Cars were an important part of the Jazz Age and of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald mentions only two cars by make in The Great Gatsby— Nick Carraway’s Dodge and Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce. The rest are left to the reader’s imagination.
Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce plays a crucial role in the story and is described as having “a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.” Jay Gatsby embodied conspicuous consumption, and a Rolls with flamboyant coachwork in a bright color suited him. The 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Ascot dual-cowl phaeton used in the 1974 production of The Great Gatsby is the perfect embodiment of the Gatsby car—except that it’s too new. The novel was published in 1925 and was set in 1922. Imagine this 1922 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost painted yellow.
Foreign automakers have been selling vehicles in America since the early days of the automobile, but not all international automobiles, or their nameplates, are appropriate for U.S. buyers. Here is a fun sampling of some bizarre foreign-vehicle names.
Nissan Fairlady-Z (Japan 1970-73) The president of Nissan saw a performance of the Broadway play My Fair Lady and thought Fairlady would be a great name for a sports car. The name was acceptable in Japan, but in America (home of the Cobra, Viper, and Avenger) the public preferred names more threatening than a Broadway musical heroine. Thus, the Nissan Fairlady Z became the Datsun 240Z in the U.S.
KdF-Wagen (Germany 1940) Hitler promised a “people’s car” and named it after the Nazi labor union’s slogan Kraft durch Freude, meaning “Strength Through Joy.” After World War II, Nazi slogans were unpopular and the name was wisely changed to Volkswagen—German for “people’s car.”
Bob Lutz has accomplished more in his golden years than most auto execs do in a lifetime. At age 69, Lutz became General Motors’ Vice Chairman of Product Development and helped create cars such as the Cadillac CTS, Cadillac SRX, Chevrolet Malibu, Buick Enclave, Buick LaCrosse, and Pontiac Solstice. He also championed the electric/gas Chevrolet Volt before withdrawing from an active roll at GM in 2009. Now at age 81, Lutz is launching a high-performance sedan, the VL Destino.
Gilbert Villarreal, a self-made millionaire in the auto components industry, decided that replacing the hybrid powertrain of a Fisker Karma with a Chevrolet Corvette engine was a great idea. Villareal turned to friend and business partner in VL (Villareal Lutz) watches, Bob Lutz, to make it happen. Lutz says he starts with a well-engineered car and adds a well-engineered drivetrain. The German engineering firm that helped bring about the Fisker Karma (as well as the Porsche Panamera) is engineering the changes needed for the engine transplant.
Henry Ford once said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.” For most of its production run, the Ford Model T was only available in black because black paint dried the fastest and it simplified production to have only one color. Today, BMW has broadened the choice of free colors to black and white on many of its models. If the customer wants something more colorful, that’s a $550 option. Jaguar’s new F-Type sports car has a standard black convertible top. A top of another color is a $600 option. British Racing Green paint, once the most popular choice for an English sports car, is now a $1,500 option on the F-Type.
For a price, cars offer a broad palette of paint colors, but interior choice is more limited. In the 1940s, most American cars offered a choice of tan or gray interiors. Kaiser-Fraser, the postwar challenger to Detroit, didn’t have the resources to develop a V8 engine, but they did shake up the industry by offering new fabrics in a wide choice of colors. Soon, Detroit was offering interiors in every color of the rainbow and a few that were unknown to nature. Today we have gone full circle, as most interiors are offered as just tan or gray.
Note: This article is reprinted from the April 2013 issue of Collectible Automobile.
Henry J. Kaiser revolutionized shipbuilding during World War II with his mass-produced Liberty ships. While Kaiser was building ships faster than anyone had ever imagined, he was already planning to shock the auto industry with a postwar “people’s car.” As early as 1942, Kaiser was concocting a front-wheel-drive, fiberglass-bodied car to sell for as little as $400. However, when the 1947 Kaiser took its bow, it was a conventional, medium-price sedan.
The realities of getting a car into production forced Kaiser to abandon his unorthodox ideas, but he never gave up on the idea of creating a people’s car. When a radical design for a tubular-framed economy car was presented to Kaiser, he jumped at it even though his chief engineer said it was impossible. The engineer was right, and production cars were more conventional with a traditional ladder frame. Willys provided engines: a 68-bhp, 134-cid four and an 80-bhp, 161-cid six, both flatheads. The four was Willys’s “Go-Devil” engine that also powered Jeeps. Helped by a curb weight of only 2,293 pounds, the Henry J delivered fuel economy in the mid- to high 20s.
At the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, I was fortunate to talk with Andy Goss, president of Jaguar Land Rover North America. Jaguar has a stronger lineup this year, as all-wheel drive and fuel-efficient V6 engines are newly available on its sedans. The addition of the 2014 F-Type roadster later this year will strengthen Jaguar’s line even further. The F-Type is Jaguar’s first true 2-seater sports car since the legendary E-Type of the 1960s and ’70s. (The XJ220 supercar was too expensive and rare to count as a regular production car.) The E-Type spearheaded Jaguar’s U.S. sales in the ’60s, and Jaguar officials hope that the F-Type will repeat that role.
Here is what Andy Goss had to say:
On the F-Type’s importance to the Jaguar line today and to the E-Type heritage: “The F-Type will be the emotional fulcrum of the Jaguar brand. Not in numbers, but in passion and emotion. The E-type will be featured in F-Type promotion, but Jaguar will not overplay the E-Type heritage. The F-Type is more modern and can stand on its own merits. Jaguar was rejuvenated when Ian Callum became design director. Callum acknowledges Jaguar’s bloodlines, but does not mimic past models.”
At the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, Chrysler Group displayed its fourth Mopar Edition. This year, Mopar goes after the tuner crowd with a lowered, customized version of the compact Dodge Dart.
Previous Mopar Editions were large cars aimed at an older audience. The first Mopar Edition was Challenger based, which was followed by the Dodge Charger-based Mopar ’11. Last year’s Mopar ’12 was built on the Chrysler 300.
Mopar, which is a contraction of “MOtor PARts,” dates back to 1937. That year, the label was introduced as the brand name for factory-authorized parts and accessories for vehicles built by Chrysler Corporation (now Chrysler Group LLC). Mopar has long been a slang term for the corporation’s cars—particularly performance cars.
As is typical for most special editions, the Mopar Edition is more about form than function. The Mopar ’13 Dart has a distinctive black monochromatic look highlighted by blue stripes. It also has a ground-effects kit, which includes a front-chin spoiler, rear spoiler, and rear diffuser. The exterior’s black-with-blue-accents theme carries over to the interior. All seats are black leather with blue accents except the driver’s seat, which is bright blue.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is typically one of the snowiest places in the United States. Snowfall is light by U.P. standards this winter, but that didn’t stop Chrysler Group from showing off the all-wheel-drive capabilities offered on the full-sized Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.
Both 300 and Charger are big, rear-wheel-drive sedans. Many buyers appreciate the rear-drive characteristics of these two vehicles, and Chrysler engineers wanted to preserve the rear-drive feel on the AWD versions by sending most of the torque to the rear wheels. In fact, when not needed, the system automatically disconnects the front-drive wheels entirely to lessen the fuel-economy penalty of AWD.
The rear-wheel bias of 300/Charger AWD also helps control. I’ve never been exactly adventurous in the snow. I’d rather take it slow and easy to protect the sheet metal than kick the tail out. At Chrysler’s winter testing facility at Keweenaw Research Center (KRC), I had the chance let loose (by my standards) on a handling course. Only orange cones were in danger. An AWD Dodge Charger could stay on course through tight turns. A competitor’s AWD sedan with front-biased power distribution killed several cones going through corners that the Dodge handled with ease. I also drove on a small, circular track. The AWD Dodge stayed on course at speeds where a competitive front-wheel-drive car was sliding.
Cadillac’s V16 of the 1930s is fairly well known, as is its 2003 Sixteen (as in V16) concept car. But what is not generally known is that Cadillac toyed with the idea of a 16-cylinder car in the 1960s.
Back in the 1920s, Cadillac was seen as the top rung of General Motors’ ladder rather than a serious luxury car, such as Packard. Cadillac’s surprise launch of the world’s first production 16-cylinder motor car in 1930 changed that. The introduction of a powerful and efficient overhead-valve V8 after World War II cemented Cadillac’s position at the top of the American luxury heap, and it remained on top until imports started making serious inroads in the ’70s. In 2003, Cadillac displayed a Sixteen concept car at auto shows to burnish its luxury car image. Although enthusiastically received, the Sixteen wasn’t approved for production.
In the ’60s, America enjoyed a strong economy and cheap gas. Cadillac executives thought the time might be ripe for another multi-cylinder car. Two engines were contemplated: an overhead-cam V12 and a V16 composed of two V8s. Neither engine got farther than the prototype stage.
By 1958, cars didn’t have room for more chrome, and the public recoiled in horror. At the rate things are going, we should soon reach an LED moment of truth.