Living in interesting times

Owing to the intrusion of other projects, this week’s regular article is going to be delayed until next week. So as not to leave you too wanting for content, though, I thought I would discuss a little more about the philosophy of this site.The brief of Ate Up With Motor is to discuss the history and design of interesting cars. That inevitably leaves you all at the mercy of what your author considers interesting, which bears some explanation.

Unlike a lot of car nuts, I am not necessarily enthralled by superlative performance or exotic brands. A Bugatti Veyron, for example, leaves me pretty cold despite its admittedly staggering speed. I’ve previously confessed my ambivalence about Porsches; I recently took some pictures of a mid-eighties 928, a worthy car in many respects, and struggled to think of a way to write about it that wouldn’t bore me. Nor does the absurd horsepower inflation of modern supercars do much for me. I’m not 12 years old, and things no longer fascinate me simply because they’re fast or unusually phallic.

I also have the curmudgeon’s inherent suspicion of ubiquity. I am profoundly disinterested in Cobras, for example, and you’re unlikely to see an article on the “Tri-Five” (1955-57) Chevrolets here because while I have nothing against them (I rather like their styling, in fact), I am numbed by their sheer familiarity. At this point, I’m far more likely to be intrigued by an obscure oddball than by recognized Classics.

Fascination shouldn’t be assumed to connote approval, or even fondness. It’s difficult for me to defend a big-block Corvette, for instance, on any rational grounds and it’s not the kind of car I would care to own, but it’s certainly interesting. Just as historians are intrigued by notable monsters like Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin, though, I am often interested in cars whose various sins far outweigh their virtues. I’ve written previously about my support for the regulation of fuel economy and emissions, but the fact that I don’t consider gas guzzlers and gross polluters to be right or appropriate in a political or even moral sense doesn’t mean I think such vehicles should be categorically dismissed as objects of historical or sociological import.

On a more practical level, the articles I write here are generally shaped by the photographs I have available. That means that, for the foreseeable future, you’ll be stuck with whatever photos I have, that others graciously permit me to use for free, or that are in the public domain. I would love to write about certain vehicles for which I have no usable photos.

So, all that said, what kinds of cars am I likely to write about?

Cars of particular historical significance

Many of my articles focus on cars that began (or at least exemplify) particular trends: the four-seat Ford Thunderbird, for example, or the Datsun 510 — or aspects of the automotive business. Certain cars provide a vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) for discussing issues like branding or leaded gasoline. Others reveal some of the fascinating and mercurial personalities behind the cars, people like André Citroën, Bill Mitchell, and John Z. DeLorean.

1962 Dodge Dart front
An oddball of great historical significance indeed: the downsized 1962 Dodge and Plymouth, with their Japanese monster-movie styling, nearly destroyed Chrysler.

Novel or noteworthy technology

In the automotive business, it’s always difficult to state with an authority that a particular car is really the *first* to do anything, despite the enthusiastic claims of marketing departments and fans. Some Saab fans, for instance, and at times, even the company’s PR people, have claimed that the Saab Turbo of the late 1970s were the first turbocharged production car, which is nonsense (the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire and Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder beat it by more than 15 years). BMC’s Mini may have popularized front-wheel drive for small cars, but FWD was essayed well before World War One. Still, at least for the sake of discussion, we must start somewhere. Oldsmobile’s 1949 Rocket V8, for instance, certainly didn’t originate overhead valves or 90-degree V8s, but it certainly popularized that configuration for American cars for the next 35 years.

Some cars also represent interesting technological dead ends. The Oldsmobile Toronado, for example, introduced an extremely clever variation on the usual front-wheel-drive layout, although it was used only in a few models for a comparatively brief span. And although Citroën continues to keep the faith with its semi-active hydropneumatic suspension, it remains rare and controversial.

And of course some things are just plain bad ideas. The Pontiac Trans Am Turbo comes close and we’ll talk about some other, really terrible concepts in the future. (If I do talk about the ’57 Chevy, it will be to discuss the Turboglide transmission, a fascinating but disastrous attempt to make something like a continuously variable transmission using a torque converter.)

1961 Imperial LeBaron pushbuttons
The Chrysler Corporation was late in offering a true automatic transmission, but their two-speed Powerflite and three-speed TorqueFlite were among the best in the world. From 1957 until 1964, the controls for the TorqueFlite were pushbuttons in the left side of the dash rather than a conventional column- or console-mounted lever. They’re seen here in a 1961 Imperial Le Baron sedan.

Rarities and oddballs

Cars like the AMC Pacer fall into this category. A Pacer can’t be considered a particularly good car by any objective standard, but as a conversation piece, it has few rivals. Much the same can be said of the original Plymouth Barracuda, the <Avanti, or the Dino 308GT4. And let me assure you, if I can ever get some decent photos of the Checker Marathon, it will be on the list, as well.

1957 Nash_Metropolitan front3q
Clown-car looks, minicar dimensions, and proper Fifties two-tone paint: it can only be Nash’s little Metropolitan, one of the stranger cars ever offered by an American manufacturer. Under the skin, it was basically a British Austin A40.

Cars that appeal to my sense of whimsy

This is a broad category indeed, encompassing cars like the AMC SC/Rambler, the Plymouth Road Runner, or the disastrously ugly ’58 Packard Hawk, a car that resembles an unfortunate mating between a Studebaker and a catfish.

Naturally, there are also cars that fall into multiple categories. The Mini, for one — the original Mini is a car of great historical significance, certainly, but it’s hard to look at one (or to drive one) without the urge to giggle. I recently got some photos of a 1960 Dodge Polara D-500 convertible, which is not only spectacularly gaudy, but also has the rare “Cross Ram” 383 engine, a fascinating piece of technology.

1960_Dodge_Polara_tail
One of the few cars in the world capable of making a ’59 Cadillac look underdressed: a 1960 Dodge Polara convertible. Every square foot of this car has some kind of chrome, stainless steel, or aluminum brightwork.

I am asked from time to time if I take requests. The answer is “maybe.” If I can think of something interesting to say about it, and if I have pictures, I probably will. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

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10 Comments

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  1. Bravo for that line, sir!! In a nutshell that covers my feelings, muscle car fan that I am, about Camaros. Perhaps I just grew up in an area that had a LOT of them, yet to me they just seem…common.

    You’ve given us a good amount of articles to look forward to with this one! Good job!!

  2. “’58-’59 Packhard Hawk, a car that resembles an unfortune mating between a Studebaker and a catfish.”

    I had to go look for a picture. EXCELLENT description.
    -Tass

  3. Go obscure oddballs! I was enthralled with your discussion of the DS. I love your website. I keep sending my friends links to your articles. And I don’t think your photographs are mediocre at all :D

  4. I think it’s hilarious that you skipped you "usual" post to write this up because you didn’t have time. Seriously, this is a mini-essay.

    Anyway…I have to agree nearly wholeheartedly with your manifesto. My emotional connections lean more towards the powerful than the interesting.

    Either way, you run an incredible site and your well-researched long format articles are incredibly well written. You manage to capture both the detailed history of a car, and (more importantly) what it [i]meant[/i].

    Kudos and keep up the good work.

    PS: a Checker Marathon and Checker wagon can semi-regularly be found parked on Hyperion Blvd in Silverlake.

    1. Thanks for the Checker tip — I will check that out. A friend sent me pictures of what may be the same wagon yesterday…very interesting.

      I’m not oblivious to things that are stupidly powerful (I saw a ’66 Charger on Saturday that was one of the 400-odd equipped from the factory with a Hemi, which had a certain thrill), but I don’t find things interesting simply because they’re powerful. Most street rods don’t interest me, for instance. Perhaps it’s a question of scale — I also confess an interest in jet fighters, and compared to a modern fighter that may have close to 40 tons of thrust in full reheat, even a 900-horsepower Supra pales a bit.

      1. If the wagon has a kinda awkward paint job (either purple or gray, I think), then that’s the one.

        I agree with you that being powerful isn’t really enough.

        It’s more like I have difficulty moving from [i]appreciating[/i] a car to getting all worked up if it can’t deliver in the performance category.

        A good example might be the [code]DeTomaso Vallelunga[/code]/ Good looking, great handling, interesting…but leaves me flat.

  5. Your site is absolutely wonderful, both in terms of the quantity and quality of your writing. You can tell that it’s a labor of love, and I’m really grateful that you chose to write all these fantastic automotive histories. If you’re open to suggestions for another topic, what about writing a history of Willys?

    1. I’d be tempted to over the Aero-Willys, although U.S. survivors now seem to be even thinner on the ground than the Henry J (which I assume was a popular hot-rodder conversion), and at some point I might be strong-armed into doing the Jeepster(s) or possibly the Wagoneer…

  6. I am familiar with the Turboglide transmission. In my opinion it was a wonderful device. Although it wasn’t the most efficient transmitter of torque, it was incredibly smooth. We had one in a ’61 Impala with a four-barrel 283. Never had any trouble with it. I understand many of its problems here resolved by then.

    I recently acquired a car with a CVT specifically to mimic the smooth operation of the old Turboglide.

    1. The reliability issues had largely been addressed by 1961, which was close to the end of the line — by then, most buyers had been well and truly scared off. In any case, the similarity to modern CVTs isn’t accidental, since Turboglide WAS a CVT, just of a very different sort than modern belt/roller/chain CVTs. (So was Buick’s twin-turbine Dynaflow/Turbine Drive, although that had the additional set of planetary gears for Low and reverse.)

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