Mercedes-Benz SL

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This car was a huge success for 17 straight years for two distinct reasons. For one, it’s easily one of the prettiest cars ever. The sensuous lines of the front end flowed back through a luxurious cockpit ending with a trunk lid so level you could play ping-pong on it. It’s a design almost fifty years old that can still shame almost anything for sale today. Timeless, I think they call it.

Two, it had virtually no competition at its price point! For the doctors and lawyers and TV sitcom stars who swore by these, there was really very little to shop it against. Less expensive, and thus less desirable, were things like the SAAB 900 and BMW 325i ragtops. The 900 was one of the coolest cars ever, but it was the kind of vehicle eventual SL purchasers were more likely to buy for their daughter to take to college. The same with the 3 series–it was just not quite prestigious enough, plus it had all the elegance of exactly what it was–a boxy coupe with the top sawed off. Above the Benz, you could spend a lot more money and get a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari, but a Corniche was hardly the most practical way to run around town, and a Mondial Cabriolet was probably a bit too vulgar for the country club besides being an atrocious value considering it possessed one of the most underwhelming powertrains in Ferrari’s history.

The SL’s one close competitor was the Jaguar XJS convertible and while that was a worthy adversary in the looks department for damn sure, it was also a car that was designed and built to properly run for only two or three miles at a time. That sort of unreliability simply wouldn’t do, so the advantage went to Germany, and Mercedes-Benz cranked these things out like Chupa Chups for almost two decades.

This incarnation of the SL bowed out in 1989 and its immediate successor looked like a flabby dowager next to it. And that was only the start of an inexorable downward spiral–SL design has only gotten worse with each subsequent generation. The current model has all the sex appeal of Borat in his singlet.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of these R107 models around and they are still awfully nice to look at. Living in sunny California, I’m not sure how many more years I can conceivably live without a late-eighties Navy Blue 560SL with the Palomino interior. Hemmings.com awaits!

 

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Jaguar XJ-S

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She still crouches there, deep within my memory banks–all hunkered down in feline repose on those flying buttressed haunches. The Jaguar XJ-S was a coupe that could stand on its own, but to see one of these sandwiched between some battered Oldsmobile Starfire Firenza and an already rusted-out three month-old Chevrolet Citation in the potholed parking lot of the local Montgomery Ward, was to espy something that stood out like a Fabergé egg that had been thoughtlessly discarded onto a pile of yellow-paged Eisenhower-era wrestling magazines.

To have one of these was to have a V-12 tucked under the bonnet and although this engine put out roughly the same amount of brake horsepower as you might find in a modern Hyundai Genesis Coupe sporting eight less cylinders, those were different times, Jim! It was still a V-12–back in the day, that drunk down at the end of the bar bragging about the “monster V8” in his Coupe De Ville was a piker any way you looked at it.

The car was just as special inside as out. The dash and console were furnished in something called “walnut burl” and it was gorgeous. The simple, stark black and white gauges were by Smiths, a company so cool a bunch of geezers from Manchester stole it for the name of their musical group. The cigarette lighter would only light up Dunhills, so you’d best have some matches handy if you were going to persist in favoring Newport Menthols.

Of course, and it was a big of course, Jags of this era were notoriously unreliable. Lots of folks joked about this but it was no laughing matter when the Coventry-bred gremlins that came free of charge with every auto that rolled off the line decided to get wake up and get mischievous just when you were passing through the “bad side of town.” The driver of this car was going to garner very little sympathy when their lovely grand tourer rolled to a stop in the middle of a busy street. Especially if it was in a neighborhood where most of the residents rode the bus.

But that sort of thing is for the sociology professors to discuss. Those who love cars, especially beautiful cars, just look at it and say “Ahhhh!”

Chevrolet Chevette

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Donald Petersen, the then CEO of the Ford Motor Company, once dismissed GM’s rival to his very own Ford Escort as an “automotive cockroach,” but that observation was only partially accurate. Certainly Chevrolet Chevettes were everywhere–just as cockroaches are in every modern western home and there is no denying the underpowered little econoboxes crawled along the byways at roughly the speed an adult Periplaneta americana moseys along a kitchen floor.

But that’s where the similarities end. Because scientists have proven cockroaches to be indestructible and Chevettes, well, time has proven that they weren’t. I live in sunny California, where cars live forever. I love cars and I keep my eyes open for well-preserved vintage models at every turn. Over the years I’ve spotted AMC Gremlins and Matadors, Ford Mavericks, Mitsubishi Colts, Mercury Capris, Chevy Monzas, Dodge Omnis and once in awhile I even run across that most ridiculous clown car of them all, the Geo Metro. But I’ve never seen a Chevy Chevette, either running or parked. Ever. There literally may not be one Chevette on the road today, anywhere. Like H&M clothing or 50 ml plastic bottles of Popov vodka these automobiles simply weren’t built to last. They were disposable, if you will.

But mein Gott, weren’t they were popular while they they were still around! Anyone could afford one, even people with virtually no income, like the incarcerated or deceased, and a lot of high school students drove around in them. Although it was undoubtedly better than taking a yellow bus to school every day, it wasn’t really a ride a teenager was exactly dying to show off. I heard tales of some smart-alecks who would meticulously file off the crossed “T”s on the logo so that it read “Chevelle” but they weren’t fooling anyone, including themselves. Even if you had $1,500 worth of Alpine and MB Quart stereo equipment installed in your $600 used car it was usually better to wait until you got out out of town and onto the backroads before REALLY cranking up that Ratt Invasion Of Your Privacy cassette. There was no use drawing undue attention to yourself.

Ford’s CEO no doubt thought he was being both withering and clever when he likened the Chevette to a cockroach but the truth is, it was more like a dog.

Cadillac Cimarron

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By 1982 Cadillac had spent roughly 80 years building and then polishing its brand into one of the most respected around. “The Standard of the World” they called themselves and for a long time they could still utter such lofty proclamations and actually keep a straight face. It was true a few chinks in the ol’ crest and wreath had started to appear during the 70s in regards to that always important little thing called “reliability” but the marque was still producing some larger-than-life, desirable cars in that decade. 70s Eldorado Convertible, anyone? Yes, please–Bum Phillips had six of them. It all went horribly wrong, though, in 1982, when a bunch of automotive apostates at GM decided to urinate on the grave of Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac’s grave by “designing” and then offering for sale an object they called the Cadillac Cimarron. It sounded like something you’d sprinkle on buttered toast, but lots of fine automobiles have had weird names. The only problem was that the Cimarron fell about 100 miles short of being a fine automobile.

Let’s see, a four cylinder engine in a Cadillac? Seems weird. A body that looks distinctly like a Cavalier? Even weirder, huh? Wait a minute, isn’t that…no, it couldn’t be…but shit, look at it. Hell, it IS a Cavalier! For just shy of twice the price of a Cavalier, the lucky consumer would receive pretty much the exact same auto with some pretty badges screwed onto the hood and trunk and leather seats cut from the hides of diseased, USDA Grade Z bovines. Oh, and “courtesy lights”–mustn’t forget those. Not exactly the bargain of the century and even die-hard GM loyalists with questionable taste saw through this little scam. Nobody bought it, and the one guy I used to work with who did, (albeit in used form ten years after the fact) was a total tool and would have still been such even if he had somehow wound up behind the wheel of a 1969 Lamborghini Miura. Water finds its own level, as they say.

The Cimarron helped start a downward spiral for a once venerated brand that’s only been reversed in the last five or ten years, although I must add, GM’s decision to remove the DUCKS (they’re actually called merlettes but no sane person would know that) from the Cadillac crest earlier this year was absolute fucking bullshit. I don’t know any other way to say it.

Buick Reatta

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This coupe tried its best to look sporty, but it pretty much resembled a Fiat X1/9 that had been subsisting on Krispy Kremes and Big Gulps its whole life. The real selling point, or what Buick thought was a selling point, was the car’s “Electronic Control Center.” Touch screens in automobiles these days can be found on entry-level Kias, but in 1989, using an interactive monitor in place of more traditional climate and radio controls was a radical step forward.

The trouble was Buick’s elderly clientele– average age 64 years and 3 months at that time—were not radicals. The typical Buick driver may have seen “video games” in the waiting area of Pizza Hut when they were taking their grandchildren out for a treat, but to have some alien green TRS-80 style interface slapped up inside their dashboard was too much. This age group was already causing major havoc on the motorways–now Buick was asking them to take their eyes off the road for 10, 15, even 25 seconds at a time to muddle about with an interface that was incomprehensible to them. No records were kept, but you can bet that many fatal accidents were caused by this “innovative feature.”

The Reatta drivers who managed to survive overwhelmed their dealers with so much negative feedback that by the time the 1991 model was released the screen had been replaced with more traditional push buttons and analog dials. It was too little, too late and the car was nixed from the Buick lineup the very next year.

Ferrari Testarossa

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Was this THE exotic supercar of the 80s? In terms of mass appeal, I really can’t think of anything that would knock it from the top of the automotive mountain. Lamborghini? Yeah, the Countach was still going strong and it was without question an awesome-looking car, but the design dated from the early 70s, so it’s hard to claim that it “belonged” to the 80s. Lambo’s child that decade was the Jalpa, which was definitely not a ride you saw many people rushing to stick up on their dorm room wall. Maserati? Forget it, the 80s were most distinctly unkind to this marque—the languid, ugly Biturbo was a shamefully tarnished tine on the famous trident for sure. Lotus Esprit? Not bad, but hey, it had a four cylinder engine, just like your degenerate Uncle Ralph’s 1978 Chevy Monza. RUF Porsche 911? Fast as hell for sure, but again, we’re talking about a basic design that had been around for decades at that point.

Later in the decade, the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40 appeared and while they were untouchable in terms of performance, they were almost like one-off freaks in a way. No, it seems to me that as an “everyday” supercar, the Testarossa captured the public’s imagination like no other. Every Friday night, millions of people tuned in to watch a certain Bianco-colored version chase down criminals in Miami. Michael Jackson even owned one, although I’m not sure he had the physical or mental capabilities to actually drive it. And for just one lousy quarter, anybody could sit behind the wheel of one (next to a hot blond, no less) thanks to the Sega arcade game Out Run.

What do you think?