Hidden Auto History Is Everywhere, Including Oklahoma City

America’s automotive past is all around us, but it’s usually hidden under decades of change. There were a lot more auto manufacturers back in the day, and many more car factories and dealerships. Usually, the buildings they occupied were abandoned and eventually torn down. Fortunately for us, some are still standing and tell a fascinating tale. So let’s examine the hidden automotive history in the architecture of Oklahoma City.

Why Oklahoma City? OKC is a comparatively young city not as well known for its automotive contributions as, say, Detroit. But, as evidenced in neighborhoods like the now-trendy Automobile Alley district, it played quite an important role in manufacturing. Here’s what Oklahoma City’s past looks like in the present.

Packard building in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Packard, 201 NW 10th St.

Packard built some of the most attractive cars in its day, and used ingenuity to compete with the giants of General Motors and Ford. Built in 1925 as a large dealership with indoor showrooms, its display area was big enough for a dynamometer to measure a new car’s horsepower. After Packard ceased operation in the ’50s, the building became a warehouse and, later, a bar.

Today, the early 20th-century brick architecture blends with modern windows the size of garage doors. Blueknight Energy now occupies the office space upstairs, while a large restaurant takes up most of the ground floor. Packard’s New American Kitchen echoes not only the former car company’s name but its ethos as well, with inspired yet affordable food.

Ford building in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Ford, 900 W. Main St.

Henry Ford was always looking for ways to decrease costs and mass-produce more cars. He found his answer in the 1909 Model T. Ford built this factory in 1916 as part of its expansion plans to supply cars to the people. Within a few years, the company built 24 more factories across the country to help meet demand for the Model T. At its peak, this particular factory cranked out 200 cars a day.

The Great Depression stopped car production, but Ford continued to use the space as a regional parts warehouse until 1967. The factory that got America on the road deserved a 21st-century makeover, and it got one in 2016. The 21c Museum Hotel is a boutique hotel and contemporary art museum worthy of its building’s historical importance.

Pontiac building in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Pontiac, 1100 N. Broadway

During Pontiac’s nearly 85 years making cars, the arrowhead logo fit legends like the GTO, Grand Prix, and Firebird, and later oddities like the Trans Sport and Aztek. Built in 1928, this 14,000-square-foot dealership likely featured cars like the 40-horsepower 6-28 coupe.

It’s now home to contemporary office space housing British Petroleum’s Lower 48 operations. While the workplace is entirely modern, the soul of the dealership is evident. Wooden floors are still spattered with paint, evidence of old-time bodywork. The break room features a garage door that opens to the sky. The ramp for loading vehicles onto the turntable display is still there. It’s some kind of irony that a dealership servicing petroleum-burning cars would later house offices of one of the world’s largest oil companies.

Hupmobile building in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Hupmobile, 824 N. Broadway

Hupmobile started building cars in Detroit, Mich., in 1909. It innovated one of the first steel car bodies but couldn’t last through the Great Depression and stopped production in 1940. This restored building housed the Shelburne Motor Company, which was really more of a new and used dealer with full-service mechanics and even parts reconditioning.

After Hupp fell apart, the building went through an industrial period before falling into disrepair, along with the rest of downtown OKC, in the ’70s. After a few decades of neglect, a full restoration created an attractive storefront and office space. The tall windows now provide an excellent showcase for fine-wine, spirits, and beer purveyor Broadway Wine Merchants. Even if you don’t have a Hupp—stop by for a visit.

GM factory in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

GM, 7125 S. Air Depot Blvd.

Modern factories are also hiding in plain sight. Completed in the late 1970s, this GM Assembly built the unfortunate X-body and the slightly-less-terrible A-body. It shifted with the times through various other cars before finally hitting it big with SUVs. A tornado strike severely damaged it in 2003, but GM spent the money to get the plant operational just 53 days later. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, and Oldsmobile Bravada rolled out the doors until 2006, when they shuttered and sold the plant.

Today, the 2.5-million-square-foot facility is home to the local Air Force base and still produces engines. This old factory may not make cars anymore, and the office spaces are the least fancy of the ones listed here, but the F-35’s 29,000-horsepower engines are pretty sweet.

Buick showroom in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Buick, 1101 N. Broadway

This is your grandfather’s Buick. Built in 1927, the four-story Buick building was one of the first indoor showrooms in OKC, and currently anchors the Midtown district. The brick and limestone exterior was meticulously restored in 2014 and topped by a new vintage-style neon sign. Dramatic high ceilings befitting a warehouse now look great with updated halogen and LED lighting. The turntable and car elevator are both intact and operable. Mixing old and new themes is the ground-floor restaurant, Broadway 10.

Buick dealership in Oklahoma City

Source | Andy Jensen

Buick, again, 504 N. Broadway

The Okies from a hundred years ago must have really liked Buicks. This is a smaller Buick dealership, as it was built in 1911 and earned the title of first showroom in the city. It was unique for being a direct sales showroom owned by Buick, rather than the dealer model we have today. There’s a trendy event room upstairs called “The Showroom” which is available for $3,000 an evening—roughly twice the price of a late 1920’s Buick. The building displays art from Ghost Gallery, and the street front is Red Prime Steakhouse.

Take a closer look at some old buildings, and you might catch a glimpse of America’s automotive history. This was just a brief look at one city—let us know if you’d like to see more. And tell us what’s hiding in your town.

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.

The Awesome History of Pro-Touring

Pro-Touring Car

Source | Steve Ferrante/Flickr

Giant wheels, perfect stance, megawatt power, and excellent handling—all wrapped in timeless muscle beauty. Pro-Touring can be the ultimate expression of the muscle car, making 50-year-old rides relevant and competitive with modern exotics. Join us for a look at the tech and history behind it.

If this is your first time reading about it, Pro-Touring is a subculture of muscle-car enthusiasts that can be hard to define. It’s generally considered vintage American iron modified to accelerate, handle corners, and stop with the very best modern vehicles of any price point. Picture a classic Plymouth Roadrunner passing a Porsche 911 GT3 in a corner at Lime Rock, and that’s probably a Pro-Touring machine. Modifications must be extensive to get 50-year-old cars up to speed, and usually include engine swaps, forced induction, massively upgraded suspensions, large brakes, and even larger wheels.

Pro Street origins

Way back in the acid-washed jeans and Crystal Pepsi era, the popular trend for American muscle cars was Pro Street. Based on the NHRA Pro Stock class, the street cars mimicked the race-car look with giant hood scoops, flashy pastel exteriors, and “big ‘n’ little” drag tires. The results were sometimes all show and no go, as 1980s Pro Street was more about looks than speed. If someone did build a fast Pro Street car, it was usually too wild to be street legal and could not see action as a daily driver. As the decade ended, enthusiasts went looking for something different, as they wanted both performance and a legal and comfortable ride. Enter the road racers.

Pro-Touring Big Red Camaro on a track

Source | Big Red Camaro

Big Red steals the show

Classic road rallies like the La Carrera and Silver State Classic allowed builders the opportunity to test their mettle and their metal, with expensive European exotics taking home the trophies. That was until Dan and RJ Gottlieb stuffed a 540-inch Chevy V8 into a 1969 Camaro with a race-car suspension and created a legend.

The “Big Red” Camaro broke numerous records and was politely asked not to return. The Gottliebs had built something more than a race car for the street when they insisted the sheet-metal retain the factory look and the interior remain functional as stock. Window cranks and air conditioning? Big Red was reliable, brutally fast, with excellent handling, braking, and a reasonable ride quality. The Pro Touring style had been created.

Manufacturer performance

Enthusiasts think of the ’80s as a dark age of performance, but it’s really when auto manufacturers started to take a serious interest in handling and braking, as all-around performance started to matter more than just acceleration times. BMW wasn’t able to keep up with the pony cars in straight-line acceleration back then, but the popular E30 BMW 3 Series proved customers would line up for solid driving characteristics.

By the end of the ’90s the Corvette became the svelte C5, the fourth generation Camaro SS could pull .90g on the skidpad, and the SVT Cobra received a pony car first: independent rear suspension. The factory had pointed the way for Pro-Touring.

Pro-Touring today

Now you can build a classic any way you want, including for all-around performance. Want a six-speed manual in your ’67 Mustang or paddle shifters in your ’70 GTO? Both are available. There’s even aftermarket independent rear suspensions available as complete bolt-on kits, along with any number of big brakes, huge sway bars, and performance springs and shocks.

There’s no reason to leave your big-block classic in the garage for 90-percent of the year anymore. With the right equipment, that classic can handle the rigors of daily driving, weekend cruising, and the occasional track day, all in the same configuration. If you don’t want to go all out, Pro-Touring still shows how minor upgrades can be rewarding on your classic ride.

Tell us what you think of these auto trends. Leave your thoughts on Pro-Touring in the comments below.

Our Forefixers: Influential Women Innovators of the Automotive Industry

The automotive industry has a reputation (fairly or unfairly) for limiting women’s roles to posing for pinup calendars next to super-fast cars. But since the very beginning, women have been an important yet underrepresented force in the industry. These innovators laid the foundation for future generations, male and female, often with little recognition. In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at three important female forefixers, and their modern torch-bearers.

Photo portrait of Bertha Benz as a young woman.

Bertha Benz, Source | Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz

Bertha Benz

In 1888, Bertha Benz snuck out of the house with her two sons and her husband’s invention—the world’s first automotive vehicle. Karl Benz was reluctant to release his darling to the larger world. Bertha, however, believed that what her husband needed was proof of concept and an excellent marketing plan. She was motivated by more than tough love, though. She’d poured her significant inheritance into the family business, and she was ready for a return on her investment.

When Bertha drove the Benz motorwagen around 65 miles to visit her mother that day, it was the first journey of its kind. Along the way, she invented the first brake pad when she stopped to ask a cobbler to add leather to the brakes to improve performance. Her journey captured the attention (and imagination) of the world. She also secured a place in history and the Benz company’s first sale.

Modern Trailblazer: Mary Barra, the first female CEO at a major global automaker, GM, and one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People.”

Alice Ramsey stands next to her Maxwell automobile.

Alice Ramsey, Source | Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Alice Ramsey

Alice Ramsey may not have had the right to vote in 1909, but that didn’t stop the 22-year-old from making history. She drove from New York City to San Francisco with three female traveling companions. Only 152 of the 3,800 miles she drove in her 30-horsepower Maxwell runabout were paved. She navigated with road maps and by following telephone wires from town to town.

During the journey, Ramsey changed flat tires, cleaned spark plugs, and fixed a broken brake pedal. She arrived in California to great fanfare—59 days later—as the first woman to drive across the U.S. Over the years, she did the trip more than 30 times, finishing her last journey in 1975 at the age of 89. Ramsey accomplished one more first for women, posthumously. In 2000, she was the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Modern Trailblazer: Emily S. Miller, founder of the Rebelle Rally, a seven-day, all-female, off-road navigational rally across more than 2,000 kilometers of California desert. No GPS here either. Just a compass and a map to get to the finish line.

Source | Motorcities.org

Suzanne Vanderbilt

Suzanne Vanderbilt got her start in automotive design as one of six women dubbed GM’s “Damsels of Design.” Yup, it was the ’50s. The female designers were GM’s attempt to appeal to an increasingly powerful female demographic. They were limited to interiors, but they developed a series of innovations still in use today, including retractable seat belts and glove boxes.

By the 1960s, only Vanderbilt remained at GM. She stayed for another 23 years, eventually advancing to chief designer for Chevrolet. She was never able to break into the all-male field of designing exteriors. But she was responsible for three patents—an inflatable seat back, a safety switch for automotive panels, and a motorcycle helmet design.

Modern Trailblazer: Michelle Christensen, Acura’s first female exterior design lead and the first woman to lead a supercar design team. She’s responsible for the design of the second-generation Honda NSX.

Know of an innovative woman who made or is making automotive history? Leave us a comment.

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.

Forefixers: Windshield Wipers

During the thick of rain-and-snow season, your windshield wipers are as important a piece of safety equipment as your brakes or headlights. But cars didn’t always have the means to ensure our vision wasn’t compromised during inclement weather. Here are three of the inventors who brought about the simple yet ingenious tool we use today.

Mary Anderson and her patented design

Mary Anderson

An Alabaman woman by the name of Mary Anderson happened to be visiting New York City in early 1902. NYC is particularly beautiful in the winter, but the views were obscured because snow was covering the trolley windows. Disturbingly, she noticed that the drivers had to periodically get out to clear off the fluffy white stuff by hand, or (yikes!) stick their heads out the side to see.

That’s when Anderson brainstormed a squeegee-inspired device that would feature a spring-loaded arm and a rubber blade attached to the outside of a vehicle, operable via a handle from the interior to move the arm and clear the glass. In other words, it was the world’s first windshield wiper. She filed a patent in 1903, although her invention was too far ahead of its time and wouldn’t see widespread adoption until more than a decade later, when automobile usage began to become widespread and companies began marketing wipers.

Charlotte Bridgwood

Fast-forward to 1917, when another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, an engineer and president of a small manufacturing company in New York, took Anderson’s idea one step further. Rather than relying on a manual hand crank to use the wiper, Bridgwood came up with an automated design that drew power directly from the vehicle engine.

Called the Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner (what a name!), it utilized a series of rollers instead of blades to perform a similar task. Like Anderson, Bridgwood did not see commercial success with her creation.

Greg Kinnear, playing Robert Kearns | Universal Pictures

Robert Kearns

In 1953, a grisly Champagne cork accident left Robert Kearns with sight in only one eye. Afterwards, the Wayne State University engineering instructor started thinking more critically of how an eyelid works. “God doesn’t have eyelids move continuously. They blink,” he said in a newspaper interview. Kearns then set out to marry that insight with the workings of the windshield wiper.

After years of tinkering in a home laboratory, he secured several patents and then approached the neighboring Ford Motor Company with his masterpiece: an intermittent wiper that would activate at pre-set intervals. Following several meetings, Ford was eventually the initial automaker to roll out a model boasting the technology, and later many would follow. Kearns never received credit or compensation, until the 1990, after a winning a years-long lawsuit against Ford for patent infringement. Kearns had a fascinating life, and his story was turned into a movie, “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear.

Do you know of more windshield wiper innovators? Let us know in the comments.

A Look Back at the Truckcar

Lots of people love pickup trucks but don’t always have the need for a full-size truck. Way back in the ’50s, manufacturers developed a solution with the car-based truck, commonly called the truckcar, or coupe utility. Whatever you call ’em, the idea is the same. Take a car chassis and drivetrain, and drop a small pickup bed out back. While they’re the automotive equivalent of the mullet (business up front, party in the back), the classic truckcar has earned a place in the hearts of many.

Full-size legends

Ford Ranchero

The Ford Ranchero

While truck-ish cars have existed almost since the beginning of the car, Ford really kicked things off with the introduction of the 1957 Ranchero. Built on the full-size Ford sedan and coupe chassis, the Ranchero obviously differed from other cars with its body-integrated pickup bed. At a little over 5 feet long, the Ranchero bed offered light work potential in an easy-to-drive, car-like package.

The ’60s saw the Ranchero transition to the compact Falcon chassis, then the larger Torino, where giant engines like the 460 V8 were common. Cargo ratings hovered just over 1,000 pounds throughout the changes, making the Ranchero a true “half-ton truck.” While it sold well, light trucks were exempt from emissions and mileage requirements, so 1979 was the Ranchero’s last year, as it was replaced by the Ford Ranger compact truck.

The El Camino

The El Camino, Source | Allen Watkin

GM noticed early surging sales of the Ranchero and quickly developed its own competitor. The ’59 El Camino was based off the full-size Chevy sedan/wagon chassis but offered a variety of engines, from a weak inline six, to the fuel-injected 283 Ramjet. The second generation switched to the smaller Chevelle platform, and the El Camino mirrored the muscle car’s options and equipment, including the 396 V8.

The ’70s weren’t a great time for most car manufacturers, but the El Camino survived better than most. With a big-block 454 V8, manual trans, and rear-wheel drive under a lightweight rear, the El Camino was a groovy burnout machine that also delivered a respectable 5,000-pound tow rating when properly optioned.

Compact and odd

Subaru BRAT

The Subaru BRAT, Source | ilikewaffles

Around the time the Ranchero was disappearing in favor of light trucks, Subaru developed this odd little competitor. The BRAT differed from the American car-trucks with its 1.6-liter inline four cylinder making all of 67 horsepower, and driving all four wheels. While the bed was small, the weirdness continued there, with the option of two rear-facing jump seats. Alongside Van Halen’s best years, the BRAT was only available from 1978 to 1985.

Dodge Rampage

The Dodge Rampage, Source | John Lloyd

Apparently the coupe utility market was hot in the early ’80s, as Dodge felt the need to jump in with the Rampage. Despite the popularity of the K chassis, this little guy was built off the L platform (think Dodge Omni) and featured a 2.2-liter inline four powering the front wheels. That’s peak 1980s right there: a FWD truck with a tape player. It was even available in “Garnet Pearl Metallic,” which is ’80s-speak for neon pink. Rad.

Want one brand new?

Holden Ute

The Holden Ute, Source | FotoSleuth

Australia has a unique place in automotive history, as it never forgot how to build a muscle car, even during the 1970s and ’80s. The Aussie version of the El Camino is the Holden Ute. Like standard versions of the truckcar, the Ute features a modern chassis, suspension, and interior, with all the useful bed space you would likely need. If a standard V6 isn’t enough power, step up to the SS version, which features a 400+ horsepower 6.2-liter V8 and 6-speed manual transmission. With a 3,500-pound tow rating, it can haul your race car to the track, and then rip off a high 12-second quarter mile. Work and play in one great-looking package.

Volkswagen Saveiro

The Volkswagen Saveiro, Source | Wikipedia

While the 1980s mostly put an end to the rear-wheel drive truckcar, the Ute has held out until 2017. Now the closest comparable vehicles are small front-wheel drive truckcars like the VW Saveiro. This subcompact coupe utility drives the front wheels with a choice of four-cylinder engines, which is plenty of power when your truck is three-feet shorter than a Toyota Tacoma. Cheap and economical, the Saveiro meets the needs of many owners. Want one? You’ll have to move outside the US, as Volkswagen has no plans to sell them here.

While the truckcar doesn’t look to be returning to the USA anytime soon, we do have a lot of options if you don’t mind buying used. From a fun muscle project to a useful truck alternative, the truckcar style has a lot to offer.

Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

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.

Forefixers: Innovations in Suspension

On the list of things we take for granted, automobile suspension is definitely up there near the top. Without it, every seemingly harmless car ride down an uneven street would have the potential to knock out your fillings. Thankfully, from the earliest coil springs to a height-adjustable air ride, we’ve come a long way. Here are three big milestones in suspension history.

Coil springs

Springs have been around for some time — we’re talking as far back as ancient Egypt, when a form of “leaf ” springs were used on chariots to increase durability and provide a more comfortable ride. But in 1763, a British patent was issued to R. Tredwell for the first coil spring. Also known as a spiral spring, it works by resisting compression and absorbing mechanical energy, like from running over a pothole or bump in the road.

The advantage over the leaf system is that it doesn’t require routine lubricating and other maintenance. Since then, coil springs have been used for everything from furniture to many types of machinery.

Shock absorbers

You might think that shock absorbers absorb, well, shock, but not really. They actually dampen the oscillation of the surrounding springs. Translated into English: After coil springs compress, they would continue to sway for a long time were it not for the shock absorbers that convert that kinetic movement into heat, which is then dissipated by hydraulic fluid inside the unit.

An inventor from France, Maurice Houdaille, is responsible for creating the first examples in the early 1900s. He started receiving requests from across the pond to use his innovation in American-made cars, including the Ford Model A in 1929. He marketed his products under the name Houdaille Shock Absorbers.

Air suspension

Go to any auto show, and you’ll see souped-up cars and trucks looking like they’re literally sitting with the frame on the ground. These hot rods are probably running an air ride suspension. Before tuners were using this type of setup, Mercedes-Benz was already implementing the technology in the 1960s.

The 300SE built on the W112 chassis used an independent cone-shaped air spring on each wheel axle, instead of the traditional coil spring. Valves feed air pressure to inflate the springs, keeping the ride height constant. Later models, such as the W109 300SEL, introduced ride-height adjustability.

The future Forefixers of suspension

Although suspension design has certainly “sprung” forward by leaps and bounds from ancient times, the fundamentals are still the same. The future brings next-level innovation such as adaptive dampening, which was once reserved for exotic sports cars and is beginning to trickle down into passenger vehicles. The Lincoln MKC Crossover, for example, offers continuously controlled damping. Utilizing a series of sensors, driver inputs and road conditions are measured up to 20 times per second, and the shock absorbers are automatically stiffened or softened depending on the setting.

Shocked by how far suspension has come? Leave us a comment.

Crucial Cars: The Datsun Z

Yutaka Katayama. You may not have heard of him, but you’ve surely seen his influence on the automotive world. Affectionately known as “Mr. K” and the “Father of the Z car,” Katayama is to many a hero and a legend.

Datsun 240z

Source | Matthew Davis

In the 1960s, Japanese cars in the United States were nothing more than disposable transportation that got decent fuel economy and were known to be more reliable and affordable than their domestic counterparts. In short, they were anything but cool. As an executive at Nissan, Katayama had some radical ideas and introduced several cars to the American market that changed the perception of Japanese cars forever. One was the Datsun 240Z.

To Japan, Nissan has been akin to one of the “Big Three” in the United States. When it first started selling cars in the U.S., it used the moniker “Datsun” instead of “Nissan,” for fear of the line failing in America and thus tarnishing the Nissan name. But when the Datsun 240Z hit showroom floors in 1969, it was such a smashing success that over the next 15 years Datsuns started to display badges that advertised “Datsun by Nissan” and, eventually, just “Nissan.”

1970 Datusn 240z

Source | Matthew Davis

There have been other vehicles, like the Datsun 510 and Toyota Celica, that helped cement the status of Japanese cars. But if David and Goliath was an allegory about Japanese car success, the stone that hit Goliath in the temple was the Z.

The Datsun 240Z entered the U.S. market at the tail end of the great muscle-car era and at the peak of popularity for British roadsters. The latter group, with models such as the Triumph TR6 and MG MGB, were directly in the crosshairs of Mr. K’s creation, and they were blown from the sky by the Z. The 240Z was a two-seater GT (grand touring) sports car with a short deck and elegant long hood. Many consider it to be the budget version of the venerable Jaguar E-Type. It certainly had a British feel to the design, sound, and feel of the car, but without the quirky, unreliable aspects.

With an MSRP of $3,500, the Datsun 240Z was priced slightly higher than the MGB GT and roughly about the same as a Porsche 914. Those who wanted something along the lines of a Chevrolet Corvette or Ford Mustang would have needed to pay over $2,500 more, nearly doubling the price of the Datsun.

The Z gave people the cool factor they wanted at a price they could afford, and it was reliable, day in and day out. As muscle cars lost potency through the 1970s, the Datsun Z increased in popularity in the U.S., while its British competitors all but ceased to exist.

The Datsun Z Straight 6

Source | Matthew Davis

Powered by a 2.4L straight six (the L24), the Datsun Z produced 151 horsepower and could hit 0-60 mph in just over eight seconds. That was quick enough to hang with the likes of the Porsche 911. Rear independent suspension enabled the Z to handle just as well as it looked, and it had great success on the racetrack as well as on the showroom floor. “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday” was a popular saying in those days.

Buy, sell, hold

When it comes to collecting cars, the nostalgic Japanese market is an interesting niche to consider. The past five years or so have truly given us a glimpse at the potential of these great vehicles. Fifteen years ago, you could pick up a clean Datsun Z for less than they sold new. Nowadays, an early 240Z will bring over $10,000 in a moderate state of disrepair. Just as with the stock market, in the auto market there are some models you should buy before they rise, some that you should probably sell because they’ve peaked, and others that you want to hold onto because they are climbing in value.

Some say that the 240Z, in particular, is climbing in value at a higher rate than almost any other car. Out of the three early-generation models of the Z (240, 260, 280) the 1970 models have almost already reached the stage where you’d want to hold. The 260Z and 280Z are where you can still pick them up for a good price. The key is finding models that haven’t been wrecked or aren’t too cankered with rust. Japanese cars of this era are notorious for rusting away.

Source | Matthew Davis

The crystal ball

We’ve all heard the stories of the people who sold a 1955 Chevrolet for peanuts and kick themselves every day for it. While there’s no crystal ball to tell you what cars will come into their own down the road, there are a few patterns to consider. The Datsun Z is becoming a collectible because not only was it an icon and a game changer in its day, but also because the people who now want to buy their first collector car remember growing up when the Z hit the showroom floor. It’s the type of car that gets comments at the gas station like, “I had one of those in high school, and it was so cool!”

Sometimes predicting the future is as simple as thinking back to the cars that influenced you when you were in your formative years.

Did you covet or own a Datsun Z? Let us know in the comments!