What If

Ahh, yes, “what if” is a great game to play, especially with cars.

We did a previous piece quite a while ago titled, “Selective Memory”, which was about the tendency of classic car enthusiasts to remember cars from decades past as much better cars than what they really were.

These are are some of the vehicles that I wish had stuck around and been developed further, a great “what if” primer.

Just a note: There are many vehicles that I wish had lived much longer than their actual short lives. Some of these vehicles were killed when a rich, but unsentimental parent gave them the ax, some died because of the dire financial straits their manufacturing parent was in, and some died when their parent went under, taking the vehicle with them.

Due to space constraints, and readers’ attention spans, this is just a sample.

Let’s get started, then. These vehicles are not listed in any particular order of importance or level of affection I have for them, and, as mentioned, this is far from my complete list of this category of vehicles. Rather, it’s a sample of vehicles that died too soon, from my point of view. A sample that has great “what if” potential.

Studebaker Avanti – Wonderful modernist design (from Raymond Loewy) on top of what was basically a plain-jane Studebaker Lark platform, the 1963 Avanti sports coupe first had production problems around their fiberglass body quality, and then Studebaker started their slide into nothingness, going out of business completely in 1967. It’s a shame this car could not have not stuck around and evolved into the competitor to the Corvette it was envisioned as. It’s had a couple of iterations by different small companies since its initial demise, but no real resources of note were allocated towards evolution of the car.

Honda 1300 Coupe 9 – An air-cooled 1300 cc engine that would rev to 8000 RPM and produce 115 HP in 1969? Rack and pinion steering, front disc brakes and four-speed? Sign me up, right? Well, Honda sold it only in Japan, and it didn’t sell that well, and then they went to water-cooled engines after that. They were basically selling a sports car, and it would have been great if they could have kept going with this design brief and massaged the car into something more wonderful. Soichiro Honda, the president of Honda, was a brilliant engineer who didn’t like boring cars, and there’s no telling where he could have taken this premise. But, Honda needed to start making a lot of money, and left this car behind and went to the Civic next, and rest is history.

NSU Ro 80 – The story of the NSU and the Ro 80 is one of tragic proportions. The 1967 car is beautiful in it’s design, and both the exterior and interior were imitated by other manufacturers for decades after its debut. It had an advanced transmission, a great suspension, a revolutionary, super-smooth twin-rotor Wankel engine (now referred to simply as a rotary engine), and four-wheel disc brakes, unheard of on this price segment at the time. But the new Wankel engine had a terrible flaw. The three-piece rotor tips wore out very quickly, so quickly that engines would have to be replaced as early as 15,000 miles into the life of the car. By the time the engineers figured out a fix, the car had a reputation for unreliability that it could never shake. Warranty claims bankrupted the parent company, and it was bought for very little by Volkswagen in 1969, and merged with Auto Union and then absorbed by Audi. Mazda took the rotary engine and did wonders with it later, but I can’t help thinking that if a team of crack German engineers and a crack team of Japanese engineers were both working on improving the rotary engine for a couple of decades, that we might have one heck of an engine now. Delusion on my part? Too much “what if”? Perhaps. But I wish the wonderful Ro 80 could have stuck around, along with NSU.

Citroen DS23 – Stunning, avant-garde design, and an ingenious self-leveling suspension made the DS a sensation when it was introduced in 1955. Unfortunately, the four-cylinder engine in it seemed as if it came out of a tractor, and the transmission was an under-achiever as well. Oh, that it could have stayed on the automotive scene and been given the engine and transmission it’s beauty deserved.

 

Chevrolet Corvair – When it debuted in 1960, it was the only American-designed, mass-produced passenger car to have an air-cooled engine mounted in the rear. It was also the first mass-produced car to employ a reliable turbocharger for use in their engines, years before any other manufacturer. It was an audacious design and engineering triumph. The Corvair lineup included a coupe, a convertible, a sedan, a wagon, a passenger van, a commercial van, a pickup truck, and the high-performance turbocharged version. Unfortunately, a young safety crusader named Ralph Nader wrote a book in which he excoriated the Corvair’s handling, and sales plummeted. And then the Ford Falcon and Chrysler’s Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant twins started coming into their own in the small car segment, and Chevrolet just pretty much abandoned the car to its enemies, and ended production in 1969. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) started talking about doing a safety study on the Corvair in the Sixties, but didn’t finish it until 1972. Too little and way too late, the study nonetheless concluded that the Chevrolet Corvair was no more dangerous than any other car made at the time in extreme handing situations. Just think for a moment what might have been had GM just toughed it out and kept going with the Corvair.

Porsche 928 – Introduced in 1978, and intended as a replacement for the much-lauded 911, the front-engined, water-cooled 928 was a brilliant piece of engineering work, a beautiful car, that never really had a chance against the cult-like fanaticism of the acolytes of the air-cooled, rear-engined 911. You do have to give Porsche credit in one regard, though – they stayed with the car until 1995, even though they were barely selling any of the cars by the time production ended. The V8 engine in the car got bigger and more powerful, and there were some styling changes, along with upgrades in exterior and interior equipment, but the car maintained fidelity to its original design brief and purpose – an incredibly fast, poised, refined GT that provided premium creature comforts for its driver and passengers.

Willys FC – The Willys Jeep (and then the Kaiser Jeep after Kaiser bought Willys) FC-170 truck, and it’s little brother, the FC-150 truck, were introduced in 1956 and featured a cab forward design that was revolutionary at the time. Design was by Brooks Stevens, who used large tractor-trailer type trucks for inspiration. The result was that the trucks looked like nothing else in its segment. Marketed as municipal, military, civilian and commercial work trucks, the standard truck came with four-wheel-drive and a pickup bed, but every sort of configuration was available. FC trucks were equipped with dump truck beds, winches, flatbeds, PTO devices, enclosed cargo areas, and were used as fire trucks, ambulances, tow trucks, utility line trucks, buses and anything else you can imagine. The trucks were built like anvils and were quite durable, and were available with a 4-cylinder, a six-cylinder and a V8. Despite this, the trucks were not a success for either Willys or Kaiser, and in 1965, when the model was dropped, just a little bit over 30,000 units had gone over the curb. Kaiser certainly did not have the money to keep the truck line going, since they would soon be swallowed by American Motors, and the decision was an easy one at the time. The FC trucks were very different looking, and that’s not always a good thing in the marketplace. I personally love the way these trucks look, but I didn’t get a vote.

MGB-GT – The GT version of the MGB roadster was a four-cylinder fastback coupe that combined sports car handling with the utility of a small station wagon. Introduced in 1965, and produced until 1980, when the parent company (MG) disappeared under the waves, over 125,000 of these cars were made. Many people thought the GT was more attractive than the roadster, and I would agree with them. The GT was also offered with a straight-six engine, which was certainly not successful at the time of offer, and also offered in the UK only with Rover’s small V8, a model which was greeted warmly by journalists and and the public alike. Perplexingly, MG never seriously considered selling the MGB-GT V8 in the United States, where it would have been very popular, and provided some much-needed cash to the struggling company. It would have been interesting to see just how this pretty little car would have evolved over the years had it been able to stay alive.

 I-H Scout – Timing is everything in the car business, just like in the rest of life, and the International Harvester Scout left the automotive scene right before sales would have started a slow ramp-up, followed by an upward explosion. The Scout was International Harvester’s version of the Jeep, and it was a very worthy competitor. In fact, many people thought the Scout was the superior vehicle. The Scout hit the market in 1961, and was sold until 1980. I-H sold over half a million Scouts in this period, and the Scout, along with the Jeep, were the early SUV pioneers and set the table for other automakers to gorge themselves on the profits from SUV sales in the 80’s 90’s, and into today. International Harvester, the parent company of the Scout, made farm tractors, farm equipment, pickup trucks and large tractor-trailers. They sold off the pickup truck business (which included pickup trucks, the Scout and a large Chevy Suburban-type SUV named the Travelall) because their assessment was that the future looked bleak for those types of vehicles. The awful miscalculation here just makes you want to cry. The new owners were interested only in the farm tractors and the farm equipment business, and shut down pickup truck manufacturing. The tractor-trailer part of the business was retained by the original management and renamed Navistar, and still exists today. What if, what if, what if, what if, right? Oh, to have a do-over on that decision…

So, that’s my list. As stated above, it’s not a complete list, but merely some examples of vehicles that died too soon.

It’s always fun to play “what if”, isn’t it?

4 thoughts on “What If

  1. Sensor says:

    Useful, thanks.

  2. behavior says:

    Thank you ever so for you post. Much thanks again.

  3. Heliocopter says:

    Thank-you Stephen!

  4. jaisa says:

    Sensor says:, thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Great.

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