that the car would keep up. Again a color scheme of red and blue accents against a white field. This notion would prove popular.

Another AMC performance car was "The Machine:, a 1970 offering based on the AMC Rebel. They were offered in one color scheme, again with red and blur striping on a field of white. 

Ford got in on the fun for 1972 with their "Sprint" packages available on Mustang, Maverick, and Pinto two door coupes. The cars all featured white paint with blue striping outlined in red, wheel covers with trim rings, Sprint deals, and white interiors with blue seat inserts and red piping, Carpets and dash were blue. These were very successful for Ford. 

Chevrolet saw a good idea and responded with their own "Spirit of Anerica" models. Based on Nova, Vega, or Impala Custom two doors (the Nova and Vega were hatchbacks), they featured white or dark blue interiors, white interiors with blue accents, color toned wheels, special striping, and "Spirit of America" emblems. They were offered one year only.

Bicentennial fever was reaching a fever pitch when Buick decided to go all out. They had been selected as the Pace Car for the 1975 Indianapolis 500 and the car they created was very dramatic. Designer Gary Smith created an American Flag that swept along the sculptured flanks of the Century. The car proclaimed "Free Spirit" on the front fenders and featured a white interior accented in blue, white wheels, and blacked out trim. A few hundred identical replicas were sold through Buick dealers.

Not to be undone, the Official Support Vehicles for the 1975 Indy 500 were GMC Trucks. They were also finished in white and had red and blue strobe striping to harmonize with the Free Spirit Buick Pace Cars. They also had special interior trim.

Here's a Bicentennial oddball- a Dodge Colt done up in a red, white and blue package. Called the Carousel, It featured a blue vinyl roof, blue striping outlined in red, and a white interior with blue seat inserts surrounded by red piping. I guess nothing says American Exceptionalism quite like a Japanese car. It was offered in 1975 and 1976.

Dodge also had a model for those who prefer American made products- the "Spirit of '76" Dart Sport. Again in white with a white interior, it featured sport wheels, red and blue exterior striping and decals, and blue seat inserts and accents set into a white interior. 

And last but not least, the Queen of them all, the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Bicentennial convertible. Built to commemorate the final edition of the Eldorado as a ragtop, these triple white cars featured red piping and environment, red and blue pinstriping, and white wheel discs (all other '76s had black.) In addition, each had a dash plaque proclaiming it to be one of the last 200 production convertibles. For now, anyway. 

Of course, this list isn't intended to be exhaustive and there will be other examples that come to light- especially dealer editions and aftermarket striping kits, but I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the special editions of the red, white and blue. Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When Buick Set the Pace at Indianapolis

This week, Buick Town Monday happens to correspond with Memorial Day weekend, so let's take a moment and remember some of Buick's role in this iconic American Experience. Buick was one of the first manufacturers to take part in racing at the Indy track, and won several events in 1909, two years before the first Indianapolis 500 of 1911. Many, many Buicks were also raced at Indianapolis including factory sponsored racing engines as recently as the 1980's.

But Buick has also served as the Official Pace Car at Indianapolis on no fewer than six different occasions, and created some very special cars to suit the role.

The first Buick Pace Car was a 1939 Roadmaster Series 80 Convertible Sedan. It used Buick's most powerful 320 cubic inch OHV straight eight engine in a slightly smaller chassis for high speed performance. Although nearly stock in appearance, The Roadmaster had no trouble maintaining the high speeds required of a Pace Car.

The next time Buick was selected as Pace Car was 1959. This was a great opportunity to showcase the all new 1959 Buick with its swept back fins. A white Electra 225 convertible with red bucket seats was specially prepared for the event. Following the race, the car itself was presented to race winner Rodger Ward.

The 1975 Buick Pace Car wrapped itself in the red, white and blue. A loaded Century Colonnade Coupe with 455 V8, bucket seats, and T-Tops was chosen and finished off with a patriotic red, white and blue flag-derived paint scheme which was very much in keeping with the Bicentennial mania that was sweeping the country. In addition, white Le Sabre convertibles were supplied for race executives and a fleet of replica Century coupes, with the same cosmetic treatment, were offered through Buick dealers.

Buick was the Pace Car again in 1976, but this time the technology was all new. The 1976 Century Pace Car featured the first Turbocharged V6 engine which was specially developed for this high speed application. This concept would lead to turbocharged V6 engines in the 1978 model year, and ultimately to the legendary Buick Grand National. It was finished in an aggressive color scheme of silver, red, and black, and again replicas were offered through Buick dealers, but they had conventional 350 V8 engines.

The Buick Regal was chosen as the 1981 Indianapolis Pace Car, again showing off Buick's V6 power. This time, a highly modified 4.1 litre V6, conventionally asperated, developed 281 horsepower and helped further establish the performance reputation of the Buick V6. The actual pace car had a Targa-style roof with an integral roll bar, and was finished in a unique color scheme of silver and dark maroon with bright red and orange trim.

Buick's most recent trip to Indianapolis was in 1983. That year a special Riviera Convertible was chosen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Buick's personal luxury car. A special color scheme of two shades of tan, a leather and suede interior, a fuel injected turbocharged V-6 engine and even genuine wire wheels set the car off. A replica coupe called the Riviera XX was offered through Buick dealers, although only 500 were ever made.

So when you sit back and enjoy the 102nd anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, remember that Buick has been a important part of the Indianapolis story sine the very first days, and that Indianapolis has played a big part in the development of some very important Buicks.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fast Car

I’m a auto-visual sort of person- I see a certain car and it cues a memory. I see a first generation Mustang and I instantly remember the all-three network introduction on prime time TV. A Jaguar E-Type reminds me of a top-down drive on a moonlit Michigan summer night, with both speedo and tach needles pointing straight up. And oddly enough, a Triumph TR-3a sports car takes me all the way back to Christmas of 1963.

I was just a toddler, and had fallen asleep on the back seat of Dad’s big ‘61 Electra 225 on the way out to my Grandparents’ farm in Byron, Michigan. Dad was one of seven, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas the whole clan would gather at the farm. I was still asleep when we arrived, so Dad scooped me up and carried me inside.

At least that was his intention. Grandfather wasn’t the very best at maintaining things, and the tales of his automotive choices are disasters for another day. But suffice to say the broken glass in the storm door probably should have been repaired prior to the family gathering. That way, Dad wouldn’t have accidentally put my little head through the broken glass and cut it wide open.

I doubt we were even inside before blood began gushing out. I’m not sure Dad ever quite put me down, and it's highly doubtful that I even got my coat off. All I know for sure is that a holiday with turkey and toys turned out instead to be an urgent trip to the emergency room in Flint, nearly 25 miles away.

And for that we needed a fast car. Fortunately, my Uncle David came to the rescue. His cute little Triumph TR-3a, with its bug eyes and wide mouthed grille, was right outside the jagged door. It was quick, it's snug little cabin had a heater, and it had washable vinyl seats and sort of a top. We wedged ourselves in and the Two and a Half men were off. 

Dad put me between the bucket seats and wrapped a towel tightly around my head. From my vantage point, I could watch the gauges- especially the speedometer and tach, both of which were swinging wildly as Uncle David did his best to make the little Triumph fly. I was mesmerized by the gauges and pretty much oblivious to the fact that I was painting the interior red. Google Maps suggests the trip takes a half hour, but Uncle Dave got us there much quicker than that. I wonder how much of the trip the little car was actually touching the road.

The next thing I knew we were at the hospital where a nice lady in white stitched my head closed again, and within a couple of hours we were back at the farm. Poor Granddad never heard the end of the broken storm door- my Grandmother was not very pleased and never let him forget it.  Although Mother wasn’t exactly amused either, she played the Diplomat and saved her words for when we were back home. Dave replaced the carpet in the TR-3a that spring, I'm not sure if I was the cause of that. But my lingering memory was watching the gauges- especially the tach- and I learned that it was worth a little suffering to ride in a really cool car.

I guess I've pretty much lived by those words.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Frankie and Phil

Frank Sinatras Jr and Sr in 1969
Phil was a car guy to the core. He was the fleet manager at Gunther-Langer Buick in Los Angeles in the early sixties, and he had a side job with the Buick Zone over on Wilshire Blvd., keeping track of the fleet of Buick company-owned cars that were in constant rotation. It was almost a full time job in itself, and it brought him in contact with lots of folks- Buick reps, the staff at the GM Training Center, and more than a few celebrities who were provided with cars as well.

Lots of famous names showed up in those logs. Jack Entratter of the Sands Hotel. Legendary customizer George Barris. And Old Blue Eyes himself, one Francis Albert Sinatra, appears frequently in the records. While the exact beginning of his relationship with Buick is unknown, it dates back to at least 1962 when he wrangled an appearance for the not-yet-introduced Riviera in his movie “Come Blow Your Horn.” Sinatra was provided with cars in both Los Angeles and New York, as well as station wagons for the period of time when he had the Cal-Neva ranch in Lake Tahoe.

And it was in 1969 when Phil was asked to deliver a Buick to 24-year old Francis Wayne Sinatra, the only son of the legendary vocalist and a performer himself. He is noted in the log as Sinatra Jr. And who would imagine that the car guy and the aspiring singer would go on to become lifelong friends. They both loved cars, and I wonder if Phil wasn’t like a surrogate uncle to Frank.

I didn’t come on to the scene until the 1990s myself, and by then they were longtime friends. Phil was working at a different Buick dealer but still managing the fleet. No longer the recipient of company cars, Frank Jr. purchased numerous Buicks through the Los Angeles Zone. He and Phil would have lunch together every day that Frank Jr. was in town. Phil would frequently attend Frank Jr’s concerts, and was not an infrequent guest of Jr’s for holidays. By this time, Phil’s wife Esther was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was in a convalescent home, so Phil’s life would have been pretty quiet without Frank Jr.

I was in Phil’s office the day of Frank Sinatra’s funeral in the spring of 1998 when Frank Jr. called Phil after having just left the service. Phil was dispatched to take guests to the airport- I saw it as a testimony to their closeness. I remember visiting Phil in his office that summer when he told me that he was going to Europe with Frank Jr. and the orchestra, and was told to bring a Tuxedo in case he got to meet the Queen. I hadn’t seen him look that excited in years.

But sadly it was not to be.  Phil had surgery that summer, something supposed to be routine but instead he had a stroke on the table and passed away a few days later. Phil’s wife, Esther, was unaware that he had died. I have been told that Frank Jr. paid for her care until she died a few years later. While I don’t have confirmation of that, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. They were that kind of friends.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reynolds Buick in Kodachrome, 1971

I got a note from my old friend Don Reynolds the other day. He's winding down a busy year celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Reynolds Buick, the store his grandfather opened in Covina, CA in 1915. It's always a pleasure to hear from Don because of his love of history, and the latest missive was no disappointment because he included a treasure trove of images from his Father's desk.

The images are all from 1971 and represent a history book of what a prosperous automobile dealership looked like in the early 70s, preserved in Kodachrome. The building itself was only six years old at the time, and is resplendent with colorful pennants and a bevy of brand new Buicks- with a heavy emphasis on luxury models and boattail Rivieras.

The photos also happen to date from what Don a called the "Jaguar phase," so there are XJ saloons and E-Types -one with genuine wire wheels even- in the photos as well. Apparently Reynolds was a big Opel dealer too, with several Opels in for service including what looks like a 1959 wagon.

It's a glorious scrapbook of new Buicks and Opels, a peppering of Jaguars, enticing late model used cars, a GMC with a pop-up camper and even a dune buggy on the used car lot- because it's Southern California after all. There's even a Firestone tire store next door with a vivid red sign.

In never before seen Kodachrome, here's Reynolds Buick of West Covina, Califiornia in 1971:

All images courtesy of Don Reynolds/ Reynolds Buick

Monday, January 12, 2015

Avenir: Buick is a Beauty, Too

The first car of my Mother's that I remember riding in was a Buick- a big, black 1961 Electra 225 Riviera four-door hardtop. It had a long hood, four portholes, a luxurious button tufted interior, a freestanding clock a'la George Nelson, and a fold down vanity mirror that said "Buick is a beauty, too," And a beauty it was indeed, as were so many large, powerful Buick sedans over the years.

So yesterday's announcement of the new Buick Avenir concept car definitely caught my eye. It's a big, expressive car, with a long hood, a hint of Buick's distinctive coke bottle side sculpturing, a vee-shaped rear deck that pays homage to tthe boattail Riviera, and a roomy interior. 

The name means "future" in French, and I certainly hope it's a glimpse into the future of Buick sedans. Unlike some concept cars like the Cadillac Sixteen, the package looks quite credible and could be built on the new large Omega platform that will also host the upcoming Cadillac CT6. 

It's powered by a direct-injected V6 engine with cylinder deactivation paired with an nine-speed automatic transmission and dual clutch all wheel drive, and rides on 21 inch wheels. Avenir makes use of high technology including a 4G-LTE wireless hotspot, fully reconfigurable glass-panel dash and rear seat video screens with individual USB ports, and while it all imparts a Buck Rogers feel, there's nothing that's too far out to bring to market today. It's loaded with features, but they're all doable.  And inside and out, it looks like a Buick- a big powerful Buick, albeit a contemporary adaptation of one.

In short, I love it! Now all it needs is a vanity mirror that says "Buick is a beauty, too..."

Avenir images courtesy of GM Company.