Interesting Cars . . .

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To see what we’re in the process of losing it’s helpful to go and see it.

We did exactly that yesterday. By going to see the cars at the Duncan Car Museum in Christiansburg, VA. Here you will see decades’ worth of what no longer is. Row after row of interesting cars.

Most of them aren’t fancy cars, which is perhaps what’s most interesting about them.

When they were new, they were a dime a dozen, almost.

Here’s a ’79 Honda Civic. Over there, a Datsun B210. Nearby, an Opel GT. Over there, a Chrysler Cordoba – and yes, it has “fine Corinthian leather.” How about an Aspen station wagon? It’s parked not far from an AMC Eagle that was near a Subaru Brat I found myself wanting very much to drive home.

Probably because I drove one  just like it when it was brand-new, back circa 1984 – when I was a high school kid working part-time as a lot boy at a Subaru store. T-tops, jump seats in the back and a five speed on the floor. Not fast but interesting.

And fun.

Like the beige VW Squareback wagon parked near the Thing – a name that’s interesting, all by itself. Both of these were permutations of the Beetle everyone knows about that not many know about. The Thing was a kind of German Jeep with Beetle running gear. The windshield folded down and the doors could be taken off. You could get it with a removable hardtop or a soft-top. You could not get it with carpet.

It was very . . . interesting.

So also the Squareback, which had a fuel-injected Beetle engine decades before most mainstream cars had fuel-injected engines.

This one did have carpet.

Of particular interest – to me, at least – were the numerous Japanese home market vehicles that were never sold here, including right-hand-drive micro-trucks such as the Subaru Sambar pick-up with fold-down bedwalls. How about a Daihatsu Midget Mini?

Most Americans have never seen a truck like this because Americans aren’t allowed to buy them.

New, that is.

Duncan “gets away” with selling them because they’re old and so grandfathered.

There are a number of trucks on display that are representative of the trucks Americans could once buy, including a Rabbit pick-up with a diesel engine – these were capable of 50 MPG some 40 years ago – and models like the nicely preserved ’78 Chevy LUV, which stickers today for about five times what did it back in the day. This isn’t a measure of what a classic costs.

It’s a measure of what it has cost us.

Little trucks like the LUV – and the Datsun 620 not far from it – were cheap as dirt, almost, when they were new. Because they were designed to be just that. Chevy built lots of them and lots of people bought them – just like lots of people bought old Beetles and Squarebacks, too. Keep in mind that cars – and trucks – like this were new when cars like the ’71 gold Corvette on the Duncan showroom floor was new, too. The point being that while there were Corvettes – and mighty Cadillacs, like the magnificent ’76 Coupe deVille that’s parked not far from the gold ’71 Stingray – back in those days, ordinary cars were also interesting cars.

The quirkiness and variety that once existed is almost unbelievable in the context of our now. Consider the pair of Pacers parked on the floor. One of them a wagon. These cars are hilarious, almost cartoonish.

How about a Merkur XR4Ti? Or maybe a a Nissan Figaro? They are – what’s the word? – interesting.

There’s even a low-miles Chevette on display, to showcase what an economy car once was.

That being economical. Which was possible when new cars were not required by law – or rather, by regulation – to be equipped with things people didn’t ask because they didn’t want to pay extra for them, such as air bags. If people has asked for them – and had been willing to pay extra for them – they would have been available without any need for the government to require them; the free market works like that.

Well, it did once.

If you’re interested in seeing what that was like, it’s worth spending a couple of hours touring the museum. It will remind you – if you remember – what it used to be like visiting a new car showroom.

As opposed to what it’s like, now.

. . .

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36 COMMENTS

  1. Reminds me of the funniest bumper sticker I ever saw: it said “Hey baby, wanna ride in my vette?” (It was on the back of a Chevette)

  2. I remember a great late 80s Volvo turbo wagon growing up, a dreadful Cadillac Seville, a surprisingly fast 80s Lincoln. Cadillacs with little tiny side light pods on the hoods, all kinds of crazy stuff. Nothing like the homogenized blobs today. The seeds were sown however with safety crap slowly being baked in starting with mandatory seat belts. I’ll give communists one thing, they play the long game. Props.

    • “I’ll give communists one thing, they play the long game.”
      All religions play the long game. Communism is a religion, and is no exception. Personally, I prefer the God we had.

  3. Just visited the Duncan Car Museum website link Eric provided. It’s actually more of a sales site but very interesting and eye-opening. I discovered a 1976 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon with just under 7,000 miles for an unbelievable $49,555! Low mileage original, yes, but…seriously? It was almost as expensive as the Corvette!

  4. When I was young my parents had a 79 Cordoba and a 76 Chevy Luv. The floor was rusted out in the Luv and my mom got sprayed in the face with mud on the gravel lane we lived down.

    I have fond memories of piling into that tiny truck with my siblings when going to feed our grazing sheep 5 miles away at our uncles house. Stopping for penny candy at the gas station.

    The apostasy of piling three small kids and an an infant on my moms lap into a Luv. How did we all live!!

    Almost everyone that grew up prior to 1995 has these types of stories. What were we thinking? That $1 bag of penny candy we fought over was what we were thinking.

  5. One of my favorite car museums is the Gilmore in Michigan. They have set up a number of buildings designed to look like car dealers of several makers of old. It’s kind of cool to see old cars displayed like they were when new (well you can’t climb in them etc). It’s grown a lot since I was a kid, as i remember my dad taking me back in the day and it was in a handful of old barns (they still have them).

  6. Government’s job is to create conformity.

    A few weeks ago I am on the expressway and up in front of me there’s this plain white generic looking crossover. When I get closer its got a trident badge. It’s a Maserati. A badge and grill were the only way to even tell. A year or two ago I saw a Quatraporte from the late 1970s or early 80s for sale on the side of the road. There was no mistaking what it was from a two blocks away.

    Also what bothers me is the lack of colors. Cars used to have all sorts of colors and makes had their own colors. Today it’s black, white, and silver for most cars. Colors you can’t tell the difference of make to make unless they are next to each other in bright sunlight or from a paint formula.

    I can still see a certain color and often know from just a splotch of color in my mirror that’s it GM or a Ford or whatever from the 70s or 80s. Just by color. They all had similar colors but each make’s version was different enough to know. Like that shade of brown GM had and made famous by Kojack’s car.

    • Hi Brent,

      Good point in re paint colors. One of the things I’ve always liked about my Trans-Am is its Pontiac-specific shade of orange-red, which Pontiac called Carousel Red. It’s the same as was offered with the GTO in 1969. It is different from Chevy’s Hugger Orange and other similar – but not the same – colors.

    • BrentP “ Today it’s black, white, and silver for most cars.” That’s not at all true. There are an awful amount lot of gray ones too, ya know! /s 😆

  7. I had the pleasure to view the Southeby auction vehicles with a young man of 19. He was amazed at the offerings, particularly the older cars. He was amazed when I informed him that some could order a chassis/drivetrain and have custom coachwork. He was in awe of the ’53 Maserati and the dorsal finned Tatra.

    There are enthusiasts in the coming generations. They just need to be guided to what was and what might again be.

    Enjoy…
    https://rmsothebys.com/en/home/lots/am23

  8. I feel this way about steam locomotives & I’m not a train guy.
    It is the thought that someone drew it out on paper, then these monsters were hand crafted and fitted, or made with rudimentary machinery is amazing to me. Dedication.

    Old cars were brought forth, for better or worse, from someone’s imagination and made real.
    There is creativity in them. Not so today. Computer modeled replications within the strictures of the commandants of safety. Boring.

  9. Wow, I think it would be a blast walking through a museum like that. Am I old when I say I recognize many of the vehicle pictures posted above? Ha ha. And yeah, I think it would be a bit nostalgic, too, Eric, to see where we have come, and what we have (I think) lost, in terms of where vehicles have come these days.

  10. One of favorites of old was the Opel GT.
    It had this funky hump in the hood where the air cleaner housing rested.
    The swivel headlights were controlled by a handle on the console while pulled on a set of cables rotating them 180 degrees thusly turning them on and off.
    The car was a total chick magnet.

      • Went to high school with a kid whose dad had an Opel GT. Must have been a 68, cuz that’s when I graduated and I just looked it up and that’s when they started making them. (Boy where the hell does the time go?). I was always intrigued by that car, to me it looked like a miniature corvette.

        • Floriduh Man, same with me back in the day, my friend’s dad had an orange Opel GT…until my friend rolled it. Everyone was OK except for the car.

          Didn’t Maxwell Smart drive one on Get Smart TV series right after the Sunbeam Tiger?

          • Eric,
            Idea for a future article…old TV shows with really cool cars that were shown and driven. Get Smart -Sunbeam Tiger, The Prisoner- Lotus 7, etc.

  11. I love Duncan, I’ve been telling you to check them out for ages.

    I hope soon I can purchase from them, too many JDM gems we weren’t able to get that I need to get, also a LJ70 because as much as I love my Bronco, want something that can outlast the apocalypse.

    I wonder if they’d partner up with you so you can write reviews on the classics and drive sales, that’d be awesome

  12. But that’s the prime directive of the regulatory apparat, to make damn sure we are NOT interested in cars. To make them as boring and homogenous as possible, so we won’t miss them too much when they are taken away from us.

  13. Wow, most of these vehicles mentioned were quite common when I was a kid and was already interested in cars!

    Also, if anyone’s interested, there are two of these kei Japanese trucks for sale right now at a regular auto dealer in Ranson, WV, and have been there for a couple months now. One is a 1991 Honda and the other is a 1994 (I forget the make but it’s not a Honda)

    • Just for fun, I looked them up on google maps ( Valley Used Car, 601 N Mildred St, Ranson, WV 25438) and you can see photos of the two kei trucks (the 1994 is a Suzuki, btw)

    • From what I’ve heard, the Reagan Brat was kept somewhat secret while he was in office…after all, we can’t have the President tooling around in an import, can we?

      • The Brat was a gift from aides in the 70s, after Reagan left office as California Governor. By 1980, while running for President, it became a on-camera problem, much like Reagan’s riding jodphurs which were swapped out for blue jeans by Nofzinger and the boys.

        The Brat remained at the ranch and in use until the Reagans cleared out in 1998.

  14. What? No picture of the Merkur?

    If you go back and want to see something really interesting about that car, check out the mechanical inflate/deflate mechanism for the lumbar support system.

    A bulb like the one found on a blood pressure cuff.

  15. One of the mini trucks I fixed up and sold in high school was an early 70’s Ford Courier. About 1600 cc with a 4 speed as I recall. I ended up rebuilding the engine, made several hundred tax free bucks back when minimum wage was around 3 bucks. Painted it baby blue with dark blue metallic panels and white pinstripes. I almost cried when I sold it, it was such a nice, quality little truck. Unlike the later S10 and Ranger with way too much upholstery, engine, and frills.

  16. ‘Little trucks like the Datsun 620 … were cheap as dirt, almost, when they were new.’ — eric

    This was the first Japanese pickup I came across. Older brother of a neighbor girl owned an orange one, with a 1.6-liter engine and four-on-the-floor.

    Asked him how he liked it. He said it was a great little truck. And it weighed but 2,360 lbs.

    Which is why, retrofitted with Nissan’s bulletproof KA24DE 2.4-liter engine, the bantamweight little truck cranks pretty hard:

    https://youtu.be/MW6XvmcQFls

    Now you can’t buy one at any price … cuz Uncle Schizo says it ain’t saaaaaaaafe.

  17. The micro/mini trucks are alive and well at Boeing, perfect for parts/tools/crews running around the plant and out to the flight line. Many are equipped with over tall canopies and some bench seats for work crews. Of course not licensed since they only operate on private property.

    Here ya go! In my county you can run off road stuff on the county roads (farm use rigs usually) so why not these too:

    https://minitruckimports.com/

    • Do you see real gas powered ones out on the flight line? I see quite a few electric ones in the big building but haven’t seen any real Japanese built ICE trucks. We have at least 3 places to buy Kei trucks within 100 miles.you.can also import them directly and pick them up in Tacoma from sites like carsfromjapan.com

      At least here in Washington we can liscense them for the road if they are 25 years old when they are imported. They can be driven on any road legally, but according to a guy I talked to recently who daily drives his they are pretty much maxed out on the freeway. He had a Daihatsu which he said uses a lot of parts that can be purchased at tractor dealers. Interesting. He let me sit in it, I am not sure I could drive it without converting to a hand clutch lever. I am a little over 6′ but have short legs and it was very cramped so keep that in mind if you aren’t short or built like a chimp.

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