When I look at my undergraduate diploma from California State University (Hayward) East Bay, there is one question that I often ask myself: am I really using that degree?
You see, I use the term "Historiography" as the title of these historic pieces. In the process of getting this career going, I picked up a lot from the literary arts scene I used to be a small part of. Through the meshing of history, literature and storytelling, I came up with these articles. It is one way to tell the story of the automobile from both a global and a personal point-of-view.
I often tell stories about the vehicles themselves. When I tell their histories, there is something I can recall from personal experience and memory. It has to come from somewhere in the soul, the psyche and the joy it brought for that shining moment.
Children who love automobiles may end up four ways when they grow up: an enthusiast, someone working in the industry, a journalist/blogger/photographer, or a person who simply loves automobiles. Though a warning to children: I prefer that you do not grow up as someone like me.
It is strange how we formulate our ideas about automobiles when we were kids. There are more than enough Hot Wheels and Matchbox toys that remind us of the tactile connection with the automobile. In my case, I had a gamut of Matchbox and Hot Wheels toys that ran from mundane 1960's British Fords to hot-rodded versions of the era's muscle and pony cars. This was augmented by plastic snap- or glue-together models by AMC, Monogram and Revell that were fun and frustrating to build. The paint job…I know I could've done better than spray painting each model some crazy color…like metallic gold.
Elsewhere, I was captivated by the purchases my parents made of their own vehicles. However, I also had my eye on many vehicles around me. I was fascinated by what everyone else drove. When my parents took me to an auto show in downtown Los Angeles, my head spun even faster with the glistening of new cars around me.
The early 1970's may not have been a memorable time in terms of the automobile, but it was a time when I actually witnessed a wide variety of vehicles from every corner of the globe just dancing in front of my eyes.
These early experiences and influences lead to today's work. Part of writing on this topic is to talk about the progression of the automobile as it navigates through the ebbs and flows of the industry, design and engineering, technology, the oil companies and the economy.
This is why I defied my father's own words to "never invest in retrospect." I always want to look back to see all of the vehicles that shaped today's work. Believe me, there was plenty of eye candy, ranging from the most gorgeous of Pininfarina's lines to the balance of some of Detroit and Asia's accidental genius.
Automotive history is one of my stronger subject matters. It gives me an exercise in recollection as a form of nostalgia. It also helps me to understand where I came from in terms of my automotive path.
Where to start?
My birthplace of Los Angeles has always been the city where you found the most exotic vehicles on the road. The entertainment industry had the cash to show up with some flash. Yet, flash wasn't as flashy as it is today. It was all sublime, but with some sexiness thrown in. That was what I witnessed between the oft sightings of the Ferrari 365GT+2 Daytona, Ferrari 246GT Dino, Maserati Ghibli, Lotus Europa and the Citroen SM. Add some dashes of classic Jaguar XJ12s, Rover 3500 V8s and Jensen Interceptors, then you have a young boy's recurring dream.
For a city in love with the automobile and celebrity, the best place to start the dream of fine machinery was the BMW 2002. It had two doors and a potent four-cylinder under the hood. The compact BMW began a trend that was the antithesis to the muscle and pony car of that era: the performance sedan.
The BMW 2002 was not alone. Nissan had something else for less money, but just as potent: the Datsun 510. If you think that a classic Mustang-Camaro face-off was awesome, try a road race out at Riverside International Raceway pitting the 2002 and the 510. Let's not stop there…take the race onto the Angeles Crest Highway! In a hot minute, the Toyota Celica began to show up at the party. It had the look of a pony car, but the power of a Corona sedan. It provided Toyota an entry into this new field of "econosports."
While the Porsche 911 gained the status of an icon among sports car enthusiasts, Nissan again twisted a fork into another genre of automobile: the sports car. Remember the original Datsun 240Z? I do…and how! For those of us who never thought we would ever buy into the Porsche cult of personality had a 240Z ready to test drive. Along with the sports cars, we still had roadsters perfect for the California lifestyle. MG, Triumph, Austin Healey, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Volkswagen and Datsun provided fun in the sun for two unmatched by anything dwarfing these fun machines.
Since the 1950's, Volkswagen always sold a Beetle to anyone wanting something completely and utterly different. They still sold the Beetle as a new car through the mid-1970's until emissions controls killed its ability to compete. VW aficionados were shocked when the front-driven, front-engined and water-cooled Dasher (renamed for American consumption from the Passat) and Rabbit (ditto for the Golf) showed up alongside their forlorn Beetle on the showroom floor. They were definitely game changers for Wolfsburg and we began to lap them up as equally as the good ol' Beetle.
But remember when Mazda arrived with their rotary-engined RX-2s? The car certainly looked normal, but open up the hood and you will find something interesting underneath it. We Californians became guinea pigs for this new motor. We began to become fascinated by them. Little did we know that the RX-2 would begat a very important car for Mazda: the RX-7. If one thing is clear about this rotary-engined sports car, it was the legacy that it left behind for enthusiasts to enjoy today.
Though I oogled at anything non-North American in my pre-teen years, it will always be the domestic automobile that will be the bane of my existence. Our household never owned a foreign car until my brother broke that barrier with that 1979 Mazda 626. It was a prime example of generational automotive tides. My mother was a General Motors person through-and-through. Her two children would wind up owning Asian and, on a single occasion, European automobiles. I'm glad she was not alive when I owned my 1985 Audi 5000S. That would not go down well with her.
Deep in my heart, I will always love the domestic brands of my youth. There were touches of brilliance despite the quality and reliability issues that almost crashed the industry in the wake of the Oil Crisis of 1973. There were designs that snapped my neck a few times. I recall how clean the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was in a dignified way when it came out. The second generation wasn't half bad, either. I loved the 1970-74 Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. We had a blue 1970 Barracuda with a white vinyl top that was sweet! I can go on waxing nostalgically about every domestic car I laid my eyes on before the age of 10, but I'll spare you the bandwidth.
I often reference the OPEC Oil Crisis in a lot of these history pieces because it was that massive of an event that affected my family directly. In my home state of California, we had rationing where the last numeric digit of your license plate determined which day of the week you can fuel up. For our 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan, we had the even days. Nicknamed the "Queen Mary," it turned an average of 10-12 MPG. A Lexus LX 570 or a gas-powered three-quarter ton pickup truck can get better fuel economy than that land yacht!
This prompted some changes in many fronts. In Detroit, they knew the 230-inch long full-size sedan was destined for history's dustbin. GM went to work to "downsize" its full-sizers. Ford and Chrysler would follow within two years after GM. In Japan, the car manufacturers were swamped with orders to build cars for North American appetites. Toyota, Nissan and Honda knew they struck gold with gas rationing, along with the resulting anger over the fuel companies and OPEC for their inconvenience. Sound familiar?
Europe had an interesting time satisfying the needs to people jumping out of their land yachts. Mercedes-Benz replaced Cadillac as the luxury brand to aspire to. Mercedes-Benz customers were offered the option of tried-and-true diesels, straight-sixes and state of the art V8s. The S-Class of this period was iconic. It was something a luxury car buyer aspired to own. Clearly, the S-Class became one of my favorite cars of all time. There was nothing quite like the feel of the leather in a 450SEL both up front and in the back.
Other brands, such as Fiat, MG and Renault, struggled to catch up to the rise in Japanese imports touting their difference in quality and design. Part of it was in keeping with emissions and safety standards. It will another several years for these brands to disappear.
To get a perspective on how much this change in the automotive climate, let us think in comparison between today and the decades past. For example, the Honda's CVCC engine was the most advanced and efficient powerplant available in America during the 1970s. It met the new emissions standards set for California – the most stringent in the world at that time – without employing a catalytic converter. This catapulted Honda into challenging Toyota's and Nissan's (er, Datsun's) sales leadership in the USA. Meanwhile, Toyota sold many Corollas, Celicas and pickup trucks to Americans that want something efficient and fun. Datsun enticed buyers with the 240/260/280Z, yet they drove home in something inferior…the B210. Now you know why Toyota and Honda became the leaders among Asian automakers by 1980.
The Big Four, including American Motors, began to go smaller with its "import fighters." Some worked…some didn't. GM learned from melting aluminum engines that the Chevrolet Vega and Pontiac Astre weren't going to make it. Ford was oblivious to the dangers in the rear of the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat. AMC definitely got it wrong by chopping a Hornet and fixing a hatchback to create the Gremlin. Let's not forget the Pacer. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey couldn't. Chrysler employed its European operations and Volkswagen's parts bin for the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. At least they were headed in the right direction when Lee Iacocca was asking for a guaranteed loan from Congress to save the company.
My junior high years were marked by GM's "downsized" B and C body cars and the Renault 5/LeCar. Dad and his soon-to-be-second wife decided to get his’ and her’s 1977 Buick Electra Limiteds. Quaint, wasn’t it? Well, Mom was an Oldsmobile girl, and, if she was able to afford it, she would have bought a 1977 Ninety-Eight over the Electra. Later, I had a chance to drive a few Caprices of 1977 vintage. No matter how you sliced it, GM was indeed on the right track by shrinking their big cars while finding new space efficiencies inside the new package.
I was dreaming of my license in junior high. I also dreamed of what kind of car I'd use my license on. Looking back, all I saw were not dreams, but puzzling visions of that era's vehicles. This was the case when I examined a pre-owned 1976 Mercedes-Benz 280SE at the local Mercedes dealership in San Rafael back in 1990. This white beauty wore blue MB-Tex interior and showed low miles on the odometer. It was simply stunning. It took some deep thought to figure out that a 14-year-old Mercedes was not the right car to commute 37.5 miles to and from Cal State (Hayward) East Bay daily. It was the thought that counted, right?
Then again, our family toiled with that lime green 1974 Ford Mustang II Ghia coupe. I wound up with it. Enough said.
This was my own automotive journey through my childhood. All of these automobiles framed a mindset that has evolved over decades. They serve as roots to an ongoing story of a middle-aged automotive journalist/blogger working to tell this ongoing saga. Things were simpler then.
All photos by Randy Stern