Trivial bits and pieces I learned about cars…
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1. The Pontiac GTO was one of the first automotive successes of playboy, time-machine purveyor, and possible cocaine-sale-middleman John DeLorean. The early 1960s being the embryonic days of muscle cars, DeLorean’s idea was simple enough: to put a big engine in a small car. For a demonstration, he put a 389 cubic-inch endine in the body of a stock Pontiac Tempest. But he ran into a corporate rule limiting engine size: no more than 1 cubic inch of displacement for 10 pounds of car. The Tempest weighed only 3400 pounds.
Demonstrating his trademark “iconoclastic” thinking, DeLorean found a loophole: the GTO would not be a new car model, but an option package for the Tempest. While he was able to sneak the car past GM’s engine displacement hall monitors, it also created a host of unintended side effects. Those early GTOs used standard Tempest parts, intended for a grocery getter; the brakes proved “alarmingly inadequate” at high speeds. And because insurance companies did not realize the GTO had more than twice the horsepower of the base model Tempest, early adopters received insurance discounts for choosing a safe, compact car.
Within two years of its 1964 inception, the GTO was popular enough to be featured in a Beach Boys song—lyrics suggested to them by a Pontiac adman—and its outsize engine was one of the initial salvos in the displacement wars: Dodge rolled out the Hemi engine in 1966 (426 ci), Chevy’s Chevelle SS in 1967 (396 ci), the Plymouth Road Runner in 1969 (440 ci), and the updated GTO in 1970 (455 ci). Seeing engine sizes spiral, DeLorean said “it’s a 400 cubic inch world” but I looked it up and the world is, in fact, larger than that.
By 1973 the muscle car craze was slowing and the GTO was abandoned; despite its cultural cachet, fewer GTOs were sold in its 10 years of existence than just two years worth of mid-60s Mustangs.
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2. In the mid-1950s, Chrysler was working on a model car called the Norseman. The concept was built in Italy, then shipped to the US for the big reveal. Unfortunately, the car was on the Andrea Doria, which sank at the cost of 46 lives and one $100,000 car. If “The Norseman” was a bad name for a car, it was not alone. Here are some other options considered for the Edsel: Silver Sword, Varsity Stroke, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop. None of those are made up, and while I cannot prove it, I remain convinced that over-the-counter benzedrine is responsible for “Mongoose Civique.”
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3. The Corvette debuted in 1953—just like Playboy. The first version was a sleek and stylish facade over a comically weak engine, 2-gear automatic transmission, and economy-car standard parts. Putting the pedal on the floor would rocket the car from 0-60 MPH in eleven seconds—breathlessly, assuming the driver held their breath. Eleven seconds is slower than a 1991 Toyota Corolla. Also, and this may have been some kind of sign, the car had no exterior door handles. I don’t know why.
The man responsible for transforming a modest slowpoke of a car into the enduring American symbol of conspicuous consumption and the existential trauma of middle age was a Russian named Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Duntov was a tinkerer and hot-rodder who was so disappointed by the mechanical specs of the first Vette that he wrote a letter to Chevy. They gave him a job. Duntov glimpsed the future in even that odd first version of the car, and saw too the post-war glory years of American capitalism unfolding—he had, after all, gotten a job by writing a letter of complaint. He delivered a “manifesto” arguing that the “economics of prosperity” would create a market for glamorous, non-utilitarian sports cars; a vision tied to the rise of individualism and a burgeoning culture of hot-rodders modifying cars for speed and style. Duntov foresaw cars marketed for youth, fun, speed, and looks, not just family transportation and commutes. Perhaps, too, he saw the potential of the nascent interstate highway system to make driving an act of leisure (see here for the story of American roads).
By 1957 the Corvette looked even better and drove more like something that could be called a sports car, with a 300 HP engine, manual transmission, and racing suspension. Around this time, automakers began to pull out of sponsored auto racing, owing to concerns about safety. Duntov, a race fanatic and driver, managed to circumvent this by creating a dummy corporation to which he sent experimental Corvettes for race/acid tests, often taking official Chevy “business trips” to watch or drive in non-Chevy-sanctioned races. As the 1960s unfolded, other manufacturers rolled out competing cars—especially the Ford Thunderbird—pushing the car to be ever faster and sleeker. The apex was 1967, when the Corvette’s L88 performance package turned the car into a 500+ HP fire-breathing hellbeast. And yet within a decade, emissions standards, the clean air act, and the gas crisis had taken the starch out of the Vette’s sheets, down to a mewling 165 horsepower. If sports cars and big engines were the defining symbol of American masculinity, the plodding late 70s Corvettes were the emasculation.
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4. Ford needed an entire market research team to see what Zora Duntov had: the youth movement. Their effort to leverage this was the 1964 Ford Mustang. Rolled out to much fanfare—Ford bought a half-hour block of TV time on all three major networks—the Mustang met with immediate success, building a million cars in just 18 months. One NYC diner’s ad said “Our hotcakes are selling like Mustangs.”
The Mustang was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca, who went on to work on the reviled Ford Pinto, saved Chrysler by pushing for the minivan, and revitalized GE by developing the rotating microwave tray. Iacocca, as an unrelated side note, was mentored by Robert McNamara, who’d “modernized” Ford’s business practice before becoming an architect of the Vietname war. Supposedly when McNamara started at Ford, they weighed stacks of invoices to figure out how much to pay, which can’t possibly be true.
Even for an era of straightforward Freudian appeals to masculinity, Mustang ad campaigns stand out. Consider: “Wolfgang used to give harpsichord recitals for a few close friends, then he bought a Mustang…being a mustanger brought out the wolf in Wolfgang” and “A car to make weak men strong and strong men invincible” …and invincible men fifty feet tall with laser eyes and the ability to fly! Despite their years and years of market research, Ford was surprised to discover that many Mustang buyers were middle-aged, making it perhaps the first midlife-crisis car.
Sales dried up: 159,000 Mustangs were sold in 1970, or less than 1/3 of the total just four years previously. Changing cultural norms might have been one cause, but another was bloat: what started sleek was now bigger, bulkier, slower, and less fun to drive. Iacocca was by this point calling the Mustang a “fat pig,” and it wasn’t keeping up with Joneses (that is, the GTOs) anymore. The Mustang stuck around, going through various rebrandings, before re-flourishing following a 2004 redesign that aped the looks of the 1965 model.
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5. The VW Beetle made its mark by using a rear-mounted air-cooled engine producing 25 HP. The finely-tuned marvel of modern transportative technology would rocket you from 0 to 60 MPH in a watch-checking 37 seconds. Oddly, the 1970s clean-air laws that spelled doom for muscle cars also doomed the Beetle, since air-cooled engines are emissions spewers. The Honda Civic was released in 1972 as a de facto front-engine, liquid-cooled nouveau Beetle replacement. A VW adman, possibly Roger Sterling, once lamented “we have to sell a nazi car in a jewish town.”