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Thursday, April 29, 2010

1980 Pontiac Acadian

After being discontinued in 1971, the proud and popular Acadian nameplate made a comeback late in 1979. This time it bowed not as a brand of compact car but under the Pontiac banner as GM Canada's feisty import fighter. The newest subcompact in Oshawa's stable would have its work cut out for it, doing battle against the Top Ten imports: Honda, Toyota, Datsun, VW, Mazda, Lada, Subaru, Chrysler’s Mitsubishi, Renault and Audi. These value-loaded offshore offerings would grab 21 percent of the domestic market during the 1980 model year, the highest total in decades.

Aside from international competition, there were plenty of domestic contenders, too. In addition to its cousin the Chevrolet Chevette, Ford’s Pinto and Mercury Bobcat,  AMC’s Spirit, the Dodge Omni, Plymouth Horizon and Chrysler Expo already filled the field.

Oddly enough, the Canada-only Pontiac Acadian was an import itself, built in the United States on the same lines as the Chevrolet Chevette. Advertising went to great lengths to stress that the baby Pontiac was part of the GM World Car programme. “The vehicles described in this brochure are assembled at facilities of General Motors of Canada Limited or car Divisions of General Motors Corporation or at facilities of General Motors Corporation operated by the GM Assembly Division.”

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Badge engineering was employed on the Acadian. It received the Pontiac emblem and Acadian decals, complete with a distinguishing maple leaf. Other than that, it was virtually identical to the Chevrolet Chevette. Still, there was a need; Canadians had been shopping at their Pontiac-Buick dealers for thrifty little Vauxhalls since 1948. With the demise of the ill-fated Vauxhall Firenza in 1973, that entire subcompact segment of the market had been lost. Dealers were acutely aware of the sales that slipped through their fingers during the four-year absence. The addition of the Acadian to showroom floors was good news, indeed.

Introduction of the Acadian was most timely. Gasoline prices rose dramatically as the National Energy Board and Alberta squabbled bitterly in public over production quotas and tax rights. The Bank of Canada continued to hike interest rates in a desperate bid to shore up a sagging dollar. Weary consumers were caught in a nightmarish spiral of double-digit inflation and shrinking earning power. From groceries to mortgages, everything cost more and debt loads rose dramatically. Those who were in the market found small economical cars more desirable than ever before.

Advertising for the pint-sized Pontiac hit home with an anxious public. “No mistake about it. The 1980 Pontiac Acadian offers something you just don’t see much of now. Your money’s worth. That’s why we’re proud that Acadian continues the tradition of being a lot of car.” Cashing in on its GM heritage, it boasted a unitized Body by Fisher.

Designed in West Germany as General Motors’ first attempt at a car for the world market, the Chevette first bowed through GM’s Brazilian subsidiary in the spring of 1973. Model variants there included a pickup truck. In September of 1973 it was introduced in Germany as the third generation of the Opel Kadett. In the fall of 1974 it was built for the Argentine market as the Opel K-180. In November, the Japanese could buy it as the Isuzu Bellett Gemini. In 1975, Britons met the Vauxhall Chevette, Australians said ‘good day mate’ to the Holden Gemini and North Americans greeted the Chevrolet Chevette.

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Acadian could be had as a two- or four-door hatchback. A stripped S version listed at the rock bottom price of $4,345, putting it squarely in league with Lada, the lowest priced car on the domestic market.

Under the hood of the Acadian was the 1.6-litre L4 four-cylinder, overhead cam engine with a two-stage carburetor. A faster version of the mill added a high-speed camshaft and a dual-takedown exhaust manifold. Primarily produced by the Chevrolet Motor Division at the Flint, Michigan Motor Plant, an advisory noted that the GM-built engines found in Acadians could be produced by various divisions. All mills were mated to a four-speed manual transmission for “good horsepower good driveability, a positive cold drive-away response and peppy acceleration.”

Pontiac’s little foot soldier came with a number of standard goodies including front disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, a diagnostic connector for quick hook-up to the computer at the dealership, a fold down rear seat and a centre floor console, the latter installed on all but the lowest price S Hatchback Coupe.

Interiors of the base S model were finished in Black or Camel-coloured vinyl or cloth. Higher cost models offered interior choices in Blue and Carmine as well. Top-of-the-line Acadian Custom interiors could be had in upscale vinyl or custom cloth finishes. Seats reclined on all models but the S. Advertising promised that a “liberal application of acoustical materials” had been used throughout but then there was an optional custom interior trim package that packed in more insulation—just in case.

Entry-level vehicle that it was, Acadian came with a goodly number of extra-cost options to dress it up. Customers were invited to “build your own Acadian.” Sunday best niceties included an intermittent windshield wiper system, a Comfortilt steering wheel, colour-keyed seat belts and floor mats, sports mirrors with remote control operation for the driver’s side, air conditioning, tinted glass, an AM/FM radio and the requisite number of speakers, a three-speed automatic transmission, the Delco Freedom heavy-duty battery, a roof rack, wheel trim rings, sport wheel covers, steel-belted radial ply tires, an auxiliary lighting package, an electric clock, a tachometer, an electric rear window defogger, exterior striping and for all but the very early production models, a rear window wiper-washer. A very useful and important option was the Continuous Protection Plan, designed to extend the warranty.

Exteriors were finished in three coats of paint. Colour choices were Beige, Black, Bright Blue Metallic, Dark Blue Metallic, Light Camel Metallic, Dark Claret Metallic, Grey, Dark Green Metallic, Red, Red Orange, Silver, White and Bright Yellow. In addition there were five smart two-tone colour combinations.

A total of 19,361 Pontiac Acadians were built during the 1980 model year. They did their job well, helping GM Canada to have its second best year on record despite the deeply troubled economy.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2005 All rights reserved.

Monday, April 26, 2010

1964 Volkswagen 1500 TS Sedan and Wagon

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Volkswagen arrived officially in the Dominion of Canada in 1952.  It was a calculated gamble but VW execs noted that Canadian consumers liked small cars and bought a lot of them. The West German automaker decided to set up shop in modest Toronto headquarters. Canada was the company’s first overseas subsidiary. Typical of Volkswagen’s thoroughness, the company brought in $30,000 worth of parts before ordering a single car. The first display car was actually borrowed from a private owner in the United States.

The quirky air-cooled car with the funny shape was immediately popular with the public despite its dubious past and not-so-secret connection to Nazi Germany. By 1960, Volkswagen was the third best selling car in Canada. With 31,146 units delivered, VW was bested only by Pontiac and Chevrolet.

Sales were off significantly in 1962 because Parliament implemented higher tariffs on imports as a way of protecting the domestic auto industry. This new ruling did not affect GM or Ford because they were able to import cars from their European subsidiaries without penalty under their multinational umbrella. Other independent European automakers such as Austin and VW were hit hard.

Studebaker stepped in to offer Volkswagen a helping hand. The Hamilton, Ontario automaker already augmented its domestic line of cars and trucks with the luxurious Mercedes-Benz cars--and at the other end of the scale--the tiny, economical DKW, both of West German origin. Executives in Hamilton were familiar with the rules for importation of cars from West Germany.

The arrangement was simple. Studebaker would  bring in Volkswagen vehicles as a captive import, thus avoiding the taxes and duties. Studebaker netted $135 per unit when the cars were resold to Volkswagen Canada Limited but the fee amounted to a pittance compared to the increase that VW would have paid had it not enjoyed a domestic partnership. Volkswagen Canada wasn’t shy to take out advertisements to announce that the company had held the price line.

The venerable Beetle had stood alone for many years. It was joined by a modern, up-to-date stable mate in 1961. The new 1500 was designed by a team of 2,000 engineers, under the direction of Heinz Nordhoff, head of VW in Wolfsburg. Once the bugs (yes, the pun is intended) were worked out of it, the 1500 Sedan and Station Wagon arrived in Canada for the 1962 season.  Squarish, with softly rounded corners, this pair certainly didn’t look like anything else that carried the VW name and advertising was quick to make the point.

“Our 1500 Sedan doesn’t look like our familiar beetle-shaped car but take a good look and you’ll find a strong family resemblance. For example: The 1500 engine is in the rear with its weight over the drive wheels.”  The usual VW humour was evident, too. An advertisement appearing in the June issue of Canada Track & Traffic pokes fun at the new style. “Lift the front hood of a 1500 and you’ll find a large luggage compartment. Lift the back hold and you’ll find another luggage compartment.”

The other 1500 model was described as “a handsome spacious, rattle-proof station wagon. It is a workhorse with the lines of a thoroughbred. With all seats in position, it’s a five-passenger car. Or fold down the back seat and you can go into the cartage business. You can bring home a refrigerator, or take a little league team to the park or sleep two people on a camping trip.” If the 42 cubic feet of space in the rear wasn’t enough, there was another compartment under the hood of the car. An early advert boasts the Station Wagon is big enough “to carry a bathtub or 14,600 bars of soap.”

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The pancake format TS engine was touted. “Fasten your seat belts!” advertising shouted. “This new Volkswagen will move from a standing start to fifty miles per hour in twelve seconds. (It’s no wonder we call it a family sports car.) Our TS model has 25 percent more power.” It did indeed. The twin carburetor tweaked horsepower to 66 @ 4800 RPM. The TS was capable of whizzing passengers along at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour. The editors of Canada Track & Traffic gave the TS full marks for “its engineering superiority, quality of construction, aesthetics, total comfort, safety and performance.” They then bestowed the coveted Golden Wheel Award on the car.

A base VW Beetle could be had for $1,695 in 1962. The 1500 Sedan listed for $2,495. The optional sunroof was heavily promoted and it added $125 to the tab. The 1500 Station Wagon carried a $2,695 price tag. Model 351— the 1500 Convertible—listed for $2,495 but the ragtop was withdrawn from the market and ultimately never produced.

In 1963 Volkswagen was the fifth best selling car in the country, with 27, 559 units delivered. It was sandwiched in between two other popular small cars.  Valiant, held the Number Four spot and Rambler took the sixth position. In 1964 Rambler passed Volkswagen—in proverbial second gear no doubt—to take fifth position. That gave VW the sixth spot with 31,075 units delivered. While the 1500 Sedan and Station Wagon were well accepted by consumers, they never sold in the numbers that the Beetle did.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2006 All rights reserved.

Friday, April 16, 2010

1955 Studebaker

Studebaker Canada Limited had wanted to return to the assembly of cars in this country when the 1939 Champion turned out to be highly popular with consumers. World War Two intervened and the company had to wait until the end of the conflict to re-establish its domestic assembly goals. The company arranged the purchase of a 320,000-square foot munitions factory from the War Assets Commission in Hamilton, Ontario on March 21, 1946.

Conversion to civilian manufacture was slow, taking more than two years. Located at 349 Ferrie Street East, the pioneer automaker finally began postwar production of passenger cars on August 18, 1948. Model year production amounted to an even 3,000 cars that first year, all of them the modest, thrifty and popular Champions.

People had to wait in line for a Studebaker but one of the first ones went to the father of Ontario's future Lieutenant-Governor, Lincoln Alexander, a long-time CNR railroad porter and personal friend of Studebaker Canada president Denis (Gus) Gaskin. Demand was strong for Studebaker products in the heady days. Trucks were added to the mix in February of 1949. Model year totals show 864 trucks and 6,152 cars—all Champions—were built.

For the very long 1950 selling season a whopping 15,073 Champions rolled out the doors. The bullet-nosed bodies were extremely well accepted by consumers. Folks bought 2,121 stylish Studebaker trucks that year, too. The passenger car envelope was only mildly facelifted for the next year. Commanders were added to the lines in 1951; a total of 1,953 of the high-priced cars were built along with 11,180 Champions and 1,824 trucks.

For the 1952 model year—Studebaker’s 100th in the transportation business—a heavily revamped passenger car was offered. It was attractive but not the most inspired design in that year’s market. Totals added up to 9,437 Champions, 1,295 Commanders and 1,021 trucks.

That was not a good sign and the 1953 model year didn’t look good either with final tallies of 8,141 of the new Euro-styled Champions and 1,298 Commanders leaving the factory. Truck production was absolutely dismal with only 699 units built. Management was optimistic, blaming the shrunken totals on 70 production days lost because of supplier strikes rather than consumer rejection of the new look or quality control issues.

With 555 workers on payroll, the company geared up for the 1955 season in September of 1954. Studebaker announced it was the style leader with cars “of truly impressive power and superb proportions; each a masterpiece in interior elegance—carrying prestige anywhere in the world.”  What that translated to was new “butterknife” trim on the sides and a heavier chrome front end.

The Commander was billed as “another triumphant stride forward for Studebaker.” It claimed to be the most impressive looking car in its price field. Under the hood was the 140-horsepower Pace-setter V-8 mill. 

On November 24, the lines came to a screeching halt as workers laid out machinery on the factory floor to build the top-of-the-line President. A four-door sedan, a Starlight Coupe and a hardtop convertible were available in the posh series. Fanfare reached new heights. “Experts throughout the world class this Studebaker with the very finest of cars. It excels in advanced engineering, luxurious comfort, flawless handling ease and sure-footed safety.”

The 175-horsepower Wildcat V-8 engine made the big car move along at a fast clip. “You quickly learn to watch your speedometer alertly on the open road,” advertising warned. How true it was!

Interiors of the President models were finished with gold-plated hardware, exquisitely tailored fine nylon fabric—with or without vinyl caps--placed over deep cushions. Instrument boards were padded with a resilient sponge plastic.
Low numbers prompted company officials to suspend truck assembly. Haulers were imported from the United States though it was announced that truck production would begin again in March.
Options for Studebaker were carefully tailored to the desires of the public. Power Steering and power brakes and turn signals made driving easier. New at midyear were power seats and windows. The Stratoline eight–tube push-button radio or the Starline six-tube radio with manual tuner allowed one to tune in to The Dominion or Trans-Canada networks of the CBC and made driving downright enjoyable. Fog lights and fender skirts were among the popular dress-up items, too.

xterior colours on this season’s palette for Studebakers built in Hamilton were Black, Encino Cream, Saginaw Green, Pima Red, Cascade Green, Tilden Grey, Alpena Blue, Windsor Blue, Shoeshone Red, Rancho Red, Sonara Beige, Sheridan Green, Shasta White and Coral Tone. There were 22 two-tone combinations available and those were no-cost extras for the President State and all hardtop models.

Studebaker liked to remind consumers that it had been part of the motor scene in the Dominion since 1911 and the rock-solid employer boasted many father-and-son teams.  The multi-generational theme was part of the campaign of pride that kept people coming back to buy more and more Studebakers.

The 1955 model year ended for Studebaker Canada with a total of 455 Presidents, 2,272 Commanders and 5,438 Champions being built. It wasn’t the banner year the company hoped for but it would turn out to be better than the upcoming 1956 that was a-waiting in the wings.

On December 31 of 1954 Studebaker formally merged with old-line automaker Packard in a bid to survive shifting markets and tastes. The new entity was known as Studebaker-Packard of Canada Limited, though all Packards would be imported from the US. When the lines started up again in Hamilton on January 4, 1955 the Studebaker passenger cars now wore the Ultra-View wraparound windshield. The new glass configuration promised “advanced visibility.” A total of 6,741 cars would carry the wrapped windshield and 1,424 arrived without.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2005 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

1957-1958 Meteor Ranchero

The 1957 Meteor Ranchero was built  for Canadians only.
The Ford Motor Company of Canada Limited had a long-standing policy of making Mercury trucks and Meteor Sedan Deliveries available to consumers through its Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealer network.  Badge engineering was a balancing act that kept both dealer bodies happy. Since 1946 Mercury trucks had faithfully matched Ford truck offerings model for model. But the new Ranchero wasn’t a Mercury; it was a Meteor.

Lincoln-Mercury-Monarch dealers got Mercury trucks in 1946. Some were assembled in Vancouver.
The Meteor debuted in April of 1948. It stole a whopping 10% of all new car sales in the domestic market that model year.

It was announced that the Meteor version of Ford's Ranchero would go on display Mercury-Lincoln-Meteor dealerships beginning on February 12, 1957.  Folks would actually wait a bit longer than that; the launch was delayed until March. From St. John’s to Victoria, consumers were keen to be introduced the sleek home-grown Ranchero.

The standard engine for Canadian Rancheros, Ford or Meteor, was the Blue Oval’s 3.6-litre (223-cubic inch) six-cylinder mill with the 4.6-litre (272-cubic inch), two-barrel V-8 as the only optional engine. Meteor’s self-shifter carried the Merc-O-Matic label. Meteor Ranchero interiors were limited to tan and brown woven plastic with a tan vinyl bolster or a blue vinyl interior with a blue and white vinyl bolster.

The Meteor Ranchero shared many parts with the Meteor Country Sedan.

The Rancheros were quite the draw as mid-year model introductions go. All across Canada folks slogged through spring slush to see them. Single colour choices varied somewhat from American Rancheros: Raven Black, Dresden Blue, Starmist Blue, Colonial White, Cumberland Green, Willow Green, Nocturne Blue, Brazilian Bronze, Moonmist Yellow, Woodsmoke Gray, Regency Gray and Fiesta Red.

The Meteor Custom offered two-tone Style Tone paint treatments with Colonial White above the side mouldings in combination with the solid colours. Not available in the United States, Canadian Ranchero Style Tone colour combos could be had in Cumberland Green and Willow Green, as well as Dresden Blue overlaid with Starmist Blue. 

Though we boasted the second highest standard of living in the world, Canadians still earned a good 20 percent less than our American cousins and paid considerably higher taxes.
Canada's flag from 1924 to 1965 was the Red Ensign. A self-governing Dominion within the British Empire, its colours showed our strong ties to the United Kingdom.

 Durable goods cost more in Canada than in the US because the Canadian economy had a much smaller base. Higher prices made us naturally frugal as consumers. Reflected in buying preferences, the auto industry had adroitly learned to adapt to Canadians’ needs. As a result, there were far fewer options on the Canadian-built Ford and Meteor Rancheros; no Signal-seeking radio, no air conditioning of any kind and no power windows.

The Ranchero was not nearly as well accepted by Canadian consumers as it was by our American neighbours. Workers in Oakville, Ontario built only 558 Ford Ranchero Customs and 300 Meteor Ranchero Niagara models in the remaining months of the 1957 model year.

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The entire North American economy was devastated by a business recession that wreaked havoc in 1958. Sales of consumer goods tumbled sharply. The Canadian truck industry was no exception. Domestic production of all trucks slid to 58,693 trucks, the industry’s worst showing in twenty years.

Volkswagen's Transporter became more popular than ever with Canadians in 1957.

Consumers were still buying big-ticket items, but ever so cautiously/ Sales of small, imported trucks jumped to 8,212 units despite the downturn, sufficient number toshatter all previous sales records. The 1957 imported truck tally had been 4,367 units; mostly Bedfords from GM in the UK, Thames from Ford of Britain and West Germany’s Volkswagen Transporters

 Despite the off market and the poor economy, Ford and Meteor Rancheros returned for a second season. The Meteor version bowed to the public on October 22. Because Fairlane was restyled from stem to stern, so was Ranchero. Well, almost. The new design of the passenger car’s taillights did not lend itself to the pickup truck so the 1957 taillights were grafted on. The handsome cab was carried over into the 1958 season as well. The 1958 Meteor Ranchero simply borrowed the finely ribbed, concave Meteor passenger car grille.

At the Oakville, Ontario plant, Ranchero production slowed to a trickle. Factory records show that only 86 of the Ford Custom Model 66A were built and only 52 of the 1958 Meteor Niagara were produced; the entire year’s output of Meteors being assembled in September and October of 1957. Sandy Notarianni, Ford of Canada’s archivist, noted that 38 of the Meteors left the Oakville plant fitted with the six-cylinder mill. It was game over. Pretty she might be, the Ranchero was simply not perceived as being an honest workhorse by Canadians.

Looking at the big picture, Chevrolet built 15,997 trucks in 1958. Ford took the Number Two spot with 12,083 units produced. GMC was third with 10,573 trucks built.  International Harvester built and sold 9,162 trucks that year, making it fourth. Mercury trucks claimed the fifth spot with 3,814 units built. Sixth place belonged to Dodge, with 3,262 units produced and seventh place to its badge-engineered cousin Fargo, with 3,018 units built. A handful of Pontiac and Meteor sedan deliveries were built. Studebaker and Jeep trucks were imported from the United States.

When Ford of Canada said “adios” to the Rancheros and pulled the plug on them, the space on the assembly line promptly was taken up by medium and heavy-duty trucks. New federal government funds had been earmarked for ambitious, nationwide road building projects. The Trans-Canada Highway was nearing completion and new routes were under construction to open up the western Arctic.

All of Canada's truck manufacturers responded to the massive highway construction projects by stepping up to the plate with production of larger and heavier-duty trucks. Ford of Canada offered more than 300 truck models in 1958, many of them in the medium and heavy-duty ranges. Management did not miss the slow selling Rancheros. Today the Meteor Rancheros are a footnote in automotive history, one of the more exciting, unique and rare offerings to have come from our domestic automotive industry.

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Copyright James C. Mays 2006
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Sunday, April 11, 2010

1966 Vauxhall

The heady days of imported European automobiles rolling unabated onto our shores, like the Bay of Fundy at high tide, came to an end in 1963 when Parliament enacted a strong legislative dyke to stem the virtually unstoppable flow. The small, economical cars from abroad were making serious inroads on production of the domestic carmakers. One out of every three consumers had bought an imported automobile in 1959. Even cars from Commonwealth countries, namely Britain, were now subject to tax. Vauxhall was one of the most popular of the lot. Built by General Motors in Britain, it had been part of the automotive scene in the Dominion since 1948. It would be severely affected by the new rules laid down by Ottawa.

Sales of imports had already slowed considerably because GM, Ford, Chrysler finally got around to joining Rambler and Studebaker with the introduction of their smaller cars for the 1960 season. For the 1962 model year production of domestically built compacts reached 28.7 percent, divided (in order of sales) among Ford Falcon, Rambler, Mercury Comet, Acadian, Valiant, Studebaker Lark and bringing up the rear of the pack, Chevrolet’s Corvair.

The new import tariff, coupled with a sharp devaluation of the dollar by the Bank of Canada, delivered a one-two punch to foreign cars, prompting sales of all to take an enormous nosedive. The firmly entrenched Volkswagen was the only exception to the trend.
Viva was aimed dead on at Wolfsburg’s Beetle. Like the Volkswagen, it was offered only as a two-door model. Unlike VW, the Viva was square. It was so solidly square it could have easily been called “Boxhall.” Even though it was nearly six inches shorter than the Beetle, it boasted a generous 10.5 cubic feet of trunk space. Advertising bragged that the little econo-box was replete with all the finish and convenience features that “help make Viva Canada’s best all-around family car in the lowest-priced field.”

 Power was provided by a more than ample 50-horsepower engine, mated to a fully synchronized manual, floor-mounted, short-throw four-speed transmission. Advertising called the mill “spunky.”  Independent front suspension along with rack-and-pinion steering made the pint-sized Viva very responsive to the driver’s touch. Its turning circle was tight, a scant 29 feet. Marketing called the no-cost handling package its “Roll-Control Suspension” ride.

For a few bucks more, the Deluxe version of the Viva was decked out with padding for the instrument panel, carpeting, modest brightwork trim inside and out and a windshield washer.
The base Viva was cheap but it was no stripper. Included in the list price were bucket seats, rear armrests, front door pulls, a mighty “Canadian tested” heater and defroster, a thick layer of bituminous plastic undercoating and wipe-clean upholstery that was “so handy with young children and pets.” 

Viva sported the hottest of European driving trends, a single-lever “stalk” control that operated the turn signals, the horn and a bright-dip headlight beam flash indicator.

Even though the Victor was substantially larger than Viva, it still had no direct domestic competitor. Rambler had abandoned its 100-inch wheelbased American line at the end of the 1963 season and its place was promptly taken over by Austin, Datsun, Simca, Renault, Toyota and a host of other hopeful contenders. 

The Victor Super 101 offered “brilliant styling,” luxurious comfort” and whisper-soft quietness.” A four-door sedan and a four-door station wagon were available in the Victor line. Its deliberate air of sophistication was due to “dedicated devotion to detail.” And Victor delivered, with one impressively thoughtful touch after another, standard appointments that often graced much larger and much more expensive vehicles.

Curved side glass, coil springs in the seat backs for “proper spinal support,” padding for the instrument panel, fully upholstered doors, a novel map-reading beam on the courtesy light, arm rests and door pulls were but a few of the niceties found in a Victor. The cabin was liberally swaddled in scads of sound deadening and thick, felt carpet underlay material.  As small and inexpensive as it was, Victor boasted fully operational Ventipane windows, fore and aft. 

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The shell was not new but advertising claimed that the ”carefully perfected body design” gave “more room, more comfort” than ever before. It claimed to be so refined that the Victor 101 Super was “firmly into a class by itself.”

Shoppers would come into the Vauxhall-Pontiac dealership and look over the full-sized models and then carefully kick the tires on the Acadians and Beaumonts that were parked on the showroom floor and on the lot. When the vivacious Vauxhalls caught their attention, salesmen were primed to pitch the practicality of the little lads from Luton, extolling their every virtue, from their initial low purchase price to their inexpensive maintenance.

They waxed eloquent about the wagon being large enough, with its 51.7-cubic feet of cargo space, to haul things up to the cottage and still stylish enough to be seen in at the country club. 

The Victor’s four-cylinder engine generated a respectable 70 horsepower. It came bolted to a standard three-speed, fully synchromesh manual shift or an extra cost, four-speed manual transmission.

As the year wound down, 1966 turned out to be the second best year for both production and sales in Canadian automotive history. Vauxhall shared modestly in that success by adding 6,850 sales to GM Canada’s bottom line and taking exactly one percent of the market share.

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Copyright James C. Mays 2004 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

1960 Rambler

When the American Motors Corporation had been formed stateside in 1954, it was the marriage of two great automotive pioneers: Hudson and Nash. A de facto amalgamation was ordered immediately to streamline the Canadian operation. Though the two sales entities remained separate in the Dominion, Hudson production ceased in Tilbury, Ontario and was transferred to the Nash plant in Toronto over the Civic Holiday weekend. American Motors of Canada, Limited was formally incorporated in January of 1956, nearly two years after its American parent.
For the 1956 model year, only Nash and Hudson Ramblers were assembled in the Toronto plant. Records show that 5,584 cars rolled out the doors, a high point for the independent automaker. For 1957, Rambler was no longer a model of Nash or Hudson; it became a brand in its own right. Head office in Detroit determined that it would be too costly to retool the Toronto facility for the 1958 vehicles. It would be cheaper to import the cars than to assemble them domestically. More than 300 workers were laid off permanently in July of 1957.

The product line at American Motors was as different for the 1958 selling season as a canoe is from a three-masted schooner. Gone to dry dock were the grand Hudson and Nash marques. In their stead was a range of stylishly updated compact automobiles. The 117-inch wheelbase Ambassador by Rambler was the new corporate flagship, flanked by the smaller Rambler 6 and 8 models as well as the lovable 100-inch wheelbased Rambler American. The Rambler fleet was complete with the tiny Metropolitan, imported from the UK. Calendar year sales reached 5,389 units and Rambler held down 15th place in the industry, hard on the heels of the popular Morris.

From St. John’s to Victoria, folks were enchanted with the quality and price of the Rambler lines. Sales simply exploded in 1959 to 9,231 units-and that was before adding in 911 British-sourced Metropolitans. Those figures catapulted the independent automaker into 11th place. Once the dust had cleared, Rambler was squarely ahead of Austin and gaining hard on Buick. Rambler’s success was being watched with close interest in Detroit. Analysts believed that Rambler would crack the 10,000-unit mark in 1960. If it did, it would be viable to built cars again in the Dominion.

American Motors of Canada, Limited entered in its third year as an integrated company when the 1960 models were launched. Executives wisely decided that the corporate name was a real mouthful and the company would be known simply as Rambler Canada. The name rolled off the tongue as easily as hockey, beer, moose and snow.

Everyone at Rambler Canada was nervous. With the manufacturers’ launches of their 1960 models, Rambler no longer had the field to itself. Studebaker had launched its Lark last year and it had captured 16.8 percent of the domestic pie. Now Ford fielded the Falcon and Frontenac and GM’s Chevrolet Division launched the Corvair. Chrysler Canada dumped DeSoto entirely and introduced the Valiant as its new compact brand. If Rambler were to succeed in such a crowded field, it would have to be more desirable than the competition.

Prices for Ramblers--in Canadian dollars, f.o.b. Kenosha, Wisconsin--ranged from $1,996.97 for a thrifty Rambler American to a whopping $3,508.26 for the ritzy nine-passenger Ambassador Custom 8 station wagon. While Ramblers’ prices started with the competition, they ranged far higher than other domestically built compacts. Drawing on their upscale Nash and Hudson heritages, Ramblers simply dripped in value and the higher priced models vied with Cadillac in luxury.

Ambassadors sported new mesh grilles. Last year’s mile-high fins were reigned in sharply and now appeared as tasteful accents over smart cathedral tail lamps. A new instrument panel offered easy-to-read gauges and dials in an oval cluster.

There were eight posh Ambassadors to tempt consumers. The compact luxury car offered virtually every amenity found in Cadillac, Imperial and Lincoln save the electric seats. Nash had introduced the first four-door hardtop wagon in the industry back in 1956 and this year’s version cost a cool $3,468.46. The least expensive Ambassador was the four-door Super 8 sedan with its $2,879,72 price tag.

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 Lesser Ramblers included the Rebel Custom 8; the Rebel Super 8; the Custom 6; the Super 6 and the Deluxe 6. With prices starting at $2,346.09 and running up to $3,249, these sixteen offerings were the company’s bread and butter models. They competed directly with Valiant and the Studebaker Lark.

The only Ramblers with two doors were to be found in the American line, which boasted two- or four-door wagons in addition to sedans. Automatic transmission and air conditioning were optional equipment, though far more were ordered with the chic extra-cost continental spare.

Last but not least in the showroom were the Metropolitans. Updated last year with vent windows and an opening trunk, the little cuties from Britain now cost $1,895 for the hardtop and $1,945 for the convertible, f.o.b. Toronto.

Though the odd Hudson and Nash owner came in to dealerships to trade, most of Rambler’s sales were what is known in the business as ‘conquest’ sales; that is to say that people traded other makes of cars for Ramblers. Folks were impressed enough to purchase 10,961 Ramblers and 616 Metropolitans, though the company dipped to 13th place in sales for the calendar year.

Despite the percentage drop, actual sales were up and no one was discouraged in Brampton, not by a long shot. A glance at the sales chart revealed that the small car was no flash in the pan; the compact car was here to stay. Some 43,000 compacts had been built in Canada in 1960, another 18,000 brought in from the US and 177,000 imported from Europe. One out of every three automobiles sold in the country were—well—really small. Before recessing for Christmas, Parliament would pass laws to curtail the imports in an effort to preserve the domestic automobile industry.

Of the Top Ten selling passenger cars sold in calendar year 1960, five were compacts. Volkswagen took third place with 31,146 sales; Vauxhall was fifth with 21,530 sales; Ford’s new Falcon enjoyed ninth place with 14,733 units sold and GM’s new Envoy held down the tenth spot with 13,089 sales.

Rambler’s new factory in Brampton, Ontario would turn out its first car on Christmas Eve of 1960. Rambler was hot. Sales would sizzle like peameal bacon in the frying pan, as the little company would steal the Number Ten spot in 1961 with 11,946 Ramblers and 533 Mets sold.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2004 All rights reserved.

Friday, April 2, 2010

1965 Isuzu Bellett

Isuzu got its start in 1916 when the Tokyo Ishikawajiama Ship Building and Engineering Company merged with Tokyo Gas & Electric Industrial Company. Its goal was to build automobiles and two years later it procured the right to exclusively produce and market Wolseley passenger cars in Asia. The first Japanese-built Wolseley appeared in 1922. The company also built automobiles from original designs under the names Sumida and Chiyoda but both were dropped in favour of Isuzu—the name of a nearby river.

Cars were but a sideline for the company whose mainstay was diesel engines. Still, it introduced the large PA sedan in 1943. Throughout the war years workers built industrial vehicles. After the war, Isuzu was granted permission to sign an agreement with the Rootes group to build cars under license. The first Hillmans were assembled in 1953 and by 1957; the Hillman Minx was produced completely in Japan.

The all-Japanese designed Bellett appeared in 1963. It got very little attention in Canada and might never have been heard of but for Peter Munk and David Gilmour. These whiz kids owned Clairtone, one of the biggest and most technologically advanced stereo and television manufacturers in the world. They dreamt of owning an automobile empire and had gotten a taste of it while helping to bring Volvo to Canada.

With Ottawa’s blessing, Munk and Gilmour established Canadian Motor Industries on May 6, 1964. They promptly sent people to Japan who came back with signed deals to bring Toyota and Isuzu to Canada. At first, fully assembled cars would be shipped but with time a $4 million assembly plant would be established at an old naval base at Point Edward, Cape Breton Island, one of the most impoverished parts of Nova Scotia.

The first shipment of low-cost luxury Isuzus left Japan the last week of January 1965 and the Financial Times of Canada reported the story on February 1. The cars would be unloaded in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and would be unveiled to the public in March. The cost of shipping a fully completed Bellett to Canada was USD$926 for the fully equipped deluxe model, USD$891 for the same vehicle minus radio and clock and USD$840 for the stripper with a heater. 

In a bold move, CMI management on May 3, 1965, resolved to purchase Studebaker Canada Limited. The old-line company was breathing its death rattle and could be had for $2 million. CMI wanted the factory, the tooling, the 300 domestic dealers (1,100 more in the USA) and the factory. It would be able to re-launch Studebaker and introduce Isuzu products into the American market. 

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A 14-page report was drafted that read in part, “The Japanese cars would be assembled in Nova Scotia and the Studebaker line would continue to be produced in the Hamilton plant, providing a broader range of models and styles than either CMI or Studebaker alone would have. All models would be sold under the Studebaker name.” In another part of the report it showed that Studebaker models ranged from $2,550 to $3,800 in Canada, serving a very narrow segment of the market. By adding Isuzu-sourced vehicles to the Studebaker mix, the market would be broadened considerably as the lower-priced cars would retail at $1,895. Surprisingly, Isuzu officials agreed to the deal. Fearing that Studebaker would become a millstone around their corporate neck, CMI suddenly withdrew the offer to purchase Studebaker on Saturday, August 14, 1965.

In the meantime, Canada Track & Traffic had gotten its hands on a Bellett and put it through its paces. In the June issue, the boys wrote, “In our opinion the Bellett is one of the best cars in its price and class that we’ve tested.” High praise indeed but then standard equipment included a four-speed manual transmission, contoured bucket seats, whitewall tires, undercoating windshield washers, gasoline and oil filter, padded dash, four-wheel independent suspension and a complete tool kit—all for the unheard of price of $1,898. 

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CMI ran a full-page advertisement in Canada Track & Traffic. “Before you buy a Bug or a Beetle drive the Beautiful Bellett.”  CMI’s new Bellett will change your view about imported cars. Bellett costs about the same as the funny-looking imported cars. It’s just as economical to run. And it has the support of a full Canadian service network. End of Comparison.”

“CMI’s new Bellett has handsome, contemporary styling. (Your neighbours won’t make jokes about its looks—they may even envy you a little.) Bellett is all power. It has 71 horsepower and a butter-smooth four-speed transmission that lets you run circles around the other imports. Bellett is luxurious. Full carpeting, bucket seats, whitewalls, chrome wheel discs, padded dash, armrests, cigarette lighter are all standard equipment. Bellett makes many cars costing twice the price look undernourished. So, before you consider an imported car, treat yourself to a drive in the hot, luxurious new Bellett. See your CMI dealer today and drive home a bargain. 24-hour service protection.” The company listed head office addresses on Eglinton Avenue East in Toronto, Cote-des-Neiges Road in Montreal and West Georgia Street in Vancouver.

One of the early dealers was Onward Motors in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. Lorimer-Moore in Toronto was another. The latter ran a large advert in Canada Track & Traffic in 1965. “Test drive this one! The Bellett has a 1500-cc engine that gives you superb sporting performance as well as 37 miles to the gallon.”

 A one-page double-sided colour flyer sold the Isuzu. Billed as a sporty family sedan, advertising introduced the Isuzu Bellett as “a compact family sporty sedan with such unexcelled features. Its independent four-wheel suspension system gives you reassuring stability at high speeds and reduces sway and roll when turning. Bellett’s rack-and-pinion steering and four-seed close-ratio transmission torque at low RPM for quick starts and quick acceleration for passing. All these features are combined into one compact form. This is Isuzu Bellett!”

 The back side of the sheet listed the Bellett’s stats, showed a picture of the factory in Japan and mentioned Isuzu’s activities in Japan, including the manufacture of diesel engines, buses and heavy-duty trucks up to ten tons.

  CMI imported and sold 991 Isuzu passenger cars in 1965 and that figure dropped to 564 in 1966, though it rebounded to 788 units delivered in 1967. Assembly began in Nova Scotia in 1968 and 585 Isuzu Belletts were produced.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2007 All rights reserved.