(The Not Often Seen) Curbside Classics

ford taurus mt5 3

Not every car is destined to be a success. Those that do succeed commercially, however, may not do so across the board. Ford’s first Taurus, for example, was available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. This model was called the MT-5. It lingered on price lists for three model years before getting the ax and, suffice it to say, despite there being no sales figures available it was most assuredly a flop. Automotive history is full of curious oddities like this manual Taurus, cars that were rare in their day and all but extinct now. Because these cars are so exceedingly rare we may never get to photograph them by the curbside, so let’s acknowledge them now.

ford taurus mt5 4

Speaking of the Taurus MT-5 first, though: Did you know it was supposed to be a sporty model? Ford advertised it as having a “taste of performance”, despite its lowly 2.5-liter four. This four was an upsized version of the 2.3 “High Swirl Combustion” four introduced in the Tempo/Topaz twins. Performance was hardly breathtaking, with 88 hp and 130 ft-lbs. Perhaps the “taste of performance” was simply the availability of a manual transmission and a tachometer? There were certainly no visual clues: other than a small badge, the MT-5 resembled any other Taurus. The MT-5 wagon was axed for 1988; the sedan followed in 1989.


American Motors in the 1980s resembled a contemporary TV action star. No, it wasn’t the effortlessly cool Thomas Magnum; rather, AMC utilized its available parts like MacGyver would in a bind. Crippled by a lack of development capital and dwindling market share, AMC cobbled together the all-wheel-drive Eagle sedan and wagon using Jeep off-road mechanicals and Concord bodies, the latter of which dated back to the Hornet of 1970. Feeling two- and four-door sedans and a wagon didn’t make for a comprehensive enough lineup, AMC decided to Eagle-ize the Spirit Kammback and liftback for 1981.

amc eagle kammback

While the wagon dominated the Eagle’s sales tallies and would be the last body standing at the line’s demise in 1988, the sporty-looking, Spirit-derived SX/4 would actually outsell it for 1981 and come only second in sales for 1982. What of the cute Kammback, though? Just 6,123 units would be produced over two model years. These little hatches may have been over 200 lbs lighter and more fuel-efficient, as well as almost $2K cheaper than the two-door, Concord-derived sedan, but they made little appreciable impact. You can’t blame it on performance inferior to the bigger Eagles, because these “Series 50” Eagles had the same hoary old GM Iron Duke (82 hp, 125 lb-ft) or 4.2 inline six (114 hp, 210 lb-ft) as the Eagle-ized Concords. Undoubtedly, it was simply the niche appeal of having such a cramped cabin but the additional weight and cost of all-wheel-drive.

lincoln mark vii diesel 2

The fuel crises of 1973 and 1979 were still fresh on everyone’s mind during the 1980s and CAFE targets were a source of concern too for automakers doing business in America. GM, with the largest amount of development capital of the Big 3, invested both in four-cylinder engines and smaller V6s, but also diesel engines. We all know how the Oldsmobile V8 diesel story goes, though: Corners cut led to poor reliability and a buying public soured on diesels. Ford dipped its toes in the diesel well too, though, although with considerably less development capital and goodwill squandered in the process.

lincoln mark vii diesel

The Lincoln Mark VII and Continental were both available in 1984-85 with a BMW-sourced 2443 cc turbodiesel engine. Anywhere between 500 and 1300 Mark VIIs were so equipped, making these extremely rare. Performance was hardly breathtaking from the 115 hp, 155 lb-ft six, with a 0-60 of 13 seconds. Performance was ever so slowly starting to creep back into American cars, and there had certainly been slower diesels on the market, so this wasn’t too disappointing. Contemporary reviewers were pleasantly surprised at the smooth operation of the diesel, which lacked the roughness and clatter so common in diesels of the time. Under EPA mileage figures of the time, the diesel also represented a full 10 mpg improvement in combined mileage; the diesel was a $1,200 option at the time. While these may not be valuable now, they’re certainly an intriguing curiosity and carry the same virtues of style, feature content and refinement as other Mark VIIs.

lincoln continental diesel

It is unknown if the Continental TD was more common at the time as there appear to be no production or sales figures. One wonders if the diesel was a more natural fit for a conventional sedan, given the availability of Electra and Ninety-Eight diesels, and thus the Continental TD outsold the Mark VII TD. It also begs the question: Which is more common now? Is it the Mark VII, due to its more glamorous styling and stronger reputation? One thing’s for sure: if any of you get a chance to drive one–or if you have driven one–please educate us on what it is like to pilot a diesel-powered Lincoln.

chevrolet vega washington heights

And right in my neighborhood too!

Spotting a running Chevrolet Vega nowadays is a rarity unto itself. Despite over 2 million Vegas being produced, these cars were notoriously unreliable and often poorly built, as well as being just as prone to rust as other cars of the era. Additionally, these were cheap subcompacts and thus quite disposable. In the unlikely event that you spot a Vega at a classic car show, it’s probably going to be a Cosworth Vega, with its aluminium engine and electronic fuel injection. Maybe, if you’re lucky like me, you might spot a bare-bones hatchback in mystifyingly good condition. But a Vega LX? Or a Vega Cabriolet? Nah….

1974 chevrolet vega lx

The Vega LX came first in 1974, and was supposed to be the most luxurious Vega; it used the cheapest Vega bodystyle, the notchback, as a base. Of course, luxury at the time meant a vinyl roof, body side moldings, full wheel covers, more luxurious (“Custom”) interior trim, sport steering wheel and an electronic clock. You also got additional sound insulation, but there was apparently an even more luxurious “Special Custom” interior available on other Vegas. Some luxury model! As the Vega generally sold on price, the LX sold in comparatively small volumes. With just 1,255 units produced, the 1975 LX would appear to be the lowest volume Vega ever, even lower than the Cosworth.

1976 Chevrolet Vega Cabriolet-01

There’s not much more to say about the Cabriolet, other than it has a deceptive name. The roof was not retractable, nor was there any kind of standard moonroof, nor does it even look like a cabriolet-style vinyl roof! Instead, there was a half-vinyl roof and faux opera windows. Tastelessness aside, a Vega Cabriolet would be a better buy than an LX simply because of the durability improvements made to the Vega’s aluminium 2.3 four for ’76. However, the custom interior was not standard and as for those European-style amber turn signals out back? Yeah, they didn’t flash. The Vega Cabriolet was all hat and no cattle.

1976 Chevrolet Vega-13

The Estate GT is a little bit cooler, in a perverse kind of way. Combining the sports suspension of the GT and the faux-wood siding of the Estate, this was a curious little beast. It’s debatable how well that combination goes together, but Vega wagons were easily one of the most attractive subcompacts of the 1970s.

1978   Chevrolet Monza-12

The Vega nameplate may have been dead after 1977, but the car would linger on for a few more years. The Monza rode atop the same H-Body platform but featured an entirely different body, at least in 2+2 and Towne Coupe variants. The Monza wagon and Sunbird Safari would simply be Vega wagons with different noses, sold until 1979 and with optional V6 power, but there was another Vega ghost haunting Chevy lots. The Monza “S” hatchback was sold only in 1978 and only 2,326 units and seemingly only one official photograph were produced. The only differences between the Monza S and its predecessor were new badges and a different grille and steering wheel. Given Chevrolet had previously used the “S” name on a price-leader Monza a few years prior and the external differences were so minimal, the 1978 Monza S seems like exactly the kind of car that wasn’t noticed then and has been completely forgotten now.

Curbsiders, have you ever seen one of these rarities in the metal? Would you care to see more rarities featured, and are there any that come to mind?