14 August 2013

Threatened, Endangered & Extinct 2012

Earth is no stranger to mass extinctions. Beyond dinosaurs, a far bigger, earlier mass extinction saw 90 percent of the planet’s life disappear — although somehow the velociraptor and the saber-toothed tiger seem more missed by Hollywood than the cockroach-like trilobite.

The automotive world often mirrors the world of natural history, with once- ubiquitous cars vanishing without so much as an oil stain to mark their passage. Some of the less preservation-minded among us might be tempted to say “good riddance” to the Olds Firenzas and Pontiac Phoenixes of the world, but not so fast. Nobody’s baby is ugly or insignificant, and the complete disappearance of any type of car is cause for alarm. Accordingly, we’ve devised the “Automotive Threatened, Endangered and Extinct List,” to highlight these vanishing cars and encourage their preservation and restoration.

Since no national DMV registry exists, to extrapolate rate of survivorship we’ve looked to Hagerty records. If Hagerty provides insurance for fewer than 60, a car is “Threatened;” fewer than 20 equals “Endangered;” and, of course, none means “Extinct” (until someone finds a breeding pair, that is). To be clear, we’re not talking about rarities like Hemi ’Cuda convertibles or Hudson Italias. To make the list, the car in question has to have been produced relatively recently and in large numbers (more than 20,000 built and a sizable number sold in the U.S. within the last 40 years).

Many of the cars with the worst rates of survival are “captive imports” — cars built by the European and Asian subsidiaries of GM, Ford and Chrysler and sold through the Big Three’s dealerships.

Service departments were rarely enthusiastic over the not-invented-here pretenders bearing odd styling and familiar badges but few familiar parts. And when the parent company inevitably decided to fill the niche with a domestically sourced product, spares and service support evaporated. All of this contributed to high attrition rates.

The Sexy European Mercury Capri
One of the most successful captive imports was the Mercury Capri/Capri II of 1971–77. Ford of Europe had witnessed the phenomenon of the Mustang and badly wanted a Euro-sized sporty equivalent. The same formula of proven sedan (Cortina) underpinnings mated to a sleek long hood and short rear deck resulted in the Capri.

Like the Mustang, the Capri was a howling success; plants in Germany, Belgium and the UK churned them out by the thousands. Badged as a Mercury in the U.S., it was touted as “the sexy European” and sold in Lincoln-Mercury dealerships.

With American-market engines ranging from a 1.6-liter Kent four-cylinder and a 2.0-liter Pinto four up to a 2.6/2.8-liter Cologne V-6, the Capri was a lively performer and regarded as well-built and good looking. Successful in European touring car racing, they frequently bested BMW’s racers, and U.S. enthusiast publications loved what Road & Track called “a refined, comfortable coupe that puts the performance and handling of traditional small sports cars to shame.” More than a half-million Capris were sold in North America between 1970 and 1978, but as long ago as 1984, Executive Editor Jonathan A. Stein couldn’t find one worth buying at any price. In hindsight, their disappearing act has been astonishing. Hagerty provides insurance for only 42 examples, officially making the Capri "Threatened.”

Vanishing Like the Wind Volkswagen Scirocco
It’s difficult to imagine any VW as threatened or endangered. The last Beetle was imported to the U.S. in 1980, but seeing one today isn’t exactly like spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. Early water-cooled VWs, however, are a different matter.

Californian Grayson Wolf grew up in an air-cooled VW family, and in addition to a collection of early Jettas, he owns two Mk I Volkswagen Sciroccos. The Scirocco was the long -overdue successor to the Karmann-Ghia. Just as the earlier car was a Beetle in an Italian suit, the Scirocco was a Rabbit in designer duds courtesy of the great Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign.

The 20-something Wolf says there are two types of reactions to his now-exceedingly rare 1977 VW: “People either have great stories about the one they or a friend had, or they have no idea what the hell it is.” Wolf’s sentiments were echoed by Floridian John Newman. Mr. Newman has owned his ’79 Scirocco since 1982 and says, “Even people in the VW club often have no idea what it is.” And this seems to be precisely the appeal for many who own threatened or endangered cars — having a unique and rare machine that won’t break the bank. And since Hagerty insures only 36 Mk I Sciroccos, it makes the “Threatened” list.

Italian in Name Only Chevrolet Monza 2+2
One popular myth says that no interesting cars were built from roughly 1973 to 1989 and that fledgling emissions controls combined with marginal quality control resulted in something called “the malaise era.” But from 1975 to 1980, Chevy built the Monza 2+2, one of the best-looking and most intriguing cars of the period. While related to the infamous Vega, it shared only that car’s general dimensions and solid chassis engineering. The styling was sensational, with so many Ferrari touches that John DeLorean called it the “Italian Vega.”

It was originally supposed to get GM’s rotary engine, but when that project was shelved, the Monza was left with an engine bay big enough for a small-block V-8, which even came with a manual transmission. Monzas were highly competitive in the IMSA GT series, even besting the Porsche Carreras for a season, and the Monza won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award for 1975. More than 725,000 Monzas were built, but Hagerty provides coverage for just 53, earning the Monza the “Threatened” classification.

Colon Richardson Jr. of Asheboro, North Carolina, owns a 1978 Monza with a small-block V-8 and just over 90,000 original miles. He found it at a flea market and gradually came to realize how rare Monzas are in any condition, let alone an all-original car like his. “Most seem to have been run into the ground or turned into drag cars.” Mr. Richardson did just that to a Monza he once owned, saying that they make excellent drag cars because of their light weight and room for a small block V-8. This car, however, he plans to lovingly preserve and eventually give to his daughter.

The X Files Chevrolet Citation X-11
When the Monza was phased out in 1981 and the new front-wheel-drive X-cars were introduced, the Citation X-11 became one of Chevy’s performance standard-bearers. The Citation was a controversial car, a true landmark design with a reputation tarnished by numerous recalls. However, the basic car made a credible sport sedan with a high-output version of the 2.8-liter V-6, front and rear stabilizer bars, and from 1981 to 1984, real cowl induction and a manual transmission. The X-11 was available in both the two-door hatchback and notchback coupe body styles. While 1.6 million Citations were built, only about 25,000 or so were X-11s. Just 10 examples are covered through Hagerty, making the Citation X-11 officially “Endangered.”

Like many owners of “Threatened” cars, Harriet and Keith Harpe are long-termers, having owned their 1983 X-11 since 1986. “In addition to it being quick, (not like mom’s Citation), it’s an odd duckling. None of the young people at car shows remember it.” As with Mr. Richardson’s Monza, the Harpes' daughter has designs on the X-11.

Gone but Not Forgotten Plymouth Champ
Unlike the four other profiled cars, the Plymouth Champ, a hatchback sub-compact built by Mitsubishi, appears “Extinct.” No coverage is provided for Champs through Hagerty and no staffers can remember seeing one in the last 20 years.

But as in the natural world, hope springs eternal: In 1938, an angler pulled a strange prehistoric-looking fish called a Coelocanth out of the Indian Ocean. This missing link between fish and amphibian was thought to have died out 65 million years ago. Perhaps one fine day someone somewhere might cut his grass for the first time in years and find a Champ, the missing link between the Plymouth Cricket and the Plymouth Colt Vista.

2 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Scott McGrath Sunny South Florida April 1, 2014 at 08:15
    I wish that I'd read this last week. I saw a Plymouth Champ at the Rod Run in Daytona this weekend and commented to the friends that I was with that my aunt used to have one, but didn't bother to snap a photo of what I now realize is an automotive Passenger Pigeon.
  • 2
    Dane Peterson Minnesota November 13, 2015 at 13:39
    Well for starters I'm 20, my grandmother bought a 81 champ new off the lot and now I've owned it for 3 years with very little issues probably 500 dollars worth of maintenance and repair. But I absolutely love the car and it only has 80k miles on it so hopefully it will last for years to come!

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