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  • John M Feit

Capitol Hill's Classic Rides: Field Report One

There are certain ages where the zeitgeist leads to incredibly potent creative output. Hellenistic Sculpture of the 4th through the 2nd Centuries BCE; Germanic orchestral and chamber music from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries; High-Modern Architecture from the early 20th Century through the 1930s; and Jazz from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s come to mind. Of far lesser importance, but still a personal favorite, is automotive design from the early 1960s through the early 1970s; where, like the above-stated periods, no wrong could be done (okay, I'm excluding the Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin, among others). Granted, a BMW 2002 or Alfa Romeo Giulia does not rank with the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoy, or Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus in artistic merit, but as exemplars of grand design in their respective field, they hold their own. As luck would have it, the benign (i.e. non-salted) roads of the Pacific Northwest provide a good habitat (as it were) for conserving cars of this vaunted era. While poking around Capitol Hill photographing architecture and landscape, I occasion upon a few prized specimens; happening frequently enough, as it turns out, to begin to share them. Thus, begins the hoped-for first of several field reports memorializing a fleeting grand era of industrial design.

Referencing the above German and Italian autos by no means excludes those from the design studio of America’s own General Motors. To set the record straight I begin with the uniquely strange American beast Chevrolet’s El Camino, the mullet of the automotive world that is a car in the front and truck in the back. This late 1960's gem has one of most serious of front ends - that of the Chevelle, one of the first muscle cars. Dual round headlights, concave grille, and the ever so gently tapering truck bed made what could have been the most awkward of automobiles into something rather svelte (though even less practical). This specimen has the racing stripes of the uber-classic Chevelle SS. Now that car was a hotty.

To ease the reader's mind that these posts are not simply boy-racer fantasizing, the net for the Field Reports will be cast wide to include every day, practical cars; daily drivers as it were. Prior to becoming pricey premium sedans, few cars in the 1960s through the early 1990s exemplified the bookish practicality of Volvos. They were the Subarus of their time (before even those became fancy), the emblem of the university liberal arts professor and safety-conscious parent. The sine qua non of the boxy, boringly safe Volvo was the 122 (also known as the Amazon, but way before Bezos's time) that was in production for a shocking 16 years, an eternity in automotive styling years and way more than the equivalent in dog years. But that was Volvo's schtick, which is what makes the 122 (and the future 144/240) such fun: unpretentious, agnostic about style, designed for utility and your family's safety. Boxy yet rounded for a bit of flair. If you squint, you can see the door handles placed right below the window; this piece of hardware was probably in the production line two-to-three times longer than the 122 itself. The engine in this cutie could even be the highly regarded B18 - the engine in the world's highest mileage car, a 1966 Volvo P1800 which has over 3,000,000 original miles.

A rare bird indeed is the Volkswagen 1600 Squareback, the wagon version of the classic VW Beetle. I no longer see this one parked at Republican and 16th, and I miss it. This particular specimen is unlike any other I have ever seen. It replaces the rear passenger windows with sheet metal. This model must have been a utility model for tradespeople carrying tools and the like. Adoring the extra expanse of steel is a Union 76 logo - how cool is that! Its size and design make it the perfect complement for the Squareback, and its graphic design reminds me our own beloved Fuel Coffee. Known as the Type 3 in Europe (why do they do that?) the car was in production from 1961 - 1973. Not the longevity of the 122 but let us say it was long in the tooth when production ended. Like the 122, it has the rounded, boxy thing going, with the addition of a rather aerodynamic-looking roof rack (and some after-market wheels). As in its more famous sibling, the Squareback’s engine is in the rear (note the louvers above the rear wheel) and the overall styling is just the right balance of straight and curved.

Should other like-minded design fans know of similar vintage rides on Capitol Hill, please let me know and I’ll endeavor to capture their graceful lines.

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