As a matter of course, I write about people I don’t know here. I see a unique vehicle; I chase it down, photograph it, and interview the owner. Today, I’m writing about a good friend.
Mark and I met in art school back in the early 70s. He was studying Industrial Design, making sculpture for fun. And fixing up Corvairs. He was driving a primer white one then, with no interior trim except for the dashboard, driver’s seat, and - when you were lucky - a seat for you.
Ralph Nader would have been horrified. In fact, Mark’s license plate said it all; “UNSAFE”.
After a gap of some 30 years, I have had the pleasure of getting back in touch with Mark. He is still doing things his own way. (“Well, I lack any adult supervision”, he points out.) It struck me as ironic that he has worked for many years at Johnson Controls, testing and trouble-shooting automotive seats and interior parts.
And he’s still fixing up Corvairs. And Camaros, and ‘Vettes. And Chevy pickup trucks.
Mark has the skills to take a car completely apart, and the vision to then re-assemble that pile of parts. Each part, no matter how mundane, is cleaned, straightened, refinished before it is assembled into a complete, drivable vehicle. A work of art – industrial design and sculpture.
In the process, he has collected what he calls “The Archive” of Chevrolet parts from the 60s, mainly Corvair, some of which you see here. It may look as though these parts are just piled up randomly. They are not. Virtually every part is tagged and cataloged, hardware bagged and attached, and many carry Mark’s hand-drawn diagrams illustrating how this particular component attaches to its neighbors to eventually form an entire automobile.
Mark says he has enough Corvair parts to assemble “at least two really nice ones.” Which he might do, when he is finished restoring the 1953 Chevy pickup in the garage. And rebuilding his 1923-vintage wood frame house.
Mark took some time from all this restoration to collaborate with me on a photographic exposition of human expression through the automobile for a School of Art Alumni Show, and it was a gas to work with him.
To those of us old enough to recognize a carburetor, there’s a powerful attraction to cars that possess these old mixing pots for fuel and air.
The cars of the post WWII era through the mid-seventies hold a spell on gearheads, especially racing cars.
While a modern race car is pretty much a computer lab on wheels, leaving a wake of data that’s analyzed and acted upon in real-time by a crew of engineers along the pit wall, these cars were generally designed without the aid of wind tunnels or computer simulators. Many are simply modified road cars that were never intended for competition.
Road car or purpose-built racer, they represent a team’s or sometimes a single man’s best guess at what would be fast at a given point in time. In the absence of actual data, there is wonderful and endless variety in their forms, dominated by the sure knowledge that lighter is better and a part is only too light if it breaks.
The purpose-built race cars are hand-made by experts at casting, machining and bending metals and other more exotic materials, and the intricacy of their construction is mind boggling. Full attention to the smallest part is required, or that part becomes the one that is not able to withstand the stress and the heat, and gives way, taking the entire operation out of the race.
All excess material having been shaved off, parts are frequently polished to various levels of reflectivity, sometimes just to show off the beauty of their forms.
The Kohler International Challenge at Wisconsin’s Road America is an annual gathering of aficionados of old race cars from all over the world. They come to celebrate the sounds and sights of these vintage machines. They represent a high point in optimizing an internal combustion engine and a set of four wheels to carry a single person as fast as possible around a given stretch of road.
About the same time that serious golfers were bagging their wooden drivers and moving to metal-headed ones, Chrysler was bolting wood-like panels to its boxy K-car LeBaron, in the 50-year-old tradition they branded “Town & Country”.
I caught up with this one, most appropriately, in the parking lot of a local country club. The Town & Country could not have been more comfortable unless the forecast of thunder showers had not discouraged a top-down ride.
By 1984, Lee Iacocca had moved over from Ford to take the stick of the nose-diving Chrysler, which he saved by going to Washington in 1979 and asking the government for loan guarantees to calm banks and deserting investors. But in addition to his considerable political skills, Lee was a car guy with legendary ability to read the market, even before his customers. (Remember Iacocca’s personal challenge in those TV commercials; “If you can find a better car, buy it.”) Without this K-car and its siblings, it’s safe to say that Chrysler would not have survived to be bailed out again.
The Town & Countries were almost all station wagons, making this convertible quite rare, with just over 1,100 built in 1984. It was definitely the high-end variant of the K-car, with Mark Cross supplying the design of the “fine Corinthian” leather interior touted so famously by spokesman Ricardo Montalban.
This car also has the “Electronic Voice Alert”, which the owner tells me still works perfectly. Built by Texas Instruments, and using the same voice synthesizer technology as the contemporary “Speak n Spell” educational toy, the system lowers the radio volume (if necessary) and provides polite reminders to put on your seatbelt, seek service for a critical engine problem, and, when disembarking, “Don’t forget your car keys”.
The owner, Mr. O’Neil (who tells me his friends call him “Tip”), smiled and told me “And it always says “Thank you’. (You can listen to an EVA and a Speak n’ Spell having a conversation - of sorts – here.)
Mr. O’Neil is recently retired and drives the car almost exclusively to the club. Tip told me he has worked there for over 30 years. When I asked him if he was a Pro, he smiled and said, “Yeah. I’m a professional bartender.”
While he worked nights and weekends drawing beers for people of comfortable means, Mr. O’Neil worked days for as many years teaching kids who are “at risk” at a local high school. “It was very challenging,” he told me, “but I loved it.”
I think it’s wonderful that Mr. O’Neil and his Town & Country get to spend so much time at the club these long summer days. They’ve both worked hard and done a fine job. In the words of the Electronic Voice Alert, Mr. O’Neil; “Thank you”.
Born in Detroit.
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