Car Culture

What good is a farm without a classic car hiding in one of the outbuildings?

We’re blessed to have just such a vehicle: a 1975 Fiat 124 Spider. My father bought it from the original owner (a close family friend), around 1980. My siblings and I had a blast riding around in it, crammed in the tiny back seat, on gloriously sunny Pacific Northwest summer afternoons. It’s amazing the three of us actually fit in there. I still remember things like stopping and getting a bag of cherries from a roadside stand, then eating them and tossing the pits as we cruised on rural roads.

Once I got my license, and learned to operate the manual transmission, getting to drive it myself was a very special treat. It was the ultimate “date night” car.

As my folks began downsizing and preparing for retirement, in the late 1990s, Dad finally started thinking about parting with the Fiat. I managed to get it from him, and arranged to have it shipped to the Los Angeles area (where I was finishing grad school), toward the end of 2000.

For years, I simply enjoyed driving it and keeping it in good running shape. I did hire a neighbor, who was laid off from his job in a body shop, to fix all the little dents and do the prep work for a basic paint job. I then took it to Maaco for a simple respray. Otherwise, I didn’t do much restoration work. As the years went by, there was so much to be done (seats were trashed, the dash was badly cracked, carpets were worn out, paint from the simple re-spray was getting chipped, etc.), I felt too overwhelmed to start on anything in particular.

That changed a few years ago. Just for fun, I took the Fiat to a car show I was planning to attend as just a spectator. It was kind of embarrassing, parking it alongside all the perfectly restored vehicles. But then I started looking around, and was heartened by the number of other “cool but rough around the edges” cars. In the wake of that show, I decided to begin chipping away at making my Fiat more presentable.

Among other things, I’ve:

  • Had all the seats reupholstered;
  • Replaced the dash, all the dash wood paneling, the dead clock, and added chrome bezels to all the gauges;
  • Replaced all the carpets, repainted the center console, and repainted most of the interior panels;
  • Replaced both mirrors;
  • Repainted the steel wheels; and
  • Replaced the front and rear stainless steel bumper bars, and repainted all the black rubber bumper inserts.

20170917_145143.jpg

The Spider is now to the point where it draws a fair amount of attention wherever it goes. Even at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon for strangers to call out “Nice car!”

The only problem is that, with every improvement I make, the remaining faults seem to stand out all the more! I now see how easy it is to dump way more money into a restoration project than a car is worth.

20170917_114552_HDR-1.jpg

The biggest thing I’m holding off on is a new paint job. It looks good now from about ten feet away; much closer than that, and all the chips and dings become apparent. Getting it done right will cost a small fortune, and once it’s done … I know I’ll be paranoid about picking up even the smallest scratch. I’ll be afraid to drive the car. And when I am driving it, I’ll be too worried to enjoy the drive.

All that said, despite the scruffy paint, I’m now getting a bigger kick out of car shows than ever. What’s struck me most about these shows, however, is the contrast with what I experienced in California — and what that says about regional differences in car culture.

In Los Angeles, there were certainly plenty of American muscle cars at every general-interest show, but there were always a great many imports as well. And there were so many enthusiasts devoted to particular types of imports, it wasn’t unusual to have a large car show exclusively for (say) French / Italian makes.

By contrast, at a big show I went to over the weekend here in Michigan, among the 113 total entries there were (drum roll, please) … five-and-a-half imports:

  • A 1967 Ferrari Dino
  • My 1975 Fiat 124 Spider
  • A 1974 MGB GT (hardtop, hatchback)
  • Two VW Beetles; and
  • A 1973 De Tomaso Pantera, an Italian car built with Ford components (thus the “half”)

The 1967 VW Beetle won Best Import, and definitely deserved it. It was beautiful, and flawless down to the last detail. Unsurprisingly, it was sporting a California black front plate.

Tonight, at an even bigger show (122 vehicles, at the Jackson County fairgrounds), there were — believe it or not — even fewer imports. And, most remarkably, my Fiat was the oldest of the three. The other two were a 1984 Jaguar sedan, and a 1994 Honda Del Sol. Both were pretty typical daily drivers. Had there been formal judging, in specific categories, my car actually would’ve had a strong claim for being the best import. Yes, it would’ve been largely by default; until I get the car repainted, it won’t be a contender against any real competition. (This show had an informal “everybody just cast a vote for whichever car you like best” kind of judging, which is fun as well.)

I’m not complaining about the few imports at these shows — just pointing out that these regional differences in car culture are really interesting to observe. And it’s actually a blast being part of a small fraternity at these gatherings. While everyone else at the weekend show was talking “Mopar” this, and “Edelbrock” that, the MGB owner and I were discussing the challenges of finding good, reasonably-priced, wheels and tires that even fit our cars!

I especially appreciated that Mr. MGB seemed to be taking the same attitude toward his GT as I am toward my Fiat: wanting to make it look nicer, and to perform better, but without dumping so much money into it that we’re afraid to take the car out on the road.

Because what fun is a classic car if you can’t relax and enjoy driving it? There is no joy quite like that of steering a vintage Italian convertible along meandering country roads, soaking in the late-afternoon sunshine, and admiring the emerging fall colors.

Here’s hoping that the cold weather holds off for many more weeks!

Fiat1.jpg

Bankrupt

I’ve expressed my strong opposition to auto industry and other bailouts in other posts. Part of me dared to hope that the worst of these was over. But with the announcement of this morning’s “rescue package” for the Big Three, I simply must add a few more thoughts.

First off, among the more disingenuous rationalizations for the auto industry bailout is the notion that consumers will not purchase a vehicle from a bankrupt company.

[Bush] said that bankruptcy was not a workable alternative. “Chapter 11 is unlikely to work for the American automakers at this time,” Mr. Bush said, noting that consumers would be unlikely to purchase cars from a bankrupt manufacturer.

I contend that when Chapter 11 is explained properly to consumers, they will be willing to purchase from a company which is reorganizing itself under its provisions. Perhaps two brief anecdotes from my own experience will illustrate this:

1) United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December of 2001, and didn’t emerge until February of 2006. Over the course of that period, I logged many thousands of miles (and spent thousands of dollars) on United Airlines…and many other passengers logged and spent much more. While it is true that a plane ticket costs significantly less than a car, for a business traveler the stakes can be very high: if an airline is liquidated on the eve of a critical trip, it may be impossible to arrange alternative transportation at the last minute. An entire, long-planned and potentially profitable trip can thus be wiped out. And for business or leisure travelers, if an airline liquidates in the middle of a trip, the traveler will be stuck at the destination (or perhaps even in a connecting city) without a ticket home. These facts were on my mind every time I bought a ticket on UAL, but I had confidence that the airline was simply reorganizing itself so it could emerge on its feet again.

2) Even if an automotive company liquidates, a vast network of aftermarket repair shops and parts suppliers will remain to service the company’s vehicles. I have an extreme example of this in my own experience: For the last eight years, I have been the happy owner of a vehicle make which has not even been imported into the USA since 1983, and which has not had a single dealership in this country for 25 years. And despite the puzzled looks from auto parts store employees when you ask for parts for a “Fiat,” once they start looking they can nearly always find what you need (or special order it). And if you want to bypass the local shops, there are online retailers who stock literally every single part of the car from bumper to bumper. When asked, nearly any foreign car repair shop will work on a Fiat. When I blew half of the motor a few years ago, it didn’t take long to locate a new short block — and arrange for a shop in Urbana (IL) to put the whole thing together. She’s run like a dream ever since.

Of course, my 1975 Fiat was many years out of warranty when I acquired it in 2000. For someone contemplating a new car purchase, warranty issues would loom larger; if I bought a new Chevy truck tomorrow, and GM liquidated next month, what would happen if my transmission failed before the warranty expired? This could be among the first issues addressed under a well-structured bankruptcy, with funds set aside and an independent entity established to cover such claims.

While there are many reasons Fiat withdrew from the US market, government regulations had a lot to do with it. Put simply, it got too difficult (and expensive) for Fiat to keep up with increasingly strict American safety, fuel economy, and environmental regulations. Anyone who has visited Italy knows how incredibly “basic” even modern Fiats are. Mine is laughably unsafe: no shoulder belts, no airbags, no roll bar, no crumple zones. The only safety features it has are lap belts (but only in the front — the back seat has no belts at all) and padded sun visors. But you know what? I don’t care. I love the car, and drive it every chance I get, anyhow. (Mrs Yeoman Farmer, by contrast, does care…and will not allow any of the children to ride with me.) And 20 MPG is plenty good gas mileage for my purposes.

Which raises an important question: Are the American automakers in trouble now for some of the same reasons Fiat was in 1983? Has the cost of compliance with federal regulations driven the price of the product beyond what consumers are willing to pay? While I can understand the need for some emissions mandates, crash safety requirements are a separate issue. Why not lift the mandates, and let the manufacturers differentiate themselves based on safety features? Let Volvo capture a larger market share of those who value crash safety most highly, and are willing to pay extra for it. While there are probably very few Americans crazy (or daring) enough to buy a car with as little crash safety as my 1975 Fiat Spyder has, I bet there are many who would be interested in a lower-cost “basic” vehicle that has less crash safety than currently mandated. As I understand it, the Big Three have no trouble selling such vehicles in overseas markets. Why not give Americans a chance to vote with their wallets and buy “Fiat-like” automobiles themselves?

I’d argue that the most effective auto industry bailout would consist of suspending all safety and fuel economy regulations for the next two years, and letting the auto companies build the vehicles that American consumers can afford and want to purchase.

But hey. Nobody in Washington listens to me. That’s why I think we’re far more likely to see something resembling this in 2012 than anything resembling a Fiat.

Now I’m going to go listen to Red Barchetta and dream about the day when we have Michigan roads clear enough to take my Spyder out on again.

Sad Farewell

With a trip to the mailbox this morning, I’ve brought an era to an end: For the first time in nearly 17 years, I do not own a Volvo 240. Or any other kind of Volvo, either.

Yes, the old things are known as quintessentially liberal cars…but I think blowing the stereotype was part of why I enjoyed driving them so much. Nothing like putting a Bush-Cheney 2004 sticker on the bumper, and an NRA sticker on the window, to thoroughly confuse people.
I learned to drive on a 1973 144, and a 1983 242 was the first car I bought after graduating from college in 1991. That vehicle ended up saving my life; I spun out on an icy freeway, and was crushed against a guardrail by two tractor-trailers…and walked away from the accident with little more than scrapes and bruises. Needless to say, everything you’ve read about Volvos and safety is true. I quickly bought another; when it rusted out in 1998, we got our 1978 244. Later, I would buy a 1984 station wagon. The whole series was solid, reliable, and even an amateur mechanic like me could do a lot of the work on them.

Alas, the 1978 sedan eventually became unreliable; after stranding us in St Louis on vacation, we retired it to the second string. As the 1984 wagon also became unreliable, we finally broke down and got two late model vehicles. The 1978 sedan was redundant, and we never drove it, but I couldn’t bear to part with it.

But we couldn’t take it with us to Michigan, and I couldn’t find anyone in East Central Illinois crazy enough about old Volvos to want to buy it. The solution: donate it to Illinois Right to Life’s vehicle donation program. The tax deduction will be minuscule, but hopefully IRTL will get something for it…and I hope someone will be driving it (I couldn’t bear to take it to the junk yard, even if they’d have paid $100 cash for it.) The title is going in the mail this morning, and they’ll pick it up from our old farm next Monday.

Someday, I hope to have another of these cars. Actually, the 1975 164E, with manual transmission, is the Volvo I dream about. But right now, I have one old project car in the garage…a second one would be irresponsible.

Here’s hoping the end of this era is only temporary.