COAL: Aladdin’s Cave Edition

The Big Cat


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to step away from the catalog of cars I’ve owned and jump back a few years, still within the parameters of Cars of a Lifetime given that they were assuredly cars in my lifetime, but highlighting those whose orbit didn’t actually coincide with my actual driveway.  I’m talking about the fleet I encountered at the Bertone of North Seattle, or at least those that made a firm impression.

By the beginning of the reign of last week’s Aerostar I had already ended my employment at the local carrozzeria and gone on to more intellectual pursuits.  My tenure in the trades had given me a much different life perspective than that of my comrades in grad school, as did my origin story.  Assimilation wasn’t easy at first, although I’m an adaptable creature and managed somehow to survive.  But that is a story for another day. For now, we return into the mists, or paint spray, of the past and relate the tales of a class of machinery that with few exceptions, I would seldom drive again.

Back at the sheet metal ranch somewhere along the line, not by appointment of Her Majesty I fear, we had become the official paint and bodywork purveyor for the downtown Jaguar dealer.  This was a prize plum for the Boss, as you might imagine, but the honor brought with it heightened scrutiny of our work, as had been the case with the Ferrari Daytona previously related here.  Although we imagined that we’d be working chiefly on examples from the Previously Owned Collection (known elsewhere as the Used Car Lot), a large part of our work proved to be focused on brand new Jaggies fresh off the transport truck.  This wasn’t because of low standards of assembly at the Coventry works, but the result of the long and hazardous journey by land and sea to the far northwest corner of the United States.  S**t happens, in other words, and it tended to happen more frequently than you might think.  Usually any scratches or scuffs could be cleared up with a little wet-sanding and the buffing wheel so long as you weren’t distracted enough to burn through the top coat, which was known to happen.

There will always be an England.


Occasionally, something more severe had to be addressed, the most catastrophic example being the example of a factory fresh XJ-6 that sat in a berth beneath another new Jag that was leaking brake fluid.  Now if you’ve never seen what common brake fluid does to automotive paint, let me assure you that you’d rather not.  We had to take the roof down to bare metal then scour the bare steel with muriatic acid before it was ready for new primer and paint.  Taking an orbital sander to the top of a brand-spanking new $32,000 ($92,000 in adjusted 2022 dollars) Jaguar is not something I signed up for, but by the time we returned that particular XJ-6 you couldn’t tell that anything untoward had ever befallen it.   All the same, I’m glad I wasn’t the person that purchased it.  I hope they sold it at some discount and disclosed the damage, but who can say?

As was the case with the Ferrari of song and legend, I was often chosen to shuttle Jaguars from dealer to shop and back, so they became a familiar, if not a taken for granted commodity. A new XJ-S tended not to invoke feelings of indifference.  The smell of all that leather in the cockpit alone could set you back on your heels, plus if you were inside admiring the woodgrain and the wool carpet you did’t have to stand outside and look at the actual car.  The styling of that particular Jag-u-ar was never anything to write home about, and in fact I often wondered how an institution that had birthed the XK-120, E-Type and XJ-6 could come up with such an ill-conceived and oddly proportioned body design.

Outside, inside, pick your poison.


Driving it was another matter.  Before the later introduction of the new inline six in 1983, all examples of the current XJ-S HE were equipped with the SOHC V-12 first introduced in the E-Type back in the early 70’s, only now equipped with Bosch fuel injection.  No one accused the the XJ-S of being an E-Type, or even an actual sports car, but it was unmatched as a GT so long as maintenance and fuel consumption costs weren’t factored in, although the current HE version had been breathed on to bring gas mileage up to a more acceptable level.  I wasn’t paying for the fill-ups, though, so that was none of my concern.  All I knew was that wafting down I-5 in a brand new XJ-S made up for any ungainliness in the styling department.  The big Jag coupe definitely had some serious scoot, but the overriding impression was one of smooth sophistication; it was nearly enough to make you want to march to the siren song of Late Capitalism.

Not a flat screen in sight.


All that aside, I preferred the S’s contemporary, the XJ-6.  The sedan wasn’t going to be the one to take if you were racing for pink slips, but it had an even more attractive interior, especially if someone handed you the keys to a Vanden Plas.  Leather, wood, and wool created such a heady aroma and cosseting comfort that often one of my co-workers would have to drag me out of the car once it was delivered to the shop.  Memories of the XJ-6 are subdued to some degree by one particular drive, though.  The Boss had acquired a fixer-upper with some front-end damage at auction with the notion of putting a few bucks into it and selling it at a respectable mark-up.  The only flaw in that plan would be that some of the necessary parts proved hard to come by, particularly the plastic radiator expansion tank, which was back ordered all the way to the UK.  Weeks went by and the only response from the parts distributor was crickets chirping.  Time was becoming a factor as the Boss had other financial obligations and needed to unload that particular investment, so he came up with the bright idea of supergluing the piece that was broken, a fix he figured would hold long enough to deliver it to the Jaguar specialist who was due to perform some minor mechanical work.  The task of delivering it downtown fell to me, as it so often did, and subsequently I made my way down the expressway without a care in the world until I noticed the coolant gauge needle creeping up.  Well, I didn’t have far to go, so it was unlikely to make it all the way into the red, right?  Wrong.  As I approached my exit, traffic slowed into the usual downtown crawl while the needle marched inexorably onto the wrong side of the dial.  I made the exit just as it hit the forbidden zone and steam began to issue forth from beneath the hood.  The garage was only a couple of blocks so I made for it as quickly as I could, parked it, and shut it down, hoping for the best.

The head was warped, as some corollary of Murphy’s Law no doubt could have foretold.

I have to hand it to the boss; he blamed himself for his wrong-headed trust in superglue, but of course I felt terrible and the ensuing angst has continued to color my memories of the XJ-6. The story itself eventually had a happy ending as the head was planed, the top end was freshened up, and the bill was ultimately covered by the profits from sale of the now-gleaming sedan, so the only downside was the trauma I incurred in the service of the Boss and Sir William Lyons.

Hand me my motoring gloves, chaps!


Another particular Jag that we hovered over didn’t come from the dealer, but a private owner who entrusted his Series II E-Type to us.  I don’t recall exactly what work we did for him (probably something to do with rust), but I do remember that those louvers on the hood were a b*tch when it came time to buff it out.  That particular E-Type is the sole example that I ever spent time with up close and personal and I came away with the impression that XK-E ownership would require a level of commitment that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to provide, but all the same it was a glorious thing to look at, sit in, and drive . . . although admittedly it even by the mid-80’s it was a relic of a bygone age.

Teutonic T-Bird?


A contemporary of the E-Type appeared in the shop around the same time, a Mercedes-Benz 280 SL.  Compared to the E-Type, it did seem like a stalwart and upright citizen, particularly in contrast with its sensuous and swoopy predecessor, the 300 SL.  Still, the longer you look at it today, the more you have admire its restrained Bauhaus lines . . . there’s a certain timelessness there, particularly in contrast with its sometimes overwrought descendants.  What I remember most about it, though, is the smell of its cabin, as there was something distinctive about it that I could never place and never smelled elsewhere.  Only recently did I discover that Mercedes of that vintage used horsehair for upholstery padding.  Could that have been the source of its distinctive olfactory finger (or hoof) print?  Whatever the ultimate answer may be, it was the only Mercedes that I actually seriously thought about buying, although prices were already looming out of reach by the mid-80’s.

Rule, Brittania…


Before we get too far removed from Brit motorcars, though, let’s not forget the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud that caused a sensation when it rolled (sorry) into the shop like a stately dowager.  Examining its inner working and idiosyncratic details proved to be great fun, as was taking it through the drive-through at McDonalds, but aside from the novelty factor it already seemed vastly out of date by the early 80’s, even though it had been built not long before the XJ-6 was introduced.  The closest thing I could compare it to was a 1937 Pontiac that sat in a corner of the shop for a very long time.  Its basic engineering didn’t seem that far removed from that old GM dinosaur, even though the build quality may have been worlds apart.  In the end, driving it on the street made you feel slightly ridiculous while at the same invoking reflection about social structure and class consciousness.  On the other hand, it was easy to park as the Spirit of Ecstasy gave a good indication of the outer limits of that vast hood.

The Widowmaker.


Let’s proceed to another German make.  At the carrozzeria 911’s were ubiquitous as we did work for a few car lots specializing in sports cars and Porsches were always in demand.  I mentioned elsewhere my family history of terrorizing young children (my own) with one particular 911 that I drove for a time.  In any event, Porsches tended to rust (although not so extensively as BMW’s of the same vintage), and so we spent a fair amount of time remedying that tendency, but corrosion didn’t play any part in one particular 911 that stands out in my memory, a Turbo that we modified from stock to slant-nose.  As I recall, it was a fairly straightforward operation, swapping out the normal front fender fenders for the aftermarket concealed headlight versions modeled after the factory 930, itself based on the aerodynamics of the racing 935, and then painting the lot Guards Red.  The conversion really did move the Turbo out of normal Porsche range and into Exotic territory, although you could argue that in doing so it denied its 911/356 heritage.  My take on the controversy was, who cares?  Sacred German motorcar traditions didn’t enter the equation for me.  Sacred Italian motorcar traditions?  That was another matter.

As a side note, I’m not certain what wiring mods were necessary to allow those headlights to raise, but they may have plugged into the stock wiring harness and simply came up when the lights were turned on.  In any case, when it emerged from the paint booth it caused quite a stir as it looked like it had just arrived fresh from Laguna Seca or some such place.  We can only hope that it didn’t end up wrapped around a light pole, as was the fate of a fair percentage of those early 911 Turbos.




Speaking of Italian traditions, our next case study is the Ferrari 308 GTB.  When it arrived on our lot we all spent a moment genuflecting, then moved on to a more critical examination.  The 308 was in production at that time, the actual current model, and as I recollect the only Ferrari of the day that was officially federalized, so it bore the weight of the Ferrari name and legend in the USA.  It was sleek and it was low and it was red, but when it had first been announced I had choked back my disappointment as it didn’t seem to be on the same aesthetic plane as the 246 Dino even though it was its indirect replacement.  True, it had a V-8 in place of the Dino’s V-6, but the debate in those days was whether anything that lacked a V-12 was a true honest-to-goodness Ferrari.  Such scholasticism aside, there were bits of the 308 that just didn’t add up for me so far as the styling went.  Today it’s considered a classic, although its long production run and numbers may dilute its appeal to some degree.  I have to admit that it looked better in the flesh as some cars tend to do, but the Dino remained the grail and so I may have judged the little red car harshly.  I only drove it at low speed so had no idea of its actual capabilities.  I’ve read that current-day collectors spend large bundles of cash gilding the lily, replacing the Webers with fuel injection, tidying up the sins of the factory, and restomoding them into the Astral Plane, but the 308 likely still rests in the lower tier of Enzo’s fabled brood.

The bottom line is a Ferrari is always a Ferrari, but some Ferraris are more Ferrari than others.  The 308 in its day struggled to keep up with some cars that were far less expensive and of lesser reputation so it may always bear that stigma.  On the other hand, its styling has aged well and I’m always pleased to see one in the wild; given its production numbers, it’s not uncommon to find one cruising our fair city on a summer’s day, for which I am grateful.

One final detail that persists is the conversation we had with the 308’s owner . . . he’d recently had his car serviced and spent $1200 for a glorified oil change, which raised some eyebrows.  $1200 in the mid-80’s was real money, not just a trip to Costco.  We weren’t sure whether we should commiserate or silently cheer the Ferrari service center and wish that we were raking in $1200 an hour.

What’s it all about, Alfa?


Continuing in Italian car appreciation society mode, our next example is an Alfetta GT that magically appeared one morning when they still seemed quite rare on our shores.  Falling into styling critic mode, I gazed upon it with a skeptical eye as it had replaced one of my favorite Alfas of all time, the GTV series based on the old Giulia/Berlina.  I mean, I know it’s a Giugiaro design and all, but it seemed that the Maestro had fallen into the  longer, lower, wider ditch beloved by Detroit.  The GTV had been almost ridiculously compact given its interior space:  it seemed as if its body had been shrink wrapped around the chassis, plus the interior was quintessentially Italian, all dials, functional simplicity, and awesome seats styled by someone who understood the meaning of the word.

The Alfetta was a looker, to be sure, but it seemed twice as big as the GTV and somehow its proportions didn’t seem quite right.  Maybe the rear window was just too long or the front overhang a tad too short for comfort, plus the Alfetta name seemed a reach given that it had been the title of the all-conquering Tipo 159 Grand Prix car.  Alfa was certainly free to use its history as it pleased, but maybe they should have saved ‘Alfetta’ for a model a bit more . . . grand.

I did have occasion to drive the car, but I’d no sooner pulled out onto the road than the whole business ground to a halt.  I pushed the Alfetta into a Chevron station and took stock.  I don’t recall if we’d been warned or if I’d read something about the idiosyncrasies of some current models, but it so happened that some came equipped with something like a reboot switch in the glovebox.  No doubt it was required equipment dictated by some long forgotten regulation, but as it happened one push of the button served to revive the savage beast and we were soon on our way.

I’d had the opportunity to drive some old school Alfas and one of their distinctive characteristics was the feel and action of their gearbox, to which you felt like you were physically and mentally connected.  The Alfetta’s claim to fame was its rear transaxle, which was chosen to provide near 50/50 weight distribution.  Unfortunately, the subsequent lengthy gear linkage resulted in a loss of the near-psychic connection one felt in the old Giulia, Berlina, and GTV.  Of course the Ferrari Daytona had the same set-up and I’d never thought to criticize that, so as with all my observations, you are free to take it with a grain of salt.  I would still choose an old GTV over the Alfetta, given my druthers, but no one has offered to donate either to my cause so a full report is not likely forthcoming.  Nevertheless, Viva Alfa, now and forever.

Il grande gatto, II.


The car behind the final door was a great poised-to-strike DeTomaso Pantera.  Any car geek of the 70’s and 80’s was well aware of the big cat given that it could sometimes be found lurking on the showroom floor of selected Lincoln-Mercury dealers of the day.  Consensus was mixed, however– some felt that it was a prime example of Lee Iacocca overreach, others (the bloody snobs, at least) sniffed at its plebeian Ford 351 even though for a time Ford V-8’s had won the 24 Hours of LeMans so many times people had lost track of the number.  Some road testers complained of ergonomics and interior materials.  Given that the Pantera sold for a good deal less than the models of the established Italian supercar trifecta (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati), maybe it was ungracious to expect equivalent levels of quality, not to mention a bespoke engine.

Most testers admitted that, unlike its predecessor, the Mangusta, at least it was drivable, which should be counted as progress (after all, the Lamborghini Countach was undriveable and nobody seemed to hold that against it).  I’d seen a Mangusta in a bowling alley parking lot in Salt Lake City back in the late ’60’s and had been absolutely stricken . . . in my estimation if you didn’t like driving it you could just park it in your living room to look at and it would have been well worth the price.  All the same I probably fell into the same conventional wisdom trap of its many critics when the Pantera appeared.  After all, how could something on sale at the neighborhood Lincoln-Mercury dealer compete with its well established and funded (reputedly) Italian competitors?

The fact remained that as was the case of the Mangusta, the Pantera’s styling could hide a multitude of sins.  After all, just look at it.  Maybe more than most exotics of its period, the big cat’s styling has stood the test of time, at least as it was originally introduced.  The later versions, all be-winged and sporting fender flares on steroids, look like the Nike of Samothrace in Air Jordans, a fate that also befell the uber-Countach.  In both cases the original was more sinned against than sinning, so some latitude must be given.

What was a Pantera like on close acquaintance?  Our example would have been already ten plus years old and the years hadn’t been altogether kind.  Our task was to remedy that to some degree, and the end result seemed successful, with the caveat that much interior and mechanical work still needed to be done and even then it wasn’t going to be concours.  But that’s beside the point.  When it came time to fire up that big (by my standards, at least) Cleveland V-8, all hands remained on deck–that thing would wake the dead, and it was a couple of inches behind your head.  What if it didn’t have four cams and forty-eight valves? And though it’s true the Pantera’s seats may have looked like they were lifted from an old Torino and the ergonomics didn’t necessarily make sense, in the end what did it really matter?  No one judges Botticelli’s Primavera by how it would fit in your living room.  Great art is its own reward.

We bade farewell to the Pantera, our lives now a little plainer and the tomorrow’s outlook a little bleaker given that we wouldn’t have the lines of the big cat to savor.  Anyway, my days at the carrozzeria by that time were numbered and nothing quite so soul-stirring would grace our shop before I left.  All the same, now in my dotage I can recollect the times of yore when I was permitted to touch and embrace a few of the great autos of our time.

Now, where did I leave my car keys?