Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Cool Cool Trailer- Shasta Reissues the Iconic 1961 Airflyte



How many times have you been asked, if you could bring back one car from the past, what would it be? Of course, the question is moot, and with the stratospheric cost of tooling and all the safety regulations it simply could not be done. But it makes for some darn good dreaming.


Well recently a fellow named Mark Lucas had just such a dream- except as the President of Shasta RV, he’s in a position to do more than dream. He’d been watching the classic RV and camper craze and wondering the best way to step into the water himself, so he went out and bought a 1961 Airflyte 16’ trailer and brought in a few engineers to study it and and they came up with an idea- they decided to reissue it.





It’s the exact same iconic shape from 1961, complete with the trademark Shasta winglets on the sides. It’s exactly the same size and roughly the same layout as the original, with the same one-piece roof skin and while there are mechanical improvements and modern A/C, and there were updated safety regulations that had to be met, in spirit and execution it’s as darn close to the original as you can imagine. He calls it a “90% replica”- true to the original design, but 100% modern in technology and usable with no safety or reliability concerns that you might have with a real 1961 trailer. It's even got a replica of the magazine rack (remember those? ) with the Shasta logo.





They’re making a run of 1,941 (the year they went into business) of the special Airflytes as a commemorative edition to celebrate their 75th Anniversary- although they’re only seventy-four for 2015. But hey, don’t let math skills get in the way of the coolest idea I’ve heard all month. They come in three two tone schemes- Seafoam Green, Buttercup Yellow, and Matador Red. Expect pricing to come in around the $15,000-$17,000 range. Production begins in September.


Best of all, wouldn’t it look perfect behind a certain Cadillac? Hats off to Mark and the team at Shasta. This is the coolest thing I've heard of all summer.



Check out this cool video tour of the reissued Airflyte: 




Now if they'd do one in pink to match the Cadillac.

Info and Photo credits: Shasta RV, Retro Renovations and Mount Comfort RV.

Monday, July 21, 2014

2014 Cadillac ATS- Cadillac Earns an A



I was on the press drive to launch the original Cadillac CTS way back in 2002, and they described it to us as a 4-series- Cadillac was aiming at BMW, but somewhat generally as opposed to lining up a direct hit on either the 3- or 5-series. And while that strategy wouldn’t result in a victorious game of Battleship, the truth is that the original CTS was a nice car indeed with very pleasant road manners, and it quickly went on to become a success, and the far handsomer second generation even more so.



Today we reap the rewards of that strategy, because the new third generation CTS has moved up in size to more appropriately position itself as a 5-series competitor and taking up the task of the entry level sport sedan is the ATS. Yes, I hate their nomenclature too but at least it’s in ascending order, so we know that the ATS will be small- the smallest since the ill-fated Cimarron if our slide rule can be trusted. Small, and clearly positioned. The wheelbase is 1.3 inches shorter than a new 3-series, but every other dimension- length, width, height and track- is within an inch.


There are lot of choices with the new smallest Caddy. Base engine is a 202-hp, 2.5-liter four, next step up is a 272-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four, top of the range and the car I drove featured the 3.6-liter V6 with 321 ponies, all come standard with a six-speed automatic although a six-speed manual is available with the 2.0-liter turbo.

And the choices don’t stop there- there’s a plethora of packages available for ATS. All three engines are offered in base or Luxury trim levels, in addition the turbo and the 3.6 can be ordered in Performance and Premium levels, adding a whirlwind of luxury touches at an appropriately breathtaking price. My test car was full tilt (I don’t much care for second-class passage) and had a price tag to match- $48,620, or about fifteen G’s above the base model’s $33,990 (including freight). Sounds like a lot, but the ATS is stacked directly against the 3-series and priced within a few schekels of its German rival.



What did you get for all that dough? Plenty. In addition to the direct-injected 3.6 and six-speed automatic, my Premium package ATS came with 18” machined wheels and runflat tires, performance seats with multiple power controls- 12 way driver and 10-way passenger, plus lumbar, a memory seat, and a split rear folding seat. It also had the CUE interface with an 8” color display, navigation, Bose audio including bluetooth and Sirius XM, a head-up display, magnesium paddle shifters and alloy pedals, Intellibeam adaptive lighting and keyless go with remote start, among other goodies too numerous to mention. In other words, it was loaded to the gills.

There’s been a lot written praising the ATS’s road manners and I don’t disagree with the collective wisdom- this is one sweet handling car. The chassis is totally neutral and beautifully balanced- it doesn’t lose its composure when you push it and it’s just the most flingable car I’ve driven in months. if you covered up the badge you’d think you were driving a BMW. Add to that a remarkably compliant ride quality (are you listening, Infiniti?) and what you have is one serious sport sedan.

Likewise I have nothing but praise for the direct-injected 3.6. It’s smooth throughout the power range and while the six-speed always seems to be one gear ahead of where I want it to be, that’s where the slap shifters come in. Who ever thought that we would live in a world where Cadillacs were so utterly flingable?




And that leads us to what I really liked about the Cadillac- its sense of style. From the traditional Cadillac egg-crate grille to the blade tail lamps, the car was beautifully detailed inside and out with Cadillac cues and just exuded the joy of good design, Special praise goes to the lighting designers, who added touches like vertical parking lamps that outlined the fender blades, LED vertical taillamps, theater dimming on the interior LED lighting and even beautifully illuminated exterior door handles. All these little touches reminded me that I wasn’t just in a delightful small sport sedan, I was in a Cadillac.



To summarize, there was a lot I really liked about the ATS. The road manners were impeccable, the performance seats were extremely supportive and I loved car’s aesthetic statement. I’m not the biggest fan of the clunky CUE but all in all they’ve done themselves proud. Cadillac has earned an A for this one and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re shopping for an upscale compact sport sedan.



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blaine Jenkins, 1934-2014



I’m deeply saddened by the passing of my good friend, retired GM Studio Chief Blaine Jenkins, age 80, at his home in Palm Springs, California. Blaine was a talented designer who had a hand in the creation of some of the most iconic products of GM’s Golden Era.

Blaine with Ruth Helm and his '53 Ford, 1955


Blaine and Harvey Helm, 1955
Blaine was born and raised in the tiny town of Caney, Kansas, and studied architecture for two years at Kansas State before hearing about a school for Automotive Design called Art Center in Los Angeles. Although none of his credits would transfer, he applied anyway and soon headed westward. After two years, he joined GM in the fall of 1956. He was recruited by none other than legendary GM designer Chuck Jordan. Following his probation period in the Orientation Studio, he was assigned to Chevrolet Interiors where his first assignment was working on the all-new 1959 Chevrolet.

The 1960 Corvair "Super Monza" for Miss Lynn Mitchell
His contributions to Chevrolet were many, including the interior for the 1961 Corvette Mako Shark. His “Super Monza” Corvair for sixteen year old Lynn Mitchell led directly to the highly successful production Corvair Monza. His favorite project of the era was the mid-year 1965 Chevrolet Caprice, a car which was developed so quickly it had no budget, and Blaine was able to design a Cadillac-level interior for the the new top-of-the-line Chevrolet. It was in 1965 that he created what became is signature color, a violet tinted silver he named "Evening Orchid." Blaine marveled that of all the projects he worked on, he got more questions about Evening Orchid than anything else.


1965 Corvair Corsa in Evening Orchid



The mid-year 1965 Caprice

Blaine went to Oldsmobile in 1966. His first project there was a last minute redesign of the 1967 Toronado interior to make it more appealing to women, then took over the 1968 line up. He was made Studio Chief and had a good relationship with Olds GM John Beltz, who came to him one day to ask what he could do if he was given a hundred dollars to spend inside a Ninety-Eight. “Anything you’d like” was Blaine’s immodest reply and the result was the highly successful Ninety-Eight Regency whose luxurious pillowed seating caused considerable consternation to sister division Cadillac.


1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency

From Olds, Blaine went to Pontiac where he created the Luxury Le Mans and applied finishing touches on the 1973 Grand Prix and Grand Am, including the genuine wood dash veneers. After about a year, Olds asked him to come back and he went, remaining there until 1980 when he was placed in charge of the GM Color Program. He ran the color program for four years and introduced Jadestone and Briar Brown into the automotive conversation. Following that assignment, he returned to Chevrolet until a back injury caused him to take early retirement in 1990, His last project was the 40th Anniversary Corvette of 1993.

1993 40th Anniversary Corvette
Blaine’s loved wood bodied cars and owned many over the years, including a 1947 Buick Estate Wagon, a Chrysler Town and Country Sedan and a rare 1947 Ford Sportsman. He also owned a 1954 Buick Super that had belonged new to his Mother’s college roommate, Blaine had known the car since 1955 and inherited it in 1976, it remains in his garage to this day.

Blaine in front of the Buick he would inherit, 1955


Blaine with the newly restored Super, 1989
He met his husband, Philip at a bar in Detroit one night in the summer of 1975 and they were together ever after- just shy of four decades. With him goes a treasure trove of stories and recollections of GM’s Golden Era. He knew how Harley Earl took his coffee and how Bill Mitchell liked his hookers, and there aren’t many left with that testimony.

Blaine's "Rock Star Moment," 2012

His health declined in recent years and his mobility became severely limited, but his blue eyes still sparkled. In 2012, Automobile Magazine ran a tribute article about him and we celebrated with a surprise party that caught him totally off guard He reveled in his “rock star moment,” as I called it, and talked about it for months afterward. At his 80th Birthday party this last March, we were all asked to explain our connection to Blaine, after which he himself spoke. “I’ve had a magnificent life,” he said, “and each of you are a part of it.” He went on to say that his life had been far beyond the wildest dreams of a little boy from Caney, Kansas who wanted to draw cars.




Is there really anything more one can ask for? I will miss him dearly, but I am so much richer for having known him. Requiescat in Pace, my friend.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 VW Eos- Desert Delightful


The triple-digit days in Palm Springs are fast approaching. It was high 90s this afternoon, and is still in the upper 80s a little after seven in the evening as the Eos and I head up winding Highway 74 toward the mountain town of Idyllwild. The turbo is humming softly, the DSG transmission is slapped into third with a couple thousand revs to go before redline, and the corner illuminating foglamps are darting back and forth to illuminate the twisty path. Of course the top is stowed. The passenger side windows are raised, partially in anticipation of the cooler temperatures up the mountain in Idyllwild, and partially to preserve a the remains of a really good hair day. The CD player is blasting K-Tel’s Greatest Hits of Drag and in this moment, the Eos is simply perfect. It and I seem to exist only for the enjoyment of the other.




I’ve always had a strong affection for open Volkswagens, and the Eos is no exception. In fact, if anything, the little hardtop-convertible-with-sunroof coupe might just be my favorite topless VW offering in recent memory. It’s certainly not the newest offering in the line-up, the Golf-based charmer has been around since 2007 and had only had a minor refreshing back in 2012, yet it continues to make people smile.





For how long is an open question, what with the seventh-generation Golf platform headed toward our shores, it’s just unlikely that VW will invest in a new generation for the likable little car, and that’s really a shame. Because the Eos has something most convertibles don’t- a sliding glass sunroof, which is a huge plus in Palm Springs. Yes, we love our desert but there are times of the day when it’s too hot for top down driving but just right for a sliding sunroof- and only the Eos gives you the choice of all three in a hardtop convertible. Drive to breakfast with the top down, then home with the sunroof open to avoid the sun on your neck. From there the little beret is tightly sealed until sundown, when the top does down and the Eos comes out to play.




Since the EOS is essentially a high-line Golf with a disappearing hardtop, I just have to take a moment to talk about the roof itself. It disappears completely in about 30 seconds, was water tight in the epic car wash test, rattle free and almost sedan quiet when raised. And the solid sunroof shade was a big plus in the desert heat. Yes, the roof is an expensive item, but at least you’re getting value for the money spent.


I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a pricey little piece. My base-level Komfort represents the least expensive Eos one can buy, with a base price of $36,460 including freight. It’s pretty tall, but the level of standard equipment is quite high. There’s only one drivetrain- VW’s 2.0-liter turbo four with direct injection, it’s 200 ponies are mated to a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic. Navigation is standard too, as is a back-up cam, bluetooth, 17” alloys, electronic climate control, a 12-way power driver’s seat, and VW’s pretty-darn good but unbranded audio. From there you can step up to a $39,190 Sport or a full-boat $42,960 Executive, which is some pretty serious coin indeed.




But don’t. The $36,460 Eos Komfort gives you a well equipped little VW complete with the sun, the moon and the stars.  Is it expensive? Yes. The power disappearing top with moonroof appears to add about five grand to the price. But on the other hand, I can think of a lot of $36,000 cars that aren’t nearly as much fun to drive as the Eos. And with the new seventh-generation Golf just around the corner, the window of opportunity will be closing sooner than  we’d like.




Tuesday, June 3, 2014

2014 Nissan 370Z Nismo- Godzilla with a Z



Man had just barely walked on the Moon when the first Z car landed on these shores- October of 1969, to be precise. Of course, back then it was the Datsun 240Z, and it was a remarkably nice, powerful and well balanced little car which pretty much started when you turned the key, which was a revelation to sports car drivers of the day. Not a Corvette, but a lot of fun for a screaming deal with a $3601 base price. At the time, it seemed to quickly become a favorite of young enthusiasts and those planning a midlife crisis.

Four and a half decades later and the now sixth-generation Z car is still with us. There have been stops and starts, and some regrettable misfires with two-plus-twos, crushed velour, and two-tone paint schemes, but all in all the car remains true to its mission. I’m pretty familiar with the current iteration of the Z-car and reviewed it last year, but somehow had never spent time in the Nismo, so when the opportunity arose I gladly snapped it up.




The Nismo is considered the ultimate edition of the 370Z, and much more than just a “track pack” with numerous cosmetic and mechanical enhancements. For starters, it has unique front and rear fascias that extend the length by approximately 6” over the base car. Add to that an integrated chin spoiler, side skirts, an underbody air diffuser on the rear fascia and a rear double wing spoiler. So it’s not the car for skulking around anonymously and we haven’t even gotten started. Throw in a gray lower body treatment with red striping, special gray 19” wheels with Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires (wider in the rear), a uniquely tuned exhaust with polished tips, sport brakes with huge rotors and jungle red calipers and a retuned suspension, and you pretty much have the Godzilla of Z cars.

Inside there’s a lot of charcoal and red, including red stitching, black and red seat trim with the Nismo logo, and an alcantara wrapped steering wheel with a red leather accent at twelve o’clock, which proved remarkably engaging on twisty roads.





Lift the hood and there’s an old friend- Nissan’s pretty darn brilliant 3.7-liter VVT V-6 (VQ37VHR). I’ll admit that this particular engine is one of my favorites, with a wide band of torque and a 7,400 RPM redline. It’s fitted with a special Nismo engine cover and a cowl brace. In this application, it’s rated at 350 horsepower, pretty much because of the special exhaust.

As interesting as the Nismo package is, it’s also amusing what it is not. It’s not offered with an automatic, instead Nissan’s excellent six-speed manual with rev matching handles the shifting duties. It’s not offered with Nav, just a large enclosed cubby on the dash. And it isn’t cheap- the base price of our test car was $43,020, and with Bose audio ($1350), Nismo logo floor mats ($125), Illuminated sill plates ($200), a cargo mat ($95) a cool but too-small-to-take-seriously rearview mirror mounted camera ($790) and destination ($790), our Nismo retailed for $46,370. Not small change, and close to the price of the fully loaded Touring convertible we tested last year.




Before we get behind the wheel, let’s just talk about the appearance. Make no mistake, The Nismo is indeed the Godzilla of Z-cars- just ask my neighbors. The elderly-pushing-ancient lady next door who pretty much ignores my test cars came out in her bathrobe to tell me it reminded her of her husband’s Porsche Carrera from four decades earlier. Another neighbor I had never met was out in my driveway taking pictures of it one afternoon. The Nismo Z commands attention even when you’re not driving the damn thing. So far, so good.

The interior gets high marks as well, Instead of the sampler platter of textiles we saw last year, everything is black cloth and red trimming. The cloth covered sport seats are very supportive, the same fabric is applied to the door panels so it's all tied together, and the entire cabin is very businesslike. The headroom was a welcome relief from the hairdo-destroying hellcat Camaro I had previously, and with the exception of the Senta-grade texture on the dash pad, it's what you'd expect the well-dressed ultimate Z-car to be wearing.




Turn the key and the story becomes more mixed. Yes, the 3.7-liter and six speed stick is one of my favorite drivetrains on the market, but it’s only 18 horsepower more than a base coupe- and a base coupe starts at a mere $29,990. The revised suspension handles brilliantly but the usual Nissan tradeoff of handling at the expense of ride rears its kidney-busting head. Don’t get me wrong- the Nismo is downright delightful on smooth twisty roads (smooth being the key) and I’m crazy about the rev-matching six-speed, but here it’s track-pack DNA comes to the surface. I have no doubt I’d be mad about it on an big oval, but the everyday ride over expansion strips and botts-dots is rather firm. And that’s fine, as long as you know what you’re getting into.




And that's pretty much an analogy for the whole car. If you want the ultimate attention-getting Z, the Nismo fills the bill. It’s got a Godzilla look-at-me factor that’s pretty darn hard to beat for a car at this price point. If you have access to a track, you’ll be crazy about it. Hands down, it's the ultimate Z-car. But as much as I love the drivetrain, this car screams out for more go to match the looks and the handling. For me,  I’d go for a Touring Convertible with Sport package for roughly the same money and trade some of the wow for the wind in my hair.







  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hot Hatch Reborn- Seventh Generation VW Golf and GTI



Recently I was up in San Francisco for the launch of the new seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf and GTI. It was an appropriately urban setting, considering the type of customers they expect the new Golf range to appeal to. It’s worth noting here that the Golf and Jetta continue on their divergent paths, with the Golf moving into the upscale position and targeted at younger, urban consumers while the Jetta is positioned as a mass-market mid-size sedan- and I do mean sedan, as the SportWagen will be joining the Golf line up for 2015.



The new Golf is an evolutionary change, roughly two inches longer and a half-inch wider but also about an inch lower and with the front wheels pushed forward 1.7 inches in a move that VW calls “cab backward.” VW reports that it’s a bit lighter as well. The styling is crisper but clearly Golf- it’s hard to imagine another car that’s stayed so true to its roots after seven generations. The interior is crisp and contemporary as well, and also roomier- and you’d know you were in a VW even if you were blindfolded.



The 2015 Golf will be offered with two engines- a 1.8 liter turbocharged and direct-injected four with a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic, or a 2.0-liter turbocharged clean diesel with a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG. A eGolf fully electric version is expected to be offered at a later date.



VW has expanded the offerings for the seventh-generation. There are new trim levels, two door models,  two special limited edition models, and some aggressive new pricing. There’s a Launch Edition two door with a 5-speed stick and a base price that’s $2,000 less than last year’s base model, plus Golf S, SE and SEL trim levels, so expect to see a base price range from $18,185 to $27,815 for the fully loaded SEL four door. And that SEL is pretty loaded indeed, including panoramic sunroof. Fender audio, 18” alloys, Navigation, remote entry, push button starting and a 12-way power driver’s seat. Options include a Lighting Package with bi-Xenon headlights and LED running lights, interior ambient lighting and adaptive front lighting, and a Driver Assistance Package with forward collision warning and front and rear parking sensors, although the SEL has a standard back up cam.



VW has shuffled the packages for the TDI Diesel as well. There’s a new base model TDI S four door that’s priced over $3200 less than the last generation base model. The TDI models are packaged similarly to the gasoline versions. They’re four-doors only, and all will have a standard six-speed manual transmission (the six-speed DSG sets you back $1100.) Base prices range from $22,815 for the S to $28,815 for the full-boat SEL.  



But most of our time was devoted to the GTI. It’s also all new, including a new EA888 2.0-liter direct- injected turbo four with a modest 10-hp boost to 210, and a healthy torque bump - up 51 lb-ft to 258. And later this year, there’ll be an optional Performance Package with 10 more ponies, along with beefier brakes and a torque-vectoring differential, all for $1495 extra.

GTI will also be offered in three models, S, SE and Autobahn. Pricing is roughly carryover. The two-door S is priced from $25,215, and they range up to $31,515 for a four-door Autobahn with DSG. VW has retained the retro plaid seating for the base model, which is exactly how I would want it.



We had the opportunity to sample all three models as well as every bridge in San Francisco. Both the Golf TSI and TDI were extremely likable and competent- the TSI has slightly more go but the TDI is only slightly behind and more than up to the task. The TDI is just so quiet, smooth and utterly un-diesel that, combined with the lowered base price and the much better fuel economy, it gets the nod in my book.



But my heart belongs to the GTI. VW had a full array of historic GTIs there for us to drive as well, and having owned both a First and Second Generation model new, it was quite a treat to slip behind the wheel again. The First Generation was every bit as snarky and fun as I remember it, with a high-revving and loud 1.8-liter four and a tight five-speed gearbox while the second gen is much cooler and better mannered, although slightly less of the little barbarian that I loved so dearly. 

The seventh is just a very refined version of the second- a smoother ride, more refined manners, brilliant handling, but still screaming fun and I finally capitulate- the DSG in manual mode shifts faster than I can with a stick. I had the chance to sample both with and without performance pack, and while it didn’t seem significantly faster, the brakes were superb. Adaptive suspension is also available in the US for the first time, but I didn’t have the opportunity to sample it.



I have to say that I came away impressed with the seventh-generation Golf and GTI. They’re both VW to the core- responsive drive trains, excellent handling characteristics, the road poise of much more expensive sedans and nicely trimmed cabins. It’s the entry-level for German engineering but doesn’t act like entry-level at all. I can’t think of another car that’s as true to it roots four decades later.  

Photo credit- Volkswagen of America

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fun with the Continental Mark IV:



Yes, statistically the odds are that many of you are visiting for the first time because of a quote in Automobile Magazine about the Continental Mark IV. I'm not going to post it here, because you've probably already seen it. Instead how about a photo essay of the stunning Continental Mark IV? It's really hard to find a car that more beautifully captures the essence of the 70s than the Continental Mark Series. Successor to the wildly successful Mark II of 1968-71, the Mark IV made its debut for the 1972 model years. In addition to the tall grille, Mark IV also added a stand up hood ornament and opera lamps to the mix.

Rendering of the 1972 Mark IV by renowned Ford stylist Dick Nesbitt


This photo captures the essence of the Mark IV beautifully: 


Bumper regulations kicked in for 1973 and required a front bumper that would withstand a 5 mph impact. Many feel that the massive bumper negatively impacts the styling but sales volumes did not suffer.


The 1974 Mark IV now wears 5-mph safety bumpers front and rear. Also here we see the beginning of special editions- this Silver Luxury Group option began in 1973. A Gold Luxury Group was also offered.
Below is the Gold Luxury Group specification page from the sales brochure:



The new premium body side moldings and polished aluminum wheels really made the 1975 Mark IV into a knockout.  Many Luxury Groups were offered for 1975 including Silver, Lipstick/ White, Saddle/ White, and Blue Diamond. Below is the Lipstick/ White:


And here is the 1975 Mark IV display at the Chicago Auto Show:



1976 was the final year for the Mark IV, but instead of resting on its laurels, it reached new heights with expanded Luxury Groups and the new Designers Series. Four top fashion designers of the day created their own special Mark IV editions:


Clockwise from left, we have the Pucci Mark IV in vintage burgundy and silver. The Givenchy in turquoise and white, the elegant Bill Blass in Navy and cream, and the Cartier in monochromatic dove gray. The Designer Series was a huge success for Lincoln both artistically and econonically- they commanded a premium of about a thousand dollars over a comparable but unlabeled Mark IV. Descriptions are below:



 There were a plethora of Luxury Groups for 1976- Blue Diamond, Saddle/ White, Lipstick/ White, Red/ Rose', Jade/ White, the midyear Black Diamond and Desert Sand, and the Gold/ Cream shown above. Below is the Gold/Cream interior and coordinating exterior choices:




 Above is the elegant Cartier Edition. It came standard with the swanky Versailles interior in dove gray velour, but a Luxury Group gray leather interior could be selected for credit. The Versailles interior option was exceedingly plush:


And as exciting as the 1976 models were, for 1977 we had an all new Mark V to look forward to. Would it disappoint? That'll be a story for another day. But the 1976 Mark IV was a pretty tough act to follow.