Skip to main content

Ramblers and Republicans

Mitt, 10, at the wheel of a Nash. Family photo, distributed by Associated Press.
   Watching the U.S. Republican debates makes me think of Rambler, which makes me think of my father. You, a student of automotive history, will have already surmised that the link here is Mitt Romney.
   Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, was regarded until recently as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and probably will be again once the party realizes that Newt Gingrich, the current favourite, is, oh yeah, that Newt Gingrich.
   But it's George W. Romney, Mitt Romney's father, who makes me think of Ramblers and my father. George Romney in 1954 became chairman and chief executive of American Motors Corp. newly formed from the merger of two struggling automakers, Hudson and Nash-Kelvinator.
   Tall, square-jawed, his greying hair swept back, George Romney looked every bit the executive, and he had the business drive to match. Yet he had other dimensions. Born to an American Mormon family in Mexico, he was active in his faith, serving as a missionary in France and later heading the church's Detroit district. He worked to improve schools and housing and fight racial discrimination in the Motor City.
Ford Presidential Lib. / Wikipedia.
   At American Motors, he instituted a then-radical profit-sharing plan for employees. But his best-known contribution was to spearhead the automaker's shift in focus to small cars, as embodied in AMC's revived Rambler line.
   The strategy was good for business, setting AMC apart from the Detroit Big Three and their ever-bigger barges. Yet it also reflected Romney's own all-things-in-moderation views. "Who wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?" he asked in advertisements. "Think of the gas bills!"
   I can see why my father, rooter for underdogs and admirer of free-thinkers, especially those who espoused social causes, would buy a 1961 Rambler Classic 6. Unfortunately, that Rambler sedan was just a plain dog. Its all-aluminum six-cylinder engine (another innovation) never ran right. Within two years it was traded on a Ford.
   George Romney would become governor of Michigan, and then himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But his pragmatic views proved confusing to party members, and he withdrew from the race.
  My father didn't give up on AMC, or underdogs. In the early 1970s, a decade before American Motors would be swallowed by first Renault and then Chrysler, he bought a Hornet as the family's second car. I remember it as a serviceable little tractor. Then, in 1981, during one of Chrysler's periodic crises, he took Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca at his word and bought a K-car, a Plymouth Reliant. Three years later he did find and buy a better car – a Ford again.
   Some people wanted Iacocca to run for U.S. president, but he declined. A Ford, Gerald Ford, a Republican, did become president. He too was from Michigan, but he wasn't related to the automaking Fords.
   Mitt Romney seems more polished, less passionate that his father, but these are different times that demand more sophistication. If he does become president, he could well bring to the role the same beliefs and qualities his father held. The health-care reforms the son instituted in Massachusetts were as bold as the revenue-sharing plan the father put in place at American Motors years before.
   And if he doesn't, Ramblers like this 1958 Custom or Super in Cuba will suffice as the senior Romney's legacy. Its chrome has been altered, but its honest and practical essence is unmistakable, and a lasting reminder to sons of their fathers' values.


Popular posts from this blog

Discovered in Cuba, a rare Mercedes bird

(December 2012 note: See update link, below.)

 GUESS I'LL have to set aside my search for the younger Batista’s 1956 Corvette. An even tastier trophy has emerged – a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, better known as the Gullwing.
   Even on the Island of Surprises, I’d be astounded to come across one of these rare beauties. But in a brief section on Cuba in Automobiles Lost & Found(Haynes Publishing, 2008), I see a photo of a battered 300SL observed by author Michael E. Ware outside a private garage near Havana.
   The Gullwing, unmistakable lift-up doors in place, is dented and rusting and missing its engine, yet still would be prized by collectors the world over . . . if only they could extract it from Cuba. Restored, the Silver Metallic example with Lipstick Red interior might be worth more than $700,000 U.S.
   Reached in England, Mr. Ware tells me he was holidaying in Cuba when an acquaintance brought him to an unnamed community to see the car.
   “I never asked where it was – I was just …

Where Cody LeCompte went wrong

It seems that detained tourists in Cuba areput up in beach resorts while the island’s wheels of justice grind along like the gearbox in a Russian tractor.
  Cody LeCompte, a 19-year-old from Simcoe, Ontario, has been forbidden from leaving the island since an April traffic accident in which the rental Hyundai Accent he was driving (hmmm, sounds familiar) collided with a dump truck. LeCompte and his three passengers were injured, and all spent time in hospital.
  Since then, LeCompte has been staying at a resort in Santa Lucia with his uncle. It's not clear who’s paying the bills.
Although the family insists the other driver was at fault, a Cuban court this week apparently decided that LeCompte must stand trial. His mother told reporters she’s heard the trial may not take place for six months to one year.
  Canada’s Foreign Affairs department says traffic accidents “are a frequent cause of arrest and detention of Canadians in Cuba” -- although if that’s the case, such incidents haven’t…

The last cars out of Cuba

(First of a series)

   It's Oct. 31, 1960, and the SS City of Havana, an automobile and passenger ferry that began life as a Second World War landing craft carrier, is easing to its berth at Safe Harbor in Key West, Florida.    Sixteen years earlier, this vessel, then known as HMS Northway, carried amphibious trucks and their Canadian and British crews to Juno Beach in the Normandy Invasion. But on this day, those aboard are fleeing, not approaching, conflict. Of the 287 passengers, 232 are Cuban citizens who hold United States residence permits, key to their own economic and political safe harbour.
   Also aboard are 86 cars, of which most belong to the U.S. embassy in Havana. After imposing an embargo on trade with Cuba in retaliation for the Castro government's seizure of U.S. property and alignment with the Soviet Union, the United States now is cutting diplomatic ties. This photo, taken upon the City of Havana's arrival and provided by Key West History magazine, shows ro…

Crosmobile wagon: A little car lasts a long time

A LONG while back, I put up photos of this tiny wagon in Havana. Most students of automotive history would have identified it as a Crosley, from the short-lived Crosley Motors Inc. of the United States.
   As the additional photo above reveals, however, it's actually a rarer yet Crosmobile, which was Crosley's export nameplate. The change was reportedly necessary to avoid conflicts with England's Crossley Motors.

   Crosley made cars from 1939 through 1952, less a four-year interruption for military production in the Second World War. The station wagon was its most popular model, but it also offered  convertibles and sedans, a sports car and even a tiny pickup truck. This wagon is from Crosley's final CD series (1949-1952), and we can further tell from its roll-down windows that it's a 1950 or newer; the '49 had sliding side windows.    The company was a long-held dream for Powel Crosley Jr., the Cincinnati, Ohio, businessman whose Crosley Radio Corp. had become t…

Havana and Detroit: Sisters under a well-worn skin

VOLUPTUOUS, PRE-1960 American cars are the obvious link between Detroit and Havana. One city built them, the other relies on them.    But the Michigan and Cuban capitals share more than pontoon fenders and Dagmar bumpers.
   There's the architecture –classic, often crumbling, with flashes of contemporary. 
   The permeating music – different in genres, yet descending from the same African roots.
   The vivid art – best represented, in the Motor City, by the product of two Mexico-born painters: Diego Rivera, whose working-man murals would be as at home in a Havana barrio as they are on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Frida Kahlo, whose surreal folk-art images could command prime space in any Cuban gallery.
   And beneath it all, murmuring like a Hemi-powered '55 Chrysler, the energy of a place alive and assured within its own well-worn skin.
   It follows, then, that as Cuba becomes more open to Americans, Detroiters might be better equipped than many of their fell…

The Remarkable Story of Fortune Magazine's Confusion Over Cuba

WE KNOW THAT some American news outlets get Cuba, and for that matter, get cars. Fortune appears lacking on both counts.    Sad evidence of this is supplied in "The Amazing Tale of How Cuba Saw Its First New U.S. Car in 58 Years," a web piece in which staffer Sue Callaway accompanies Infiniti design boss Alfonso Albaisa on his first visit to the island his parents left in 1962.
   Also on the trip: a pre-production 2017 Infiniti Q60 coupe for Albaisa to show off in a country where, in his words, "the romance of the automobile is still completely alive."
   U.S. car?
   Despite the contributions to its styling by Infiniti's San Diego design centre, the Q60 is about as American as sukiyaki.
   Just like its predecessor, the Infiniti G37, the Q60 shares its platform with the Nissan 370Z. And it's built at the same Tochigi factory as the 370Z.
   It's Japanese.
   Perhaps Fortune was confusing it with the similarly named QX60, the sole Infiniti model produced at N…

A man and not his bicycle

THIS MAN is Canadian, and so is the 10-speed he holds, an iconic Supercycle from the Canadian Tire retail chain. But this isn't his bike. It would have arrived in Cuba, perhaps years ago, with one of his countrymen. It's long been a practice for Canadian visitors to bring old bikes, ride them for the duration of their stay and then leave them on the island in the hope that Cubans can put them to good use. And the Cuban who now owns this Supercycle has done just that, renting it to tourists such as this gentleman for 10 CUC a week.
   Good deal all around.

In pursuit of hire powers

MOTORCYCLES MAY BE the most common type of taxi in Santiago, but they aren't the only choice. For travellers seeking more comfort and security – not to mention room for more than one passenger – here are some alternatives.

1. Gladway three-wheelerAt one time, it was safe to assume that any motorized trike in Cuba – flatbed, van, tuk tuk-style taxi – was an Ape (pronounced ah-pay, hand gestures optional) from well-known Italian manufacturer Piaggio. Even the homegrown coco taxis in Havana and Varadero ride on Ape underpinnings. Now, three-wheelers from China have joined the Chinese buses and cars already common on Cuban roads. The Gladway above is a product of the Shandong Mulan plant in Jinan, south of Beijing. Parent company Gladway Holdings Ltd. specializes in electric vehicles, but also offers gas-powered models.

2. Peugeot 404   In other Cuban cities, late-model Hyundais and ageless Ladas make up the formal taxi fleets, while older cars – generally American – served as fixed-…