Friday, November 29, 2013

10 Euros For A Vauxhall Victor.

Looking through my summer photos the other day, I rediscovered this lovely Vauxhall Victor. I stumbled across it wandering the streets of Lisbon, in Portugal. It was parked (abandonded?) in one of the endless alleys that wind their way through the city. The softie in me can't pass a sad, lonely old car without taking a peek and a few pictures.
As I was snapping my photos a young woman and her son walked by. She stopped and asked if I liked the car. She said that she often saw people taking pictures of it. Apparently the steel grey Victor caught many eyes! I asked if she knew who owned it, and she said that in fact she did. It belonged to the owner of one of the buildings in the alley. It had been there for years, and while several people had inquired to buy it, the owner didn't want to get rid of it.
This particular model was the Victor FB, produced from 1961 to 1964. Just under 330,000 examples were produced during that time. A roomy family car, it came in 4-door sedan and 5-door 'estate' (wagon) versions. The previous generation Victor, which was clearly inspired by the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, had been sold in the US through Pontiac / Buick dealers. The FB version I saw, however, was never available in the US, though interestingly it did apparently appear in Canada as the 'Envoy'.
As I was leaving, the little boy with the woman walked up to me. I asked him what he wanted, and he said "1000 euros". He wanted to sell me the Victor for 1000 euros! I told him that was a little high, and asked if he would take 10. He thought for a second and said sure, with a big toothy smile. I told him to go and see if it was okay with the owner, and to give me a call if we could make a deal. He walked off laughing, as did I.

Four months later I'm still waiting for that call...


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Technically In Control.

The dreaded 'Contrôle Technique'. It's like a car fan's version of a visit to the dentisit. Or filing taxes. Or watching 'Little House On The Prairie' reruns. In English it's called a Safety Check, but no matter what the language, it's a pain in the neck. We can all agree that it is important for a car, especially an old one, to meet the minimum safety requirements, but sometimes the smallest thing can force a car off the road.
My Corsa was due for its contrôle technique this week, and I was nervous. It runs fine, but already two years ago (in France you have to pass the safety check every two years) there were a few weak points. They consider two types of problems here, ones that do not require a second visit (like surface rust, a tiny oil leak, or cracked tailight lens), and others that do require a second visit (like a broken windshield, worn-out tires, or a major fluid leak). If you need to go back for a second visit and your car still doesn't pass, you are no longer allowed to drive it until the problems are fixed and you've paid for a new contrôle.

My brakes have been a bit funny lately... they stop the car, but it pulls to the right. I was also worried about the pollution levels. I have changed the engine since the last contrôle, and I had no idea if it was tuned right. An older car like mine, with a carburetor, isn't held to the same standards as a modern car, but it still has to be tuned up and running cleanly.

I let the contrôle sneak up on me, so I didn't have a chance to give the car a good check-up, and had to drop it off yesterday at lunch. I had my fingers crossed all afternoon, and wasn't sure what to expect when I went back to pick it up at the end of the day.
Overall it was a success. The mechanic who looked the car over was very impressed. He said that few 30 year old cars do as well. The pollution was 1/10th of the allowable amount, and there were no significant corrosion or wear issues. The only sticking point was with the brakes, which, as I suspected, were "déséquilibré" (unbalanced). The left side wasn't working as well as the right, so I will have to repair the brakes and go back for a second visit.

Still, all in all, this is good news! I was really worried that he would discover some problem that would force my old car off the road, or require major work. Now that I know what has to be done, I'll correct the brake problem and get the Corsa back in for her clean bill of health, and head off for two more years of safe and satisfied driving!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

All I Want For Christmas Is A Wartburg.

Santa, I know what I want this year for Christmas. I want a Wartburg. You might have to look it up. I only just discovered it myself a few weeks ago. I suspect that there won't be many people asking for one, so there shouldn't be much competition. I can even tell you where to look!
It was a few weeks back, when I was in Berlin, that I first discovered the Wartburg 353. It's a fantastically style-less car, a 3-box sedan in its purest form. I was just coming down from the high of the Trabant tour I had taken, and I was going over all of the Trabbis in the parking lot. That is when I stumbled across a handful of strange long sedans. There were several cream-coloured and one red. I had to read the name on the back to figure out what it was (my guess was Lada or Skoda). It was a Wartburg.
The Wartburg 353 was produced from 1965 until 1988. Apparently pickup and van versions also existed, but the sedan was clearly the most popular. The original 3-cylinder 2-stroke engine gave way at the end of its life to a VW engine, though obviously the charm would lie in the original clattery 2-stroke. It was apparently the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification of Germany that spelled the end of the Wartburg. The ancient, low-tech car simply couldn't compete in a global market.
I didn't have much time to look closely, but one peek of a Wartburg is enough to get me hooked. I asked if any were for sale, as they were clearly sitting abandonded surrounded by Trabants. The tour guide told me that he suspected they were, but that I would have to contact the owner. I left an email address without really much hope, but lo and behold, I recieved an email this week! There are 4 Wartburgs for sale! I have requested some more photos and some information...
So Santa, I've done most of the leg work for you. All you have to do is head to Berlin and scoop one up for me. The least rusted one that runs would be great. I'm not picky about colour. I've been a rather good boy this year, and you know that I don't risk any speeding tickets if I get one of these wonderful relics!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Trabant Tour Through East Berlin.

Forget Disneyland, I had East Berlin as my personal amusement park this week when I was treated to a one-hour 'Trabi Safari' Trabant tour! Even before starting the tour I had a full Trabant sensory overload in the 'Trabant World' reception area / gift shop. Several cars out front, some decorated in wild colours and patterns, welcome you to the shop, and inside you're bombarded with all sorts of Trabant-flavoured items. There are t-shirts and mugs and mouse pads and pins and posters and, well you name it, they've slapped a Trabant picture on it! You can also buy small encapsulated pieces of the Berlin wall, and replicas of other famous oddball cars, like the Austin Mini and Citroen 2CV.
But enough of that, the point of the visit was to drive a Trabant! The friendly, smiling receptionist was very helpful, and quickly got us ready for our ride. Dozens and dozens of Trabant 601s were sitting in the back parking lot. Some are left in original, traditional hues, while others have bright, modern colours, and others still are painted in army or jungle-animal prints to go along with the 'safari' theme. All three Trabant 601 models are available (the classic sedan, the wagon, and the convertible).
Waiting for us was a sky-blue traditional version with wonderful patterned seat fabric. The enthusiastic tour guide explained the basics of the Trabant... and in the case of the 601, 'basics' is the key word, because there really isn't much to know! You pull out the choke and hold the gas pedal down as you turn the key and the cranky 2-stroke 2-cylinder coughs to life. No need to check the gas gauge... as there is none. As it was a chilly November day we fiddled with the heater controls, and, surprsingly, the cabin heated up quickly.
While the tour is apparently very popular in the summer, there were only three couples on our tour, plus the guide in the lead car. The Trabi Safari is live-commented by the guide who not only knows Berlin very well, but clearly has a soft spot in his heart for the tiny 601. We were the last car in the convoy, and simply had to follow the car in front as we twisted and turned around East Berlin.
The guide took his time, making sure we all stayed together, and made for a very memorable tour. I have to admit I was more focused on the car than the city at first, but I enjoyed learning about the different landmarks around Berlin. The live commentary was interesting and funny, with many jokes cracked at the expense of 'damn capitalists' in their big Mercedes and BMW sedans, trying to push the Trabbis out of the way! This commentary made for a very authentic and memorable tour, as the guide also showed great respect for the difficult history Berlin has survived.
For anyone visiting Berlin I absolutely suggest this tour. Different tour routes and durations exist, and all is explained on the Trabi Safari webpage. Even if you aren't a Trabant fan, it provides a fantastic personal, street-level view of a city full of history and mystery. And anything that keeps old Trabis out of the scrapyard is a good idea to me!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I Came, I Saw, I Trabanted!

Wow! As if discovering Berlin wasn't interesting enough already, I was offered a fantastic present on Monday: the chance to drive a Trabant 601 around Berlin!
Anyone that knows me, or has been reading along for a while, will know that I am in love with these funny little cars from the 60's, and this was a super experience that has left a huge smile on my face!

Need proof that I was already a fan? Here are a few links to previous stories related to the fantastic Trabbi!

The one that got away...

The reminder...

Trailer version...

I think it's clear enough, I love these things! Very shortly I'll share my experience, racing around East Berlin, dodging capitalist drivers in their luxury cars in my legendary Eastern-block chariot...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Pumpkin Car-ving.

For Hallowe'en this year I decided to add a little automotive flair to my pumkin carving, and the result is this prototype Boo-Ick convertible! It's a sporty orange 2-seater with a removeable hardtop, which is perfect for this time of year. There's a large trunk with lots of room for candy, and the two candle-power engine helps you make quick getaways when the treats give way to tricks...
I figured a haunted Jack-O-Lantern doesn't need wheels, it can just fly everywhere, though I did add bumpers for those rough landings. It's a rather slippery, aerodynamic design, and while it bears a striking resemblance to both Yoda and an Ewok, I think that it could be a hit.
If anyone at Buick is reading, feel free to contact me, and fast... in a couple of days this prototype is going to be crash-tested into the compost bin, or recycled into soup!
Hope everyone had a happy and safe Hallowe'en!