We’ve had a couple of late summer confessions here on ViaRETRO about the allure of Americana. It’s now my turn to come clean. But it’s not something I feel guilty about. After all, isn’t the very definition of a summer holiday flirt, that it really isn’t anything more serious than just that?
Søren started off relatively softly when he confessed to liking – or at least understanding – the design of the often ridiculed AMC Pacer back in July. But I must confess that I was rather gob-smacked when we got to August, and I read how Søren was apparently considering swapping his beloved Alfa Romeo Giulia 1750 GTV for a late seventies Oldsmobile Starfire GT! The article was titled “Low Cost and Rarity United in GT Packaging”, and I frankly had to read it twice as I was thoroughly fascinated by his thoughts concerning the Oldsmobile. Mostly, however, because I found myself with very similar thoughts about another American classic, which in so many ways – at least from a European perspective – is very comparable.
It all unfolded when I was travelling home after attending the Festival of the Unexceptional in the UK. We pit-stopped in Hamburg and that’s where I first encountered my late summer flirt in all its orange splendour. It was immediately obvious to me that it was an American, but I was clueless as to which make and model I was dealing with here. Thank God for the badges on the car, as they revealed it was a Mercury Bobcat. Even with my lacking knowledge of American cars, this at least gave me something to go by. Mercury built some pretty cool cars. I certainly know the early Cougar which also utilised a big cat name, and I’ve always admired its sleek design. So what was I to make of the Bobcat?
Ehrm… well, it transpires that the Bobcat was apparently nothing but a Ford Pinto in disguise. Very much in the same way that Søren’s Starfire GT was really nothing more than a Chevrolet Vega beneath all the Oldsmobile badges. The Brits were clearly not the only ones who mastered the dubious art of badge engineering. Still, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. So when my initial enthusiasm cooled a little, it was probably more down the rather terrible reputation of the Ford Pinto. Especially in America where it’s probably regarded with about as much respect as the Austin Allegro is in the UK.
But truth be told, I’m not entirely sure how the Pinto can rightfully be regarded as such a failure, as Ford sold 3.5 million examples, which must surely be viewed as a success story? Okay, so there were also stories of them catching fire when involved in an accident, but weren’t all these stories exaggerated by one rather obsessed Ralph Nader, at which point there probably wasn’t much truth left in them. But if they were indeed factual stories, well, then they would include the Mercury Bobcat as well seeing as it’s the same car.
But as I stood there in the streets of Hamburg, my thoughts were nowhere near those considerations yet. What my eyes saw, you couldn’t possibly take away from the compact American – and I saw what might be the most heartwarming, joyous and positive automobile I have seen for a long time. Which is thought provoking considering I had only just left the Festival of the Unexceptional behind me, which was full to the brim with European and Japanese cars of the seventies. But none of them beamed with quite the same spirit as this little American did. The Bobcat’s shape and colours went straight to my heart and for a moment I was convinced that this would be my first American car…
It wasn’t until I was back home that I did my homework and studied what lay beneath those fun-filled lines. The drivetrain in the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat originated from the Ford Escort, so the smaller engines were the classic Kent and Pinto engines. Hmmm… and moving on to the biggest available engine, imagine my disappointment when I found it to be the Cologne V6, which the Americans had somehow managed to choke into delivering a measly 100 horsepower.
An American car without a V8 engine? That sadly falls significantly short of my Americana fantasy. Perhaps even more so when I already have a European V8 in my garage – not to mention the V12. And with my Scimitar I have a yellow seventies classic with “the proper” Ford V6 under the bonnet: the Essex. So my pulse has returned to normal again. Admitted, it felt good while it lasted, but the Bobcat proved to be but a summer flirt after a few glasses too many in a German biergarten.
The deciding factor was the engine. I can accept poor handling characteristics, low build quality and even the risk of spontaneous ignition if so much as nudged by another car, as long as the rest of the package has such soul. But is it really possible to live with an American classic lacking its mandatory V8 power?