The Turtle Garage Story

How It All Began

I buy the cars I love. I am patient and particular, and I wait to buy the best one I can find and afford: lowest possible miles, documented provenance, no paintwork or modifications. The cars in my collection all have stories that mean something to me.

Like most collectors, I love the cars I dreamed of in my youth. On the walls of my college dorm, Bruce Springsteen and U2 rocked out between Mazda Miatas, BMW M3’s, Corvette ZR1’s and Porsche Carrera 4’s. Those years, for me, coincided with an auto-industry renaissance. When I was in grade school, you could hardly buy a convertible in America. The ‘70s and early ‘80s were a dark age in the American car market, brought on by a convergence of style and fun-killing factors. By the time I graduated high school in 1988, the cool cars were back: perfect timing for a car-loving kid with a freshly minted driver’s license and subscriptions to Car and Driver and Road & Track.
Roger Smith (left) with a Saturn prototype in 1984. Roger's lackluster leadership of GM helped set the stage for GM's spectacular bankruptcy decades later. Cars like the Saturn, Cimmeron, and Oldsmobile Diesel gave the imports an opportunity to gain market share.

Roger Smith (left) with a Saturn prototype in 1984. Roger’s lackluster leadership of GM helped set the stage for GM’s spectacular bankruptcy decades later. Cars like the Saturn, Cimmeron, and Oldsmobile Diesel gave the imports an opportunity to gain market share.

1970: The Beginning of the End

The year of my birth, 1970, was the beginning of the end for American auto giants: the end of Harley Earl style, Charlie Kettering innovation, and American global-market domination. The Arab oil embargo coincided with new pollution controls, heightened safety regulations, and corporate mismanagement in Detroit. Gasoline was rationed. Cars with odd-number license plates could fuel up one day; even-number plates the next. In 1975, Congress enacted the stringent CAFE regulations (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), which set aggressive requirements for gas mileage.

For years, GM, Ford, and Chrysler had been turning out 8-cylinder tail-finned sleds. Now the government—and the market—wanted safe, fuel-miser cars. The culture of GM’s legendary former CEO Alfred Sloan—of passion for engineering, design, style, innovation and the driving experience—had given way to the reign of the bean counters. These executives thought of cars as appliances, kept their eyes on Wall Street’s earnings demands and lost track of the quality of their product. (This era set the stage for GM’s bankruptcy decades later.)

Muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO, Chevelle SS, Shelby GT 500 Mustang, HEMI Charger, and big block Corvette were dead. In their place, Detroit rolled out some of the most infamous crap cars of all time: the instantly-rusting Vega, the emasculated Mustang II, the exploding Pinto (truly extraordinary: a rear impact at virtually any speed caused the car to burst into flames), the disposable Chevette, the designed-on-the-back-of-an-airsickness-bag Gremlin, and the one and only Pacer, reminiscent of a bargain-basement UFO. With their feeble engines, flimsy construction, and passionless styling, they are rivaled only by the East German Trabant, a socialist cardboard wonder.

These were not the cars of teenage dreams. As John Stewart said about the AMC Gremlin, the first car he owned, “This was used for many years in New Jersey as contraception.” And the regulations eventually affected European cars, too. Under the new safety rules, even sleek, sumptuous European super-coupes, like the Mercedes 500 SEC and BMW 635 CSI, had protuberant 5 MPH bumpers tacked onto their chins for the American market.

I grew up surrounded by these uninspiring automobiles. I remember the suffocating vinyl-stink bouquet of my babysitter’s green Pinto wagon. My father once rented a Pacer in Vermont; it labored up the steep climb to our farm and arrived panting in the driveway, roasting us under its trapezoidal dome of windows. Our family friends the Theurkaufs owned a ‘76 Plymouth Volaré wagon, the epitome of everything gone wrong in Detroit. Fake-wood siding, thin vinyl upholstery, and a motor that Road & Track described as “emaciated.” Not only was the Volaré slow and ugly, it was also a gas hog: 12 MPG, zero to sixty in 14.6 seconds. And things only got worse if you tried the brakes. From 80 mph, it took 350 feet to stop, its back end swinging. Road & Track called the Volaré “one of the worst-stopping vehicles we have tested in years.” All in all, the antithesis of what the safety and efficiency regulations were meant to achieve. Maybe it wasn’t just driver error the day Mr. Theurkauf (with four passengers, including me, age seven) lost control of the ship and spun it into a snow bank, rear-end first.

 

 

The unusual and unforgettable Pacer

The unusual and unforgettable Pacer

The 1976 Plymouth Volare was anything but a styling breakthrough.

The 1976 Plymouth Volare was anything but a styling breakthrough.

While Detroit floundered, the Japanese seized the opportunity.

They’d visited American factories in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to study and improve upon Henry Ford’s assembly line. By the late 1970’s, Toyota, Datsun/Nissan, Mazda and Honda were turning out what the oil crisis required: reliable, fuel-efficient, front-wheel-drive small cars. They weren’t thrilling, but they were practical and well engineered. And a few of them were actually fun: the angular Toyota Celica Supra, the sporty Datsun Z, and the rotary-engine Mazda RX-7. These were forerunners of better things to come from the land of the rising sun. The Japanese leveraged the advantage of the weak yen. They could sell higher-quality cars for less money than their anemic American competition.

Meanwhile, in 1981, the notorious Roger Smith (subject of Michael Moore’s film Roger & Me) took control of GM and fell asleep at the wheel. His regime brought us the Oldsmobile Diesel, a car that could have inspired Rudolph Diesel to change his name. With a built-for-gas-but-converted-to-diesel engine that suffered catastrophic gasket failures in the first 4,000 miles, it was rated by Popular Mechanics as one of “The Top Automotive Engineering Failures” of all time. Many more catastrophes followed. The Cadillac Cimmaron was a pitiful attempt to extend the once-iconic brand. The car was basically an entry level Pontiac embellished with cheap leather, faux wood, and a Cadillac emblem. In an attempt to compete with the Japanese, Smith spent billions launching the ill-conceived Saturn. “A different kind of car from a different kind of company,” Saturn was named after the Greek god who ate his children. The business model never succeeded, but the cars were made of plastic, so they’ll be with us forever.

 

 

The 1978 Mazda RX-7 set a new standard in affordable and stylish sports cars.

The 1978 Mazda RX-7 set a new standard in affordable and stylish sports cars.

The infamous Oldsmobile Diesel was developed under the careful eye of "legendary" GM CEO Roger Smith.

The infamous Oldsmobile Diesel was developed under the careful eye of “legendary” GM CEO Roger Smith.

The Cadillac Cimmeron was yet another one of Roger Smith's triumphs.

The Cadillac Cimmeron was yet another one of Roger Smith’s triumphs.

Across the ocean, in the land of autobahns and bratwurst, the elite carmakers were having troubles of their own. From 1981 to 1985, a strengthening Deutschemark combined with a weak global economy made German cars less affordable. Porsche sales were down. Mercedes and BMW were in a period of relative malaise. Audi almost exited the American market after a 1986 60 Minutes special claimed to expose unintended acceleration problems in the Audi 5000. The report was spurious and sensationalized, but it contributed to the collapse of Audi sales in the United States. (Incidentally, the model in question was sold worldwide and no other countries experienced similar acceleration problems with this supposedly defective car).
The 1986 Audi 5000 was the subject of unintended acceleration lawsuits. The truth was that it was a great automobile laden with firsts such as flush windows that made the ride quiet at high speed.

The 1986 Audi 5000 was the subject of unintended acceleration lawsuits. The truth was that it was a great automobile laden with firsts such as flush windows that made the ride quiet at high speed.

Finally, something remarkable happened.

Then, at long last, while I was in high school in the mid- to late 1980’s, something remarkable happened: seriously cool cars started rolling down the road. There was the mid-engine 1986 Toyota MR2, the sporty, high-revving 1987 VW GTI 16-Valve, and the ultimate Volaré antidote—the angular, hearse-like 1988 Volvo 740 Turbo wagon. Around the globe, the passion for driving was finding its way back to the hearts and minds of automakers. Their drawing boards were becoming places of daring innovation and style once again. Technology was catching up with regulations, gas prices were falling, currencies were stabilizing, and the ‘80’s spirit of excess was in full swing. Once a few exciting cars hit the showrooms, customers wouldn’t settle for the likes of a Cimarron. Car magazines finally had something to celebrate. Instead of analyzing which option package made the Volaré the least horrible, they could sing the praises of cars like the 1987 BMW M6 supercoupe.

The first car that illuminated the dreary pages of Car and Driver was the all-wheel-drive Porsche 959. It hit the track in 1986 as a Group B rally racecar. The racing world’s homologation rules mandated that a street-legal version be produced as well—at least 200 units. At the time it was the world’s fastest-ever street-legal car. With all-wheel drive, a 444-horsepower twin-turbocharged engine, and a top speed of 195 miles per hour, it set the standards that supercars of the future would follow. Technologically, it was also the forerunner to the massively re-engineered 911 Carrera type 964, which arrived in 1990. This model shared the timelessly beautiful exterior of generations of 911’s, but under the skin it was 80% new: a 3.6-liter motor (replacing the 3.2-liter), anti-lock brakes, dual air bags, all-wheel drive (optional), and an automatically retractable rear wing (now a Porsche signature).

 

 

The high-performance 1987 BMW M6 was the first street legal mass production M car to come from BMW’s elite Motorsport division. Engines were hand-built and MSRP’s were at least 30% higher than a nno-M models.

The high-performance 1987 BMW M6 was the first street legal mass production M car to come from BMW’s elite Motorsport division. Engines were hand-built and MSRP’s were at least 30% higher than non-M models.

A 1988 advertisement for the Volvo Turbo Wagon

A 1988 advertisement for the Volvo Turbo Wagon

The legendary Porsche 959

The legendary Porsche 959

 

 

The 1990 911 was the smaller, lighter, less powerful younger sibling to the 959. Known affectionately as "the 959 for the rest of us."

The 1990 911 was the smaller, lighter, less powerful younger sibling to the 959. Known affectionately as “the 959 for the rest of us.”

By 1990, the cool-car floodgates were open.

From the uber-sophisticated and mind-blowingly powerful $85,000 Mercedes SL500 to the trim and nimble $14,049 Mazda Miata, there was something thrilling for every budget. Over 36,000 Miata’s were sold in its first year and the car kicked off a new golden age of convertibles. The Miata captured the look and feel of the bygone classic British and Italian roadsters, but with better reliability and build quality. I coveted the aggressive 1988 BMW E30 M3, the polished and perfectly balanced 1990 Acura NSX, the hulking 1990 Corvette ZR1, the techno-tour-de-force 1990 Porsche Carrera C4, the fire-breathing 1992 Dodge Viper, and the 1992 Porsche-built super-sedan Mercedes 500E. I was in college, dreaming of owning any one of these cars. On occasion, I got to drive one.

 

 The 1990 Mazda Miata. The name Miata was derived from the German word "reward."

The 1990 Mazda Miata. The name Miata was derived from the German word “reward.”

The aggressive blown fender flares and stout rear wing on the now classic E30 M3 was a welcome sight when it arrived in the late 80's!

The aggressive blown fender flares and stout rear wing on the now classic E30 M3 was a welcome sight when it arrived in the late 80’s!

The 1992 500E. A one-off joint venture between Porsche and Mercedes. A 2004 Automobile Magazine article named the 500E as one of the 100 coolest cars of all time. The article joked that buyers had to agree not to use the it to invade Poland.

The 1992 500E. A one-off joint venture between Porsche and Mercedes. A 2004 Automobile Magazine article named the 500E as one of the 100 coolest cars of all time. The article comically noted that in 1992 buyers of the new 500E had to agree not to use it to invade Poland.

Starting My Collection with the Cars I Dreamed Of

About fifteen years ago, when I’d finally earned some disposable income of my own, I started my collection. Rather than following the investor-car market, I began with these cars I’d dreamed of. The red 1990 Carrera 4 was the first car in my garage. I bought it in 2002 from its original owner, an avid Porsche collector who’d picked it up new at the factory in Stuttgart and driven it only 8,000 miles.

I buy the cars I love. I am patient and particular, and I wait to buy the best one I can find and afford: lowest possible miles, documented provenance, no paintwork or modifications. The cars in my collection all have stories that mean something to me.

One my favorite cars, the 1990 911 Carrera 4.

One my favorite cars, the 1990 911 Carrera 4.

My 1937 BMW R6. This machine has over 1200 hours of restoration work. Only 1850 were built and the bike was offered only in 1937. Photo: Ken Richardson

My 1937 BMW R6. This machine has over 1200 hours of restoration work. Only 1850 were built and the bike was offered only in 1937. Photo: Ken Richardson

I also love and collect BMW motorcycles from the 1930’s and 1960’s.

My father was born in Hamburg months before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. These bikes are something extraordinary and beautiful that came out of that dark era of German history. With their overhead-valve engines, chain driven cams, shaft drive, tubular steel frames, and adjustable front suspension, they contained all kinds of groundbreaking technology. And to me they’re industrial art. I believe they’re grossly underappreciated by collectors and undervalued by the market. Most of all, I enjoy riding them, tinkering with them, and restoring them. The 60’s BMW’s are stylistically derived from the 30’s bikes but have the benefit of thirty years of progress. Their low center of gravity, impeccable balance and power-to-weight ratio make them wonderful to ride. Even with all the plush, over-horsepowered, satellite-radio-equipped new motorcycles on the market, I’d still rather ride these vintage BMW’s. And they turn heads.

Here, I’ll write about my collection and restoration projects, other cars and motorcycles I find memorable (for one reason or another), and people and places that are part of my motoring adventures. My subjects won’t always be mainstream or famous things, but they’re serious or funny or fascinating or odd or compelling in some way to me.

To the road!

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