Back in April I hopped on a plane and headed down to Arkansas for a whirlwind weekend. For months, a group of car-fanatic friends from the US had been planning a roadtrip through the Ozark Mountains northwest of Little Rock. I decided to join them, enticed by the chance to meet these guys I had been exchanging with for years and perhaps crawl behind the wheel of the McLaren MP4-12C that belonged to the trip organiser.
In the end I didn't grab all that many photos of the vehicles in our convoy (including the McLaren, a tuned Mustang, a rental Chrysler 300C and a motorcycle), because we were simply having too much fun driving to stop for many photo opportunities. At one stop something DID catch my eye, however: a graveyard filled with an assortment of VW Beetles and Vans. The 'Bug' has always been and will always be a car that puts a smile on my face, so I wandered over to take a peek.
A 'Keep Out' sign made it clear trespassers weren't welcome, and the small town we had stopped in for gas felt exactly like you might think a small Arkansas town might feel like. The locals appeared friendly and extremely curious about the McLaren, though many hadn't heard of the make before and thought it was a Lamborghini. At one point, I'm pretty sure I heard banjo music off in the distance, and I definitely saw more than one old man sitting on a rocking chair on his front porch.
While I exaggerate slightly, it really was a unique and exciting trip. I got as close as I could to the VW graveyard and saw a few really cool oddities, including what appeared to be a homemade tow-Bug with an odd harness hanging off the back, as well as an old red VW Van with my last name written on the side! As much as I would loved to have gotten closer to the vehicles, the banjo music seemed to die away as I approached the barrier and I'm convinced I heard a few shotguns being cocked...
The trip was short but sweet and I know I've made some friends for life. Once again cars have brought me closer to other fanatics like myself, and this time it lead to me discovering another corner of the US that I didn't know before. If I have the chance one day to visit the Ozarks again I gladly would, but before I go, I'll take some banjo lessons so I can converse with the locals in their native tongue!
The only sure things in life are supposed to be death and taxes, but for me, there's a third: Fiero. Ever since my first 1984 Fiero died on me back when I was 18, I KNEW I would have another one someday. Turns out that day has come. Last week I was made aware of a pair of red 1984 Fieros for sale nearby and I quickly made an appointment to go see them.
The first one was a 4-speed manual and was in excellent shape. It hadn't been driven much over the past few years, but ran like a top when I took it out for a test drive. Within moments I knew I'd buy the car. With a wheezing 2.5L under the rear deck, the 2M4 Fiero model is far from a true performance car, but the mid-engine layout and low ride height make it entertaining enough on twisty roads.
Even if this Fiero was in good shape, it wasn't perfect. The paint needs a good polish, the interior is showing its age, and the headliner is falling out. There were also some common 'Fiero' issues, like a leaking sunroof, broken hideaway headlights and some dash cracking around the heater and radio. Overall, though, it was too good to pass up, so I jumped at it.
There was even a bonus parts car that came with it! Two-for-one-Fieros! This second one was also a 4-cylinder, but came with the sluggish 3-speed auto transmission. It currently isn't in running condition, but it shouldn't take much to get it driving again. I have decided this will be my project car, and I'm already thinking of what I'm going to do with it...
The Fiero gets mixed reactions. Some people give it a thumbs up and are excited to see one still on the road. Others seem less impressed and mention what an awful car they were. The other day I had to run into a Nissan dealership for business and the manager there saw my car. He said "Those things were death traps"! I had to remind him that, in 1984, they shared a top safety rating with Volvo and are well known to hold up extremely well in an accident. No one gets away with belittling my Fiero aside from me!
To be fair, the 4-banger 1984 model isn't a very likable car by modern standards. It's slow, rough, noisy and poorly finished. These flaws, however, are part of why I love this car so much. The low ride height and wide track make it an incredible handler in the corners (just hope you don't hit a bump mid corner!) and the 'rough around the edges' character and lack of power steering make the drive more engaging.
The 'Holy Grail' Fiero is the 1988 GT model with a revised suspension, V6 engine and 5-speed manual transmission. Due to their relative rarity, they have really crept up in price over the years. I have detailed several encounters with my ultimate dream Fiero in past blog entries, and I am still adamant that I will own one someday.
You can read up on a lovely 1988 that belongs to a forum friend I got to drive a few years back, as well as another local one I saw shortly after: I took them as a sign at that point that my Fiero story wasn't finished, and it seems that was the case with this new pair in my driveway!
My first roadtrip with the roadworthy 2M4 will be tomorrow, and I have been spending my evenings in the garage with the other one trying to get it running and planning how I want it to look. This Fiero Story: Part 2 has just begun, with many more chapters to come!
A fun game to play when I was young was "I spy with my little eye, something that is..." and you would name a colour. The other person playing would have to guess what you were looking at. Last Sunday, it wasn't so much a colour as a strange car feature that caught my little eye: a continental kit.
The continental kit came into fashion in the 1940's as a way to carry a spare tire without taking up trunk space. The upright rear tire, often in a styled case or cover, added a bit of style to cars of the day. By the 1980s, the continental kit had fallen out of fashion, but that didn't stop Dodge from making it an option on their 600 convertible. The K-Car based 600 convertible was never a beacon of style, so I suppose anything that made it stand out a bit more was worth a try!
Aside from the continental kit, which is the highlight of the 600 convertible design, a few well-placed chrome touches made for a tidy package. The chrome trim on the A-pillar was an especially nice touch, and is a design element seen on many convertible luxury and sports vehicles over the years. This example of the 600 had a 3-speed automatic transmission and 4-cylinder engine, meaning it would be better suited to lazy Sunday drives than sporting driving, but the spotless interior and exterior as well as the like-new folding top make it appealing nonetheless.
This isn't the first time a K-derived Chrysler product has caught my attention and likely not the last. This 600 is about as unique and stylish as they come. The 600 was parked behind a building that housed a used car dealership, so hopefully with the nice weather coming, it will be put out for sale and find a happy home. You can be sure that if it ends up somewhere nearby, I will catch sight of it again. Not much gets past my little eye!
It's hard to hold out much hope for a $270 vehicle. Last summer I had the chance to purchase a 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitara. A family member knew of someone looking to get rid of their little 4x4 and they were hoping someone would keep it on the road, instead of scrapping it. Having spent most of its life in British Columbia, the vehicle was showing very little rust for its age. With 214,000 kms, it was no spring chicken, and had a few problems:
While none of these were major problems, they all had me worried that the Suzuki wouldn't pass safety and emissions testing. As much as I loved the idea of owning a 'proper' 4x4 like the Grand Vitara, I didn't want to have to spend alot of money to get it on the road, only to find that something else would go wrong in a short time.
One of the highlights of the Grand Vitara is the small 2,5L V6 engine. By 1999, V6 engines were typically 3.0L or more in displacement, so such a small V6 was a rarity for sure sure. With 142 hp and 153 ft-lb of torque, it isn't a particularly powerful engine, but it is well suited to the 'pocket-sized' GV.
Another great feature is the true 4x4 system. Unlike other small 4x4s with button-selected or fully automatic all wheel drive systems, the Grand Vitara features a manual gear selector to shift between 2WD, 4 HIGH and 4 LO. 4 HIGH is designed for driving in snow, mud and other low-traction situations, while 4 LO is designed for low-speed off-road use.
The owner of the Suzuki had been offered $270 as a trade-in on a new vehicle, so was only asking that much when I went to check it out. He liked his little 4x4 and preferred the idea of someone driving it a bit longer. I decided to take gamble and buy it, not sure if it would prove to be a money pit or not. It took a few hundred dollars to safety, but for well under $1000 dollars it was on the road.
Just a few short weeks after buying it, I put the Grand Vitara to the test. My nephew and I headed out on a road trip to the East Coast of Canada in a convoy with other family members. I had flown to the West Coast just before, so it was exciting to dip my toes in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in the span of one week, especially since it was Canada's 150th birthday as a nation! Despite some burnt oil fumes that wafted into the cabin at every stop and less than encouraging fuel mileage (11 mpg, on average), the trip was a success.
Eight months have passed since I bought the Suzuki, and I feel that it has definitely proven itself. A scan of the OBD system indicates that the intermittent check engine light is due to a faulty O2 sensor. Changing the brake pads fixed most of the brake shudder, though new rotors will be necessary. I installed new winter tires to tackle the snow and will soon be installing a set of meaty summer tires. My brother in law helped me tighten the valve covers and the oil leak has all but stopped.
I have now put over 12,000 kms on my $270 purchase and am convinced there is lots of life left in it. There are a few dents, scratches and a bit of peeling paint on the bumpers, but overall, the body and frame are in fantastic shape for the age. The interior is looking a bit worn and tired, but a thorough cleaning when the warm weather finally hits will help. What is needed now is a little TLC to the engine and drivetrain to ensure the vehicle is running properly. My plan is to take care of a few issues that affect fuel economy and how the vehicle performs:
With this bit of TLC, I think the Grand Vitara will easily make it to 250,000 kms, and hopefully beyond. I enjoy extracting every last km out of an older vehicle and am excited at taking it on more adventures this summer. While I have yet to do any serious off-roading, I have tried it in 4x4 on some rough, muddy trails and enjoy seeing what it can do. A friend said that with a small lift and some serious all-terrain tires, my little 4x4 would be unstoppable as an off-road warrior. This is probably the best $270 investment I have ever made, so lets see just how far I can stretch it!
After years without, I will finally have a garage! It's actually a mystery why I have lived in places without a garage for so long when I love the idea of having a space to work on a car project. An upcoming move means I will have a small garage that's all my own. It may be small and lacking a lift, but it will be perfectly suitable for some sort of automotive project.
Think of it as a concrete representation of The Automotive Attic. Some junk needs to be cleared out, and the tool bench organised, and a few lights added, but it's dry and insulated and begging to be stuffed with a fun older car project. I had my eye on a 1987 Pontiac Fiero GT as well as a 1982 Buick Skylark, so hopefully one of those two will work out. If not, I know that something fun and unique will end up parked in that space soon.
As enjoyable as this winter has been, the sun and clear skies today got me thinking about summer. Or last summer, to be exact. I had the chance to visit the south of France last June and spent some time in Perpignan, just north of the border with Spain, on the Mediterranean sea. With sandy beaches all along the coast, it's not hard to find a place to stretch out and enjoy the sun, sea and sand.
One of the best ways to get around is in a convertible. While I didn't have the chance to myself, there was no shortage of cool examples at the beach. The most celebrated and legendary French example is the Citroen Mehari, a plastic-fantastic version of the already-legendary 2CV compact car. Manufactured between 1968 and 1988 as a beach-side runaround, the Mehari had a tub body in place of a traditional body shell, much like the similar VW Thing, Renault Safari, and Mini Moke. In the case of the Mehari, the body was made entirely from plastic and had the color 'baked' right in.
Thanks to the simple mechanicals it shares with the 2CV and the huge aftermarket that exists for that car, owning and operating a Mehari isn't a problem. What IS difficult is getting your hands on one for a decent price, since it never sold in huge numbers and is highly sought-after on the used car market nowadays. Thanks to the plastic body, rust isn't a problem, though accidents can crack the monocoque body.
This beige model I saw at the beach was in very good condition and came with a top and side windows that offered some protection from the wind and rain. I didn't see a drop of rain during my week in the South of France, so I imagine the tops on these beach cars don't stay up very often. A few days later I saw a blue Mehari at another beach, so while these ARE a rare car, they still can be seen, usually in their natural habitat along the coast.
A few snowflakes were flying tonight so it's not QUITE time for an open-air buggy like this cool Mehari in Canada just yet. Still, a toy like this would be very entertaining to have around in the summertime, and it's easy to see why this plastique fantastique Citroen is still so desirable today!
Last night the snow started falling before I went to bed, and it was still coming down this morning when I woke up. When I saw that it wasn't going to let up, I picked up a friend and headed off to the beautiful Gatineau Park in the province of Quebec, just across the river from Ottawa. Well known for its gorgeous fall leaves, Gatineau Park is also a winter wonderland; home to a myriad of ski hills, hiking, snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails and entertaining roads that wind their way up, through and around hills, lakes and valleys.
While some people avoid driving when it's snowing, I relish it. I enjoy a relaxed drive in the snow, especially when I don't have a particular destination and can take my time to enjoy the scenery. Winter driving is more challenging than summer driving, of course, but it is simply a matter of paying close attention to what your vehicle is telling you and not over-driving the roads.
There was a fair amount of accumulation on the roads through the park, though the plows were out trying to keep ahead of the heavy snowfall. At one point we ended up at the parking lot to the Camp Fortune ski hill. It seemed that 90% of the vehicles in the lot were SUVs, so the presence of a lone BMW sedan caught my attention.
The brave BMW 325i had won the battle against the weather to get to the hill. The driver had clearly arrived early to the ski hill, as the car was covered with a thick layer of snow. I am no BMW expert, so I had to look up the 325i model, and learned that it was sold in Canada from 1987 until 1991. This 30 year old car still cuts an impressive profile and appeared to be in good shape, despite a few rust spots made extra noticeable in contrast with the white paint and white snow as a background!
Apparently an all-wheel drive model of this generation of 325 existed, but this was simply the rear-wheel drive version. Equipped with winter tires (like all cars are mandated to in the province of Quebec) and decent ground clearance, the BMW somehow looked made for the role of winter adventure vehicle. The skis strapped on the top made it seem even more authentic, as did the Euro plate on the front bumper.
For those that don't know, vehicles licensed in Quebec do not require a plate on the front, so I suspect the owner is a European who brought their plate with them. Perhaps it's a German, Swiss or Austrian who is used to carving through deep snow crossing the Alps and wanted a touch of German's best engineering here in Canada. Whatever the back story, it is always exciting for a car fan to see these older models being used, and not simply sitting in storage somewhere, collecting dust.
My own car, a little Hyundai, is certainly less exciting than a classic BMW, but I still enjoyed my Sunday drive. The snow stopped for a while but I see that it has starting again this evening. I imagine that after an enjoyable day of skiing, the owner of the BMW climbed back in behind the wheel and enjoyed an equally entertaining drive home in their cool Bimmer. For some of us, snow on the roads is s'no problem at all!
Time. It seems that as I get older, it goes faster. When looking for a blog topic tonight, I searched through some old travel folders and stumbled across a car I had photographed in Laos. I had to look at the time stamp to recall when it was, and turns out it was almost exactly 2 years ago! While I don't doubt the date on the photos, I had to run through two years in my head to accept that it had been that long ago.
The trip itself was fantastic; two weeks traveling from the capital, Ventiane, up the Mekong River on a two-day riverboat journey and then to visit the breathtaking Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang districts. As usual, my trip was peppered with some fantastic automotive sightings, notably a visit to the Royal Cars Exhibition at the National Museum (also the former Royal Palace).
The car that caught my eye wasn't one but two old Mercedes 280 sedans in the lovely, lazy riverside city of Luang Prabang. The black beauties appeared to be in hotel service, shuttling customers to and from the hotel and bus and train stations. This wasn't the only hotel using old cars, which fit perfectly with the ritzy, colonial feel of the classier hotels in town.
I am no classic Mercedes expert, but I know what I like, and these stately sedans feature excellent proportions and gorgeous chrome trim from tip to tail. While we stayed at a very nice hotel, it didn't have any cars to shuttle us around, so we had to settle for bicycles and scooters! It turns out bicycles were a great way to see the city while scooters made it easy to tour the breathtaking countryside, so a car wasn't necessary.
If anyone is considering a southeast Asia trip one day, I highly recommend Laos. It is a relatively little-known country landlocked between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar. Development is connecting cities, towns and villages with roads, though much of the country still relies on the Mekong river for travel and transportation, giving it an authentic and historic feel.
During the serval days we stayed in Luang Prabang I walked past the Mercedes 280s several times. It appeared that they got use as they were never parked in the exact same spot, and they were slightly dusty. I would much rather see an old car used than parked on a pedestal and never moved. With the few roads, traffic congestion and generally slow-paced reality of Luang Prabang, there's no reason these big Merc's won't be transporting hotel customers in style for years to come.
This little nostalgia tour put a smile on my face for many reasons. It reminded me how much I love heading out on an adventure and exploring, and brought back some fantastic memories of trips I've taken and cars I've seen. Time will tell where my next destination is and what mysteries it will hold...
Knowing where you come from is important. I take great pleasure reminiscing over my origins and recalling automotive memories from when I was very young. All of my early car memories spring from my father, and I grew up with the same love of relatively unlovable cars. It was always less about the monetary value (either actual or potential) and more about the story behind the car.
This past summer, I was able to dig deep down into my well of car memories and head out on an adventure to find a long lost car. Okay, so it may not be QUITE as epic as I make it sound... but it was a fun adventure nonetheless. It started well over a year earlier, when one of my aunts sent me an email and a few pictures. It was of the old Morris Oxford my grandparents used to drive. While she didn't recall the exact year, the pictures were from sometime in the 1950's and she recalled many great trips in that old Morris. My father had often spoken of this car and the countless trips to the East Coast the family had taken in it.
If she was telling me about this car it was because she had run across a local farmer who mentioned that my father had left an old car on his property decades before, and that it was still there! Like a bolt of lightening, I remembered my dad telling me when I was around 10 years old that he had left an old car in a neighbour's field and that he intended to restore it one day. The details were fuzzy, but I was sure he had told me it was a Morris Oxford.
One summer day we even went out to see it, and while I was too young to remember exactly where it was, I vividly recall hiking through long grass to get to the car, Even back then, in the early 1990's, the car was in rough shape. My father knew he had a huge project in front of him if he ever wanted to restore it, but he was determined to do it one day. While many other details are cloudy today, what I do recall is finding a box of his childhood toys in the trunk. There was a pile of old red Meccano, some books, papers and drawings and a painted Woody Woodpecker cutout he had made! For years I played with that Meccano, and I'm sure that faded Woody is still laying around somewhere...
Fast-forward to this past summer. My father passed away years ago and never had the chance to restore the Morris Oxford, or even went out to see it again, I assume. The kind neighbour storing it wasn't bothered that it was there, but had simply mentioned it to my aunt in passing. During a visit home, I got to thinking about that car and made it my mission to find it again. While it was a slightly less complicated task than searching for Atlantis or the Holy Grail, I was determined to do it without cheating.
Instead of asking my Aunt where the vehicle was located, my little sister, a friend and I hopped in the car and headed out on the backroads outside of town. I knew roughly in which direction to head, and had the name of the farmer. In our region, a single last name can appear on quite a few mailboxes, but my sister was pretty sure she had gone to school with the granddaughter of the farmer. We didn't know exactly where they lived, but it was a beautiful sunny day and we had fun criss-crossing the country lanes in search of the right property.
We finally found it and drove up to a house, only to have our joy deflated when no one answered the door. Dejected, we started to head home when we realized that, like many homesteads in the county, the main farmhouse, set back off the road, was also accompanied by a smaller house along the main road where the grandparents lived. The same family name was on a second mailbox, so we stopped and banged on the door.
An elderly gentleman answered and confirmed he was indeed 'Mac', the person we were looking for. I told him who I was and he instantly said he remembered my father. When I told him we wanted to see the old car, he looked surprised. He told us that there wasn't much left, and that it would be nearly impossible to move from where it was. When I reassured him that it was simply a nostalgic tour to see the car and take a few pictures, he agreed to take us out there. In true rural style, we hopped in the back of his 4x4 pickup (okay, so I got to sit in the cab while my sister and my friend had to clamber up in the box!) and he slowly drove us across his rough and rutted cow field.
I spied the Morris from far away, looking lonely and abandoned in the middle of the large field. As we got closer it was clear just what a poor state the car was in. As it turns out, this one was black (visible even though much of the paint had come off), while the Oxford my grandparents drove back so long ago was green, according to my aunt. A few weeks later I was discussing the car with other family members who recalled my father purchasing another identical Oxford at one point, so it would seem this model was that one and not the original family vehicle. Either way, it was exciting to see it and find this treasure at the end of our short but enjoyable quest!
The old car had sunken so low that the wheels were half buried and the chassis was resting on the ground. At least a quarter of a century had passed since I had last seen this car, and that was long after it was first abandoned out there. The farmer told me that the Morris had originally resided in a barn nearby, but that the barn eventually had to be torn down and my father told him to simply drag the car out into the field. Perhaps he knew that he would never restore the Oxford, but couldn't bring himself to have it towed away and scrapped. Or maybe some part of him told him to hang onto it for some unknown reason. Knowing my father, the excitement and nostalgia I had finding this car so many years later would have made leaving it there all those years worthwhile in the end...
While nothing was really salvageable, there were some great little touches on the car that caught my attention, like the white gauges in the dash, the red taillights, the mechanical plastic signal arm in the B pillar and a number of shiny chrome bits that still reflected like the day the car was built. Unfortunately I didn't get a clear picture of the identification plate, so I can't quite make out the year, but in looking it up, it would appear to be an Oxford MO model produced from 1948 until 1954.
Perhaps the most interesting discovery was made when I peeked in the trunk. The spare tire, the engine head and the air cleaner were all piled in there, but it was a few rusty pieces of old Meccano that caught my attention the most. There was no doubt: this was the car I had trekked out with my dad to see one summer day, when we had pulled out the box of old toys and I found his childhood Meccano set that I would play with for years...
After taking a long look at the car and snapping a bunch of pictures, we headed home. I was extremely thankful that Mac was so helpful and willing to take us out to the car. He told me that it doesn't bother him there and that trying to move it would probably destroy it completely, so the rusty old Morris will sit where it has for more than three decades as it continues to disappear into the ground.
I like to think that I'm a 'grounded' person, but the discovery of this bit of family folklore helped me feel even more firmly planted in the ground. I've had to chance to travel the world, and will continue to explore further, but I love that I have roots and a place to call home. And what could be more fitting than a rusty shell of an old car acting as my anchor?
As I planned my return to Canada this past summer, I kept telling everyone I wanted a 'real' Canadian winter again after living overseas for 12 years. Well, I got it! Record cold temperatures and several 10+ cm dumps of snow make it official: it's a real Canadian winter! On a drive this weekend I almost missed a cool automotive sighting due to so much snow, but at the last second a familiar shape caught my eye.
Once again the lowly Chrysler K-Car had drawn me in! This time it was the Dodge Aries version, a silver sedan with interior colour unknown, since it was covered with snow. I like to think it had a red interior, front bench seat and column shifter, because I can't imagine a K-Car any other way! It's hard to tell if this car is in running shape, but I like to think that it's just taking a winter break. It's nice to get snowbound during the holidays, and I know I have been enjoying some time off to relax. Perhaps this Aries just needed to take a little break and enjoy the Canadian winter like me!
This isn't the first time I've written about the K-Car. This past summer I spied one in Montreal in the exact same place as a friend had photographed one years earlier. As these venerable models are becoming more and more rare, it is always a pleasure to spy one that isn't in a junk yard. Some rust was present on the wheel wells, and while I didn't get too close to inspect this silver Aries, the upper portion of the body appears intact at least. Another encouraging sign was the presence of 'Alberta' licence plates. If this car spent a good portion of its life out West, there's a good chance it doesn't have as much undercarriage rust as typical older cars from the East, where road salt is applied with a heavy hand.
It'a fun imagining the little Dodge trekking nearly 4,000 kms from the foot of the Rocky Mountains to the outskirts of Ottawa. Well fun for me! At some point I am going to make this trip, and what better (or worse?!) car than a K-Car! Little power, few creature comforts, high probability of breakdown or head gasket failure... sounds like an adventure to me! In hindsight, I should have knocked some snow off the windshield; perhaps the car is for sale! I think a trip back is in order to see if I can't track down the owner. This K-Car appears snowbound for the time being, so I don't think I have to worry about it going anywhere. When the spring thaw comes and the snow starts to melt, I'll be first in line to try to pick up this little gem!
In a few more hours it will be New Years where I am, so I wish everyone a very happy finish to 2017 and a very exciting 2018 full of health, happiness and some exciting automotive adventures!
Welcome! My name is Paul, and I am an old-fashioned, low-pressure, low-buck car fan with lots of automotive stories to tell!