Call them sleepers. There are some cars out there that are a hell of a…
Switched at Birth, or Shortly Thereafter: Five Cars With Changed Identities
Drama fans love a good story about changed identities, if the success of Hollywood’s “Bourne” films is any indication. It turns out the car world has seen a bit of identity swapping, too. The five cars here span 40 years, and the last two can still stir controversy.
Earl Muntz made a name in the 1940s and 1950s selling used cars and low-priced TVs, the latter of which he helped engineer. He was his own pitchman, calling himself the “Madman.” A chance to put his brand on a car came in 1949.
Frank Kurtis, famous for his Indy and midget racers, built about three dozen of his two-seat aluminum and fiberglass road cars, called the Sport, and then sold the Glendale, Calif. operation to Muntz for $200,000. Most came with Ford flathead V-8s. Muntz retooled the Sport, stretching its wheelbase from 100 to 113 inches and adding a rear seat and a removable hardtop. He called the low, sleek 1951 car the Jet and built a couple dozen more with Cadillac V-8s before moving to a factory in Illinois.
Next came a switch to steel bodies and a less costly Lincoln flathead V-8 paired with GM’s Hydramatic transmission. Wheelbase grew again to 116 inches. The Muntz Jet could cost more than $5,000, and Muntz is said to have lost $1,000 on each of the approximately 400 built into 1954.
While working on its first compact, the Falcon, Ford also planned a slightly larger version for the Edsel division. But Edsel was terminated just as the new car was ready. The solution? Sell it through Mercury dealers as the Comet.
The Comet used the Falcon’s 85-hp 144 cubic-inch six-cylinder engine, and its relative starkness stood in marked in contrast to the Mercury brand’s traditional upscale position. Some exterior and interior pieces were borrowed from the defunct Edsel models. The Comet didn’t even wear Mercury badges for its first two years. But it did have the industry’s strangest taillights, canted elliptical units that looked like bat ears.
On the plus side, for barely $100 more than a Falcon, the otherwise clean-looking Comet offered a six-inch longer wheelbase (114 inches) and a roomier cabin than the Ford. The wagon, though, rode on the Falcon wheelbase, so there were no gains there. The Comet sold 123,000 cars its first year – about 11,000 more than all Edsels sold.
The Buick Riviera caused a sensation when introduced at the Paris Auto Salon in October 1962. General Motors design head William Mitchell must have been especially pleased that the Riviera design appealed to Sergio Pininfarina, renowned for his Ferrari work. The seeds for the Riv were planted in the late ’50s when Mitchell envisioned a luxury coupe that combined the elegance of a Rolls-Royce and the stance of a Ferrari.
However, what emerged from the design studio wasn’t supposed to be a Buick at all. Mitchell envisioned the car as a new kind of Cadillac. A 1960 full-scale model wore “LaSalle II” badges, echoing Cadillac’s defunct sub-brand from the 1930s. Vertical caps flanking the grille were inspired by the LaSalle’s narrow grille.
But Cadillac wasn’t interested. Instead, other GM divisions were asked to submit proposals for building and marketing the car. Buick won the competition and named it Riviera, with a $4,333 base price. The first-generation Riviera wasn’t just an American masterpiece, but also the international classic that Mitchell had imagined.
[related Video: 1963 Buick Riviera ride along]
1976 Porsche 924
The Porsche 924, never fully accepted by Porsche purists, was nevertheless a sales success. But it was originally planned as a Volkswagen. The two companies’ previous sports car collaboration, the mid-engine, air-cooled 914, needed replacement, but VW wanted a more practical sports coupe that it would sell on its own. (The 914 had been sold as the Volkswagen-Porsche in Europe and as a Porsche in the States.)
Development was still contracted to Porsche, but to VW’s specifications. It would be a front-engine 2+2, and costs would be kept in check by using VW suspension and chassis parts as well as a VW/Audi liquid-cooled four-cylinder engine. Following the 1973 Oil Embargo, VW got cold feet and sold the project back to Porsche for $60 million. Porsche, meanwhile, had already been developing the 928, a front-engine V-8 flagship model initially intended as a 911 replacement.
The Porsche 924 arrived in 1976 (1977 in the U.S.) starting at $10,000. Handling and everyday usability were praised, but performance from the 95-hp 2.0-liter four was tepid. By the ‘80s, Porsche had evolved the model into the far more capable 944.
1989 Ford Probe
If the 924 rattled Porschephiles in the 1970s, plans to turn the Mustang into a front-drive car in the 1980s made the ponycar faithful apoplectic. How did it get to that?
Before the Fox-based Mustang received horsepower infusions in the mid 1980s, the model’s future was looking somewhat bleak. Ford had an idea – or delusion, really – that Mustang fans might be ready for something completely different. The company owned a big chunk of Mazda, and the two formed a joint venture to build sport coupes in Michigan, based on a Mazda platform.
Ford considered making its version the new Mustang, which set off a firestorm among Mustang buffs and car enthusiasts in general. And they conveyed their dismay to Ford by using an early type of social media called “letters,” delivered with a technology known as “mail carriers.”
It worked! Ford named the front-drive car Probe and refocused attention on the Mustang. The Probe made it to a second-gen redesign in 1993 but was axed after 1997.