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March 2009

Chevrolet Corvair

In the pantheon of unloved, some say infamous, cars, the Corvair surely must rank near the top of the list. The Corvair always seemed just a bit too odd-looking for me, but I have something of a late-developing affection for it for a number of reasons: the engineering was innovative in a lot of ways, it was a radical departure for an American manufacturer, and it got what is, in hindsight, an undeserved bad reputation in terms of safety. The Corvair's supposed safety concerns and the resulting bad publicity didn't kill it off, but they certainly didn't help.CorvairMainSm

Like many, however, my first introduction to the Corvair was via Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe At Any Speed, which is probably the reason most people have heard of it. To get one myth out of the way, that book was not all about the Corvair; the first chapter was about the Corvair, however, and that pretty much sealed its place in history. Most reviewers checked out the first chapter and that was about it. Fairly or not, the Corvair's reputation as an unsafe car stuck, and these days if you mention "Corvair" that's probably what springs to most peoples' minds.

Most observers nowadays will agree that the Corvair was not, in fact, particularly unsafe compared to many other cars of the time. And in fact, the Corvair had a wide variety of body styles--including a pickup!--to go along with the sedans and coupes that most people are aware of. It was a neat car with interesting engineering and deserves much more positive attention than it has received.

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Datsun B210

2436546050_13e0ef7046_bWhen I think about the Datsun B210, I like to think that, sometime before its introduction in 1973, various Nissan engineers were sitting there, staring at an unwieldy wedge-shaped piece of clay, and said to themselves, "Y'know, we could do that ... but we're going to need to paint it avocado green, burnt orange, turquoise, or pale white. Oh, and put on honeycomb hubcaps. It's the only way it'll come together." Then, they invited the marketing people out for drinks.

Unbeknownst to the marketing department, however, when the engineers were buying themselves drinks, they were just asking the bartender for glasses of water that only looked like sake. Once the marketing department was good and drunk, well, pictures were taken, and blackmail ws performed. The result was the fine piece of automotive history gracing our pages today, the Datsun B210. In an attempt to clear its inventory of this misbegotten son of drunken debauchery and engineering hubris, Nissan proceeded to grant it cut-rate pricing, with the seemingly vain and misguided hope that somebody somewhere might actually buy the danged thing.

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Anadol STC-16

Submitted for your consideration, the beautiful fiberglass-bodied STC-16 sports car, shown here in the bright yellow that is its trademark color. Designed in the early 1970s, it's a hatchback coupe that's very close in size (less than six inches difference in all major dimensions) to the present-day Mazda Miata. The styling is reminiscent of the early Datsun 240Z and Ford Capri and maybe even a little of the Shelby Cobra Daytona--yet the STC-16 is undeniably unique. It's clean and understated and wouldn't look entirely out of place in a 21st-century showroom. I particularly like lines of the grille and headlight surround, and the black-edged body-color bumper.

STC-16 in England

It is unlikely that you will ever see an STC-16 in person--mostly because there aren't that many to see. The car was never marketed in North America, and as far as I have been able to determine, there's not a single STC-16 on this continent, not even in Jay Leno's legendary garage. Only 176 STC-16s were built, according to the most optimistic tally, making it rarer than the Studebaker Avanti, Plymouth Superbird, Mazda Cosmo 110, Kaiser Darrin roadster, Toyota 2000GT, or Ford RS200. Only 26 are known to still be in existence, all in their country of origin.

So, you may ask, what is the STC-16's country of origin?

Unless you already know, you'd probably never guess.

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Final Weekend to Enter Our E-mail Digest Sweepstakes

Actron This is just a quick reminder that Monday is the deadline to subscribe to our e-mail digest and enter for a chance to win an Actron PocketScan Plus code scanner.

There's more detail at the previous post here. The upshot, from that post:

"Our blog team thought it would be neat to give something tangible to our e-mail subscribers--in this case, an Actron PocketScan Plus code scanner. You can sign up immediately to the right of this post on the Car Lust blog, or click here. ... If you're already a subscriber to our e-mail newsletter, don't worry--we won't penalize you for being an early adopter. Just sign up with the same e-mail address you signed up with before. Sign up and read the official sweepstakes rules. No purchase necessary. Enter by March 23, 2009. See official rules for details."

--Chris H.

Wagon Queen Family Truckster

Truckster1 It's hard to imagine a car more divergent from yesterday's Ford Fiesta than the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. For one thing, the Fiesta was a real car with real significance to the automotive industry; the Truckster was fictional, significant only in the degree of anguish it inflicted on the Griswold family in National Lampoon's Vacation, the 1983 movie paean to family road trips. The Fiesta was a simple small car that excelled at doing more with less; the Truckster was monumentally excessive and yet completely hapless.

The Truckster might be fictional, but it's still worth discussing--if only because it is right at the center of one of the funniest movies of the 1980s. Captain Ahab rode to inexorable and tragic disaster aboard the Pequod; Clark W. Griswold did the same thing much more entertainingly aboard the Wagon Queen Family Truckster.

Everybody knows the Family Truckster is funny; what is not as well-understood is the fact that the Truckster's disgusting excesses make it intelligent, incisive, pitch-perfect satire of the dismal state of American cars in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was certainly over-the-top, the Truckster is so well-aimed that it's not hard to imagine it being real. Don't believe me? Let's step through the ways in which the Truckster satirizes the typical 1983 American LeBehemoth Brougham.

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Ford Fiesta

Fiesta1 It was a frightening time for the domestic auto industry. American automakers had been caught off-guard by volatile gas prices, an uncertain economy, and a customer base that was rapidly turning its emphasis from flash to thrift. The domestic manufacturers' most profitable products--the huge, outdated, gas-guzzlers that had sold like hotcakes for more than a decade--were suddenly out of step with consumer demand.

The market’s turn to smaller, more efficient cars exposed the domestic small-car catalog as obsolete and uncompetitive compared to the more refined and better-engineered offerings from the imports. American consumers reacted by purchasing the imports and excoriating the domestic offerings for their inadequacies.

Confronted with shrinking market share and even the threat of bankruptcy, the domestic automakers were under pressure to respond quickly with potent, up-to-date small cars of their own. Luckily for Ford, a contemporary and competitive subcompact was already available from its European division to bolster its sagging American small-car fortunes. Enter the savior ... the Fiesta.

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German Engineering

Lemon-big German culture has traditionally prized technology and craftsmanship, and engineering is a highly respected profession in that country. German machinery, optics, and cameras have long had an enviable reputation.

During World War II, Germany deployed many technically advanced weapons, including the impressive (but militarily dubious) V-2 ballistic missile. After the war, German rocket scientists who had built the V-2 worked in the American space program. The most famous of them, Wehrner Von Braun, was a prominent public advocate of manned spaceflight. His ideas were featured in an influential series of magazine articles in Collier's Weekly in 1952-54; lavishly illustrated by artists such as Chesley Bonestell, the articles helped build enthusiasm for space flight--and built up the popular conception of the German engineer as an ultra-competent perfectionist.

It was about this time that Volkswagen was first breaking in to the U.S. market with the Type 1 "Beetle." The Beetle wasn't fast, or powerful, or particularly stylish, but it did have an advantage in build quality. Volkswagen made a point of bringing attention to the quality and reliability of its products, attributing it to its German engineering. The classic 1960s print ad at the top of this post is but one small example.

The German engineering meme has been used to sell a lot of Volkswagens--even those that weren't engineered in Germany!--and Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche have also based much of their appeal on the idea that their cars, like VWs, were engineered by Germans.

What if you're trying to sell a car, and you're not German? Can you perhaps still take advantage of this meme?

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Great Commercials--KONISHIKI for the Daihatsu Move

Today we're going to look at some Japanese home market commercials featuring American-born sumo wrestler "KONISHIKI" (he is required to spell his Japanese name in all-caps Romanji by sumo wrestling's governing body) pitching the Daihatsu Move kei car. Our first example is KONISHIKI and Daihatsu's homage to disco:

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2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

Cobalt coupe "I tell ya, I'm all right now, but last week I was in rough shape, ya know! Are you kiddin'? I got the worst car in the world! Why just once, I'd like to see somebody pass me without pointing to one of my tires. No matter what lane I'm in, it ends in 500 feet. Ya know, the other day, I bought the perfect second car... a tow truck. I mean, every Sunday, I take my family out for a push! I tell ya, I get no respect... no respect at all".

Thank you, Rodney Dangerfield, my hero. He was one of the few comedians to make fun of himself or his fictional family, which made his humor so special to me. I sort of met him one time; he did a performance at The Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, and we were so exhausted from laughing that we could barely talk on the way home. As his encore, he took questions from the audience; I was lucky, he heard and responded to mine. It was instantly forgettable for him, but I'll remember that moment forever!

When we talk about a car getting little or no respect, next to the Trabant, the Chevy Cobalt (and its lesser-known twin, the Pontiac G5) usually comes up. Why does this happen? Is the Cobalt deserving of the bad rap? Does it spend so much time on a service rack that it has more miles on it vertically than horizontally? I thought maybe it was time to mosey on down to the local Chevrolet dealer to find out.

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Triumph Stag

Stag1I give way, way too much thought to the relative quality of car names. Given the slow death of real names in favor of alphanumeric jumbles, I'm evidently in the minority in this--but I'm guessing Car Lust readers might be fellow connoisseurrs of fine car names.

I like to think of car names as a spectrum from terrible to wonderful. On one side of the spectrum of car names, you find the awful, the misleadingly uninspired, and the utterly meaningless. On the other side of the spectrum, you can find the clever, the compellingly grim, the fantastic, the surreal, and the comically ironic.

The Triumph Stag blows them all out of the water. Triumph Stag... I don't know that a team of PhDs could engineer a name more archetypally British, more redolent of the early-to-mid-20th-century British sensibility. Just hearing the name makes me want to do the following, in order:

  1. Buy a Triumph Stag.
  2. Grow and wax a mustache.
  3. Drive the Stag to a poorly lit, dark-wood-paneled private club in Kensingtonworthshire or North Haddockbrooktonworth.
  4. At the private club, sit in a deep leather chair and make pithy conversation with the other club members while using some kind of obscure tobacco product and sipping either tea or scotch.
  5. Hold forth on a variety of topics, including the day's hunt, the newest radical in Parliament, hand-tooled shotguns, the laughably gauche Americans, the state of the Empire, and the relative merits of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.

A Briton friend of mine is another admirer of the Stag; whenever I bring it up, he invariably says,"Triumph Stag--now that's a proper blokey name!" Quite.

But what about the car? Did it live up to the stellar name? Well, yes and no, depending on how you define the question.

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

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