Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Desert Duty: The Story of the 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus of 1981

In high school, I wasn't smart enough to grasp geopolitical conflicts, the history of world civilizations, or foreign trade. My short attention span may have played a role, or the fact that I was more interested in cars and girls than anything else at that time. Desert Storm was over by the mid-1990s and Iran and Iraq were far-off lands. Why should I care? The troubles of an oil-rich Middle East were as remote to me as the moon.

As for Middle East history, one incident I do recall is the Kuwait invasion by Saddam's forces and the ensuing Gulf War. I watched it live on CNN in my parent's basement. Prior to that, I faintly remember reading about the earlier Iran-Iraq war in a long series of National Geographic articles when I was in grade school.

But that's about it. I was a regular guy with more pressing interests.

Meanwhile, American families such as my own were consuming oil in manatee-sized station wagons and conversion vans getting single-digit mileage. An oil-hungry nation didn't seem to mind where the product came from, even if we had to purchase it from war-torn regions with questionable leadership. When those leaders later came looking for a new set of wheels, (or a fleet of them), we gladly let them walk the lot and told the salesman to get the paperwork ready. And if we couldn't make a deal, perhaps our Candian subsidiary could.

Sound far-fetched? It isn't.

This is the story of oil, a brutal dictator, a protracted war, and the fleet of 1981 Chevy Malibus dubbed the 'Iraqi Taxis'.

Gas & oil fields near Ahwaz, Khuzestan province, Iran.
Photo Credit: Dynamosquito / Flickr

Following centuries of territorial battles, failed agreements over the use of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and rising tensions after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iraq invaded Iran in September of 1980. One major Iraqi goal: To capture the oil-rich Khuzestan province and keep the crude flowing to the West. Armed with $33 billion in U.S. money thanks to the 1979-1980 oil boom, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government was able to arm itself with the tanks, fighter jets and ammunition for the massive assault on their neighbor.  The ensuing air and land assault lasted for eight bloody years and included Soviet-sourced tanks, Gazelle helicopters from France, and Chevrolet Malibus from Canada.

That's right, a boatload of America's favorite mid-sized sedan headed to the Middle East en masse in 1981, but their role wasn't exactly crystal clear. Originally billed as an order destined for "Iraqi government fleet use and taxi service", their true destination may have actually been a bit more depressing.

The mid-sized Chevy Malibu was a perfect export vehicle for markets such as Europe, where consumers and infrastructure required smaller vehicles. Note this 1979 Malibu's export tail lights with amber signals.
Photo Credit: Roland Brunner / Flickr

By 1980, General Motors had firmly established the fact that they were a global corporation. They had subsidiaries on every continent except Antarctica, and they were shipping models like the G-body Malibus overseas in healthy amounts. It made sense that one of the world's most powerful dictators, a well-known car collector himself, would want to purchase a few thousand for his people. While they weren't as luxurious as the cars Saddam Hussein was used to riding in, the Malibus did have a nice full-size car ride while remaining nimble enough to handle like a small sport sedan. The fact that they were American cars also elevated them to 'celebrity' status in a region where most families didn't own basic transportation.

Shortly after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam's government special-ordered 25,000 Canadian-built 1981 Chevy Malibu sedans and paid a tidy sum (in the ballpark of $100 million at the time) for the order. Since Iran and Iraq were likely on the United States list of who's been naughty, General Motors of Canada actually sold the cars to Iraq. The corporate buffer would likely prevent any potential blowback down the road.

An 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibu on display in Illinois in 2015.
Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches

These Malibu sedans weren't your standard base model 'plain jane' models with zero options. No, sir. These were built for desert duty. Under the hood of each Iraqi-bound G-body sedan was the standard LC3 3.8 liter carbureted V6, a heavy duty cooling package, and the tough F41 sport suspension to soak up any big bumps the rugged landscape tossed their way. Like a Timex watch, the little full-frame sedans would have been able to take a beating and keep on ticking under the blistering Iraqi sun.

No frills inside of the Iraqi Malibus, just starchy cloth and a big gearshift for you to row through the gears with.
Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches

Creature comforts included air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo cassette player, and... that's it.

The 1981 Chevrolet Malibu Sport Sedan as shown in official GM literature.
Photo Credit: General Motors Heritage Center

You would think these cars would have been equipped with an automatic transmission, right? Well that option box wasn't checked off. Each one of the 25,000 cars came with the bottom-of-the-barrel Saginaw 3-speed manual transmission with a basic floor shift. This would prove to be the car's Achilles' heel.

Legend has it that half of the Malibus were delivered to the Iraqi government, and served in various roles as taxi cabs, police cars, and government staff transportation. When it came time for the Hussein leadership to take delivery of the second half of the Chevrolets, word came back to Oshawa that Iraq wasn't interested. Drivers complained of numerous problems with shifting the clunky Saginaw transmission. After taking delivery of nearly 13,000 cars, Iraq wanted to forgo the remainder of the order and call it a day.

A Saginaw three-speed transmission diagram.
Photo Credit: ChevyTalk.org

In an effort to remedy concerns, General Motors of Canada allegedly sent technicians to Iraq in 1982 to swap out clutch release bearings in what was later dubbed the "recall in the desert". Even shoring up the cars didn't persuade Saddam's government to finish the original transaction, and later that year GM of Canada was stuck with 12,500 G-body sedans built without U.S. or Canadian emissions equipment scattered between loading docks in Oshawa, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia. GM would later come up with a way to salvage some cash on the deal. They would later sell them at deep discounts in Canada and the Eastern United States for $4000 below sticker price of a comparably-equipped Malibu

Since the Malibus were originally destined for the Middle East, the cars were not fitted with any pollution control devices. Retrofitting would be required in order to sell the vehicles in Canada and the U.S., and was costly. Catalytic converters, and unleaded fuel filler necks were installed on each Malibu pre-sale. Canadian emission compliance information labels were added to the core supports upon completion.
Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches

That's where the story ends for most of us. U.S. and Canadian car folks know the Iraqi Malibus were oddball cars built for an interesting purpose and wound up as the deal of a lifetime for frugal buyers in cold climates. Ironic since they were built for the desert. Many were used and abused until they rusted out, or became prime V8 swap candidates for folks looking to build a sleeper hot rod without the risk of jacking up their insurance premiums. An F-41 equipped Malibu was just a small block away from a Monte Carlo SS, and these already were setup for a manual transmission.

A modified 'Iraqi Taxi' sold in Canada and later customized with a 350, 4bbl carb, 4 speed transmission, and flame paint job.
You can read about it here.
Photo Credit: ChevyTalk.org

What if the infamous 'Iraqi Taxi' cars weren't built for their stated purpose?

This isn't a conspiracy theory... don't worry. 

What if the so-called 'Iraqi Taxis' weren't taxis at all, but instead served as a consolation prize from a cash-strapped government fighting a petro-war with a rising death toll?

That may be exactly what they were, according to author Michelle McDonald.

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House Australia

In her book The Kiss of Saddam, McDonald chronicles the life of Selma Masson, wife of Iraqi diplomat Dr. Mohammad al Jabiri. Masson recalls seeing the special order Malibus roaming the streets of Baghdad with alarming frequency in 1982. With knowledge of the inner workings of the Iraqi government, Masson states the Malibus were often used as a pension payment for families of casualties of the Iran-Iraq war. If your son or husband died on the battlefield, you were entitled to a payment of 10,000 Dinar, (roughly $2500 U.S.) and a Chevrolet Malibu.

One can only assume the rationale for the gift of the Malibu was that it was a cheap way settle an obligation to the military families, and keep money flowing into the ongoing war instead of pension payouts. As an added bonus, young sons would presumably think highly of Saddam after receiving a shiny new American car, and eventually follow in their father's footsteps as a loyal Iraqi soldier. Widows were also allegedly encouraged to remarry quickly so that Saddam would be able to replenish his army that much sooner.

In another dark twist on the 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibu story, Masson notes the Iraqi people cleverly referred to the sedans as the "car of the mourning", by combining the Iraqi words mal for "belong to" and iubu, the sound a woman makes when she's crying. No doubt the sights of the car in your neighborhood would mean something bad happened.

This memoir certainly casts things in a different light.

Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches

Ironically, the cars that once symbolized power, influence, and grief are now a common nameplate on the streets of Saddam's hometown. General Motors will gladly sell you a new 2016 Chevy Malibu if you live in Iraq, only this time a friendly dealer in Erbil will help you with the transaction instead of a Canadian subsidiary.

The 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus are more than just a cruise night novelty. They were the cars that GM built for one of the most feared dictators in all the land, and a key figure in the major conflicts of our lifetime. We also now know they were a sign of loss and devastation in the villages where Saddam's soldiers and families lived. To many Canadians, they represent a unique economy car that turned into a stoplight racer after the warranty expired. In America they largely remain an urban legend.

If you see one, give it more than just a glance and you'll instantly be connected with a pupose-built car destined for far away shores. The 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus a piece of rolling world history knocked off course.

We're lucky any survived.

Note: Several attempts were made to get additional background information about the 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus from General Motors, GM of Canada, and the GM Heritage Center. The Heritage Center referred me to GM corporate. There was no comment. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Rollin' in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II

My buddy Dave is a Jeep guy. He enjoys teaching communications, fabricating anything he needs in his shop, and shooting films in his spare time. Sometimes he gets a little carried away on the weekends putting his trail-prepped CJ-7 through its paces on the weekends, but he usually lands right side up.


This is Dave. He's good people.
Photo Credit: Dave Lennie
Dave's helped contribute to the site over the years, and he's also lent his time and talents in several car expeditions over the years.

Did I mention that he's a great guy?

He also happens to know someone with a 1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II who isn't shy about handing him the keys after a few months of subtle persuasion. One of his colleagues was planning on driving said car to work, and the night before Dave texted me with an invitation to spend some time with an automotive equivalent of an English crumpet.

Do I like crumpets? Do I like British cars? Yes but I don't know much about them. I thought Dave's offer like was probably the only time in my life I'll have the opportunity to get inside a Rolls-Royce (except at an auto show. Even there, the sales folks would know in a heartbeat that my bankroll wasn't up to snuff. I'd likely be asked to leave before being pepper-sprayed.) 

Might as well savor the chance to roll in the Silver Shadow, right?

Between the two of us, I'm pretty sure the most Dave & I knew about Rolls-Royce automobiles is that they were off-limits for most of us. They also were purchased by people of means with a serious mustard addiction.

Barring that, we also knew that one appeared in the classic John Hughes film Sixteen Candles. That incident with a similarly-colored Corniche convertible didn't end well for Farmer Ted. We're quick studies, so here's our pseudo-road test of a car that cost more than many homes back in 1980.

The Specimen

I met Dave a little after 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning in the parking lot of his building. Neither one of us wore a cloak or sunglasses, but we were 'stealing' a car for a few moments from his colleague Margaret, who proudly owns this '80 Silver Shadow II. It was originally her father's car and has spent in the Hoosier State next to other British imports in the family collection. Its a clean, original car that has a few little parts that could use some minor TLC but otherwise was just as delivered from the factory. Dave fired it up, put it in reverse and away we went.

The Rolls looks quite at home along Moss Ave. in Peoria. 

According to the car's trim tag, this Silver Shadow II was originally ordered as a solid #9510398 Honey-coloured car. Rolls-Royce was always willing to please their discerning customers, and someone wanted to have the two-tone combination of Honey and #9510155 Nutmeg Brown. The combination looks deliciously rich, and reminds me of butterscotch pudding. Two wheelbases were offered, a short and a long. This is the short one, if you call 119 inches "short."

Clean lines hide how large these cars really are. 

Timeless beauty. This is what a Rolls-Royce should still look like. 


The Silver Shadow series that debuted in 1966 was a revolutionary model for the Crewe-based coachbuilder. Replacing its predecessor, the Silver Cloud wasn't an easy feat. The Silver Shadow debuted along with several firsts in the history of Rolls.

*First monocoque chassis construction.
*First Rolls platform designed for a V8.
*First Rolls with 4-wheel disc brakes.
*First Rolls with an automatic hydraulic leveling system.
*First Rolls with independent rear suspension.

Even with all these advances, the cars retained a fresh but traditional look that appealed to buyers of every age group. Shoot, they even look good today, which is more than I can say for modern luxury. Production was steady, and model revisions were slight through the years. Silver Shadow II models were built from 1977 to 1980 and really only saw the addition of rubber bumper strips and an air dam. 


Inside the passenger compartment is a corner office on wheels. Rich, overstuffed leather seats and appointments support every part of you. Chrome and nickel plated switches and knobs are everywhere. Something else is present in a 1980 Rolls that wasn't anywhere else along the automotive spectrum of that era. Real wood. Maybe Jaguar had it, but this was solid stuff. The electric column shifter and steering column? Those were borrowed from a taxi cab or something. No idea what they were thinking there. They look out of place and should have been vetoed at the design stage. 

Rolls-Royce didn't skimp on the rear seat passengers. They were pampered with their own cigarette lighter and ashtray along with Blauplunkt audio and those cute jeweled courtesy lamps. Whether it was at a red carpet event or a McDonald's parking lot, passengers undoubtedly made a stylish exit from the Silver Shadow II.


When is a Rolls-Royce similar to a 78 Olds Delta 88? Its a smog-era classic in the sense that its engine compartment is chock-full of hoses. While weighted down with smog pump tubing and evaporative emissions doo-dads, its awful hard to tell what's what. There's also a lot of electrical relays and solenoids everywhere. 


Dave goes in for a closer look at the 6750cc Rolls-Royce L410 OHV V8

Check out the little details like the insulating blanket over the climate control system on the cowl.
It prevents engine bay heat from getting into the cabin, and cuts down on blower noise. Brilliant! 

The core of this 6.75 liter engine was developed to replace the old inline eight cylinders that powered previous Rolls-Royce offerings. In a slightly modified form it remains in use today as a Bentley powerplant. In 1980 the Silver Shadow still ran a twin SU carburetor setup that looks for all the world like an early mechanical fuel injection setup. It seemed to do a good job of metering the petrol and air just fine. I wouldn't want to be the person who has to tune this smooth-running beast up. There's hardly any room in there for hands. 

One slightly odd fact is that Rolls-Royce decided to use a transmission from General Motors to handle shifting duties. A torquey V8 requires a beefy trans, and the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 was up to the task. Good thing we kept those trade routes open.

Speaking of oddball stuff from other countries, let's talk about
 the hydraulic leveling system Rolls borrowed from Citroën. 

This ingenious setup borrowed from nearby France allowed the rear suspension of the Silver Shadow to keep a consistent ride height, no matter how much beef wellington your passengers consumed at dinner. One catch. These systems are notoriously expensive to overhaul and require the use of $39 a quart Castrol RR 363 hydraulic oil to function properly. Something tells me you can't just waltz into an AutoZone and pick that stuff up.

To see the Rolls in action, click the YouTube link below and laugh along with us as we take nearly two tons of British royalty through the streets of Peoria, Illinois, USA.

"Don't hit anything."
Photo: Dave Lennie

Final Thoughts

I'll be honest, tooling around in this car was one of the most comfortable rides I've taken in my life. It floated over bumps, moved through the streets with ease, and it was quiet. It also drew a crowd while we parked for a few quick photos for this write-up. Attention magnet could be a good label for this two-tone beauty. The downside? Everyone will think you're Daddy Warbucks or Zsa-Zsa Gabor. That's fine and dandy until it comes time for an oil change or brake job. Cha-ching. Better find a mechanic who knew you BEFORE you bought a Rolls-Royce. 

This Rolls wouldn't have been completely road-worthy without a spicy French condiment within the driver's reach. Did it have the obligatory Grey Poupon mustard jar?

"But of course."

Thanks for the ride, Dave! (And thanks to Margaret for trusting Dave and the shaggy beard guy with her beautiful Rolls).

If you're serious about getting your hands on a Silver Shadow, there's plenty on Hemmings.com from time to time. They're a little pricey in good shape, but remember you're getting a lot of car for the money. Even at $33K you're only at roughly 1/4 of the cost of a new S-Class Mercedes.

And nobody would pull up to a Mercedes and ask for Grey Poupon, now would they?


Thursday, March 10, 2016

5 Reasons Why Driverless Cars Should be Terminated

In a shocking new development, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month issued a letter to tech giant Google confirming it will legally recognize Google's computer systems as a "driver" for a test fleet of autonomous cars. You read that correctly. A computer system is now federally accepted as a driver of a motor vehicle. Now before you call in Sarah Connor and try to deactivate Skynet and keep the machines from taking over, just read on. Take a deep breath, and count to 10. We'll get through this, but we need everyone on the same page.

While NHTSA trumps my say-so, I'm going to issue my official ruling right here: The self-driving car needs to be scrapped.

Squash it.
Photo Credit: Google
In the post-Matrix world, people have slowly become more and more useless.

Think about it.

A touchscreen kiosk rings up our groceries. Toll collectors have been replaced by transponders. Our mechanics plug a car into a computer so the car can tell the mechanic what's wrong with it. Auto insurance companies spy on us with sketchy data loggers and we eat it up. Advances in technology in the sake of saving money, or convenience, or efficiency.

Robots are also doing more important things, too...like surgery. Now the powers that be want us to sit down, shut up and hold on while they take us for a ride?

No way. Here's why. 

1. Computers Suck. 

As I type this, I'm pushing the keys on an old laptop that didn't want to boot up yesterday. It also didn't save the previous draft of this post because its a piece of junk. I challenge you to go one day without a computer freeze-up, smartphone hiccup, or cable box glitch. Now we're going to take the same technology and apply it to a four-wheeled capsule and drive at 65 mph? I'll take my chances with people any day. I barely trust my computer to process words.

A self-driving car roams the streets in 2012.
Photo Credit: Sam Churchill / Flickr

2. They Haven't Perfected This Stuff.

Hey want to see something cool? Here's one of those new-fangled cars that stop themselves.

Well, that's just Volvo. Maybe Tesla has worked all the bugs out of their cars. They're so smart, they offer automatic firmware updates in their Model S sedans, complete with new features like "Autopilot".

Let's see how that works.

Well, that doesn't seem to work so good. I guess the engineers have some homework. We certainly wouldn't want them to crash in the real world. That would be terrible, right? Google's new self-driving car suffered a setback last month when it decided to pull out in front of a bus in Mountain View, California. Like a 16 year-old with Mom's car, it wasn't the first accident that Google cars have been involved in. Supporters will point out that Google's previous crashes were not their fault, but he fault of other motorists...in each instance. Must be nice to have a near-perfect driving record. I don't buy it, but it must be nice.

3. The Tech Industry Asks, And We Shall Receive Whatever They Want To Give Us. 

According to its own documents, Google lobbied the federal government for legislation favorable to its new self-driving cars. Legislation like the FAST Act, or Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act helps create the perfect scenario for autonomous vehicles to appear as mainstream items. Buried amongst the highway infrastructure improvements, one provision of the law includes a missive to

"accelerate the deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, autonomous vehicles, and other technologies." 

Great. It helps when the country's Chief Technology Officer is a former Google VP. Oh, and Google donated a hefty sum to the Obama campaigns over the last 10 years. So I guess you could say that Google homemade taste was baked right in. 

Over the next two years, 10 universities will conduct research for an upcoming GAO report on the future of autonomous cars. It is likely that the next steps will include a plan to move ahead with major infrastructure improvements to carry out the implementation of autonomous vehicles. My hunch is it will become a done deal in a short amount of time. Its not just the U.S. that's playing around with this stuff. The U.K. will also soon become one big proving ground. Sounds promising. By promising I mean terrifying. 

"We hope you've enjoyed the ride."
Photo: Tri-Star Pictures

4. High-Tech Cars Restrict Independent Mobility. 

Say you need to go somewhere in the future world of driverless cars. My guess is that you'll need around $50K to afford one of your own. Too poor? Well just take a taxi. Or an Uber. Or Lyft. Whatever they're going to be called. You need an app on your smartphone. Boom, there's another $1000 expense for the phone and $200 per month for the data plan. Don't have enough money for that? Well I guess you'll just have to keep working at your $8.50 an hour job more often. But you'll need a car to get there. 

Repeat the cycle above. 

America is increasingly becoming a nation of wide disparity between those who have it...and those who don't. Broadband internet and widespread adoption of the smartphone has allowed some of us to leap forward, while others in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, and those with disabilities are left in yesterday's dust. Forcing an entirely new method of mobility upon us will undoubtedly create bigger challenges to our basic privilege of transportation. Its chilling to think about.

Then there's the matter of young motorists. Gone are the days of the $500 beater for the young driver. Kids aren't going to be able to get a set of wheels themselves because the cost will sky high. How will tomorrow's gearheads learn how to turn a wrench? What will be their teaching tool for maintenance? 

Ah, who cares. We're all going to be plant food anyway.

5. Autonomous Cars are Only the Beginning.

A friend of ours remarked that the giant warehouses that've sprouted up across the country in recent years all seem to be within shouting distance of the interstate. Not just near the interstate, but feet from it. You've seen them. Their location will eventually make it easier for the driverless semis of tomorrow to pickup and dropoff our goods. Soon, the 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers will be out of a job. I give it 10-15 years at the most.

In Daimler's self-driving semi, we have a machine that never needs a federally-mandated break. It never needs to rest or take a vacation with its kids. It doesn't have to pass a drug test and it certainly won't ask for a raise. We essentially have the Cyberdine Systems Model 101 of the tractor trailer world. How would you feel about a few chips and battery packs hauling around 50,000 tons at 70 mph? My guess is most people wouldn't care. If you haven't cared about the elimination of other industry jobs by automation, why care about truck drivers?

You should care, your job could be next. Did you ever think doctors would be replaced by robots in your lifetime? If they're expendable, so are you. 

Stay safe, and keep the computers where they belong...at work. Drive what you want, when you want, where you want. Don't let the robots take over just yet. 


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Safe Travels

Photo: Feng Zhong/Flickr
Hindustan. Mahindra. Premier. These are the colorful machines that keep India moving in the modern age. They're cars and trucks with style, history, and a sense of purpose.

They also need protection, just like their occupants, according to artist Sheela Gowda.

Gowda grew up in city of Bangalaru, Karnataka, India. Located in the south, the capital city is filled with former royal castles, high tech industry, and is known for being rich in iron ore. Its also a place where man clashes with machine. It was this clash that inspired her to create Behold, an installation currently at the Tate Modern in the UK.

Photo: Phil Cornett

Yes, those are chrome automobile bumpers. 
Yes, that's human hair. 

Think of it as an exaggerated good luck charm. 

Here's why... 
Photo: Phil Cornett

The hair on the bumper of the Hindustan Ambassador or Mahindra SUV is there to protect the drivers from anything that may cause them harm. Gowda's exhibit just taught us about superstition and the Indian motorist. I guess you could think of it as a version of the Saint Christopher visor clip in your Grandma's Crown Victoria. In that sense, we're all the same. We just want to be safe out there on the roads.

Be safe, wherever you are, whatever you drive.

Special thanks to fellow artist Phil Cornett for sharing this neat piece of Indian automotive art with us. 


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pigs, Ponchielli, and the Saab 9000

Remember when Saabs roamed the streets? Sure, there's plenty still out there today but they're mostly the GM Saabs. You know what I'm talking about. Badge-engineered late models like the 9-3 or 9-5, or that horrendous mutation known as the 9-2X...a Subaru WRX that pretended it was Swedish. There's no excuse for what GM did to Saab. That's all the reason why more vintage Saabs should make a comeback, including the first of the badge-engineered Saabs.

Ah, the 9000 SPG, or Sport Performance Group. Fast is fun. 
Many enthusiasts love the timeless look of the Saab 900's, and there's a bevy of that body style to choose from. The sporty Sonnetts are also fun, and several of those appear at car shows from time to time. Even the oddball early two-stroke Saabs have enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its rich rally car history overseas. The one Saab that seems to escape fame is the 1984 to 1998 executive car. We're talking about the Saab 9000.

Climb every mountain: A Saab 9000 in Germany takes a breather.
Photo: Flickr / Mok24

Introduced in 1984 as part of a joint venture with Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Fiat, the Saab 9000 was the classiest of the "Type Four" venture. With design cues from the talented Giorgetto Giugiaro and Bjorn Envall, the cars sold fairly well. They relied on Saab's tried and true 2.3 liter 4 cylinder for power, and came in turbo variants to help get global commuters from A to B in a flash. They also looked somewhat like a Playmobil toy from the same era. Lots of squared-off lines and a large greenhouse.

Ignition switch on the floor? Not in the Saab 9000.
Photo Credit: Smartcarofamerica.com
Because they happened to share underpinnings with other European friends, the Saabs lost some of the Scandinavian quirkiness that made previous Swedish people-movers like the 99 and 900 such a blast. Features like the center console ignition switch. The 9000 moved it to the steering column as God intended. They were also larger than the earlier models inside and out. They were the first Saab to be classified as a large car by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Less jelly bean, and more brick. Exterior design followed Volvo's lead of modern, angular lines.

Photo: Saabcarmuseum.com
The Swedes did allegedly leave one of their unique touches in the 9000 platform. According to Wikipedia and a couple of Saab websites, designer Bjorn Envall was a fan of The Muppet Show. Swedish Chef jokes aside, he apparently was inspired by the second season sketch, Pigs in Space. The swine astronauts had really large, supple captain's chairs with a rounded top and lots of ribbing. Envall took a cue and created some massively over-sized buckets for the 9000's front passengers and added some ribbed side-stitching for effect. I don't know how accurate this statement is, but its certainly fun to imagine Miss Piggy riding around in a Swedish luxo-barge.

Oink vey! I dunno, its seems like a stretch to me.
Photo: YouTube / Saab vs Skepticism / Saab 
Besides having ground-breaking design, ample room, and an alleged porcine-inspired interior, Saab 9000s were also light on their feet. The large sedans performed ballet to the music of Ponchielli with precision. Sound engineering, turbocharged engines and snow tires allowed an entire fleet of 9000s to dance for this promotional film used through 1991 at auto show kiosks around the world.

Enjoy the show.

What happened to Saab post-9000?  The 9000 gave way to the 9-5 after 1998 and the later cars blended into the rest of the field of mid-sized global cars with similar dimensions and features. 
Plain vanilla after years of cinnamon and cardamom. 
We know that Saab puttered along until being acquired by General Motors in 2000. They pillaged the company for innovations and platforms it would later use to develop the Epsilon chassis used on the Chevrolet Malibu, Opel Vectra, and even some Cadillacs. GM found it easier to build on the work of another, and the Swedes certainly did good work. Saab as a whole, was further neutered after being told to slap their name on models like the 9-7x / GMT360 SUV in order to compete with Volvo's X70. Sales figures went into the toilet. After failed attempts to sell the company, it declared bankruptcy in 2011 and remains inactive today. A sad compromise from the company that claimed it "didn't make compromises". 
The world didn't need a Saab Trailblazer. It needed another trailblazing Saab. 
In the end, the Saab 9000 could be considered the "beginning of the end" for the car built by trolls. A model that was historically significant for what it wasn't, and what it would become. That's why you should snap one up before they all return to the earth. One thing's for certain, they definitely don't make them like this anymore...because they don't make Saabs anymore. 

Needs a fuel pump, but it runs. Got $400?
Photo: Craigslist Kenosha-Racine 
Will Saab ever make a comeback? 
Maybe when pigs fly. 

Wocka Wocka Wocka!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Five Things You Might Not Have Known About Virgil Exner

People will appreciate anything with good design. It doesn't matter if that happens to be a cute Mini Cooper parked on the street or an espresso machine in a café.  Truth be told, careful planning and engineering goes into making an everyday object stand out, and Virgil Max Exner cranked out his fair share of them. From post-war Studebakers to the fabulous finned Chryslers of the mid-50s, Exner created some of the most beautiful automobiles ever to roll off an assembly line.

Virgil M. Exner posing next to one of his creations, a 1957 DeSoto  
Photo: ClassicCars.com

Exner's biography reads like a VH1 Behind the Music documentary. Good times, bad times, and good times again. It starts in 1909 in Buchanan, Michigan with a young small-town boy who likes to sketch, and loves automobiles. Young boy then goes to Notre Dame, graduates, and gets a job as an advertising sketch artist. Young boy matures into a man, gets married, has a family, and continues in an exciting automotive design career during Detroit's heyday. Man eventually gets sacked from dream automotive job due to political maneuvering and poor corporate management and spends the rest of his life dreaming of a better tomorrow.

As popular as he was back in the day, the Michigan native had a few remarkable traits that many of his admirers may not be hip to. According to Peter Grist, author of Virgil Exner: Visioneer, the talented designer of legedary motorcars like the Chrysler 300 and DeSoto Adventurer was known for working alone. He preferred to keep to himself, but he was a warm, personable man who got along with nearly everybody he worked with. Exner was admired by most of his colleagues because he gave them credit in a dog-eat-dog industrial atmosphere where the boss usually took credit for someone else's work. When he wasn't sculpting clay models of 'idea cars' in the basement of the family home, he enjoyed auto racing, vacations to Florida, and spending time with his family. That's what you may know about the 'father of the fin'.

Here are five things you might not have known about Virgil Exner...


1. Exner developed the streamlined trim that first appeared on Pontiac Silver Streak back in 1935. 

Advertisement for the sleek new 1935 Pontiac    
Photo Credit: General Motors
Before Chrysler and Studebaker, Exner briefly worked for Harley Earl in the General Motors Art and Color Section, a predecessor to the design studios of today. One of his early jobs in 1934 was to head up Pontiac's design moving forward. He spruced up the dull sedans with a streak of stainless trim that gave the lowly cars the illusion of speed. While the new trim didn't improve sales, Harley Earl liked Exner's work and he remained there until 1938. As a perk, Exner received a Pontiac sedan as a daily driver...but didn't care for it too much. Other design work for GM included the tapered grille design for the 1939 Buick models.

2. Wheels, not tail fins, were his favorite part of the car. 

White whites and wide wheel wells adorn this 1954 Chrysler Ghia Special G1.
Photo: Rex Gray / Flickr
You'll notice on many of his Chrysler designs that Exner stretched the wheel arches and allowed for large, usually wire wheels to be displayed prominently. This came as a result of Exner's love of early race cars. Growing up in Michigan and attending school in South Bend allowed Ex easy access to "The Brickyard", where he and his father used to take in the Indianapolis 500. In a time of fender skirts and low-slung tail-draggers, Exner's cars of the late 1950s and early 60s were large but maintained a sporty European profile thanks to his love of the open wheel. 

3. He liked race cars so much, he drove a retired Indy car on the street. 

The 1932 Studebaker Special in race trim (left) and street trim (right). Exner is visible on the far left.    
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books

While working at Studebaker, Exner came across an old straight-eight-powered Studebaker indy car from 1932 stored inside the design building he worked in. Being an Indy 500 fan and a gearhead by trade, he made an offer on it, and it found its way home to Exner's garage. The designer then turned it into a custom street-legal car. Ex and his son drove it around to various road race events and barked the tires quite a bit with 336 cubic inches of inline eight-cylinder power. He sold it when he took the job at Chrysler in 1949. But his racing days weren't over.

Exner and one of three Chrysler Falcons in 1955 at a Michigan SCCA event.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books
Exner remained active in the early days of the Sports Car Club of America, which sanctioned racing for enthusiasts looking to get the most out of their cars in a safe, controlled environment. Often times he would take one of his Chrysler 'idea cars' for a spin on a road course to see how it would handle. To see Ex push a one-off, hand-built, Hemi-powered show car to it limits, tires howling around an empty Air Force base...would have been quite a treat to see.

4. He liked Italian cars, suits, and people. 

Exner leans on the 1952 Chrysler K-310 next to Ghia's Luigi Segre.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books
Early on at Chrysler, Exner created several stylish 'idea cars', or design studies for the cars of tomorrow. He made good friends with his counterparts at coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, Italy and by 1950 the company was building idea cars by hand for Chrysler Corporation. Exner liked what the Italians brought to the table in terms of style and performance. He long admired Enzo Ferrari and the purebred performance of his cars. He also liked his overseas work trips because they allowed him to buy fine Italian suits in bulk. He was a sharp dresser, and a flashy suit went well with his flashy cars.

Volkswagen Type 14 Karmann-Ghia with styling by Virgil Exner and Luigi Segre.
Photo Credit: Georg Sander / Flickr
While at Ghia, he would develop a close working relationship with Luigi Segre, one of Ghia's designers and engineers who also contributed a great deal of input to the Chrysler cars. Ex's sketches for the 1952 Chrysler D'Elegance would later be re-purposed and scaled down to become the 1955 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, a sought-after coupe that remained virtually unchanged during its 19 year run. Segre took the credit for the overall Karman-Ghia design and won over Volkswagen, but sent Exner the first production Karmann-Ghia imported into the state of Michigan as a token of his appreciation.

5. At the end of a hard day, he enjoyed a good, strong Manhattan.    

Who wants a cocktail? 

The AMC series Mad Men may have nailed 1950's executive culture when they showed their characters knocking back a few drinks at the drop of a hat. Folks in high-stress, white-collar jobs (like Exner) embraced the cocktail. Ex preferred the traditional Manhattan and perfected making them at home while entertaining friends, usually fellow engineers. He was so precise about it, he used a file to notch fill marks on his glass cocktail shaker. That's my kind of guy!

Virgil, Mildred, and Bronwen Exner board a flight to France in the fall of 1956. The European vacation would prove therapeutic for Ex after suffering a heart attack earlier in the year.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books

Those are five things you might not have known about Chrysler's idea man, Virgil Exner. The success of his work at GM, Studebaker and later Chrysler would cement his legacy as an industrial designer for the ages. From the beauty of his Forward Look Chryslers to his Italian-American collaborations, Ex gave the slab-sided American car some much-needed flair. I guess you could say Virgil Exner lived life in the fast lane, and eventually it caught up with him. Between his serious smoking habit, and the demands of staying on top of the automotive game, Exner's health took a back seat to his career. At the young age of 46, he suffered a heart attack and followed the advice of his doctor and took some time away from work in 1957. It was this absence that sowed the seeds of his demise at Chrysler, but that's another story for another day.

For more of that story...

Exner's life and work are excellently chronicled in Peter Grist's Virgil Exner: Visioneer, a book my parents picked up for me this Christmas. I couldn't have asked for a better gift, and I look forward to finishing it. If you have a 50's Chrysler product, or are a fan of mid-century design, I cannot recommend a better read. Try it on for size and learn countless other details about the man who ushered in the next generation of American motoring by putting pen to paper.