The Astral Log

24 April 2015

Vehicular Friday: A Frightening Toyota

Filed under: Vehicular Friday — Andrew T. @ 19:53

Sometimes I go out into the world, searching for subjects that are inexplicable enough to write about. Sometimes I don't even need to of those inexplicable subjects will grab me when I least expect it and beat me into submission with the stench of what it is.

That's about what happened to me the day I was serenely driving around and happened upon this 1991 heap on wheels:

Now, Toyota pickups of a certain age have a reputation for being pretty hardy beasts. But I don't think that these kinds of front-fender and bumper impacts are called for in the normal operating procedures of the manual. A protuberance of tape and twist ties is the sole element that holds the front end together. Still, it's nothing compared to what lurks in the back...

What hell? What hell indeed. Usually when a vehicle endures a rear impact of this magnitude, it's called a "total loss." But this little Toyota is still proving its utility worth by holding hundreds of pounds' worth of garbage bags and fabrics in its caved-in cargo box! The owner has also expanded their repertoire by adding twine and baling wire to the materials list holding the truck together. Not sure what the tarp bunched up on the side is supposed to be for, unless it's a surgical dressing for vehicular injuries.

But at this point, my jaw had stopped dropping and I was overcome by a disturbing chill that sucked any pretense of comedy from the situation. Surely no one would drive this truck on purpose, or if they had enough money to afford anything in safer condition. What if the driver is homeless? What if this crumpled piece of garbage and everything in it are literally the only things that he or she can call their own? Our society's treatment of the homeless and destitute is deplorable as it is, and there's absolutely nothing about this scene that implies any improvement on that front.

I may never know the full story behind this pitiful truck. There is a small clue on the side, however, that gives a hint: A Latin cross, inscribed with the words "John 3:16."

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Of all the popularly-quoted verses in the Bible, this tale of sadism and the collective guilt prescribed for society to bear is easily one of the most revealing about the tenets of Christianity...and the most loathsome. "You're so bad," says God, "that I went and killed Jesus on your behalf." If you're not bad, then Jesus died for nothing! And if you take the third option, and don't believe in the divinity of JC? You're going to burn for eternity in hell, no ifs or buts about it; it says so right in the same chapter.

I can hear the accommodationists right now: "Religion gives people comfort." "John gives people comfort." "Heaven gives hope and comfort to people in bad situations and hard times. Why don't you just accept it?" To accept it is to accept a catalyst for oppression, that's why.

The take-away of much of the New Testament is that good works are meaningless; faith in unverifiable, unfalsifiable characters is the only thing that counts. Suffering like Christ is good...heck, all of Mother Teresa's "good works" ultimately boiled down to that. What's the point of seeking an actual end to homelessness if everyone's going to go to heaven or hell anyway? What's the point of trying to improve your own personal situation if the only thing that ultimately counts in the end is "faith" in an arbitrary figure? What's the point of doing anything other than living out your years in the presence of a wrecked truck, praying to God and waiting for heaven to arrive?

Why religiosity is regarded as being good for the poor, the sick, and the destitute has never made sense to me. Why religiosity is good for the oppressors of the destitute to promote is crystal-clear. And you wonder why Jesus-soaked politicians constantly torch the social safety net?

17 April 2015

Vehicular Friday: 1985 Ford EXP

Filed under: Vehicular Friday — Andrew T. @ 21:32

How's this for rare spots? This red gem is quite possibly the only Ford EXP (much less the only pre-1986, frog-eyed version) that I've seen in fifteen years.

What fabled tale lies behind this automobile? It's impossible to discuss the EXP without also discussing the basis for its existence: The humble North American Ford Escort.

The front-drive 1981 Escort was penned up in the late 1970s as a ballyhooed "world car" that was supposedly good enough to win everyone the whole world over. But though they started off on the same drawing board, the American and European designs had diverged by the time the actual cars were built and had very few interchangeable parts. The American Escorts were nasty little beasts; with underpowered interference engines that would stall and granade, cheaply-trimmed interiors, and suspensions that offered a hairy ride. Everyone bought them in the 1980s, and discarded them with extreme prejudice in the 1990s. The early ones have turned into unicorns of the road: The only place you can count on seeing a 1981 Escort these days is in the Henry Ford Museum.

The prevailing mood was still optimistic in 1981, though. Much like the Falcon begat the Mustang two decades earlier, the Escort was destined to beget a sporty "line extension" of its own.

When the two-seater EXP debuted as an early 1982 model, it offered sleek looks and good fuel economy. Unfortunately, everything else about the car—engine, suspension, hard points, even dashboard—was shared with the Escort...and anyone looking for performance or refinement was left sorely disappointed. Still people bought the cars, and bought the EXP slowly but steadily enough to ensure a sales life for seven years. (That didn't keep them from being discarded with extreme prejudice once the 1990s rolled around, but oh well...)

Over those seven years, the cars experienced steady changes. The earliest cars had a small rear window and angular dashboard, and were also available as an “LN7” derivative sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers. In 1984 the EXP inherited the "bubbleback" hatch and taillights from the departed LN7, and inherited a redesigned dashboard from the Escort. This was followed by a facelift with the Escort's front-end sheetmetal in 1986, dispensing with the frog-eyed look of earlier cars. A "1988½" model appeared by the very end, though I'm unclear what changes that entailed.

This particular EXP is a 1985 model, and is in startlingly clean and original condition. Well, almost original: The rub strips on the doors have a non-factory appearance and a post-1985 third brakelight is nestled under the spoiler; though it's possible that both were added to the car when new as dealer options. I also thought the "EXP" lettering on the sail panels wasn't added until the 1986 model year, but who could have been 1985. Or this car could simply be a motley potpourri of parts. Who knows? It isn't as though there's any other EXP left on the road I can compare it with.

3 April 2015

Vehicular Friday: 1961-73 Volvo 1800 series

Filed under: Vehicular Friday — Andrew T. @ 20:19

Let's talk about this stylish, curvaceous automobile. That the 1800 ever existed at all seems kind of remarkable. Volvo, the Swedish purveyor of stolid and sedate sedans, was never really known for sports cars or sporting pretensions (a few rally successes notwithstanding). So how did it all come together?

As with everything in the corporate world, the tale ultimately boils down to money.
It seems that the corporate rationale for the 1800 was that it would function as an "image booster:" Something that would drum up attention, get people talking about Volvo, and get buyers into showrooms where they'd ooh and ahh over a P1800 and then drive home in a prosaic 122S sedan. A sports car also allowed Volvo to implement and test new technologies before implementing them on their higher-volume vehicle lines.

The 1800 series debuted as the P1800 and then evolved through incarnations as the 1800S and 1800E, eventually morphing into the 1800ES "shooting brake" wagon by the end. Early cars were built under contract in Britain by Jensen, with production shifting to Sweden two years in. The fundamental styling changed little, although there were periodic trim revisions from year to year and no fewer than five different radiator grille styles. This particular car is a bit of a hodgepodge: It has the correct 1965-66 wire mesh grille and curved side molding, but it also has a pre-1965 cowhorn front bumper. The rear bumper is the correct post-1964 style.

This white 1800S is undoubtedly a 1967 version. It has the busier post-1966 grille pattern and straight side molding, but without the side markers that were required by regulation in the 1968 model year. Both cars were local sightings around Madison.

The 1800E disappeared from the brochures after 1972, with the 1800ES following a year later. The 1950s-penned styling and engineering had run their course, and the American 5-mph bumper requirement was too difficult to implement into the dated design. It never was directly replaced; though Volvo dabbled with luxury coupe versions of the 200, 700, and 850 series as halfhearted successors throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

No talk about the 1800 (in all its incarnations) would be complete without a mention of the two most famous specimens. A white car was piloted by Roger Moore throughout the 1960s as Simon Templar's conveyance in the ITC television program The Saint. And a red 1966 example (almost identical to the one at the top of the post, in fact) holds the record for the most miles driven on any car, with more than 3 million racked up on the odometer over the last 49 years!

The four cylinder-powered 1800 wasn't exactly fast, its seating position in relation to the beltline was quite low, and it didn't handle like a top. But it brimmed with other practical virtues...economy and durability...and was wrapped in one of the most emotive shapes of sheetmetal ever produced. As a final coda, it's worth noting that three-point lap-and-shoulder seatbelts were standard on the P1800 from the beginning of production; seven years before they were required in the US.

27 March 2015

Vehicular Friday: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12

Filed under: Vehicular Friday — Andrew T. @ 23:59

Do you want to feel old? Then just remember that Back to the Future Part II was set in the present day. Still want to go on? Well, then let's talk about this car.

The tale of the DeLorean is a tale that's been told time upon time before and interwoven with plenty of soap-opera woe. John DeLorean, of course, is the name of the man behind it; an auto executive known for his flamboyant demeanor and his track record at General Motors. He left GM in 1973, subsequently dictating his thoughts to Patrick Wright for a scathing memoir of the corporate works thereof. The book was littered with references to an "ethical sports car."

It's debatable how ethical a person DeLorean was (his reputation was one of a con man by the end); but in the short term, he produced results. DeLorean somehow drummed up millions of dollars from friends and celebrities to bankroll his Motor Company through a convoluted web of holding companies. He somehow got a plant to be built in Northern Ireland; showering himself in subsidies while the Troubles raged. He somehow convinced the world's top designers (Giorgetto Giugiaro and Colin Chapman) to assist with his car. And he was able to fill the feature list with cynical gimmicks designed to make people swoon over what could have otherwise been an orthodox automobile: A rear-engined layout; gullwing doors; wheels that were smaller frontward than back. You could order a DeLorean in any color that you liked, as long as it was unpainted stainless steel: Impossible to rust, impossible to repair, impossible to clean.

Of course, that was just on the outside. What engine was to be used within? Various options like a rotary were tabled, then the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) V6 was hastily plucked off the shelf and stuffed in the engine bay after other plans fell through. The power it provided was probably adequate, but it didn't offer sports-car performance to match the looks and was disturbingly trouble-prone. (You might think that anything with "Volvo" in the name would be as reliable as a brick, but there's a reason why you never see 260s or early 760s on the road any more.)

After five years of gestation, the DeLorean DMC-12 (as it was called) finally went on sale in January 1981. And the DeLorean did debut with a bang...but it was expensive, unreliable, and hardly quick. The American economy plunged into recession the same year, and people who could have bought the cars weren't biting any more. Sales forecasts were so optimistic and emotions were running so high that the company was ill-prepared for the ill situation to come.

By the dawn of 1982, cars were sitting unsold and the DeLorean company was bleeding red. A stock issue was halted; the company entered receivership, then shut down entirely. John DeLorean resorted to becoming involved in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy as a last-ditch effort to save his company, but was arrested in a sting. With the company gone, the remaining cars and parts were shipped to Ohio and sold as closeouts by the corporate parent of Big Lots. You can't make this shit up if you try.

Which brings us up to Back to the Future, and an important question: How much of the car's popular fame and enduring appeal was due solely to its exposure in the film series? If Christopher Lloyd had never driven one on the screen, would the DMC-12 have endured in the popular consciousness at all?

In one word: No. One needs only look at the DeLorean's 1970s gullwing forebear, the Bricklin SV-1, to have a sense of what would have happened in a slightly different reality. Though similar to the DeLorean in many ways (concept and corporate malfeasance alike), the Bricklin has languished in obscurity and never really achieved the same status as a pop icon.

Besides the movie connection, was there anything good about the DeLorean at all? In one word: Yes. Cars can have emotional appeal, and the DMC-12 is no exception.

The DeLorean looks good. There, I said it. It's sleek, and its styling perfectly epitomizes the technological optimism of the 1970s and 1980s. The rear end is especially evocative, with a steeply-raked window and massive rump punctuated by bold cubed taillights that glow like afterburners. It looks fast, its profile is like nothing else on the road, and it looks like it means business.

Not all the goodness is on the outside, either: The interior features clear gauges, ergonomic dashboard controls, surprisingly contemporary-looking seats trimmed in cushy gray leather, and lots of legroom.

The DeLorean was durable. Stainless steel doesn't easily rust, and about three-quarters of the DMC-12's total production run survives. Parts are still available, and the reliability and assembly problems that struck the DMC-12 as new cars have long been weeded out and fixed by enterprising owners. (Speaking of new cars, you can actually buy a "new" DeLorean today refurbished from new-old stock parts.)

And frankly, it's not that bad a performer, either.

I spotted both of these cars locally around Madison: One in the wild, and one at a car show. (They might actually be pictures of the same car in two different places, though without having the ability to compare license plates or serials it'd be impossible to know for sure.)

The DeLorean is undoubtedly an automobile with enduring appeal. It resonates with me, and I don't even like the Back to the Future films.

©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull