Monday, February 22, 2010

Ten collectible cars (or not)

CNN recently ran a piece on what it called "10 dirt cheap collectible cars." While collectors are unpredictable - almost everybody collects something, and almost everything is collected by somebody - the mind boggles at the idea that more than a few poor beknighted souls would lust after some of these cars...

1. 1985-93 Ford Mustang 5.0 HO

The Fox-body Mustang appeared in 1979. The demise of the Pinto-based Mustang II saddened virtually no one, but the 1979 oil crisis postponed hopes of new high-performance Mustang. The venerable 302 V-8 played a "now you see it, now you don't" game for a few years, and turbocharged four-cylinder engines weren't quite the thing for a Mustang, but in 1985 the 302 (now labeled a 5.0 liter) jumped to 210 horsepower. Fuel injection arrived the next year, and the Fox-body legend began.

Today it's hard to find a 5.0 Mustang that hasn't been modified within a cubic inch of its life. That may make untouched examples all the more valuable to future collectors - and there will be future collectors. I mean, it's a Mustang.

2. 1975-80 AMC Pacer

The American Motors Corporation was perennially undercapitalized, and like many struggling organizations it resorted to major innovations in a desperate search for some advantage - any advantage - in the marketplace. Unfortunately, like many struggling organizations it lacked the resources to properly implement any innovative ideas it might have had and was forced to take half-measures. Thus, the Pacer - the widest small car ever built. AMC even bragged about it in their advertising! But they were making a virtue out of necessity - AMC couldn't afford to invest in new tooling, so the Pacer was in many respects a shortened version of AMC's full-size cars. Even so, AMC managed to sell 280,000 of the things, but half were built in that first model year. The Pacer was dropped after the 1980 model year, and AMC itself would be gone a few years later.

Even CNN admits that the Pacer is "[t]he object of near-universal mockery." It was, and it is, and it should be. Remember those "poor beknighted souls" I mentioned above? This car is for them.

3. 1974-80 Triumph Spitfire 1500

The Triumph Spitfire was your basic British roadster - small, light, crude, great fun to drive, utterly unreliable. The 1500 was the final version of the Spitfire; it was slightly less crude and slightly less reliable (a relative term) than its predecessors.

There are, and hopefully always will be, people who enjoy tinkering with cars more than they enjoy driving them. For those people, there are British roadsters. For the rest of us, there are Miatas. But I wouldn't kick a Triumph out of my garage, either.

4. 1975-78 Datsun 280Z

The 280Z was the last of Datsun's first-generation Z-cars. With its 2.8-liter engine rated at 149 horsepower, it was one of the quicker cars of the smog-choked 1970s. But it was also much more portly and - with the giant bumpers required by new US safety standards - much less attractive than earlier iterations of the car, the 240Z and 260Z. It would be replaced within a few years by the next-generation Z, the 280ZX.

Most Japanese cars of the 1970s have rusted away by now, which makes any Z car in good condition a rare find. But the 280Z will never quite measure up to the 240Z and 260Z.

5. 1989-91 Ford Taurus SHO

It was a jellybean. A very successful jellybean. A front-wheel-drive family sedan that sold by the million. Then they added a high-revving 220-horsepower Yamaha V-6 and a five-speed manual transmission. It was fast. Very fast.

It's quirky. Conan O'Brien owns one. It's hard to find any more. It has a cult following, and if you want one, I won't judge you. (If, however, you want a Pacer, I will judge you. Severely.)

6. 1977-83 BMW 320i

The BMW 3-series has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best sports sedans money (an awful lot of money, these days) can buy. The 320i was a fine car in its day, featuring a 125-horsepower fuel-injected version of BMW's M10 four-cylinder engine - in Europe. In the United States, most 320i cars came with a less powerful 1.8-liter engine, thanks to the introduction of a 2.0-liter six that the US wouldn't get for a few more years.

That's why the choice of the 320i as a collector's E21 is mystifying. E21 BMWs get short shrift next to the legendary 2002 that preceded them and the E30 that succeeded them. But the 320i wasn't even the best American E21. That distinction belongs to the 323i and its 143-horsepower 2.3-liter straight six. The 320i wasn't a bad car, but it's just another old BMW.

7. 1968-76 Volkswagen Beetle

The People's Car. Herbie, the Love Bug. It's a symbol of the Sixties in this country, and with Mexican production only ending in 2003 after more than 21 million had been built, it's ubiquitous in Latin America.

The greatest economy car of all time is a global icon - and that makes it a collector's item. Best of all, you'll never have trouble finding parts.

8. 1986-88 Pontiac Fiero GT

No.

9. 1979-81 Fiat Spider 2000

The Fiat Spider enjoyed a 20-year run in this country as an Italian competitor to the British roadsters. Italian and British sports cars shared many of the same characteristics. They looked good and they were fun to drive - when they ran. The reliability of a Spider was no better than that of a British roadster and possibly a good deal worse, if it can be believed.

Fiats have never seemed to command quite the same level of respect as British sports cars. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe it's the weight of numbers. Maybe it's the depth of feeling British cars evoke. Maybe it's the certainty that the purchase price is but a small fraction of the cost of ownership. Whatever the reason, the Spider doesn't quite measure up.

10. 1956 Buick Roadmaster

"Look where the excitement isn't," the article says. What's the point of that? Isn't the point of having a collector car the excitement that comes with it? This Buick is just another Eisenhower-era barge dripping in chrome, and while I'm sure it excites someone, I'm equally sure I don't know who.

***

Somewhere out there is a car for everybody. No matter what your taste, or lack thereof, go out and enjoy. The car lust touches us all.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Rabbit and the Miata

This isn't a story about a Volkswagen and a Mazda, although it should be.

My winter Miata has been sitting inactive for most of the winter. By that I mean it hasn't turned a wheel since I put the snow tires on a few months ago. While this may seem an odd state of affairs for what is ostensibly a winter car, there is a very good reason for it.

We had too much winter.

The Miata stands four feet tall with five inches of ground clearance. My winter Miata actually stands an inch or so lower than that thanks to some suspension changes. Not a problem if we have an average December snowfall - a mere 5.5 inches.

We did not have an average December snowfall.

Omaha saw record amounts of snow in December of 2009. And the record wasn't just broken - it was shattered. The old record for the month was 19.9 inches. This December? 24.6 inches, officially. Too damn much, unofficially.

We won't even mention the drifts.

Actually, yes: let's mention the drifts. The first foot of snow (what a horrible thing to say) had fallen by December 8. The seven inches that fell that day were accompanied by sustained winds up to 40mph, gusting to 52. That translates to what the locals call a blizzard. What the transplants like me call it can't be reproduced here. We are trying so very hard to be family-friendly. Also, Mom is reading this.

Hi, Mom!

Anyway, the drifts. Those winds drove the snow so hard that in some places the ground was totally bare. In others, it was under several feet of snow. One of those places was my not-quite-four-feet-tall Miata.

It wouldn't have been so bad if the snow had just been up to the windows and spilling over the hood. No. That I could have dealt with. That snow could have been cleared. Eventually, it was. No, the problem was that those driving winds drove the snow under the car. They packed it so firmly that movement - and excavation - was quite impossible. It was the first time I have ever seen a car get high-centered while sitting still.

Impressive.

And of course, this being the Midwest, none of the snow melted. No. Subzero temperatures (those were the daily highs, folks) saw to that. Another foot fell just before Christmas. I wasn't here to witness that, having temporarily escaped to the East Coast (where a foot of snow had fallen just before my arrival - what am I, the cure for global warming?) - but when I came back, there it was. A snow drift shaped like a Miata.

The snow did eventually melt. Well, most of it. It got downright warm - might have even made it to 40 a few days! But by that time the battery had gone flat from disuse and extreme cold. What with one thing and another, I didn't get around to jump-starting it until today. It fired up after a few minutes of charging off a neighbor's pickup, and while it was sitting there warming up I cleared away the morning's accumulation of snow (yes, more snow.) Then I decided that I might as well pop the hood and see how things looked underneath. (If you're wondering how I jump-started the car without opening the hood, the answer is that the battery is in the trunk. Weight balance. Also a pretty good idea considering that most people pull into a parking spot and you can't always get at the front of a car when you need to jump it. Slick engineering, no?)

And now we get to the part of the story that explains the title. It has been a very cold winter, and it was snowing this morning, and when I opened the hood I found a rabbit nestled on top of the engine. I let out a yell and the rabbit shot through the space between hood and windshield, did a 180-degree turn while moving up the slick glass, and launched back in the opposite direction. It was beautiful. He was last seen high-tailing it (cotton-tailing it?) around the corner of the nearest apartment.

Most people check their fluids when they open the hood. Not me. I check for wildlife. This isn't the first time I've found an animal in a car, after all. All I can say is that that is one lucky rabbit. I was about to go for a long drive to charge the battery, and I suspect that he would have been well done by the time I got home. That's assuming he hadn't tried to escape and gotten caught in the belts, a possible outcome at which I shudder.

I've heard of supercharged Rabbits, but this is ridiculous.

Still, all's well that ends well; the Miata runs, the rabbit lives, and we both have a story to tell. Two feet of snow and a rabbit on the engine. Winter in Omaha. What a country.