Sunday, September 26, 2010

sunday drive: the metro stop

An accidental happening. Much like Gulliver dropping in on the Liliputians, I didn't anticipate this encounter. If I had, I would have brought my good camera along. I was helping a client drop off his cute little '60 Metropolitan at a repair shop in the Valley which specialized in them. Seemed harmless enough.

And that's how I found the Metro Stop. Founded by Jimmy Valentine in 1975, it's a repair shop all right, and a showroom, and a museum highlighting the rarest and most unusual Metropolitans ever made. Several prototypes and show cars- A super early NKI convertible, the dressed up pearl white Westerner show car, a one off wagon prototype, a RHD Metro, a Hudson Metro, and even the only Metropolitan fire truck. Tons of memorabilia and Metro murals. And even the Astra Gnome, a one off failed attempt to not only bring the space ship down to earth, but also to mount it on a Metropolitan as well.

A family affair since the beginning, it's presently operated by Jimmy's daughter June. And if you're a fan of the Met, it's a must visit. Next time you're in North Hollywood, stop by and check it out.

But until then, take a look at the Metro Stop:

View their website here

And see kicky video of the Astra Gnome here:

Friday, September 24, 2010

2011 nissan juke: the serious toy car

It's hard to believe the whole toy car era is almost 20 years old now. It was 1991 when Nissan introduced the Figaro, a limited production home market only job with the look of a cartoonized fifties french runabout. It sold out instantly, with dealers holding a lottery to see who would win the right to buy one. It became an instant collectible, and inspired other vehicles whose design seemed to either look directly in the rearview mirror, toward the appliances on the kitchen counter, or above all to value whimsy over function.

Volkswagen brought out their Retro Concept One which came to market as the New Beetle. Ford took the license to bring out retro version of anything that had sold more than a few thousand copies in the first place, with Retro Birds and Retro- 'Stangs. Chrysler corporation brought out a pair of cars to market in the Plymouth Prowler and PT Cruiser which, in case everyone else missed it, looked MUCH more like miniature '37 Fords than anything the blue oval itself ever created. The trend created variants, with the Scion xB bringing the chest freezer to the automotive showroom, the Nissan Cube paying homage to the Flashcube, and the Kia Soul demonstrating that the paralleologram isn't just for geometry class anymore. All are highly styled products based on existing platforms for cost effectiveness.

But the new Nissan Juke refines the game. Call it Toy Car 2.0, or the Toy Car goes to College, because the Juke combines whimsical styling with a very sophisticated little chassis and a level of content and sophistication heretofore unseen in whimsical motoring.

The Juke is scheduled for introduction in the fall and is based on the Nissan B platform (think Versa) but with completely unique styling. Juke comes in one style, a four door hatchback.The overall profile is that of an exaggerated leaf, with the same contours applied on a smaller scale, with greatly enlarged wheel openings. The overall roof shape is similar, but the Juke conceals the rear door handles for a coupe look. The Nissan Z-car trademark boomerang taillamps are utilized, but they race up the C pillars. And the front end styling sets off the whole car- I find it rather froglike, if frogs happened to have parking lamps for eyebrows. Overall very fun and whimsical, definitely youthful, but beautifully executed. I for one found the parking lamps (bi-directional and visible from the driver' seat) to be a work of art.

Similar sophistication was evident in the chassis as well. While based on the B-platform. the wheels were pushed out for a wider stance and greater stability. This track of 60.0 inches from and rear with a wheelbase of 99 inches creates a large footprint creates the basis of a very stable chassis with handling characteristics of a much larger vehicle. The standard powertain is a 1.6 liter four cylinder engine featuring direct injection and a turbocharger. It develops 188 hp and 177 lb.ft of torque, but notable has a broad torque curve. It's mated with a standard 6 speed manual transmission and front wheel drive. A CVT automatic transmission is optional, and Nissan's Advanced Torque Vectoring AWD is available with automatic transmission only. This system splits torque not only front to rear, but also side to side across the rear axle. It marks the smallest chassis Nissan offers an AWD system on and incidentally adds only 64 pounds to the vehicle's weight. In addition, AWD cars will come with a rear multilink suspension with a stabilizer instead of a rear torsion bar setup. ABS, front disc brakes and Vehicle Dynamic Control (with traction control) are standard, as are 17" allow wheels and all season tires.

Nissan has positioned the Juke with three trim levels and a high level of standard content. All models have the 1.6 turbo engine, 17" alloy wheels. iPod connector and Bluetooth, remote keyless entry and speed sensitive electric power steering as standard. they all have 6 air bags and active headrests as well. The mid range SV adds intelligent key, XM radio, auto climate control, power moonroof and upgraded cloth. The top of the line SL adds leather seating, heated front seats, standard navigation (optional on other models at $500) upgraded audio and a rear view monitor.
Manual transmission is available on S and SV only, and AWD is offered on all three models. Pricing is expected to range from a base S CVT at $18,960 to a fully equipped SL CVT AWD at $24,550.

We spent a day driving the Juke along the picturesque Sunshine Coast of British Columbia on a later summer day. I sampled the SV AWD and the S FWD, both with automatic transmissions. Both cars impressed me a lot- the smooth powertrain with no noticeable turbo lag and a very even torque curve, a CVT so responsive it even has shift points, an excellent seating position and a great, surefooted feeling, owing both to the wide stance and to Nissan's electric power steering, which offered considerably more road feedback on the twisty rural roads than other systems I have sampled. By far and away I preferred the AWD, both for the better ride resulting from the multilink suspension and for the extra torque from the Torque Vectored AWD. It was instantly noticeable when I pulled away in the AWD version. Kudos also to Nissan's "low cost" Navigation- at roughly $500, it's a simplified but effective Nav system which omits the fancy features I never learned to use on my STS anyway but gives you what you need for $500.

It may well be that the appeal of this car is going to come down to the styling. If you like the whimsical look, there's an excellent car beneath that will deliver great economy, road comfort and some pretty impressive handling characteristics (especially with the AWD) and a terrific parkable city size. My biggest down side with the exterior is the relatively drab color palate - only a blue and a red in a sea of grey metallics. A Look At Me car in a dull color is like Britney Spears in sweats driving a Camry, and this car simply screams for some seventies colors- a bright yellow, lime or metallic orange.

So call me when the Lime Green ones come in.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Edsel- Ford's Murder Victim

Labor Day 1957- The Russians announced that their Intercontinental Ballistic R-7 Missile could reach the west. The report of a successful test flight was announced on August 26 and dominated the news headlines of the week, until September 4th when the Americans announced their own bomb. It was called "the Edsel." and it the day chosen for its introduction was designated as "E-Day."

The Edsel, a medium priced car offered in four series, was positioned between the Ford and the Mercury on the Ford ladder. Its lower priced series were based on Ford, the upper series based on Mercury. It was the most researched car in Ford's history. And it was a thundering flop that lived only three model years.

Many post mortems have been performed on the ill fated Edsel and blame has been assessed: the controversial styling, the inexperienced dealer body, production snafus and the deep postwar recession. All are certainly factors, and had a role in the ultimate failure of the marque. But there's even more to the story.

The Edsel arose out of a concept known as the Breech Plan. It was conceived by Ford executive Ernest Breech, who was one of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids" who were brought in to save the company after the death of its founder in 1946. Breech had a reputation of being a trouble shooter and strategist, and he felt that Ford was missing too many segments of the market uncovered. He was a close friend of Henry II and it was not a surprise when Breech was named Chairman of the Board in 1955.

The Breech plan called for an alignment along the lines of General Motors- the Low priced Ford, a low-mid priced offering, the Mercury (migrating somewhat upmarket), the Lincoln, and a Super Lincoln. The board approved the plan in 1955, and of course the new low-mid priced offering ultimately became the star crossed Edsel.

Robert S. Macnamara was another of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids", who were brought in to save the company after the death of Henry. Macnamara was a Harvard MBA accountant whose expertise in cost management brought him huge accolades and reinforced his power within the ranks. And he strongly opposed the Breech Plan and the Edsel. Macnamara felt that the Ford Motor Company should concentrate on maximizing volume on the Ford nameplate (upon whose sales he just happened to be paid) and opposed the Edsel whose success he saw as distracting from his livelihood.

He was powerful enemy who made his displeasure known to all within earshot, both inside and outside of the company. Fairfax Cone, president of the Edsel's Advertising Agency wrote in his memoir that while in detroit for the Edsel's launch, he asked Macnamara what he thought of the yet-to-be-introduced new car. He wrote that he was shocked that Macnamara's response was "I have plans for phasing it out."

One cannot downplay the importance of such a powerful opponent. In the early fall of 1957, when Edsel was hoping for a strong launch, Macnamara offered strong dealer cash incentives of up to $750 on Ford cars, making the Edsel effectively $1000 more than a Ford. He succeeded in getting the Mercury, Edsel and Lincoln divisions merged and from there steered the downfall of the brand- first with consolidating Edsel products onto the Ford chassis only for 1959, and then reducing the make to a very slightly differentiated Ford for 1960.

Of course there were many factors going on in the market place in the late 1950's. The economy was in a deep recession. The controversial styling was a factor, but a similar look had given Studebaker record sales a few years back. Production quality was spotty. Dealer discounts on Fords made Edsel intenders into Ford drivers. And once the first comedian referred to the car as an "Olds sucking a lemon", the carefully crafted image began to shake.

First year Edsel sales of 61,000 were well below expectations, yet nonetheless represented the second best new nameplate introduction up to that time. But Macnamara was harping daily on what a disaster it was and now it needed to be dropped, and support within the company for the Edsel eroded daily. Edsel found its budgets slashed, its staffs reduced, and its options severely limited.

On November 14, 1959, Edsel became Ford's first murder victim.