Archive for May, 2010

The Batmobile: A Buck Becomes $2 Million

May 24, 2010

If you are an old geezer who grew up in the 1960s (I’m allowed to say that because I’m one of those myself) you probably rushed home from school to watch the Batman television series. It starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, and the series brought the old DC comic book characters to life and into your living room. The old Batman television series was actually conceived as sort of a campy comedy intended for “hip” adults, but kids loved it as well.

Much can be said about the Batman of the sixties, which ran for just two and a half seasons but did produce 120 episodes, but hey, this is a car blog and this post is about the car that Batman drove: the Batmobile. A Hollywood based custom car guru named Dean Jeffries was originally contracted to design the Batmobile for the television series, and he started to modify a 1959 Cadillac to that end late in 1965. But the production schedule wound up calling for the car by January of 1966 and Jeffries couldn’t meet the deadline, so the job was then awarded to George Barris whose shop at the time was called Barris Kustom City.

Barris just happened to have acquired the 1954 Lincoln Futura prototype show car from Ford, who sold it to him for $1 along with what were termed “future considerations.” The Futura was made by hand in Turin, Italy and cost some $250,000 to produce. Barris had three weeks to turn the Futura into the caped crusader’s futuristic mode of transportation, and he was able to pull it off. It is said that the project cost $30,000 to complete over that three week span.

The Batmobile came loaded with options, but you weren’t going to find many of these at your local Ford dealer in 1966. There was of course the Batphone at a time when mobile phones were a dream away, the Bat Smokscreen which would render the Batmobile invisible to anyone giving chase, the Bat-tering ram that would enable the car to knock down stuff that was in its way, and a host of other gadgets and devices.

Technically speaking, the Batmobile was powered by a 390 cubic inch V8 engine, it had a 129 inch wheel base, and it weighed in at some 5,500 pounds. The car had some notorious reliability problems at first, including the propensity to blow tires at the drop of a hat, but the problems were eventually corrected.

Barris subsequently put together three replica Batmobiles to participate in shows, and one that was designed to be exhibited at drag racing events. Barris still owns the original, which is on display at his shop in Hollywood. The original Batmobile is valued at around $2 million…and remember, he acquired the Futura for a buck. All we can say about that is…Holy Moolah, Batman!

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer

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All-American Muscle: The Pontiac GTO

May 21, 2010

One of the jobs of automotive designers is to look into the crystal ball and try to see into the future. What will attract the public as times change and a new generation of drivers are ready to hit the roadways? The history of the automobile manufacturing industry is filled with hits and misses as the “swamis” of automotive engineering placed their bets on educated guesses that became the next wave of motor vehicles offered by their respective companies.

In the early 1960s, the powers that be were getting the idea that the younger generation was looking for speed, and this fueled the heyday of the American muscle car era. The GTO was Pontiac’s entrance into the muscle car sweepstakes, and it was designed and developed by Bill Collins who was the chassis man; Russ Gee, who was the engine expert; and the head of engineering at Pontiac at the time, John DeLorean. It was DeLorean who decided to call the car the GTO, and there was some controversy involved because he took the name from the Ferrari 250 GTO (GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omologato), which was a well respected race car. Some Ferrari loyalists took umbrage with Pontiac for using the name, considering it an intrusion onto hallowed ground.

The first GTO was introduced in 1964 as part of the LeMans series. It came standard with a 389 cubic inch, 325 horsepower V8, and one of the options that was available to give it some extra oomph was the three two-barrel carburetors known as the “Tri-Power” system of carburation. With the Tri-Power engine the 1964 Tempest GTO was capable of going from zero to sixty in 4.6 seconds, according to a test conducted by Car Life.

The Tempest GTO caught on with the public, and in 1966 Pontiac made the GTO a distinct model apart from the Tempest series. People began to refer to the GTO informally as the “Goat,” and it’s popularity continued to grow. In 1966 just under 97,000 Pontiac GTOs were sold, a big number for a model in its debut year as a stand-alone.

In 1969 Pontiac introduced a GTO model called “The Judge,” which was named after a famous skit that was performed on the popular television comedy Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Pontiac produced just over 6,800 specimens of The Judge, and one of them is extremely rare: just five of the 1969 Ram Air IV GTO Judge were produced.

Pontiac sold over 72,000 GTOs in 1969, but the model started to take a nosedive in the 1970s. By 1973 GTO sales had plummeted to just 4,806. The next year, 1974, was the final year of production for this classic American muscle car. Pontiac revived the GTO nameplate in 2004 and manufactured the Australian made GTO, also known as the Holden Monaro, through the 2006 model year.

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer

The Locomobile: A Car That Ran On Water

May 18, 2010

Now if we were to tell you that there were once cars that ran on water instead of gasoline, you would probably say that we must be, well….loco. But the term doesn’t just refer to someone who has lost their marbles; it is also a shortened form of the word “locomotive,” and indeed, there were once cars that ran on steam just like trains did. One of the them was called the Locomobile.

Stanley Steamer

The Locomobile company started out in 1899 when a fellow named John Walker saw the future, only he may gotten a slightly blurry vision. There were a couple of brothers named Francis and Freelan Stanley who came up with a design for a steam powered car in the late 1890s. During the years 1898 and 1899, the Stanley automobile was the highest selling car in America; the only problem was, total sales for the two years were only about 200 cars. They sold this design to Walker, who used it to produce the first Locomobiles.

In these days it was expensive and time intensive to produce even a single car, and they were indeed a novelty that many people were still wary of. However, Locomobile was the top selling automobile in the United States in 1901, when they sold 1,500 units, and then again in 1902, when sales nearly doubled to 2,750.

Meanwhile, the Stanley Brothers went on to form their own firm, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company in 1902, and they offered another steam-powered car, the Stanley Steamer. However, advances were being made with the internal combustion engine, and by 1903 Locomobile had abandoned the steam engines in favor of gasoline powered cars.

The down side to the Locomobile steam engines was the fact that they were somewhat unreliable and fickle, and they needed to be refilled with water every twenty miles or so. The boiler was heavy and it weighed down the car, and these were the days before lightweight automotive body materials.

The 1904 gasoline powered Locomobile Touring Car was powered by a four-cyliner engine that was capable of generating 16 horsepower. The thing to remember about these early vehicles is that they were not being mass produced, and the technology was advanced for the day, so they were expensive. The 1904 Locomobile cost $4,500, no small sum in that era and clearly more than the working person could afford.

Locomobile developed a reputation as a powerful and opulent, finely engineered vehicle over the ensuing years until the company was sold to Durant Motors in 1922. Durant used the name until 1929 when the Locomobile moniker drifted into the annals of United States automaking history. Collectors can note the fact that a 1900 steam-powered Locomobile was purchased at RM Auctions in Elkhart, Indiana for $49,500 late in 2004.

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer

The Studebaker Rockne

May 13, 2010

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is one of the finest academic institutions in the country. Generations of our nation’s best and brightest have matriculated in the shadow of the famed Golden Dome on the beautiful Notre Dame campus, and the school has produced countless highly accomplished professionals encompassing virtually every academic discipline. A Notre Dame education is the foundation of a successful career and a prosperous future.

That having been said…let’s talk football. It is true that the storied football program at Notre Dame has fallen on some hard times of late, but with new coach Brian Kelly now in the fold the Irish are poised for a return to national prominence. And if Kelly needs any inspiration and connection to the glory days of Notre Dame football, all he has to do is invoke the memory of the late, great Knute Rockne.

The success that Rockne had at Notre Dame is almost hard to wrap your head around by today’s standards. He coached the Irish from 1918 through 1930, and his record was 105-12-5, including five undefeated, untied campaigns resulting in five National Championships.

We all recognize the fact that South Bend and football go hand in hand. However, from the turn of the 20th century through much of the 1960s, South Bend was known for something else as well: the Studebaker motor vehicles. So it was only natural that Knute Rockne and Studebaker would ultimately develop a partnership, and the result was the Rockne division of Studebaker that produced cars between the 1931 and 1933.

The Rockne Motor Corporation arose out of talks between the venerable coach and Studebaker that began in 1928. Tragically, Rockne perished an airplane crash just days after joining Studebaker officially in March of 1931, so he never saw the cars that bore his name. Production of the Rockne went forward, but in 1932 the country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression, and Rockne’s energy, enthusiasm, and formidable celebrity were of course absent.

Sales were slow though the car itself was affordable and solidly built, and it was discontinued after the 1933 model year. The Rockne was simply the victim of a perfect storm of unpredictable, horrendous circumstances, but it is a rare and collectible vehicle today with an interesting story behind it.

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer

Early ’60s Compact Craze

May 12, 2010

The 1950s began with a bang for the automotive industry, which was still riding the post-war euphoria that was fueling sales. The public would buy just about anything that the Big Three put out there at first because commercial automobile production had been suspended during the war, and people were anxious to buy new cars. The economy was good and gas was cheap, and the automotive designs reflected the times: big cars that were not very fuel efficient.

Like most good things, however, this free-wheeling era came to an end. The country fell into a recession that caused a dramatic decrease in automobile sales in 1958, and Detroit executives recognized the need to shift gears. The public was now seeking affordable, smaller, more energy efficient options, and the American automakers didn’t hesitate with their response. The Big Three automobile manufacturers all released new compact cars for the 1960 model year, and the fourth, fledgling American Motors, had already been having success with the Rambler that made its debut for the 1958 model year.

Ford Falcon

For Ford, the compact response to the public’s appetite for efficiency was the Falcon. It is interesting to note that the man behind the Falcon concept at Ford was Robert McNamara, who went on to become the United States Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy. Though the Falcon was considered to be a compact it had the look of a smallish mid-size, and it was powered by a 144 cubic inch, 90 horsepower straight-six. The Falcon was a smashing success, and it remained in production through the 1970 model year.

Plymouth Valiant

The Chrysler Corporation was definitely caught in the crosshairs of the shift toward smaller cars, since their very identity was associated with big, comfortable vehicles. Their response was the Valiant that also made its debut for the 1960 model year as a unique nameplate, but starting in 1961 the Valiant was a Plymouth. The first generation Valiant had a touch of the “Forward Look” provided courtesy of Virgil Exner, but his radical stylings were under siege by then. There was a revision during the first model year, so there are “early” and “late” 1960 Valiant models; the latter batch corrected some minor problems. The 1960 Valiant featured the slant-six engine and was offered as a four-door sedan or a four-door wagon with either two or three seats.

Chevrolet Corvair

Not to be outdone, General Motors also entered the compact car fray in 1960 with the innovative Chevy Corvair. The Corvair was a rear-engine vehicle, and that provided designers with a lot of freedom, resulting in a sleeker, low slung look, a cooler interior, and better road grabbing capabilities. In fact, the Corvair is the only rear-engine car ever to be mass produced in the United States. The 1960 Corvair featured unibody construction and an 80 horsepower, 140 cubic inch flat-six engine. The Corvair hit the ground running with sales in excess of 200,000 its first year, and overall there were more than 1.78 million Corvairs sold between 1960 and its final production year of 1969.

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer