"something of an extraordinary nature will turn up..."

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February 7th, 2013

Leyat Hélica Conduit Interieur

…it’s Hélica! Between 1913 and 1925, Frenchman Marcel Leyat built some 30 propeller-driven automobiles. He called them “Hélica,” from the French for propeller, but they also acquired the nickname “plane without wings.” Through this weekend, six examples are on display at Rétromobile, Europe’s premier old car event, at Paris Expo at the Porte de Versailles.

Rétromobile always has a flair for the outrageous, and Hélica is certainly this year’s major example. In addition to displays from automobile manufacturers, collector car dealers and automobilia vendors, the show hosts a large auction by the Paris house Artcurial. Among the expected Delages and Delahayes, we find also some outrageous and unexpected “kustoms,” the Egyptian, based on a 1958 Oldsmobile, and Dreamsicle, which began life as a 1956 Lincoln. Both cars were built by John D’Agostino of California.

Rétromobile runs through Sunday, February 10th, but the auction is tomorrrow. If you want Dreamsicle or the Egyptian you’ll have to hurry on down. We’ll have some other Rétromobile treats posted tomorrow. See you then!

February 4th, 2013

Citroën DS-19

Everybody knows Rétromobile. As I was leaving Boston the TSA inquisitor asked the purpose of my trip to Paris. “Rétromobile,” I replied, and was waved into line for my MRI scan with a smile.

Rétromobile is, of course, Euope’s premier old car event, held annually in February at Paris Expo at the Porte de Versailles. The 38th edition will open on Wednesday. This year the feature car is the Citroën DS, first seen at the 1955 Paris Salon. The show will also observe the 50th anniversary of thePorsche 911, the 30th of the Peugeot 205, and host a tribute to the Shelby Cobra.

Rétromobile is known for limelighting unconventional cars. This year’s example is Hélica, Marcel Leyat’s propeller-driven automobile. And just for good measure, a Mirage Jet will be parked out front, to be auctioned on Friday, February 8th, the day Paris auction house Artcurial holds a motor car auction.

The show runs for five days only, Wednesday through Sunday, February 6th to 10th. Hurry on down! It’s an easy ride on Metro line 12.

October 11th, 2012

1974 Comet price

Three years ago I devoted a post to buying a car at Hershey for less than $3,000. I found the pickings were pretty slim, and that the only one I’d have been able to drive home was a Studebaker Lark for which the owner was asking $3,800.

Yesterday in 2012′s Car Corral, however, I was struck by the number of decent cars for $6,000, or a little more, that were not only driveable but pretty nice as well. Take a look at what I found.

It was Rambler day in the Corral, for I found this very tidy, if spartan, 1968 American for under $5,000, plus a nice 1966 Classic, albeit over my price target.

An even six grand, though, would buy this rare 1987 Pontiac Sunbird GT convertible, if such a car appeals to you (it didn’t to me). This 1978 Ford LTD Landau represented more car for the money than the ’68 Rambler American, although not in as good condition and not to my taste. Upping the ante to $8900 would buy this 1979 Pacer “Village Squire,” but only for somebody named Wayne.

Breaking the seven grand barrier would allow a couple of running 1920s cars, like this 1928 Chrysler Model 62. It looked pretty solid, if distressed and weatherbeaten. Even better, though, was this 1928 Chevrolet at $7,900.

This 1956 Studebaker Flight Hawk looked interesting, but I thought that $9,500 was too much for a car that obviously has been poorly rodded. There were several viable projects in my price range, like this barn-fresh 1926 Model T, but it was not of sound mind and body. A 1970 Olds Cutlass was suggested as a 4-4-2 clone, but not only was it beaten and battered, there was trouble in the engine room.

When all was said and done, I think I’d have spent $6,450 and driven home in the nice lady’s 1974 Mercury Comet.

Update – Oct.11

I was wrong about this 1960 Rambler American. Its onwer was asking $10,000, not $6,500. Having owned a 1951 Rambler I’m quite partial to these revival Americans, although I didn’t care for the Continental spare. This onlooker didn’t either.

A few other cars in my six-grand price range turned up today. This 1963 Studebaker Cruiser looked pretty good at a distance, and its $5,250 price was in range. However, close examination showed the ominous bubbles to which Studies are all too susceptible. More enticing was this 1938 Oldsmobile, straight and solid at $4,500. Among newer iron was this roomy 1986 Ford full-size LTD station wagon at just $3,750. All things considered, though, I still prefer the Comet.

February 3rd, 2012

Rétromobile welcomes you

Rétromobile, France’s premier old car event, opened for the 37th time on Wednesday. Occupying three pavilions at the Paris Expo center at the Porte de Versailles, the show continues through Sunday.

It is a year of anniversaries: 50 years of the Ferrari GTO and MGB, 40 for the Honda Civic and Renault R5 (a/k/a Le Car). Among manufacturers, Porsche is making its Rétromobile debut, while Skoda enlarges its presence. Citroën is showcasing the automobile as art, BMW its underappreciated racing heritage and Mercedes-Benz evincing a stark, white presence. Peugeot, meanwhile celebrates the long run of the 200 series, which dates from 1929. It is nice to see the elderly Citroën bus, discovered in the rough and under restoration a few years ago, nearing completion.

Rétromobile is not all automaker displays, however. There are clubs, some of them, like Le Club 205, on factory stands and others, like Amicale Spridget, standing alone. I was caught off guard by Renault Alliance Club Passion. Who new the French could be passionate about a car Americans generally ignored.

Many of the major classic car dealers are on hand, and French auction house Artcurial was on deck with a Friday sale. Making a European debut is a selection of cars from the Mullin Automotive Museum in California.

There are always specialty displays at Retromobile, and among this year’s selection are friends of amphibians and “Constructeurs sans Patente” (manufacturers without license), a showcase of one-off creations like Le Renaudat. Outside Pavilion 3 is the huge 30-ton, nine-cylinder Duvant engine, which makes frequent demonstrations.

Rétromobile also hosts many parts vendors, model car purveyors, booksellers, painters and sculptors, although we wondered if any Bugattis were harmed in the making of this audacious desk. Some carnival favorites never die, like the spark intensifer man beloved of country fairs and carnivals.

Our friend Joris from PreWarCar.com is sharing space with the British magazine The Automobile. On their stand is perhaps the most unusual exhibit of all, the never-finished Gerin automobile of 1923-26. Discovered in Ireland by Reg Winstone, it shows very early hints of streamlining and technologies that are thought to have arisen later. We’ll tell more about that another time.

January 30th, 2012

1974 Monica 560 sedan

One of the good things about February is Rétromobile, France’s premier old car event. Held annually at Paris Expo at the Porte de Versailles, it’s been on the go for 37 years. Think Hershey or Beaulieu Autojumble with an accent, and all indoors.

In addition to vendors of parts and cars, Rétromobile also draws manufacturers with their own historic displays.This year will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MGB, and the 40th of the Honda Civic (who knew…?). Citroën will explore cars as art, Peugeot will highlight the the launch of the new 208 with a tribute to 200-series Peugeots of the past.

Other attractions include the little-known and stunningly beautiful French luxury car Monica, home-built cars like this Piollet, a history of amphibious cars, and the gargantuan 30-ton, nine-cylinder VOS Duvant engine.

Also on the cards are the European debut of the renowned Peter Mullin Collection from California and an auction of fine motor cars by the Paris firm Artcurial.

Rétromobile opens Wednesday, February 1st at 11:00 AM and runs through Sunday the 5th. Check it out.

August 5th, 2011

2011 Mercury Grand Marquis

Yesterday was exactly seven months since the last Mercury was made. The thought was brought home to me recently, after my Infiniti I30 was dangerously damaged by a deer. While the insurance deliberations were evolving, I had the use of a rental car. The only vehicle available at my local agent was a spanking new Mercury Grand Marquis.

It struck me immediately how little the model has changed since the current generation was introduced in 1992: broad front seat, a split bench rather than buckets, equally spacious leather couch in the rear, and broad of beam at the back. The trunk verges on huge, but is awkwardly shaped, the giant doughnut spare intruding seriously on space. There are nice touches, like a locking remote trunk opener, cupholders for two in the back and legible instruments on the dashboard, but the whole approach is pretty old school, including the patently fake burled walnut on the doors.

The engine is the 4.6-liter version of Ford’s modular sohc V8, with the obligatory plastic vanity cover emblazoned with a legacy version of the Ford V8 logo. With that in mind, one wonders why the modern, ambiguous “waterfall” emblem, rather than a Big M or winged-hat god from yore. The car is equipped with stability control, but I didn’t notice any difference whether it was on or off, not that I performed any extreme maneuvers.

The owner’s manual comes in a nifty little portfolio, but on opening one is reminded that this car is nothing more than a badge-engineered Ford Crown Vic, the last civilian model of which was made in 2007 (sales since then have been limited to cabs and cops). This car was built in Canada (“2″ in the VIN) in December 2010, so it’s the Ultimate Edition in more ways than one. It’s a brand new, 20-year-old car. Some people are already collecting Grand Marquis – Chris David has an ’87 model, from the previous generation, and it rates Early American registration, as Connecticut calls its antique car plates. Next year the ’92s will qualify, too. In fact, I think they should all be eligible for antique plates, for, like the long-running Locomobile 48, built from 1913 to 1929, the Grand Marquis was old before it was sold.

Later this month the Lincoln Town Car will also meet its maker. We’ll talk about that another time.

July 25th, 2011

Pontiac Bonneville at LeMons

Time was when any town worth its salt had a dirt track race course. Aspiring young drivers, especially those who would never become Ralph dePalma or Russ Snowberger, could buy a junkyard special, probably a Ford or Chevy coupe, weld in a roll cage and go Saturday night racing, with and against their friends. Jalopy racing, as it was known, died out by the 1960s, leaving the impecunious in the lurch. Now, thanks to Jay Lamm and his co-conspirators, we have a 21st Century equivalent, the 24 Hours of LeMons (looks like “LeMans,” pronounced “lemons”).

The rules are simple. Any car that costs less than $500, ready to race, is eligible. It’s really an endurance race – the car rolling up the most laps in the allotted time wins. There are some other arcane regulations and contradictions, and gerrymandered awards, but basically that’s it. It’s an open field and you run what you brung. We visited the Boston Tow Party and Overhead-Cam Bake at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut last weekend to check it out.

As you’d expect, all the usual “tuner cars,” like Honda Civic, are represented, BMW, and there’s a generous helping of Camaros and Firebirds. But others seem like long shots: PT Cruiser, Saab, Fiat 131, Peugeot 405 Mi16,a TR-7 uprated with a 3.9-liter Land Rover V8, and a brace of Alfa Milanos. Seeming totally out of place were an Olds Delta 88 and a funny, jacked-up Pontiac Bonneville coupe.

Teams seem to need themes, so we find Britney Steers, the Saudi Audi, a golfing foursome and a Volvo-based Family Truckster with Chevy Chase on the roof. Themes demand mascots, so we see rude little gnomes, a cuddly platypus< and a plethora of rubber chickens.

After tech inspection is complete, teams report for the driver’s meeting, where impresario Jay reads the rules and penalties, and then cars line up to enter the track. Once everyone’s circling in friendly fashion, the lights turn green and the race is on.

In addition to our natural curiosity, we were there to watch our son Edward, who’s been wrenching for the Cannibal Cafe Racing team, take his first turn behind the wheel. Alas, the car, a ’91 Honda CRX, blew a head gasket on its first few laps, before his stint. A furious frenzy of remove and replace followed, while other team members cooked lunch. After a couple of hours, the car was together and running, and Edward put in two hours of some really good driving, faster than most cars on the track. It makes a parent proud.

As Jay admonishes the drivers, “racing is not a contact sport,” but sometimes stuff happens. Other times, the cars pass in circles, with no damage beyond lost time. The Bonneville fairly floated its way around the track, its driver taking the high, wide and lonesome line, a useful tactic because a tortoise that runs the entire race may outscore a hare that flamed out early.

There were some heartbreaks, like the Peugeot going out in a cloud of smoke with internal injuries, although a spare engine was quickly rounded up from their support network. Head gaskets were the order of the day, and some cars needed suspension work and others body surgery. Still others opted for heart transplants. Alas, Honda #33 had another acute case of headgasketitis and was out for good, an hour into its third leg.

Saturday was hot, leaving the stands sparsely settled while many sought shade under the bleachers. Some teams, like the 999 Gutlass, brought cheerleaders, who were eager to perform for the cameras. By 5:00 Sunday, as racing drew to a close, it was Alfa #75, running well all weekend, that took home the nickels. Firebird #6 made a class win – complete results will show up soon on the 24 Hours of LeMons website.

Interested? There are nine more LeMons races in 2011. The next one is August 6-7 at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, California. There’s still time get a car from your nearest junkyard and enter.

UPDATE: Full results now available.

April 23rd, 2011

Scion FRS concept

New York’s International Automobile Show is the last on the North American circuit and a moveable feast, in that it always opens on Easter weekend. The scribblers of the motoring press get in a couple of days early, so they can write and blog about it before the good citizens form their own opinions.

There are rarely any new concept cars at New York, but always a few new-model introductions. This year heralded a new Chevy Malibu, lauded for exemplary miles per gallon (with the four-cylinder engine, of course), and Chrysler had two new Jeeps, a Mojave edition Wrangler and an SRT8 Grand Cherokee, its 6.4-liter Hemi making it America’s fastest SUV. Ford gave its Taurus a nose job and touted its “active grille shutters,” which make the car more aerodynamic when running cool, and a new SHO model that’s mostly a trim package with a Bentelyesque grille.

Most of the roll-outs were imports, Hyundai’s new Accent, five new Honda Civics, and a Subaru Impreza. Seen before were VW’s new New Beetle and the zero-petroleum Nissan Leaf (you can try this at home). Porsche claimed primacy in hybrids with the gasoline-electric replica Lohner-Porsche and introduced a hybrid Panamera, while nearby we were treated to the new Land Rover Evoque and an “Autobiography Ultimate” package for the Range Rover (can you say $170,000?). Rolls-Royce and Bentley were together again, if only in proximity, while Saab gave no hint of ongoing difficulties, if one ignored the paucity of new product. Popular commentator Dennis David got to meet Eleanor Thornton and prolific scribe Gregg D. Merksamer was intrigued by the Lohner-Porsche.

Outright concepts were few, one of the more dramatic being the Cadillac with Lambo doors. My favorite, though, was the Scion FRS (for front-engine, rear-wheel drive, sport). Not ready for production, it certainly shows that the son-of-Toyota is contemplating new directions.

The bottom floor is the domain of trucks. In stark contrast to Malibu’s numbers were the economy ratings of the F-150 Supercab pickup. The show runs through May 1st. Check it out.

April 11th, 2011

Land Rovers on safari

A few weeks ago, I told you about our summer sojourn to Kenya. As you might suspect, we did not go solely to look at cars. About a week of our trip was spent on safari.

We started with a top-down view, wild animals as seen from a hot air balloon. Rising before dawn, we were collected in a Land Rover and driven to the launch site in the Masai Mara reserve, whence we ascended at daybreak, thanks to plenty of hot air. We were not alone, as three other balloon parties drifted with us. During the hour-long flight we spied wilbebeests, elephants, impalas and zebras. The excursion ended with a terrestrial champagne breakfast.

Once earthbound, we went in search of animals close-up, happening upon an accommodating cheetah, who posed for a photo op. On our day we met ostrich, zebra, baboon, elephants, sun-bathing hippos, giraffes, more impalas and a pride of lions. Wildebeests hobnobbed with the zebras when not making their own migration. Despite the sage advice not to venture on foot, we alighted briefly at a pillar marking the Tanzanian border.

The Land Rover is, of course, the quintessential safari vehicle. Outfitted for animal-spotting, they are ubiquitous in the bush, though increasingly being supplanted by Toyota Land Cruisers. Some safari operators take a less expensive route, with sightseeing adaptations of the familiar matatus, the Toyota vans used as communal taxis in towns. Long-haul safari cars are called “overlanders.” These are heavy trucks outfitted for passengers. At night they pull into campgrounds and disgorge their passengers for supper and, eventually, sleep. We shared a campground with several overlanders, though in more comfortable-looking huts that concealed rustic tents.

Our safari car was our daughter and son-in-law’s Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, a sport utility not sold as such in the United States (a less rugged V8 version is sold as the Lexus GX470). With all creature comforts and a 4-liter turbo diesel it conveyed us throughout the preserve, while GPS kep us from getting lost. Even in the bush, Kenya is tech-savvy, with cell towers aplenty, albeit sometimes in disguise.

A sure tip-off to the presence of wildlife is a gaggle of matatus. By waiting our turn we were able to move into position to snap some awesome photos.

March 30th, 2011

1928 Model A Ford Special Coupe - front

Frank McMullen has been fascinated with Model A Fords since he was five years old. He built most of the Hubley diecast kits, and religiously watched The Waltons on television, drawn by the distinctive exhaust note of the Model As on the show. Somehow, though, real Model As always eluded him, the available ones being either too ambitious a project or too expensive a purchase.

The summer before last, however, he was checking about the car corral at a local AACA meet in eastern Pennsylvania when he came across a perky 1928 Special Coupe. It had been painted Rattle-Can Black and had a number of issues, but it had four decent Allstate tires and no ominous puddles underneath. After a short ride, Frank was able to make a deal, but the local Model A guru, who was handling the sale for the owner, insisted on going through it before letting it go. So it was a cold and snowy January before Frank could drive it home. He gave it some exercise in a local park, then put it away, next to his 1961 Rambler American convertible.

But he really wanted to drive it, so he began driving it to work when the weather wasn’t too bad, appropriate because he works in a building the same age as the car. Come spring there were some coolant issues to be addressed, followed by head gasket replacement. He found what were clearly original pistons and valves, at somewhat more than 80,000 miles. He’s put another 5,000 on it since, mostly commuting and some touring. It celebrated International Model A Ford Day in September at the local Ford dealer.

He liked driving it so much that this past winter – the winter from hell in much of the country – he kept it on the road for all but the sloppiest days. It started easily on the coldest day of the year, though sometimes relished a bit of thawing. It didn’t mind being out in the snow, but on really cold nights he bundled it up.

A couple of weeks ago, he gave it a bath before the first spring tour of his local club, Steamtown A’s of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Convoy-fashion, they visited Loch’s Maple and Fiber Farm in Springville, Pennsylvania, where craftspeople, alpacas and rising sap were holding forth. The folks had fun, and the Fords got a chance to catch up with their cousins.

I know from experience that Model A Fords are good winter cars. Nicely balanced and not overpowered, their narrow tires are sure-footed in snow. They’re not especially warm inside, even when equipped with a manifold heater, but the coupes, like Frank’s are cozier than open cars or sedans. Frank has the right idea. He has plans for more cosmetic and mechanical work, he says, “that is, if I can ever stop driving it long enough to do some serious work.”

Serendipity: n. An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
“They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Horace Walpole, The Three Princes of Serendip
© 2004-2014 Kit Foster
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