The "Gimme A Chevette So I Can Go Home" Blues
Published on Wed, Jul 1, 1987
By: Len Frank
Or the one on the left is the clutch.
Previously unpublished, to the best of our knowledge; date written: unknown*
No one looks forward to renting an anonymous vanilla box-on-a-box, even if that’s what you left at home in the garage, even if that’s all the old budget will bear, even if it’s all Your Significant Other will stand for, considering your lack of financial responsibility and all. It’s the American Way, You Are What You Drive, and all like that, and certainly, despite that rusting econo-heap back home, you’re certainly not a vanilla two-box person.
So back in the mid-‘sixties when Hertz, for about a year, rented black-with-gold Shelby GT-350Hs, it was their way of recognizing the hunger for something beyond vanilla. The Shelbys, slightly de-tuned versions of the raucous white-with-blue-striped, 307 hp converted Mustangs, made instant heroes of anyone who rented them.
Legends were created: stories rampant about GT-350Hs being run in SCCA events, then returned thrashed and limp after the weekend; Shelbys borrowed by Mustang owners and returned only after a few of the more esoteric bits had migrated from one car to another. Hertz had fun advertising driving tests and promising adventure, but, no surprise, the program didn’t last long.
Much later Budget Rent-a-Car in Beverly Hills, got deeply into the exotic car rental business with everything from Clenets to Ferrari 308s (assuming that to be a wide range), and seem to be doing quite nicely at it. Rates are steep, qualification for the rental severe, but the bucks roll in anyway.
There’s another cute little non-enthusiast part to all of this. If a rental company takes delivery of a flotilla of Chevy Corsicas, or an armada of Ford Tempos, say, barring accidents and acts of God, they know to the mill just what all that vanillin will cost. The car is discounted heavily to them by the manufacturer, who sometimes guarantees the buyback as well. Everything that can go wrong is covered by the warranty, and all that remains is to make sure that a steady stream of customers, corporate credit cards in hand, is there to keep them rolling.
But with a yard full of Ferraris, Benzes, Porsches, and BMW convertibles, what with The Gnomes of Zurich yanking on the strings every day, there is some potential for finding yourself with cars that may just be worth considerably more than you paid for them. It takes clever management and the soul of a riverboat gambler, but it will most often work.
Now let’s add yet another wild card to that deck: cars that have no standard appreciation or depreciation, perhaps a 1957 Chevy convertible, or a 1952 MG-TD: you have traded the security of easily balanced books for the opportunity to represent these cars as assets worth anything (within broad reason) that you like. Who’s to say what a vintage car is worth? If one pays $12,000 for an MG-TD and someone else buys one at auction for $24,000, why shouldn’t yours be worth double what you paid for it too. And who is to say that it isn’t? The cash value of a company might thus be suitably enhanced with the purchase of twenty or thirty nice little roadsters. Think of the numbers in the stock prospectus. Think of the positive publicity. Think of the towing bills.
The guys down the road rent Corvettes, so do the guys across the street. But where do you go to rent a REAL sports car–something that puts the wind in your hair (and your face, the back of the neck, etc.), gives you that nice little vintage chop to the kidneys? Where do you get a pukka sporting machine that doesn’t have room enough for a cassette let alone the deck to play it on–a a rolling shrine to S.U. carburetors, Joseph P. Lucas-Prince-of-Darkness-electrics, chipped low gear teeth, loosening spokes in the genuine Rudge-pattern wire wheels, bolt-loosening vibration–the whole panoply of maladies and misfortunes caused by Armstrong, Girling, Marston, Burgess, and John Bull—everything that eventually produced Anglophobia in anybody with any vestige of a will to live. National has them, real sports cars, in their California
Classics program, but only in the San Francisco area. Have they detected some additional strain of lunacy, some latent masochism up there?
My guess, unconfirmed by anyone at National National Car Rental, where you can rent what they like to call a California Classic (there are two sets of California Classics—domestic `fifties and `sixties convertibles in L.A., and Real Sports Cars in San Francisco), is that the entire program was started by someone with the mentality of an accountant seconded by one with deep insights into public relations and advertising. I doubt that either of them had ever borne the brunt of Real Sports Car ownership.
Real sports cars: a Morgan registered as a ’48 but of indeterminate vintage (though I’m sure some of it might have been made in 1948) powered with a 1267cc Standard engine that even Standard declined to use in their own cars. An MG-TA circa 1938, several MGAs, roadsters and swell little coupes, Triumph TR-2/3s, a campy Triumph 1800 Roadster complete with rumble seat, Healeys—and all with right-hand drive.
The cars appear to have been recently arrived from England, rather than to have made their way over here during the halcyon days of the sports car craze. English “restoration” shops realize that much of what they restore is going to go far, far away, and that the standards of craftsmanship under which they labor are not quite those of the U.S. anyhow. Anyone for sawdust in the diff?
A confessional aside: long ago I began what I like to think of as my racing career in an MG-TD (I realize that “racing an MG-TD” is something of an oxymoron but those were innocent times) running primarily against other T-type MGs. Some years after the TD and I had parted company, I found myself working for the western Lotus importer, just post-Elite, selling contemporary Elans. A thrill-seeking customer traded an MG-TF 1250—close enough to a TD for my purposes–and I couldn’t wait until all backs were turned so that I could renew old acquaintances, relive old thrills.
One trip around the block and it all came back in its full horror. This was a terrible car. It was slow, noisy, cramped. The gearbox felt as if each of the gears had four teeth and were chiseled of stone. The clutch alternately slipped and grabbed depending on how much oil was weeping past the main shaft seal at that moment, the brakes were mushy–that was the good part. And if I didn’t believe that whatever safety there is in an automobile resides solely in the driver, I would have called the TF unsafe. “Safety Fast indeed.” Awful, awful, awful.
And yet when I saw the cars at National, I couldn’t help smiling. There is something so appealing in those cut-down doors, long hoods, wire wheels. Old British cars have, help us and save us, a certain sensory impact. They smell (usually) good—it’s the leather. Everything has a comforting heft—it’s what makes the doors sag—all the rough edges seem to have been smoothed long ago. They (generally) sound good. They look pleasantly exciting but not, like a Corvette or Ferrari, threatening. Illusions.
Oh, sometimes there’s that little hint of mildew in the effluvia, or a touch of gasoline aroma from an antique banjo fitting, or the reek of monoxide-laden oil fumes from blow-by, or the acrid eye-burning clouds from oil leaking onto the exhaust manifold. But mostly, it’s all pleasant, hazy, golden, like the love scenes from “Elvira Madigan.”
Once insinuated into an MG-TA (or TR-3, big Healey, Triumph 1800, et al), one become aware that the steering column, a solid steel shaft with far more a point on its upper end than we now countenance, is located inches from, and pointed directly at, ones breastbone. The largish steering wheel traps the thighs, and, in snapping on the (new) seat belt, there is the very real feeling that the car has just been strapped onto your back.
The mechanic assigned to oversee the care of these elderly cars had never seen an S.U. carb before. We call S.U.-type carbs “constant vacuum.” The Brits call them “constant depression”—what do they know that we don’t?
Most Morgans sold in the U.S. through normal dealer channels–now almost two decades back had Triumph-Standard engines originally used in the Standard Vanguard, later in TR-3/4 roadsters. They also used Ford Cortina-based engine in the smaller 4/4 series. In ancient times they used F-head Coventry Climax, flat-head Ford Anglia, and the aforementioned 1938 1267cc Triumph—not ever to be confused with the Triumph-Standard two-liter plus unit. Lately, Morgan uses, or has used, Fiat DOHC fours, the Rover V8, and a new Austin Rover DOHC 16v. Morgan has never built an engine in their 80+ year history. Naturally, when I asked the mechanic about what kind of engine was looking at, he said “I thought it was a Morgan.” Now understand, this guy is probably quite capable of figuring out why the air conditioning in a K-car delivers only hot air, or why the automatic on the a Celebrity has stopped shifting. He knows where to find the battery (“…it’s under the hood…isn’t it?”) on any domestic in the lot, and what replacement part to order if such a repair is not covered by warranty. No one has ever explained about the differences between a TR-2 and a TR-3, and a TR-3B, assuming that any of the cars still have just the engine that they were built with. And the TR-3 is an easy one.
Still, the folks at National are very positive. They are happy about all of the publicity that they have been receiving, just as planned. Their deluxe Emerald Club service has been enhanced, and given them something no other rental company has. They tell me that the cars are reserved months ahead of time, that the happy renters sometimes appear with enough luggage to fill a minivan, or ask for one with an automatic. More than one has been a little confused by the right hand drive. More than one has come in on the end of a hook, vacation interruptus.
The MGA coupe was a charmer, the TRs brought back a flood of golden (?) memories. I liked, especially, though sitting in the rumble seat (Brits call it a “dickey”) of the Triumph 1800. I would have liked to have driven it but alas, for some reason, it did not run. I understand that this particular bunch of California Classics may just be for sale.
*But Len mentions the Chevrolet Corsica, which was produced 1987-1996. Since Chevette production spanned model years 1976-1987, we are going to say this article was probably written in or around 1987.
Top image: The first Chevrolet Chevette (press photograph courtesy of General Motors)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano