For richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, the romance of the road is a quintessential American dream. For Americans, cars have always represented independence, self-expression and the mythos of mobility. And yet, like any love affair, relationships with cars are fickle and results are mixed. The story of the American car industry, an oddly expressive combination of heavy manufacturing and show business, has always been a narrative of boom and bust. From the days of the iconic cowboy riding off into the sunset, to commuter gridlock and the rising price of gasoline, who a people are and how they get to where they’re going is a tale of destiny. This year’s street names, laid out in alphabetical order, showcase this history. It is a story about politics, economics and technology, as well as the vicissitudes of love.
The Allanté was a Cadillac. It was initially priced at $54,000, far above the price of any other Cadillac of its era. This luxury car was sluggish; it steered like a barge. It had a 4100 aluminum block engine, arguably one of the worst engines ever made. It was said to be “all show and no go.” By the mid 90’s junk yards were full of decent looking Caddies that had nothing else wrong with them other than a seized up 4100 under the hood. The cost to replace it with yet another crappy engine was more than most owners could bear. Between 1987 and ’93, GM produced only 21,430 Allantés. Some dreams don’t come true.
The Bonneville was unveiled in 1959. It had an automatic transmission, power steering , power windows, power seats, power brakes, a four-barrel carburetor with a high power rating, a powerful V-8 engine — pretty much power everything. Pontiac “full size” performance reached its peak in 1966. If you’re an American, this was your father’s or your grandfather’s muscle car. Staring out across its hood was like commanding the deck of an aircraft carrier. In other words, it marked the apogee of America’s world power. The Bonneville sold in large numbers.
The Corvair was introduced by Chevrolet in 1960. By 1965, it sported a new streamlined design and a new and more powerful engine. Car and Driver gushed, “When the pictures of the ’65 Corvair arrived in our offices, the man who opened the envelope actually let out a great shout of delight and amazement on first seeing the car, and in thirty seconds the whole staff was charging around.” In that same year, however, a then obscure attorney, the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, published a book which took to task the 1960-63 Corvair. It was said to show a tendency to spin out, roll over, and, in the public’s mind, at least, blow up. Sales plummeted. Fairly or not, the once frisky Corvair is still remembered as the car that was “Unsafe at Any Speed”.
The Dart was like a certain kind of dog. Not a show dog, to be sure, more like a faithful mutt. Over its 13-year sales span it served its owners with what felt like real devotion. It wouldn’t wear out. At various times it performed as a drag racer, a stock car, and even did a brief stint as a police cruiser. From the time of its debut in 1960, it proved immensely popular. It was affordable, and when souped up, the Dart could sprint a quarter-mile in ten seconds. Sturdy and dependable, it was the kind of car that seems to love you even more than you love it.
Amid much ballyhoo, the Ford Motor Company introduced a new car on September 4, 1957. It was actually shipped to dealers under wraps and thus exhibited on lots, awaiting “E-Day.” Earlier, during the design process, Ford had solicited the advice of poet Marianne Moore. She suggested several names for the car, including the Utopian Turtletop, the Pastelogram, or the Mongoose Civique. Instead, they decided to call it the Edsel, after the son of Henry Ford. Subsequent research indicated people associated this name with “weasel” and “dead cell.” The public also felt that its vertical “horsecollar” grille appeared to be sucking a lemon. To make things worse, the Edsel’s pushbutton transmission, mounted on the steering wheel hub, misled drivers into shifting gears instead of honking the horn. Jinxed from the beginning, the Edsel was eventually put out of its misery in 1960 by auto executive Robert McNamara — the man who later led his country into Vietnam.
The Ford Fairlane was introduced in 1955. Over the next 13 years it went through many transformations, but during the 60’s it grew into a kind of archetypical white shoes, Elks Club car. If you gave a box of crayons to a 6-year old, he would draw a Fairlane. In its deluxe versions, this workadaddy muscle car eventually featured custom carpeting, armrests, soundproofing and a passenger side window wiper. Its boxy middle-of-the-road styling proved immensely popular among a thriving middle class that lived in boxes. The Fairlane brand was so ubiquitous that it became one of America’s most face-lifted cars. Aptly enough, the Fairlane was the car that Janet Leigh drove to her doom in Psycho.
Knowing that their competitors were about to launch sub-compact lines in 1970, American Motors resorted to the simple expedient of chopping off the back end of their compact Hornet. This drastic truncation created a distinctive dwarfish look, and the Gremlin was born. As it happened, the Arab Oil Embargo began in October of 1973, and sub-compacts were off to the races; the Gremlin sold well. However, by 1975 growing stagflation had taken its toll: sales declined by 65%, and by 1978 production ceased. In any case, the gas crisis was over, and consumers ran back to the pumps. The Gremlin is described by some as the ugliest car ever made. However, because of its low sticker price, maneuverability and dependable performance, many first-time drivers fell in love with a car that was originally sketched on the back of Northwest Orient air sickness bag. There still exists a small collector’s market. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
What can one say about a vehicle that is chiefly useful for invading foreign countries? Its name derives from High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee for short. Unlike its military counterpart, which saw service in the first Gulf War, the civilian Hummer sports no armor or weapons fittings. It also lacks child safety locks, child seat tethers, side air bags, stability control, and it is difficult to park — unless, of course, one makes the choice to park on top of someone else’s car. The Hummer’s future is uncertain. It guzzles gas and weighs 6,000 pounds. A pair of Indian automakers have expressed interest in buying this brand. However, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger still owns a stable of Hummers. He insists there’s nothing wrong with Hummers that a little bio-fuel won’t cure.
The Impala was introduced by Chevrolet in 1958. Its stylish braggadocio made it the ultimate cruise-pick-up-chicks-big-boat car. First presented as a show model featuring an emerald green metallic paint job, loads of chrome and a white interior, the Impala was powered by an alternative fuel, testosterone, and struck a nerve in every male libido. Especially as a convertible, this classic car looks totally at home with jumping shocks, and it remained a record best-seller until the late 1970’s. Although the brand is still produced, it is now virtually indistinguishable from every other anonymous chrome-grey car on the road. Times change. Indeed, this once swaggering ride is currently offered as a Police Package.
The jeep is an iconic car, its origins imbedded deep in U.S. history. Its first fully recognizable version was commissioned by the Department of the Army for service in World War II. The jeep went everywhere, through mud and sand and snow. Perhaps more significantly, it carried everyone — privates, generals, even presidents. For an entire generation this felt emblematic of united democratic effort. Furthermore, its simple and pragmatic logic of design created an aesthetic: form and function coalesced. This helped to make it popular among civilians as the first sport utility vehicle. Certain modern models are remarkably like the original: high clearance, solid axels front and rear, plus a distinctive differentiation of the hood and fenders (a feature that evokes America’s first automotive love affair, the Model T). Romance has its rewards. Great dreams, embraced by an entire people, can endure.
K-Car is, quite fittingly, the back street of our city. The story of the K-Car is the story of an underdog: it emerged from the back of the pack. In 1978, America’s auto industry was ailing. Low-cost Japanese imports were inundating the market, and the Chrysler Corporation was facing bankruptcy. After securing a 1.5 billion dollar loan from the government, Chrysler recruited Lee Iacocca, recently fired by Henry Ford II, to serve as its new chairman. The result was the K-Car. Iacocca later said that these new cars were, “The last train at the station. If we failed here, it was all over”. The K-Car, strictly speaking, didn’t refer to any single model, but a platform upon which to mount such cars as the Dodge Aires and the Plymouth Reliant. K-Cars weren’t distinguished by their style. They were “purpose built cars”, designed to be cheap, roomy and reliable. The advertising motto put it bluntly: “If you can find a better car, buy it”. Sales eventually ballooned, and Chrysler was back in business.
By Larry Harvey, with many thanks to Gary Taylor, Tony Perez, Rod Garrett, Al Honig, Flash Hopkins and Karen Grimsby