Monthly Archives: August 2014

Diff’rent strokes

They see me rollin'...  They hatin'...

They see me rollin’… They hatin’…

There’s no accounting for taste, as the old saying goes.

And this PT Cruiser, a borderline vehicle at the best of times, proves it.

I’m not about to perform a full inventory of the trinkets adorning this horror show of a vehicle (your eyes are already bleeding), but a couple of things must be pointed out here.

First off, isn’t it damned odd that the wheels and tailpipe are completely stock? After all, those are usually among the first items to be bastardized by this kind of offender.

Secondly, why go to the trouble of tarting up your vehicle to this degree if you’re not going to address the growing rust problem? I have to assume that even the mind who thought these add-ons were tasteful must know rust kills sex appeal (if the car has any to begin with).

Clearly, the psychology of this individual was complex and oblique. I didn’t come any closer.

"You there! Stop that. Just stop it."

“You there! Stop that. Just stop it.”

One last thing:

It’s great to see the phenomenon that breeds eyesores like this declining as each year passes. The high-water mark for spoilers/painted hubcaps came in the very early 2000’s (an era I call Peak Tacky) and slowly faded thereafter. Good riddance.

For some reason, in the past five years or so, the ‘Buick ventiports on everything’ craze really took off – hopefully that fad will go the way of Plymouth before long.

Hybrid theory

Some kind of Ford hybrid will be doing battle with Toyota's Prius starting in late 2018.

Some kind of Ford hybrid will be doing battle with Toyota’s Prius starting in late 2018.

War clouds are gathering, and for once they’re figurative.

If media reports are true (and when are they not?), Ford Motor Company is gearing up to wage battle with… the eco-friendly Toyota Prius.

The Prius remains the ever-popular darling of the green crowd, and is still the first name that comes to mind when the topic of hybrids is brought up. Toyota sells piles of them, and apparently Ford isn’t happy about that.

A shadowy person told Reuters last week that the automaker – which is reasonably good financial shape – plans to introduce a standalone hybrid model in late 2018. A Ford spokesperson then got all cagey when asked about it.

ShadowMan claims the model will be based on Ford’s new global C2 platform, which will underpin the future Focus and Escape. Naturally, every bit of technology (some of which probably can’t even be imagined in 2014) will be employed to wring every last bit of range out of the future ShadowVehicle.


Know thy enemy

The Prius family is a big one, having grown to include the regular Prius, a plug-in version, the compact C, and the larger, wagon-like V. All that’s missing from the lineup is a drop-top, a large SUV, and an El Camino-type ‘Ute’.

Still, the Prius clan isn’t immune to market forces – among them, cheaper gasoline and diesel vehicles that return increasingly impressive fuel economy (not to mention competing hybrids). The devilishly handsome folks at report an 11.2% drop in Prius family sales between July of 2013 and July of this year in the U.S. Year to date, the Prius family is down 11% in U.S. sales.

In Canada, the Prius situation is worse, with July sales showing a 21.4% drop over the previous year, and year-to-date sales down 14.3%.

While these numbers are discouraging, they’re not dire. Over 86,000 Prius models have still found their way into American driveways so far this year.

"Don't you want me, baby?"

“Don’t you want me, baby?”

As for Ford, which is currently pushing the hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of its popular Fusion sedan (and offering the hybrid drivetrain as a no-cost option on their Lincoln MKZ), a certain vehicle seems to have been abandoned in a basket at the neighbour’s front door.

The Ford C-Max went on sale in North America in September, 2012, following years of sales in Europe. The upright, Kia Rondo-ish hatch runs solely on hybrid power (normal or plug-in), but if the goal was to challenge Prius for the hybrid crown, that ball missed the basket by a nautical mile.

Nearly invisible in the marketplace, and tainted by fudged mileage figures that left drivers expecting more, the C-Max saw its total U.S. sales fall by 40.1% year-to-date.

Cracking the 3,000 vehicle mark seems a near impossible task for the C-Max this year. Contrast that with the Prius’ numbers, and you can clearly see a need for a Plan ‘B’.

What this new vehicle will look like when it debuts four long years from now is anyone’s guess, but if it’s designed to beat the Prius at its own game, expect similar body styles and every scrap of technology Ford can lay its hands on.



Shooting star

1965 Meteor Montcalm and 1966 Rambler American (Hull Sector, Gatineau, Quebec).

1965 Meteor Montcalm and 1966 Rambler American (Hull Sector, Gatineau, Quebec).

Isn’t this picture a perfect, quintessential Quebec winter scene?

If you’re not sure, probably because you’ve never been there, just know that yes – yes, it is.

Grey, leaden skies, drab streetscapes, and crater-filled roads encrusted with a white rhime of road salt. Oh yes,  and a frigid, icy wind that cuts through you like a knife from early November onward.

Come one, come all.

Against this ultra-Canadian backdrop – worthy of a depressing film nominated for multiple awards – we find a distinctly Canadian classic car cuddling up to a (literal) American classic, possibly for warmth.

A rare encounter at the best of times, the frozen stars aligned enough to bring this 1965 Meteor Montcalm within door denting distance from a 1966 Rambler American. Amazingly, both vehicles appeared in great shape, though the Rambler was the only one to escape present-day modifications (though I suppose rims and window tinting is benign enough).

The complicated history of Rambler was covered by moi not long ago on this very page (scroll down! scroll down!), so the Meteor gets the spotlight in this post.

Now, an American viewing this photo would insist we were looking at a ’65 Mercury, but they would be wrong. The devil is in the details.

Meteor, a Canada-only product of the Ford Motor Company introduced in 1949, did what the much-maligned Edsel failed to do a decade later – it fit comfortably into the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury stable as a standalone make.

Not factory rims.

Not factory rims.

Slotted between Ford and Mercury at the lower end of the ladder, the Meteor was essentially a Ford with more brightwork and niceties, but at a lower price than Mercury.

Canadians took to the Meteor instantly, and the make soared through the ’50s, enjoying lofty sales as the Greatest Generation was busy cranking out the Boomers while staring into a glorious, limitless future.

Coincidentally, it was the success of Rambler in the late 1950s (spurred by the sharp ’58 recession) that led to the first death of Meteor following the 1961 model year. The popularity of Rambler’s cosy, fuel-efficient compacts prompted the Big 3 automakers to enter the compact field in 1960, spreading the big car field too thin at Ford of Canada.

Something had to give, and Meteor was canned – but not for long.

Like most fads, the compact craze proved short-lived as the economy returned to normal and a thirst for big cars returned to the car-buying public. Meteor was back for 1964, this time based on a Mercury.

Mercurys of that era – especially the ’65 – had an upscale appearance thanks to their Lincolnesque, slab-sided bodies, something that gave the Meteor an injection of class.

1965 Meteor Montcalm: more than a Mercury?

1965 Meteor Montcalm: more than a Mercury?

To keep the price in line with its place in the company’s lineup, the Mercury-bodied Meteor was outfitted with the seats, dashboard, base engine, and roofline of a Ford.

Flashy on the outside and restrained on the inside, the ’65 Meteor came in the same body styles offered by its stablemates, in either the Rideau, Rideau 500 or top-line Montcalm trim level. From a vinyl bench and a 240 c.i.d. six-cylinder to plush buckets and a 390 V-8, if you had the cash (or didn’t), there was a Meteor with your name on it.

Meteor soldiered on in the Canadian market well into the 1970s, as before, based on the Mercury line of vehicles.

Towards the end, the line between the two makes grew increasingly blurred, as Mercury badging could be found on a Meteor, in addition to Rideau 500 and Montcalm model designations.

1976 proved to be the last year for the standalone Meteor brand. However, in keeping with the make’s original intent, the name survived until 1981 on a low-priced base model of the Mercury Marquis offered exclusively in Canada.

The Meteor’s rise in the Canadian automotive scene was truly meteoric, but its fall back to earth was much more gradual. Kind of like a golden Muskoka sunset fading to dusk, slipping into twilight, and then… nothing.

1978 Mercury Marquis Meteor - a low cost Mercury full-sizer offered only in Canada (note fake vinyl roof crease).

1978 Mercury Marquis Meteor – a low cost Mercury full-sizer offered only in Canada (note fake vinyl roof crease).

Big… juicy… VAN… !

"Interesting trades considered."

“Interesting trades considered.”

I’m not one of ‘those guys’, but I know a bitchin’ van when I see one.

And this particular van in Val-des-Bois, Quebec HAD IT ALL!

Sure, this 1980s-vintage Econoline dates to after the ‘Van Culture’ phase that America went through in the always-entertaining ’70s ( an era that terrified parents but made it easy to move stuff around). However, the owner clearly knew where to draw the line.

Driving right up to the edge of cheesiness before making a panic stop, this van has all the trappings of a performance car PLUS all the add-ons that drive Van People wild.

Sun visor (for the harsh glare of the open road), TWO bubble sunroofs (for ambiance as well as smoke venting), side pipes, mag wheels, white-letter tires and glorious chrome aplenty – truly, a van that covers the bases while doing everything right. And let’s not forget the tasteful pinstripe depiction of a lady on the side panel.

I didn’t get close enough to this rolling sideburn to take a peek inside, but I would hope that it ditched the stereotypical shag carpeting/velour interior for something classy – like vinyl (and wood grain veneer).


If this beast ever finds its way onto the market, I’ll be sure to put in an offer they can’t refuse.

“Is this thing bent?”


Volt 2.0

Next-generation Chevy Volt to debut in January

On sale since mid-2011, a total of 3,394 Volts have found buyers in Canada (as of the end of July, 2014).

On sale since mid-2011, a total of 3,394 Volts have found buyers in Canada (as of the end of July, 2014).

A car that’s still something of a mystery to many is getting a makeover.

General Motors announced on Aug. 7 that the 2nd-generation Chevrolet Volt will debut in January at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The press release – imported straight outta Acme, Michigan – gives little to no details on what changes can be expected with the new Volt, which will go on sale later in 2015 as a 2016 model. Besides a teaser mage of the new Volt’s rear trunklid, there’s no information on range, performance, weight, underpinnings – any of that juicy stuff.

There is, however, much gushing over the current Volt, complete with facts and figures garnered from customer feedback surveys.

“Volt owners are driving more than 63 percent of their overall miles in electric vehicle mode, collectively logging more than 500 million gas-free miles since the Volt’s retail debut in 201o.”

Boy howdy! Those Volt owners sure do like to maximize their use of that battery – it’s almost as if they purchased the vehicle for that specific reason!

Joking aside, the Volt remains a unique and interesting vehicle, albeit one that’s in desperate need of a style injection.  If the teaser image is anything to go by, the public can expect more eye appeal when the wraps come off in Detroit.

The 2016 Chevy Volt is rumoured to be less awkward-looking than the current model.

The 2016 Chevy Volt is rumoured to be less awkward-looking than the current model.

The speculation amongst auto writers is that the new Volt will see a reduction in price (much needed to keep it competitive), an increase in EV range (above the current 38 miles/61 kilometres), and more interior space thanks a reduced battery size. The current 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder generator range extender will likely be ditched in favour of a more fuel-efficient 3-cylinder.

Price has always been a point of contention with the Volt, with many claiming that the vehicle’s higher cost puts sustainability out of reach for most car buyers, limiting possible sales.  There’s certainly truth to this, but, in its defence, the amount of technology packed into the vehicle is significant and prices have come down since the Volt first entered the marketplace.

First retailing for $41,000 in 2010, the Volt’s MRSP is now $34,170 (U.S. market, 2015 model), and that’s before a potential federal tax credit (provincial in Canada) is factored in. Any further reduction in price – plus additional range – will only serve to make the Volt a more competitive vehicle.

Clearly, GM is banking on bigger sales numbers from this improved Volt.

Back in 2011, I test drove a Volt the first week they showed up on dealer’s lots. During a 43-kilometre all-electric urban jaunt, the car impressed with its interior comfort, ride quality and drivetrain smoothness.

Given the Volt’s price at the time, I wrote in my published review:

“This isn’t an electric car for the masses … but it is proof that a quality electric car that drives and feels like a regular luxury car is possible from a mass-market automaker.”

With a lower price (is sub-$30K possible?), Chevrolet will have positioned the 2016 Volt closer to that ideal.


Volkswagen’s big herausforderungen

"Das problem"

“Das problem”

China’s growing appetite for buying anything that has four wheels and isn’t from Japan has been a boon to many automakers, and Volkswagen is no different.

The German automaker joins the likes of GM, Jaguar and BMW in reaping the financial rewards of the voracious consumerism overtaking that society. However, the boosted revenue from the Chinese market  hasn’t corrected a growing problem at VW – and that is the stagnancy of the brand overall.

The Wall Street Journal reports that while the company’s net revenue rose 12.5% this last quarter (year-over-year), actual profits for the VW brand are dropping as costs rise.

(See article here:

China notwithstanding, VW just isn’t doing the big business in Western markets that it had hoped to just a few years previous. The company’s luxury brands – Audi and Porsche – are the only VW products making gains in the U.S.

Invaluable vehicle sales website (bless their hearts!) shows Audi sales in the U.S. up 13.3% year-to-date compared to 2013, while Porsche is up 8.3% for the same period.

Volkswagen? Well, U.S. sales of its vehicles are down 13.6% compared to last year, dragging the company’s overall sales down 5.3% below 2013 numbers.

In Canada, a much smaller market that has traditionally been partial to small cars, VW sales saw a modest 5.2% year-to-date increase over 2013. However, this number takes into account a big sales month for July;  at the end of June, year-to-date VW sales were in the negative, down 2.3%.

Meanwhile, Audi and Porsche sales in Canada have risen 9.9% and 33.9% (respectively) so far this year.

Recent media reports have shown a serious sales slump in South American, which is traditionally a strong market for VW.

When Bugs aren’t enough

So, what’s an automaker like VW to do to lure back those buyers? What do the United States and South America want from it? A giant SUV? A super-cheap subcompact? Vans?

On the U.S. front, it has been reported that a seven-seat midsize SUV is America-bound, but one new niche vehicle isn’t going to turn the tide and hold it there. My personal feeling is that an exciting new small car that isn’t the Golf – something a little smaller, a little cheaper, and a lot more high-tech – could do well in North America, but it could be problematic as well.

Perhaps a four-door coupe version of the Jetta will turn things around...

Perhaps a four-door coupe version of the Jetta will turn things around…

Europe, Asia, South America and just about everywhere outside of the U.S. and Canada already have the super-compact VW Polo, and have for years. Slotting another small car there into the existing lineup wouldn’t make sense, and producing a new non-Polo vehicle for North America could be an expensive proposition given the limited market and the public’s yet-unknown interest.

Could something be built on a Polo platform? Maybe it could be called a Fox, for retro name recognition. Or: are there enough aging hippies and budding flower children to really make a Microbus or a mini-Microbus a success?

Another idea would be to squeeze more sales out of VW’s existing lineup. Is it possible to diversity the Golf/Jetta/Passat even more?

These aren’t decisions I have to make, and that’s a good thing. Time will tell what strategy VW employs.

Running mate

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

Sometimes, the underdog wins, if only for a brief, shining moment.

That was the situation at American Motors at the dawn of the tumultuous 1960s.

The years 1958 to 1961 don’t take up much space in history books (unless you’re focusing on the Space Race), as there existed relatively little conflict in a world now used to global battles. The Baby Boom was in full swing, the Camelot years of the JFK presidency was poised to begin, and hippies, women’s lib, and the incendiary final years of the civil rights struggle were still years away.

Only the pesky matter of The Bomb kept people up at night, though a solution (Diazepam, aka Valium) was imminent.

In the auto industry, however, things weren’t so Leave It To Beaver placid. Competition was fierce between the Big Three automakers, and by the late ’50s the smaller companies had either thrown in the towel or were struggling to stay afloat.

After a merger with Studebaker, Packard’s last year was 1958 (and what a grotesque thing it had become by then). Studebaker brainstormed to find a way to overcome the massive financial hit it took following the merger a few years earlier, and managed to pull off a modest recovery that lasted until the mid-60s.

Nash and Hudson, whose best years were marked in the ’30s and ’40s, ceased to exist after 1957, the result of a mighty 1954 merger between Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company – at the time, the largest in history. That merger saw the birth of a new automotive entity – American Motors Corporation (AMC).

Leading the new company was president and CEO George W. Romney, a former VP at Nash-Kelvinator who took on the top role after the death of George W. Mason a few months after the merger. Romney (father of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) had the old makes soldier on in an increasingly competitive marketplace while planning a new strategy for success (or at least survival).

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Luckily for the company, Romney had brought binders full of ideas to his new role, and quickly decided that in order to compete with the Big Three, AMC had to offer something the big guys weren’t. That meant compacts.

Romney viewed the competition’s offerings as “gas-guzzling dinosaurs”, ripe for slaying, and set out to do just that.

With the remaining Nash and Hudson models killed off at the end of 1957, AMC poised its new lineup for a 1958 debut, led by the compact Rambler brand – a make AMC had poured all of its efforts into.

Engine size, vehicle size, tailfin height and sticker prices were all reaching for the stars in the late ’50s, but luck was in AMC’s corner.

As 1958 dawned on the gaudiest, most excessive and expensive vehicles Americans had ever seen (especially those offered by Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln), a sudden, sharp recession – by far the worst of the post-war boom – hit the United States. Consumer prices rose across the board and vehicle sales dropped 31% industry-wide.

The only American car company to turn a profit that year? American Motors.

Helped by favourable reviews that emphasized the Rambler’s price and fuel economy, as well as a widespread television and product placement marketing campaign (which included Disney!) orchestrated by Romney himself, Rambler – and AMC – was off to a roaring start.

With the success of the Rambler American and Rambler Classic line of vehicles, the traditional big players in the industry soon took notice and immediately began designing their own small cars, which were introduced in the early ’60s.

In 1960 and 1961, Rambler ranked third in domestic auto sales, with the latter year seeing the company enter into the industry’s first profit-sharing plan for its United Auto Workers-represented employees. Innovations followed that were later picked up by the Big Three, including standard reclining front bucket seats, optional front disc brakes, and the ‘PRND21’ automatic transmission sequence.

Research work was even done in support of a fully-electric car powered by a self-charging battery, though that effort clearly went nowhere.

The company took a shift away from the ‘think small’ strategy in 1962, after Romney resigned in order to run (successfully) for Governor of Michigan, where he grew the civil service and imposed the first income tax in the state’s history. Later, he went on to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Nixon, where his ideas – including ambitious social housing and de-segregation proposals – fell mostly on deaf ears.

For an interesting look at Romney’s policies (contrasted with those of his son), enjoy this somewhat long article in a liberal-perspective magazine:

(Romney was also a strong civil rights supporter who expanded state social programs and championed anti-discrimination laws. For more on that…


Trouble at the ranch

Anyhoo, back at the AMC camp, Romney’s departure meant there was a new captain at the helm – Roy Abernathy – who shifted the company towards a more diverse lineup. This meant a newfound focus on large cars, with the thinking that people weaned on Rambler’s compacts would one day want to move up to something bigger.

This strategy didn’t pan out and Rambler floundered in the marketplace, with overall sales slashed in half by 1967. Bleeding money at an alarming rate, AMC’s end looked near until new CEO Roy D. Chapin, Jr. arrived with famed designer Dick Teague in tow.

Chapin brought on a new executive, cut costs where possible, and made the compact Rambler American the company’s short-term focus, chopping down the sticker price to lure in buyers. In the background, Teague and his fellow designers worked to create new, youth-oriented vehicles from existing parts and vehicle stampings.

Once again, all of this work was backed up by aggressive advertising.

The intermediate-sized Rambler Classic, introduced on an existing chassis in 1961, was renamed the Rambler Rebel in 1967, before the Rambler name was dropped in favour of AMC badging in 1968.

This '61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

This ’61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

The Classic had long been the bread and butter of the Rambler lineup, first offered with a 195 cubic inch straight-six or 250 cubic inch V-8.  Covering three trim levels and multiple body styles, the Classic’s engine choice was fleshed out to three sixes and two larger V-8s as the ’60s progressed.

The renaming of both Rambler and the Classic had the goal of shaking up the brand’s image and moving buyer’s minds away from negative connotations of the recent past.

Under the new strategy, AMC entered the 1970s in good shape and with lots of buzz, purchasing Jeep’s vehicle operation in 1970 before things started to get really weird (Pacer, Gremlin, Matador coupe) in the mid-to-late ’70s. Obviously, at some point the company’s water supply had become tainted with hallucinogens.

After introducing the renowned and innovative AMC Eagle 4-wheel-drive wagon in 1979, the company entered into an ill-fated partnership with Renault in 1980, and immediately began a fast slide into oblivion. Renault left the American market in 1987, dropping its majority stake in AMC, at which point Chrysler Corporation purchased those remaining shares.

The formerly AMC-owned Jeep was folded into the Chrysler stable, while Renault-designed AMC products that had been in the works were marketed under a new brand, Eagle, starting in 1988. Eagle soon became just another make selling badge-engineered Chrysler products, like Plymouth and Dodge, though with some sporting pretentions in the form of the Talon coupe.

Eagle was unceremoniously dropped in 1999.

And so ended the rocky, confusing lineage of American Motors – the quirky car company that was once part of a refrigerator company and was once run by Mitt Romney’s unusually progressive yet devoutly Mormon/Republican dad.

If this tale has taught us anything, it’s to not go all-in on identity politics, and to be very wary of mergers.