18 February 2010

Threatened, Endangered and Extinct Cars: Part II

Editor’s note: The great response to our first list of “Threatened, Endangered and Extinct” cars prompted us to make it a regular feature. Here’s part II. 

If you grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, considered by many as the golden era of collector cars, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a nicely preserved or restored example of whatever your dad drove… or first let you borrow. But if you came of age a decade or two later – good luck.

It’s no secret that the auto industry went into a Dark Ages in the mid-1970’s, the result of increased regulation, oil crises and other cultural changes. It’s only recently that cars of this era – admittedly, many of them absolute travesties of design and engineering – have become old enough to be considered “antique.”

The kids who grew up during those depressing automotive times are now approaching middle age, and we’re thinking about which of our own childhood memories are worth preserving. If we made these decisions by racing for pinks or showing at a concours against our father’s era of cars, there wouldn’t be many ’70s or ’80s cars deserving to live. Fortunately, that’s not how most people collect and restore old cars. Most of us act of out of love and nostalgia. It’s more of an emotional decision than a rational one.

This is why our growing “Threatened, Endangered and Extinct” list is important, even as it offers more good-natured humor focused on the cars of the Automotive Dark Ages. While these will never be among the best collector cars of the Golden Era, there were plenty of interesting cars built in the ’70s and ’80s that evoke the memories of our generation, just as a ’57 Chevy or a split-window Corvette would for our parents. There’s value in those memories, even if the cars themselves are bordering on the worthless today.

1. 1984-1985 Ford EXP Turbo

The EXP began life in 1982, along with its corporate cousin, the Mercury LN7. The basic idea was as simple as it was stupid: Take an Escort coupe, rip out the back seats to make it a “sporty” two-seater, and give it more interesting body work. Ford actually had the temerity to invoke the Thunderbird when it introduced the car. The problem, however, was that the EXP weighed 200 pounds more than the already pathetically slow Escort. It took two years to remedy the issue by giving the EXP an optional turbocharged 1.6-liter that made 120 horsepower. The EXP also received a cosmetic makeover in 1984, adopting the now-discontinued LN7’s more curvaceous hatchback. With Koni shocks, alloy wheels and performance Michelin TRX tires, the EXP Turbo was finally a reasonable attempt at an interesting domestic sports car. But the car was priced at nearly $10,000, making it more expensive than a Mustang GT 5.0. Status: Extinct   

2. 1974-1981 Volkswagen Dasher

It’s hard to see how this simple transportation appliance managed to evolve into VW’s current Passat, but family lineages are often surprising. Beating the iconic Rabbit to market in the U.S., the Dasher was essentially a five-door hatchback version of the Audi Fox sedan, powered by a 1.5-liter four cylinder that delivered a meager 75 horsepower through the front wheels. The Fox was designed by Giugiaro, so the Dasher inherited its fashionably understated European lines, which were completely out of sync with the wild excesses of 1970s American cars. Station wagon and three-door hatchback models were added to the Dasher lineup, while the water-cooled, carbureted engine grew to 1.6 liters in 1975 and then received an upgrade to fuel injection a year later. Even so, the Dasher couldn’t crack 13 seconds in a 0-60 mph sprint. In 1979, Volkswagen started offering the Dasher with the Rabbit’s 1.5-liter diesel, rated at an underwhelming 48 horsepower. So equipped, the Dasher must have vied for the slowest thing on four wheels that year, barely able to manage a sub-20-second 0-60 time. Regardless of its sloth, the Dasher did well in representing Volkswagen’s maturing counter-cultural vibe through the decade. Status: Endangered

3. 1984-1986 Chrysler Executive Limousine

Among the many mid-1980s Chrysler products to be based on the K-car platform, this one stands out as the biggest – pardon the pun – stretch. The Executive was a factory limousine based on a LeBaron coupe, modified by the ASC Corporation so that the pint-sized livery car could accommodate up to seven – provided two of those passengers didn’t mind forgoing both leg room and seat belts while sitting on rear-facing jump seats. The Executive was more than 2½ feet longer than the LeBaron, which made it short compared to a real limo yet at the same time terribly proportioned due to its narrow width. (A shorter Executive sedan looked similarly bizarre and only lasted through the first model year.) Powered by a Mitsubishi-built, 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a three-speed automatic, the Executive was underpowered even by contemporary standards. When Chrysler fitted its turbocharged 2.2-liter four in the final year of production, it was too little, too late. The K-car limo was in no way successful, as Chrysler made roughly 1,500 of them over its brief lifespan. Status: Endangered

4. 1987-1991 Sterling 825/827

The British car industry’s death spiral lasted for more than three decades and produced a gaggle of ill-conceived and executed products. Some are bound to be forgotten, none perhaps more deserving than the Sterling. While this luxury sedan was quite successful in Britain, the Rover 800 derivative sold in the States was a complete failure. This made-up marque embodied virtually every last piece of British car DNA, from poor build quality to electrical problems to a propensity for rust. Strangely enough, the car was actually jointly developed with Honda, and employed a 2.5-liter Honda V6 (later enlarged to 2.7 liters). Adding further insult to injury, Honda’s own version of the car was sold here as the Acura Legend and became a huge success. Alas, Sterling’s only consolation was that it offered a five-door hatchback version that looked a bit more interesting than the Japanese case study in boring. Status: Endangered

5. 1988-1989 Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo

Fast and furious back when that phrase didn’t mean anything, the Celica All-Trac Turbo was a streetable rally car that absolutely nobody gave a damn about. The All-Trac Turbo, based on the fourth-generation Celica hatchback, was fitted with a 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 190 horsepower, and a full-time all-wheel-drive system. The result of Toyota’s first foray in the World Rally Championship, this top-of-the-line Celica offered performance equivalent to that of a base model Supra. But the turbo plumbing and all-wheel-drive hardware made the All-Trac Turbo heavy, at 3,200 pounds, and expensive, topping $20,000. The model did survive into one more generation of Celica, but despite its sleeker, smoother, more overtly sporty design, the fifth-generation Celica was entirely devoid of character. It didn’t matter, really, as the All-Trac Turbo was quickly eclipsed on price, performance and popularity by the first of the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive DSM cars that debuted in 1990. Status: Threatened

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