Thursday, May 31, 2012

'59 El Camino- Photo of the Week

Photo of the week this week is this impeccibly restored 1959 Chevy El Camino on display at the GM Heritage Center near Detroit. From its impeccible two tone Aspen Green and white finish to its period correct wheel covers with blackwalls, this photo which I snapped in July of 2010 seemed to catch a lot of eyes. Here it is along with three others of the same El Camino. Be sure and stop by our Facebook Page and see new pictures daily. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mr. Cushman's Cars

 Great story here- in 1938, Mr. Charles W. Cushman sold his share in the family business and found himself with a brand new 1938 Ford automobile and a lot of free time. He travelled the country and took photographs. Armed with a Contax II A camera and a seemingly endless ribbon of Kodak Color Film, he documented what he saw on his travels- for the next thirty one years.

By the time he died in 1972, he had amassed over 14,000 color slides representing a lifetime of stories- which he willed to his Alma Mater of Indiana University. Above is the brand new 1938 Ford and the equally brand new Golden Gate Bridge.

 In 1940, be bought a brand new Lincoln Zephyr Coupe. Here it is in Elysian Park, Los Angeles. 

And here's the Lincoln, still brand new, outside of Atascadero. 

In 1942 Mr. Cushman took a job in Chicago, Here is the Lincoln against the Chicago Skyline.

Everyone rushed to get a new car after the war, but not Mr. Cushman. Here is the Lincoln in Virginia in the early fifties. He took the car with him when he moved to San Francisco around this time.

And Mr. Cushman posing with his old friend in 1958. The note says the car showed 202,700 miles on its odometer.

All things end, and it was time for a new car in 1958. He selected this Ford Fairlane Town Sedan.

A great shot of the Fairlane brand new agaist a farmer's field.

Here's a great shot of the new 1958 with Mrs. Cushman in the picture. Her red hat is the perfect accent. 

The Ford was traded after ten years. Here his wife Jean poses with the 1958 and 1968 Fairlane Sedans.

This one is captioned "Saying Goodbye to the 1958 Ford."

He must have loved that Lincoln to keep it almost twenty years as daily transportation. Here's the original photo with a softening filter.

The Cushman Collection is a fascinating look at American Life from 1938-1969. It is maintained online by Indiana University and can be viewed here. One caution: You may get lost in the archives for days. (All photos courtesy of Charles W. Cushman Collection at Indiana University.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Jeanette and the Martinique

The Palm Springs Automobilist Facebook Page is up and running and it's a lot of fun. New images and video links are posted every day for your enjoyment. The most popular image in the first week is this shot of designer Jeanette Linder, one of Harley Earl's "Damsels of Design," with her 1958 Impala Martinique show car. The lined trunk and matching Samsonite luggage are a major feature of the car. The image may be purchased at the GM Photo Store. Come by Palm Springs Automobilist and check out today's postings.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Behind The Wheel: 2012 Infiniti FX35 AWD Limited Edition: Tell Jaguar Not to Bother

  Jaguar has been making news of late for developing a mid sized luxury SUV, and I admit that I found the story rather amusing. From my Jaguar days, I know that an astronomically high percentage of Jaguar customers also own a Land Rover, so that would seem to take up the slack. But further reading reveals that Jaguar has a different flavor in mind- a crossover utility with both a very sporty character and a very richly detailed interior.

But they're still a bit late- the Infiniti FX35 is already here.

Hard to believe it's been almost ten years since the FX series made its debut as a 2003 model. Along with the Porsche Cayenne, the FX helped usher in the era of the high performance crossover. Based on Nissan's FM Platform (along with the 370Z) it looks and feels much more like a sports coupe than a family hauler.

Restyled  for the 2009 model year, I've driven the current generation FX35 but it's been a couple of years, so I was more than happy to refresh my memory. My test car turned out to be a 2012 Nissan FX35 AWD Special Edition, one of 550 that were made for the model year.

The Special Edition comes one way- loaded and luxurious, The exterior color is a special Iridium Blue with a Graphite leather interior (with piano black dash trim) and the Special Edition is loaded with special features including dark tinted headlight housings and lower body trim, graphite finished roof rails, Infiniti hard drive Navigation with voice recognition, bluetooth and streaming audio, 10 way driver and 8 way passenger power heated seats, dual front seat memory, and Intelligent keys. The Special Edition is priced at $51,550, plus a destination charge of $895 for a total MSRP of $52,445.

The drivetrain for the Special Edition is the 303 HP 3.5L DOHC V6 mated to Infiniti's electronically controlled 7-speed automatic and featuring all wheel drive with a snow mode. Special turbine blade designed 21" graphite finished wheels and 265/45R21 V series performance tires are also included. Fuel economy ratings are 16 city and 21 highway, and premium fuel is recommended.

First impression walking around the FX is that of craftsmanship- the paint is deep and glossy, the exterior fits and tolerances are the usual perfection we've come to expect of Infiniti, the doors open and close with an authoritative thud, the Xenon headlamp assemblies look like they were made of Baccarat. The styling is a matter of personal taste but again the look reflects the sporting intent of the vehicle. The hood curves over the front wheels in a matter reminiscent of an old E-Type. The greenhouse is compact and the roof has a steep rake toward the rear, which again imparts a sporting look but certainly impacts cargo area.

Open the door, and the story continues on the inside. The black leather seats are shapely and beautifully stitched, with vertical pleats and thick bolsters. The door panels have matching inserts for a premium look. The quality of the interior plastics is quite high- again the Jaguar illusion is not broken. Yes, this is an expensive car, and the interior shows it. The special edition floor mats have blue binding and logos to complement the exterior, which is a thoughtful touch.

Push the button and the car comes to life. The onboard electronics are special enough to deserve their own shout out from the color display do crisp you'd swear it was in HD, to the backup camera that also includes a 360 degree surround, something I've only experienced on very high end cars like the Rolls-Royce Ghost. The Navigation is extremely easy to use and the menu offers links to traffic  and weather forecasting live on screen, as well as XM radio, advanced bluetooth with streaming audio (this I loved) and even a Zagat restaurant guide. I was highly impressed with the technology onboard.

The 303 hp, 3.5L V6 engine was a dream. Silky smooth and highly responsive, it was combined with a 7 speed automatic transmission that shifted almost imperceptibly. The Special Edition comes with all wheel drive, and the entire system was seamless, smooth and highly responsive.

I was also very impressed by the handling and the tight, responsive steering- there's a lot of Z car heritage in the way the G35 behaves when the road gets twisty. It was a lot of fun to throw into curves, and that is just simply not something one usually says about crossovers. The special 21" wheels and tires planted a great footprint on the road, and the handling was set up to make the most of it.

The balance between sports car and luxury was most evident in the ride, which was sporty firm leaning towards stiff. I admit I'm spoiled by the air suspension in the Land Rover, and would have preferred a bit softer ride from the FX, but again that is a matter of personal taste. On my freeway test run, I averaged just over 24 mpg, and my fuel economy for the week was just under 20, which for a 303 HP AWD vehicle was quite impressive.

I wasn't really kidding with the headline because I felt like I spent a week driving the crossover that Jaguar hopes to build- highly luxurious, with a silky smooth drivetrain and sexy styling, packed full of technology and driving more like a sports car than a kid hauler. Jaguar has their work cut out for them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Palm Springs Automobilist - Now On Facebook

Just a quick post to advise that the Palm Springs Automobilist is now on Facebook. be sure and stop by for daily posts and conversation about the auto industry, with our particular slant on the postwar decades of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Check us out!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Behind The Wheel: 2012 GMC Terrain- Butch Boy for the Soccer Mom Set

I have a long history with mid-sized GMC utilities. I had a first year four door Jimmy back in 1993, another Jimmy in 2000 and a 360-based Envoy in 2002. All were mid-sized utilities which were based on a truck frame and powered by some version of a six cylinder engine. The GMC Terrain replaced the Envoy in 2009 as a crossover vehicle based on the GM Theta platform, and while I've had extensive experience with the Theta derived Cadillac SRX, I'd never actually driven the Terrain.

The first thing that stands out about the GMC Terrain is the styling. Love it or hate it, you're unlikely to ignore it. I think it's massive angular design theme is masculine and distinctive. It's a Tonka truck come to life. or the Brave Little Toaster as a Transformer. A massive grille with red GMC lettering, exaggerated wheel openings and slab sided body panels, combined with a very squarish roofline give the Terrain a highly distinctive silhouette. Highly detailed headlamp assemblies and chunky chrome door handles, mirrors and roof rails added to the look. Not to me missed are the 18 inch chrome wheels. It's certainly a car whose design statement is unapologetic. And the market seems to like it- sales have steadily increased each year since it was introduced. No one in the parking lot will mistake it for a Lexus RX.

The styling theme continues on the inside. The test car had a jet black interior which was just that- black leather trimmed seats with subtle red stitching, a few silver painted accents on the dash, but otherwise an ocean of black leather, vinyl and plastics. While some of the textures didn't seem totally premium to me (are you listening, dash pad?) the overall effect was smooth and masculine, and not overdone in any way. The seats were comfortable and supportive to boot, and having driven several of these over the years, I will say that the overall interior, while again not luxurious, is far superior to what was offered a couple of generations back. And a shout out for the rear seat, which benefits from the most generous rear seat leg room I've experienced in a midsized crossover.

My test car was an SLE Level 2 (base price $31,260) which benefited from the long list of interior featured included in the Level 2 package- tastefully stitched leather trimmed bucket seats, spit folding rear seat, leather wrapped steering wheel, 8 speaker upgraded audio with Bluetooth and XM Radio, memory driver's seat and even front seat heaters. Of course, the usual gaggle of power conveniences were included also, as well as a power sunroof and a power tailgate.

The stanndard engine on the Terrain is a 2.4L four cylinder producing 182 HP, but our test car was equipped with the upgraded 3.0 litre DOHC V6 engine ($1500), along with the Cargo Package ($350), Trailering Package ($350), and GMC's Intellilink, a 7" color touch screen which GMC describes it as "Hands free smartphone integration with Bluetooth, streaming audio, and voice activated audio controls." Easy to use and it even has Pandora Streaming audio- clearly it's the best bargain of the entire option list at $100. Including freight, the Terrain listed at $34,255.00 and the only major option missing was navigation.

Once behind the wheel, I was immediately familiar with the 3.0L "high feature" V6 from driving the 2011 Cadillac SRX. The engine produces 264 HP and 222 lb/ft of torque, so it's powerful without being a rocket ship. It's paired to a six speed automatic transmission, and EPA rated at 17 city/ 24 highway. I made a run to Orange County and back and got 24 on the way down, and a very satisfying 27 on the way back. In fact my overall mileage for the week was just over 20, which I consider very acceptable.

If I had to choose one tern to describe the overall driving experience, it would have to be smooth. The engine idles imperceptibly, the transmission shifts are silky smooth, the ride is boulevard smooth. The unitized platform and the four wheel independent suspension help see to that. It's not a performance car nor did I enter any autocross competitions, but overall it is a comfortable cruiser. I certainly found no objections in the ride and handling department, and was especially pleased by the amount of road feel in the steering- it wasn't a typical novocain feel, nor did it feel like a truck- again, a nice smooth balance was achieved.

All in all, I think GMC made the transition to a crossover quite nicely with the Terrain. The lowered center of gravity and improved handling and ride make for a better overall vehicle for passenger use. So if you're looking for a midsize crossover that's smooth, capable and comfortable without breaking the bank or looking like it belongs to the soccer mom set, you might check out the GMC Terrain. It's got a lot to offer.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Behind The Wheel: 2012 Chevy Volt: A Week Without Gasoline

I've always been one fascinated by the next big revolution in Automotive propulsion. In the early 60's, I was mesmerized by the Chrysler Turbine Car- a gorgeous creation that hummed softly while slurping down fuel like it was free and emitting large quantities of Nitrous Oxides. Smooth operation, but emissions and fuel economy were both serious problems that were later shared by the Rotary engine as it struggled and ultimately failed to go mainstream in the 70s.

I was very impressed with the all electric GM EV-1 back in the 90s - the General's first electric car was quick and quiet, although the range issue never got solved and the car was tiny inside and out. I always thought they were onto something, but the range never quite got to commercially viable levels. Pure electric cars have always carried range anxiety along for the ride.

When the Chevy Volt came to market a year ago, I was highly intrigued- an electric car with a back up generator. In a nutshell, the Volt has a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery supplying a 111-kW electric propulsion system, plus a 1.4 litre generator with a 9.3 gallon fuel tank, which gives the car a total range of over 300 miles.  It seemed much more practical to me for the real world.

So when Chevrolet offered me the opportunity to test drive one for a week, I not only eagerly accepted, but I decided to take it a step further and drive the car as I would my everyday car- but with a goal of using no gasoline during our time together. To accomplish this, I parked my regular car away from home for the week- The Volt was my only transportation.

In many ways, I'm the right prospect for a plug in Hybrid. As a writer, I work from home a lot and live in a gepgraphically tight community where I don't drive extremely long distances. Some days I don't use my car at all, and most of my trips are less than 20 miles or so. So far so good, except that I do go into LA a couple of times a month, and I live in a desert- Palm Springs, to be specific. That means Air Conditioning- and some days, lots of it.  I was curious about how desert temperatures and the need for climate control would affect its range, which is estimated to be about 36 miles on a full charge.

My test Crystal Red Tintcoat Volt arrived as a fully loaded example, with Bose audio, Navigation, Premium Trim, Park Assist and polished aluminum wheels. It looked handsome inside and out, with a leather trimmed interior and four bucket seats. Everything had a well tailored look to it. I did note that the console was rather high, because the battery pack is nested beneath it. The Volt is a hatchback, and the rear compartment is on the smallish side, but the rear seats fold individually to accomodate most needs.

Behind the wheel, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the interior - comfortable two tone perforated leather seats with contrasting stitching, high quality soft materials, color graphics and information center, and a great deal of light all in all made for a light and airy cabin. Once the energy button was pressed, I was struck by the quiet- no engine noise, no transmission whine, just the soft whirring of the electric motors. Then out on the road thing I noticed an unexpectedly smooth ride- The Volt's propulsion system adds about 400 pounds compared to the gasoline powered Cruze, and as a result the ride quality is much improved.

The instrumentation was totally unlike a conventional car. There are two multicolor displays, one in front of the driver and one in the console. A small fuel gauge shows how much fuel is in the 9.3 gallon tank and displays an estimated range on gas. Beneath that is a battery gauge that estimates electric range, and at the bottom a display of estimated total mileage. A digital speedometer is in front of the driver and to the right is an efficiency gauge, like a fuel economy gauge of the 70's gone space age. A happy green dot (looking remarkably like the earth) rotates in the center of the display - it moves up and down as the gas and brake pedals are applied. The color changes the further it moves up or down. The driving lesson is obvious- jackrabbit starts and screeching stops are the enemy of electric range. The usual battery of engine monitoring gauges are absent.

I'd also done some reading online about the difference between low and drive in electric operation- there's no transmission gears in play, so the difference is the application of regenerative braking. In drive, lifting your foot off of the accelerator causes the car to coast. In low, as soon as your lift your foot off the gas, the regenerative braking commences. It allows you to drive at low speeds with minimal application of the brake pedal. So at lower speeds, under 35 mph, I drove in low, and over that I used drive, but downshifted before applying the brakes whenever possible.

Driving the Volt was very much to me like flying an Cessna. An airplane has a window of flight- a minimum speed to stay aloft without stalling, and  maximum safe speed before breaking up. In addition, the wings and ailerons must be kept within a tight range and all movements executed gradually. That's how I began to see the Volt as I moved through traffic.

Armed with the Energy Usage Screen that rates the efficiency of both driving style and climate control usage, I strove to keep the car moving whenever possible. I monitored the window of traffic more actively and worked more diligently at maintaining a steady and smooth speed that I would have in a conventional gasoline car, and my reward was range. I got as much as 44 miles of range (versus a projected 36) by paying attention to calibrated traffic lights and moving at a steady speed. But keep in mind, that I could have also just ignored everything and driven the Volt like a conventional car. The worst that could happen was that the generator might come on.

And then the heat came. The Volt and I endured some pretty unseasonal heat- 106 degrees to be exact. Throw in a couple of cranky passengers and I tested the A/C in "Comfort" mode. The range loss was less than I expected- only 3 miles - we stayed cool inside, and I still didn't end up needing the gasoline generator.

In fact, I didn't end up using the generator at all. I spent the entire week in exclusively electric power and it was a pleasure. I plugged the Volt in at night (120V takes about 7 hours) and awoke each morning to a "Fully Charged" message on the dash. The car was wonderfully quiet, and the hood stayed cool to the touch, which was another unexpected pleasure. The car performed flawlessly all week and I took quite a few people for rides. Often when I came out to the car, people would ask me questions about it. The highlight was pulling into the bank one morning as a guy was pulling out in a new Rolls-Royce Phantom convertible, and he was looking at me. That says quite a bit. The Volt did everything a conventional car does, except need gasoline. And of course, at all times there was a generator and a full tank of fuel, so if I had to go anywhere, all I needed to do was jump in the Volt and go.

I'm not saying I had no dislikes- but my observations were minor and had nothing to do with the propulsion. The front spoiler was a bit low and hit driveways everywhere. I thought a car in the Volt's price class should have a power seat. And there's no way to preserve battery power, for example if I wanted to drive to LA and save the electric range for when I get there, but that's being corrected for 2013.

The Volt doesn't make sense for everyone. Those with a long daily commute or who run long distances on the freeway would be better off with a Cruse Eco or a conventional hybrid. And certainly cost is a factor, as not everyone can budget $39,995 for a base Volt to begin with (although I would be remiss not to mention that tax credits available currently can offset almost $9000 of the purchase price in CA, and there's a very attractive lease deal as well.) But every new technology is more expensive at first, so hopefully we will see the affordability improve over time. Volt owners I have spoken to tell me that it costs them about $35 per month for the electricity to charge it at nights- so there's a genuine savings there as well, plus the freedom from dependency on big oil has a value for many consumers.

I found it to be one heck of an impressive automobile, indeed more than I had expected, that somehow has become a political football for reasons unlrelated to its actual attributes. But I believe that any car should be judged on its owm merits and not because of who was President when it was introduced. If you haven't checked the Volt out in person yet, I highly recommend that you take it for a drive. No gasoline will be needed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Pretty Good Sign

A follow up to my musings on the Great Sign that was and forever will be the Holiday Inn, I decided to take a moment to reflect on the first runner-up in the World O' Jeff Neon Signage Hall of Fame. This contender has less superb signs but iconic space age orange A-Frame Motel offices that looked like atomic Ski chalets and matching cupolas atop their likewise orange roofed restaurants. Clearly they won the award for most effective use of orange and aqua in history at least until someone invented the eighties. While we preferred the other chain for lodging, and my father was a confessed Holidex reservation system junkie, this one was a favorite in a different category.

Yes, it's Howard Johnson's, my mother's highway luncheon stop of choice, no doubt boosted in my esteem by the twenty-eight flavors and the Ho Jo Cola. Holiday Inn restaurants were the one area that lacked consistency, but the orange roof was as predictable as a blowout on a Firestone 500. Simple Simon and the Pieman greeted you at the main entry door along with the name of the city. Look, Mom- Eau Claire already. I'll have the fried clam strips, Ma'am.

I remember being atop Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1968-high atop the site that advertised "See Seven States". The first thing I picked out from my lofty vantage point was a Ho Jo's. From then on it was "See Seven States and a Howard Johnson's" to us.

Here, in it's glory, the pretty good Ho Jo's sign (and note the Ultra-Fabulous Holiday Inn Great Sign in the Background.)

And here's s terrific tribute to the pretty darn good Orange Roofed Inns