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Striped tomato

Ford Gran Torino (1975)

12/07/2013 06:22 |  Comments: 

Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

“Hey look!” exclaimed Random Citizen on the street. “ The car from Dukes of Hazzard!” How wrong he was. Well, technically speaking, he wasn’t but that’s just pure luck.

The series telling the tale of David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson was launched in 1975, but nobody expected that it would only last four seasons. Thanks to producer Aaron Spelling, the studio was not short on funds at the beginning, and with an exclusive contract with Ford in their pockets, the brainstorming could start about the hero car. It's a very common misbelief that the car was designed by George Barris, legendary builder of Hollywood movie cars. Actually, Barris – builder of the original Batmobile and Green Hornet's car, the Black Beauty – bought the rights later, and he only built the 2004 version for the very forgettable movie.

The original car however was the brainchild of George Grenier, manager of cars at Spelling–Goldberg Productions, and his team. Everyone loved the red-white Gran Torino, except for one person: Paul Michael Glaser who, by the way, played Starsky, the owner of the car. Glaser, being a real GM-fan, hated the Gran Torino for being a Ford, for being red and for looking way too flashy for a detective's undercover car. His hatred didn't come cheap for the studio: Glaser did everything to beat the car into shiny red pulp, as no curb was safe from him during filming.

This just makes me feel sorry for David Soul even more. The actor playing Detective Ken Hutchinson is quite the gearhead, yet his character's primary task was to complain about the car, and to call it Striped Tomato. The name, however, came from Glaser. The show was such an instant success though, that even Chevrolet bought commercial time.

But the bandwagon didn't stop there. Some Ford-dealers saw the opportunity, and painted white stripes on their red Gran Torinos in stock. Ford of course didn't want to stay out of the success, and in March 1976 they released a limited series of a thousand plus two Starsky & Hutch Gran Torinos. Only the paintjob, the mirrors and bumpers were carved in stone, the rest was up to the customer. As a result it's hard to find two Starsky & Hutch Gran Torinos that are really alike. When I asked Tomi, the owner of our car, if it was from that limited series, he shook his head. Then I asked him if the car was a true copy of the one from the TV show. He just laughed. Couldn't blame him.

You see, they used multiple cars during the filming of the show. One had chrome mirrors, the other one had red. On some cars the white stripe was above the wheel arches, on others it touched them. Some had trimming on the doors, some didn't. On most of the interior shots, the two detectives were sitting on a bench seat, but after a while Soul asked the crew to have bucket seats installed, as they were getting a bit too intimate with Glaser during tight, right turns. As the ratings dropped, the studio had less and less funds for the car, which became more and more worn down. They just couldn't keep up with Glaser's havoc. In 1979, after 93 episodes the studio cancelled the show.

And for me, well, I spent countless days and nights waiting for this review to happen. I swore my objectivity would be merciless. And I would've been successful at that had Tomi not painted that damn white stripe on the Gran Torino's side. It would've been just another muscle car that you either love or hate, the middle ground being pure fiction. Loving the engine, hating the suspension, adoring the looks, praying for brakes, crying at the gas station. There you go: Muscle Car Review 101. But that white stripe changes everything. Be it import tuner, vintage Merc-fan, grandma or accountant, everyone loves it.

Even if it had a small common-rail diesel engine, people would still love it. But having great looks was only one of the criteria during the restoration process. Two years of hard work, a ridiculous amount of money, countless disappointments and fights later it got the FIVA certification and a license plate. On the day of the review it was still being run in, so I had to show self-discipline. No Starsky-like turns for me.

However, I came to realize that the Gran Torino had to be pushed really hard to be clumsy in the corners. It was surprisingly well balanced for a muscle car. I don't mean Impreza-like cornering, but for an almost two-ton car with a live rear axle, it was pretty stable. And the limited slip differential helped even more.

The weight should come as no surprise, as the Gran Torino is two meters wide and almost five and half meters long. It was surprisingly small though on the inside. I mean it had an Astra-tiny interior. Except that you can actually get in the back of an Astra without dislocating a couple of joints in your body. I'm still amazed that I managed to twist my leg in such an angle that allowed me to get in. And the steering wheel wasn't even stock, but a lot smaller Grant wheel. However, this lack of space makes the Gran Torino a pretty ideal police car. Making a criminal sit in the back is already part of the interrogation and there is no way he'd ever be able to escape from there.

Once inside though – and being the lucky one who sits in front – it's really comfy. It had a bench seat in the front and a set of overly attached, three-point seatbelts. Once you start pulling it, make sure you pull it all the way. If you stop halfway, you have to let it wind back and start it all over again. Pull belt. Daydream. Stop. Roll it back. Pull it again. Click it in. I said click, dammit! I never thought it's going to take me so many tries to buckle up. It didn't get any better once it was locked. Let me repeat: it cannot be pulled back and forth. So if you accelerate and pull your stomach in, you're going to have a bad time. Just as I had. The belt kept getting tighter and tighter. The car was red, I was blue. The world is a colorful place. My bad luck, but great news for everyone else: this was the only year it was sold with this type of seatbelt. Yippy!

The engine however is a true source of joy. The idle sounds like a hundred cell phones vibrating in an oil barrel. Floor it, and you'll know what Bruce Banner sounds like on a bad day. The sound is a lot more authentic than you hear in the TV show. Due to strict regulations in LA, the exhaust of the hero's car had to be dampened, and the masculine sound was added during post production.

The 460 cui or 7500cc engine produces 216 PS and 481 Nm of torque. Zero to a hundred takes 8.4 seconds, and it can continue to accelerate to 191kph. In terms of consumption, the average patrol would result in 18 litres, but in chase-mode it's over 25. Luckily you can do cross-state chases as well, since it has a 100-litre gas tank.

Slamming the door results in a distinctive ‘CLANG', while driving in Budapest brings out an awkward smile. I mean, sure, it's stable, easy to drive, as long as you're looking ahead. The fun starts when you want to change lanes. The roof pillars in the back can block out anything south of an oil tanker, and saying that the mirrors don't show squat is a mild euphemism. Just for you to see how useless the side-mirrors are: the wheel arches in the back stick out so much, that they are widest points of the car, not the mirrors. At least you can look at them in the mirror. And it gives you just another good excuse to floor the car, if the immense torque and the beautiful sound wasn't enough. I just looked for an opening way-way ahead and put my foot down. The Gran Torino lifted its nose, howled and growled and a couple of seconds later I flew into the open spot. The only reason for concern and drama are the other members of traffic. When they saw the car, they froze like a bunny in the headlights.

The muscle car is a forbidden fruit of the kind that cannot be justified with reason or facts. It's just simply good, like eating a juicy steak, no matter what your doctor told you. And if that steak is also a movie star....

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