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Sunday, August 9, 2015

1971-1973 Plymouth Cricket

The 1971 Plymouth Cricket four-door sedan weighed in at 890.4 kilos (1,963 pounds) and carried a base price of $2,115 before taxes.
The North American small car wars waned throughout the 1960s as domestic compacts grew larger and heavier with each passing season. Pint-sized vehicles were still offered by the Big Four automakers but they were all captive imports, sourced from abroad. At Chrysler Canada, that showroom-floor offering since 1959 had been the ‘imported from Paris’, Simca.
This  1963 black four-door sedan was the first Volvo Canadian to roll out of the factory in Nova Scotia.
The war quickly heated up at the end of the 1960s. Volkswagen had long led the way with its durable Beetle. Volvo was quick to set up an assembly plant in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Subcompacts from Japan were gaining in popularity with Canadians.

1970 1/2 Gremlin from AMC.

North American manufacturers found themselves playing catch up. American Motors was first to market when it introduced its adorable Gremlin on April Fool’s Day, 1970. Ford’s Pinto and Chev’s Vega arrived hard on Gremlin’s heels for the 1971 model year.

While the trio was designed and built in North America, for backup, GM Canada continued to ship to our shores the strong-selling Vauxhall from its British subsidiary for Pontiac-Buick dealers and rebadged it as the Envoy for Chev-Olds dealers. 

The second line of defense from Oakville, Ontario should have been the highly popular Ford Cortina, also sourced from the UK. Not a single one was sold in Canada during the 1971 model year because of labour problems. It made a belated appearance on August 6, 1972. American Motors abandoned the subcompact market completely in 1962 when it dropped the Metropolitan, sourced from Austin.

 For round two of the tiny transportation battle, Chrysler took a different tack from its competitors because there were no plans to develop a domestic subcompact.  Corporate thinking was that there was no need, since Chrysler owned a number of international operations and could draw on them to fill that market segment.
1971 Simca
The ChryCo dealer body still fielded the French-built Simca to the faithful but it was no longer a popular seller and added little to the profit margin. 
1971 Hillman Avenger used halogen headlights in the British market.
So, subcompact sales would be bolstered by the addition of the stylish Cricket, imported from Britain, where it was known as the Hillman Avenger--part of Chrysler’s Rootes Group. Cricket would join the Plymouth gang, where the season’s sales slogan was, “Plymouth Coming Through.”

Designers gave the Avenger the latest styling. The 2 286-millimetre (90-inch) wheelbase carried a gently rounded, unitized-body envelope incorporating the trendy Coke-bottle swell at the rear, mated to a long hood. Flanks were accented with a full-length, sharp razor crease immediately below the safety-recessed door handles.  The car was easily distinguishable from others in its class with its unique, bold hockey stick taillights.

The instrument panel for the Plymouth Cricket was no-nonsense and strictly European in its layout.

The padded instrument panel was very European in flavour, with light and wiper controls mounted on the steering column. The two-speed heater/defroster was located front and centre, above the radio. 

The Hillman Avenger was assembled in Argentina and sold as the Dodge 1500.

 The pert little vehicle had already been modified to left-hand drive for the European and South American markets. It had been road tested for more than 1.6-million kilometres. For introduction to the Canadian market, there was little to do but ensure that the car to meet the federal Ministry of Transport standards.

To that end, side markers were affixed to the front and rear fenders, quad headlamps kissed the horizontal, blackout grille. Inside, ‘tombstone’ headrests were moulded into the front, bucket seats, stealing a page from AMC’s sporty Javelin.

The engine chosen for the Canadian market was the 1.5-litre (91-cubic inch) four-cylinder, 5-main bearing high cam mill. It worked in tandem with the fully-synchronized, four-on-the-floor, short-throw manual transmission. For an extra $228, one could zip around courtesy of Borg-Warner’s three-speed, automatic transmission, with the lever mounted in the centre console. 

Schematic details the Cricket’s three-box, unit-body construction.

Standard equipment was impressive. Rack and pinion steering, power front disc brakes, coil springs and an anti-sway bar set the Cricket apart from many of the others in the subcompact herd.

Popular options included an AM push-button radio for $85; white sidewalls for the standard radial ply tires cost $35. Air conditioning was offered and those who did were required to a $100 luxury tax to the federal government.

Stylists gave the Plymouth Cricket hockey stick taillights.

For $100 one could deck out a Cricket with the Décor Package upgrade. That included dual horns, a glove box light and lock, a cigar light, gauges for oil pressure and the alternator, front door storage pockets, a day/night adjustable mirror, deluxe carpeting, brightwork moulding around the windows, dual paint stripes on the sides, bumper guards, deluxe carpeting and wheel covers, courtesy lights, an upholstery upgrade and an instrument panel light controlled by a rheostat.

Crickets hopped out of the factory in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, England clad in “happy colours”. Exterior hues that made the Cricket cut were Polar White, Firebrand Red and Oasis Green. Then there were the metallic finishes comprised of Sunset, Tangerine, Aztec Gold, Electric Blue and Golden Olive. Regardless of finish, each body went through a seven-step, dip-and-spray rust protection process, designed to thwart the twin curses of the Canadian highway—corrosion and rust.

Five could be seated in comfort--according to sales hype. Cabin colours selected for the tough-wear vinyl upholstery were Black, Vellum, Tan, Olive and Blue. The boys at Plymouth were given the task of colour-coordinating exteriors with interiors for maximum good taste.

In Canada, the marketing boys opted to forgo the cartoon cricket used in the States and hired  orchestra leader and CBC-Television star, Bobby Gimby, the Pied Piper of Canada, to ‘blow his horn’ for Plymouth. Bobby and his trumpet did the job proudly, in both official languages.

While Plymouth’s Cricket never sold in big numbers, records show that in the 1971 calendar year, 2,995 of them chirped their way home to consumers. It brought up the rear of  Plymouth dealers’ sales. Cricket ranked 49th in domestic registrations, behind the Chrysler New Yorker and ahead of the Dodge Colt in nameplate sales pie.

The price for the four-door sedan rose to $2,324 for 1972 and the wagon was introduced at $2,737. New car registrations for 1972 show that number of Cricket dropped to 51st place as only 2,480 sets of taillights zipped out the dealers’ doors. Canadians passed by the imports and bought more North American-built cars than ever before.

The British auto industry found itself in deep trouble at the beginning of the 1970s. Union and management clashed, resulting in severely compromised product quality. Whether it was the Austin Marina or Ford Cortina, many of the vehicles shipped to Canada from the UK arrived with major defects. The Firenza from Vauxhall was so shoddily built that angry owners sued GM Canada in the nation’s first-ever class action suit. 

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Sadly, Cricket suffered the same shameful indignities as its other British counterparts and was withdrawn from the Canadian market in mid 1973. 

The name lived on as Chrysler immediately rebadged the successful Dodge Colt—already sourced from Japanese automaker Mitsubishi—as the Plymouth Cricket. With that change came a two-door hardtop model. A total of 4,807 Crickets found favour with Canadians during the 1973 calendar year. 

Thanks to Kevin McCabe, Chrysler Canada historian, for the Plymouth Cricket price list. He can be reached at

Copyright James C. Mays 2015 All rights reserved. 

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

1986 Buick Regal

Andre Mallet of Windsor, Ontario bought this 1986 Buick Regal in 1997, when he was 22 years old.

David Dunbar Buick had become a millionaire when he invented the lawn sprinkler and then patented the process to coat cast iron with enamel—creating white bathtubs.  Fascinated with automobiles, he established the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in 1899, with the goal of building internal-combustion engines for farm use.

1903 Buick

Soon, Buick became enamoured with automobiles and spent the rest of his fortune developing a single car. He was not a particularly astute businessman. His company fell on hard times and was reorganized in 1903 before being absorbed into the newly formed General Motors in 1908.

1908 Buick Model 10

 In the corporate fleet, Buick came to be moored as a luxury make within the GM lineup, berthed below the sumptuous Cadillac and docked above the mid-range Oldsmobile, the value-laden Pontiac and the entry-level Chev.

King George VI and Queen Mary visited all nine provinces in 1939. One of the royal limousines was this McLaughlin-Buick, custom built by workers at GM in Oshawa.

During the Dirty ‘Thirties, posh and powerful Buicks were still popular with the rich and famous. They were highly favoured by the royal family; particularly King Edward the VIII. His Majesty ordered McLaughlin-Buicks from GM Canada for his personal use. Conveyances for King George VI and Queen Mary’s 1939 Royal Tour of the nation included a pair of McLaughlin-Buick limousines, custom-built for the occasion.  

From 1939 to 1945, GM workers did their patriotic duty as they worked around the clock to build weapons of victory for the war effort. While they never served in uniform, these home front heroes fought Hitler and Tojo with the weapons they knew best—a lunch box and a time card.

 In an effort to help Ottawa redress the massive wartime budget deficit, Buick--withheld from the domestic market—finally reintroduced to the public in 1951.

The McLaughlin part of Buick’s nameplate disappeared after World War Two but the sleek vehicle was immediately hailed as an elite style leader for much of the 1950s and 1960s.

Buick introduced the Regal in 1973. While the tri-shield had created the personal luxury car market with its groundbreaking Riviera, it has been slow to extend the range downward.  For the first year in 1973, the Regal nameplate was only used for Buick's version of the GM intermediate personal two-door luxury coupe. (Buick’s intermediate-sized sedans were christened as Century models) The first generation of Regals made use of the same body shell for five years.

When the new Regal was unveiled for 1978, its Coke-bottle swell profile was melded into a much boxier looking envelope. 

A substantial facelift in 1981 improved aerodynamics enough that Regals raced the NASCAR circuit. They kissed the chequered flag many times.

A 1981 restyle flattened the envelope significantly. A Grand National appeared in 1982 but each vehicle left the factory in charcoal grey. The GN model was deleted at the end of the selling season.

The Buick Regal Grand National found 446 buyers in Canada during the 1986 model year.

The Grand National returned in 1984 dressed in black. Its turbo-charged 3.8-litre engine became standard and was beefed up substantially with such under-the-hood goodies as sequential fuel injection, and a distributor-less computer-controlled ignition. The  motor now boasted 150 kiloWatts (200 horsepower)  at 4400 rpm and 407 Newton-metres  (300 pound-foot) of torque at 2400 rpm.

2,129 Buick Regal Limited models were sold in Canada during the 1986 model year. The Limited was the most popular seller in the Regal series.

Sales continued to climb.  The 1986 Regal came in a four-pack of very exciting versions: a basic Regal, the posh Regal Limited, the sporty Regal T Type and the Grand National.

Advertising was to the point. “Regal is the sum of the meticulously assembled parts. This is an automobile that is every inch (an ancient Canadian unit of measure) a Buick. A car that rides, performs and handles with all the qualities of grace and elegance that have come to characterize the Regal.”

The Buick Regal’s instrument panel was lean and angular, featuring LED readouts instead of dials.

All four of the Buick two-door coupes rode on a 2 746-millimetre (108.1-inch) wheelbase. Generous overhang at the front and rear brought the overall length to 5 094 millimetres (200.6-inches).

The beast was powered with the “sinewy” 3.8-litre (231-cubic inch) V-6 engine, while a Turbo-charged variant of the V-6 and a 5-litre V-8 (305-cubic inch) mill was optional. Overdrive was featured on the Turbo-charged and V-8 engines. All were coupled to an automatic transmission.

General Motors’ divisions played mix-and-match with components during this era. Small print alerted consumers to the fact that “These Buicks are equipped with GM-built engines produced by various divisions and affiliates of General Motors Corporation and GM of Canada.” Records show that the 3-8-litre engines were sourced from American factories in both the Chevrolet and Buick Divisions. V-8s came from Chev plants in the US as well as the GM factory in Ontario.

The base Regal was touted as a car with ‘a high standard of luxury simplicity, possessing a ‘comfortable, luxurious interior’ in a broad range of colours and materials. Up front a bench seat could be upgraded to buckets. Designated as Model 4GJ47, a total of  1,393 was shipped to Canada.

2,129 Buick Regal Limited models were sold in Canada during the 1986 model year. The Limited was the most popular seller in the Regal series.

The Limited boasted unique, leather-trimmed seating and colour-keyed upholstery panels for the doors.  Model 4GM47 was sourced from the United States and records show that 2,129 units were imported into Canada.

This will be the final year for the Buick Regal T Type.

The T Type Regal included the firm-ride Grand Touring suspension, front and rear stabilizer bars, mated to higher-rate springs and shock absorbers.  It was offered only in black with blackout trim and chrome-plated steel wheels. 

Of the 616 T Type Regals imported into the country, 441 of them were equipped with the WE2 Grand National package. The Grand National took the ‘T Type one step beyond’. The street machine was billed as ‘Bad to the Bone’ and so it was. For enthusiasts who wanted to stand apart from the crowd, the 3.8-litre, sequential-port fuel injection engine was kissed with a turbocharger and an intercooler. While the engine was shared with the T Type, the hype for the Grand National mill was much more intensive.

To make sure that Buick owners were well cared for, the Future-Guard warranty was included in each sale—at no cost. The guarantee for any defects found in the entire vehicle was 12 months or 12,000 kilometres. The powertrain was covered for 36 months or 60,000 kilometres.

Buick got a lot of attention in 1986 because GM Canada was the official supplier of vehicles to the 1986 World Expo held in Vancouver that year. Buick’s Regal did well, racking up a total of 4,138 model year sales.

This 1986 Buick Regal has been owned by Andre Mallet, the proprietor of Black Bench Coffee Roasters in Windsor, since 1997. He needed to replace his 1985 Buick Regal Limited that was literally falling apart. He was 22 at the time and dropped $3,250 for the car, a parked at the Esso station in North Woodslee. The odometer read 162,000 kilometres. It was in good shape and needed only a turn signal lens to pass inspection.

Andre Mallet’s 1986 Buick Regal waits for new chrome.

Andre’s Regal has the 5-litre, four-barrel engine. It is equipped with bucket seats and centre console shift. The car is undergoing a complete restoration.

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Thanks to George Zapora at GM Historical Vehicle Services in Oshawa, ON for the import statistics. For a modest fee, get details about your GM product at

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

1971-1975 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express and the 1973-1975 Pontiac Astre Panel

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega family included a Panel Express truck, sized to carry “pizzas, prescriptions, potato chips or flowers.”

General Motors needed to play catch up in the sub-compact category as the 1960s came to a close. Chevrolet had only begun to develop a vehicle for that market in 1968. Designers and engineers were under the gun to have a North American-built subcompact on showroom floors for the 1970 model year.

1970 Gremlin from AMC was the first North American-built subcompact.

Competition was fierce. American Motors was the first of the Big Four American automakers to hit the market with its unique Gremlin and Ford followed hard on AMC’s heels with the chubby-cheeked Pinto. GM also had to contend with a good number of worthy, offshore competitors, all eager to sell their vehicles in the North American market.

The 1971 Chevrolet Camaro

James G. Musser, Jr. was selected to head the Vega team. He had created the sensational Camaro and now he was responsible for ensuring that the littlest bowtie in the Chev family carried a strong resemblance to the division’s hot-selling pony car.

Introduction of the Vega was delayed because of a long and bitter strike. General Motors was crippled when nearly 400,000 workers walked out of GM’s 138 plants in the US and did not return to work for 67 days. Part of the dispute was about the robots setting an inhumanly possible manufacturing pace in the Lordstown facility. Chevrolet’s Vega finally got into production in GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant on June 26th, 1970.

Unimate robots at work.

Chevrolet officials had calculated that 400,000 units a year would be built annually in Lordstown. GM invested $100 million to revamp the seven-year old plant—and the upgrade included 26 state-of-the-art Unimate robot welders.  A total of 101 vehicles an hour would roll out the doors—one every 36 seconds.

Management and the United Auto Workers settled their differences and the Chevy Vega finally debuted on September 29th, 1970 as a 1971 model. The name was drawn from the most visible star in the constellation Lyra—one of the five brightest nighttime orbs in the Northern Hemisphere.

This timeless VW advertisement dates from 1963.

Marketing stole a page from Volkswagen’s classic advertising by announcing that Vega would not undergo annual changes; the 1975 model would look the same as it did at its 1971 introduction time.

Vega arrived as a sedan, a hatchback, a Kammback (wagon) and in an unusual twist—a pint-sized Panel Express, billed as “Our Own Little Panel Show.” The panel show reference was a nod to the many television quiz shows popular at the time.

The 1972 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express came with two secret under-the-floor compartments.

Despite its diminutive 2 463-millimetre (97-inch) wheelbase, the Panel Express was touted as ideal for light-duty deliveries. Advertising asked, “How big does a truck have to be to carry pizza, prescriptions, potato chips or flowers? This little hauler could carry a payload of up to 362 kilos (800 pounds) in 6.2 square metres (66.7 cubic feet) of space. The no frills Panel express was fitted with steel panels instead of rear side glass, rubber flooring, only one seat and two hidden compartments—one behind the front seat and a second at the tailgate. 

Vega zipped around courtesy of a 2.3-litre (140-cubic inch), four-cylinder, in-line aluminum engine.

Powered by a new 2.3-litre (140-cubic inch), four-cylinder, in-line aluminum engine, the base model offered  67 kiloWatts (90 horsepower). For a few bucks more, one could pack an extra 14 kW-- twenty horses-- under the hood. A three-speed manual transmission was standard equipment but a four-speed stick shift was offered as well as the tried-and-true Powerglide automatic and a one-shift, no-clutch semi-automatic called Torque-Drive.

Motor Trend magazine chose the Chevrolet Vega to be  its Car of the Year. Model year sales in North America for the Panel Express was a modest 7,800 units, with a starting price of  USD$2,138.

The Panel Express returned for 1972. There were a few changes but noticeably new was a glove box, a price reduction of USD$50 and the hype. “The kinky way to haul around your surfboard or your diving gear or yourself,” bragged advertising. To underscore the truck’s versatility the Panel Express was pitched specifically to handymen, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, cheque-clearing houses, blueprint companies and to any small business with delivery service ranging from pizza to pharmacies. At the end of the model year 4,114 units had been built for the North American market.

There were changes for Vega in 1973. Engines were detuned to 53 kW and 64 kW (72 and 85 horsepower) to comply with new emissions standards. The Panel Express was downplayed greatly, now taking a back seat to the wagon, described only as Kammback’s “friend” and reduced to a 100-word description in the sales brochure. The little truck’s price tag was now USD$2,106. 

To supplement the 400,000 units coming from the Lordstown plant, Chevrolet planned for an additional 150,000 Vegas a year be produced in its St. Therese, Quebec facility. Vega’s Panel Express seemed to miss the mark as North American output slipped to 3,886 units for the model year.  

In 1973 the Pontiac Astre made its debut. The Canada-only model included a truck.

Canadian Pontiac-Buick dealers got their own unique version of the Vega. Introduced at mid-year, the Pontiac Astre was offered all four of the Vega variations, though the Panel Express was called the Pontiac Astre Panel.

1974 Pontiac Vega GT

When the 1974 Vega and Astre appeared, the GM cousins wore the new high-impact 8-kph (5-mph) bumpers mandated by Washington and Ottawa.  The price in the US rose to $2,405 for the Chevrolet Vega Panel Express.

Along with a pretty new face, changes included more options, more colours--because owners wanted more style, more spirit. The gas tank size was increased from 36 litres to 59 litres. (8 to 13 Imperial gallons. Advertising for the small haul was reduced to a footnote.

No doubt the embargo on gasoline sales to the United States by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) helped to push  Panel Express production to 4,289 units for the 1974 model year.  Small was not just beautiful, it was economical, too.

    The Chevrolet Vega Panel Express made its last appearance for the 1975 season. Options included air conditioning and automatic transmission.

When the 1975 selling season began, marketing optimistically gave the Panel Express its own four-page brochure, billing it as “our big little truck.”

Time and timing were not kind to the Vega Panel Express. Inflation pushed the base price up to USD$2,822. Consumers shied away from the Vega. Hurried to market, design flaws resulted in a myriad of chronic breakdowns. 

Only 131 Pontiac Astre Panels were built for the Canadian market in the 1975 model year.

In a bid to salvage Vega’s reputation and boost sales, Chevrolet offered a five-year/ 100,000-kilometre (60,000-mile) engine warranty but that didn’t stop the slide. Only 1,525 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express trucks were built during the 1975 model year. 

It would be the tiny truck’s swan song. When GM shifted Vega production from St. Therese, Quebec to Southgate, Michigan, the little Chev truck was deleted from the lineup.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2015 All rights reserved.