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A Top Ten List for Our Times
My bosses at AOL Autos asked me to select 10 cars from my past that were memorable to drive. Not all supercars and exotics, but cars that made an impression. I have personal reasons why each car is on the list, so don't bother wailing and whining about the absence of the Duesenberg SJ or the Ferrari GTO. This isn't that sort of list. And before you ask which one I liked best, let me tell you that's just not a fair question, as there's no comparing an MGA with an M1. This is a list, and it's my list. I would encourage you to make your own. It's good fun, both the driving that goes into making it and the remembering to compile it.
If ever there was a sports car that the so-called purists liked to dump on, it was the MGA. Yet it had all the classic qualities of British sports cars of that time: It leaked (water through the top, oil from the engine), it was underpowered, it was “fitted” with SU carburetors which gave me fits, and it had enough luggage space to carry even the largest Dopp kit. I had one of these, and it took me through the first part of my Navy career. It looked swift, it ran me twice up and down the country without incident, it had enough legroom for a six-three driver, and because it was my first sports car, I loved it. You always remember the first one of just about anything.
My grandfather, who was a carpenter, had a 1940 Ford woody that I got to drive around the small town of Corinth, Mississippi, when I was still below the legal age to do so. That age was 15 at the time. The woody had a flathead V8, sounded great, and ran like a bear. My granddad used a collection of wooden toolboxes, and they were in the back of the wagon when he somehow managed to roll the contraption. The resulting wreck looked as if a tornado had struck a tool shed, as there was enough kindling wood on the street to get us through five winters.
My pal, Dick Blount, whose dad was a doctor and an Army general in Germany at the time, drove up one day in the first Porsche I had ever seen in the aluminum skin. He was good enough to let me drive it, and although it seemed pretty puny on the power front, at least compared to the American V8s of 1957, its handling and braking were like nothing I'd ever experienced. Dick's car was a convertible, but I came to like the 356 coupes better. The coupes remain excellent drivers, still look good, and they have an abundance of that pungent old-car aroma.
Most of you reading this haven’t the faintest idea of the absolute sensation that the introduction of the Ford Mustang caused. It outsold everything but Budweiser and Coca-Cola, and if you didn’t want one, you were, well, a member of the Audio-Visual Club or something. Imagine then, when a Mustang appeared that could actually go around corners without embarrassing itself, and which possessed an exhaust note that indicated it had hair under its quarter-panels. That was the 1965 Shelby GT350. But the Shelbys I got involved with over the years were 1966s. In fact, I am right now participating in building a Shelby GT350R clone for vintage racing.
This Giugiaro-designed coupe was intended for what was then Group 5 racing in Europe and was the first car created by BMW Motorsport. (Yes, that's the group that now brings us M versions of SUV's.) Homologation problems plagued the M1, and it never ran in Group 5. Of the 450 M1's built, 50 were competition models. I got to drive a street-legal version at Bridgehampton in 1982 when a friend rented the track for a daylong driving party, meaning I got as much seat time as I wanted. From a driving standpoint, the M1 was the best car at the Bridge that day. It could go over 150 mph yet was so docile, neutral, and predictable that it made you feel like a talented driver. The 24-valve, 3.5-liter straight-six sat right behind your helmet and sounded better than a favorable divorce settlement. The combination of Italian design and German engineering is as irresistible today as it was back in the 1980s.
This 150-mph jewel of a road car is often called the Berlinetta Lusso, but I call it the best-looking Ferrari ever. It combines a businesslike demeanor with pure beauty, doing so in such a way as to send otherwise sane motoring enthusiasts into glassy-eyed rapture. A good friend of mine bought one for $6,100 in 1968, a red one with a red leather interior. To put the price in perspective, I think I had paid $2,000 for the Porsche 912 I was driving at the time, and I’d been hard-put to scrape that together. Today, a fine example of the Lusso can bring prices well over three hundred grand. In our peculiar world of million-dollar Plymouth ’Cudas, I say the Lusso is worth at least that.
Only the fish-faced Daimler SP250 saves the TR3 from being named the ugliest car ever conceived. But I had one of these, and as we all can agree, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. My TR3 had the faithful personality of a Labrador, and though I never asked it to fetch anything, I’m convinced it would have done so willingly. True, its engine sounded distinctly agricultural, but like my MGA, the TR had that charming accessory called side curtains. You can form the anagram “cuss rain tide” from “side curtains,” which just about says it all.
Not the E-type roadster you are thinking about, but the coupe, a creation that struck me dumb the first time I saw one and which can still bring tears of admiration to my eyes. The Series 1 coupe epitomized elegance, and it is as delicately designed as an orchid. But it was not a delicate automobile, rather it was a strong runner that could haul you and a companion through tightly wound roads all day long and never breathe hard. You might, but it wouldn't. At the time it was introduced, you needed to live in an upscale house to buy one. Otherwise, any passerby with a soupçon of automotive awareness would take one look and say, "There's an ass living beyond his means".
In the convertible version, if you please. First, the LT-1 (which was basically an engine option) looked good. The shark-inspired exterior of the third-generation Corvette looked more like a ’Vette should look than any before or since. Second, driving one was a religious experience. If you didn’t shout, “Oh, Jesus!“ the first time you stuffed your foot into its 370-horsepower engine, there was something wrong with your emotional wiring. Its balance was superb, and a lot of ’Vette nuts will tell you that it was the first Corvette to successfully combine power and handling. This was the first car I drove before taking up a career as an automotive writer that frightened me. The LT-1 option, by the way, cost just $477.60.
Not the street version but Junior Johnson’s blue-and-white number 11 NASCAR racecar. I got to drive a detuned “show car” version at Charlotte (now Lowes) Motor Speedway for a film project. The car was still fast enough to turn a 140-mph lap, and I had more fun than a puppy at a cat show. The big rascal handled surprisingly easily, due in no small part to a steering wheel with the diameter of a wash tub. The best part, however, was getting to wear a Stetson and a driver’s suit in the pits. If the car’s present owner had photographic documentation of my involvement with the car, he could add as much as 75 cents to its estimated value.
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