The Land Rover Writer

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lucked Out

My personal "garage" has extraordinary ventilation, limited ceiling height and plenty of stretch out room. It's a bit cold [or hot, depending on season] but if the sun's out, lots of light. That's because it's a classic, open air "shade tree" garage.

In Maine open air maintenance work can get uncomfortable this time of year. So when the linemen who work for FIEC, our local electric co-op, I jumped at the chance to get my cars up to snuff mechanically. First up was my 1966 Corvair Monza Coupe with the 110 hp/4 speed drivetrain.

I had bought tune-up parts at Clark's Corvairs when the Bay State club held its wonderful Rally there back in September but had unwisely left them sitting in the Clark's bag since then. The car had soldiered on nicely this winter, but I knew it was time for the minor tune-up.

So I enjoyed the warmth of a heated, concrete floored building, with drop lights, a huge floor jack, jack stands, and at the end of the workday, several linemen, fishermen, a plumber, a carpenter and two dogs to watch me, give advice, and comment on my numerous shortcomings. All but one were younger, by decades, than me. Did I mention there were "beverages" cooling in the snowbank just outside the door?

The Monza drew many compliments. Everyone thought it had great style, despite its scabrous paint job. I had a nice conversation with the plumber about engine [the P.O. had once offered him the chance to drive the car at a time when it had no brakes - he still shudders at the ride]. We agreed that it was very clever.

I agreed to let one man and his wife, who had never been in a Corvair, take the car one afternoon this spring or summer to enjoy a warm weather drive in it.

So I swapped out the points, rotor and condenser. The Clark's distributor cap on the car was the brass contact model; the one I purchased at Clark's had the aluminum contacts. Since the brass one looked perfect, I left it in place and put the new one in the trunk. When I went to restart the car, it would not, so I checked my point gap again - too wide. Once adjusted correctly it started up right away and purred.

Swapping plugs always gives you a chance to examine the engine's condition. I had last changed them in November 2007. The mayo in the air cleaner made it clear that the car's oil [changed in November] had condensation in it; I'm just not going far enough each time I drive the car. Plug #1 was wet and a bit gunked up, the others on the right bank were a bit wet but without evidence of much oil. The left bank plugs were all just brown and worn out. So I was relieved that all seemed well enough for the 123,000 mile engine that shows no evidence of being apart since new.

Last was a grease job on the front end. As I took out my pistol grip grease gun, a roar of derision rose and the line crew foreman handed me their battery operated grease gun, one that uses a small electric motor to pump the grease. If I had a lot of greasing to do, it would be slick to use; as it was, a few seconds with the electric gun filled everything just fine.

So the Monza runs great, will certainly start that much better, gained new appreciation from locals, provided me with a satisfying few hours, and the heat of a waste-oil furnace as well as the heat of satirical ridicule.

What a great way to pass a late afternoon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Twin Spokesmen With Opposite Messages

Two veteran actors passed away recently. Both proved to be spokesmen for opposite approaches to building and selling automobiles.

Patrick McGoohan, the English actor who gained television fame in "Secret Agent Man" one of the finest Columbo episodes ever [it's the "urinal" episode], and "The Prisoner." The latter took "The Avengers" and swept away the humor. It spoke of a dark world in which a character, known only as Number 6, tries to figure out who he is and where he is being held; it's a mix of drama and science fiction. In the manner of great British series of the '60's, only 17 episodes were made, despite its commercial success on the air.

The signature opening of the show was McGoohan [presumably] in a Lotus 7, a tiny, light, cycle fendered sports car, that in the '860's of American cars, looked like an escapee from a carnival ride. They handled better than most race cars, offered minimal interior comfort, had hankie-in-the-wind tops and flapping side curtains. They weighed about as much as a Twinkie so their small engines could still propel them to fantastic speeds. Your passenger, should they be brave, sat about 2 inches to your right and still could barely hear you over the roar of wind, engine and transmission.

When McGoohan died recently and media commentators spoke of his career [his last big role was in Braveheart], they went right to the visual impact of this little car speeding down a road on a quest for freedom. To drivers of any American car, the Lotus 7 was an impossible consideration as transportation. I still want one.

Its antithesis was the Chrysler Cordoba,hawked on television and print in a memorable advertising campaign.

Ricardo Montalban, notorious for his role on Fantasy Island and as an evil warrior in Star Trek movies, rose to fame in movies as one of the first Mexican-born leading men in US films. For the automotive world, his timeless notoriety came out of his time as a spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba, a "personal luxury car" for the '70's.

The Cordoba resembled something you would design in study hall if you had come to school stoned. The car featured one wretched excess after another: a garish grille; a wide body stance that from the rear, looked like an offensive guard on an NFL team; a vinyl roof; more bling than an NBA draft choice; and two doors too big for most barns. That said, the car sold awfully well during the decades that cemented Detroit's current reputation for unsalable cars.

But it was the interior that made Montalban's career as a car spokesman. In a hard-to-believe accent, Montalban extolled interiors of "fine Corinthian leather." Decked out in a suit that only a "Saturday Night Fever" extra could love, in a shirt with collar points larger than the wings on a 747, he let his tongue trill over the word "Corinthian." Clearly buyers sweated bullets in their polyester suits and headed right for the dealership. Except, of course, there's no such thing as "Corinthian leather." The seats were just a fancy vinyl.

How opposite the messages presented by these two spokesmen, now sadly departed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Zut Alors - Une Jeep Francaise?

Just like Land Rover, ownership of Jeep has become a sort of holy grail for automobile companies. Regardless of the corporate parent, the two marques seem to "Carry On, Jeeves," with their own enthusiasts bolstering sales and building brand awareness.

Now the rumors abound that Renault, and its partner Nissan, are toying with making a bid for Jeep from Chrysler. This will complete a circle.

Renault once sold a lot of cars here, with the Dauphine model in the '60's, but it's propensity to overheat and blow head gaskets reduced sales over time. Even though the cars got a lot better - the Renault 5, 12, 16, 17, 18, Fuego - and sold very well in Europe, they just did not capture American hearts. By the '70's, Renault was hiring USAC race drivers like Bobby and Al Unser for tv and print ads extolling the virtues of the Renault 12. In the '80's, Renault bought up the remnants of American Motors, which included Jeep.

One problem for Renault was the dealer network, a small collection of out-of-the-way dealers in smaller markets. When they showed up in major cities the dealers combined them with other makes; they rarely showed up in stand-alone locations. Renault had visions of American Motors dealers now selling Renaults, Jeeps, and the remaining line of American Motors, the Eagle.

Eventually Renault produced the Alliance and the Encore, two cars oriented to the American market. They sold in modest numbers but never broke through. Eventually Renault sold off the remaining American Motors assets - and Jeep - to Chrysler.

The opportunities presented by Jeep - like Land Rover - to larger manufacturers lie in their name recognition, established technology, enthusiast base, and name recognition. It's very alluring to a succession of owners; in recent decades, BMW, Ford and now Tata have adopted Land Rover.

Could there be some elan in Jeep's future? It would be interesting to see some of Nissan's successful engineering incorporating Jeep's 4WD experience. Renault rescued Nissan and made it successful again; maybe together they will work their magic on Jeep.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Other Side of Island Living

Yesterday the island received 8-10" of snow, depending on drifting. So that morning, I decided not to go to church and just work online, have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy watching the snow from the in front of the woodstove. Around 9:30, the snowfall thickened. I looked across the lane to the Corvair, covered with snow and a sort of sheen underneath it. How pretty, I thought.

I picked up a pair of binoculars and saw what caused the sheen - it was seawater!

I scanned the cove and realized that we had a wicked high tide. I thought about the huge full moon of last night, before the storm, and quickly went back online to my tide chart page. Holy *** - high tide was not for another hour and the height was extreme, 11.5 feet instead of the usual 9 feet. So much for relaxing.

Now I had to shovel out the Corvair , uncover it, start it [it has sat for the better part of this week], warm it up, and try and reverse it away from the water. The plows have not come yet so there was no other place to put it on the lane. Naturally, the seawater had mixed with the snow and frozen nice and slick. The car would not move very far.

So I went to the cellar when I store a tote of woodstove ash just for occasions like this, and spread some out underneath the rear wheels. That did the trick and I backed the car uphill just enough to avoid the water and yet not be in the way of the plow [there are no plows out yet anyway].

Just another complication of island living. Glad I didn't have to call FEMA.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Run Your Classic Car Everyday

There was a great article in the New York Times Sunday edition recently. A fellow from New Jersey really liked his late '70's Mercedes 300 D diesel. It ran wonderfully and it seemed to be built like a tank. So he kept his eyes open and wound up buying two more: one for his wife and one to keep at a vacation home in Vermont. They're similar cars from the late '70's-early 80's.

The owners says he's 50 years old which means he'll probably never have to buy another car in his lifetime. He sounds very pleased with his approach.

His total costs of purchase are less than a Nissan Versa. By virtue of age and original price, his registration fees/excise taxes and insurance are substantially less than they would be with new cars.

They have high mileage but as Mercedes diesels, they'll run for a long time. Parts support remains great so the cars are never tied up for parts. This is in sharp contrast to a friend's VW Jetta, which has sat at our local mechanics shop for 10 days waiting for the VW dealer on the mainland to actually get him a heater motor. You'd think that in New England, which has real winters, dealers would have adequate access to something as critical as a heater blower motor - not so.

With classic cars you give up many active aids to crash safety, so guess what - you have to drive with greater care. Classic cars have plenty of passive safety features built into their designs, but of course, they were designed during a time that it was assumed the whole idea of driving was avoiding accidents.

If you don't want to, or can't, work on them yourself, you'll help the national economy by moving parts [which then must be manufactured somewhere], keeping local mechanics employed, and actually buying something you can afford.

Think about it - now's the time to change and enjoy that classic car you've always wanted. If you have to drive, why not make it fun?