Monday, February 23, 2009

Aphorisms 36 & 37 (Two of a Series; Collect the Whole Set!)

I'm not sure why, but the slightly aged (no! it's vintage!) (it is!) (swear to God!) magazine-y feature below seems to feature far more than its share of pithy aphorisms... it's chock full'o'nutty aphoristic goodness!

I think it's the muscle car factor. I used to remove surfboards and skateboards and skimboards and wetsuits and boogie-boards and Carl's Jr. styrofoam burger-boxes and Yellow Pages (hey, geezers, remember them?) and everything but the essential Thomas Bros. map out of the various GTOs and El Caminos that I would then go dyno-tweak onto the Pasadena Freeway on-ramps....

(For them that don't know, the Pasadena Freeway, allegedly The World's First Freeway, was and is kind of bizarrely designed, in that you must NECESSARILY, no matter what manner of vehicle you're steering, STOMP ON THE GAS in order to enter, from a dead stop with maybe twenty or thirty or forty or so yards until YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING AT LEAST THE MINIMUM 55 MPH (which any Californian can tell you is and ought to be and ever will be somewhere between 65 and 80). Which is way-bitchin', frankly, if, on-ramp after on-ramp, you're tuning your Tri-Power three-carburetor '66 GTO, or better yet, seeing, for entirely scientific study purposes, exactly how far the gas-gauge needle will drop if you crank open the hood scoop on your low-geared, high-compression-head RamAir III '69 GTO and Fuckin' STOMP ON IT. (Aimed, let it be said, almost directly from dear beloved glorious downtown LA straight toward Pasadena's mythical Jet Propulsion Labratory.)

Anyway, as I was saying up there somewheres: aphorisms. Galore!
Such as:

"Fiberglass being fiberglass and easy to slice with a Skilsaw..."
(See, I don't much care whether you personally think much of this as an aphorism, but I know, in my heart of Skilsaw'd fiberglas'd hearts, that this is about as pure a sentence as is possible to achieve in American. Screw you, as Ray Wylie Hubbard nearly almost said, I'm from Arizona.

Same goes double-or-nuthin' for this one: "Blowers and air-injector stacks began bursting through hoods just as Big Daddy Roth's cartoons had always predicted they would; All Hell burst loose."

Or this:
"Hood scoops — functional, semi-functional, quasi-functional — sprang up like flared nostrils on horny beasts..."

"Rockets are rockets, and cars from the Fifties are anything but."

And then there's the opening line of this opus, which I think has proved to have a near-eternal aesthetic endurance:
"Muscle cars don't have fins."

Okay, so maybe by Oscar Wildean standards these are long-winded and louche' . . . but this next, this next one, this very next one . . . well, if I write no other sentence in life . . . (and some afternoons, that's exactly my mood) well, I wrote this one:

"Good cars go fast."

So there, dammit.

"Good cars go fast."

Take that, LeCorbusier et/und Mies Van derRohe; Form follows function, less is more; both be damned.

"Good cars go fast."

That, if I must say so myself, kicks major ass.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Heavy Metal: Muscle Cars; A brief (and speedy!) cultural history

by Bart Bull
(published in Details)

Muscle cars don't have fins.

To put it another way: If it has fins, it's not a muscle car.  This is my contribution to peaceably settling the nasty aesthetic battle that rages whenever scholars gather to debate the demarcation lines of the Muscle-Car Era.  The argument can be made that the first muscle car was the 1964 GTO, created when Pontiac general manager Pete Estes and an ad exec named Jim Wangers snuck a 389 with no fewer than three two-barrel carbs into a Tempest body.  Then again, what about those mid-Fifties Chryslers with the early version of the hemi engine?  Or the '57 Studebaker with the Paxton supercharger?  And if you're stretching things that far, how about those postwar Hudson Hornets that stomped anything else you could drive onto and off of a stock-car track?  And that raises the question of all the limited-production devil-rides Detroit built primarily for stock-car racing, like the'64 Galaxie 500 with a 425-horse 427.  As you can see, down this road hairsplitting danger lies, and around then next turn, angels dance on pinheads.

Now, when I was about 12 or so, my big sister had a boyfriend who drove a '57 Chevy with a 396 dropped into it, and cheater slicks that left black peel-out marks on our sidewalk, which my dad never got over. (You could tell it didn't have Posi-Traction by the little hops where he laid rubber.)  Without question this was a righteous rod, but that's it exactly: it was a hot rod, something assembled after the fact by chopping and channeling and engine-swapping and such, extremely honorable pursuits one and all, but each aimed at adjusting the sad facts of life as defined by Detroit.  What distinguishes the muscle car, and what's all the more remarkable when you pull over and park to think about it, is that for just about a dollar a pound you could go down to a new car dealer and buy something strong enough to scare you to death when you stomped on the gas — and it would look hairy as hell, too.  With an absolute absence of fins.

It's my belief — no, it's larger than that, more like a faith bordering on religion, like the way some guys believe Fords Eat Chevys — that the best-looking, most fully realized mass-produced cars ever made came from Detroit in the 1968-through'70 model years (which is to say 1967-69).  I'm nothing like an absolutist about this naturally; I used to have a way cool '67 Malibu, for example, and a '66 GTO, and I firmly believe those '71-through-'73 Dodge Chargers are as unappreciated as they are only because their predecessors were so nearly perfect.  The way I see it — the right way – is that the cars of that period were the first group ever designed to look like nothing other than . . . a car.

The history of automotive design dates from the horseless carriage era, and even such bold efforts as the 1934 Chrysler Airflow had vestigial appendages like running boards.  The next significant change in looks came  once the Second World War was well and truly over, when Detroit preceded Cape Canaveral as America's rocket-ship launch pad.  I mean, the dopey space-age sociological stuff is fairly self-evident, from names like Oldsmobile Rocket 88 to Buick Starfire, Ford Galaxie, Chevy Nova, and most especially from the fins and the hood ornaments and the round retro-rocket tail-lights.  As late as 1961, Colonel Shorty Powers, the "10-9-8-7-6-5 . . ." guy from Cape Canaveral, had hired on as the official A-OK voice of Oldsmobile.  Inevitably, it has all worked out to be contemporary kitsch-fodder, since rockets are rockets, after all, and cars from the Fifties are usually anything but.

By the mid-Sixties, almost all that spaceship jazz was over, and while the marketing guys were having a brief stab at bestiality and fish fetishism — Impala, Mustang, Barracuda, Cougar, Wildcat, Falcon, and the never-to-be-forgotten Marlin — the guys making the clay models were bound and determined to do something that had never been done before; namely, to lose all the chrome bombsights and nose cones, the way hot-rodders did in their quest for speed and stripped down style, and see if Detroit couldn't come up with something that looked like it was intended to wear tires instead of fender skirts.  The original 1964 Mustang was like a bolt from the blue.  Mechanically, it wasn't much other than a Falcon chassis with a 289, but the long hood and short trunk deck suggested the same kind of balance the drag racers were aiming for.  It looked like no other car before, and Ford sold more than half a million the first year, the most successful new-model launch ever.  Meanwhile, the GTO (short for Gran Turismo Omologato, a fairly hilarious conceit but one based, as all the other letter and numeral names would be, on racing and thus actual cars rather instead of fireworks and livestock) arrived and sold ungodly numbers straight out of the box.  The difference between the '64 GTO and all the hyped-up Stock-Car-Specials that preceded it is that the Goat was meant all along to run on the streets, scaring children and scattering pedestrians and ticking everybody off with loud, reckless, and irresponsible displays of male arrested-development syndrome, an eminently marketable concept.  Detroit went full throttle behind it.

The major Detroit manufacturers had been slyly flirting with the NASCAR stock car racing world since the Fifties, supplying engines and expertise under the table, but in the early Sixties Pontiac and Ford and Dodge and Plymouth came out and publicly admitted that good cars go real fast.  Engine blocks got bigger, body shapes got aerodynamically slicker, and suddenly something Dodgelike or Fordish was flinging itself around the Daytona Speedway at speeds faster than the open-wheel racers at Indianapolis.  Wind tunnels became an essential part of body design, ostensibly so that if Mom pegged the speedometer on the way home from the grocery store (grocery bags in the trunk supply that invaluable extra weight over the rear wheels), she wouldn't launch airborne.  The more successful drag racers found guys from the factory hanging around, scuffing the toes of their wing tips in the gravel, and casually mentioning this spare dyno-tuned hemispherical-head 426 engine they happened tohave sitting around taking up space back at the plant.

What finally pushed the muscle car completely over the top was the funny car phenomenon.  Some daring drag-racing visionary made a fiberglass mold of the little woman's Dodge Dart, flopped it over what was essentially a AA/Fuel Altered dragster frame, with a blown and injected big block engine running on a risky mix of nitro and alcohol, and took it out to the dragstrip to see what the hell would happen.  Hot rodders being hot rodders and never any too respectful of Detroit's design sensibilities, and fiberglass being fiberglass and plenty easy to slice and dice with a Skilsaw, funny car racers commenced doing some open-air windtunnel testing of their own.  Noses got lower and rooflines got cleaner and rear ends got jacked-up to where Uncle Frank's John Deere tractor seat used to be.  Blowers and air-injector stacks began bursting through hoods just as Big Daddy Roth's cartoons had always predicted they would:  All hell broke loose.  Any wind-dragging design element Detroit had overlooked was as good as gone — fins were prehistoric science fiction but spoilers and wings and wheelie bars dragged you back down to earth orbit.

Over in Detroit, the designers and the engineers and the marketing guys were practicing burnouts in the corporate parking lot.  Hood scoops — functional, semi-functional, quasi-functional — sprang up like flared nostrils on horny beasts, and racing stripses became to muscle cars what flames had been to hot rods: sort of a painterly metaphor of metaphysical intent.  And as if you hadn't already been able to hear Mom from eight blocks away when she came back with all those groceries, colors got loud enough to compete with glasspack mufflers.

None of this was ocurring in a vacuum, and all those cliches about the swingin' Sixties ought to be troted out here with extra emphasis on the swingin' side.  The contemporary collective amnesia that recals everyone under 30 driving their flowered Volkswagen mini-bus to the peace demonstration is a charming and convenient piece of historical revisionism, nicely ignoring the millions of mean-looking muscle cars prowling those same streets, skidding from stoplight to stoplight.  Consider that entirely aside from the Corvette, Chevrolet's not atypical late Sixties selection of muscle machines included the Chevelle, the Camaro, the El Camino, and the Nova, with engine options starting with the incredibly strong and lightweight small-block 302 and moving up in cubic inches to the 327, the 350, the 396, the 427, and, by 1970, thge 454.  Within each of those engines all manner of horsepower variations were available, as well as transmission choices and axle ratios and suspensions.  That was before you even considered hood scoops and racing stripes or contemplated the weight-loss-versus-frame-stiffness issue of convertibles.

As far as cubic inches go, 1970 was the high-water mark.  GM, never able to leave well enough alone, added rococo flourishes to the fenders of a few of its finest Bodies By Fisher, but for the most part you could drive any decent muscle machine off the showroom floor and turn at least a low 14-second run on the quarter-mile.  The insurance companies, pitiful scriveners and drones, blinded worm-like by actuarial tables and fine print, had never been able to join in the spirit of things, and were doing their best to intimidate Mom into settling for a stationwagon with fake-wood paneling on the sides.   Sales were affected and between the emission-control athsma epidemic and the great fat-fender scare of 1972, the era trailed off to a miserable end.  When the Arab oil embargo occurred in 1974 and the priced of gas sky-rocketed (after holding tough at 29 cents a gallon for years), the muscle car suddenly seemed to have been some mass hallucination brought on by mixing psychedelic drugs with high octane leaded-gas fumes.

As late as the late Eighties, there was no collector's market whatsoever for muscle cars.  The few remaining affficionados were prophets without honor in their own country, more closely akin to the type of eccentrics who collect samples of used gum from the sidewalk than to reputable collectors of rare and exotic objjects; the phrase "muscle car" had almost entirely fallen from the language.  The movie The Road Warrior had much to do with reinvoking the rites and rituals of muscle, I reckon: a great bunch of guys and gals roaring around the Austral/American West in loud and shapely cars with hood scoops and blowers, gleefully racing to see who can make it to the gas station first. (The muscle-car era in Australia started and ended later than in the U.S., but produced some absolutely brilliant examples — the Ford XA-through-XC models, for instance, which are like seven-eighths-scaled Ford Torinos but far more curvaceous.) 
 In any case, the early Nineties saw the prices of muscle cars double and triple and double again, effectively hogging all the action on the entire car-collector scene, and kidney-punching the prices of even the most blue-chip of fin-mobiles.  The most blatantly desirable cars have achieved prices in the highest of five-figure realms, all the more extraordinary in that at the beginning of the Eighties you could have bought some of them for prices in the lowest of four-figure dungeons.  Naturally, the stamp-collector syndrome has emerged and there are all manner of Nineties types who restore their objets d'art to within an inch of the assembly line, wrap them in clear plastic, and never touch them again.  Fortunately, more often than not,  sanity prevails.   Cars are for driving, and muscle cars are for driving fast — real fast. Recently, here in Los Angeles, Ford and Mobil got together  and offered to buy — for some ludicrous lowball figure  — a whole bunch of pre-emission-control cars.  Placing a comforting hand on the throbbing hood of my '68 GTO (400 cubic inches, underrated at 360 horsepower to hoodwink the insurance weenies, 10.75-to-1 compression ratio, Hurst dual-gate shifter, Turbo-Hydramatic 400 transmission, extra-fat rubber in back, beefed-up sway bars with urethane bushings, classic Schaefer Cams Maltese Cross decal on the wing windows), I scoff at thaeir cultural imperialism, at their puny attempt at corporate P.R. eco-grandstanding.  There's a place not two miles away from me that sells leaded premium gas, 93 octane.  I don't know how they get away with it, but i can get there in one minute-thirty seven seconds if I hit the lights right.  And if I don't run out of gas on the way over.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Aphorism Thirty-Four; (One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set!)

"Eddie Barclay said,  just before he died, "Today there is more business than show."

Jean-Marie Perier

Monday, February 2, 2009

Aphorism Thirty-three; (One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set!)

"We all wish we could play the way he couldn't stand."

Of Steve Connelly, guitar player,  Coloured Girl, Bomber's barracker, Messenger, and more

Aphorism Thirty-Two : (One of a Series: Collect the Whole Set!)

"Was the Sistine Chapel merely wallpaper for the Pope?"

(C'est moi, to JMP, eliciting a great laugh...)