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Automotive Dinosaurs: Five Nearly Extinct Rides

Posted in Cool Stuff, Featured, History by Kurt Ernst | January 24th, 2011 | 1 Response |
1938 VW Beetle

A 1938 VW Beetle. Image: Volkswagen Group

Before they were hunted to near extinction, herds of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains. Dodos were plentiful on the island of Mauritius, until an expanding human population (and their domesticated animals) proved who was higher up on the food chain. The passenger pigeon used to fly with up to two billion of it’s closest friends, in flocks that stretched to a mile wide and 300 miles long. Dinosaurs once roamed the planet, too, and we all know how it turned out for them.

Like the passenger pigeon, flocks of VW Beetles once roamed the roads of this great land. Sadly (or not), they’re all but extinct today, killed off by newer, faster and more resilient species. Evolution in cars, like evolution in animals, is inevitable, and today’s best-seller is tomorrow’s back of the lot, discounted special. Below are five cars that I grew up turning wrenches on, that you once would have seen on every block in America. Today, you’ve got nearly the same odds of spotting a pterodactyl as you do of seeing one of these automotive dinosaurs; they may be gone, but they’re certainly not forgotten.

The Volkswagen Beetle

1973 VW Beetle

A 1973 VW Beetle. Image: IFCAR

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, chances are good you either learned to drive a stick in a Beetle, owned a Beetle or knew someone who did. To call them “mechanically robust” is an understatement, since they were about as complicated as a ball peen hammer. If you had a few screwdrivers, some adjustable wrenches and even the most basic knowledge of mechanics, you could keep a Beetle running. Spare parts (and wrecker yard Beetles) were cheap and plentiful, but by the 1990s most VW Beetles had disappeared from the roads. There are still wild herds in places like southern California, but your odds of spotting one in a rust belt state lie between “slim” and “none”.

The Chrysler K Car

Dodge Aries

A late 80s Dodge Aries. Image: IFCAR

Chrysler’s first experience with bankruptcy wasn’t its 2009 filing. By the late seventies, increasing sales of Japanese imports had pirated a significant amount of business away from the big three, and poor product planning left Chrysler in a worse position than Ford or GM. Then CEO Lee Iococca was forced to ask Congress for $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, in order to avoid bankruptcy. Chrysler’s K cars, sold as the Dodge Aries and the Plymouth Reliant, were almost single-handedly responsible for saving Chrysler from extinction. In fact, the profits made from K car sales allowed Chrysler to pay off government loans ahead of schedule. That said, the K cars were hardly a triumph of design or engineering. Built to be disposable, they’re main selling points were passenger room, reasonable fuel economy and a bargain basement price. Build quality ranged from bad to to utterly horrific, but the K cars proved to be mechanically reliable and cheap to fix. Plentiful as used cars well into the 1990s, the K cars all but died off in the first half of the last decade. This may sound cold, but good riddance.

The Chevrolet Impala

Chevy Impala

A fourth generation Chevy Impala.

Growing up, the full size Chevy Impala was the standard-issue family car. If your folks didn’t own one, chances are that you neighbor did, or some other immediate member of your family. Impalas from the late sixties and early seventies were about as durable as an armored personnel carrier; if you hit something behind the wheel of an Impala, chances are you wouldn’t be on the losing end. Behind the wheel, the Impala was roughly the size of an aircraft carrier, and handled about as well. Chevy offered a variety of engine options, ranging from the 235 cubic inch “Blue Flame” inline six up to the 454 cubic inch “Turbo Jet” V8, but most family haulers came equipped with the classic 327 cubic inch small block V8. SS variants still make the rounds on the show circuit, but plain-Jane Impalas are a rarity. The extinction was sudden, and probably related to the cost of feeding these land yachts. Seemingly overnight, the fourth and fifth generation Impalas just ceased to exist.

The Datsun B210

A mid-70s Datsun B210, minus the honeycomb wheel covers.

I’ve already billed the B210 as one of the “Uncoolest Cars Of All Time”, but I’ll show it some love here. For tens of thousands of drivers, it represented cheap and reliable transportation, usually as a first car. If you kept up with the bare minimal amount of maintenance, the B210 could be kept running indefinitely, as long as you never drove it outside. Tinworm killed off the B210, just as it took the lives of many Japanese imports of the 1970s. Not nearly as prevalent in the wild as the VW Beetle, the Datsun B210 still had a significant place in the history of the economy car, and it helped solidify Nissan’s presence in the U.S. market.

The Dodge Dart / Plymouth Valiant

Plymouth Valiant

An early '70s Plymouth Valiant. Image: IFCAR

If your family didn’t have enough members to justify owning an Impala, chances are they owned a Plymouth Valiant or a Dodge Dart. I can all but guarantee some of your neighbors did, because the midsize Chrysler was built in about a dozen different variants. There were Valiant sedans, Valiant coupes, Valiant wagons and Valiant convertibles. There were even performance versions, like the Plymouth Duster 340 and the Dodge Dart Demon 340. They were rare birds back in the day, but the four door Valiants with Chrysler’s slant six engine were everywhere. Like the Impala, I think the mass die-off of the Valiant / Dart was part of some vast conspiracy, almost as if the NHTSA said, “these need to go away”. Maybe there’s hope that a long forgotten warehouse is packed full of late sixties and early seventies Darts and Valiants, but I’m not the guy to start looking for it.

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  1. mart says:

    Never saw a Valiant ( or is variant ) in the wagon form