Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“Unsafe at Any Speed” – 1962 Chevrolet Corvair

Look at this adorable little car.

It's kind of hard to imagine this cute little Chevy played a pivotal role, not just in automotive history, but American history.

In the early ‘60s some Americans were developing a taste for small European cars, particularly Volkswagens. GM, to its credit, saw an opportunity. Although the Corvair was arguably better looking, it was essentially a Volkswagen Beetle.

Like the VW, it was nimble, lightweight, easy on gas - and fun. Like the Beetle, its engine was in the back, and air-cooled. And like the Beetle, it had an independent rear suspension.

That “swing axle” rear suspension - and the failure of GM to adequately damp the tendency of wheels at the end of said suspension to “tuck under” - was the topic of Chapter One in Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at any Speed”. On national TV (remember that?) Nader solemnly told the U.S. Congress that the Corvair was the “leading candidate for the un-safest-car title”. What a killjoy.

Long story short, GM stalked Nader trying to catch him having fun, got busted, built the Corvair for a couple more years apparently just to spite him, and climbed back into the box where they built ever-larger, heavier cars until… well, until further notice. The whole "foreign" car thing eventually caught on.

Nader’s book convinced the America public of a couple of things. First, that they needed federal protection from the auto industry. (Four decades later, GM would need the feds to save them from the American public.)

And, that bigger cars are just better.

Nader rode (he never drove) his consumer crusader image into a three-way race in the 2000 presidential election, possibly careening George “W” Bush into office.

Jim, seen here, is from a Chevy family, and bought this Corvair because he wanted “something different.” Looking past the vastly more popular Camaros and Corvettes, Jim decided the Corvair was just more fun.

He tells me his nine-year old daughter was embarrassed to ride in “the old car” until people started smiling and waving. Now she gets it.

All contents copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Bringing the Light - 1990 Ford C8000 Utility Truck

This truck has been working on a major intersection near my home all summer.

I’ve noticed it dozens of times, and admired its, well… utility - as well as its softly rounded features and, of course, great patina.

As you can see, it has an auger for drilling a good sized hole in the ground - a foot wide or so - and a boom for raising poles. I don’t know, it may have some other tricks as well. The day I finally stopped to make some photos, it was raising aluminum light poles, so they could be bolted onto their bases.

I was somewhat surprised to learn the truck is “only” 15 years old, as the styling seems like late 50’s vintage. Doing a little research, I have found pictures of these C8000 models going back at least to the mid-sixties, and a similar cab style even older than that. A lot of these trucks did service as fire trucks all over the country.

Steve, the driver of this truck, and the man in the photos, has been working with it for several years, and uses the boom like it was his own arm.

He was happy to talk a bit about the truck while the other member of his crew was securing the post to the base.

He wanted me to come around to look at the lugs on the tread of the rear tire. He jammed a couple of his fingers into it, where they disappeared nearly up to his fingernails. “Does that tread look shot to you?” he asked me. “The cop told me that there are supposed to be little grooves that go across there, and because they aren’t there, that I’m in violation. I went and looked at a brand new one of these tires and it looked just like this one. No grooves. What am I supposed to do? Pull the tires off and take ‘em to the judge?”

“What are you going to do?” I asked Steve. “Pay the tag.” he smiled, dragging on his cigarette.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dan the Packer Man - 1989 "Pacura"

PACURA - hood ornament - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

NOTE: With football season upon us once again, I am re-posting one of my favorite interviews here. This piece was originally posted on November 10, 2009.

I met Dan (“The Packer Man”) from Oconomowoc in a parking lot yesterday. It made my day.

Sunday, the day before we met, the Green Bay Packers had managed to present the 7-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their first win of the season in a spectacular display of self-destruction. In spite of this, the sun was shining up in its heaven, which always surprises Packer fans on the morning after a loss.

It’s not terribly unusual to see cars (or even houses) that have gotten the Packer treatment, but Dan’s car carries Packer d├ęcor to an exceptional level of detail.

PACURA - flag waving - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

It’s a 1989 Acura Integra, (note the license plate) which was red from the factory, but now carries a paint scheme that replicates perfectly his favorite team’s helmets.

The helmets in the rear window carry all of the numbers retired by the Packers team over their long history.

The hood ornament, which I absolutely love, is actually a trophy for a Punt, Pass and Kick contest from 1974, which Dan bought at a yard sale. He removed the metal figure, painted it Packer colors and bolted it to the hood. I love the way he is leaning forward into the wind, arms at his side.

PACURA - license plate - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Dan told me that he only recently repainted the hood ornament’s jersey number to 12. (Some people here have had a very hard time letting go of #4. Others apparently gave Dan a hard time after Bret went over to the Vikings.)

Dan says driving the PACURA is a real kick because of the reaction he gets everywhere he goes. People get so excited about the PACURA that they pass him and then slow back down just to give him a smile and a thumbs up. When was the last time that happened to you on the freeway?

PACURA - interior - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Dan confided that after he decked out the car, his wife swore she would never be seen in it. He thinks she thought it would be embarrassing. “That’s YOUR car”, she told him.

When Dan finally convinced her to go out for a spin in the PACURA, (must have been after a big win) she couldn’t believe the honks, smiles, waves, and genuine expressions of appreciation the car draws from so many people. Now, she wants to drive it to work because it puts her in such a good mood!

PACURA - back seat - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

As I was thanking Dan for being such a good sport, I finally noticed his Packers watch. Dan confessed that he wasn’t wearing his Packers rings today because he was “traveling incognito… I’m laying low after that game yesterday.”

OK, Dan.

Dan and his PACURA - copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

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Monday, August 23, 2010

On Any Sunday - Badger Kart Club - Dousman WI

Badger Cart Club copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

Most Sunday mornings from spring through summer the grounds of the Badger Kart Club are covered with family SUVs and campers pulling boxy trailers. Inside these trailers are miniature garages and in the garages sit some serious, if very lightweight, racing machines.

Badger Kart Club photo copyright 2010 Jeffery Blackwell

A child of the Hot Rod movement back in the mid-50s, karting is now mature enough that some families have been racing for three generations. It is not uncommon for a family to sport multiple drivers.  A scene of father or mother working with a young racer is the norm – and many of those young drivers are girls.

The open-wheel machines are obviously different for the kids and the older races. The “senior” karts have two or four-cycle water-cooled engines that can turn up to 17,000 RPM and crank more than 30 horsepower. When attached to a kart and driver that weigh 350 pounds combined, 0-60 acceleration can be less than four seconds - and top speeds of around 70MPH are possible, depending on the gearing and the track.

I met a guy named Dominic who told me he started racing six or seven years ago in his early 20s, and would have started sooner except when he lived at home his mother wouldn’t let him. The sport can obviously be dangerous, and driving suits, boots, gloves and full helmets are required. Most drivers I saw also wore a head restraining collar and some even had chest protectors. There are no roll bars or seat belts. If the kart is flipping over, it’s best to leave.

Karting is not only an affordable motorsport, it is also seen as the best way to learn the techniques required for a career in auto racing, with most contenders for the World Driving Championship and many NASCAR drivers having come up through kart racing. As I hope you can see from my photos, kart racing is highly competitive, and the fast drivers are very serious.

“I’m just sitting here trying to think of something to make this kart just a little bit faster," one man offered as I looked at his kart up on the stand. It turns out the kart is his daughter Jen’s.

 Jen holds a tenuous points lead in her class, and is now 18. She started racing at the age of five.

All contents copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

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