Thursday, June 21, 2012

Microcar North lights up La Contessa

Nothing puts a happy grin on La Contessa’s snout faster than a microcar, and when you have a lush green lawn full of micros, well! I am in microcar ecstasy. This is exactly what happened last weekend at Ralph and Wendy Hough’s MicroNorth, where the micros came from near and far.  Every year, Ralph and Wendy graciously open up their beautiful home in Coldwater, Ontario, to microcar enthusiasts from all over North America. The tiny cars dotted the expansive lawn like bright shiny gems on wheels – che belle!

Most of these were vintage vehicles, highly prized collector’s items, and their owners have coddled them like pedigreed pups. A micro, as you know, is any vehicle with an engine under 500 cc. They were wildly popular in the 1950s, when gas was scarce. Many of the little cars had only three wheels, which in England and Germany, meant their owners paid half the road tax. Ingenious, mais non?

Here in North America, we must wait for invitations to events like MicroNorth to enjoy these diminutive darlings. Ralph Hough himself, a strapping six-foot former policeman, has a collection of Messerschmitts, many of which were displayed on the lawn. He got his extremely rare 1955 KR175 red Schmitt in Montreal, where its original owner had brought it from England – the poor car was literally a basket case! Only 10,000 of the KR175 were built between 1953 and 1955, so parts were scarce. Of course Ralph sleuthed out the necessary parts, including the factory original option “suitcase,” custom built to fit in the tiny luggage space.

We loved the pale yellow 1957 Isetta, so much like dear cousin Rosalia’s, who keeps company with the town doctor in the southern Italian town of Campobasso. Oh, the hot summers we enjoyed, travelling along the Biferno river in the mountains. This Isetta even had a wicker basket on the back like Rosalia’s, perfect for picnics. What that clever girl, or cucciune as the doctor would say, could do with a little prosciutto and provolone! Like all Isettas, this one had a one cylinder 300 cc Hemi engine – yes, that’s right, a Hemi. Raise your hand if you know that any engine with a hemispherical cylinder head is called a Hemi. The Isetta story is one of my favourites – they were originally manufactured by an Italian company called Iso, which made refrigerators. Isetta simply means “little Iso.” Sitting in the little car, my nose thrilled to the scent of vintage leather and two-stroke – and I could almost smell the prosciutto

Then it was on to a smart red 1957 Berkeley convertible, one of only 1,281 made in Biggleswade, Bedforshire. Owner Jeff had been working on it for over 13 years, with astounding results. The fibreglass shell had held up remarkably well! Who knows, perhaps La Contessa was sitting in the same model that famed racecar driver Stirling Moss had once championed at Goodwood?

And then, complete shock. A real, live beige 1981 Syrena from Poland. Owner Slawek had brought it over five years ago. With its 850 cc engine, it perhaps exceeded the microcar standards, but I didn’t care. I have not seen a Syrena since the days in Krakow, visiting with cousin Agnieszka. We would smuggle contraband onto the black market and then feast on forbidden delicacies like Baltic caviar? Smacznego! Who would suspect two pretty tail-wagging blondes? 

But it was Kate and her thoroughly gorgeous red 1980 MGB that won our hearts. She graciously invited us to tour the scenic roads around Coldwater in the microcar convoy, and pointed out sights like an osprey nest. Long, lean and tanned, Kate was a force of nature, getting ready to visit family in Scotland and Ireland, in the midst of renovating her house on Bass Lake, and dealing with her late husband’s estate. We laughed and talked, ate walnut pecan ice cream, visited a chocolate store, stopped by a wildlife sanctuary and marvelled at the peacocks and swans. What a splendid afternoon, driving in the open air – feeling the balmy wind through my long fur was a delight, as was listening to Kate's stories.  She was quite a gal, and made our whirlwind tour of Coldwater an absolute joy. Bravissima, Kate!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smile when you say "chick car"

Salut Amis 6!
Chick cars have been around ever since car manufacturers decided that women were some kind of niche market. It didn’t take consumers long to decide that if a car was marketed to women, there had to be something wrong with it. And voila, a stigma was born.

One of the most cockeyed examples of the chick car was the Dodge La Femme, manufactured in 1955 and 1956. It was based on a Chrysler Newport body, but came in two-tone pink and white, with pink gold-flecked cloth inside, and was marketed to “Her Royal Highness, the American Woman.” In all fairness, Dodge DID provide an item that is sadly lacking in automobiles today – a special compartment for a purse. They even provided the purse itself. Although about 1,500 of these cars were built, women somehow managed not to scoop them up.

Then, there was the Citroen Ami 6, launched in 1961 as a vehicle for women: “Pour vous Madame.” Partially because it was based on the venerable 2CV platform, and perhaps the French really are smarter than the rest of us, the Ami 6 became the best selling car in the French market at the time, with over a million sold in 1966. The reverse-raked rear window was quite chic, and the Ami’s seats were - bonus - easily removable. Early sales pitches showed them being used for picnic chairs.
Meanwhile, over in England, a debonair car designer named Alec Issigonis was charged with the task of creating a small, inexpensive vehicle for the British housewife. The diminutive gem he whipped up was called a Mini, and it certainly was. The wheels were a petite eight inches, and the engine was mounted sideways to allow maximum passenger room. One thing led to another, and the British Mini became an icon of the 1960s – no longer just a housewife’s car, but a fashion accessory, a rally car and even a movie star.

These days, the term chick car is bestowed upon cars like the Mazda Miata, pretty much any Volkswagen convertible (the Beetle qualifies with or without a ragtop), the Fiat 500, the erstwhile Saturn, Toyota Yaris – anything that’s small and stylish. Or, perceived to be underpowered. And usually, it’s a guy who’s making the decision about the monicker. In other words, if you’re a manly man, you wouldn’t be caught dead in this car.

And that’s a shame. Because most so-called chick cars are good-looking, fuel-efficient and affordable vehicles. Isn’t that what today’s consumer is all about? Shouldn’t the term “chick car” be a badge of honour instead of a slur? It should be as highly prized as a Consumers Reports “best buy.”

Perhaps our society will one day be evolved enough to appreciate that cars don’t come with a gender bias. After all, a chick car can’t tell whether it’s a macho man or a girly woman driving, can it? 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Another day, another Ford Focus

When Ford invited us to be among the first to drive an electric Ford Focus, how could we resist? Especially when it was so hot on the heels of our adventures with a gas-powered Focus. We arrived a little late, having experienced spectacle problems – the famous cat’s eye specs were cobbled together with a safety pin.

These ride ‘n’ drives are always a lovely way to spend an afternoon, even if there were no dogs allowed – even La Contessa. As expected, the conference room at the Allstream Centre was full of green products and cues, like the soy foam and recyclables used in making hybrid and electric vehicles. Lunch was saladicious and healthy, with some decadent brownies to keep us from feeling too smug.

But it was the guests at the event that demonstrated how the auto world is changing. Instead of just a gang of auto writers talking about gear ratios, chain drives and paddle shifters, there were mommy bloggers, social media mavens, and digital dynamos. There was more discussion about tweeting than there was about torque. And - there were even a couple of incredibly well-behaved babies bundled into knapsacks!

Following a power point presentation about Ford’s green philosophy, we were escorted down to the cars. Each car came with a driving instructor, to explain the controls and functions. And good heavens, there was lots of ‘splaining necessary!

My charming instructor was named Jeff, and we took along two passengers. To begin with, the electric Focus was darn quiet. When you press the ignition, you can’t even tell it’s on – the ignition light signals that the car is indeed powered up and ready to go. Great for spying on people and sneaking up on them, and maybe even reducing some noise pollution.  Bicyclists, however, may not appreciate this.

It was hard to believe the seats were made of recycled water bottles – while we have sat on water bottles before, it was mostly by accident and quite uncomfortable. But this time, our tush was quite happy. Jeff showed us where a butterfly would appear on the dash if we drove economically – that is, no sudden acceleration or braking. Try as we might, no butterfly appeared. Oh, well. Still, we like this trend with green cars – why not incorporate it into gas-powered vehicles? Getting drivers to operate more fuel-efficiently shouldn’t be limited to electric vehicles.

And at the end of our drive, we were tickled to be interviewed by CHCH TV. And they didn’t seem to care that our glasses were being held together with a safety pin.