With their pure, projectile-like styling, the third-generation 1961-63 Thunderbirds have become known as the Bullet Birds.
Somehow, the generations of Ford Thunderbird often manage to inspire nicknames. The original two-seat Thunderbirds of 1955-57 are called the Baby Birds. The second-generation four-seaters of 1958-60 won the name Square Birds. And the third-generation 1961-63 Thunderbirds, with their pure, projectile-like styling, will forever be known as the Bullet Birds.
Built on a unit-construction body/chassis with 113-inch wheelbase, the Bullet Bird was similar in size and layout to the ’58-’60 Thunderbird, maintaining a winning formula. And the exterior sheet metal was all new, but with some obvious roots in the 1953 Ford X-100 dream car (read about it here) and the 1961 Lincoln Continental—especially in the nose and grille, as shown above. And while the fact is well disguised, the Thunderbird and Continental shared some glass and interior structure, aka black metal. While the Bullet Bird’s styling is relatively simple and unadorned, there are clever details to catch the eye, including the door handles incorporated into the side trim.
Ford lead stylist Elwood Engel had a hand in all these vehicle designs, and when he was passed over for promotion to vice-president of Ford styling, succeeding George Walker (Eugene Bordinat got the job instead) Engel departed, taking the top design job across town at Chrysler Corporation. The Chrysler Turbine Ghia (check out this rare factory film here) that soon emerged there bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bullet Birds. The lineage seems unmistakable.
As the pioneer of the personal-luxury category, the Thunderbird promised car buyers a sporty yet sumptuous cockpit, with thickly padded bucket seats and a wide center console (above). Novel features included a swing-away steering column for graceful entry and exit and a fabric convertible top that stowed away in the trunk under a reverse-opening deck lid, leaving no visible boot. All Bullet Birds were powered by Ford’s trusty 300 hp, 390 CID V8 and Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission, though there was an M-code option in ’62-’63 that offered three two-barrel carbs and a slightly hotter cam, good for 340 hp according to the factory literature.
The ’61 and ’62 Bullet Birds are similar, differing mainly in trim details. Two additional models were rolled out for the ’62-’63 model years: a Landau Coupe (complete with vinyl top covering and enormous landau irons as desired) and the Sports Roadster, which featured a fiberglass tonneau cover to make the four-seat convertible resemble a two-seat roadster (above). Remarkably expensive at more than $5,400, well into Cadillac territory at the time, the Sports Roadsters had relatively few takers, and they are especially prized today.
For ’63, the Bullet Bird’s sheet metal got a minor massage, with a new grille and a hockey-stick character line added to the front fender and door (as seen below). While the Bullet Birds were not quite as successful as the ’58-’60 Square Birds, they sold well enough, and they provided a sound foundation for the revised fourth-generation Thunderbirds that arrived in 1964—the cars known as the Flair Birds.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.
There was plenty to crow about at Oldsmobile for 1956, including a new and improved Hydra-Matic transmission.
As we’re about to see below, the big story at Oldsmobile for 1956 was a major redesign of the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission introduced by General Motors back in 1940. Jetaway Hydra-matic, as it was known at Oldsmobile (each GM division had its own name for the Model 315 Controlled Coupling transmission, as it was called internally) continued to use a fluid coupling rather than a torque converter, but added a secondary hydraulic coupling and a set of sprag clutches to cushion the gear changes. This addressed a familiar complaint with the pioneering GM automatic: harsh upshifts, especially in second to third. The new and improved gearbox, standard on the 98 and Super 88 for ’56, also included a Park position at the top of the shift quadrant, just like all automatic transmissions today.
Other changes for 1956 included a freshened up grille and front bumper, revised bright metal side trim, and a bump in compression ratio to 9.25:1 for the 324 CID Rocket V8, boosting the output to 230 hp for the two-barrel version and 240 hp for the four-barrel. Popular options included power steering (standard on the 98) and a deluxe six-tube AM push-button radio for $96. All told, the 1956 model year was a pretty solid one for GM’s Lansing division. Despite a contracting new car market, Olds produced more than 485,000 cars, good enough for fifth place in the annual sales war, trailing Chevy, Ford, Buick, and Plymouth. Now here’s the good news about Jetaway Hydra-Matic.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.
Three Identical Strangers
Model year 1960 was the year of the American compact, when Chevrolet, Plymouth, and Ford launched their three-quarter-scale "compact" cars for the new suburban generation. They made the big splash, and they paved the way. For 1961, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac stepped up with three versions of what was essentially the same car—the unitized construction Y-bodied compact, which shared rough dimensions with the Chevrolet Corvair, but replaced the rear-mounted air-cooled flat-six with more or less conventional powertrains that varied wildly between divisions.
But General Motors' marketing plans for the compact trio put these cars in such different places, well in line with each division's purview, that you could be forgiven for not realizing they were basically the same car underneath. Initially, Pontiac's ads for its four-cylinder Tempest focused on combining small-car economy with big-car room, while mentioning—but not particularly focusing on—its innovative rear transaxle. (As time went on, Pontiac assumed a more aggressive, sporting posture thanks to its new-for-1963 326-cu.in. V-8.)
Corvette boasted one horsepower per cubic inch in 1957; why couldn't Oldsmobile do the same half a decade later? Scant mention of its 1962 compact car being compact— instead, the Rocket Division focused on power and high-tech components like turbochargers.
Buick, eschewing the whole compact moniker, stressed that its Special and Skylark were "happy-medium-sized," splitting the difference between traditional American and dinky import sizing—and highlighted the innovative new V-6, derived from its equally innovative all-aluminum 215-hp V-8—as its featured powerplant.
Oldsmobile, with its F-85 and Cutlass models, gave little, if any, lip service to the cars' relatively compact dimensions, instead emphasizing high-tech aluminum V-8 power and driving comfort. The higher the price tag, it appears, the less GM thought its customers wanted to think about the reasons for buying a smaller car in the first place.
Were buyers convinced? Possibly, but not enough of them: For 1964, all of the former compact model lines were enlarged, and became midsized models. Compact cars within the lineups of GM's middle divisions would have to wait another decade to emerge. Ultimately, compacts infiltrating GM's lineup were the right idea—just a decade too early.
Engines were very much a focal point in the 1961 ads: Pontiac's "gas-saving '4' with Pontiac Punch!", Buick emphasizing the efficiency and technical advances in its all-aluminum V-8, lighter than a model, and a high-compression version of the aluminum V-8 for Oldsmobile's initial performance image. Convertibles were not forgotten either, as these Skylark and Tempest Le Mans ads attest.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Jeff Koch.
Here’s the tale of how the Buick Electra and Electra 225 got their names.
The 1958 model year was a tough one for the Motor City in general—there was a recession in full swing, after all—but the Buick division of General Motors took an especially hard beating. Sales had tumbled from more than 700,000 in 1955 to a mere 250,000 vehicles in ’58. In an effort to stanch the bleeding, Buick’s product team radically overhauled the product line for 1959. Striking new sheet metal arrived, and meanwhile, the base model Special became the LeSabre; the midrange Century was renamed the Invicta; the Super and Roadmaster were replaced by the Electra; and the top-of-the-line Limited was now the Electra 225.
Of course, how the carmakers come up with their model names is quite a story in itself. The designations can carry tremendous meanings or tradition, or they can mean absolutely nothing at all. They might be nothing more than a random sequence of letters or numbers. In the case of the Buick Electra and Electra 225, there’s a bit of a tale behind the names.
In Buick lore, the Electra was named not after the character in Greek mythology as we might expect, but after a specific American: Electra Waggoner Biggs (1912-2001). A fabulously wealthy Texas heiress and socialite, she was the owner of the half-million acre Waggoner Ranch northwest of Dallas. She, in turn, was named after her aunt, Electra Waggoner, from whom the town of Electra, Texas also takes its name.
Among her talents, Electra Waggoner Biggs was an accomplished sculptor: Notable subjects included Will Rogers, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman, below. She also happened to be the sister-in-law of General Motors president (and former Buick chief) Harlow Curtice, which seems to tie our story all together with a neat bow. It’s also said that the Lockheed Electra L-188 turboprop airliner (pictured with the convertible above) was named after her, although the Electra name was a familiar one with the aircraft maker by that time.
As most every American gearhead knows, the 225 designation also carries a specific meaning. It signified the vehicle’s length, a whopping 18 3/4 feet, or 225 inches—nearly five inches longer than the standard ’59 Electra. Other distinguishing features included prominent “Electra 225” badges on the front fenders and thicker, heavier rocker panel bright metal than the regular Electra. Both the Electra and Electra 225 were based on GM’s luxury C-body shell shared with Oldsmobile and Cadillac, and all Buicks that year were powered by a 325 hp, 401 CID version of the familiar nailhead V8. (Read about the trusty nailhead V8 here.)
As most every car buff also knows, the 225 model designation eventually picked up a slang version: “Deuce-and-a-Quarter.” (Among the excessively hip, this was shortened to “Nine.”) Developing its own inertia over time, the Electra name lived on at Buick well into the 1980s, when it was last used on the division’s C-body, front-drive V6 sedans. Could we ever see the Electra and Electra 225 names again? Sure, why not? Model names have their way of circling back into use now and again.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.
Image courtesy OldCarBrochures.
AMC had tried before to counter the rising popularity of imported cars in the United States. The Metropolitan and the Rambler American each had their charms, but like Ford with the Falcon and Chevrolet with the Corvair, they didn’t do all that much to keep the can’t-seem-to-kill-it Beetle at bay. So on April Fools Day in 1970, 50 years ago today, AMC introduced essentially its last great hope against the tide of imports from Germany and beyond: the Gremlin.
Curious name, yes. Curious design, definitely. Curious mission, not at all. While the Rambler American continued to sell well through the Sixties and gave way to the all-new Hornet for the 1970 model year, they both ended up competing against other conventional American compacts like the Chevy II and the Plymouth Valiant. What AMC needed, AMC designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon realized, was a car “for the free-thinking early 1970s,” quirks and all. Something that the Big Three wouldn’t dare to produce.
Nixon had proven his worth with small cars since joining AMC in 1959. His 1964 restyle of the American led to a 60 percent increase in sales for the compact, and his Tarpon concept car – seemingly everybody now agrees – should have remained on the compact car platform instead of going bigger when it entered production as the Marlin. So in the midst of the restyle of the American into the Hornet, he and Teague discussed a shorter Hornet and Nixon went to work drafting some design studies.
(That story about Teague designing the Gremlin on the back of an airline barf bag? Yes, he did sketch out the design while pitching the Gremlin to AMC Vice President Gerry Meyers on a flight in the fall of 1966, but he was relying on his recollection of Nixon’s designs, none of which he had with him at the moment.)
Teague liked the chopback design so much, he incorporated it into the AMX GT concept for 1968. Meanwhile, Nixon, Vince Geraci, and Dick Jones all went to work refining Nixon’s shortened Hornet sketches into the production Gremlin, at one point toying with the name Wasp.
The end result of their work: a reduction in wheelbase from 108 to 96 inches (one inch shorter than the 1968-1970 AMX) and 18 less inches in overall length, qualifying it as “America’s first subcompact,” according to AMC marketing materials. And they even managed to squeeze in a back seat. Still an inch and a half more wheelbase than a Beetle and just a hair longer overall. And, yeah, a little chunkier, but it also had a choice of two torquey straight-sixes, either one of which had multiples of horsepower more than the Beetle.
But rare is the car buyer who makes purchasing decisions based on wheelbase and overall length (and rarer still, the subcompact car buyer who makes those decisions based on horsepower). While the Deutschmark had appreciated versus the dollar throughout the late Sixties, the Beetle still remained an economical $1,874 in 1970. The best AMC could do with a standard-equipment Gremlin was $1,959, but by trimming away a few items – including the back seat and the lifting rear window – the company could get that price down to $1,879 for its base model Gremlin.
Mileage came up a little short of the Beetle’s as well – 23 MPG for the Gremlin versus 26 for the Beetle – but AMC noted that the Gremlin still got the best mileage of any American car and argued that the wider and more powerful Gremlin was better suited to American roads and American tastes. It was not an economy car, the company argued, rather an economical car.
Still, the Gremlin sold well among its target demographic – “folks who’d rather hold down costs than keep up with the Joneses,” according to the above filmstrip – and among younger buyers. Not as well as the Beetle, but enough to warrant AMC keeping the Gremlin in production for the next eight years.
Over that time, the Gremlin saw a number of production changes. The Gremlin X package, introduced for the 1971 model year, tarted up the subcompact with stripes and wheels. AMC’s 304 made it under the hood a year later, and for 1973 AMC made its Levi’s interior available as an option in the Gremlin. Sheetmetal changes came along in 1977, as did Audi’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder to goose the Gremlin’s fuel economy figures, and in its final production year, AMC even gave it a stripes-and-spoiler GT package.
AMC also experimented with a number of different takes on the Gremlin, from the 1972 Voyageur concept with cane-woven side panels and a slide-out “Grem-Bin” in the back, to the one-off, right-hand-drive Big Bad Orange-painted Rambler Gremlin proposed for the Australian market, to the give-it-more-glass 1974 Gremlin XP prototype, to the Gremlin G-II that previewed the sloping hatchback roofline of the Gremlin’s eventual replacement, the AMC Spirit. All of the above but the G-II now reside in the collection of Gremlin enthusiast Brian Moyer.
In the end, with total sales over its lifespan (671,475) just a little more than what the Beetle sold in one year during its Sixties heyday, the Gremlin didn’t take down the Beetle. Or, at least, it didn’t take the Beetle down its own; a slew of other subcompacts, including those from the Big Three and from Japanese carmakers, took away plenty of Beetle sales just as increasing emissions standards and safety regulations caused a no-good Seventies for Volkswagen’s air-cooled wonder.
Still, the Gremlin went on to become one of the most memorable cars of the Seventies – not bad for a car introduced on April Fools, named after a mechanical fault and boasting built-in quirk.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Daniel Strohl.
Wooden It Be Nice?Dodge seems far more concerned with advertising its wood-bodied Coronet wagon’s easy tailgate loading, middle-row seats that fold for easier in/out from the back, and a combination of Fluid Drive and Gyro-Matic shifting.
In the beginning, it was a question of technology and recycling. A car chassis, with larger, truck-like capacity to haul people and stuff from the train station to the hotel, seemed like a good idea. These types of haulers were coachbuilt in the Teens and 1920s. Ford itself started building Model A station wagons in 1929 in low quantities—at least in part because of their hand-built nature (and the costs this added into the price). Tooling up for a steel body, when no one knew whether the concept would take off, seemed foolhardy.
But the idea caught on, and soon most American car companies offered station wagon body styles to accommodate growing families. Before the war, wood was by choice and convenience, and due to the ease of making quick design changes without incurring the high cost of fabricating body panel dies, it became the dominant body material in station wagons. More than that, wood-sided wagons possess a unique magnetic attractiveness that people are fascinated by.
After the war, for a while, it was by necessity: Materials shortages plagued manufacturers, just as American car companies were ramping up to deliver new models to a country starved of them for nearly four years. Metal was in short supply, but wood was still available in America’s plentiful forests. By 1952, the last wood-bodied wagons had been built: In the age of rockets, A-bombs, and V-8 engines, the idea of door latches squirming their way open due to torsional chassis flex, and the crashability of wood at ever-increasing highway speeds, was simply unacceptable. Metal replaced wood, and while wood-bodied cars never made any significant reappearance, simulated timber appliques continued to be used as trim well into the 1990s.
By the mid-1930s, most companies had a wood-bodied station wagon in their lineups, and they were advertised alongside coupe, sedan, and convertible models in due course. The idea of a woodbodied wagon was not new, or news, and so didn’t bear a great deal of discussion beyond the extra headroom, cargo, and passenger capacity, and perhaps an element of style. Very little was said about the materials themselves (save for Mercury’s details, designed to attach additional luxury to the upscale brand). In other words: they were just normal cars then. Woodies didn’t seem special until they’d gone away.
Starting in 1948, Packard combined woodie wagon style with a sedan, calling it a “station sedan.” The tailgate was wood, but the doors were all steel. It lasted until the 1951 models appeared.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Jeff Koch.
Another intriguing automotive mystery: Whatever became of the one-of-one 1965 Mustang concept created by Carrozzeria Bertone of Italy? Could it still exist?
First shown at the New York International Auto Show in the spring of 1965, the stunning Mustang Bertone was commissioned from the renowned Turinese coachbuilding firm by a magazine publisher: L. Scott Bailey, founder of Automobile Quarterly, the ritzy hardbound car periodical. (It ceased publication in 2012.) The designer was none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, then just 27, a few years before he ventured out on his own to launch his own famous studio, Ital Design. In New York, the Italian Mustang took best of show honors, and it was a sensation at the London, Paris, and Turin motor shows as well. Then the car disappeared from view and it hasn’t been seen in public since.
Ford Motor Company reportedly provided the donor car, a new coupe with the 289 CID four-barrel V8, four-speed manual transmission, bucket seats, and console. From there, Guigiaro totally reimagined the Mustang theme, discarding the original body shell. Only two elements from the original Dearborn design remained: the fuel filler badge in the rear closeout panel, and the diecast alloy stallion in the grille. As the photo above illustrates, even the instrument panel was restyled to provide a more Italian flavor. The glass and greenhouse were totally revised as well.
The Bertone Mustang bears far more resemblance to familiar Giugiaro designs like the Iso Grifo and the Fiat Dino than to any Ford Motor Company product. Even the Ford wheels were exchanged for Bertone-designed Campagnolo magnesium castings. The quad headlights were hidden behind electrically operated grille doors, and as the story goes, the radiator and front bulkhead were sectioned to accommodate the Bertone’s slimmer profile, a good two inches lower than a production Mustang. According to Bailey, Italian stylists didn’t think much of the production Mustang’s styling, finding it too ordinary and sedan-like.
Wearing distinctive silver-turquoise metallic paint, the Bertone Mustang made its next appearance on the cover of Road & Track magazine in January of 1966, below. There would be one more appearance in print, also in Road & Track: a Bertone ad in the September 1967 issue listed the Mustang for sale with an asking price of $10,000, “one-third its actual cost.” From there, the Mustang has never been seen or heard from again, apparently. Before he passed away in 2012, Bailey attempted to track down the unique Mustang, but nothing ever turned up.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.