Monthly Archives: May 2015

Britain sends an Envoy

1961 Envoy F-Series, spotted in Gatineau (Hull Sector), Quebec.

1961 Envoy F-Series, spotted in Gatineau (Hull Sector), Quebec.

When was the last time you saw someone driving an Envoy?

And no, I’m not talking about that innocuous SUV of the pre-bankruptcy GM era.

Canada’s mid-century love affair with cheap British imports is a well-known phenomenon, and this rare rolling artifact is another piece of that story.

The Vauxhall Victor F-Series was one of Britain’s most popular exports, with hundreds of thousands snapped up by cost-conscious buyers around the globe.

The model debuted in 1957 with distinctly American styling, but tell-tale British size. Powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder making 55 horsepower, the model wasn’t particularly fast, but by all accounts it was durable and reliable.

A three-speed column-mounted manual transmission put the power to the rear wheels.

The 'Longer, lower, wider' mantra of the 1950s doesn't seem to apply to the Envoy.

The ‘longer, lower, wider’ mantra of the 1950s doesn’t seem to apply to the Envoy.

In North America, Vauxhall Victors were sold through GM dealerships – Pontiac and Buick ones, to be exact – alongside their massive American brethren.

That left the other half of the GM stable (minus Cadillac) without a cheap import to sell.

Enter the Envoy.

Sold at Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealers in Canada starting in 1959, the Envoy F-Series was a Vauxhall Victor with different options and better trim. Nowhere on the body is it mentioned that the vehicle is entirely a Vauxhall.

1960 Envoy ad. Notice the lack of colour on the car they call 'colourful'.

1960 Envoy ad. Notice the lack of colour on the car they call ‘colourful’.

Two-tone paint and interior fabrics showed that Britain was easing out of its postwar slump, and was now able to appreciate (and offer) nicer things.

Note: the aftermarket rims and mirror dice on this pristine example did not come from 1959. Not even close.

The Envoy, like the Victor, lasted in the Canadian market until 1970. The first generation, with its 1950s proportions, lasted until 1961, before Vauxhall adopted a modern, Ford Falcon-esque styling treatment.

This example wore vintage 1961 Quebec plates, marking it was the last year of the first generation, and a badge showing its sale at a Farnham, Quebec Chev-Olds dealer.

Once commonplace, these imports are now a distant memory for older Canadians. Though imports of Vauxhalls died off, overseas GM subsidiaries (Europe’s Vauxhall and Opel, Australia’s Holden) now share hardware and designs with many of their American counterparts.

Are those 13-inchers?

Are those 13-inchers?

(de)parting on the left

"What's that terrifying green pointy thing in the sky?!"

“What’s that terrifying green pointy thing in the sky?!”

Idiots walk the street everywhere, so it’s only logical that they’d be behind the wheel, too.

There are too many annoyances to list when it comes to other drivers – the guy who never signals, the lady who stops at the end of a ramp to merge, to name a couple – but one major pet peeve will be fleshed out here in this space.


The simple left-turn arrow never fails to illustrate the stupidity and general lack of critical thinking amongst today’s commuters and vehiclegoing human drones.

Think about it. You’re in a left turn lane, and a green light appears just for you. It’s even in the shape of an arrow, pointing in the direction you want to go.

It's not hard, people.

It’s not hard, people. (Image via)

Simple, right?


It’s astounding how many people distrust this arrow, and – as a result – how few people (on average) get through the intersection on one of these signals.

Usually, the lead driver  – whether due to glassy-eyed boredom or texting – only manages to notice the signal after its been on for nearly its full lifespan, then darts out and clears the intersection with room for maybe one more vehicle behind them.

The experiment then repeats itself for the next signal.

Distracted, comatose drivers are legion on the avenues and byways of the nation’s capital, but it’s the alert-but-confused ones that really grind my gears.

These drivers notice the left turn arrow the second it comes on, but don’t know what to do about it.

Surely they passed driver’s training – I mean, they are licensed – so the true meaning of the signal shouldn’t be a Columbo level mystery. But it is.

"Soooo.... if I'm in this lane, then that signal must mean.... no, wait - "

“Soooo…. if I’m in this lane, then that signal must mean…. no, wait – “

Then, with hands gripping the steering wheel like an Everest climber holds a lifeline, they slowly, cautiously creep forward into the intersection that has been cleared solely for them, eventually realizing that the green arrow means a red carpet for their car.

By the time the realization dawns, the signal is almost over. Usually, one or (max) two more drivers make it through the intersection after Cautious McCautiousy.

It’s a ridiculous situation and only serves to make our overcrowded roads even slower.

The green left-turn arrow is not a fiendish plot to lure you out into the intersection for some nefarious and diabolical purpose.

An anvil will not land on your car. The political party you’d never vote for is not manning the switches down at the traffic light nerve centre.

Just remove your foot from the brake, and place it on the accelerator. Then, proceed to live your life with the joy that comes from being free of fear.


Embrace the joy of driving safely and decisively, people.

Embrace the joy of driving safely and decisively, people.

Camaro, volume 6

2016 Chevrolet Camaro (Image: General Motors)

2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS (Image: General Motors)

Last week’s launch of the 6th Generation Chevrolet Camaro was the biggest thing to hit Detroit since Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

For everyone who traditionally passes over the fabled (and sometimes maligned) muscle car, the newest version is something to take notice of.

To better do battle with its closest competitor – the Ford Mustang – and to ditch its lingering reputation as a gas-guzzling lead sled, the 2016 Camaro has shed weight, length and undergone a careful restyle.

Underpinned by the taught Cadillac ATS platform, the Camaro will offer its first 4-cylinder engine in over three decades.

Unlike the rough and tepid ‘Iron Duke’ 2.5-litre that graced Camaros between 1982 and 1984, the 2016 Camaro’s smallest motor is a turbocharged 2.0-litremaking a very respectable 275 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque.

To put that into perspective, the new four makes 185 more horsepower than the dismal Iron Duke. Ain’t technology grand?

When Chevy first introduced a 4-cylinder Camaro in 1982, it 'boasted' 90 horsepower.

When Chevy first introduced a 4-cylinder Camaro in 1982, it ‘boasted’ 90 horsepower.

Filling out the range of engines are a direct-injection 3.6-litre V6 making 335 hp and a 6.2-litre V8 making 455 hp. All three engines can be paired with GM’s new 8-speed automatic, though a 6-speed manual remains available.

Chevy put Camaro #6 on a diet before taking off the wraps, shaving off over 200 pounds to make the vehicle sportier and more fuel efficient. A 1.5-inch shorter wheelbase and 2-inch shorter body helps those attributes even more.

GM estimates that the 2.0-litre version will make over 30 miles per gallon (U.S.) on the highway.

From a distance, the profile of the new Camaro seems pretty much like the old one, but up close the differences are legion. Every element of the design looks better than what came before.

According to GM, “only two parts carry over from the fifth-generation Camaro to the new Gen Six: the rear bowtie emblem and the SS badge.”

Refinement seemed to be the name of the game when it came time to sculpt this Camaro. There was clearly a need to make people who would never stop to look at (or consider buying) a Camaro suddenly stop and take notice of it.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS (Image: General Motors)

2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS (Image: General Motors)

A close friend of the author, whose heart belongs solely to the Dodge Challenger, responded with a “wow” upon seeing images of the 2016 Camaro.

In its coverage, Forbes magazine declared that the muscle car had become “a different animal” in the wake of the launch, what the new model’s nod to both tradition and modern advancements in efficiency.

After it goes on sale later this year, it would be shocking to not see sales figures rise for the Camaro. No doubt Ford is casting a wary glance in its direction, and Dodge too, for that matter.


Special K

Reagan-era pride: 1982-83 Chrysler LeBaron, spotted in Gatineau, Quebec.

Reagan-era pride: 1982-83 Chrysler LeBaron, spotted in Gatineau, Quebec.

It was, and still is, a status symbol born of 1980s America.

The Chrysler LeBaron convertible. Loved by many (especially Lee Iacocca and Jon Voight*), it was the first spin-off of the 1981 K-car architecture, and brought top-down motoring back to U.S. shores.




Sadly, you don’t see many of these soft-tops plying the roadways anymore.

This 1982-83 example ditched the Town & Country’s fake wood veneer in favour of some sporty red pinstripes. All in all, it’s not in bad shape, though spots of rust are forming and the trim – like that of many old models – is starting to become misaligned.

Ricardo Montalban doing what he did best - hocking Chryslers.

Ricardo Montalban doing what he did best – hocking Chryslers.

While the LeBaron name had been used on and off by Chrysler for some time, it is these 1980s front-wheel-drive compacts that people most associate with the name.

Hot on the heels of the bankruptcy-busting 1981 Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant twins, Chrysler’s 1982 introduction of the LeBaron sedan, coupe, wagon and convertible helped squeeze as many products as possible from an existing platform (in order to put the company’s finances firmly in the black).

Joined by its stablemate, the Dodge 400, the new ‘Super-K’ aimed to bring luxury to the still-novel domain of front-wheel-drive American vehicles.

At the time, the U.S. was still struggling from the effects of a recession and high gas prices brought on by the Iranian Revolution. Value for money was everything, which explains why Americans flocked to buy the cheap-but-roomy Aries and Reliant starting on Day 1.

In order to capitalize on the success of the first year K-cars and solidify the company’s comeback, Chrysler Corporation released a now-famous television commercial starring chairman/saviour Lee Iacocca.

Iacocca enticed potential buyers with an old-fashioned sales pitch that culminated in the iconic line, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

Mechanically, the early K-derived LeBarons harnessed the same hardware as their lesser brethren.

A carbureted 2.2-litre four-cylinder made 84 horsepower and 111 lb-ft of torque, mated to a 3-speed Torqueflight automatic transmission or less-common 4-speed manual.

The man's desire for Chryslers was insatiable.

The man’s desire for Chryslers was insatiable.

Optional was the 2.6-litre four borrowed from the Mitsubishi Astron. Also carbureted, this hefty 4-banger made 114 hp and 146 lb-ft, and served as the K-class upgrade engine until the Chrysler-made 2.5-litre came on board in 1986.

Starting in 1984, LeBaron owners could outfit their ride with a turbo version of the 2.2 and finally enjoy top-end performance (the stock engine was tuned for low-end torque, but ran out of steam fast).

Despite not being designed for it, the 2.2 proved to be very adaptable – several increasingly powerful versions of the turbo 2.2 were built before the engine ceased production in the mid-1990s.

While their numbers dwindle each year, we can find comfort in the fact that LeBaron convertibles will always live on through their many movie and TV appearances.

‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ (1987) features many memorable road trip scenes in a LeBaron Town & Country, while a 1994 episode of Seinfeld immortalized the same model as the too-good-to-be-true ‘Jon Voight car’.

Long live the Jon Voight car.

The Greatest Generation… of vehicles

Canada marked the 70th anniversary of VE Day last week, and here in the capital the streets quickly filled up with vintage military rolling stock. Here’s a taste of what showed up for the celebration:

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka 'Deuce-and-a-half')

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka ‘Deuce-and-a-half’)

GMC CCKW-353 2.5 tonne

Tanks and aircraft get the lion’s share of the limelight when it comes to warfare, but troops couldn’t advance en masse without a convoy of study, rugged trucks.

In the European theatre of WW2, that truck was (more often not) the three-axle, 6×6 GMC CCKW-353, affectionately known as the Deuce-and-a-half due to its 2.5 tonne payload rating.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

Powered by a smooth and reliable 270 c.i.d. inline six (making 91 hp and 216 lb-ft), this GMC saw the U.S. and Canada through WW2 and Korea.

Given the massive numbers of Allied troops pouring into Europe in the wake of D-Day, huge numbers of transports were required.

Between GM and GM of Canada, 800,000 examples were cranked out in every possible configuration.

The GMC provided a stable platform for carrying and towing, and besides its most common role as a troop carrier, saw use as a water and fuel tanker, surgical van, and mobile anti-aircraft gun installation.

Though replaced in official service in the early 1950s, CCKW-353s were a common sight on military bases well into the 1960s.

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen ('floating car')

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen (‘floating car’)

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen

Count on the crafty Germans to come up with something as innovative as this.

After the Axis power decided that expansionism was the way to go, the German armed forces found themselves needing more than just tanks, trucks, and staff cars to get around. After all, there’s a lot of narrow roads and water in Holland.

"Faster? But Sir, we're already doing 5 knots!"

“Faster? But Sir, we’re already doing 5 knots!”

Enter the lowly People’s Car, which offered up its underpinnings and drivetrain for the VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen, a light, agile car that could double as a motorboat (thanks to a watertight body and a propeller mounted on a driveshaft extension).

And so, the most mass-produced amphibious car in history was born out of wartime necessity. Powered by a 1.1-litre flat four, a total of 14,265 of the bathtub-like vehicles rolled, then swam, off the assembly lines.

Yes, that paddle is there for a reason. The Schwimmwagen could make steady (but slow) forward progress in the water, but backing up required  basic canoe training. If lost, the shovel would suffice for maneuvering the tiny ship.

On dry land, a four-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case (with 4WD in 1st) helped the Schwimmwagen navigate roadways and mixed terrain.

While it provided next to no protection to occupants and was puny compared to other road-going machines of the era, a passenger-side 8-millimetre machine gun helped sooth the driver’s ego.

1941-45 Willys MB, aka 'Jeep'

1941-45 Ford GPW, aka ‘Jeep’ (note: nine grille slots, instead of seven for the Willys)

Jeep (Willys MB and Ford GPW)

We can all thank Hitler for unwittingly introducing the world to the Jeep – an iconic vehicle whose lineage continues to this day in the Wrangler.

With entry into WW2 seeming like a sure thing, the U.S. Army appealed to the auto industry for designs of a small, durable four-wheel-drive scout or reconnaissance car of light weight and adequate power.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

Tiny, failing car company American Bantam submitted blueprints five days later, which impressed the military so much that they sent the designs to Ford and Willys-Overland for refinement, and ultimately production.

Powered by a Willys-sourced ‘Go Devil’ 2.2-litre four cylinder making 60 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, the vehicle went into extensive production starting in 1945.

Because production was split between two companies, Willys designated their model the MB, while Ford called theirs the GPW. The only tell-tale difference between the two was the nine-slot grille on the Ford, versus the quintessential seven-slot grille on the Willys.

The Willys 'Go Devil' engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

The Willys ‘Go Devil’ engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

In all, Willys assembled over 359,000 of the do-anything runabouts before the end of the war, while Ford produced over 277,000.

Nowhere in official documents was the word ‘Jeep’ mentioned. There’s much speculation about how the car – and eventually the company – came to adopt the name; most of it centres around slang used by servicemen and a high-profile 1941 media event in Washington, DC.

Whatever the origin, the word ‘jeep’ became synonymous with small, rugged 4×4, sparking a worldwide movement that led to the creation of the Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser.

After the war, the popular civilian Jeep (CJ) found itself on quite a wild ownership ride, changing hands several times.

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

After Willys-Overland, the CJ was built by Kaiser-Jeep from 1953 onwards, followed by a long stint at American Motors Corporation (AMC), before being purchased by Chrysler Corporation in 1987.

The ride didn’t stop there, as Chrysler then embarked on its own ownership roller-coaster. From DaimlerChrysler AG, though the dismal Chrysler Group LLC years (which was followed by bankruptcy) and eventually to its current home in Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the Jeep division clearly has nine lives, and many new dads.

The fact that the division has remained in such demand over the decades – and created such a lifestyle around its products – should make the original designers of the Jeep proud.

Rust Belt

Still holding it together...but just barely.

Still holding it together…but just barely.

Beaters this bad are a rarity these days – so much so that this corrosion conveyance merits its own blog post.

Yes, this is the sedan version of the 4th Generation Honda Civic (1987-1991), a popular compact that started life weighing 2,200 pounds, but in this case has probably shed weight since.

Badging on this rusting relic was non-existent, but judging by the bargain basement black bumpers, it’s a low end trim level – likely the DX or the unfortunately-named STD (an apt designation for a ‘stripper’ model).

The late-80s Civic had style to spare! (*cough*)

The late-80s Civic had style to spare! (*cough*)

Assuming that all cylinders are firing, the owner of this Bush, Sr. era econobox regularly enjoys either 70 or 92 horsepower from the car’s fuel-injected 1.5-litre engine.

But the age of the vehicle isn’t what made me stop, it was condition all the way.

Clearly a car that has seen much use in the salt-encrusted northern climes, the fact that this less-than-cared-for ride is still on the road is a testament to the Civic’s rock-solid drivetrain.

Though less common on the road nowadays, Civics of the late 80s and early 90s used to be a big deal. Affordable, easily customizable and with inherently good handling, old Civics possessed compact clout. Sedans weren’t as appealing as the two-door hatch, however.

As I marvelled over this car, nostalgia crept into me, along with some questions.

Once upon a time, rusty beaters held together with duct tape and chicken wire used to be a much more common sight, at least in my neck of Ontario.

Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, the roads seemed filled with aging Oldsmobiles covered in rust and Bondo, vinyl tops faded and peeling.

1972 Buick LeSabre Custom, spotted in Edmonton, Alberta.

Quintessential ‘beater’ (1972 Buick LeSabre Custom) spotted in Edmonton, Alberta.

What was it? Are newer cars just better built, and thus don’t rust so badly? Not according to the Pontiac Sunfire in my work parking lot.

Were interest rates so high back then that fewer people financed new cars? That could be partly true for the Eighties, when 20% was deemed low.

Maybe it’s just the haziness of memory, and the fact that back then, a ‘beater’ meant a landau-riffic road yacht from the Seventies. Plenty of contrast to be had between one of those square-rigged barges and your average modern hatchback.

Suddenly, it’s 1961!

A couple of recent bold car designs have been bothering me as of late, leaving me with a loose feeling of styling déjà vu.

The first design is the corporate SUPER GRILLE(!) of contemporary Lexus vehicles, what with its gaping proportions and pinched middle. The treatment was recently applied to the stalwart ES 350, giving the otherwise conservative sedan a dash of visual presence.

The other design is the new Nissan Murano, with its ultra-curvy flanks and unusually angled rear end architecture.

Where, oh where, had I seen these elements before?

Oh, yeah – in Chrysler Corporation’s awkward, identity-confused 1961 models. That year saw the company break free of the high-finned look that, while fresh and exciting when introduced in 1957, had become dated by 1960.

The Lexus grille brings to mind the jarring front of the 1961 Plymouth – a design that lasted one year and was compared to the face of an insect by some critics.

The Lexus ES 350, now with new grille (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

The Lexus ES 350, now with new grille (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

1961 Plymouth: a face not for forgetting.

1961 Plymouth: a face not for forgetting.

There’s much to look at in the Murano, but its rear haunches are strongly reminiscent of the 1961 Dodge and its odd, ‘reverse tailfin’ design.

Those concave body flares turned off buyers and even presented a safety risk to other motorists, thanks to the undersized, hard-to-spot taillights placed below them.

1961 Dodge Dart Seneca: a new (fin) direction (Image via)

1961 Dodge Dart Seneca: a new (fin) direction. (Image via)

2015 Nissan Murano (Image: Nissan Motor Company)

2015 Nissan Murano (Image: Nissan Motor Company)

Like the Plymouth, the design of the ’61 Dodge didn’t live to see another calendar year. It was an awkward time for the Big Three automakers,  each of whom was struggling to break free of the design direction of the past to bring to market a fresh, modern design for a new decade.

Some things don’t really change in business, and getting noticed is still paramount for automakers. It’s not surprising that some elements of the past have been resurrected, albeit unknowingly – after all, there’s only so many ways to bend sheet metal.