Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big Red and Frankenvette

Back before we moved to the Huntsville area in 1986, Dad spent most all of his spare time restoring cars. He and his partner in most of these ventures, Jay, owned a single-car hauler named Big Red.

Big Red was a beast. It was a '66ish heavy-duty Ford, something like an F700, maybe. It was hard and tedious to drive. It rode like the cabin was bolted directly to the frame, particularly when not carrying a car. If you could coax 6 mpg from it, you were doing very well. It wasn't particularly pleasant to use, but it got the job done. Jay and Dad had built a lot of the truck themselves, so there was a certain parental pride too.

On the plus side, the Mustang under-dash air conditioner Dad had installed would run you out of the truck, even in the middle of July.

To load or unload Big Red, you unbolted huge steel ramps from each side, and set the ends of them in grooves at the rear of the bed. I don't remember a loading or unloading ever taking any less than 20 minutes, and 30 was typical. The ramps were grooved, but they were narrow, so there wasn't much margin for error. Alignment was critical.

For most of the time we had Big Red, I was too little to do much but be underfoot during a load or unload. But I was pressed into service one Saturday morning at about age 8. The mission: direct Dad, in a recently-acquired '71 Corvette convertible, up Big Red's ramps.

"Ratty" didn't begin to cover this particular 'Vette. The nicest thing I could say about it was that it had a decent set of white-letter Dunlop GT/Qualifiers on it. There was a little silver paint here and there, but most of it was gone. The interior looked to have been set upon by rabid beavers. A Caprice radiator had been installed with a sledgehammer. (Really.)

Particularly complicating our specific endeavor for the day: there was almost no oil pressure, and there was no exhaust system. Also, it needed to be pushed off. This was a hideous, snarling, stinking, demon of a car that was drivable only in the most liberal sense of the word.

So, let's review. Minimal oil pressure means we have to do this quickly. No exhaust system means we won't be able to talk. Needing a push-off means Dad has to pop the clutch halfway down the street, circle the block, and return.

Establishing some hand signals before the car was running would have been a great idea, don't you think? Didn't occur to either of us.

He coasted out silently. I watched him go. I waited. The engine fired about 30 seconds later, sounding like the beginning of the end of the world, and I knew he'd be back in about that much time again.

Here it came. It was so damned loud my sternum was resonating. He rolled up to the ramps, and I started trying to direct him up. It already smelled hot. Fruitlessly, I yelled. Fruitlessly, he yelled back. He started up. I pointed him back down. He turned to the left and started back up--oops, too much. He coasted back down. And so it went. After a couple of minutes, he waved me off violently and gunned it. The dilapidated piece of Corvette squirted up the ramps and, miracle of miracles, landed on the bed pretty straight. He killed the engine and got out.

"I had to stop. See?" Dad pointed at the wisps of smoke coming from the engine compartment. I smelled what I would later learn was metal on metal, starving for lubrication. No long-term harm done, though. Albeit sloppily, we'd accomplished the mission. Dad had left part of the sole of his cheap sneaker on the padless clutch pedal; that was how hot the car got.

That was the last time I saw that car in that shape. Dad and Jay had begun restoring it as a '71, but when they figured out what that was going to cost, they took a different tack. They began using whatever C3 parts they could find, and ultimately built Frankenvette. When finished, it was a '71 Corvette with '79 front and rear clips; '76 instruments; '80 seats; and an '81 steering wheel. There were other contributing years, but those are what I remember. It was charcoal gray with a red interior and white convertible top, and quite sharp. It was great fun watching someone walk around it at a show or sale, finally giving up and asking "What year is this car?"

Alas, that one-of-a-kind Corvette was sold at an auction several years ago. Big Red's gone, too; it was headed for a fourth or fifth life as a logging truck. Oh, well. Can't keep 'em all.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Crossing over

What is a "crossover" SUV, do you think?

For a while, starting about ten years ago, it seemed to mean any SUV with car-based, rather than truck-based, mechanicals. The Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the Toyota Highlander/Lexus RX-series were all "crossovers" according to this definition, based on passenger cars in their respective manufacturers' lineups and with unibody construction. All were essentially tall cars, but for the most part they retained SUV looks and proportions.

Today the term seems to be applied the same way--to car-based SUVs--but to so many disparate vehicles that it's essentially meaningless.

Some are station wagons. The Ford Freestyle/Taurus X (its new name for 2008), the Chrysler Pacifica, and the Subaru Forester are good examples. They have tallish rooflines, but that's it. They're unambigously cars, both in appearance and in the driving experience, and everyone knows that cars that are squared off in the back like that are called station wagons (or shooting brakes, or "Touring" models in the case of BMW).

Such is the power of persuasion. They're not marketed as station wagons, because station wagons are dowdy relics of the '70s. But that's exactly what they are.

The sustained popularity of SUVs continues to amaze me. When they really got going, about 1992 or so, I figured they'd be a six- to eight-year fad. I thought such because the practical need for traditional, truck-based SUVs is fairly narrow. If you need to tow or go off-road while carrying a lot of people, they make sense. Otherwise, something else is a better answer. A minivan is a better people (and stuff!) hauler. Almost any car is a better driving experience. A pickup is better for a Lowe's run.

But SUVs are cool. People like being cool. And ten years ago, when they started to get tired of the abysmal fuel economy and poor handling, instead of moving to other vehicles, the crafty manufacturers had "crossovers" waiting for them--with all of the look and a lot less pain.

Some will do better than others. The aforementioned Pacifica is well thought out and has been a modest success. The Highlander/RX-series has been a runaway hit for Toyota. On the other hand, I expect Mazda's new 5 to sink quickly, because it demonstrates that Mazda doesn't understand what sells SUVs. It has sliding doors, and sliding doors on anything make it look like a minivan, and minivans are vehicles people are trying to get away from when they select SUVs. It doesn't matter how well it drives, how reliable it is, or anything else: it looks like something Mrs. Anderson drives carpool in.

So we've got vehicles that look like trucks but drive like cars; we've got vehicles that are station wagons but called something else; and we've got something begging to be called anything but what it is: a mini-minivan. Who knows what previously unimagined vehicles lie ahead to wear the name "crossover" in the future?