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August 2007

Caterham Super Seven

           

    

Any automotive engineer will tell you that weight is the universal enemy of any aspect of vehicle dynamics--every pound of weight on a car will make it accelerate more slowly, reach a lower top speed, handle more ponderously, and get worse fuel mileage.

No automaker has preached the gospel of light weight more religiously than Lotus, and the ultimate expression of that fervor was the Lotus Seven--a long-obsolete design that nevertheless lives on both on the street and as a dominant force in amateur racing as the Caterham Super Seven.

While the Seven looks quaint--and well it should, as it's a design that is nearly 50 years old--it weighs not much more than 1,000 pounds. With that tiny amount of mass, and married up to modern engines, the Caterham Super Seven packs a supercar punch.

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Chrysler Valiant Charger

           

    

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mopar offered several muscle car V-8 engines that would become legendary: the 340, the 383, and, of course, the legendary 426 Hemi and 440 Six Pack.

Here's the real question--have you ever heard of a Hemi Six Pack? The true Mopar connoisseur would snort and say, "absolutely not." The Hemi was set apart by its hemispherical combustion chambers, and the 440 Six Pack was so named because of its three two-barrel carburetors ramming air into the engine. The idea of a Hemi Six Pack provides cognitive dissonance on the order of Superman driving the Batmobile.

However, there was such a thing as a Hemi Six Pack--on a six-cylinder engine, no less. Chrysler of Australia made the bold step of creating a hemi-head six and bolting on triple Weber carbs, creating an instant Antipodean legend.

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Lamborghini Miura SV

           

    

Nowadays supercars aren't nearly as exotic as they used to be. Oh, they're more powerful than ever, extremely sophisticated, and ridiculously fast. They're just not quite as rare or special--as truly exotic--as they used to be.

Nearly ever major automaker has at least one supercar in the family, or at least an über-sportscar with enough potency to make the claim. Porsche, Ford, Mercedes, Ferrari, Chevrolet, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Pagani, Ascari, TVR, Noble, Koenigsegg, and many more, have either a supercar or quasi-supercar somewhere in the family tree.

That's not a bad thing, but the sheer number of supercars, combined with their increasing civility, has robbed them of some of the novelty that once made them special. For me, at least, the debut of yet another swoopy 200-mph supercar doesn't pop the eyes as it once did, and the electricity and sense of danger supercars used to provide has mostly subsided.

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Mazda 323 GTX

            

    

The Mazda 323 GTX is one of the great all-time unknown performance heroes--a pocket rally racer and the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive progenitor to the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo.
In base form, the 323 was a nice enough but unassuming also-ran to the Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas that dominated the economy category--pleasant, but not exactly an obvious candidate for hero car status.

However, in the late 1980s Mazda began a short-lived experiment with turbocharging its family sedans. The result was lightning in a bottle--the 323 GT sedan and the 323 GTX hatchback.

The GT was a nice little runner in its own right, but the GTX has assumed cult favorite status thanks to the combination of its hatchback utility, turbocharged horsepower, and full-time all-wheel drive system--an exotic combination well ahead of its time.

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1967 Cadillac Eldorado

           

    

I've long had a weakness for sharp-edged cars--smooth curves may romance the wind, but the boldness of strong creases romances my heart.
This partially explains why I think the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado is one of the prettiest American cars of its era, with its sharp prow, snazzy hidden headlights, and lean, long, and stylish flanks. The effect is athletic and modern, but extremely classy--like Michael Jordan in Armani.

Unlike most of the Cadillacs that followed in the 1970s and 1980s, the Eldorado had the mechanical wherewithal to back up the look. This was back when Cadillac's "Standard of the World" motto still had some clout--well before the Chevy Cavalier-based Cimarron made the tagline grimly ironic.

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Volkswagen Squareback

            

    

There's no particularly good reason to love Volkswagen Squarebacks. Their styling was dated even when they were new several decades ago, and they have more than a passing resemblance to the punch-line East German Trabant of the Iron Curtain era. Squarebacks were fundamentally Volkswagen Beetles under the skin, which means even when new, they were incredibly slow, horribly noisy, and absurdly dated.

So why do I want one so much?

My uncle, a slightly daft individual who used to ice-race perfectly good Volkswagen Rabbits--is probably to blame here. Whenever I visited him as a child to gape in awe at his model car collection, or peruse his car magazines, I would encounter in front of his house twin Volkswagen Squarebacks, both in some moderate state of disrepair. Somehow that led to this deep-seated passion.

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Car Lust--An Introduction

       
        
Some people look at a car as only a means to an end--a four-wheeled conveyance that can move people and cargo from one point to another in a relatively efficient fashion.

Others are consumed by cars--intoxicated by the burble of a well-tuned engine, struck dumb by a beautifully painted fender, reduced to babbling wrecks by the prospect of reducing to smoke a perfectly good set of tires.

We in the Amazon.com Auto Parts & Accessories Store are in the latter group--we are a group of otherwise reasonable people who turn into sickos and nitwits when we start discussing cars. Not that I'm any better--I'm a walking automotive freak show. What else would you call somebody who finds a Ford Maverick Grabber a more interesting proposition than a nice, safe Toyota Camry?

I'll be posting regularly in this space about my Car Lust, paying tribute to the various cars that I find, for whatever reason, intriguing and desirable in some way. They won't all be exotics, and at times the commonplace stars in our everyday lives may make an appearance.

Car Lust will be a celebration of all things automotive--a glorious hymn to the beauty of internal combustion; a tribute to the poetry of a small roadster on a curvy mountain road; a visceral taste of hard acceleration.

Or not. But at the very least I promise you'll get a reluctant glimpse into that dark place in my psyche that just can't get enough of Peugeots.

If you can't conceive why you'd ever want to see something so horrifying, you can save a lot of heartburn by unsubscribing right now. Simply go to the "Customize Amazon Daily" link at the top-right (or simply click here), go to the "Home and Family" header, and uncheck Car Lust. You'll never be bothered with this tripe again.

For those hardy souls who will be sticking around, welcome aboard--I hope you enjoy the trip.

--Chris H.
   
 

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS454

           

    

Muscle cars get a bad rap--they are often written off by pretentious sophisticates as gauche, crass, and driven by mullet-haired, stone-headed lowlifes. Dodge's Hemi ads--in which an unwashed simpleton driving a thoroughly knackered Dodge Duster inquires "That thing got a Hemi?"--don't exactly help matters either.

Well, count me among those lowlifes, because I'm a certified muscle car addict. The muscle car dysfunction is in my genes--when I was an infant, my father suffered from a severe mental illness, the primary symptom of which was his sad compulsion to install high-horsepower V-8s into Chevy Vegas while my mother and I watched from the trailer house.

Perhaps as a result, few things get my blood pumping as much as the raw, visceral danger implicit in a classic muscle car; the rump-rump-rump of a high-performance V-8, the cheesy hood stripes, the promise of acceleration violent enough to detach a retina--it all forms a heady emotional mix that, say, a Mazda Miata can't begin to touch.

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Audi RS6 Plus Avant

            

    

I'm sure we've all heard the urban myth about the guy who, in the holy pursuit of ultimate acceleration, strapped a JATO rocket to the roof of his station wagon and promptly flattened himself against a canyon wall.


Obviously this man was foolish on many levels--and fictional, to boot--because if he was after ultimate acceleration, he would have been far better off procuring an Audi RS6 posthaste.

The RS6 is one of those rare machines that have no weaknesses--save price, anyway. Its immensely powerful twin-turbo 40-valve V-8 gives it the massive torque and high-end horsepower to bend the mind, blur reality, and give the impression that, rather than accelerating forwards, you've just driven off a cliff. But the Audi, thanks to the miracle of tenacious all-wheel-drive traction, is less likely than the JATO wagon to leave the driver spread all over the face of a canyon wall. And even if our thrill-seeker was accelerating uncontrollably towards a fiery demise, the Audi's aggressive yet subtle styling would ensure he'd look good doing it. The A6 Avant is already an attractive car, but there's something about that hunkered-down stance and those aggressive lower air intakes that make my right foot twitch uncontrollably.

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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