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Cadillac: The Tailfin Years

Cadillac: The Tailfin Years by Robert J. Headrick Jr.
published 2008 by Iconografix, Inc.
126 pages, softcover

ISBN-13: 978-1-58388-212-2
ISBN: 1-58388-212-X

purchased from a retailer specializing in auto literature, at their booth, during a classic car auction

I used to regularly attend a classic car auction in Toronto. While I was in the market to buy a car, I never ended up even registering to bid. But every time I went, I felt I needed to buy something.

One particular time, Cadillac: The Tailfin Years caught my eye. I didn’t have many books featuring Cadillac, and that the tailfin years were the focus was enough to seal the deal. When I got it 7 or so years back, I must have expected more because I recall being somewhat unimpressed. Upon recent rereading, I find it’s really not a bad book – a few flaws, but overall an enjoyable read.

It’s a fairly simple layout – each chapter features the Cadillac line for a model year, beginning with 1948 and ending with 1964. The text borrows heavily from the official, GM-produced Cadillac sales material. The images are all from a collection of original Cadillac sales literature and advertising.

I do like the layout and concept. As I’ve said, I enjoy seeing the original sales materials as I feel it gives great perspective of what the public was presented and a sense of the environment the car existed in. And there is no lack of prose or imagery here – full pages of sales brochures can be found throughout this book.

I do have some criticisms. I think the font is a little large, which always gives me the impression the author is trying to fill space, but that’s a personal pet peeve. I take some issue with the form. The author has quoted from the sales material, but gone ahead and made changes to the verb tense using square brackets, and many ellipses. While it may be technically correct, I find it somewhat distracting when reading. I think it’s understood the material quoted is from the past, so there’s no need to correct the tense. Further it may be fair to say any of these Cadillacs featured and still on the road today would continue providing all the luxury, power and dignity the brochures describe, so why not refer to these in the present tense?

The images from the brochures and ads have been scanned, and some could use more photoshop work. Some pages, when scanned, allow the image on the reverse page to show through because the paper is so thin (for example on one page I can clearly see the reverse of the GTE logo). Other times, wrinkled or wavy paper can show as shadows when scanned. I’m sure the images have been retouched, but perhaps a little more could have be done to really clean them up so they look as good as possible.

There are some typos to be found, and a somewhat bizarre situation involving the Golden Anniversary. In 1952, Cadillac did celebrate its 50th or Golden Anniversary. All 1952 Cadillacs were deemed Golden Anniversary models, and featured gold crest and ‘V’. However, the chapter about the 1958 Cadillacs also mentions ‘Golden Anniversary’. This must be an error by the author who may have pasted text inadvertently to the 1958 chapter. There wouldn’t seem to be any other explanation.

As said though, on rereading I find this is a pretty good book. In addition to the ad copy, there is a lot of good information to be found. Headrick includes an easy to understand description of each Series available and the models found. He describes the changes to the line over the previous year, as well as significant additions to powertrain and options. Each model has its sales totals and list price.

The more I read this book, the more I realize what a good book it is. As a reference, it’s actually wonderful. The information coming directly from the sales materials turns out to be a good resource, often revealing an option as being new that model year, or naming the available seating surface materials and colours. The more technical information, as well as the pricing and production numbers are great to fill in the picture of Cadillac’s year. The illustrations are clear enough you can certainly see the progression of Cadillac design over this period, and can serve as something of a field guide for identifying years and models in the wild.

This is where I found I warmed to Cadillac: The Tailfin Years. Factoids that come out such as when Cadillac dropped the Series Sixty-One, or the fact that the Eldorado was always given a slightly higher horsepower rating, those interest me. I appreciate the cars themselves, but I am the kind of car guy who enjoys knowing what distinguishes the Eldorado convertible over the Series Sixty Convertible, or being reminded the Seville nameplate was used on the Eldorado coupe.

As I said, initially I had some disappointment. Perhaps I expected the book about Cadillac to be ‘the Standard of the World‘, a book equal to the legendary precision engineering Cadillac was known for. This book is not that. But, it is an interesting, easy-to-read book that does a great job showcasing the tailfin Caddies in one place, using period imagery and language. It offers up some good useful information and will add to one’s appreciation of these iconic Cadillacs.

Pros: essentially presents a collection of 1948-1964 Cadillac sales literature, supported by other technical info
Cons: some design flaws, a few typos
Where to get it: Amazon, used bookstores

Professional Automotive Engine Application & Identification Guide 1930-2000 – Block, Crankshaft & Head Casting Numbers

Professional Automotive Engine Application & Identification Guide 1930-2000 – Block, Crankshaft & Head Casting Numbers by Dirty Gringo Journals
published 2020 independently
122 pages, soft cover

ISBN: 1661973310
ISBN-13:
978-1661973315

purchased from Amazon.ca

Amazon has a decent little racket going on. I don’t begrudge their marketing, I mean they’re in business to sell and frankly I’m free to ignore the siren call of “spend a little more to get free shipping”. Sometimes I figure I may as well spend and get a couple items rather than spend it anyway as ‘dead money’ for shipping.

My throw-in is often a book, as it’s easy enough to find inexpensive books about cars. The most recent example was the Professional Automotive Engine Application & Identification Guide 1930-2000 – Block, Crankshaft & Head Casting Numbers, a Dirty Gringo Journal at a reasonable $12.

I am not a mechanic or real hot rodder. Yes, I’ve done some mechanical work on my vehicles, even to the point of cutting a hole in the perfectly good headliner of my Dodge Dakota to install an optional overhead console, or pulling the engine and transmission from a car I wanted to restore. I’m not an engine builder or anything like that.

I have mentioned my Pontiac Grand Prix, which I plan to upgrade. The thing I’ve come to know about Pontiac V8s is that, with some nuances, Pontiac V8s are basically the same across displacements. This means my mid-1970s Pontiac 350 2 barrel engine could potentially accept a 4 barrel set up or better heads from a much more potent Pontiac engine. Now, these parts don’t have plain-language ID – it’s not like it’s stamped “free-flow heads, 1968 GTO”. Or, is it? If you know about casting numbers, you can hunt down what you want, as these numbers tell you a lot about what parts where used where and for what. A book filled with casting numbers would be pretty handy I thought.

Well, what a disappointment this book was. I mean, it’s got a neat retro look and feel. It purports to cover the big-name American and Japanese makes. There’s room to make notes. It seems fairly organized in layout. Each manufacturer has engines sectioned by Passenger car 4 cylinder, 6 cylinder, V6, V8, and then Truck engines listed similarly. Lists are arranged in ascending order from smallest displacement and earliest year.

However, none of that makes up for the sheer amount of information that appears to be missing or incorrect. And I mean, glaring stuff. A summary of what I found, focused mostly on V8s (which I know the most about), but by no means exhaustive…

  • The Chrysler truck 3.9L V6 is listed as 238 cubic inches. Having owned one, I know that all sales and service literature refers to this as a 239 cubic inch engine. A minor detail, but truthfully, a single cubic inch can be a major difference when talking about engines.
  • The Chrysler Passenger car V8 section is missing any references to the FirePower/FireDome/RedRam and Polyspheric engines of the 1950s, as well as missing significant later engines including the 273, 413 and 426 Wedge and 426 Hemi (413s and a 426 are listed under the Truck section, however Wedge and Hemi engines appeared in numerous passenger cars). These were not ‘one-off’ or specialty engines. Chrysler sold thousands of these.
  • An 8.0L Chrysler V10 is listed under the Truck section. However the Dodge Viper also used this engine, but with significant differences. The truck’s iron-block V10 wouldn’t likely share casting numbers with the Viper’s aluminum block, and the engines differed in other respects also. There should be a separate listing for the Viper V10.
  • Many Ford Motor Company engines missing, including the extremely well-known Ford flathead (found in pretty much every Ford from 1939 to 1954), the MEL family, the 221 and 260 members of the Windsor family, and the 406 and 410 variants of the FE family. Additionally, there are discrepancies with other engines, such as the 352 and 390 FE engines, whose years of manufacture are grossly misstated here.
  • Missing from the Buick section are many notable engines such as the 340 and 430, and there appear to be no Nailhead engines.
  • Pontiac section is missing any references to the 326, 421 or 428 engines.
  • No references at all to any of the straight-8 engines from Chrysler, Buick, Pontiac etc., nor any listings for the Lincoln V12, or the Cadillac V12 and V16. These engines were all significant and produced after 1930.
Some entries have blank spaces. Does this mean no casting number exists? Or did they just not know what it was?

Then there are the blank spaces in the listings. As an example, the listings for the 1989-92 and 1993-95 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 5.7L engines show only a single casting number – a block number for the early engine. This may be correct, as perhaps the early block is the only cast part, while the rest may be forged parts (which then wouldn’t technically have a casting number). However, some other engines note forged crankshafts and still have casting numbers listed. Bottom line, it’s very difficult to trust the information in this book.

Undoubtedly, some, perhaps even much of the information here is correct. The 1987-93 5.0L V8 lists the head casting as “E7TE”. Having had a 1988 Mustang, I know the E7TE are known as pretty decent stock heads. But the reference is lacking information. Ford’s parts numbering system is fairly easy to follow, and E7TE breaks down to E for decade (1980s), 7 for the year (1987), T for car line (truck), and E for department (engine). E7TE is used commonly among people who know late-model Ford pushrod engines, but it is not the complete casting number. In fact, ‘E7TE’ will apply to many parts that were cast in 1987 for any Ford truck engine, be they inline or V design, or any number of cylinders. Without the rest of the number, you won’t know what you’re getting.

While I’m tearing this book apart, I will also note there is no copyright page included. This is the page in most books where the publishing information is found. It’s only because ‘thedirtygringo.com’ is found on the back cover, and Amazon lists the author as Dirty Gringo Journals that we know that’s who produced this book.

I have to give this little book a failing grade. There’s just far too many issues. As stated, I am not an expert, but I am enough of an enthusiast to catch the above listed errors. And frankly, this book is only going to appeal to people who have at least as much knowledge as I do. The concept is great – a book that would serve as a reference for numbers geeks, hot rodders, even the backyard mechanic who wants to do some custom work on his cruiser. But with so much information missing or incorrect, there just isn’t any way this book is useful to anyone.

I might have been better off just paying for shipping.

Pros: a good concept, a fairly organized idea for presentation
Cons: simply too much missing and incorrect information to be trusted
Where to find it: Amazon

The Complete Book of Classic Dodge and Plymouth Muscle: Every Model from 1960 to 1974

The Complete Book of Classic Dodge and Plymouth Muscle: Every Model from 1960 to 1974 by Mike Mueller
published 2009, 2013 by MBI Publishing
288 pages, Flexibound

ISBN: 978-0-7603-4477-4

purchased new from bookstore

When I was a kid, my cousin Rob had a 1972 Dodge Charger Rallye with a 340, red with black stripes. In fact it looked very much like the car in this picture (borrowed from volocars.com):

For a kid who was into cars, it was pretty awesome getting to ride in such a cool-looking car, one of the last with a quick mill as the musclecar era died down. By the time I got my first car, Chrysler had long moved to front driving, 4-cylinder cars based on the K-car, and I got my V8 RWD fix with a Fox-body Mustang. But I always has a deep appreciation for the old Mopar muscle.

So when I saw Mike Mueller’s The Complete Book of Classic Dodge and Plymouth Muscle: Every Model from 1960 to 1974 I knew I had to pick it up. Truth is by the time I got this book, I already owned and read books by Mr. Mueller, in fact others in ‘The Complete Book of…’ series, and I’ve found each to be enjoyable to read and a valuable resource. There’s really a lot to like about this series and this Dodge and Plymouth edition is no exception.

For starters, it’s well organized – each model is contained in its chapter, and sectioned by model year. The introduction gives a preamble – the origins of the Hemi engine in the early 1950s (then known as Firepower) and the development of the famous Chrysler 300, starting with the C300 in 1955. From there, chapter 1 gives a somewhat quick overview of 1960-67, featuring the Chrysler 300F, Plymouth Sonoramic, Dodge D-500, the Max Wedge cars and then the Street Hemi Satellite cars. It’s something of a strange chapter, as save the Satellite, these cars are really full-sized and not the traditionally definitive mid-sized “muscle car”. That said, these are critical vehicles in understanding later Mopar muscle.

Each chapter begins with an overview of the model. If we take the Barracuda chapter as an example, much of the 3 pages to start that chapter discusses how the Barracuda was developed as a fastback Valiant that beat the Mustang to market but was fully eclipsed by Ford’s pony. Also found here is quotes from Car Life‘s review of the car…

The simple addition of a sweeping, fastback roofline…
seems to transform the mundane Valiant into a thing of purpose and poise.

… followed by further explanation…

... that 14.4-square-foot expanse of curved backlight… needed special reinforcement to
retain torsional rigidity and securely mount that heavy piece of safety glass.

The next page features the 1964, starting with an information box giving specs such as dimensions, base price, and standard equipment in terms of wheels, tires, suspension and brakes, and engine specs. As the intro pages covered much of the development, there’s a short narrative about the ’64 as well as large photos of a couple cars. Logically, 1965 follows with the newly-introduced Formula S model, with the same format, but with much more narrative prose which covers new options and model changes, including descriptions of the Performance Group and Sports Group options, as well as upgrades to the 273 cubic inch V8. Other models getting features are the 1966 through 1969 Formula S (each featured individually), 1969 440 Cuda, 1970 Hemi Cuda, 1970 AAR Cuda, and 1971-1974 Cuda (again each individually, although only getting about 1 page each).

The remaining chapters flow logically as the musclecars came to be – 1966-71 Charger, 1967-71 GTX and so on culminating with the 1970-74 Challenger. The pages are filled with great stories touching on styling, engineering, performance and marketing. Mueller has been writing about cars from this era for decades, and has access to Chrysler Historical, collectors, restorers and magazine editors who can provide loads of iside information that provide the context were developed in. The image on the pages are really great, mostly full-colour shots of restored or preserved specimens, though some era-correct promotional, marketing and racing pictures appear.

As I said, I think this is a great book. Criticisms are few. The captions on the pictures are somewhat hard to read. The font is small, light and printed in a percentage less than 100% black. And maybe I’d have hoped for more C-body cars. While not technically musclecars, I admit I really like the 300s and big-block Monacos and Furies. But that’s just a wish for more content.

Mike Mueller’s The Complete Book of Dodge and Plymouth Muscle delivers the goods and is a book I enjoy having in my collection. Highly recommended.

Pros: loaded with info, covers all the important models, great photography
Cons: photo captions can be difficult to read
Where to get it: new and used bookstores, Amazon

Opentop Style – An A to Z of Convertible Autos

Opentop Style: An A to Z of Convertible Autos by Graham Robson
published 1988 by New Burlington Books
128 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 1-85348-036-3

purchased from a used book store

I picked Opentop Style: An A to Z of Convertible Autos off the shelf of a now-closed used bookstore I liked. The Porsche on the cover and the ‘A to Z’ subtitle caught my attention. And I find it’s a book I don’t really love, but I don’t really hate. Let me explain.

The first thing to notice about this book is how it’s formatted. The author generally profiles a car over 2 pages – one page of text, a facing page of colour photos (in a few cases, there’s an additional 2 pages of photos). As the book is 128 pages including introduction and index, it’s easy to see that there’s going to be just about 50 cars featured.

The features themselves are interesting, though brief and not as detailed as many other books I’ve read. The text pages show a data area which takes up 1/4 of the page. The data portion covers the years of production discussed, the engine availability and horsepower, the body and suspension type, and the performance in terms of top speed and 0-60 mph times.

The text takes up about half the page, somewhat limited in my estimation. In many cases, the model featured is restricted to only a few model years. With only a single page for pictures, there tends to be just one vehicle. I mean literally, 2 or 3 pictures of one particular car to represent the model. To make matters worse, the features alternate between black text on white background and reversed white text on black. In my copy, some of the pages are hard to read as the reverse print has a lot of filling, that is, the black background chokes the white text.

I note this book was written and produced in the UK. Beyond the typically British terms such as ‘saloon’ for sedan and ‘drop-head coupe’ for convertible, I am struck by the choice of cars to feature. Firstly, I’ll say that the introduction tells you this is not so much an A to Z of convertibles, but many ‘open’ cars – T-tops, targas and landaulettes included. Secondly, of the 50 or so vehicles, only 11 are American-made (or let’s say American brands). I do tend to favour the American makes, but I am always interested in cars from all over the world. It’s just an interesting thing to me which on reflection makes sense. British and European automobile fans are certainly aware of American cars, but they’re much more aware of British, French, German and Italian marques, and they certainly produced a great number of drop tops.

Honestly, I couldn’t really discern a specific criteria for which cars were chosen, other than some or all of the roof is open. As of the publishing date (1988), 17 cars were listed as still being in production, including the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, BMW 3-series, Cadillac Allante, Chrysler TC by Maserati, Toyota MR2, Jaguar XJ-SC and Volkswagen GTI. We also find some supercars such as the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 328GTS. But then there are classics such as the Corvette (but only to 1959), Thunderbird (1955-57), Deusenberg J and SJ, Mercedes 540K and 300S, Citroën DS19, Ferrari 365GTS Daytona, MG Midget and Triumph TR250. Then additionally there are some fairly rare and diverse vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz Landaulette, Lancia Aurelia, Fiat 1200 and Dino, Renault Caravelle and Maserati Mistral. All in all it makes for an interesting but somewhat haphazard collection of cars.

So, why don’t I love this book? Well, for my purposes, it was lacking. Granted, I should not have expected 128 pages to really be a true A to Z of convertibles. Cars, photos and information I was looking for just wasn’t there. It was not an in-depth, a-to-z coverage.

That said, I’d class this as a good entry-level book. It would be suited to the person who has expressed an interest in automobiles, but doesn’t yet have much knowledge or exposure. The vehicle profiles do contain good information, touching on aesthetics, technical specifications and historic context, but they are brief and generic enough that it wouldn’t be overwhelm the novice. The varied selection of cars would also whet the appetite, providing a somewhat non-biased array of eras and marques for the beginner to discover the automotive world.

All in all, if you are taken with the idea of the wind in your hair and sun on your face while motoring along, then this is a fun little book to leaf through.

Pros: a good introduction to a wide range of open-top vehicles; some surprising and rare cars are featured
Cons: perhaps too much focus on cars of the late 1980s; not enough information or images for the knowledgable car buff; reverse-text pages can be difficult to read
Where to find it: Amazon, ebay, private collections

Check this out…

It so happens I’ve found a blog that I enjoy very much, and I’d like to share it with you. Disaffected Musings touches on many subjects – sports, cars, music and more. It’s written by rulesoflogic, who I am happy to say is a regular reader and commenter here.

Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

Dragging and DRIVING

Dragging and DRIVING by Tom MacPherson
published 1960 (second printing 1965) by Scholastic Book Services
155 pages, softcover

Acquired from a sale on Facebook. Currently out of print.

I was born at the end of the 1960s. I always had an interest in cars. I was often able to get my hands on magazines like Hot Rod and Car Craft, but I never had many books about cars. Dragging and DRIVING was a book I’d never seen. I imagine it was quite a popular pocket-sized book in its day.

Dragging and DRIVING was aimed at the young male approaching driving age, and it’s definitely written in a style consistent with the time. It’s reminiscent of those reel-to-reel films you used to see in school, that kind of instructional film about good hygiene or being a good citizen, but with a liberal dose of hot rod slang throughout.

Overall, the theme is safety and responsible ownership and operation. The first chapter acknowledges a societal dichotomy – how society pushes us to be better, to strive to be the best, in sports and academics, to be competitive and even aggressive to be successful. And yet, “we must throw an entire philosopy in reverse… (because) the competitive and aggressive driver is a misfit on the highway.” Author Tom MacPherson set the tone that a smart and responsible attitude would result in years of pleasurable miles on the open roads.

There’s a chapter on acquiring your first car, with good advice on navigating used car lots to “get the most and best automobile for your money.” This includes a very good description of how to inspect a vehicle, from eyeing the panels for ripples and bubbles, to examining the interior, the tires and suspension for wear and what to look for when starting and test driving a car. Though some points no longer apply today, much of what’s written is good advice now.

Once the car is bought, MacPherson talks about customizing and hot rodding, and some of the benefits of learning to do as much as you can. Again, the info is dated (“it is downright foolish to pay a mechanic’s hourly rate ($4.00 or more) for the unskilled work” – can you imagine?) For example, MacPherson describes how one can go about removing cylinder heads oneself, saving labour costs, while perhaps leaving the hard work – milling, porting etc., to the skilled tradesman. It’s good advice for the guy who wants to save a little while still getting the work done properly. The information is not limited to one area, as MacPherson touches on other custom work to both engine and body.

After souping up your job, MacPherson talks about how to race it – legally, especially in the NHRA – even breaking down existing classes. More interesting is information on what was known as the Jaycee Safe Driving Road-E-O, a (now defunct?) written and on-course test that could result in what were then scholarship prizes up to $2000.

But that’s not all there is for a youth to know about having and using a car. MacPherson includes a wealth of wisdom that deals with maintaining your ride and being a safe driver.

  • ‘So You’re Stuck with Stock’ delves into maintaining your vehicle. Granted this is another very dated section – from the days when Dad was out under the hood in the driveway every other weekend. It drives home the idea that while driving around is a blast, your car won’t last long if you don’t keep it in great condition.
  • ‘How to be Popular and Chicken’ talks to “three drivers with real guts – a trucker who pilots a big trailer rig, a dragster who (drove) 140 miles per hour in eleven seconds, and a turnpike cop…” about how they drive defensively as a matter of life and death.
  • ‘Skids, Skins and Skills’ describes techniques one needs to know in order to safely navigate whatever hazards may be encountered on the road.
  • ‘Had an Accident?’ discusses what to do in the event of an accident, from exchanging information, dealing with insurance, as well as how to administer first aid at the scene including setting splints. The following chapter ‘Second Impact’ discusses head injuries specifically, as well as the importance of seatbelts, which is something for 1960.

The final chapter guesses at ‘Tomorrow’s Driving’. Some of those guesses were prophetic, in the form of electric-powered and self-driving cars, as well as electronic warning systems (lane-keeping, blind-spot, reverse camera) that are now available on many cars. Others, such as turbine and rotary-engined cars have been tried but seem to have disappeared. And others, like rocket- and atom-power are probably never to be seen.

There’s 2 appendices. The first concentrates on slang terms, from ammeter and bent-eight to dash-pot and glass-packs to velocity stacks and z-ing. The second shows how a car goes, not only describing internal combustion but also how fuel and spark are delivered.

I really enjoyed ‘Dragging and DRIVING’. It’s definitely a blast from the past, obviously aimed at young males and now with many of the specifics really long out of date. However, I like that it’s a book designed to excite youth about driving while making clear that there’s a great deal of responsibility to being a safe driver and owning a car. I realized how the title actually fit – Dragging… that sort of hooks you in, the excitement of having a car… but DRIVING, that’s the emphasis, learning to be a safe, responsible driver, not just some drag racer. Frankly, much of the information still applies today.

Pros: a look into ideas about cars and driving during the early 1960s; period-correct
Cons: much of the information is now out-dated (though it is somewhat valuable in understanding pre-1960s cars)
Where to find it: Amazon, ebay, private collections

Standard Catalog of Pontiac 1926-2002

Front cover of Standard Catalog of Pontiac 1926-2002

Standard Catalog of Pontiac 1926-2002 by John Gunnell
published 2012, Krause Publications
368 pages, softcover

ISBN-10: 1-4402-3234-2
ISBN-13: 978-1-4402-3234-3

There are some books that are not a ‘good read’ by any means, but if you’re really into a subject then these books prove to be valuable parts of your collection. Among those are what we’ll call reference books, and the Standard Catalog of Pontiac 1926-2002 is most certainly such a book.

Krause Publications was quite well known for its Standard Catalog series, which began as a coin collectors publication but touched on other collectibles such as baseball cards and in the case of today’s review, automobiles. The company was absorbed by F+W which has in turn succumbed to bankruptcy. I mention this because in my recent searches, I’ve not found an updated version of this book (ie. one that includes the final years until Pontiac’s demise in 2009). In light of the company’s business issues, I suspect that it’s unlikely any update will arrive.

So, what to say about the Standard Catalog of Pontiac… Well, it’s a thick book, completely in black and white, and the paper is newsprint-like. The layout is in some ways like Sixty Years of Chevrolet, though it reads even less like a narrative. That’s not to say there isn’t anything in the way of story – there is. After the foreword and the ‘how to use this guide’ stuff, there’s a decent overview of the history of Oakland and Pontiac, and brief profiles on Pontiac-Oakland Club International and Pontiac Historic Services, both great resources for Pontiac fanatics.

It should be noted for those who are not aware… Oakland Motor Car Company, based in Pontiac, Michigan, was a division of General Motors. In the 1920s, GM instituted a ‘companion make’ system, sort of a ‘junior brand’ to other GM brands. Oakland’s junior was Pontiac (the others were Viking for Oldsmobile, Marquette for Buick, and LaSalle for Cadillac). The goal was to cover as much of the potential market as possible. Ultimately, the program did not last long. Interestingly Pontiac displaced its senior make, and Oakland was no more.

1918-19 Oakland page spread. This is typical for early year synopses.

The book proceeds with what is essentially each model year as a chapter. Beginning with the 1908 Oakland, pages are filled with sections organized by year. Each section contains (where applicable): a description of each model line offered that year; breakdown of the I.D. data; a production total grid; a listing of engines offered (standard and optional) for each model; chassis specifications; technical information (ie. transmissions, final drive ratios, suspension type, fuel capacity); drivetrain options; major convenience/appearance options; option packages; and finally historical notes, including total Pontiac production, ranking amongst US automakers, road test results and other trivia. Later years actually break out the engine, chassis, technical and options sections by model.

You can see that for the early years, where there were maybe 2 car lines offered and with few options, a ‘years-worth’ of info may take up a page, including photos. The year 1976, with 8 model lines on offer, occupies 4-1/2 pages. For 1997, it’s 7-1/2 pages. I’d imagine that only those who thrive on knowing every last bit of trivial information would be enticed to slog through these sections.

1969 section. Note the top left image on page 121 is captioned as a GTO convertible, but the image is really just a repeat of the GTO ‘The Judge’ hardtop from bottom right on page 120.

There is a 25-page section of larger size Pontiac photos, and the end of the book has more charts with a year-by-year style number chart, some interesting Pontiac facts, and build data through 1972.

Now, as I’ve mentioned, I happen to have a 1976 Grand Prix as my summertime cruiser. I actually bought this book prior to getting the car, but as a reference this book has been great. I used the 1976 I.D. data section to decode my VIN number:
2J57M6PXXXXXX
2- Pontiac Division
J- Grand Prix (not including SJ)
57- 2-door hardtop
M- Pontiac 350 cubic inch V8 with 2-bbl
P- Pontiac MI plant
(the last 6 digits being the sequential number)
The M code 350 is the base on the Grand Prix and Firebird Formula, rated at 160 horsepower (oh, those smog-year engines), and 280lbs-ft torque.

2001 section start. As you can see, the later year entries contain a great deal more information than the early years.

Of course, there are some things to quibble with this book.

Firstly, it’s a real shame that every picture is in black and white, especially since so many of them are from Pontiac sales material. With a collection of stats and little in the way of narrative, colour picture would have gone a long way to increasing visual appeal.

Secondly, there are a number of errors. I can’t necessarily pick out any in terms of the statistical info, as I have nothing to check this text against. However, there are a number of pictures that are either repeated for multiple models, or are obviously labeled incorrectly.

Thirdly, I’m a little puzzled that there’s essentially no information on Canadian Pontiacs. Now, some may question why I bring this up. The thing is, like many automakers in the days before the Auto Pact, the Big Three had some ‘Canada-only’ products. For GM, these included what some call ‘Cheviacs’. These were cars styled like full-sized Pontiacs, but with slightly altered sheet-metal, that was put on what were essentially full-sized Chevrolet frames, complete with Chevrolet engines. Instead of names like Star Chief, Catalina and Bonneville, they were named Strato Chief, Laurentian and Parisienne. So why do I question why these cars are not included?

Well for one, a number of Pontiac models were built in Canada, some exclusively. The final generations of the Firebird for example were built at Ste. Therese Quebec. Secondly, the Parisienne was a Canada exclusive from 1958-1983. However, GM had discontinued Pontiac’s full-size cars in the early 1980s. Catalina was gone, and the Bonneville name moved to what had been the Grand Lemans. But buyers looking for full-sized cars simply bypassed Pontiac rather than settle for the mid-size Bonnie. GM’s solution was to import the Canadian-market full-size Parisienne until 1987. This story is missing from the 1983 model descriptions – Parisienne just appears as the top-line model with no explanation of the name which hadn’t appeared until then. It just seems odd, given the history.

With all that said, I’ll echo what I’d said earlier. This is a great resource as a reference. It doesn’t necessarily stand alone as a reference, but it’s got a wealth of information for those who need to know more about Pontiac.

Pros: a wealth of data and information, an important resource
Cons: all in black and white, some very noticeable errors, the final 7 years of Pontiac production are missing
Where to find it: Amazon, ebay, private collections (most likely out of print)

Fifties Flashback: The American Car

Fifties Flashback: The American Car by Dennis Adler
published 1996, 2012 by Crestline Publishing
160 pages, hardcover

ISBN-13: 978-0-7858-2831-0

Purchased new from a book retailer.

Each decade of motorcar manufacture seems to have a personality to it. And when it comes to personality, the cars of 1950s have plenty, full of glitz, glamour and go-go-go! Dennis Adler’s Fifties Flashback: The American Car does a very good job exposing those big glitzy cars with great photos and a wealth of information. He describes not only the vehicles but gives a decent background to describe how these sometimes outlandish behemoths came to exist.

Adler’s first 2 chapters set the stage. The first chapter describes what was happening in the country. The post-war prosperity, the creation of the interstate system, the birth of rock’n’roll, the rise of the motor hotel and the notion of travel throughout the country for pleasure. But Adler also describes an idea that drove automotive design to new heights – planned obsolescence, the idea that the next model should look so great that this year’s model seems old and worn out. The next chapter, Adler fills in the automotive design background. He describes how the immediate post-war years saw warmed over pre-war designs until such time as manufacturers finally introduce the new sleeker, lower cars of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

From there, Adler does a nice job of covering some of the star cars from the ’50s. While the main focus is on the shiny chrome and sheer size of these cars, Adler includes a good amount of information covering performance and engineering, as well as some of the corporate intrigue, how personalities worked together (or didn’t) to steer design in one direction or another. Topics covered in some depth include the development of the GM ‘Dream Cars’ – the 1953 Corvette, Eldorado, Skylark and Fiesta; the engineering of the Ford Skyliner’s retractable metal roof; the development of the Corvette and Thunderbird as competing sports cars; and George Mason’s plan to merge 4 floundering companies to create American Motors.

1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta ‘Dream Car’.
Ford’s Skyliner convertible and Edsel.

Also of note, the book includes a number of quotes and insights from people such as Chuck Jordan, Dave Holls and Jack Telnack. These men were in the thick of automotive design during the 1950s, being directly involved with the development of a numbe rof these vehicles.

As enjoyable as this book is, I did find some things to quibble with.

There seems a bias towards cars made in the latter half of the decade. It’s somewhat understandable as there is a distinct change in styling from that was seen with the 1955 models. As many of the new post-war designs came in 1948-49, it makes sense that the aesthetic would carry on to mid-decade. Adler doesn’t completely ignore the pre-1955 cars – as said, the GM Dream Cars do get quite a bit of ink. But there’s little to see of cars like the 1950-51 Ford, the first Chev Bel Air, or the early 50s Chryslers.

Hudson, Nash, Studebaker and Packard get their due.

Secondly, the Chrysler Corporation seems under-represented. The are not completely ignored, as the 1957 300C, 1957 DeSoto Adventurer and 3 of Exner’s Idea Cars show up. By comparison to the GM and Ford representation though, coverage is lacking. Yes, Chrysler styling prior to 1955 was very stodgy, but there is a real lack of Dodge, Plymouth and Imperial cars. In fact, while the 1957 300C gets a number of paragraphs, there’s nothing about how the famed C-300 came to be in 1955 when an Imperial front end was married up to a New Yorker wearing Windsor rear flanks.

Thirdly, the final chapter focuses on hot rods and customs, and it seems something of an afterthought. It’s a difficult chapter to describe. This book is certainly all about the factory styling, but any discussion about cars in the 1950s would have to include hot rods and customs which had a huge presence. It’s just that hot rodding and custom cars are such a big subject that the chapter seems inadequate. There are some nice cars shown, and the big names like Winfield and Barris and Roth show up, but it just doesn’t seem enough.

Overall, Denis Adler’s Fifties Flashback is a very enjoyable book that provides information and visual appear to drive you to seek out more. It’s really a flashback to a time when chrome was king and the automobile took hold as a major influence on American society.

Pros: good historical context and insider information, lots of great photos
Cons: not much on cars from the early part of the decade, Chrysler seems under-represented
Where to find it: Amazon, ebay, used bookstores, personal collections

The development and competition between the early Corvette and Thunderbird is featured, as well as notes on other sportscars of the era.
Back cover featuring the iconic 1959 Cadillac Eldorado

Automobile Quarterly Volume 7, Number 1

Automobile Quarterly Volume 7, Number 1 edited by
published 1968 by Automobile Quarterly
112 pages, hardcover

Library of Congress number: 62-4005

Acquired from the estate of a friend and fellow ‘car guy’. Currently out of print.

We take a bit of a detour here as we review an edition of Automobile Quarterly. Technically, AQ was a periodical, like a magazine, and for various reasons I want to stick to books as opposed to magazines. But AQ wasn’t really a magazine… it was more like a book that came out 4 times a year.

Automobile Quarterly began in 1962, the editions were hardbound, and further it contained no advertising. It’s subtitle was “The Connoisseur’s Magazine of Motoring Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow”, and articles covered not just the cars, but the people involved with cars and other subjects related to motoring. The articles weren’t limited to a few pages, and there could be multiple articles relating to one theme.

And so it is with Volume 7 Number 1, the Summer 1968 edition, which really packed some huge names into its pages. Start with 20 pages about legendary champion driver Rudi Caracciola, excerpted from Mercedes racing team manager Alfred Neubauer‘s book Speed Was My Life. Follow that with a number of pages of paintings that recalled moments from Caracciola’s racing career, and then a memoir from Rudi’s wife Alice. Then, Phil Hill (yes, that Phil Hill) gave his impression of the Mercedes SSK, the car Rudi drove in the European Hill Climb Championships. These are not simply articles reciting the acheivements and records of Caratsch (as Caracciola was called). Neubauer and Alice Caracciola remember the man, his life, the determination and skill and pain and suffering of a racing driver. In the days long before the internet, you would have gone well beyond numbers and records and come to know a great deal about one of the pre-war greats in auto racing.

Walter Gotschke’s impressions of Caracciola’s racing career are a visual treat.
Read Champion Phil Hill’s thoughts on the Mercedes SSK.

To be truthful, both Neubauer and Alice paint a scene of European racing as a whole back in the pre-war days. Their remembrances are filled with stories not just about Rudi, but of excitement and honour, dangers and tragedies that was early racing. Both are deeply personal in their memories, but reading the stories one gets a sense of the closeness of the community, the highs and lows of racing in those days.

Changing gears, AQ features a story penned by Dutch. As in, Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin, famed automotive engineer and designer of custom-bodied cars, known for Packard-Darrins, the Packard Clipper, and the Kaiser Darrin. Darrin regales with stories of how he entered and then left the corporate automotive world, and got into the custom-body business, all the while enjoying quite the life between Paris and America. There are renderings of some of Dutch’s great designs, and a great photo-feature of a Darrin Packard Super 8 Victoria, certainly a rare vehicle to see.

The Darrin Packard Super 8 Victoria.

The issue wraps up focused on Buick. One of the mainstay marques of American production, the story tracks the early beginnings of David Dunbar Buick‘s efforts, turns on the arrival of William Crapo Durant and his success building GM on the foundation of Buick, through to the late 1960s. There’s a significant amount of information about the company and it’s place within General Motors. The focus tends to be mostly on the people managing Buick, and the various financial and structural aspects of the company, especially in the early years. There’s a more cursory description of the cars themselves, the models, pricing and innovations from year to year. All in all though one gets a good insight into the creation of one of the lasting marques of the automotive world. This is followed by a few pages featuring the Buick ‘Bug’, a car that established the marque’s racing credibility.

Durant and Buick, and a handwritten note from Durant’s wife celebrating her husband’s success at the 1905 New York auto show, selling 1108 cars.
Buick for ’53 – Riviera and Skylark

Finally, there’s a wrap up of motorsport activities from the early part of 1968, tracking race results in the major bodies, from Formula 1 to USAC. Included in this particular edition is the record of 3 fatal incidents – World Champion Jim Clark at Hockenheim, Mike Spence at Indianapolis, and Lodovico Scarfiotti at Rossfeldstrasse.

I appreciated the depth of coverage found in AQ. Fully half the book is dedicated to Caracciola, his career and his cars. Yes, the Neubauer excerpt is lengthy, but the variety of perspective then offered by the painted images or early racing, Mrs. Caracciola’s memoir, and exploration of a car Rudi drove makes for a much more interesting portrait. The same may be said for the pages dedicated to Darrin and Buick – interesting and extensive information presented in an enjoyable manner.

Sadly, AQ last published in 2012, and it seems it won’t be coming back. Cliche as it may sound, the proliferation and easy accessibility of content on the internet, coupled with the high and hard costs of publishing a high-quality hardbound printed book pretty much ensure there’d be little chance such a periodical could find an audience that would sustain it. However, it is possible to find used copies, many likely in very good condition. If Volume 7 Number 1 is an indication, any edition of AQ will be an enjoyable trip back in automotive history.

Pros: fairly in-depth look at some of the ‘big’ name in auto history; very good imagery, going beyond simple photos
Cons: at worst, the photos of the Mercedes SSK and Packard are ‘dated’ by comparison to what you might see in current magazines
Where to find it: Available on Amazon, eBay, used bookstores.

Road Hogs: Detroit’s Big Beautiful Luxury Performance Cars of the 1960s and 1970s

Road Hogs

Road Hogs: Detroit’s Big Beautiful Luxury Performance Cars of the 1960s and 1970s by Eric Peters
published 2011 by MBI Publishing
160 pages, hardcover

ISBN-13: 978-0-7603-3764-6
ISBN-10: 0-7603-3388-2

Purchased new from a vendor at the Toronto Classic Car Auction

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and in those years my parents mostly drove full-size cars from the Big Three. A 1960 Olds 88, a 1964 Chevy Biscayne, then a 1964 Buick Electra 225 2-door and finally a 1976 Mercury Meteor Montcalm. My mom inherited her father’s last car, a 1967 Ford LTD 4-door hardtop, and she drove it until 1985. While I certainly loved Mustangs and Camaros and GTOs as any kid would, I always had a soft spot for the big, floaty full-sizers.

That drew me to Eric Peters’ book Road Hogs. At the time, I didn’t recall seeing many books that really showcased these behemoths. Sure, there were anthologies that covered complete marques, and maybe some books that explored top-line luxury cars. But none that seemed to really celebrate the beasts found in most driveways across North America. And make no mistake, Peters’ book is definitely a celebration of these cars, evidenced by this from the introduction…

Great, glitzy ingots of excess, whitewall tired and landau roofed – their mighty prows bedecked in chrome,
their flanks adorned with inscriptions that read d’Elegance and Brougham
These were cars deserving not merely of names, but titles.

The text is light on technical information – mostly wheelbases, overall lengths, cubic inch and horsepower references. And Peters isn’t actually shy about lamenting, as the 70s became the 80s and then the 90s, how the numbers got smaller and more depressing. Let’s face it, there isn’t enough lipstick to disguise the 4500 lb pigs saddled with 400 cubic inch plants that could barely muster 180 horsepower. There is a reason we know it as ‘The Malaise Era’.

What Peters does is laud the size, the opulence, indeed the excess that these cars embody. Take the title of chapter one, ‘Topless Titans: The Anna Nicole Smiths of the Automotive World’, and the first car featured is the Cadillac Eldorado convertible, probably the most ostentatious production car of the era. Like Anna Nicole the Eldo was glitzy, curvy, it had huge… cubic inches. And Peters outlines how the Caddy and its brethren were the height of plush, luxurious road travel – yards of Corinthian leather… wide sweeping dashboards… pillow-soft suspensions… and gobs of stump-pulling torque to get the lumbering beasts moving.

It doesn’t end with the big convertibles. The next chapter features the top-line sedans like the AMC Ambassador and Ford LTD. He devotes a chapter to the ‘mid-size coupes’, the Monte Carlos and Cordobas which dwarf today’s sedans. Of course, the true luxo-barges are also given their due – the DeVilles, Continentals and Imperials that were truly the biggest and best. Finally, Peters even squeezes in a chapter on the family trucksters – the wagons which today are rare after having been driven into the dust carting America’s future to and fro.

Now as I pointed out in my review of Ford Muscle, I do make note of errors I find when I read a book. And I did unfortunately find a few minor things in Road Hogs – the most egregious being finding a 1958 Chevy being represented as a 1958 Buick (which is a shame – the grille on the 58 Buick is a dazzling sight!) I guess everyone makes mistakes from time to time.

The bottom line on Road Hogs though is, it’s a fun read. Peters’ writing style demonstrates his reverence for these cars, and really the era they originate from. At the same time he is able to accept and even poke some light fun at the deficiencies inherent in what are arguably among the most poorly constructed American cars built. The images are a wonderful mix of original promotional material and contemporary shots of survivor cars. Each car gets a little factoid table to fill in the picture. And while some favourite models may be missing (the Monte Carlo is in, but my Grand Prix isn’t), this book really pays homage to these bloated beasts that so many of us spent so many hours bouncing seatbelt-less in.

Pros: great writing style; large colourful photos; 25 models covered
Cons: minor factual errors; maybe a little light on tech info
Where to find it: Available on Amazon, eBay, used bookstores.