Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Beginning of a Mystery, Part II

When I first saw photos tagged with the line ‘Help identify this Mystery HMod,’ on the Hmod yahoo group, I immediately thought: Crosley Special. Even though the car was reputed to have last been run with a Renault engine, the scale and style of it screamed Crosley. That’s one thing about dealing with cars that are only 4 feet wide— there aren’t many other cars that match their specs.
The car looked pretty rough. The fiberglass body had surprisingly little damage for a race car, but a mammoth okie hoodscoop had ruined the hood and an odd setback in the dash around the steering looked like an ill advised later modification. Many parts, including the engine and transmission, appeared to be missing. Prominent ‘DSR’ decals (D Sports Racing, the late sixties successor to the then defunct H Modified Class) indicated that the car was being set up for the track at some point after the mid sixties.

Despite the flaws, I was fascinated. Especially intriguing was the frame: a handbuilt tube ladder assembly that would have been woefully out of date by 1960 or so, indicating an early to mid-fifties build, matching the D-Type jag style body. Another point of interest was the rear end—a Halibrand-like quick change mated to what appeared to be a Crosley rear axle. And it was hard to tell from the pics, but the axles appeared to connect to tiny finned aluminum brake drums.
An old racer named Carl Kapp had posted the car on the site to help the widow of a friend find a buyer for her late husband’s derelict race car. It had been sitting, partially disassembled, since at least 1973, and hadn’t been driven since sometime in the sixties. Kapp’s friend, a Chicago racing enthusiast named Leo Lowy, had owned the car since at least the mid sixties when Kapp met him. It wasn’t running even back then. Lowy and Kapp both ended up in California a decade later, Lowy with the car in tow. He died in 2002 and his widow told Kapp that the car had never been out of storage since they’d moved to Cupertino in 1973.

I called Lowy’s widow and made arrangements to see the car. David Brodsky, president of the West Coast Crosley Club and and onetime owner of several Hmods, agreed to meet us since he lived close to the car. I know quite a bit about stock Crosleys, but my knowledge of sportscars, especially homebuilts is pretty spotty, so I was really glad to have his expertise.

The car was pretty much as indicated in Ms. Lowy’s photos. I took measurements at the wheels, and the car turned out to have the same wheelbase/track as a Crosley Hotshot, supporting the idea that the car had Crosley origins. The front axle was late Crosley as was the steering, and the rear axle appeared to be from a Crosley roadster. Some parts- the wheels, belly pan and plumbing, actually looked better than they had in the pictures.
I asked about the many missing parts, and was told that some might be in the garage. Since it was filled floor to ceiling with storage boxes, car parts and home remodeling projects, I could barely get in the door. With my flashlight I could make out some car stuff on and under a workbench. As I squeezed in as far as I could, I spotted what i assumed was the Renault engine on the back floor and what appeared to be a way-too-big transmission under the bench. Moving what I could get to on the workbench, I found a tub containing a wiring harness-- topped with a gauge cluster. Two still-taped-for-racing foglights rested nearby. I started to get really excited, realizing that most of the missing parts were probably buried somewhere. The thing that really concerned me was the driveshaft- there didn't appear to be any spot in the garage long enough to accommodate one-- and this would have had to have been specially designed for the car.
It was getting dark and Ms. Lowy was ready for us to go. I asked her if she had decided on a price, and she said that she was going to consult with Carl Kapp once people had made offers. I told her that I’d talk to him about the parts I’d seen and send him the photos so that he could use them to figure out a fair price—and that I’d like to buy the car if I could afford it.

As we walked down the driveway I asked David Brodsky what he thought.

“Whole lotta work- that’s a big project.”

Fair enough. He's restored everything from Crosleys to Allards, so he oughtta know. I asked what he thought it might be worth.

“Well… honestly?... I wouldn’t take it if you gave it me.”

We both laughed, for different reasons, I’m sure.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quick Visit to the Arcane Auto Show

Dave "Smith" and I zipped down to SF this morning for the annual Arcane Auto Society show at Cowden Motors.  The club is open to just about anything 'odd', and members own everything from Crosleys (that's West Coast Club President David Brodsky's teal '47 vert above) to Amphicars to homebuilts.  If Average Joe on the street scratches his head when it drives by, it's probably eligible for Arcane membership.  And 'driving by' seems to be a key- I don't think any car at the show was trailered.
There were a lot of neat cars there, but if I had to pick a favorite, it might be this 1957 Fiat wagon.  The styling is clean and concise with just a hint of strangeness- note that third headlight in the center.  It was an immaculate car, and the color combo was perfect.  I didn't note the displacement, but I'm guessing 1200 cc.
This Fiat 600 rolled in just after Dave and I got there.  I have a real soft spot for these cars- if I hadn't gotten into Crosleys I'd have probably ended up with a 600... and I still might. My Dad had one of these before I was born, and watching the 8mm movie footage of him driving it on the sidewalks of 1963 Princeton, New Jersey is a cherished memory.   The Fiat was the only European car besides Bugatti and Jaguar that my Dad didn't regard as a complete POS (which, given the reputation of fifties/sixties Fiats, still boggles my mind).  He loved his, drove the snot out of it, and I wish he'd held on to it (along with the Bugatti, the '31 Ford Vicky, '51 Mercury and '72 VW bus) long enough for me to have at least had a ride in it.   
Dave didn't have a clear favorite, but he did keep wandering back to look at this Austin a lot.  Truth be told, I stayed clear for fear that if I looked at it enough I'd decide I need one.
This Berkeley buzzed in sounding like an angry hornet, 2 cylinder motorcycle engine revving hard.  It was a great driver, with paint chips, hazy plexiglass windshield and well worn upholstery.  I dream of the day that my '51 Super Sport has this kind of worn-in feel.

This '53 Ford Comete  was featured on Jalopnik a couple of years ago- I don't know if the person showing it was the buyer, or if it didn't sell.  It didn't have a for sale listing, so I'm guessing that it was here with the new owner.  This thing was nice, and Dave and I did cartoonish double-takes when we spotted it rolling down Folsom Street on the way to the show.  It was powered by the Ford V860 motor that never went over that well in the US market, but worked like gangbusters in France for decades.  Hotrod guys have rediscovered these little flatheads, and I remember reading that a warehouse full of NOS French V860s was discovered 10 years or so ago, making them available at an affordable price.   Back in the day, enterprising Crosley owners stuffed these engines into their cars, more than doubling the power with only a moderate weight gain.  I looked at a V860 powered 1948 wagon when I first started shopping for a Crosley-the seller thought it was the best part of the car!   
I don't know much about these Toyota 800s other than that they are rare, pricey and really cool.  I have to think that that back area would catch a lot of wind if you actually drove it with the top off.
Again, I don't know a whole lot about Traction Avants.  They look a lot older than they actually are, and there's one in Sacto that I was praying was for sale when I saw it parked on the street last year.   Thankfully for my wallet and the sanity of my household (yes, Liv would have killed me) it wasn't.
This Thames van was incredibly well restored, but was an obvious driver too.  I saw one of these for sale last year and thought, 'Where would you get parts?'  Seems like I might have been right to worry, judging by the owner's answer to the query, 'Looking for parts?'  Answer: 'Always.'  They get bonus points for having a van that the Beatles could have toured in circa 1960.  Here's the front:
And, yes, you did see it poking into a picture back there.  A Pacer.  like I said, if it's weird, it gets in the club.  There was a moment (approximately June 7-13, 1988) where I wanted one of these for the sheer absurdity of it, but the fact that they weren't dirt cheap (like almost free) and that every one I saw was beat nearly to death, cured me.
There were plenty more cars, including an Amphicar, an Elf, and even a much-modified Opel- but my photos didn't all turn out so well.  All in all, a day well spent looking at cars, and getting my inspiration to maybe drive one of my Crosleys, or maybe Dave's NSU there next year.  

Thursday, April 9, 2009

When the Auto Industry was in Flower

One of the websites I check almost daily is the Jalopy Journal, a vintage hot rod/sports car/race car enthusiasts' site. Ryan, the site admin, comes up with so much arcane and fascinating gunk that I really wonder if he does anything other than plow through old car magazines, books and youtube videos looking for story ideas. Take today's entry.
On September 24, 1960, Flora, Illinois became "Ford Town, USA," with every one of the town's 1600 residents receiving a brand new Ford for a one week trial- even the local Chevy dealer! The stunt was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca who must have been quite pleased with himself when it actually came off.

It's interesting to contrast the US auto industry of 1960 with the state it is in today. Who in those heady days could have imagined that "Toyopets" would one day rule US roadways and that American cars would have a reputation for shoddy craftsmanship and bland styling?
1960 was a pretty good year for the US industry, IMHO. Sensible compacts like the Falcon and Valiant were introduced, and the fascinating, if flawed, Corvair entered the marketplace. An American automobile made in 1960 is still able to run comfortably in today's traffic, cruising at highway speeds and generally offering plenty of power. Brake systems may not match modern standards, but the drums of that day still work well, if not quite as well as today's discs. Certainly the same cannot be said for most European or Japanese products of the time. As much as I love Fiat 600s and early Datsuns, I'm not sure they would survive long on today's roadways.

What happened to the US Auto Industry? I think they fell victim to following the poorest examples of foreign car-makers (poor reliability, uneven build quality, and designs that always followed other leaders) while ignoring many of the best foreign-car ideas like fuel efficiency and styling that was changed sensibly- not simply to make last year's model look old. By contrast, many of the foreign car makers improved their offerings constantly. Sad to say, I'd choose a Toyota or SmartCar today over almost any modern US made car. Still, there is hope-- who would have expected a hot little item like the Solstice, especially badged as a Pontiac??? More like that, please!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

29th Annual SouthWest Unique Little Car Show, April 3-4

I'm stuck in Norcal this weekend, but you mid and south staters might want to head out to Commerce, CA to check out the 29th Annual SouthWest Unique Little Car Show. Try as I might I've never been able to make this show, but the reports I've gotten from those who have say it is a great event. All sorts of fun stuff shows up, including (but not limited to) Crosleys, Isettas, Berkeleys, Messerschmitts, DAFs, Fiats, and- since it's sponsored by the Metropolitan Club- many Metropolitans. Bay Area and other NorCal types might mark their calendars for the Arcane Auto Society's Annual Meet in SF on April 11. That I have been to and it is a hoot.