Hankering for a Hot Hatch again

From the newly widened four-lane heading north from the state line, you can catch a glimpse of faded beauties hidden behind a gate on an old gravel road. The owner, possibly fearing interlopers like myself, strategically placed corrugated metal siding in such a way as to camouflage the little hatchbacks.

Of course nothing can stop the sharp eyes of a veteran carspotter like myself, so I hit the exit and backtracked down the access road to see if that boxy ‘80s shape was indeed those three magical-sounding letters: GTI.

 

Many people forget the days when high performance was anything with 100 horsepower or more. Out of the malaise of the ’70s, the pastel-and-neon decade that followed didn’t offer much to impress car aficionados. But then came the Hot Hatch era. Small cars with perky acceleration and sharp handling replaced the aging muscle cars as an enthusiast’s choice for transportation.

This little GTI still proudly displays those red initials front and rear. Its ignominy only increased by the trailer hitch on the back. Who would subject this spunky little street fighter to towing duty?

I knew a guy who owned a red ’84 GTI just like this one in the mid-‘80s. It would dust the British Racing Green TR7 I drove at the time and would handle just as good. Plus, its German engineering eliminated those adventures like having to drive with no headlights or windshield wipers when one really would appreciate their functionality.

 

Back in 1984, GTIs stood out in the crowd with those inverse color schemes: Red with black trim or black with red trim. They also offered a white with black trim version of GTI. Seeing that meant this was no mere grocery-getter.

A couple of years later, I found a Hot Hatch for myself — a stunning gloss black 1980 Scirocco S with red velour Recaro seats and that iconic Golf-ball shifter.  Sleeker than a GTI, the Mk I Scirocco S offered all the same goodies in a sleeker body conceived by legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Behind this abandoned GTI lies a second-generation Scirocco silently resting in the trees. The Mark II Scirocco would later receive a potent 16-valve engine and styling package, which made it an object of lust for a poor college journalism student in the late 1980s. Sadly, I see more ‘60s and ‘70s Beetles on the road today than these two Hot Hatches.

A few years ago, news of a new Scirocco stirred my nostalgic excitement. I’d gladly pay to drive a new version of my beloved college steed. Yet because of marketing reasons only the Germans seem to understand, Volkswagen isn’t selling the Scirocco in the United States. Do they think we all want to drive SUVs? Some of us really HATE four-door cars, you know.

There does seem to be a rekindling of the Hot Hatch vibe these days. The new Ford Fiesta seems as fun-and-perky as its German-made ancestor, along with the Focus ST. And the Fiat 500 will soon be offered here in the racy Abarth trim. Of course, the Honda CRX remains with us after a long and distinguished service to boy racers everywhere.

Everything old is new again, and I spot hints of a decade long past in the fashions and music of today.  As the’80s resurrect themselves for a new generation, it’s my hope the Hot Hatches will also find their way back.

                                                                                                            — Michael Gouge

GIVE ME TWO DOORS AND A BIG ENGINE: Something in me loves a big, personal luxury coupe. Probably because today’s SUV-buying public has forsaken them for high-sitting vehicles with four-doors and plenty of utility for the new nuclear family. But men of a certain age remember seeing these gas-guzzlers in their full glory, piloted by rich and successful INDIVIDUALS, as opposed to the family soccer team.
This 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III sits proudly amid the weeds next to a barn, still looking rather regal in it’s faded and rusted paintwork. Its hide-away headlines retracted as if it refuses to submit to a terminal sleep.
There was a day when a Continental symbolized power, position and style in a world now long-since departed. Luckily, we have YouTube videos to remind us of the days when the Mark III embodied the best in personal luxury.
                                                                                                         — Michael Gouge

GIVE ME TWO DOORS AND A BIG ENGINE: Something in me loves a big, personal luxury coupe. Probably because today’s SUV-buying public has forsaken them for high-sitting vehicles with four-doors and plenty of utility for the new nuclear family. But men of a certain age remember seeing these gas-guzzlers in their full glory, piloted by rich and successful INDIVIDUALS, as opposed to the family soccer team.

This 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III sits proudly amid the weeds next to a barn, still looking rather regal in it’s faded and rusted paintwork. Its hide-away headlines retracted as if it refuses to submit to a terminal sleep.

There was a day when a Continental symbolized power, position and style in a world now long-since departed. Luckily, we have YouTube videos to remind us of the days when the Mark III embodied the best in personal luxury.

                                                                                                         — Michael Gouge

End of this Corvette’s summer, or a new beginning?

One of the wonders of a childhood spent outdoors in the South was finding empty cicada skins clinging to a tree. I would pluck them like grapes and pocket the husks just in case the opportunity to toss them on a girl would arise later that day.

A similar feeling of finding an exotic creature hit me when I first spotted this Corvette Stingray in Tuxedo, N.C.  But as I grew closer, I realized it was only the empty skin left behind hopefully after some amazing metamorphosis.

The third-generation (C3) Corvette, inspired by the Mako Shark II concept car by Larry Shinoda under GM’s design chief Bill Mitchell, thrilled me as a boy, and it remains my favorite era of America’s Sports Car.  In production from 1968-1981, it is the longest running body style for the Corvette.

In 1968, Chevy dropped the “Sting Ray” name, only to bring it back by popular demand a year later as the single-word “Stingray.” Cars today just don’t have the same emotion-stirring names — or even looks — that they once did. Even the rare and high-performance Corvettes of today rely too much on the ubiquitous alpha-numeric craze with the likes of the Z06 and ZR1.  “Stingray” sounds fast and dangerous — ZR1 sounds like a DMV form.

I first rode in a C3 Vette owned by an older cousin in the ’70s. I couldn’t really see over the dash and those cool-looking chrome side pipes burned my leg as I exited, but I was hooked. I finally got my own Stingray decades later. Its Coke-bottle lines and the sight of those winged fenders from the driver’s seat was a childhood dream come true. Alas, the rational side of my brain coaxed me into selling it.

Internet rumors have it that Chevy may revive the name for the upcoming seventh-generation Corvette based on the concept car seen in the “Transformers” movies. Not a bad marketing move, if you ask me.

The lowly shell of this red Corvette is from the middle years of C3 production (1974-77), judging from what’s left of the rear section and the red starburst badge on the aftermarket nose. Interesting to see is the one-piece front end with the fixed headlights, a customizing fad in the 1970s as seen in the car guy’s cult classic “Corvette Summer.”

One likes to think the frame, interior and drivetrain went to build some fantastic kit car like the McBurnie replicas of the Ferrari 365 Daytona Spyders I lusted over while watching “Miami Vice” during my high school years.

Like the cicada, maybe some adventurous car guy gave it a equally amazing metamorphosis to a higher-flying creature. I like to think this shell symbolizing something amazing once transpired, I like to hope…

                                                                                                         — Michael Gouge


Wishing for a world with more wedges

As a kid, I used to sketch cars in my notebook — fantastic machines limited only by my imagination and feeble art skills. Early efforts reflected the customizing fads of the’ 70s such as flamed paint jobs, exposed exhaust headers and big-and-little mag wheels.  But later, my daydreams would make me reach for that protractor amid the unused school supplies and draw THE SHAPE.  Yes, the dangerously sharp wedge that I figured all cars would someday emulate. 

So sleek were those sculpted lines that cut through the air and looked like speed, beauty and motion combined into the perfect sports car. Suddenly the Mustangs and Camaros looked square and bulky. Around that time, Dad gave me a pinewood derby kit, which I quickly sawed into the wedge shape with a Kamm tail that now captivated me like than Devil’s Tower mound of mashed potatoes for Richard Dryfuss in “Close Encounters.”

Decades later those sleek wedges are gone. Their pop-up headlines regulated out of existence by European pedestrian impact standards; their two-seat cockpit a victim of the declining sales of sports cars in the SUV era.  Still, to this day the sight of headlights rising out of the bodywork never fails to stir a bit of child-like excitement in a middle-aged man. Something in the world died when even the Corvette switched to fixed headlights.

So I hit the brakes hard when I spotted this Fiat X1/9 pushed off into the woods next to an abandoned import auto repair shop. It’s Modernistic lines penned by Bertone stand in sharp contract to the organic shapes of nature slowing consuming it.  In the early 1980s, a buddy of mine in high school drove a stunning black X1/9. Funny how I can remember all the cars in the school parking lot from 1981 to 1985, but have no recollection of how to solve an algebraic equation.

Fiat returned this year to America, offering one model – the cute Mini-like 500. But the X1/9 was their best-looking model to my eyes. Of course they rusted almost immediately and forget the concept of reliability. The same holds true for the X1/9’s contemporary wedge brethren the Triumph TR7, the Opel GT, the Pontiac Fiero and the uber-exotics like the Lotus Esprit and Lamborghini Countach.

Riding in a cousin’s yellow TR7 one summer only worsened my wedge fever. I’d finally get one my sophomore year of college — a beautiful British Racing Green 1977 TR7 with gold racing stripes. It handled beautifully, even if it was so underpowered that VW Rabbits and Sciroccos bested me at stoplights.

The interior array of gauges and switches seemed so modern. Ergonomic before such a thing became a design standard, it featured a dashboard with hard angles like the cars that would follow later in the ’80s. That TR7 lived a hard life, enduring a fender-bender by myself only to face my younger brother’s driving misadventures as a hand-me-down car.

Yet I had to stop and ask the nice lady at an area junkyard to let me gaze at this TR7. A hard life for this little wedge, too. Someone at one time crammed a V8 into its sleek — and now hacksawed — bonnet to go drag racing.  Didn’t they realize its British style doesn’t befit such an American display of brute power as drag racing?

The famous TR7 ad campaign said they were “The Shape of Things to Come.” Some of us still await that future world where our childhood dream machines come to life.

                                                                                                   — Michael Gouge

Mach 1: The sound of speed…

Before car names became nonsensical words generated by pleasant-sounding vowel-consonant combinations in marketing focus groups, carmakers used monikers that resonated with an excitement as powerful as their exhaust notes.

Lost to time’s march are many of these: Stingray, Eliminator, Cyclone, The Judge, The Machine, and others. The one that brings a smile to my lips just speaking the words will always be — Mach 1!  It means the speed of sound, but to my ears its the sound of speed.

Serving now as mostly yard art is this speckled 1971 Mustang Mach 1. Its rear wheel cambered at an odd angle hints that this pony hasn’t hit the trail in a long time.  A repainted body now flakes away with the dead leaves along its bonnet.  Yet it still wears its optional urethane bumper and one-year only pop-off gas cap. Still regal in its shabby dress this Mach 1 proudly rests in someone’s driveway, having at least retained that small bit of dignity and avoided being shoved into a weed-infested back yard.

 

These larger Mustangs received a mix reception during its production run from 1971-73. Purists complained it was too big, too soft and too far removed from the simple crowd-pleaser that arrived in the spring of 1964.  But hey, James Bond seem to enjoy driving it. On the racetrack, it paled in comparison to the Trans Am-series Mustangs of 1969 and ’70.  Such public backlash led to the creation of the smaller, more agile Mustang II — which many pony-car fans now deride — as the muscle car era ended.  

But the king of road-racing Mustangs remains the 1970 model in Boss 302 trim. Yet for those on a budget, the lesser priced Mach 1 provided plenty of show and a respectable amount of go.

 

This 1970 Mach 1 sits beside a shabby auto shop hopefully awaiting a restoration. Its glorious Calypso Coral paint now faded and rust-stained. That lovely V8 no longer sits between the shock towers, but that’s what bored-and-stroked crate engines are for!  The deep-dish Cragar mag wheels with spinner caps and raised white-letter tires hint at a previous life prowling the streets with a bit of swagger.

When the Mach 1 model arrived in 1969, Ford intended it to be the intermediate model between a base Mustang and the GT.  If a buyer clicked a few option boxes, you could add some aggressive front and rear spoilers, hood scoop. louvers and a range of engines and transmissions. Standard was reflective Mach 1 stripes.

 

The Mach 1 proved so popular, it stole buyers away from the more expensive GT model, outselling it in 1969 by a margin of nearly 15 Mach 1s to every GT built.  So successful was the Mach 1, it essentially sent the GT into forced retirement for a dozen years, returning as an option on the 1982 Fox-bodied Mustang.  The Mach 1 name carried on through the ’70s on hatchback Mustang IIs, but vanished with the arrival the new ’79 Mustang. 

Ford’s Special Vehicle Team revived the name for the 2003-04 Mustang models, which feature more than just a few stickers and badges. The millennial-era Mach 1s boast performance engine and transmission goodies shared with the formidable SVT Cobras of the day.

The retro-inspired current Mustang seems primed for a revival of the Mach 1 name. Given the styling cues on the 2010-12 models, with the headlight array that mimics the two slats on the ’70 Mustang, I can just picture a brand new 2013 Mach 1 in Acapulco Blue, or maybe Grabber Orange, or Medium Lime, or maybe…

                                                                                                         — Michael Gouge

A fading Comet and a trail of memories

Pushed aside in the corner of the lot next to the roadway sits this lonely heap. Its black racing stripes and hood scoop give a passerby the only clues that this early ’70s Comet GT holds a small place in muscle car history.

The Comet was Mercury’s version of Ford’s popular Maverick, which was originally advertised in 1969 as “The car for the ’70s at 1960s prices.” Mercury launched the Comet two years after the Maverick with arguably better styling. The Comet received the same set of four oval tail lights and reflectors as the legendary Cyclone along with a more intricate and stylish front grill and hood.

The GT was Mercury’s version of the Maverick Grabber. It offered a more aggressive — but nonfunctioning — hood scoop reminiscent of the Boss 429 Mustang instead of the Grabber’s nostril-style openings. Down the flanks, the Comet GT sported reflective side stripes and sport mirrors. Under the Comet-only hood usually sat Ford’s venerable 302-cubic-inch V8 with a 3 speed manual tranny. The model would last from 1971 to 1977, eventually giving way to the new Fox-bodied Mercury Zephyr and the dawn of the boxy ’80s cars.

 

The Maverick outsold the more expensive Comet by a rate of nearly 4-to-1, with 1.77 million Mavericks produced from 1969 to 1975 compared to only 370,000 Comets, according to Ford’s figures. The Comet and its German-made stablemate the Mercury Capri were the smallest and least expensive rides offered for sale at the sign of the cat.

Like a growing number of car enthusiasts of a certain age, I must confess a strange attraction to the “malaise era” vehicles.  I agree it was no highpoint for automotive design, performance or engineering. Yet spotting an interesting artifact like this Comet GT from that distant and hazy past immediately makes me hit the brakes and stare a bit too long, daydream a bit too much.

Fans of filmmaker Michael Apted’s “Up” documentary series are familiar with the old Jesuit saying, “Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” Could it be the cars a boy likes during that same crucial developmental phase would linger into manhood? In my case, I fear it is true.

 

Which brings me to the story of the Comet cousins. Around 1979, we made our annual Thanksgiving trip down South to visit my mother’s family in Alabama. The two middle boys — out of a family of four children — were older than myself by just the age a preteen longs to be. So their driver’s licenses and automobility stirred much angst and admiration in a boy longing to finally get behind the wheel.

 

The older of the two cousins drove a black Comet GT, the younger one a Grabber blue one. And both rolled on the epitome of late-’70s coolness – Cragar S/S mag wheels. I eagerly waited for any excuse, any last-minute trip to the store, or ANY reason that would gain me a ride my high-school-age cousins’ hot rods. Hearing that V8 rumble, watching a class-ring adorned fist shovel that Hurst T-handle shifter made the six-hour ride in the back of mom’s econobox worth the trip.  

 


Yet all those fond memories can’t disguise the disappointments when looking at this particular Comet GT. The unhindered march of rust consumes the leading edge of the model’s unique hood. Its interior, tattered and rotted, once exemplified the spartan-but-efficient 1970s. Now it’s filled with trash and odd articles stored away and most likely forgotten.

 

Compared to modern cars, the automobiles of the ’70s fall short in nearly every category – performance, handling, fuel efficiency, etc.  But they have earned a modicum of nostalgic respect from the public. Even personal luxury coupes, once ridiculed as land yachts and behemoths, now gain a bit of glimmer in their well-earned patina. Especially since the “Me Decade” ethos behind them seems lost forever in an age of social responsibility and utility.

 

Last year, news reports said Ford would discontinue the Mercury brand. A move that adds to the growing number of dying and discontinued marques with once-proud histories: Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Plymouth.  At least there are still a few of us left to remember them fondly and pass along their tales of former glory around a digitally networked blogosphere campfire.

                                                                                                 — Michael Gouge



Ode to the unloved ones

I call them the Rodney Dangerfield of Mustangs – they get no respect. And in certain car circles, it’s best to closet your affections lest ye be judged. But I’ll out myself to say I love the Mustang II, especially the 2+2 hatchback version.

No groaning, please. I could cite the numbers – and here they are – that prove this pony was not dud with the buying public. However, I prefer to reminisce about a place a long time ago, in a culture far, far away: the 1970s.

Thanks to satellite TV, I can catch reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” every day. Farrah Fawcett-Majors and her crime-fighting BFFs would jump in a white Cobra II Mustang for some sinister encounter, usually with a man in a brown leisure suit. Today, I find watching the cars in the background much more enjoyable than the bad acting.

So when I spotted this blue Cobra II beneath a tree recently, I had to stop. It shows evidence of having a performance-minded owner once upon a time. Leaf spring shackle extensions give it an aggressive rake. The Western mag wheels hint at a past life with a doting owner.

After taking this photo, a young girl of about 8 popped up out of nowhere. After quick and polite “hello,” I decided not to linger any longer. Hmm, how to explain to a parent that this middle-age man was only taking pictures of their 35-year-old jalopy, not their child.

In the late ‘70s, I remember seeing a high school kid driving a black 1975 Mach 1 Mustang II through my neighborhood to pick up an older teenage girl with locks like Farrah.  He had the car and the girl, what more powerful childhood development impressions could there be on a 10-year-old boy?

With my allowance, I bought a plastic model kit of a Mustang II.  (Remember those? What’s wrong with a world that doesn’t let boys play with toxic glue and paint?) And with the devotion of an Old World craftsman – and some admonishing from my mom not to get paint on the deck — I assembled my dream machine. After a few weeks of admiration, it would be off to demolitions testing as soon as some out-of-state fireworks could be procured.

In my junior year of high school, I spotted the one for me on a used-car lot. She was a 1978 2+2 fastback with the rare Rallye Appearance Package (front spoiler, blacked out trim, sport mirrors, and two-tone seats). Quickly my heart leapt upon seeing that little V8 badge on the front fender.  She’d had her troubles. A recent repaint from a fender-bender cost her the gold pinstripes of the Rallye editions. But the red replacement ones suited the ‘80s better anyway, so I added a few more touches of rouge to my darling.

My best friend in high school drove an ’83 Mustang GT. It had a factory four-barrel carburetor and few more ponies under the hood. Stoplight glowed red. Two 17-year-olds in V8-powered ‘Stangs. You can guess the rest.

He would gain a length and a half by the end of the straightaway leading to our neighborhood, but those later Mustangs had a higher center of gravity and didn’t corner as well.  On the mountain roads where we lived, that little Mustang II would be glued to his bumper like Mad Max on the Night Rider.

The Mustang II’s only living contribution to car culture today is its remarkable front suspension setup. It’s still produced by aftermarket manufacturers for the hot rod and kit car crowd. A small legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.

A recent journey into a junk yard yielded these photos of a Mustang 2+2 and a Cobra II. One seems to be preparing for a new life on the drag strip.

The 1979-1993 Fox platform Mustangs would establish an impressive production run of 14 years. I, however, never really warmed to their blocky styling. For the unloved Mustang II, it was a short 4-year model run. Cast out as the decade ended like that embarrassing Bee Gees album. Cast out like I did my own Mustang II – thrown over for an orange 240Z that I thought would better befit a man going off to college.

Each summer I venture to the local Mustang club’s car shows only to leave disappointed. There never seems to be any IIs on display. But they’re out there. I see them online. I see them in my mind.

                                                                                                    — Michael Gouge

The secret garden

It was a winter’s day when my father first showed me this meadow off a narrow dirt driveway. You could see them better then: Proud tailfins still reaching skyward; a Model A whose condition belied that of its Depression-era birthday; and a ’55 that once roared down a two-lane blacktop in all it’s two-tone glory.

I ventured back this summer, fighting my way through the briars, watching for any copperheads lounging amid the rusty relics.  The small meadow contains the collection of an aging eccentric cousin-in-law. His tastes run from A-model Fords, to ‘50s pickup trucks, to the trio of shoebox Chevys, to a ‘70s-era Beetle. All left to quietly return to the earth.

“Would he sell me that ’57 hardtop with a V8?” I asked. “No, says he’s going to restore them someday,” came the response many a car buff has heard.

Too bad. A black ‘57 Chevy and a red-and-white ’55 deserve better.  Nothing symbolizes the Fabulous Fifties better. It was an age when styling came before corporate average fuel requirements. An era when cars were more than ‘utility” vehicles, earning no more respect than a household appliance. Harley J. Earl, the world needs you now more than ever.

Earl’s name is forgotten by most people today. It serves as a “geek test” to identify those carrying the gearhead gene. But in his day, he was perhaps the most influential man in a car-crazy world. His fascination with the World War II P-38 Lighting warplane inspired him to add the first tailfin to a Cadillac in 1948. His lust for Ferraris inspired the oval grill in the revolutionary 1955 Chevy. His designs led the way for American automakers and for those around the world.

Sadly, I find Hyundai crafting more appealing designs today than the boys at GM.

I pass the Model A on the way back. Boy, could it be reborn to become my “American Graffiti” fantasy car. Chopped and channeled, chrome headers, dual carbs… yet for all my daydreaming, and probably the owner’s, this baby may only serve to reintroduce iron oxide to the soil.

After WWII, thousands of these were cast aside in the postwar boom. Cheap and plentiful, they often became the raw materials for the big dreams and small budgets of teenage ’50s hot rodders. Slap in a junkyard V8, take the hacksaw to the roof and you’d rule the high school parking lot.

Some would prefer a concours restoration for these old Fords. For me, the Beach Boys had the right idea:

"Just a little Deuce Coupe with a flathead mill / But she’ll walk a Thunderbird like it’s standin’ still / She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored /
She’ll do a hundred and forty in the top end floored / She’s my little Deuce Coupe / You don’t know what I’ve got.”

                                                                                                         — Michael Gouge