Monthly Archive "April2011"

4-Car Top 10 Notorious Cars

Many cars are remembered not for what they were but for the dubious events and people they were associated with – death, murder, famous larceny and any number of unsavoury accidents. Fast cars and the rich and famous have not proven to be a good combination over the years, particularly in an age before seat belts, air bags and strict drink-driving laws. The American stars always did it with the most panache – James Dean is still the ultimate celebrity death crash victim – where as in Britain famous people tended to meet there end in more tedious vehicles: rocker Gene Vincent died in MkII Consul Taxi, Marc Bolan in a Mini Clubman. Here we present some of the some memorable – and maybe not so memorable – cars that have play their part in head-line hitting world affairs of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, a rogues gallery of automotive bit-part players who had a moment of fame in sometimes unhappy circumstances.

1. Lord Lucan: Ford Corsair
The Corsair’s association with the 1974 Lucan murder case is probably the only thing most people can remember about this most forgettable of Fords. Although he owned a Mercedes Lucan borrowed the car off his friend Michael Stoop several days before it is alleged he killed his Children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, in the belief it was his estranged wife Veronica, in the basement of their Belgravia house. The car was found later in the channel port of Newhaven covered in bloodstains inside. In the boot was the most damning piece of evidence against Lucan – a sixteen inch long piece of lead pipe bound with surgical tape that was identical to the weapon that had been used to murder Rivett. Lucan has never been found.

2. The Great Train Robbery: Land Rovers
Although it had been suggested MkII Jaguars with their rear seats removed should be used to transport the mailbags to the robbers’ hideout in the aftermath of this most legendary of modern crimes in the end the felons used an ex-Army Austin lorry along with two Land Rovers. These vehicles, stolen from central London, had identical registration plates (BMG 757A) so as to confuse the police. The Land Rovers were discovered at the gang’s hideout at Leatherslade Farm in Buckinghamshire and one of them still exists in the hands of an enthusiast.

3. Ava Gardner: Mercedes 300SL
The film star Ava Gardner, who by her own admission was a terrible driver and often ‘over refreshed’, famously crashed her Gullwing Mercedes in Spain. She lost it on a curve, mounted an embankment and rolled it twice before coming to rest on its roof. She was pulled from the wreck by farm workers who had to take her out through the smashed windscreen as the doors wouldn’t open when the SL was inverted, for obvious reasons. Many owners subsequently carried hammers just in case they did the same thing. Ava paid tribute to the cars ‘solid steel framework’ in her autobiography. She was in good company when it came to having ‘moments’ in a Gullwing. Even Stirling Moss was wary of its handling and its propensity for unsettling lift-off oversteer thanks to the unruly camber changes of its high pivot swing axles. He crashed one into an Italian army truck laden with explosives while on a training mission for the 1955 Mille Miglia.

4 John F Kennedy: Lincoln Continental X100
This specially modified – by coachbuilders Hess and Eisenhardt – Lincoln Continental toured the world with President Kennedy. Sadly it was also the car in which he was shot in Dallas in 1963. It was a major piece of evidence in the Warren Commission’s investigation – its cracked windscreen still sits in the American National archives – but amazingly it was put back into service after a complete re-fit which included extensive bullet proofing that added a ton to its weight. Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford used the car until it was finally taken out of service and returned to its owners, Ford, in 1977 (they rented it to the White House for $500 a year). You can see it in Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

5. Albert Camus: Facel Vega FV
The Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus was killed when the Facel Vega Coupe in which he was travelling hit a tree in January 1960. Camus, the front seat passenger, died instantly when he was thrown through the rear screen. His publisher Michel Gallimard was driving the car and was blamed for the crash, although it seems likely that there was a mechanical fault. The unfinished manuscript of his last book, Premier Homme, was in his bag in the car but would not be published for another 35 years.

6. Sammy Davis Junior: Cadillac Convertible
Driving his Cadillac to Los Angeles in November 1954 the entertainer Sammy Davis crashed the huge convertible into on-coming traffic in an attempt to avoid a car that was making a U-turn directly in front of him. In the ensuing collision his head hit the steering wheel and he lost his left eye on a piece of ornamental chrome that was sticking out of the centre of it.

7. Princess Grace of Monaco : Rover 3500
On September 13, 1982 Princess Grace and her daughter Princess Stephanie were involved in an accident when their Rover 3500 careened off one of the winding roads leading to Monaco. Princess Stephanie was able to get out of the car when it finally stopped rolling but suffered a few injuries. Princess Grace wasn’t so lucky. Unfortunately, the 52-year-old former Hollywood film star had suffered a very mild stroke which caused her to lose control of her vehicle. After the Rover had stopped rolling down the cliff, Grace was found unconscious. She died in hospital the next day.

8. Montgomery Clift: 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
Montgomery Clift was a sensitive young heartthrob in the James Dean mould who by the age of thirty was one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood who counted Elizabeth Taylor among his best friends.  It was when returning from a dinner part at Taylor’s house, driving down a steep twisty decent towards Sunset Boulevard, that he lost control of his Chevrolet on a dangerous curve and hit a telegraph pole. Clift was found slumped under steering wheel his face hideously lacerated, his jaw broken and choking on his two front teeth which had been knocked down his throat: Elizabeth Taylor saved his life by pulling them out. The doctors did what they could with his battered features but the left side of his face was frozen. Already unstable and moody his career, and his health, went into decline in an avalanche of pills and booze and he made only a handful of films before his death in 1966.

9. General Charles deGaulle; Citroen DS
On August 22nd 1962 terrorists of the OAS – the Secret Army Organisation – made an attempt on the life of the French leader President Charles deGaulle. They believed deGaulle had betrayed France by yielding Algeria to the Algerian Nationalists. As dusk fell deGaulles black Citroen DS was speeding down the Avenue de la Liberation in Paris at 70mph when 12 OAS men opened fire on the car. However, in seeing the open-fire signal too lake most of their bullets hit the Citroen from behind, bursting its tyres and causing it to go into a front-wheel skid. Some shattered the rear window as the Chauffeur Marroux held wrestled with the wheel and accelerated out of the skid, deGaulle and his wife emerged unscathed by keeping there heads down and thanks to its hydropmeumatic suspension the DS was able to limp safely to Villacoublay where a helicopter was waiting to take the deGaulles to their country retreat. These events were the basis for Frederick Forsyth’s book (and subsequent film starring Edward Fox) The Day of the Jackal.

10. Mike Hawthorn: Jaguar 3.4
In a wet and windy day in January 1959 world champion racing driver Mike Hawthorn crashed his Jaguar in a fatal accident that has never been fully explained. Driving his modified 3.4 saloon along the A3 Hoggs back Hawthorn encountered his friend Rob Walker driving his 300SL, registered ROB 2. An impromptu race ensued as the cars accelerated down the rain soaked hill together up to 100mph. Hawthorn over took the Mercedes in a left hand curve as they passed on John Coombes garage and then going into the right hander that followed the Jaguar suddenly started to slide, spun then careered backwards across the carriageway disappearing from Walkers view. It then clipped a traffic island and a truck before coming to rest wrapped around a tree as it disappeared in a cloud of mud ands water. The car was almost split in two and Hawthorn died after a couple of minutes as a result of a fractured skull.  There has been much speculation about the cause of the crash. Some said Hawthorn, who had Kidney problems and would not have made old bones, had suffered a blackout. Others that the cars diff’ had locked-up, that a brake had seized on or that some part of an alleged non-standard hand throttle had failed and allowed the engine to over speed.

more April 16 2011 at 14:57

4-Car Top 10 Bond Cars

Cars, and car chases, have been an intrinsic part of the glamour of James Bond since the film series began in 1962 with Dr No, although it was the Aston Martin DB5 that really set the ball rolling in 1964 with an arsenal of gadgets that captured the imagination of boys large and small all over the world. Nearly 40 years on you can still buy a James Bond Aston Martin. The impact of that car has proved difficult to beat and most subsequent attempts to ‘do a Bond car ‘have descended, like the films themselves, into parody.
Not all of the cars Bond has used have been up-market – 2CV’s, Renault 11’s and three-wheeled Indian taxi’s have all featured – but currently BMW seems to have the franchise. Would Ian Fleming have approved of his British agent driving a German car? I doubt it.

1. Sunbeam Alpine: Dr No
In his first outing Bond starts off modestly with a hired Sunbeam Alpine that features in a dramatic car chase along rough Jamaican mountain roads, pursued by unsavoury assassins in a pre-war Packhard hearse which doesn’t look as if its enjoying being thrown around corners too much. Inevitably it gets trashed when it careers off the road down the side of the mountain. Look out also for the ’57 Chevrolet convertible and the MkII Ford Consul taxi.

2. Derby Bentley: From Russia With Love
For Bond purists this is the best of the series and features only low key gadgets like an exploding brief case. Bond doesn’t even drive but gets chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith and Ford Fairlane station wagon. What we do see briefly is the Derby Bentley (which is what he drove in the books) fitted with a radio telephone to bring it up to date.

3. Aston Martin DB5: Goldfinger and Thunderball
This car needs little introduction. Fitted with machine guns, radar, a rear bullet shield and that famous ejector seat it is still the most famous piece of hardware in the Bond armoury. In Goldfinger it expires against a brick wall after an exciting tear-up with a brace of black 220 Mercedes saloons but is revived for a brief appearance in Thunderball where it blasts baddies with a powerful jet of water in the pre-title sequence. Four were built. Two for filming and two for promotional work.

4. Toyota 2000GT: You Only Live Twice
Toyota built this convertible version of their exotic 2000GT because Connery wouldn’t fit in the coupe and, in anycase, it made filming rather easier. In the film the only gadget is a TV monitor: the Corgi version had rocket launchers. Two were made for the film: Toyota has one in its museum but the other has disappeared.

5. Aston Martin DBS: On Her Majesty’s Secret service
For the new Bond – George Lazenby – a new Aston, the DBS. The green car features mainly in the pre credit sequence and at the end of the film after Bond marries Diana Rigg who gets shot through the cars windscreen by Blofled’s female side kick from the side window of a speeding Mercedes 600. From an action point of view this is actually one of the best Bond films and Lazenby, who had only ever done chocolate commercials before getting the job, looked the part in a way the Roger Moore somehow never did. Look out for Miss Rigg’s Mercury Cougar.

6. Diamonds are Forever: Mustang Mach 1
Mustangs pop-up frequently in Bond films – early models featured in both Goldfinger and Thunderball – and here the massive Mach I shows its paces in Bonds most dramatic car chase to date out-wittingly the inept Las Vegas Police as he drives over the roofs of parked cars and goes on two wheels down a narrow back alley. There is a memorable moon buggy chase too and a brief appearance of a then new Triumph Stag. Connery returned for a 1 million-dollar fee for this one and donated the money to the Scottish National Party. Never quite got himself together to go and live in Scotland though. Funny that.

7. Lotus Esprit: The Spy Who Loved me
The Lotus Esprit and its under-water exploits are second only to the DB5 in the Bond car hall of fame. To escape a rocket-equipped Helicopter Bond – now played for laughs by bouffant Roger Moore – drives the Esprit off a pier into the sea where it transforms into a submarine at the flick of a switch and blows-up the helicopter with its own rockets.  More underwater action ensues until Bond emerges victorious on a beach full of holidaymakers. Six cars were used to film this sequence. A turbo Esprit featured in For Your eyes only in 1981. The Bond genre was in decline now: the Title song was belted-out by, er, Sheena Easton?

8. Aston Martin V8: The Living Daylights.
Moore had retired now to make way for Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton, who always looked rather embarrassed to be doing it. To give him some much needed gravitas producer Chubby Broccoli brought the Aston Martin back, not in the slender form of the DB5 but dinosaur-like V8. With its rocket launchers, spiked tyres, laser tyre slashers and ski’s it certainly came fully equipped but didn’t have the charm of the original. Something about Bond didn’t sit comfortably in the eighties and if you judge a Bond film by the artist that did the theme song, well, you’ll remember this one with a cringe: A-Ha…

9. BMW Z3:Goldeneye
BMW were more than happy to supply their effete roadster for a walk-on role in the first Bond film for six years. The car hadn’t even been released when it appeared in the film but occupied just a few minutes of screen time. More memorable is the return of the DB5 which features in a wild chase at the start of Goldeneye and serves as feel good factor to smooth the introduction of a new actor – the oily Pierce Brosnan.

10. BMW Z8: The world is Not enough.
More crass product placement for BMW with its new flagship retro roadster the Z8 which, again, was still only a prototype when the film was being made. The cars used in the film were actually highly accurate replicas based on Chevrolet powered Cobra kit cars built in the UK!

more April 16 2011 at 14:56

4-Car Rare Estates

Estates are cool. Estates are hip. Estates, so the pundits tell us, are the next big thing, set to usurp the bloated MPV as the middle class lifestyle vehicle of choice. Not just any old estate mind. 21st century estate must be trim and athletic, have the right badge and exude all the right healthy life style values. Voluminous carrying capacity is a mere side issue with this new strain of sporty life style estates, aimed squarely at thirty something types in denim shirts who want a car that looks as composed in the office carpark as it does with a couple of mountain bikes on the roof.
In the fifties, sixties and early seventies we used to know where we stood with estates. They were nothing to do with happy smiley people and their happy, smiley offspring enjoying their ‘Leisure time’. Estates – European estates that is – were either austere and basic (they came thatched and half-timbered or were nothing more sophisticated than vans with the side panels sniped out) or they were posh and hand made, produced by a cottage industry of coachbuilders. The English did this especially well, with firms like Friary, Farnham and Crayford producing specialist load carriers based on mainstream big saloons expensively and in small numbers. The manufacturers were happy to farm the work out because the volumes weren’t big enough for them to make money out of.
Rare estates is something of a loose brief embracing some truly exotic examples of the breed – like the Aston DB5 – and some which are ostensibly humdrum but, in their way, are no less fascinating like the Austin 3 litre. Some are one-offs that deserved a better fate – the Lancia Oligiata is a prime example – others were produced in a small series and probably got no better than they deserved.

1. 1965 Aston Martin DB5 Shooting Break
Sir David Brown built a dozen DB5 estate cars for himself and his landed gentry mates to use when pursuing country sports on their private estates. The story goes that in September 1965 DB called a board meeting and brought his Labrador dog. He plonked him on the boardroom table and said ‘build me something he can sit in’. Coachbuilders Harold Rafdord of Hammersmith, West London, converted the cars. His men simply took tinsnips to the Astons alloy roof and blended in a new panel that extended backwards to a one piece rear door, hinged across the roof.
The suspension was firmed-up at the back but otherwise the cars were mechanically stock, non-Vantage DB5s running triple SU’s.
Vantage or not these were the fastest load carriers in the world in their day, not that a DB5 shooting brake ever carried ‘loads’ as such: a pair of cocked Purdey’s, some dead game and an old copy of Country life were the heaviest items these cars would ever have to haul.
Curiously the last DB5 Shooting Brakes were not delivered until May 1967, by which time the DB6 had been in production for almost 2 years.

2. 1982 Lynx Eventer
The job of building an ultimate up-market shooting break that would be a worthy successor to the Aston eventually fell to Jaguar specialists Lynx who, in 1982, came up with the XJ-S Eventer.
The ugly buttresses of the factory coupe swapped at last for a long graceful roof and an exquisitely shaped tapering rear side window styled by Chris Keith Lucas of Lynx. Pininfarina couldn’t have done it better and the car struck an immediate cord not only with the country house set. Rather than being an impractical 2+2 the XJ-S was now a useful four seater, with much better over-the-shoulder vision. It was such an obvious conversion you can only wonder why Jaguar didn’t do it themselves.
The Eventers werebuilt on a custom made jig. A pressed-out ripple-free one-piece roof was added and the rear bulkhead was moved back, giving an extra 3.5 inches of legroom in the rear.
On the early cars the tailgate was adapted from the Citroen Ami Estate’s, which must be rarer in the UK now than an Eventer. As well as having a tendency towards rot they also featured exposed hinges, which weren’t quite the thing on such an up-market machine. Around 65 Eventers were built, 47 right hand drive and 16 left hookers, all but three V12s. Poalo Gucci put his name to a special version of the Eventer that must rate as the ultimate in flash: semi precious stones around the gear shift which had a solid silver knob, fitted suitcases, a leather bound logbook and solid silver ignition keys. Hmmm, tasty.
The price? £100,000 in 1990, although the car remained a one-off after the Gucci family lawyers claimed that Poalo Gucci had no right to use his name to endorse the product.

3. 1963 Vanden Plas 3 Litre  Estate
When you’ve got a large estate then a large estate is always useful, which is why H.M the Queen ordered this ‘countryman’ conversion on a Vanden Plas 3 litre saloon in 1963. With its split tail gate, folding seats and big load area it was perfect for a trip down to stables at Balmoral, which was where this car, finished in bottle green, saw the most use. An automatic with grey leather it had special attachments for fitting angling equipment to the roof. Only one other 3 litre Countryman appears to have been made for Sir Leonard Lord, the boss of BMC.
The Queen put in another order in 1966 for a 4 Litre R version but, rumour has it, this was written-off by one of the Royals at Balmoral and now languishes in a secret location. But does the 3-litre still exist? We’d love to know….

4. 1980 Jaguar Avon Stevens Estate
Avon – who more famously built a drophead versions of Jaguars Series II XJ Coupe – turned the graceful Series III XJ into an estate in the early eighties. The top of the body from B-post back was removed and the upper part of the tail gate was from a Renault 5. It would have set you back £6500 on top of the price of an XJ saloon and looked rather hearse-like the rear but was, allegedly, beautifully made. Certainly second-hand examples of the handful that were built are snapped-up quickly. The rear seats didn’t fold totally flat and the fuel tanks intruded into the load space so practicality was limited.
Much more interesting was the MkII County estate.  In the late fifties Jaguar works drivers Duncan Hamilton and Mike Hawthorn hatched the idea of producing an estate version of the Jaguar 3.4 saloon. They brought in racing artist Roy Nockholds to advise on the styling but before any cars were built Hawthorn was killed in a car accident and the project was halted. When the MkII Jaguar was announced in 1959 the idea gained new impetus and a single car was built by the coachbuilders Jones Brothers, based on the 3.8 litre version of the new MkII. Jaguar acquired the car and used it as a service barge following the works race and rally cars around Europe. It was a surprisingly harmonious looking vehicle which was sold into the trade in the sixties and ended up in America in the late seventies. It has now been restored (very unsympathetically considering its historic importance with vulgar modern seats and the like) and lives in Holland.

5. 1967 Rover P6 Estate
Rovers advanced ‘P6’ 2000 saloon was always a little short on luggage space so the Panelcraft converted estates were a sensible enough idea. Around 160 were built between 1969 and 1975, mostly based on the more powerful V8 engined 3500 model and sold exclusively by two London based Rover dealers who could carry out the £700 conversion on either a new P6 or your existing car. The Panelcraft estates were approved by Rover who agreed to honour original warranties. The roof of the car – badged the Estoura – was made in aluminium to save weight while the rear door utilised part of the original saloon bootlid. The rear seats were thinner backed than the original so that they could be folded to give a flat loading space. The fuel tank was now under the floor for the same reason. There was talk of an factory built SD1 based estate and, in fact two prototypes were produced – one for evaluation and one for BL chairman Michael Edwards to use as his personal transport. Both survive in museum collections.

6. 1966 Mercedes ‘Fintail’ estate
Today estates are a staple part of Mercedes mid-sized range but, in the sixties – and indeed throughout most of the seventies – estate versions of Benz saloons were built by outside firms. Initially companies Binz and Miesen built ambulances and the occasional civilian estate car on  190/190D and 200/200D ‘Fintail’ rolling chassis supplied by Mercedes. Then, in 1966, the Belgian company IMA introduced the Universal which could be ordered through Mercedes dealers and was built to a less utilitarian specification than the earlier estate models. It had 15 inch wheels (bigger than the saloon) and featured self-levelling rear suspension and could be had with a split-folding rear seat and additional bench seat in the load bay that could be folded away. The ‘Fintail’ range was discontinued in 1968 and it would be another ten years before Mercedes would offer its factory built ‘T’ series estates on the W123 platform.

7. Austin 3 litre Estate
Underdeveloped and poorly marketed the Austin 3 litre was a prestige flagship that shared its 3 litre straight-six engine with the MGC and its central body tub with the BMC 1800 but with a stretched nose and tail and rear wheel drive. Over-weight and under-powered – even the manual overdrive version could barely struggle to 100mph – buyers didn’t perceive it as a significantly more prestigious car than the cheaper and equally spacious front drive ‘landcrab’ 1800. So in a sense the estate version – of which only 11 were built – was really the only 3 litre with any credibility. Here at least was a useful load-hauler that was certainly one of the biggest in its class. The self-levelling suspension was of some theoretical value too, although it was rather unreliable: you had to remember to load the car up with the engine running if you wanted to avoid a sagging rear end. Crayford’s conversion doubled the price of the car but was factory approved. The rear door was pilfered from BMC’s Austin/Morris 1100 Countryman. Most of the cars built have now been banger-raced to destruction but three are said to survive if you fancy one…

8. Jensen GT
This was Jensens answer to the trendy Reliant Scimitar GTE although it was too late to market to take on the cheaper foreign competition effectively. Certainly the GT was a more interesting car than the unlovely Jensen Healey roadster (the Healey name was dropped after Donald Healey fell out with Jensen) on which it was based. That said the under pinnings were much the same, with a spectre of unreliability hanging over the Lotus designed (but under developed) 2 litre twin-cam engine that powered it. In fact the engine was sorted by the time the unlucky GT emerged and you can’t help thinking that in happier times the car with its plush cabin, useful load space, five-speed gearbox and 120mph performance, would have been a modest success. Sadly, with the fuel crisis affecting sales of its thirsty Interceptor models the Jensen went into liquidation in 1975 and only 473 GT’s were produced.

9 Lancia Gamma Olgiata
The Olgiata was an attempt by Pininfarina to revive the fortunes of Lancias flawed Gamma range which had been plagued by technical troubles from its introduction in 1976. Based on the beautiful Coupe version the Olgiata did the rounds of the motorshows in 1983. Handsome and well balanced it was intended to be a more up-market interpretation of the Beta HPE and it may have extended the life of Lancias flagship 2.5 litre models if it had been taken up. Trouble was the Gammas fate was already sealed in 1983 when production of the saloon ceased. The one-off Olgiata then gathered dust in storage for ten years before being sold to a European collector in the mid nineties when the Pininfarina museum decided it needed to make some space.

10. 1963 Alfa Giulia Colli Estate
The Milan coachbuilders Carrozzeria Colli (1932-73) will be best-remembered for Giulia Super estate cars they produced in the mid sixties. Just 16 were built: the majority were for the Italian Police and Army while the remaining examples as service barges by European Alfa Dealer Team racers in Belgium, France and of course Italy who at that time were campaigning GTA and GTAm’s. Out of the 16 most had their rear side windows panelled in and all had folding rear seats and a proper lift-up tailgate. Most used stock running gear  – a 1600cc twin cam engine with a five-speed gearbox – but at least one had the lustier 1750 engine and bigger brakes from the V8 engined Montreal coupe. Two right hookers came to UK to be used by dealers. One is currently being restored for a Japanese estate car collector (he runs an Estate car museum in Japan!) but the other has long since been destroyed. There was a factory Alfasud estate car in the seventies but there would be know Europe-wide Alfa estate until the advent of the 33 in the eighties.

more April 16 2011 at 14:54

Peter Fonda

Peter Fonda is a proper petrol head. When he wants to drive from his ranch in Montana to L.A the 66 year old counter cultural icon will not be climbing apologetically behind the wheel of a Prius or even taking a jet but weighing the benefits of BMW R100RS against his Ferrari Modena. But more often than not he will be slipping into the leather clad embrace of his trusty and much loved Mercedes 450SEL 6.9.
He has owned this piece of German grossermuscle since new in 1978 but Fondas Mercedes addiction started with a 1954 300SL gullwing that he owned aged 21 in the early sixties.
‘I had a 300SL at the same time as a Facel Vega’ he says ‘I gave the Facel to my wife and I took the Gullwing. It was a fabulous car but I sold them both ‘ like a fool! ‘and bought 64 Buick Riviera (which was really hot) and a station wagon. My wife got headaches in the 300SL. It was hard to keep it cool. But I loved it, should never have sold it.
Growing up in the forties and fifties Fonda became enamoured with Grand Prix racing and got to meet his hero Fangio. His father, Henry Fonda, bought him a VW Beetle when he was 17 but Peter already had well-developed tastes and, with some Monte Carlo gambling winnings bought himself a Lancia Aurelia convertible.
‘That was a beautiful little car. I shipped it over to America, drove it around for a while and then sold it to a guy who was a total Aurelia freak. He made me an offer and it was too cool. Also I never wanted to explain how I got the Aurelia. I didn’t want to explain to my father that I’d been gambling!’ An MG TF 1500 replaced the VW but as his acting career began to gather momentum in the early sixties (he appeared on Broadway in 1961 and made his film debut in 1963) he soon moved on to bigger, better things like hot rod Corvettes.
By the mid sixties his boy-next-door image was beginning disappear as he went into the rebel biker phase with films The Trip and The Wild Angels. These Roger Corman directed flicks were the groundwork for Easy Rider, the 1969 film that not only defined his career, but captured perfectly the feel of a time and place. It inspired many imitators and changed film making in America in the seventies. It also made Fonda enough dough to continue indulging himself in big Mercedes. In those days no real star was complete without a 600 in his life (out of the Beatles only McCartney didn’t own one) and for Fonda, a family man, it was obvious choice.
‘The 600 was one of the greatest cars ever built’ he says ‘It was just fabulous. It carried a lot of people comfortably, it had a huge burl wood dash bit it didn’t have a partition between the front and rear; it was a 600 personal limo. The 600 Grand was the stretch we called the Bismarck. You didn’t want to have your arm out of the window when you put it up, it was instant: you could drag a cop for 500 yards if he got his hand caught.
In 1971 Fonda bought a 300SEL 6.3 which he collected in Stuttgart while on a promotional tour for his new film The Hired Hand. He accompanied by his co-star and buddy Warren Oates. The scene was set for adventure as the pair blasted across Europe in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Collecting the car Fonda recalled how a German film crew of longhaired radicals were concerned that ‘Captain America’ was about to buy ‘the car of the burghermeister’. ‘What do you think I should be driving’ he retorted ‘a Citroen Deux-Chevaux?’
When he turned up at the factory Mercedes had his name down as ‘Mr Vonda’ but once he’d convinced them he had already paid for the car he was soon on the autobahn to Munich, cruising at 130mph. In his memoir Don’t Tell Dad he recalls that although the 6.3 was an ‘executive used’ car and was already run in it used a lot of oil, although the only smoke emanating from the car was coming from the massive joints Oates was trying to smoke in an attempt to get rid of as much weed as possible before crossing the boarder into France.
After Paris they ended up in Zurich, the 6.3 now christened ‘Janis’ after Janis Joplin who had sung of her love of Mercedes Benz and had a not dissimilar drinking problem.
It was while Fonda was embracing one of his many European conquests in a passionate farewell that Oates, keen to hit the road, reversed over his friend with the 6.3. ‘The differential of the 6.3 was just next to our heads’I hollered up to Oates to put the car in ‘park’ and pull the white knob that was just below the speedometer. Slowly the hydraulic suspension raised the car four inches and put Alex and myself in a little less doom-impending position. Later, crossing the boarder heading for Milan and tired of waiting for officials to deal with his papers, Fonda used the 6.3’s air suspension to kid a boarder guard it was a different car driven by different people simply by raising the ride height by four inches. It worked! At the end of the trip Fonda shipped the 6.3 from Rome to the states.
Fonda lost the 6.3 in the divorce from his first wife (although it his now back in family, his daughter Bridget having bought it from her mother) so he replaced it with the 6.9.
‘I bought the 6.9 because I knew it was the last year they going to build the hot one, 1977-79. I bought one that was built in March 12th of 1978. Its magnetite blue. It’s incredible. They rang up and said ‘We’ve found one for you Mr Fonda’
‘What colour is it?’
‘I don’t want a blue Mercedes’
‘Well come down and have a look the Germans say it’s their best paint’
‘Well I went down and saw the car and it blew my mind. I said: ‘right chrome those wheels, do this, do that but don’t touch the paint!”
‘So they prepped the car but they blew the paint because they put a power polisher on it and it heated up and it pulled the paint on the hood. I was their buying it for cash at this Mercedes dealership in California, Hermosa Beach; there was a German Mercedes rep there and he said ‘Zis is the Daimler-Benz finest paint.’ It was so deep when you looked down the side it was almost purple. Incredible paint! So I bought the car. I still have it today and its still great paint.’
He could have gone for more options and really loaded the 6.9 which was then Mercedes flagship apart from the low volume 600. ‘They asked me if I wanted the heated seats in it when I bought it. I said no its no about that, I don’t want anything extra. This car is about going extraordinarily fast very comfortably.’
Comparing the 6.9 with the earlier car Fonda says: ‘The 6.3 was faster coming out of the gate because it was a lighter car and wasn’t as big a car but the 6.9 is more comfortable for cruising.’ One thing he does miss is the dual tone horns of the 6.3 and 600. ‘So I might do a bargain with my daughter who never knew that there was a different ‘country’ horn on the 6.3. If you’re not going to use it let me have it! It gives it a big noise ‘ PHAARP! – out on the highway rather than this ‘peep’.’
Fonda has done a fair bit of work on the 6.9 him self.
‘I took all the re-breathing shit off it. Its back to the autobahn package as I call it. It doesn’t have the bumperettes, that’s how you can tell when you see another one coming. It’s a 28-year-old car with 112,000 miles on it and it still runs like a top. I’ve had to replace fan belts and drive belts ‘ two fan belts and three hoses. I just remanufactured the hydraulic hoses from a tractor ones which will take a lot more pressure than the Mercedes ones did. I’m replacing the heater servo and the air conditioning servomotor which was built by Chrysler (but never put in one of their cars) for Mercedes Benz. It’s a piece of shit’although it lasted for 28 years. But I found an aftermarket one on-line that is just so much better and it costs $490.’
Because Fonda uses the car on long trips sounds are important but he was managed to bring it up to date without compromising the originality of the cabin. ‘I didn’t want tear into the interior of the 6.9 to put a stereo in so I didn’t bother with one. Its still got its original Becker Europa fitted, a really good radio but I didn’t want to drill into the doors ‘ which have pneumatic hoses for the locks – with extra speakers and all that shit but now they make these smaller inverters than invert 12 volts to 110 so I put one of my bags on the back seat ‘ they one we don’t have to take into the hotel room ‘ and put a little Bose sound system in the bag which is like a $2500 stereo system in the car and works on a remote control.’
Tracking him down via emails for this interview he mapped out a punishing motoring schedule; Montana to L.A then Austin Texas, then Canada to shoot some scenes for a new film; from their packing up a house in Arizona, back to L.A and then a return to base in Montana, then back and fourth to L.A a few more times.
Much of that mileage will be consumed by the 28-year-old Mercedes. I asked if there were enough gas stations between Los Angeles and Montana to keep 6.9 fed?
‘If I don’t do 100 plus I get 14mpg on the highway’if I do what the car was meant to do all day long without ever overheating I watch the gas gauge and the speedo climb in a conspicuous decadent synch.

more April 16 2011 at 14:49

Ladybird Book of Motor Cars

The Ladybird Book of Motorcars, infrequent reviews in full colour of what was latest in motoring around the world, were my literary introduction to cars. In the early nineteen seventies there was limited child orientated information available for kids with a thirst for automotive knowledge. Grown up magazines seemed grey and indigestible at 7 years old and all you could find in the library where worthy general works about ‘Transport’. These slim hard-backed Ladybird volumes acknowledged an innocent enthusiasm for the world of cars that probably wouldn’t be acceptable today not only because modern parents might perceive them as nasty, smelly things that are choking the planet (or that run you over) but also because many children no longer see our four wheeled friends as especially exotic, rating them slightly above the family fridge in the charisma stakes: not so surprising given the dreary fridge-like vehicles people drive these days. Cars were moving into the realms of the consumer durable in my early seventies childhood but thanks to my Ladybird books I felt I could name almost everything on the road and everything, from the latest Vauxhall Viva to a rarely glimpsed Silver Shadow, was intrinsically interesting.
I went from Ladybird books to reading CAR magazine, via The Daily Mail Motorshow Review, and managed to largely miss out on the dryness of the Observers series.
The format of the books, published in Ladybirds ‘recognition’, where comfortingly familiar: 72 of the worlds most interesting cars arranged in order of size and usually starting with a Reliant Regal. The first book of cars was 1960 (a rare edition) revised in 1961 and 1963 and thereafter refreshed every two or three years. The last one was published in 1972, six being published in total always priced at 2/6 or, in the case of the post decimalisation 1972 edition, 15p.
Curiously they would sometimes feature cars that were no longer in production – the Lancia Aurelia B20 featured in the 1960 edition but had not been sold new for two years ‘ and a handful of real oddballs; the chances of spotting, say, an Allard of a Frazer Nash Continental were pretty slim but they spiced up the cross section of family saloons, sports cars and exotica.
The charm of the books, which you can still find in second hand shops or the web (see ) was and remains the beautiful pictures; some taken from brochure shots but retouched to make them look as if they have been painted.
The descriptions of the cars were obviously written to appeal to kids but didn’t talk down. They pointed out the rarities, gave you some basic facts (top speed, length, number of seats) and a depiction of the cars badge. The cross section of models was broad with no bias towards British cars, taking a typically Ladybird even handed view of the world and all its wonders; they weren’t even rude about American cars which were always described in terms of their luxury and ‘effortless travel.’
In fact American cars feature quite heavily across the series showing how they were a much more prominent part of the British motoring landscape thirty or forty years ago, where there was a thirst for their glamour in an England that was still a bit austere and black-and-white when the first Ladybird Book of cars appeared.
I think I got my first bit of anorak information out of a Ladybird book of cars: the Volga diesel, I learned, had the engine out of a Land Rover. As well as these mini car catalogues there was the Ladybird The story of the Motorcar, a general automotive history taking readers through to the early sixties and a happy world of Mini Coopers, E-Types and Silver Clouds. Even though I no longer have the books (I liked ‘redesigning’ the cars in felt tip) the depictions are forever imprinted, the E-Type shown passing through the gates of a grand house with a Daimler Dart going the other way, the cheerful enthusiast drivers greeting each other.
Other car related Ladybird editions included the How it works Series and Tootles the Taxi which seemed dated even at the time, depicting fifties vehicles – Tony the tractor, Archie the Ambulance – Stumbles the steam-roller, Larry the lorry, Co-Co the caravan, Minnie the milk-float etc ‘ with slightly disturbing faces and accompanied by rhymes.
The Books ‘ there seemed to be hundreds of them – covered noble subjects like ‘The Public services’ (whatever happened to that idea?) and were designed to make kids think what a ‘lovely’ world they lived in.
Other subjects in the ‘recognition’ series included trains, planes and the Ladybird book of commercial vehicles.
I learned to read on Ladybirds Peter and Jane series, a brother and sister of the never-had-it-so-good years who’s dad drove a two tone Zephyr Six, a car you never saw on the road by the time I was reading the books. Perhaps mindful of such things the publishers gave the books a seventies makeover and made Peter look like Donny Osmond. As if to emphasise how cutting edge the new look 70s Peter and Jane were one high street scene featured an orange NSU Ro80.
Ladybird books after 1972 changed somehow in format and feel, a bit like when, around the same time, Dinky and Corgi models lost the rubber tyres and went on to those cheap looking (and no doubt cheaper to make) whizz wheels or new cars started appearing with ugly reflective yellow/white number plates. It was as if everybody had suddenly got lazy, didn’t care anymore about what things looked like.
Considering Loughborough’s greatest export got me thinking about David Carey. He illustrated and wrote the Book of Motorcars editions and others in the ‘recognition’ series.
His real name E.C.Borst-Smith – the Rover Car Company’s Assistant Publicity Manager during the 1960s and into the 1970s.
He was known as Carey (his second Christian name) and David is thought to have been his son’s name. He headed the small department and wrote copy for Rover brochures.
‘He was very private’ says Roger Brown who worked with the great man at Rover in the early seventies ‘ immaculately turned out in tweed suits, bespectacled, and smoked a pipe – one got the impression that he would have been far happier to still be in his Rover P4 days – when he could wear his hat when driving. We all knew he did the Ladybird books as a ‘foreigner’ ‘
Lady books in general terms were a sort of kids guide to the world, fairly serious but not too dry. They exuded optimism, decency and innocence but from my early 70s perspective seemed to come from an era that was passing. The depictions of adults all had wore baggy fifties clothes and had plastered down oily short-back-and-sides hair, the women sensibly bouffant and mumsy.
Covering austerity Britain through to strife ridden early seventies the classic Ladybird series was aimed at the middle classes and portrayed them in a favourable light. I liked their lashings-of ginger beer world but never felt quite part of it; I was more a dandelion and burdock man.

more April 16 2011 at 14:47

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