During the weekend, my wife is addicted to watching fixer-upper home shows in between naps on the couch. Lots of Chip and Joanna, and their various handy pals, dancing across the screen smashing old walls and painting new ones neutral grey on any given weekend. And that’s fine, considering the fact that I’m likely to nap through one of their marathons.
I managed to stay awake for one tale of what was pitched as a restoration project. A near-century-old home in Detroit had been sold off decades ago, then re-purchased by the original owners’ grandson, who also happened to be a contractor. He was going to bring this disheveled, fire-damaged wreck of a house back to new, he said, and would once again enjoy the place where a million childhood memories flowed. Period photos? History? All there. If it was a car, I thought to myself, I’d want to photograph it for a Restoration Profile piece in one of our magazines.
But a car is not a house (unless you’re in a motor home, which is a different question altogether). Outside, refinishing is practically mandatory on a house: Fix the crumbling fixtures, sort out the loose bricks with new mortar, and cover it all in a coat of paint. In the world of car restoration, preservation is huge. Original parts and original finishes all give a period-correct and accurate feel for what the car once was. If it needs to be refinished, restoration demands that it be done using period colors and finishes.
But it’s inside the house that the big transformation takes place. For a place that supposedly holds so many memories, gutting the inside of the place and knocking down walls feels (at least to this geezer-adjacent old-car fan) against the point. The living is done inside. What remains after the refurb is absolutely a more functional place to live, and I’m sure that the feng shui is vastly improved and makes it more comfortable. Many who love their cars and cherish the memories they generate want them frozen in amber. Car restorers will go to unreasonable lengths to make their cars look and feel correct—installing cloth wiring looms, developing methods to replicate otherwise-impossible finishes, finding entire other cars to crib parts from. No one in these home shows is looking to get a 1950s-era fridge running for the new kitchen or track down the original style sconces or re-use knob and tube wiring; those interiors are going to be full of new equipment and acres of counter space, taking up part of a previously-walled-off room that incorporates a newly-devised open-plan concept that takes up the entirety of the bottom level of the house.
America’s personal-luxury car scene exploded in the late ’50s. Studebaker’s Golden Hawk was among the first, back in ’56. Ford’s Thunderbird helped prove the market when the four-seat Squarebird came out in ’58. By 1963, Buick’s Riviera had eased onto the scene, and suddenly most car brands wanted in on this new niche. Chevrolet naturally sought a way to capitalize on the near-luxury-car game, but the Impala was too big (and the ritzy Caprice was coming for ’65 anyway), the Nova was too small, the Chevelle was brand new for the year and just finding its feet, and the Monte Carlo was half a dozen years away.
Why not try it with the Corvette? This ad is trying to convince people to see the Corvette’s softer side. It’s printed in color, but the image is a study in black-and-white contrasts. Black suit, white dress. Black pavement, white Corvette. Black tires with whitewalls. And maybe the ultimate contrast: presenting the Corvette as a luxurious proposition.
For years, AMC Pacers have suffered the brickbats and ignominy that only come with being a little too different, the marketplace having long ago decided which side of the intersection of daring and dopey the Pacer parked on. The airy greenhouse, the long doors, the last-minute change from GM’s aborted rotary engine to an inline-six out of the Rambler parts bin… it wasn’t an easy birth for the Pacer, and it wasn’t an easy life, either.
Time heals all wounds, it seems. Yesterday’s wackadoo freakshow is today’s individualistic outlier. The ’70s weirdo is the ’20s’ brave choice. For the second time in just two years, Hemmings Auctions has set a world-record sale price for a non-Wayne’s-World Pacer: a stunning $37,275 inclusive of buyer’s fees (a modest 5 percent, it’s worth noting). Showing less than 27,000 miles on its odometer, this first-year Pacer X spent its first dozen years as a showroom attraction in Pennsylvania and has a complete history from new. The result was only $125 shy of the movie car’s 2016 sale price, but well shy of the Mirthmobile’s most recent result of $71,500 at the 2022 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction.
My wife loves her daily-driver Ford Fiesta ST to bits—the power, the keen handling, rowing through the gears—save for one thing: the gas in the shock absorbers feels more like quarry gravel. She likes cars, a consequence of growing up with a father and grandfather who ran a used car lot in Spokane in the ’70s and ’80s. She learned to drive on a Trans Am from the lot, I’m told; when we met in Los Angeles 20-odd years ago, she was driving a stick-shift car. By choice. When I talk about car things, she doesn’t automatically roll her eyes, tune out or scold me for thinking crazy. So when she has the slightest inkling about anything car-related, I try to feed that. (Similarly, she indulges me when I get a home decorating idea; it’s not often, but it happens.)
She has forever loved the look, feel and even the smell of an old truck (old defined as a time before she was born in 19-cough-ty8). Yet she knows that she is not willing to put up with the nature of an old truck, particularly if it’s going to be something reliable enough to daily. The cut-and-thrust nature of morning traffic is far better suited to her 197-hp hot hatch than it would be to a properly restored vintage pickup. The perpetually-under-construction roads in our town would feel no better with two solid axles beneath her, and there wouldn’t be enough oomph to make her anything but an impediment in traffic, no matter how adorable she looked behind the wheel. Hot rodding might be the answer, with a bigger engine and Mustang II front suspension and all sorts of aftermarket components that might well be engineered to work with a stock truck, but not necessarily with each other.
Recently, an intriguing alternative came to our attention. This ’65 Ford F100 pickup now lives on a Ford Panther chassis. Panther, you may recall, was the codename given to the downsized full-size platform underpinning the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis starting in 1979, with other applications coming on line later. From the mid-90s through 2011, when production ceased, and even long after, a Panther was probably your local PD’s cop car of choice. And while the beefy P71 cop-car package was built for beatin’, plenty of grandma-spec Grand Marquis models came down the pike as well—and benefited from regular updates. By the year 2000, a Grand Marquis came standard with overdrive automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes with both anti-lock and traction control, set-it-and-forget-it climate control, smooth suspension with anti-roll bars on either end, dual exhaust, power windows, and more. All of it was rigorously tested by engineers in Detroit and elsewhere. Here in the desert Southwest, there are approximately 17 billion of them, plenty of which look just like your great Aunt Helen’s last ride—low mileage examples with questionable roof treatments and scraped bumpers—and lots of them for sale around the $5,000 mark. Could something like this be a viable replacement for the Mrs.’ little orange rocket?
Even though Cadillac’s lineup was all new for 1971, it remained distinctively Cadillac. The generous proportions, the toothy grille, the clean flanks, the subtle fins —you could never mistake it for anything else. The Calais (available as a two-door or four-door hardtop) was the entry-level ’71 Cadillac; from there you stepped up to the de Ville (Coupe or hardtop Sedan, depending on the number of doors you choose). The two-door Calais had a unique roofline but both Calais and De Ville rode a 130-inch wheelbase. The Fleetwood Sixty Special Brougham, at 133 inches between the wheel centers, was a pillared-sedan-only proposition. The Fleetwood 75, with its 151.5-inch wheelbase, was a full-on limousine, with strictly limited production. The lineup held until 1975, when the Fleetwood Sixty Special was renamed the Fleetwood Brougham, and the Fleetwood 75 limousine became, simply, Fleetwood.
Despite power and torque numbers dropping, and a fuel crisis that made single-digit thirst resolutely unfashionable, Cadillac had some record-breaking sales years in the first half of the ’70s. For 1971, sales were down 21 percent overall from ’70, and Cadillac sat in 11th place in Detroit’s annual tally of who sold what. Non-Eldorado Cadillacs accounted for 159,155 copies. But a year later, customers returned in droves: Cadillac shot up 42 percent and straight into 9th place with 225,291 rear-drivers sold that year, with hardly a change made to the cars themselves. Sales jumped again for ’73, with Cadillac topping 300,000 units, 251,103 of which were rear-drivers. Alas, it was a strong year for Detroit overall, so despite its favorable sales performance, Cadillac slipped into 10th place.
You might imagine the fuel crisis, arriving in late ’73 as it did, would pummel Cadillac for 1974, but the division still sold 199,543 Calais, De Ville, and Fleetwood models, and remained in 10th place. Cadillac sold 218,651 full-size rear-drivers in ’75 and remained 10th during a strong bounce-back year for the industry. Finally, Cadillac stormed into 9th place for 1976, with 274,801 Calais, Deville, and Fleetwood models sold (and a healthy 3.74 percent of the overall market).What all this means is that there are plenty of these big C bodies available. Consider: More than 611,000 Coupe de Villes were sold from ’71 to ’76. But how can you tell if you’re getting a good one? We spoke to Mike Steiner of Palm Springs, California; we feel that the two-dozen-plus ’71-’76 rear-drive Caddys he’s owned and restored over time, including the dozen currently with his name on the title, qualify him as an expert worth talking to.
Lower fenders, front and rear, as well as rockers, and what lies beneath the vinyl top are all places to look for rot. Front fenders can be swapped out, and quarters can be patched, but it’s what’s lurking beneath the elk-grain roof cover that’s the scariest. “Rainwater and dirt seep in under the chrome molding at the edge of the vinyl covering,” Mike says. “The dirt that gets in there stays —and stays wet. By the time you see a hint of it beneath the roof on the rear quarters, it’s a huge issue.
“”If the car spent any time in snow country, check beneath the doors, where the outer skin folds over the inner stamping; if there’s any rust, you can’t fix that. The metal is thin and if you try to take the doors apart you won’t get them back together.” Speaking of doors: “Door strikers had a plastic sleeve starting in 1973; if these break, the door won’t close properly, and you have to slam it.” The sleeves are not reproduced, but Mike has a solution: “The sleeve is the same size as a half-inch copper pipe coupling. Cut some to the appropriate length, remove the bolt from the door, wrap electrical tape four times around the bolt, then slide the copper sleeve over and you’re done.
“But the toughest part of making the body look right? “The ’74-’76 back bumper fillers are the worst! GM used a rubber that disintegrated in the atmosphere. Something about the formulation just saw them dissolve over about a dozen years. Olds and Buick had the same issue. Several aftermarket companies make replacements but none of them fit well. With originals, you could make them fit; the aftermarket ones are fiberglass or hard plastic and will shatter on impact.”
Cadillac’s 472-cubic-inch V-8 lasted through 1974. It was rated at 345 gross horsepower in 1971 and 220 net horsepower in 1972, with 8.5:1 compression both years. By 1974, the 472 was rated at 205 horsepower. Starting in 1975, Cadillac pivoted to its 8.2-liter (500-cu.in.) V-8, essentially a stroked 472, for all of its C-body models. Power dropped to 190 horsepower, while torque stayed the same as the previous few seasons, 360 lb-ft at just 2,000 rpm. Electronic fuel injection became optional in 1975, while new open-chamber heads were standard.”That Cadillac V-8 is indestructible if you don’t run it out of oil or water,” Mike reports. “I’ve pulled desert parts cars out of the yard, thrown a battery and gas in, and had them start up and drive.” Occasionally, “the diaphragm in the fuel pump can go bad.” Carburetors are GM Quadrajets and are infinitely rebuildable. Ignitions ran breaker points until GM’s popular and durable HEI ignition, with its integral coil, arrived on some models for 1974; all Cadillacs had HEI for 1975. “I’ve seen coils burn up on HEI ignitions,” Mike reports, “but it’s not a normal occurrence.”
Modern rally cars fling themselves sideways around woodland courses with 400 turbocharged horsepower on tap. Today’s Indy cars make between 600 and 750 horsepower to go 230-plus mph at the 500. DTM touring cars from Germany top 600 ponies. And contemporary NASCAR racers churn out 750 horses and regularly touch 200 mph on superspeedways.
This is all context for Chevy announcing its ZZ632/1000 crate engine at SEMA, the annual automotive bacchanalia-infused trade show in Las Vegas. It’s all in the name: The engine displaces 632 cu.in. and makes 1,000 naturally aspirated horsepower (or 1004 horses, but when you’ve entered four-digit-horsepower territory, it’s probably okay to round a little). It also delivers 876 pound-feet of torque on pump gas. That’s more power than a NASCAR stocker or an Indy car has. All that in a box—and maybe between the wheel wells of your own car.
Other crate engines with 1,000 horsepower have been made available, but the ZZ632/1000 is all engine, no power-adder required. The block is shared with GM’s already-available 572-cu.in. crate engine, which includes four-bolt mains and a forged rotating assembly. For 632-cube duty, the block has been treated to a 0.040 overbore and was redesigned to fit connecting rods that are 0.375 inch longer. Those new rods are topped by pistons that, in conjunction with the new CNC-machined aluminum cylinder heads, squeeze the air-fuel mixture as 12.0:1 compression.
The RS-X Symmetrical Port heads were designed by Ron Sperry, one of his final jobs at GM after more than half a century of building hot street and racing engines for GM. Rather than the uneven port shapes of previous big-blocks, these heads feature symmetrical intake and exhaust ports so that no cylinder is “starved”; all eight chambers get an equal air/fuel mix. It’s a trick Sperry used on the Gen III small-block (i.e., the LS engines launched in the C5 Corvette). While not strictly new, it remains an effective power strategy.
An artist’s duty is rather to stay open-minded and in a state where he can receive information and inspiration. You always have to be ready for that little artistic epiphany.”— Nick Cave, Australian musician.
Ken Blaisdell, now of Gilbert, Arizona, didn’t realize he was soon to have an artistic epiphany when he found this 1963 Ford Falcon convertible for sale online locally. “It was a true 20-footer—rougher than I expected. All of the plastic dash knobs were deteriorated and broken from the Arizona sun; the seller had replaced the top, but left the original gaskets in place; he removed the old door gaskets but didn’t install new ones. The original engine had been swapped out, and while the evaporator was still under the dash, the original York compressor was gone. I told the seller that it was rougher than I had expected, and that I was going to pass.” A month later, however, “I went back and bought it.”
Inspiration for finding this Falcon came from Ken’s salad days in the early ’70s, when a used ’61 Falcon sedan was his daily driver. “It was ‘just an old car’ that served as cheap transportation,” he says. “I paid $50 for it, and drove it until the rear end gave out. I used to work on that one because I had to; now I own one and work on it as a hobby! The style brings me back to the days when I first became interested in cars, and it’s so simple to work on that it’s actually enjoyable. It keeps me in shape; I refer to all of the crawling around beneath it, the bending over into the engine compartment, and the twisting to reach under the dash as my ‘restoration yoga.
In the ’70s, the Big Three increasingly encouraged going off-road. Jeep, not yet part of Chrysler and ever ahead of the curve, figured this out about two seconds after it converted its lightweight military sherpa to civilian duty, and it took the rest of the industry decades to catch up.
When it did, the results appeared to catch the ad copywriters flat-footed. This potted group of mid-’70s full-size SUV ads take a strangely pedestrian approach. It’s almost as if the copywriters didn’t know how to pitch this new breed of vehicle that combined the attributes of a station wagon and a pickup without using the name of a competitive product or encouraging buyers to void the warranty against a boulder. And if the writers couldn’t wrap their heads around it, how could buyers be expected to? Even the SUV name is basic—possibly a little too basic.
You’ll no doubt recall that 1977 wasn’t a banner year for American performance vehicles. Two hundred net horsepower seemed unobtainable in those emissions-choked, fuel-starved years, and what was the point of a dual exhaust when it had to blow through a single catalytic converter
?Most of GM’s A-bodies had given up any sporting pretension. Chevrolet quit slapping the SS name on its Chevelle/Malibu, and even the shovel-nose, aero-slick Laguna was gone by 1977. Pontiac outsourced the LeMans-based Can Am until the mold for the rear spoiler broke, and the original GTO was just a distant memory by then. Buick’s GS program had quietly fizzled out as well.
What was left in GM’s midsize A-body lineup that had an eye toward performance? The Oldsmobile 442.
Like many of GM’s muscle car names from the past (see Z28 as an example), by the mid-to-late ’70s the “442” moniker referred to a handling-and-trim bundle. Available on the Cutlass S hardtop coupe, 442 (option code W29) consisted of the FE2 handling package (stiffer springs and shocks, 1-inch front and 0.812-inch rear anti-sway bars, and steel-belted radials on 7-inch wheels; FE2 was also available separately on other higher-end Cutlass models), some additional rocker and wheelwell trim, bold graphics, and little else. With FE2, a keen mid-’70s owner could break out of the personal-luxury, sensory-deprivation-tank mold and achieve respectable handling without resorting to something as obvious as, say, a Trans Am. The 442 added a reasonable $134 to the bottom line for the Cutlass S in 1976.
The standard engine was Buick’s 105-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, with a choice of three-speed manual, three-speed automatic, or (intriguingly) five-speed manual transmissions. Step up to the 110-hp, 260 cu.in. V-8, and transmission choices dropped to the tried-and-true Turbo 350 and the five-speed. Other engine options more appropriate to something with the 442’s image and chassis capabilities were the 170-hp four-barrel 350 V-8 (mated to a Turbo 350 automatic), and the 185-horse Olds 403 backed by a Turbo 400. Olds’ 455 disappeared after 1976, so the 403 was as good as it got in ’77. Gear ratios varied between 2.41:1 and 3.08:1, depending on powertrain and what box you checked on the dealer’s order form. Car and Driver tested a 350-powered, 2.41-geared Cutlass in 1977 (a powertrain installed in about 85 percent of all Cutlasses for the year) and found an 11.9-second 0-60, an 18.4-second quarter-mile at 75.7 mph, and a 109-mph top speed. Sleepy, maybe, but stir in the standard FE2 suspension, and you get what Car and Driver called “something altogether different from the rubber-stamp supermarket car it might otherwise be taken for.” Well, maybe not with those stripes.
Throughout swirling decades of industry change, with divisions created and dropped, bought and sold, and forgotten, remembered, then forgotten again, Cadillac has remained GM’s luxury-car pinnacle. It has done so despite front-wheel-drive platforms and the industry’s increasing tilt toward Europeanization with aero-slick bodies, minimal body adornment, and firm suspensions all standing in the face of what many of us remember Cadillac to be. Which among today’s Cadillacs has the inside track for collectibility? I choose what I see as the most traditional Cadillac still in the lineup: the Escalade.
How so? Simple: Only the Escalade has carried on Cadillac’s grand tradition of V-8 power, rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame construction, sybaritic comfort for at least five adult humans, and a proper name. If I had our own money to buy a Cadillac right now, and it couldn’t have a V-badge on its flanks, then the choice would be simple. I’d find a low-mileage Escalade and either drive the hell out of it or let it sit in an air-conditioned sarcophagus for the next decade and a half.
Forced to pinpoint one or another, the third- and fourth-generation Escalades (the 2007-’14 and 2015-’20 versions, respectively) would be where I’d look. The first-gen ones simply looked like GMC Yukons. The second-gen models suffered from tacked-on flares too closely related to GM’s too-much-body-cladding era in the first half of the 2000s, which made the wheels look like they were tucked too far in. And the new 2021+ versions are too new to judge, although their face looks like Muttley, the canine sidekick of Dick Dastardly from the Wacky Races cartoon. I’d also suggest the standard Escalade, not the longer ESV that looks like a Suburban, or the EXT that looks like a Chevy Avalanche pickup, is where it’s at.
In late 2006, I somehow ended up behind the wheel of a new-for-2007 Escalade over the Christmas holiday. Around town, in Southern California, it frankly felt hopeless. Too large for traffic, too over-assisted to be fun, too self-conscious to try and get away with anything. Parking was a nightmare. But I took it out for a road trip stretch from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and beyond, and on the open road the big ’Sclade really came into its own. Fingertip steering. Lush luxury. Smooth-riding over patches of really crappy SoCal roads. Cruise control at 90 mph, with wife and child asleep in leather-lined comfort and precious little wind noise to rattle them awake. Absolute comfort behind the wheel, yet with enough driver engagement to keep me conscious as I sped north on Interstate 15. I even got nearly 400 miles on a tankful at those super-legal speeds. Not bad for a 400-horse, 6.2-liter V-8 hauling roughly three tons of steel, people and presents. (And for those who want to play and tweak, the LS engine architecture can be massaged to produce more power still, whether in the computer or with hard parts. Or both.)