Absence – as they say – makes the heart grow fonder, and that’s true of the cars we used to drive. When you look back to the glory years of automotive production, we had cool, interesting, unique products everywhere. Now we’re down to somewhere around 35 brands, most of which are owned by a handful of parent companies, which share parts and experience economies of scale, resulting in a sea of sameness. We’d like to have these 10 examples back, if you please:
Toyota Celica Sunchaser
With the exception of the Scion FR-S, there isn’t a single entertaining vehicle in Toyota’s entire product line. From one end to the other, it’s a moving sidewalk to Dullsville. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, Toyota built engaging, fun products with uniquely Japanese style. When the Celica debuted in the early 1970s, they took up where cars like the Datsun 240Z left off. The Z was cool, of course, but the Celica allowed you to have a sporty, fun little car while still accommodating a few of your friends or small kids. In 1979, Toyota commissioned The Griffith Company to convert the second generation Celica with a targa style roof, and a soft-top behind the B-pillar. When fully folded, the only remaining part of the roof was essentially a roll-bar, and it offered most of the benefits of a convertible when they’d been all but removed from the automotive marketplace.
We need a French car again. Only, for most of us, most French cars are just a little too French. The 504 was kind of the French answer to the BMW Neu Six cars that arrived in 1968, which would show up here as the BMW Bavaria. The 504 would handle five passengers in comfort, with rear-drive, a decent cargo area and a three-speed manual on the column. It was available in a full complement of bodystyles, including a sedan, coupe, wagon, convertible and even a pickup in some markets. In 1969, it was bestowed with European Car of the Year honors, thanks in large part to its clean styling, incredible ride quality, durable 1,796cc engine, and impressive level of equipment.
It would be easy enough to put the Chevrolet El Camino in here, but the GMC Sprint was even cooler. First of all, it offered everything the El Camino did: Car-like styling, ride and comfort, with a pickup box for hauling dirtbikes. Secondly, it gave GMC dealers something to sell if you weren’t interested in an actual pickup truck. The Sprint only became available in 1971, just before the 1968 to 1972 A-body was getting ready to phase out. From 1971 to 1975, you could buy a Sprint SP, which was the GMC equivalent of the El Camino SS, with a 454-cu.in. V8 and fat hood stripes. Sprints were only built through 1977. In 1978, when the downsized GM A-body arrived, GMC renamed the Sprint to “Caballero.”
Considering women purchase 60 percent of all new cars, and are decision makers in 85 percent of all automotive purchases, it stands to reason that there should be a few cars marketed directly toward the dames. The Dodge LaFemme was early to this realization, setting its sights squarely upon the fairer sex in an attempt to gain market share. It started out as a 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer, but selected colors that would appeal to women, and added equipment that accessorized perfectly, including a calfskin purse with a special compartment for its placement in the back of the passenger seat. Other compartments held a raincoat, a rain bonnet and an umbrella, all made from a similar print to that of the interior. Dodge built the LaFemme in 1956 and 1957 before dropping it, despite some initial success.
Anything With A T-Top
T-tops have completely disappeared from the automotive business, and it’s a shame. They were a viable alternative to convertible tops and offered a lot of significant advantages over sunroofs. They first appeared on the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette, and would remain on those cars until the 1982 model year. They were wildly popular on American cars like the Camaro and Firebird, as well as personal luxury cars like the Monte Carlo and Oldsmobile Cutlass coupes. The biggest problem cars suffered with T-tops was that many – like the Dodge Shelby Daytona, for example – were hacked in by American Sunroof Company (ASC), rather than being designed for them from the get-go. Many leaked water after the gaskets dried out, and by 2002, they’d vanished completely.
There was a time when you could go out and purchase a proper British saloon with a V8 engine for around what you’d pay for an Oldsmobile. The Rover 3500 made the scene in swinging 1968, and broke through the clutter with a Buick-originated 215-cu.in., all-aluminum V8. Unlike the Rover P5 it replaced, or the Jaguar 340 it competed with in the UK, the Rover 3500 was a svelte, forward-looking, modern design. These were luxurious cars devoid of nostalgia, delivering craftsmanship and contemporary design together in a single package. Today, the cheapest British sedan you can buy starts at $47,000. It’s no wonder you don’t see more British cars in American driveways.
Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler
Today, everyone’s obsession is seating for five. In 1981, the only people who drove extended cab pickups were schlepping people to a jobsite. Between 1981 and 1986, you could buy a Jeep that doubled as a pickup truck. The CJ-8 Scrambler was an extended-wheelbase CJ-7 at 103 inches, and a removable half-cab. It had a tiny pickup box, as evidenced by this publicity photo, with two tiny Honda XR80s in the back. It shared everything else with a CJ-7, including the hard steel doors. The first few years, Jeep was building nearly 10,000 CJ-8s per year, but numbers dwindled precipitously over the years. Several Scrambler-like conversions are available for either TJ or JK Wranglers, but it sure would be nice to buy one from the factory.
You have to really think to come up with a more unlikely automobile than the first-generation AMX. On paper, it appeared to be an attempt by an American company to build something to compete against the two-seat GTs and sports cars so popular from European manufacturers, and from Chevrolet in the form of the Corvette. But in practice, it looked like something Jed Clampett might have cooked up the woodshed after one too many pulls off of Granny’s rheumatizz cure: Two seats, four speeds, 390 cubic inches, in a sharply abbreviated body, with a wheelbase two inches shorter than the Corvette. It was the first steel-bodied two-seater built in the United States since the 1957 Thunderbird, and it ticked boxes for those interested in sports cars, but with a hankering for tire-smoldering power. AMC’s Vic Raviolo called it “the Walter Mitty Ferrari.” Its performance backed it up. By January of 1968, it set 106 world speed and endurance records, with Craig Breedlove at the wheel.
We invented the personal luxury coupe here in the United States, and now we don’t build one anymore. We need it back, and it should be built with this car – the Buick Riviera – in mind. Unlike coupe versions of other cars in a manufacturer’s line, the Riviera featured sheetmetal that was completely unique. Its frame was shorter and narrower than anything else in the Buick line in 1963 when it debuted, and its wheelbase and length were shorter, too. A third of its length was up front, with a long, slim nose, canted at the tip to connote speed. The rear deck was abbreviated, and the rear seat didn’t provide a whole lot of room. In 1965, the clamshell, hideaway headlights from the Silver Arrow show car made this one of the greatest American car designs in history. This was a car you drove to and from the office in a tailored suit, by yourself, and it was awesome. If you built a car called “America 1963,” this would be it.
Like the Riviera, the first generation Mercury Cougar was a tip o’ the fedora to enjoying the good life. It was based heavily on the Ford Mustang, but with its wheelbase let out by a comfortable three inches, allowing it to slot between the sporty Ford Mustang, and the then-beastly Ford Thunderbird. Headlamps hidden in a split Remington shaver grille, along with arrestingly cool sequential taillamps made the Cougar a sort of thinking man’s Mustang. “Freedom from choice,” said Devo in 1980, “is what you want,” and it was a concept that seemed to embody the Cougar. You want a six-cylinder? Tough luck. You want a convertible? Hit the bricks. The Cougar came with – at a minimum – a 289-cu.in. V8, and went up to a 410hp 428 Cobra Jet. Not only do we not a have a Cougar anymore, we don’t even have Mercury to build it.