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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

1978 Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni

Chrysler Canada hadn’t offered small four-cylinder cars in decades but what goes around comes around and in the 1970s, small, economical vehicles shone as brightly as the midnight sun over the high Arctic.

Chrysler Canada pulled a rabbit (okay, pun intended when one considers the German competition) out of its corporate hat when it introduced the subcompact L-Body car in November of 1977. This was a no-nonsense, four-door Euro-style sedan with a generous hatchback entry at the rear. Unique grilles and badges would allow the vehicle to be sold as both the Dodge Omni and the Plymouth Horizon. Pundits referred to the look-alike pair as the “Omnirizon.”

Horizon was a box on wheels. It was an attractive little box but it was an econo-box, nonetheless.   The basic package for this vehicle was very similar to that of the ultimate benchmark Euro-sedan, the Volkswagen Rabbit.

1977 Volkswagen Rabbit.
 In fact, Horizon made use of VW mill, bumped up to 1.7-litres, fitted with Chrysler’s Electronic Lean Burn System and then transversely mounted into the engine compartment. It is interesting to note that had the VW power plant not been available, the tiny twins  from Chryco would have been delayed in bowing to consumers for up to another two years. 

The public would need some education in order to appreciate Horizon. Consumers weren’t particularly familiar with front-wheel drive. As the first of the breed to be built in North America--Belvedere, Illinois USA to be exact--Chrysler dealers would have to get consumers up to speed on how these vehicles differed from ordinary cars.  Learning to accelerate into curves with front-wheel drive took some getting used to for millions who were used to conventional automobiles using the traditional Panhard layout, a.k.a. rear-wheel drive.

Advertising billed the Plymouth Horizon as the car that “goes anywhere with comfort and confidence.” Front wheel drive was the secret. “With Horizon, you’ll move confidently over mud, snow or rain-slick roads. Its front wheels do the driving. You’re being pulled by the front wheels.” Of course, the four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, low-rate coil springs, shock-absorbing front struts, rear trailing arms and anti-sway bars both fore and aft made the little car ride like a dream despite its bite-sized 2 520-millimetre (99.2-inch) wheelbase. “This contributes to a great road-hugging performance with a minimum of road noise and less buffeting by strong crosswinds or side drafts from oncoming trucks.”

Badged as a Simca, the Horizon was assembled and sold in Europe.
This was a very advanced vehicle, one that delivered “tomorrow’s engineering today.”  Horizon was designed using Metric specifications, giving it clout around the world. It boasted the latest in technological wonders—a diagnostic plug in the engine compartment that made electrical system tests quickly and efficiently.  The fan belt had been eliminated. 

Designed to be simple to service for the growing do-it-yourself crowd, the distributor cap, spark plugs and oil dipstick were all easy to access. The cooling system featured a single easy-to-reach drain plug. Clutch adjustments were possible without tools, the thermostat was readily replaceable and so was the oil sump pan.

The cabin was surprisingly generous for such a small car. Mounting the engine transversely and drastically reducing the transmission hump helped greatly. With the drive shaft eliminated, there was enough room left over to stash the spare tire in the spot where the rear axle housing was located on conventional vehicles.

1975 AMC Pacer.

Stealing a page from American Motors' revolutionary Pacer with its “people first” design, Horizon bragged, “You’ll like its people-room inside.” Advertising crooned sweetly. “There’s room for legs, feet, shoulders and hips-all adding up to seating comfort.”  Bucket seats were adjustable, trimmed in vinyl and headrests built into the seating. Carpeting was cut-pile and colour-keyed to match the upholstery. Custom or Premium interiors could be had in a range of materials including vinyl, cloth and vinyl, porous vinyl and crushed velour.

The instrument panel was efficient with a pod cluster holding gauges and speedometer. White numbers on black-face dials made monitoring easy. A multi-purpose stalk to the left of the steering column contained the turn signals, the headlight beam control and the windshield washer and wiper controls.  While common in European and Asian vehicles, this multi-purpose stalk was new to millions of North Americans and as such, rated its own space in sales brochures and  was given special attention to salesmen in their training sessions.

The Horizon's cargo area was given a great deal of attention in advertising. The space boasted a movable security shelf that acted as a lid to hide the contents in the luggage area. Available cargo space with the back seat folded down came to 1014 cubic decimetres or 35.8 cubic feet (ancient Canadian units of measure).

Horizon and Omni could be ordered in Custom, Premium or Premium Woodgrain exterior packages to dress up the Unibody design. Exterior colours for the pint-sized inflation fighter were Sunrise Orange, Spitfire Orange, Formal Black Spinnaker White, Yellow Blaze, Light Mocha Tan and then in the metallic family, Pewter Grey, Regatta Blue, Starlight Blue Sunfire, Tapestry Red Sunfire, Caramel Tan, Augusta Green Sunfire and Mint Green. A triple sport stripe was available as a dress-up item. Two-tone paint jobs were available in five self-proclaimed classic colour combinations. If that wasn't enough sass, there were vinyl roof toppings in red, tan, green, blue, silver, black or white.

The optional equipment list was small and compact, like Prince Edward Island.. Extra cost items included air conditioning, tinted glass, dual horns, colour-keyed floor mats, carpeting for the cargo area, a centre console with rear ashtray, a nifty storage compartment with a roll-top cover, a clock, an electric rear window defroster, a rear window wiper, a locking gas cap, a roof rack, remote control left- and right-hand mirrors, power steering, power front brakes, AM/FM radio or stereo, a Deluxe three-spoke steering wheel, a rally wheel, TorqueFlite automatic transmission, undercoating and P165/75R13 glass-belted radial ply whitewall tires.

Horizon, along with the Dodge Omni, was impressive enough that it was promptly named Car of the Year by Motor Trend Magazine. That accolade didn’t hurt sales one bit and even though inflation was 8.9 percent in 1979, the calendar year tally for the Horizon allowed it to claim the 34th spot in Canadian sales with 10,726 units delivered and the Dodge Omni right behind it in 35th place with 10,728 units sold.

Those Horizon and Omni sales helped Chrysler Canada to reach 166,677 new automobiles sold, giving the Windsor-based manufacturer 21 percent of the domestic market.

 Copyright James C. Mays 2006
All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

1980 Lada 1200

The 1980 Lada carried a sticker price of $4,288 f.o.b. Halifax. It weighed in at 1 060 kilos (2,337 pounds) and rode a trim 2 424-millimetre (95.4-inch) wheelbase.
Canada has long been fertile ground for small cars, whether domestic or sourced from abroad. If the pint-sized cars were tough enough to hold up in our extreme climate and on our roads, we bought them. If they held up for a long time, we bought a lot of 'em. 

AutoVAZ of the Soviet Union began exporting its cars to Canada in 1978. The product was badged as Zhugili in the USSR but export models were sold as Lada, the Russian word for 'ship.' Lada was sold in New Zealand, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and France. The sturdy little four-door sedans arrived in Canada on ocean liners that docked in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and were unloaded by employees of the newly organized Lada Cars of Canada, Inc. with headquarters in Ajax, Ontario. That first year, a modest 1,000 units were sold. Records show 5,649 more Ladas were sold in 1979.:

Whether Zhugili or Lada, the car with the funny sounding name was actually the recycled Fiat 124 series that had debuted in 1966. About to be deleted in Italy because it was obsolete, the dies were sold to AutoVAZ. Fiat even helped build a new factory on the Volga River.  Soviet engineers tinkered with the no-nonsense Italian econo-box, made it suitable for abominable Soviet roads and brought it onto the market in 1970.
Lada was advertised as having an unusual “wide stance” among small cars. The front track measured 1 365 millimetres (53.7 inches).

The car was a solid hit with Soviet consumers because of its fuel economy and tank-like ability to hold the road. Sexy it wasn’t but Russian drivers found its cavernous trunk, spacious cabin and  seemingly inexhaustible ruggedness more than made up for its lack of looks. The car didn’t cost much, either. 

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This cutaway drawing of the 1980 Lada reveals how simple the car really was. 

Canadians were equally impressed when they were introduced to the practical, low-priced, four-door sedan. The Lada represented the very core basic values of durability, performance, comfort and safety, all cherished hallmarks of thrift that were second nature to shoppers skilled at making the beaver on the back of a nickel howl in pain as it got pinched one more time.  

 It didn’t bother prospective buyers that Lada dealerships weren’t always big and glitzy like the ones in urban centres; it was not uncommon for farm equipment dealers or even well-established hardware stores to take on the Lada in small towns. This writer test drove his first Lada at a tractor dealership in the bucolic village of  Perth-Andover, New Brunswick.

Even Lada's advertising appealed to the uber thrifty. “The Lada is built to last. It’s built with an extra thickness of metal so it stands up to the rigours of Canadian winters. It can take anything that our roads can throw at it, winter or summer, from the rough back tracks of cottage country to prolonged highway driving. The electrostatic primer dip, that all body panels go through and the Tectyl anti-corrosion treatment means it stands up to the salt and slush of downtown driving. And that means you’re buying a car that has resale value built in.” 

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The powerful police-pursuit 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine was coupled to a four-speed manual transmission for the Canadian market. The mechanical team worked smoothly to zip occupants from zero to 100 kph in 14 seconds. Advertising boasted, “You’ll feel a little sporty and like putting a car through its paces. Let the Lada show you what it can do. You’ll notice a responsiveness you usually associate with higher priced sports cars.” 

Under the Lada's front-hinged  hood lurked the tried and true 1.5-litre Fiat engine. 
Advertising pushed the envelope even further. “You don’t get a high powered European sports car. The Lada isn’t priced that way. But then you don’t get a suburban 2-door either, although the Lada’s price might suggest that. What you get is a tough basic car that manages to combine durability and comfort with a touch of the excitement and responsiveness of a much higher priced sports car. What it all adds up to is a sensible car which performs like a lot more than a sensible car.”
The instrument panel layout was typically European. Annoying to some Canadian drivers was ignition positions marked in Cyrillic script.
Wordsmiths waxed ecstatic about the Lada's vast interior space. It claimed the cabin was roomy enough to hold five adults in comfort and offer plenty of legroom space.  The car featured a continuous loop, buckle-less self-adjusting seatbelt setup in front; one so easy it could be operated with just one hand.

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Inexpensive Lada carried thoughtful touches such as safety lights to warn oncoming traffic the door was open.
Lada was laden with a lot of standard equipment features for such a low-bucks vehicle. Front seats were reclining buckets with adjustable headrests. Upholstery was velour. The centre armrest--located in the rear--was retractable. Courtesy lights all around, a day/night mirror, carpeting, electric clock, a tachometer, a full compliment of idiot lights, an oil pressure gauge, ashtrays fore and aft, a two-speed heater with dash vents, a rear window defroster, inertia-reel seatbelts (nothing to buckle!) were all on the list. Then there was an oversized glove box, a generous under-the-dash parcel tray, two-speed electric windshield wipers and washers, front disc brakes a trunk liner, a 21-piece tool kit--complete with tire gauge and an air pump. Undercoating rounded out the package nicely.

 The list of extra-cost goodies was as short as a December day on Baffin Island. A leather-covered steering wheel, a wood or leather-wrapped gearshift knob, an AM/FM radio, mag wheels and coco mats made the list and that was it.

Typical of European automobiles, one could buy extra parts kits, useful for quick, emergency repairs alongside the road. The Tourist Travel Kit included a fan belt, spark plugs, rotor, condenser and other goodies. The Handyman’s Tune-up Kit included oil and air filters. The Cooling System Travel Kit included hoses. In case of defective parts or workmanship at the factory, the whole car was covered by a 12-month or 20,000-kilometre warranty.

Lada dealers also sold the Niva 4x4. It developed a cult following as the only off-road vehicle in the under $10,000 segment of the market.
Lada might offer few frills and a minimum of thrills but consumers loved the cheap wheels offered in a half-dozen bright, cheery colours. Lada would shoot up to 9,300 sales for 1980 and rise to 12,900 units delivered to Canadians in 1981.

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Copyright James C. Mays 2006
All rights reserved.

Monday, May 10, 2010

1962 Acadian

The compact-size automobile was firmly entrenched in the driveways and garages of folks in all ten provinces by the end of the 1950s. Sales of new cars throughout the Dominion in 1959 were phenomenal and 110,301 of them—a full 26.2 percent--were pint-sized European imports.

In addition to the Euro cars, there was a pair of domestic players: Studebaker and American Motors. In Hamilton, Ontario, Studebaker found itself needing to hire a hundred new workers to keep up with demand for the lively Lark. At the end of the year, Studebaker’s production had nearly doubled to 7,686 units for the calendar year. 

Rambler Canada was the other domestic player, of sorts. Though the unprofitable Toronto factory had closed in the summer of 1957, Ramblers were imported from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Dealers throughout the Dominion were delighted with 9,231 sales rung up by new Rambler owners and American Motors Canada Limited was poised to open a new assembly plant in Brampton, Ontario.

The big winners in the 1959 Canadian compact car game were Volkswagen, Vauxhall, Rambler, Austin, Studebaker, Renault, Morris and Britain’s Fords. Big wheels were clearly in  danger of being crowded off the nation’s highways and byways; small cars now accounted for one out of every three new automobiles sold.

Studebaker, Rambler and the imports were about to be challenged like they had never been challenged before. The automotive playing field changed considerably for the 1960 selling season. Ford and Monarch dealers introduced a new compact car called the Ford Falcon while Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealers received a badge-engineered version of Falcon christened Frontenac. The new Valiant brand replaced  the tired--and now retired--DeSoto marque for Chrysler Canada and GM introduced the Chevrolet Corvair.

While Ford and Chrysler’s compacts were designed to compete against Rambler, engineers and stylists at Chevrolet had created Corvair in a bid to appeal to Volkswagen owners. GM Canada went so far as to build a new facility in Oshawa for Corvair production. Surprisingly, the six-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engined product didn’t sell well. It was galling for GM officials in Oshawa to watch Volkswagen with its clearly outdated platform rise to be the Number Three best selling car in 1960 with 31,146 units sold while the technologically advanced Corvair was mired at Number Twenty with only 6,147 sets of taillights put on the road.

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GM executives hustled its design teams back to the drawing board for a second crack at the compact market. For the 1961 season, dealers offered the Pontiac Tempest, the Olds F-85, and the Buick Special. All of these small cars were shipped in from the US. The trio ranged in price from $2,577 for the Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85 four-door sedan to $3,216 for the Pontiac Tempest four-door wagon. Sales of the imported GM products were dismal because of the high import duties levied by Ottawa.

It made no sense to continue import vehicles that didn’t sell. The boys in Oshawa put their heads together and came up with a simple, homemade solution. When the more conventional Chevrolet Chevy II debuted in the fall of 1961, they would badge-engineer a model that Canadians would like and could afford. From the Chevy II came the Acadian. It arrived shortly after the Chevy II made its debut. Acadians sparkled on the showroom floors of Pontiac-Buick dealers along with a relatively new captive UK import--also badge-engineered for Canadians only, the Envoy--wrought from Vauxhall.

The 1962 Acadian was not a model of Pontiac; GM registered it as a brand in its own right. The name reached back some 400 years, drawn from the proud history and heritage of rugged Francophone pioneers who settled and thrived along the unforgiving Atlantic coast.

Advertising emphasized  the GM Acadian as a real family car that promised family budget economy with a miserly 90-horsepower four-cylinder mill. For an extra $70 one could order the zippier 120-horsepower six-cylinder version of the Econo-Flame engine. Acadian boasted clean, uncluttered styling with a classic flair and ad copy swore that the pert, practical and perfectly sized car would easily hold six husky adults and their luggage.

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Advertising and salesmen urged consumers to spoil themselves by dressing up their Acadians with the extra cost Powerglide transmission, power steering and power brakes. Eight models were generously spread over two series. A trio of economical Acadian Invaders offered value and five top-of-the-line Acadian Beaumonts added glitz and glamour to the mix.  The price range for the line ran from $2,383 for the modestly dressed two-door, four-cylinder Invader and topped out at $2,935 for the snazziest of the Acadian Beaumont models.

When Canada Track & Traffic reviewed the 1962 compacts in November 1961, the writers made no mention of the new Acadian. Noting its 110-inch wheelbase, they called the Chevy II a “compromise-sized” car. A month later the magazine staff tested a Chevy II. The Acadian was mentioned but dismissed out of hand as being nothing more than a Chevy II with “petty trim alterations and the usual maple leaf insignia traditionally bestowed on ‘Canadian’ cars.”

Acadian was the right-sized car for many Canadians. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics counted noses in 1961. The numerical snapshot showed that of the 18,238,000 of Canadians, 69.7 percent of us lived and worked in urban centres. The Acadian might be a compromise, but it was a most honourable one, fitting right into the largely urban and suburban lifestyle.

 Acadian was not the only headline grabber in the fall of 1961. Folks warmed up their Electrohomes and Northern Electrics to watch  programmes on CTV, the new private television network.  The Saskatchewan legislature passed universal Medicare bill late in the year, prompting the province’s 750 doctors to go on strike in July of 1962 when the bill became law. The federal Ministry of Health ordered thalidomide withdrawn from the market because there was evidence it caused birth defects. Pregnant women were warned to stop taking the drugs Enovid and Orthonovum.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called an election for June of 1962. His Tories took only 116 seats but formed a minority government with the cooperation of 30 Social Credit MPs. The $1 billion Trans-Canada Highway opened officially on June 30, though nearly half of the 7,770-kilometre road was still gravel surfaced. The new Number One highway would get plenty of traffic from St. John’s to Victoria as folks explored the splendours of Canada. Many of those discovering  the Dominion would be driving that asphalt ribbon in shiny, new Acadians.

In 1962 the term “global village” was coined by University of Toronto professor and communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Thrifty and economical compacts like the Acadian helped to make that global village a very real thing.

The Chevrolet Corvair muddled along with 7,505 units produced during the 1962 model year. Records show that 662 of the imported Oldsmobile F-85s were registered during the calendar year, along with 885 Buick Specials and 163 Pontiac Tempests. The American-sourced impacts now started  in price at more than $3,000. They weren’t really needed any more; Acadian was a huge hit with consumers despite what Track & Traffic might think of cloning. Sales of the Canada-only compact were hot, running neck-and-neck with the Chevy II. Model year production for 1962 showed Acadian finishing with 13,010 units built and Chevy II finished out the model year with 15,876 units produced.


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 Copyright James C. Mays 2005 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

1967 Ford

 The full-sized Fords bowed for Centennial Year riding on the same shell first seen in 1965. Division officials announced that for the third year in a row, its biggest blue oval models had undergone “major styling changes.” Designers had gone all out to execute a highly tasteful rework of the sheet metal in a necessary bid to halt the annual decline in sales of the full-sized Fords. Rear quarters were nicely broadened and wheel wells made more elliptical than previously. The grille was given a horizontal, two-tiered treatment. Rooflines were more sweeping than ever.

 Wordsmiths had a field day writing about the changes. “You’re ahead in a ’67 Ford!” The clarion sounded loud and clear that Ford was the undisputed luxury leader in the volume car field. “Quieter because they are stronger” and “stronger because they are built better” was the word from marketing and advertising got the message out to consumers.

The crown jewel in the full-sized Ford family was the LTD line, now a separate series of its own. LTDs were powered by the potent 289-cid Challenger V-8 mill. New this year was the SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission. LTD promised to “radiate the quiet elegance of a custom limousine” for its owner.  A trio of the very posh models was fielded: two- and four-door hardtops along with a four-door sedan. Interiors were ritzy, appointed with simulated woodgrain and LTD crests on the doors. Twin-Comfort Lounge Seats were of the split-bench type, topped with a generous centre armrest.

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Last year’s XL option package was upgraded significantly by the folks in Oakville and repacked into a pair of full-fledged and very sporty XL cars for the domestic market. The hardtop and convertible came complete with their own distinctive badges and Thunderbird bucket seats upholstered in rich, smooth leather-like vinyl.
The fancy, fast Fords boasted a centre Command Console, complete with a snazzy T-Bar Shift lever for the SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission.

If the base XL wasn’t ferocious enough, it could be beefed up even more with an extra-cost 428-cid V-8, power front disc brakes and a special suspension layout. Optional seating was offered: reclining buckets with adjustable wrap-around headrests. It is interesting to note that the same two models were marketed in the United States--not as models in their own right but as an upscale sub-series of the Galaxie 500 line.
Oakville was fully aware that the Galaxie 500 series was its bread and butter.  Consumers might drool over all of the fancy Fords on the showroom floor but it was the value-loaded, lower-priced lines they would sign for when it was time to make a deal. Advertising touted its Galaxie 500 line as Ford’s most versatile series and offered it as a sporty two-door and four-door hardtop, a four-door sedan and a convertible.

The Custom 500 and the Custom brought up the back of the  Ford pack. The basic full-sized strippers tore down the Number One Highway courtesy of Ford’s Big Six, mated to a fully synchronized standard transmission. Modest they might be but they came with full carpeting throughout, interior courtesy lights and foam-padded seating.

To round out the stable, Ford included an ultra-swank Country Squire Wagon lavishly trimmed in faux wood panelling and a hardworking, no-nonsense Country Sedan. Each could be had with the cleverly designed, extra-cost, dual-facing rear seats.

One could pile up enough options to rival the Bay of Fundy at high tide during a full moon. Some of the most popular add-ons favoured by consumers were the Tilt-Away Steering Wheel, Power Front Disc Brakes, the SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission, the SelectAire Conditioner, a multi-speaker Stereo-Sonic Tape System, an array of idiot light grouped in a smartly styled in-dash Convenience Control Panel, a wide variety of Tailored Tires and Fingertip Speed Control.

Safety was a hot topic among automakers, legislators and the public in 1967. The company issued a public statement: “Ever since there have been Fords on the Canadian Road, the safety of the people who drive and ride in them has been a primary concern of thousands of people at Ford Motor Company, driving millions of miles on the test track, working millions of man-hours in the laboratory. Some of the latest results of their work are seen in the ’67 safety features listed here.”

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That list of safety features was almost as long as the St. Lawrence River and included a dual-brake system, similar to that pioneered by Hudson. Door latches were substantially redesigned and strengthened to prevent accidental opening during a crash. An energy-absorbing steering wheel with a padded hub was installed. Padding was generous throughout the cabin and safety glass was laminated. Fords were given four-way flashers for emergency situations. Standard equipment also included seat belts, a non-glare day-night rearview mirror, break-away arms for the outside mirrors, windshield washers, two-speed or variable-speed wipers, backup lights and self-adjusting brakes.

The complete Ford family consisted of thirteen full-sized cars, five Fairlanes in the intermediate lineup, a flock of compact Falcons, a trio of Mustang pony cars and three personal luxury Thunderbirds.

And that wasn’t all, either. This season, Oakville offered a dozen (!) station wagons; enough to supply a good-sized group of pioneers with different kinds of transportation to make up an all-Ford wagon train. A pair of full-sized wagons, in six- or ten-passenger configurations, three Fairlanes, two Falcon car-based wagons and three truck-based Falcon Club Wagons all gleamed on showroom floors. Trailer hitch packages were available for them all.

It would not turn out to be a banner year for Ford. An extended strike at Ford in the US at the beginning of the new car season had its effects here at home. Ford wisely diverted shipments of parts from suppliers from its other factories and sent them directly to Oakville but eventually the labour dispute forced the Canadian operation to shut down.

For the calendar year, workers in Oakville built 63,724 full-sized Fords. Some models were shipped to the States and others were imported. Domestically, consumers purchased 66,448 of the big blue ovals, giving Ford second place in sales behind Chevrolet.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2005 All rights reserved.

Monday, May 3, 2010

1976 Chrysler

When the 1976 selling season opened, there was surprisingly little that was new on the floor for the Chrysler dealer. The slow-selling Imperial name had garnered only 677 sales last year. Consumers clearly preferred Lincoln, Cadillac and Mercedes to Imperial. Sales of the corporate flagship had languished for some time. In fact, in the past decade Imperial had only once risen above the 1,000 mark in sales.

The grand name was retired from the market though the ultra-luxurious two- and four-door hardtops were continued as the Chrysler New Yorker Brougham. Distinguished from lesser kin with an understated split waterfall grille and hidden headlights, the Brougham was a classy vehicle.

There wasn’t a lot to say about a land yacht that had used the same body style for three years but wordsmiths gave it a heroic effort, anyway. “Superbly styled to turn heads and steal hearts. Appointed to bring you every Chrysler convenience at the touch of a finger. Engineered with extra care for trouble-free pleasure year after year. And powered to eat up mile after mile of Canadian highway effortlessly, quietly and enjoyably.”

Claiming that the New Yorker Brougham was “the talk of the town,” the car was certainly sumptuous with its standard crushed velour upholstery or optional genuine, rich Corinthian leather seats. The “thickly woven shag carpeting covers layer on layer of sound insulation padding.” A car this refined did not carry mere passengers—human occupants were elevated to the level of “guests” who would enjoy standard rear-seat reading lamps. Lavaliere straps and built-in foam pillows were nice touches.

A swanky, extra-cost St. Regis package could be had to gild the New Yorker Brougham lily. The optional items in the ensemble included a pair of dressy opera windows and a padded canopy vinyl roof finished in a simulated boar’s skin grain. The St. Regis package was offered in eight standard colours plus a unique silver for the vinyl roof. The Chrysler name was magic. Sales totaled 5,518 units for calendar year 1976 up by 1,784 units over the previous year when the car was an Imperial.

Under the hood of the biggest New Yorker was the massive 440-cubic inch V-8 engine, happily married to Chrysler’s tried-and-true TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

Moored next to the biggest of the Chrysler luxury liners was the Newport Custom. It was advertised with words such as “solid” and “secure.” This was the Chrysler with classic elegance and it was given “a definite touch of flair.” It promised a “ride that’s quiet, smooth and customed for comfort.  You ride surrounded by the security of Unibody construction, the sturdy confidence of Torsion Bar front suspension. And inside, comfort with a capital SEE.”

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The Highlander plaid cloth-and-vinyl interior was standard or one could order the all-vinyl version with 50/50 folding seats and centre armrest. The seat reclined--like AMC’s Matador--on the four-door models. “Deep pile carpeting and rich, tasteful fabrics provide the perfect setting whether you’re travelling just downtown or from sea to sea.”

Least expensive was the Newport, though it claimed to be “all Chrysler, through and through. It was “engineered in every detail to deliver on every promise. It promised to be an impressive car that “lives up to your idea of a Chrysler. Only its price tag may surprise you.”  Advanced electronic systems assure dependability in the extreme cold of a Quebec winter or the blistering heat of an Alberta summer.”

The base cloth-and-vinyl interior with fixed bench seat and a centre armrest was attractive. Even in the lowest-price Chrysler, full volume foam seats were attached directly to the seat frame, eliminating spring elements. The Castilian cloth-and-vinyl upholstery was mod and colourful. “Luxury interiors, convenience features, and roomy interiors of the two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, or four-door sedan let you relax and enjoy the ride.” Sales of Newport were 19,719 units for the 1975 calendar year. That dropped to 17,963 units for 1976.

Then there was the opulant Chrysler Town & Country. The refined station wagon turned heads whenever it pulled into view. It claimed to be an “efficient worker by day and “sleek glamour star by night.” Not only was it elegantly styled and appointed for comfort, it boasted a cavernous 100.8 cubic feet of cargo space. Rugged all-vinyl upholstery and loop pile carpet spoke of comfort, yet there was enough room to lay a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood flat in the cargo area.

Being Chrysler, there were oodles of options for the asking. Just to name a few, there were the Auto Temp II Air Conditioner, tinted glass, automatic height control, Auto-Speed Control, an ordinary electric or electronic digital clock, cornering lights, an electric deck-lid release, an electric rear window defroster, a sure-grip differential, an engine block heater, a fuel pacer, a locking gas cap, luggage racks and assist handles, power door locks, power six-way seats, power windows, sunroof, power radio antenna, many different radio and stereo system, Tilt-&-Tel steering wheel. One could add all kinds of dress up and decor items from wheel skirts to custom road wheels and door-edge protectors.

Colours for the big Chryslers ranged the rainbow: Silver Cloud Metallic, Platinum Metallic, Powder Blue, Astral Blue Metallic, Starlight Blue Metallic, Vintage Red Metallic, Bittersweet Metallic, Jade Green Metallic, Deep Sherwood Metallic, Sahara Beige, Saddle Tan, Moondust Metallic, Dark Chestnut Metallic, Golden Fawn, Inca gold Metallic, Spanish Gold Metallic, Spinnaker White and Formal Black.

The most valuable jewel in the Chrysler crown was the new, downsized Cordoba, introduced last year. Built in Windsor, Ontario, the personal luxury car was an extremely strong performer in 1976 with 19,378 units delivered domestically during the calendar year. That was even better than the 18,587 units sold in 1975. The Cordoba story is a good one for another day.

With sales of popular smaller cars like Plymouth Volare, Dodge Aspen and the Chrysler Cordoba, Chrysler Canada, Limited was doing very well in the market place. The Windsor, Ontario-based manufacturer overtook Ford as the nation’s second largest automaker.

Still the increase in Canada wasn’t enough to keep Chrysler's American parent out of trouble. As Chrysler Corporation skidded toward bankruptcy, the Canadian subsidiary decided to secure its corporate tomorrow by going to Ottawa for loan guarantees of more than $200 million.

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Copyright James C. Mays 2006 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

1970 AMC Hornet

AMC's Hornet bowed in the fall of 1969 as a 1970 model. It was designed to replace the Rambler, the car that started the modern compact revolution.

Even as American Motors' president Roy D. Chapin stood before microphones to tell the press that the 1968 Rambler would be frozen in style and price for years to come, he had three styling teams busy as a barrel of monkeys secretly whipping up the Rambler’s successor.

Rambler was a sacred name in auto history—first gracing a line of bicycles in the 1890s and then on a line of fine automobiles from 1902 to 1912. The name was polished up and returned to work in 1950 with the advent of the modern Nash Rambler. Synonymous with compact-sized automobiles and outstanding value for the money, the moniker had been around for almost two decades.  Rambler was an automotive hero and like a hockey great, it was about to hang up its skates, its jersey retired forever. Any vehicle that would deign to replace such an icon would have to carefully crafted.

The result of a marriage between pioneer Nash and historic Hudson, American Motors had come into existence in Canada in January of 1956. The company built cars in Toronto and then later in Brampton, Ontario. As the smallest of the Big Four automakers, the folks at American Motors often did things on a shoestring budget.

To introduce Rambler’s successor, top brass earmarked a whopping $40 million and dedicated more than a million man hours to this project. There would be only one kick at the can and the company couldn’t afford to miss the mark. To do so would send the firm to automotive heaven where Studebaker had gone only two years earlier.

The 1970 AMC Hornet SST four-door sedan listed for $2,775 f.o.b. Brampton, Ontario. Vinyl tops were available in three colours at extra cost.

Stealing a page from its own history, the Hornet bowed as “the little rich car,” just as the Nash Rambler had two decades earlier. Like the small Nash, the Hornet was dressed to the nines in SST form. Unlike the Nash Rambler, the Hornet could also be ordered as a stripper.

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Sturdy unit-body construction was the secret of the 1970 AMC Hornet’s superior strength. This aircraft type of mass auto manufacturing was pioneered by predecessor Nash in 1940. 
What Hornet didn’t have was the Rambler name. Sadly, the marque had become tarnished in the North American market and come to be joked about as the fuddy-duddy car for Nana and Gramps. AMC decided to drop the time-honoured Rambler handle in a bid to spiff up its corporate image. Outside of Canada and the US, however, the Rambler name still stood for high quality, excellent value and longevity. Stylish new Rambler Hornets were sold in Europe, Central and South America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand where they were touted as, “kilo for kilo, this Rambler offers more luxury than any car in its class.”

With or without the Rambler nameplate behind it, Hornet was new from the ground up. Available only as a two- or four-door sedan, the whisper quiet, unit-body vehicle rode on a pert 2 734-millimetre (108-inch) wheelbase. Designed by in-house stylist Chuck Mashigan, the Hornet’s long hood, rear short deck and graceful roof profile was classic. No one knew it at the time but the versatile body shell would serve American Motors for the next twenty years.

The grille was exceptionally clean and simple with black horizontal ribs punctuated by single headlights at the outer edges. Those were snuggled up to by large, round inset turn/parking lamps. The rear quarter was equally clean boasting a pair of horizontally split taillights. A tasteful brightwork insert dressed up the  rear of SST models.

 Hornet could be powered by any one of three AMC-designed engines, the 3-litre (left), the 3.2-litre (centre) or the 5-litre  V8 (right). 
A trio of engines was available for power. The thrifty 3.2-litre (199-cubic-inch) six was the standard mill. The 3.2-litre (232-cubic-inch) was optional on base models but standard equipment on the upscale SST versions. For kicks, AMC’s 5-litre (304-cubic inch) V-8 engine was on tap and it promised to deliver zero-to-sixty in ten seconds flat. Horsepower made its way to the wheels courtesy of a three-speed manual transmission. A floor-mounted shifter was optional with the purchase of the V-8 engine or the Shift-Command automatic transmission.

Interior of the 1970 AMC Hornet was capacious. It is seen here with the optional Rattan Weave vinyl upholstery.

Colours for the cabins were scientifically selected. Seats were scientifically contoured to support the back, too. Interiors pledged to have plenty head room, hip room, shoulder room and legroom for five passengers, not four. Even the base models were nicely finished. Advertising bragged, “Everything about Hornet says unbridled luxury.”  The instrument panel featured a recessed strip running the width of the interior, interrupted only by a tasteful tier of controls vertically stacked at the centre. Circular gauges were easy for the driver to read.

The list of options was as carefully screened as nominees under consideration to receive the Order of Canada. They included automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, tinted glass, vinyl roof and full wheel discs. One could order bumper guards all ‘round, a locking gas cap, an engine block heater, an AM push-button radio, a custom steering wheel, an electric washer and wiper setup, an electric clock, side scuff moulding, two-tone paint jobs and pinstripes.

Even though Jeep was added to the American Motors family, 1970 turned out to be a poor year for American Motors of Canada Limited. Only 18,181 passenger cars were sold during the calendar year. There was a changing of the guard as Bill Pickett became the new president of the Brampton-based company. He had his work cut out for him; The Big Three were not the only competitors these days: upstart imports Volkswagen, Datsun and Toyota and others were all vying for sales  with Hornet, competition in a market segment pioneered by Nash in 1950.

As seen from the rear, the AMC Hornet was striking. The 1970 base model sold for $3,374 f.o.b. Brampton. And weighed 1 207 kilos (2,662 pounds).

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