Crucial Cars: Continental Mark II

A blue 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II f34

Lincoln Continental Mark II f34. Source | Wikimedia Commons

To fully appreciate the Continental Mark II, you have to look at what the automotive scene in mid-1950s America was like. The economy was booming, and with flashy styling complete with jet-aircraft-inspired shapes and plenty of chrome, the luxury cars of the era were nothing if not flamboyant symbols of the mighty USA. GM’s Cadillac was far and away the No. 1 luxury brand, with Chrysler’s Imperial and Ford’s Lincoln brands trailing behind. It was high time for Ford to step up its game.

So for 1956, Ford brought out its new “Continental” division, which was slotted above the Lincoln brand and intended to beat not just Lincoln’s age-old rivals, but to battle the best from Europe, as well. Yes, that means Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. Although there was previously a Lincoln Continental model, Ford decided to repurpose the evocative Continental moniker for this new super-premium brand.

The rear of a 1956 Mark II r34

1956 Mark II r34. Source | Wikimedia Commons

Running counter to the status quo

The first model out of the new Continental factory was the 1956 Mark II, which had Cadillac’s prestigious Eldorado series squarely in the crosshairs of its iconic hood ornament. Although the Eldo, introduced three years earlier, was available in both coupe and convertible body styles, the Mark II was offered as a coupe only.

Compared to the rocket tail-finned and chrome-bedecked Eldorado, the Mark II was an exercise in tasteful restraint, with simply elegant, flowing lines and, compared to the Caddy, a minimal use of chrome. Indeed, with its low sleek body, smoothly integrated bumpers and turn signals, the Mark II looked more like a car from the late-1960s than one from the mid-1950s.

Measuring 218.4 inches long over a 126-inch wheelbase and tipping the scales at around 5,000 pounds, this was a seriously big car. Yet the Mark II’s timeless styling managed to mask the car’s massive bulk.

The steering wheel of a 1956 Mark II

1956 Mark II interior cabin. Source | Wikimedia Commons

Classy cabin

Inside it was the same story, with biscuit-style upholstery (available in a choice of fabrics or Scottish leather) and a clean dash and door panel design. Two-tone interior color schemes were available, and as with the overall styling, were subdued rather than ostentatious.

One concession to the aviation-influenced themes dominating the era was the set of controls for the heater and optional air conditioner. These looked like miniature jet-engine throttle controls. Pretty much everything anyone could want in a luxury car, apart from A/C, was standard on the Mark II, including power windows, power seat, even power vent windows.

Horsepower and heft

Although it wasn’t a jet turbine, the Mark II’s 368-cubic-inch V8 cranked out 285 horsepower (300 for 1957). Running through a three-speed automatic and charged with propelling 2.5 tons of top-of-the-line American luxury, the Continental’s V8 quietly moved the Mark II with grace, if not a lot of gusto.

Although the engine was the same one used in Lincoln’s of the day, those used in the Mark II were blueprinted—that is, assembled with the parts that had the most precise tolerances. The engines were also subjected to six hours of testing before installation in the car.

A baby blue 1956 CadillacEldorado

1956 Cadillac Eldorado. Source | Creative Commons

Profits lost but prestige gained

Make no mistake: The Continental Mark II had it all—neatly tailored styling, a plush interior, all the latest luxury gizmos, and a very smooth powertrain. It also had a price tag of around $10,000 (around $90,000 today), which was some 50 percent higher than a comparable Eldorado coupe. And Ford reportedly still lost money on each one it built due to the cost of the high-quality materials and the extensive amount of man hours involved, the latter being double that required of a Lincoln.

That first year, 2,556 units left the factory. For 1957, changes were limited to increased engine output (as stated earlier) and the relocation of the air-conditioning air intakes from the top of the rear fenders to hidden behind the grille. Production for 1957 totaled just 444 units.

As it didn’t make much business sense to build a product that cost the company money, Ford dropped the Continental Mark II after just those two years in production. Although the Mark II didn’t contribute to Ford’s bottom line, it did give the company something arguably more valuable: the prestige of having produced a modern classic.

What do you think of the Continental Mark II? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Crucial Cars: GMC Syclone

black GMC Syclone parked on a small-town streetImagine this: It’s summer 1991 and you’re cruising around in your new Mustang GT. You rumble up to a red light and notice a black Chevy S-10 with lower body skirts and fancy wheels roll up in the next lane. The streets are empty, and you sense the guy in the small pickup staring at you. When you catch his gaze, he grins and gives the “let’s go” sign. Really, buddy? OK.

So the light goes green and, with wide-open road ahead, you both hit it. With a couple of chirps from the rear Goodyears, the ‘Stang leaps away from the light. You take him off the line, but then something weird happens—the black pickup streaks away, hissing angrily and showing you its shrinking taillights. As you lift off the gas in defeat, you notice a tailgate decal you’d never yet seen or heard about. It says: GMC Syclone.

Defeating a Ferrari

We imagine this played out more than a few times for unsuspecting drivers—not just American performance iron, but also wheeling European purebreds such as M-edition BMWs and even the occasional Ferrari.

Car and Driver pitted a GMC Syclone against a Ferrari 348, and the lowly GMC pickup beat the Italian stallion in a quarter-mile drag race. Of course, if both drivers kept their feet in it, the 348 would’ve pulled away shortly after. It did have a top speed some 40 mph higher than the Syclone’s. But no matter. For most Americans, 0-to-60 and quarter-mile performance mean a lot more in the real world than top speed. However, exploring your car’s terminal velocity is best done at an airstrip or the Autobahn.

The Syclone’s acceleration numbers were just incredible for the time, with 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times running in the low-five-second and low-14-second range, respectively, according to Car and Driver. Since turbocharged engines like cooler, denser air, a cool day would likely have those times improving by a few tenths. That might be why GMC claimed a 13.7-second quarter. Clearly, this was a pickup with pickup.

Power-packed pickup

rear view of a black Syclone parked in a warehouse district

Source | Creative Commons

Introduced and officially produced only for the 1991 model year (there’s an unconfirmed rumor that three were produced for 1992), the GMC Syclone was a lot of truck. It was much more than a Sonoma (itself identical to the Chevy S-10) compact pickup truck with a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6 stuffed under the hood. That boosted version of the workhorse 4.3 was a force to be reckoned with, as it was conservatively rated at 280 horsepower back when the Mustang’s 5.0-liter V8 made 225.

But the Syclone also featured all-wheel drive (with a 35/65 front/rear power split). The AWD system helped turn that prodigious power into performance. The four tires dug in and hurled the truck onward when the hammer dropped, instead of sending the rear tires up in smoke while time ticked away. Completing the performance package was an efficient four-speed automatic transmission, a lowered suspension, and four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Tasteful, not tacky

Available only in a menacing blacked-out exterior finish, as with Buick’s Grand National, the Syclone’s visual tweaks were aggressive without being overdone. They included those flared-out rocker panels, fog lights, handsome 16-inch alloy wheels and relatively discreet red “Syclone” decals.

To those who weren’t familiar with this pumped-up pickup, it looked like it was just a Chevy S-10 or GMC Sonoma with a body kit and wheels. Inside, special treatment consisted of black cloth buckets with red piping and “Syclone” headrest monograms, a full instrument package and a console with a shifter borrowed from the Corvette.a red Syclone with Marlboro decals in a parking lot

Marlboro Racing paint and decals, Source | Creative Commons

Though not production versions, there were 10 customized Syclones given away in a Marlboro Racing contest. These special Syclones were painted red with white graphics and featured a targa roof (i.e. a one-piece removable roof), custom wheels, a 3-inch lower suspension, performance chip and exhaust, Recaro sport seats, a Momo steering wheel, and a booming Sony sound system.

Seldom-seen speed demons

black typhoon SUV races alongside a steam train

Source | Creative Commons

With just under 3,000 produced, the Syclone is a rare breed indeed. The following year, 1992, the new Typhoon carried the hot-rod truck torch for GMC as the company released the speedy SUV. Essentially the same vehicle as the Syclone but with a more practical compact SUV body, the Typhoon allowed up to five people, rather than just two, to revel in the ridiculously rapid performance of this vehicular wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Do you remember the Syclone? Tell us what you thought about it.

Crucial Cars: BMW 2002

During the late 1960s, American performance cars that could seat four or five adults comfortably were big, heavy, and fast. We’re talking midsize coupes like the Pontiac GTO, Chevelle SS, Plymouth GTX, and Ford Torino GT. Sure, there were the smaller, so-called “compacts” like the Chevy Nova SS, Ford Falcon Sprint, and Dodge Dart GT, but like their bigger brothers, they were more about blasting up through the gears in a straight line than carving up a tightly curved mountain road.

1972 BMW 2002 NY

1972 BMW 2002 NY

More agility, less acceleration

Yet on the other hand—and on the other side of the Atlantic—you had a certain boxy and unassuming German two-door sedan that could seat four adults comfortably and whose idea of performance was quite different from that of the Americans. Introduced for 1968 and based on the BMW 1602 (which debuted a few years earlier), the 2002 combined its sibling’s compact but space-efficient body and agile handling with a bigger (2.0-liter versus 1.6-liter) four-cylinder engine.

There was just 100 horsepower on tap, so the Bimmer obviously lacked ripping acceleration. But a finely tuned, fully independent suspension system along with communicative steering and a curb weight of only around 2,100 pounds meant that a 2002 could quickly make tracks on a serpentine road. A blacktop scenario that would leave those American muscle cars falling all over themselves.

The two-door sport sedan

Yes, we called the BMW 2002 a sedan, which may seem odd given it has only two doors. While the American market typically defines a car with four doors as a sedan and one with two doors as a coupe, the Europeans define a sedan as a “three box-style” (hood, passenger compartment, trunk) automobile, saving the “coupe” designation for a two-door with sleeker body styling.

With the introduction of the BMW 2002, the sport sedan—a compact, boxy, practical car that could seat four or five adults while providing entertaining and athletic performance—was born. Indeed, the 2002 was a new type of car, one that could embarrass sports cars on a twisty road while also serving as a comfortable family and commuter car.

In a road test of the 1970 BMW 2002, Car and Driver stated: “Forget about the sedan body and pretend that it’s a sports car—a transformation that’s almost automatic in your mind anyway after you’ve driven it a mile or two. With the possible exception of the new Datsun 240Z (which is not yet available for testing), the BMW will run the wheels off any of the under-$4000 sports cars without half trying. It is more powerful and it handles better.”

1972 BMW 2002

1972 BMW 2002

Fuel injection makes a buffer Bimmer

Some U.S. market enthusiasts still wished for more power under the 2002’s hood. Although Europe got to enjoy the step-up “ti” model with its stronger engine, it didn’t make it to American shores. And neither did a turbocharged 2002 that was produced later on. But those drivers’ wishes came true for 1972, when BMW introduced a more powerful version of the 2002 called the 2002 tii that was available in the states.

With mechanical fuel injection (replacing carburetion), higher compression and other engine tweaks, the 2002 tii made 140 horsepower. With 40 percent more power than the base 2002, the tii was noticeably quicker, running the 0-to-60 dash in about 9.5 seconds versus about 11 seconds for the standard 2002. Other upgrades for the tii that boosted overall performance included a beefed-up suspension, bigger brakes and a less-restrictive exhaust. Inside the car, a leather-wrapped steering wheel greeted the lucky driver.

1975 BMW 2002

1975 BMW 2002

From Roundies to Squaries

From 1968 through 1973, the BMW 2002 continued essentially unchanged as far as body styling. These vehicles are known as “Roundies,” so-called because of their simple round taillights. Those years also featured smaller, more elegant bumpers. For 1974, the slim chrome bumpers were replaced by what looked like hydraulic shock-mounted aluminum battering rams that jutted out from the car on either end.

These unfortunate blemishes were an answer to the 5-mph impact standard that took place in the States the year prior, meaning a bumper had to absorb a 5 mph hit without damage. That year also saw the taillights updated to square (actually slightly rectangular) units that seemed to tie in better to the car’s body shape than the Roundies. Second generation “Squaries” continued through 1976, which would be the model’s last year.

1971 BMW 2002 interior

1971 BMW 2002 interior

The die has been cast

The 320i replaced the 2002 in 1977, and thus the iconic “3 Series” was born. Given its rare combination of a fun-to-drive personality and everyday practicality, the 2002 served the company, and legions of driving enthusiasts, very well.

Did you own a 2002 or just dream of driving one? Tell us what you love about the 2002 in the comments.

Crucial Cars: Dodge Li’l Red Express

The mid- to late-1970s were rightfully regarded as the darkest days of performance. In an effort to meet ever-tightening emissions standards, engines were detuned as compression ratios were lowered and outputs were further strangled by emissions controls such as more restrictive exhausts with catalytic converters.

The mid-’80s would see a big resurgence in performance as newer technologies allowed engineers to once again tune engines for performance while still meeting emissions regulations. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Indeed, if one was looking for something American that would accelerate with gusto during the late 1970s, the pickings were mighty slim. Sadly, a V8 of the era typically made only around 140 to 170 horses with just a handful of performance-oriented vehicles able to join the 200-horsepower club. As such, performance choices were essentially limited to Chevrolet’s Corvette with its optional L82 350 V8, Pontiac’s Trans Am with the optional “T/A 6.6” (W72) 400 V8… and Dodge’s Li’l Red Express Truck pickup. Yes, that’s right—a pickup truck.

Dodge Li'l Red Truck

Red and righteous

Dodge took advantage of less stringent emissions regulations for pickup trucks, and with a wink and a nod created the Li’l Red Express Truck for 1978. The basis for this unique vehicle was the short wheelbase, “Utiline” (stepside) version of Dodge’s D150 pickup truck. From there, the engineers and designers had a field day.

Bright red paint covered the body and real oak wood accented the bedsides and tailgate while “Li’l Red Express Truck” decals and gold striping added still more pizzazz. Even among all that eye candy, one of the most arresting features was the chromed-out, vertical exhaust system whose big-rig-style pipes would have done a Peterbilt proud.

Chilled-out cabin

Inside, the outlandish Dodge had a much more sedate styling scheme. Buyers had a choice of either a bench or optional bucket seats (with a standalone folding-center armrest) in either red or black. A sporty thick-rimmed, three-spoke “Tuff” steering wheel was initially standard, though it would be replaced by a less-stylish four-spoke wheel the following year.

Dodge Li'L Red Truck interior cabin

A V8 with vigor

With all that flash on the outside, there had to be some dash under the hood. And with a free-breathing 360 V8 dropped between the front fenders, the Li’l Red Express delivered.

Specifically, the high-output V8 was derived from the Police package 360 and sported a massive 850-CFM 4-barrel carburetor, a dual snorkel air cleaner, a performance camshaft and a real dual exhaust system with 2.5-inch pipes. It was rated at a strong-for-the-time 225 horsepower. And that was likely a conservative rating given the performance it provided for a near 2-ton truck. A chrome air cleaner and valve covers dressed things up and harkened back to the muscle-car era when car makers were proud to show off their engines.

Unfortunately, a four-speed with a Pistol-grip shifter was not an option, as the sole transmission fitted was a column-shifted, beefed-up automatic that admittedly did a fine job of sending the power to the 3.55:1 rear end. The Li’l Red Express rolled with fat, 15-inch white-lettered tires mounted on chrome wheels.

A pickup with plenty of pickup

Performance figures were impressive for the time. The Li’l Red Express could sprint to 60 mph in around 7.5 seconds and blast down the quarter mile in the mid-15-second range. In other words, in those performance tests, this big red truck would run about neck-and-neck with the aforementioned Corvette and Trans Am.

Make it a race to 100 mph, however, and the Dodge would leave those sleek sports cars behind. Gathering up the fastest American vehicles available for 1978, Car and Driver conducted such a test and ended up naming the Dodge Li’l Red Express as the fastest accelerating American vehicle from 0-to-100 mph.

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Lively yet short-lived

After testing the waters and producing just 2,188 units for 1978 but seeing strong demand for its hot rod truck, Dodge ramped up production for 1979. Total production for that second year was 5,118 units.

For 1979, the Li’l Red Express Truck saw a handful of minor changes. Round headlights gave way to a quartet of square units, the hood was flatter and catalytic converters were fitted (as emissions regulations for trucks tightened up), now requiring the use of unleaded gas. Thankfully the latter had little effect on performance, likely due to the fitment of dual converters rather than a single one and the availability of higher octane fuel.

The gas crisis of 1979 helped to seal the fate of the Li’l Red Express Truck. Units sat unsold on dealer lots while gas prices grew and gas availability shrunk. Understandably, the company pulled the plug on the pickup after the 1979 model year run. Still, there was no denying that Dodge’s shining performance star provided much-needed light during a dark time.

Crucial Cars: Toyota MR2

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on Toyota’s feisty sports car, the MR2.

Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-seater. For you trivia buffs, that’s how Toyota came up with the name of its sports car that debuted in the mid-1980s. Encompassing three generations before bowing out 20 years later, the MR2 endeared itself to thousands of driving enthusiasts.

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The dancing doorstop

The first-generation MR2 debuted for the 1985 model year. Petite, low to the ground and weighing just around 2,300 pounds, the athletic little runabout quickly became the poster car for affordable sports-car thrills. For good reason, car magazines such as Road & Track and Car and Driver raved about the MR2. A 1.6-liter, DOHC 16-valve inline four making 112 horsepower sat behind the cockpit and ran through either a slick-shifting five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic. The buff books called the manual one of the best in the world due to its satisfying, toggle-switch-like action. The engine’s smooth, high-revving nature also made it a blast to run through the gears, and with such little mass to push around it provided sprightly acceleration. As such, 0-60 mph sprints in the 8.5 second range and quarter-mile runs of around 16.5 seconds were possible and very quick for a car powered by a 1.6-liter four.

The MR2 saw a mid-cycle refresh for 1987, with the more notable changes including a slight bump in engine output (to 115 hp), bigger brakes, restyled front bumper/taillights, a T-bar roof option (with removable glass panels) and a sportier three-spoke steering wheel.

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For 1988, those wanting more gusto saw their wish granted in the form of the MR2 Supercharged, which boasted a force-fed 1.6-liter four making a stated 145 hp. The actual output was likely considerably higher, as performance testing had the little rocket hitting 60 mph in less than seven seconds and running the quarter in the low-15-second range. The following year would see only minor changes, such as an LED-strip-style third brake light, more aerodynamic mirrors, and for the Supercharged version, a rear anti-roll bar.

The baby Ferrari follows

After taking 1990 off, the MR2 returned for the 1991 model year completely redesigned. Looking a lot like a 3/4-scale Ferrari 348 minus the cheese-grater side intakes, it boasted not only exotic car looks but increased power, comfort, and performance. It also gained around 300 pounds in curb weight, though most viewed that as a small price to pay given the aforementioned upgrades.

With its 2.2-liter, DOC four making a willing 130 hp, the base MR2 was respectably quick, as it could hit 60 and run the quarter mile a few tenths quicker than its predecessor. As before, the athletic MR2 was more about providing backroads entertainment than it was about straight line thrills. Transmission choices were the same as before. Yet those with more of a need for speed had only to choose the top dog in the lineup, which was now turbocharged rather than supercharged. With its force-fed 2.0-liter four making a robust 200 horses, the new MR2 Turbo could rocket to 60 in just around six seconds flat and rip through the quarter in the mid-14-second range.

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Addressing concerns about the car’s propensity toward snap oversteer when pushed to its cornering limits, Toyota made a number of suspension changes as well as the fitment of 15-inch tires (versus the former 14s) for 1993 to make the car more forgiving of non-expert pilots. That year also saw more standard features for the Turbo (including T-tops, air conditioning and cruise control), as well as a newly optional limited-slip differential for that line-topping model.

For 1994, base versions got five more horses (for a total of 135), while all versions got a revised taillight panel (with a color-keyed center insert). Other update highlights included a one-piece (versus the previous three-piece) rear spoiler and revised power steering that provided more assist at low speeds and less at higher speeds. The following year, this MR2’s last in the U.S. market, saw no changes of note.

Along came a Spyder

After a four-year hiatus, the MR2 returned to the U.S. This third (and last) generation took a somewhat retro tack, as it morphed into a more traditionally styled, soft-top sports car. Toyota emphasized this new theme by adding “Spyder” (basically Italian for convertible sports car) to its name. Aimed squarely at Mazda’s ridiculously popular Miata, the latest MR2 traded its formerly sexy curves for a somewhat blocky body “accented” by oversize headlights and taillights. To say it lost some “eyeball” would be understating things. And there was no longer a pumped-up supercharged or turbocharged version.

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Still, there was plenty to like here. Although the sole engine choice was a 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four, it featured variable valve timing and cranked out a respectable 138 hp. A five-speed manual gearbox was the only transmission initially offered. Notably, the Spyder was very light, boasting a curb weight of just around 2,200 pounds, which translated into peppy acceleration (0-60 in around seven seconds flat). A longer wheelbase than before gave both a smoother ride over broken pavement along with greater stability when pushed hard on a twisty road. Finally, the MR2 Spyder offered a lot of bang for the buck, and with a price tag of around $24,000, it not only was a blast to drive but came nicely equipped with air conditioning, full power features and sharp alloy wheels. City dwellers or those who just didn’t like clutch pedals could, in 2002, choose the newly optional five-speed, automated clutch manual gearbox. The following year saw that transmission upgraded to six-speeds, slightly restyled front/rear fascias, revised seats and recalibrated suspension components.

For 2004, the MR2 Spyder received an optional Torsen limited-slip differential, a stronger structure (for better crash protection), and, to the chagrin of most enthusiasts, a one-inch taller ride height. To celebrate 2005, the last year for the MR2 Spyder in the U.S., Toyota added a six-disc CD changer to the standard equipment list.

With its two-decade run and massive popularity among driving enthusiasts looking for a fun, dependable, and low-running-cost ride, the Toyota MR2 is hard to beat. A few web sites catering to MR2 fans include MR2 World and International MR2 Owners Club.

Did you own a Toyota MR2? Tell us about it in the comments.

Crucial Cars: Buick Grand National

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we put the spotlight on Buick’s iconic ’80s muscle car, the Grand National.

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The year 1982 marked the slow rebirth of American performance cars. The “malaise” era, which ran roughly from 1975 through 1981 and marked a dark time when engines continually lost power, was finally ending. Thanks to new technologies, such as computerized fuel injection and ignition timing, engines could run more cleanly and efficiently while making more power than before.

Performance started its return to American car showrooms as Ford crowed “The Boss is Back” in advertisements for the ’82 Mustang GT with its “high output” 5-liter V8. General Motors was at the party, too, as Chevy and Pontiac rolled out leaner, sharper handling versions of the Camaro and Firebird, while Buick quietly brought out the Grand National.

Right about now, some of you might be thinking we’ve got the introductory year of Buick’s bruiser wrong. We can see it now: “Did you skip your morning coffee, guys? The Grand National came out in 1984, not 1982.” But serious Buick buffs may know that the Grand National debuted when “We Got the Beat” and “Eye of the Tiger” were burning up the Top 40 charts. And that the Grand National wore, for that one year, a silver/gray paint scheme.

Started out in silver

Something of a spiritual successor to Buick’s Skylark Gran Sport of the ’60s and ’70s, that first Grand National was similarly based on Buick’s midsize Regal personal luxury coupe. A 4.1-liter V6 with just 125 horsepower was the standard mill, with Buick’s turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 as an option. The turbo six made a respectable 175 hp—keep in mind these were the times that 5.0-liter V8s were making on the order of 150-165 horses.

Inspired by Buick’s success in NASCAR racing, the Grand National drew its name from the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National race series. A number of tweaks set it apart from your aunt’s vinyl roof-topped, bench-seated Regal. The Grand National featured a sharp charcoal gray/silver two-tone paint scheme with large “Buick” decals on its rear quarters, along with turbine-style alloy wheels. Inside were bucket seats, a console and a sporty metal-spoked, leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Given that there were only 215 Grand Nationals made that first year, one might be forgiven for not knowing this car ever existed.

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Skipping a year

For 1983, the Grand National took the year off. So did the Chevy Corvette, but that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird saw their performance variants getting stronger. Although those smaller, “pony car” segment cars aren’t direct rivals to the Grand National, it’s important to note that performance was now steadily on the rise for these American cars.

What was a direct rival came from Chevrolet, as it chose this year to debut its Monte Carlo SS. A cousin to Buick’s Regal (and Oldsmobile’s midsize Cutlass), it was built on the same platform, but rather than offering a turbo V6, the Monte SS sported a high-output 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) V8 making 180 horsepower.

Back in black

Returning to the Buick lineup for 1984, the Grand National took on a decidedly more sinister visage. Available only in black, with color-keyed bumpers and grille insert to further the menacing vibe, the Grand National also featured cool turbo V6 emblems on the body and inside the car.

Under the skin, the 3.8-liter turbo V6 was standard, and now fortified with sequential fuel injection and computer-controlled ignition, made 200 hp along with a healthy 300 lb-ft of torque. Running through its standard four-speed automatic (the only transmission available) and able to dash to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and run down the quarter-mile in the high-15s, the Grand National backed up its tough looks with serious-for-the time street cred. The 1985 Grand National was essentially a repeat of 1984.

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Gotta be cool now

Things got more serious for 1986, as the Grand National received a major increase in performance. The turbo V6 saw the fitment of an intercooler, which as the name suggested cooled the air going into the engine. Cooler air is denser than warmer air, which helps to create more power. Bottom line? A walloping output of 235 hp and 330 lb-ft.

It all made for a blacked-out personal luxury coupe that, in terms of straight-line gusto, could show its tail lights to the mighty Corvette, let alone those pesky Mustang GTs, Z28s, Trans Ams, Monte Carlo SSs, and Olds 442s. You want numbers? The ’86 Grand National could blast to 60 mph in the high 5-second range and unreel the quarter-mile in the low- to mid-14s.

Sadly, 1987 would be the last year for the Grand National (as GM prepared to launch its completely redesigned, front-wheel-drive midsizers for ’88), but it wasn’t going out quietly. Instead, Buick boosted the Grand National’s firepower to 245 hp and 355 lb-ft. Performance numbers were stunning, as car mags of the day got sub-5-second 0-60s with their quarter-mile times ranging from high-13s to low-14s.

It takes a keen eye to discern the minor visual differences between an ’86 and an ’87, as the latter has a completely blacked-out grille (no chrome mustache) with thicker vertical bars inside it.

As for that not “going out quietly” statement, the limited production (just 547 produced) Buick GNX was the Grand National taken to a higher level. Built in concert with McLaren Performance Technologies and ASC, the GNX boasted an upgraded turbocharger with a ceramic impeller and bigger intercooler, along with a less restrictive exhaust system, reprogrammed engine controller, beefed-up transmission, and reworked rear suspension.

Somehow, the GNX managed to look even more menacing than a standard Grand National, fitted with 16-inch wheels with black mesh centers, front fender vents and the deletion of the Grand National’s various emblems from the body sides and hood bulge. Unique interior treatment was part of the deal, too, as the dash featured round gauges and a serial number plaque on the dash, indicating which production number of the 547 GNXs your car was.

The GNX’s more powerful 3.8-liter turbo V6 made (a very conservatively rated) 276 hp and 360 lb-ft. Performance was unbelievable — this Buick was one of the quickest cars in the world with a 0-to-60 time of around 4.6 seconds and the ability to obliterate the quarter-mile in about 13.3 seconds. Put another way, the GNX could spank most anything on four wheels apart from the top dogs from the kennels of Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Indeed, the Grand National could not have gone out with a bigger “bang.”

Do you have fond memories of a Grand National? Share them in the comments.

Mudding Anyone?

land rover driving through mud

Source/Rad Dougall/Flickr

Remember when you were a little kid and the idea of playing in the mud outside after it rained got you hyped? Pushing your toy cars and trucks through the mud puddles while you did your best to enunciate the sound of a beefed-up engine was one of life’s simple joys. Well, now you’re a grown-up with a rugged, four-wheel-drive rig and maybe you want to kick up some summer mud, albeit on a much grander and exciting scale. Here’s a video that gives you a taste of what a blast this sub-category of off-roading can be.

Jeep_Wrangler photoChoose your weapon

To probably nobody’s surprise, the most popular mud tamer is the modern-day Jeep Wrangler and its very similar old-school forebears, Jeep’s CJ-5 and CJ-7. Compact dimensions, plenty of ground clearance, stout four-wheel-drive components and room in the wheel wells for large off-road tires are key reasons these iconic Jeeps reign supreme.

But they are far from the only good choices. Older Toyota Land Cruisers (the more basic four-door SUV styles as well as the Jeep-like FJ40) are very capable and durable rigs, as are the first- and second-generation Ford Broncos. Of course, 4WD pickup trucks are solid picks too, though the massive, full-size ones can sometimes prove too bulky in off-road environments with narrow trails. As such, we favor compact, more maneuverable pickups such as the Ford Ranger, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. One might also consider a Land Rover Defender, though aces off road, they tend to be rather pricey.

Mudding 101

1988 Toyota Land Cruiser photo

1988 Toyota Land Cruiser

Depending on the scenario, simply popping your truck into 4WD and driving on through the muck as if you’re on pavement may not be sufficient. As with any type of challenge, there are proper techniques that separate the hacks from those that know what they’re doing. As such, thanks to the pros at off-road.com, fourwheeler.com and allstate.com, we’ve come up with a six-pack of tips to make sure that you move through the mud.

1) Don’t go it alone.

Having at least one other person with a truck and recovery gear (such as a powerful winch) provides peace of mind, as well as a helping hand (and truck) should you get stuck.

2) Air down your tires.

Lowering your tires’ pressure increases surface area and allows the tires to flex and grab traction better than when they’re fully-aired up for on-road use. Dropping down to 18 to 20 psi should be about right.

3) Recon first.

If you’re trying to negotiate a deep mud puddle/bog, you might want to hop out and take a closer look first. Grab a long stick and use it to get an idea of the mud’s consistency, its depth, and if there are any large rocks or tree roots lying below in wait.

4) Take the proper line.

If others are also having fun in the muddy playground, watch and take note of the line they’re taking as they work their way through. Usually going straight is best, but there may be some obstructions or stickier points that may dictate using a different, more traction-friendly line that somebody else has demonstrated.

5) Start out in 4WD low.

This will obviously maximize your traction and torque at the low speeds you’ll be using to make your way through the mud.

6) Take it easy.

Throwing up 15-foot high rooster tails of muddy water at higher speed may look cool in commercials, but you could lose control and end up doing some damage or stalling out your engine. It’s slow and steady that wins this race. As the experts say and as with other types of off-roading, you should go as slow as possible but as fast as necessary to keep moving forward. Momentum, not speed, is your best friend here.

Muddy buddies

2004_Ford_Ranger photoSo you’ve discovered that you really dig playing in the mud. Fortunately, so do a lot of other off-road enthusiasts. Reading the various online forums for tips on where to go, how to set up your vehicle and how to improve your skills will help you enjoy your mucked up adventures even more. We suggest also checking out enthusiast sites such as mudtrails.com and offroadworld.net, which are also great for finding new friends that share this dirty passion.

Are you a mudding fan? Share your favorite mudding spots in the comments.

For the Love of Summer: Our Favorite Types of Convertibles

red jaguar xk140

Source/Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

In a couple of ways, cars that offer open air motoring are like ice cream. Most everyone likes them and they come in a lot of different flavors. Whether you’re cruising along an ocean boulevard in a classic drop top, chasing apexes in a modern sports car, or exploring rugged trails in an opened-up Jeep, these vehicles offer plenty of enjoyment no matter what your tastes are. And like a visit to Baskin Robbins, there’s bound to be a flavor you can’t resist.

Within the realm of the classics you’ll find a wide array of choices. There’s plenty here to move you, literally and figuratively. It might be a 1965 GTO ragtop with a 389 V8, a 4-speed stick and rumbling side-splitter exhausts that does it for you. Or, from the same era, maybe a Jaguar XKE roadster or Lincoln Continental convertible, with the former offering snazzy styling wrapped around two seats and a sonorous straight six, and the latter boasting four “suicide” style doors, a magic carpet ride and room for five of your biggest friends.

But as you’ll soon realize, your options further range from taking just sips of air and sunshine overhead to fully gorging oneself via environmental exposure that’s second only to a motorcycle’s.

Source/John Lloyd/Flickr

Just a breath of fresh air, please

A sliding sunroof provides a taste of the outdoors via a panel in the roof that slides back, either manually (as in some older cars) or via power control. If the panel is made of glass, it is usually called a “moonroof” as it ostensibly allows one to view the moon and the stars at night even while closed. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, pop-up/removable sunroofs were a popular after-market installation.

soft top mazda miata parked in a lot

Source/fortfan/Flickr

Traditional (and not) convertible tops

And then there’s the traditional soft top convertible, which when down leaves the whole upper portion of the car’s interior exposed, allowing its passengers to more fully enjoy the sun’s rays. These are usually power operated as well. Soft convertible tops (typically made of canvas or vinyl) have been around since the early days of the automobile.

More recently, retractable hardtops have become popular. Just as the name implies, this design offers the added comfort and security of a hardtop when the top is up. Lowered, it provides the same full, top-down experience that a traditional folding soft top does. For those al fresco fans residing in the more inclement areas of the country, a retractable hardtop is great to have. The BMW Z4 roadster and newer 3 Series (which later became the 4 Series) convertibles both offer retracting hardtops, as do the Mercedes-Benz SLK and SL, and outgoing (2015) Mazda Miata.

And yet, this “best of both worlds” idea is not as new as one may think. Back in 1957 Ford brought out its Fairlane 500 Skyliner power retractable hardtop, while Peugeot beat it by some 20 years with its aerodynamic but somewhat grimly named 402BL Eclipse Decapotable in the 1930s. Unlike the Ford’s more complex, folding power top, that Peugeot model featured a simple one-piece top that manually dropped down into the trunk.

view of a jeep wrangler as seen through the interior of another jeep wrangler

Source/Abdullah AlBargan/Flickr

The full experience

Nobody does it better than Jeep with its Wrangler model. Like its CJ-series precursors, the Wrangler is usually the model one thinks of when the word Jeep is mentioned. Sure you can fold the soft top down (a rather involved and potentially nail-busting affair), or unbolt the unwieldy hard top (if that’s what your Wrangler is wearing) and leave it in the garage or back yard. But that only gives you standard top-down experience. Detach the doors and flip down the windshield and you’ll enjoy the thrill of maximum exposure that’s second only to that of a motorcycle.

green t-top trans-am firebird at an auto show

Source/Michael Spiller/Flickr

The ‘tweeners

Existing somewhere in the middle of all these are the T-roof and Targa-topped vehicles. The T-top (which consists of a pair of removable roof panels) debuted in the U.S. with the 1968 Corvette coupe. In the late 1970s and through the early 2000s, various Camaros, Firebirds and Mustangs offered a T-roof option, while the Japanese car makers joined the party in the ’80s and ’90s with the Toyota MR2 and Datsun/Nissan 280ZX/300ZX, among others.

Similar to the T-top in that it could quickly be manually removed and stowed within the car, the Targa top instead provided a one-piece removable roof panel (no center “T” bar) which ran the full width of the car, providing even more of a true convertible feel than the T-roof. Past and present cars that offer a Targa top include the Porsche 911 and 914, the Honda Civic del Sol, the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, the current Corvette and various Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren models.

So what’s your favorite flavor of convertible vehicles? Leave us a comment.

Crucial Cars: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

2015 Lancer Evolution Final Edition

2015 Lancer Evolution Final Edition, Source | Mitsubishi

As recently as seven years ago, it was unthinkable that the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution could be on its last legs. Fully redesigned for 2008, the Evo built on its legendary rally-car heritage with even more turbocharged power and its most sophisticated all-wheel-drive system yet. Dubbed “Evo X,” it graced the cover of seemingly every magazine in the industry, promising near-supercar performance for the price of an entry-level BMW 3 Series.

But then the recession arrived, severely depressing demand for thirsty thrill-machines. In point of fact, Mitsubishi didn’t even build any Evos for 2009. And when the economy eventually rebounded, the Evo X just couldn’t get back on its feet. 2015 marked the final year Mitsubishi produced the Evo, and we said goodbye to one of Japan’s true performance juggernauts. Let’s give the Evo a curtain call by remembering what made it great.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution photo

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

Invincible AWD handling

The rally-derived Evo has always utilized a fancy AWD system to optimize handling, but in the United States, we didn’t get the full treatment until the Evo X arrived. The big news was the debut of Active Yaw Control (AYC), an electronically controlled feature that automatically transfers torque to the wheels that have the most traction. It was a revelation on the road, eliminating understeer in tight corners and making the Evo feel like it was quite literally on rails. Not many cars in the world could keep up, regardless of price.

Of course, some Americans were a bit miffed that they had to wait so long for an unadulterated Evo to arrive. In Japan, AYC had been offered since the mid-’90s, going back to the Evo IV, but Mitsubishi didn’t sell the car stateside till the Evo VIII turned up in 2003—and neither that car nor its successor, the Evo IX, had AYC. Still, one spirited drive was typically all it took to heal those wounds. The Evo X stands as one of the best-handling cars ever created, and we can only hope that there’s a reborn Evo XI somewhere in Mitsu’s future.

Awesome acceleration

2004 Mitsubishi Evo-I

2004 Mitsubishi Evo-I, Source | Mitsubishi

A remarkable fact about the Evo is that it has been extremely fast forever, dating back to the Evo I’s debut in 1992. That car carried a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that pumped out nearly 250 horsepower, and by the time the Evo III came out in 1995, the turbo-4 was up to 270 horsepower, which is roughly where it’s been ever since.

Technically, the Evo X’s 2.0-liter turbo-4 is from a new aluminum-block engine family, supplanting its iron-block predecessors. It’s also rated at a slightly higher 291 hp. But in terms of real-world acceleration, an Evo is an Evo, regardless of vintage. Plus, the older iron-block design is more receptive to major modifications. The one thing the Evo X really has going for it in the powertrain department is its available dual-clutch automated manual transmission, which rips off ultra-quick shifts that no stick-shift driver can match.

Four-door practicality

2014 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR Touring photo

2014 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR Touring photo

The Evo’s full name is “Lancer Evolution,” underscoring its sensible origins as a compact Lancer sedan. Indeed, this sports-car-shaming dynamo is nearly as practical as a Corolla in daily driving, from its reasonably roomy backseat to its serviceable trunk. Sure, you could get a Nissan GT-R for three times the price, but it’s a glorified two-seater that feels bulkier. Naturally, the Evo’s impeccable handling comes at a cost in the ride-quality department, but we’ve never heard enthusiastic owners complain.

Have You Driven an Evo?

This is a bucket-list kind of car. If you have driven one, what were your impressions? Give us some highlights in the comments.

Top Rally Racing Cars You Can Drive Every Day

Rally car

Source/By Hyundai Motorsport/Wikimedia Commons

We’re all all about some American muscle cars. But rally cars are one overseas product that can definitely get our blood pumping. We’re drawn to the World Rally Championship (WRC), which started as a mainly European thing but has since risen to prominence almost everywhere except the U.S. For whatever reason, it’s never really been an American thing to do, so the only way most of us can experience the thrill of a rally car is by driving one of the few rally-derived models available in U.S. dealerships.

What is a rally car?

First, for the uninitiated, a rally is run not on a circular track like other races but over private or closed public roads, from Point A to Point B. Fastest overall time wins. Rally cars need to be fast, versatile, and able to handle whatever the road throws at them–gravel, snow, mountain terrain, tarmac, or dirt. Check out this WRC video for a look at what these insane cars and their drivers can do. Then read on for three rally cars we’d like to have in the garage.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution photo
Popularly known as the “Evo,” this Mitsubishi rally car is a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive compact sedan. It’s unfortunately also on its last legs with an uncertain future. Mitsubishi has officially announced that there will be no Evo after 2015, though a lot of diehard fans refuse to believe that the company would just kill off its most iconic nameplate. Whatever happens, the current Evo will go down in history as one of the most capable four-door cars ever built, and not only because of its deep roots in rally-racing history. The boosted 291-horsepower engine under the hood is just the beginning; this Mitsu also comes with a telepathic all-wheel-drive system that shifts all that power side-to-side during hard cornering, effectively eliminating understeer. Additionally, its dual-clutch automated manual transmission is one of the best, ripping off instantaneous upshifts and flawless rev-matched downshifts that no human could ever match. Bottom line? Mitsubishi nailed everything with this car, and you’ll feel like a WRC champion every time you drive it. It’ll be a shame if they let the transcendent Evo go out with a whimper.

Subaru WRX STI

Subaru WRX STI photo
The top-of-the-line WRX is known as the STI, and it’s the closest you can get to Subaru’s WRC rally cars. It’s also all-new for 2015. As ever, the six-speed manual gearbox–no automated manual here–is a work of art, with short, precise throws and perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe downshifts. The steering feels heavier than before, in a good way, and it’s razor-sharp, with none of the on-center slop you expect in an all-wheel-drive car.

Another thing Subaru has improved is the STI’s body control: the previous generation heeled over in corners like a sailboat, but the new model stays nice and flat, as a performance car should. Though we’d probably mod the engine, because it basically hasn’t changed in 10 years. Sure, 305 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.5-liter four is nothing to sneeze at, but we expect progress after all that time.

Ford Fiesta ST

2015 Ford Fiesta ST photo
The subcompact Fiesta is Ford’s rally car. It comes only with front-wheel drive, so you might not make the rally-car connection right away. But there’s a rich history of Fiesta rally cars dating back at least to the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally, when a couple extensively modified Fiestas braved the icy conditions and achieved respectable results. Since then, numerous Ford rally cars have worn the Fiesta badge, most recently the Fiesta R5 with its all-wheel-drive layout and turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor. Swap out the AWD system for front-wheel drive, add a few creature comforts and voila. You’ve got the showroom-ready Ford Fiesta ST.

Rated at 197 horsepower, the flyweight Fiesta ST has plenty of punch. It’s also an ace in tight corners thanks to a brake-based electronic limited slip differential. You can even get a pair of Recaro sport seats that are more or less full-on racing seats in disguise. Throw in the MyFord Touch infotainment system and you’ve got a fully equipped daily driver that just so happens to be a terror on the racetrack, too. For the price (the 2015 model starts at just over $22,000) the Fiesta ST might be the ultimate road-going rally car, absent AWD system notwithstanding.

What’s Your Practical Rally Car?

Tell me about your daily-driver rally ride in the comments, won’t you? As long as it’s got a sporting chassis and some kind of racing heritage, it’s fair game in my book.

Editor’s note: Rally racing or not, treat your ride right with parts and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.