Good morning, Autopians! On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re checking out a couple of cars from a low point in the US automotive industry. Yes, they’re objectively “bad,” but I contest that they are not without their charms, and at these prices, worth consideration as a fun side project.
And speaking of projects, I suppose we should see the final score from yesterday’s faded gray coupes.
I am completely unsurprised. And yes, the Conquest is probably the better car, but I have to go with the EXP. And I know exactly what paint job I’d give it: the box-art from MPC’s model kit version.
The thing is, I didn’t grow up around Japanese cars. I lived in a Midwestern town straight out of a John Mellencamp song, with a dash of Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and nobody drove Japanese cars. My dad’s Volkswagens and Fiats and British sports cars made him an outsider, and were only acceptable because they shared the driveway with a string of Dodge sedans. Most of our neighbors had either Pontiacs or Mercurys, because they were the two dealerships in town, or Fords or Chevys from the next town over. A Mitsubishi Starion was something that only existed in magazines. But a Ford EXP? One of my Cub Scout den mothers drove one. So did the cute girl who worked at the Dari-Hut.
You don’t get to choose your nostalgia; it forms in its own patterns, like stalactites and stalagmites in a cave. We are the sum total of our experiences, and for better or worse, my early automotive experiences were mostly with American cars, right smack-dab in the middle of the malaise era. And so, once in a while, I seek cars like these out, not because they are good, but because they remind me of home. White Castle hamburgers are objectively terrible, but those who grew up with them will cross state lines to get them, just for the nostalgia. Think of these cars as soft greasy sliders in cardboard sleeves, comfort food for your driveway, nourishment for your inner child.
Or something like that. Look, I just like them, all right? Let people enjoy things. Jeez.
Engine/drivetrain: 302 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Fontana, CA
Odometer reading: 169,000 miles
Runs/drives? Yes, but hasn’t been registered in 10 years
This is, for all intents and purposes, a Mercedes-Benz. Or so Ford’s marketing department would have you believe. This jumped-up Maverick was a pretty nice car by 1970s Ford standards, but a fine German luxury car it was not. If Ford had compared the Granada to cars downmarket, they would have had a case; it was nicer than a Chevy Nova or a Dodge Dart – not that that was saying much.
This Granada coupe looks like a pretty fancy model, with velour bucket seats, air conditioning, and a 302 cubic inch V8 instead of an inline-six. The V8 in question only put out 134 horsepower, so don’t expect tire-shredding performance, though you might be able to get a good solid chirp if you really romp on it. In these days before overdrive automatics, automakers lowered highway engine speeds by using absurdly tall axle ratios, in this case 2.47:1, which did nothing for acceleration. Believe me, my friends and I tried all manner of ill-advised tricks to “do burnouts” in cars like these, to absolutely no avail.
This one runs all right, it sounds like, after having been reawakened from a long sleep. The fuel system was cleaned out, the brakes have been gone through, and the exhaust has been replaced. The air conditioning compressor is shot, but other than that everything works. The seller says the carburetor needs work or replacement, but I suspect a good old “Italian tuneup” might do it a world of good.
But before you can do that, you’ll have to straighten out some paperwork. The seller has lost the title to this car, or perhaps never had it, so it comes only with a bill of sale and the old owner’s name and address. Whether that’s enough for the California DMV, I don’t know. I do know that it will also need to pass a smog test before it can be registered if it stays in California.
Engine/drivetrain: 305 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Vacaville, CA
Odometer reading: 98,000 miles
The boxy, newly-downsized 1978 GM A-bodies (later renamed G-bodies) were literally the shape of things to come: within a few years, nearly all American cars would look pretty much like them. Following in its predecessor’s footsteps, this generation of Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in the country for four years, finally being dethroned in 1982 by the Ford Escort. And I do remember these things being absolutely everywhere–some friends of ours even had his-and-hers Cutlass Supreme coupes in dark gray and sky blue.
This, however, is no Cutlass Supreme – it’s a Cutlass Salon, the two-door fastback model that only lasted a couple of years. It looks like it should be a hatchback, but it isn’t; it has a normal trunk lid. This bodystyle may not have sold as well as the more formal coupe, but it is vastly superior in my eyes, because it is the basis for one of my favorite Hot Wheels, the “Flat-Out 442”:
If only the real car performed as well as this one did in my imagination. This Cutlass is V8-powered, at least, but it’s a mild-mannered Chevy 305 small-block. It has had quite a bit of recent work, but the seller says it has developed a tick on the left cylinder bank. They think it may need a new cam and lifters, but I used to have a Nova with this same engine, that made the same noise, and I know exactly what it is– the mechanical fuel pump. The pump is driven by an eccentric lobe on the camshaft, which moves a pushrod that operates the pump. A spring in the pump holds tension on the pushrod, and when that spring gets weak or fails, a gap opens up between the cam and the pushrod, and you get a tick. A new pump is fifteen bucks from RockAuto, and takes about half an hour to install.
Cosmetically, this Cutlass looks pretty damn good for its age. The paint is dull, but the body looks straight as an arrow, and the interior is clean, based on the one photo we get. And I love the color combination; back when this car was built, you could order pretty much any color exterior with any color interior. Hence, sky blue with burgundy. I think it works.
The seller says this car was a daily driver recently, and it doesn’t sound far off from being one again, if you so choose. But I think I’d save it for a nice weekend cruiser, though I’d maybe warm up the small-block a bit, and give it an exhaust that makes just a bit more noise. It’ll never be fast, unless you do something drastic like an engine swap, but fast is overrated.
Today’s cars are light-years ahead of these old relics in every way, of course. Hell, cars ten years newer than these were a huge improvement. But these cars speak to me. Maybe one of them speaks to you, too.
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers, and me, for the Hot Wheels photo)