Amazing Cars of the GM Heritage Center

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.Historic GM Vehicles, 1912–1964
Approximately 20 miles north of downtown Detroit, Michigan, the General Motors Heritage Center preserves a treasure trove of historic vehicles. Not open to the general public — but available for special events — the Center contains 600 GM cars and trucks that hold significant “firsts” for the company as well as the auto industry: the first electric starter, the first airbag, etc. Other vehicles are concepts and technological leaps — such as the first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car, or the first gas turbine car — while others are one-offs, race cars and milestone production vehicles. It is truly a collection not to be missed, if you can somehow wrangle an invitation. Let’s peek inside the GM Heritage Center and marvel at some uniquely American creations.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1912 Cadillac Model 30
An appropriate car to begin with, from a landmark General Motors division. Originally formed from the remnants of Henry Ford’s first car company, Cadillac joined the GM fold in 1909 as the automaker’s luxury marque. The incredible Cadillac pictured here possesses a couple of big “firsts” for the General: it employs the first electric starter on an automobile, as well as electric lights. In its day the car was so significant that it won the prestigious Dewar Trophy, which was an annual award (from the Royal Automobile Club of England) given to the automobile with the best performance or advancements in the industry. How the electric starter came to be is legend itself among GM historians.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1912 Cadillac Model 30
As the story goes, in the early 1900s a man named Byron Carter stopped on Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit to help a woman crank-start her car. While Carter hand-cranked the car, the engine turned over and then promptly kicked back due to an improperly set spark retarder. The crank handle hit the unfortunate Carter in the jaw, who later died of his injuries due to gangrene-induced pneumonia. Carter had been a close friend of Henry Leland, the head of Cadillac. Inspired to right a wrong, Leland pushed for the electric starter’s development. It made its first appearance on the 1912 Cadillac Model 30. The car features a 256-cubic-inch inline 4-cylinder 4-horsepower engine, and in its day the Model 30 cost $1,800.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1931 Cadillac V16
The year 1931 was full of big things in America: the Empire State Building was finished and ready to take its place as the jewel of the New York City skyline, and Cadillac became the first domestic car manufacturer to premiere a production automobile with a V16 engine. Designed by Harley Earl and available in 10 body styles and myriad color options and interior appointments, the V16 was the epitome of style in the early 1930s. Unfortunately its intended demographic had a tough time ponying up the astronomical (for the time) $6,500 price tag due to the Great Depression, so the V16 was not a great seller during its 10-year run.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1931 Cadillac V16
Producing an unheard of 165 horsepower from its 16 cylinders, the V16 could reach speeds of more than 80 miles per hour. The coachwork was supplied by either Fleetwood or Fisher, with a wooden chassis supporting the well-appointed bodies. Simply staring into the deep red glow of this car transports the autophile back to another era. This V16 has a great human interest twist as well: it was donated to the GM Heritage Center by its original owner, Ms. Augusta Little.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1933 Cadillac 355C V8
The 8-cylinder 355 was only manufactured from 1931–35. The first in the series was the 355A for the 1931 model year, followed by the 355B in 1932, and then this 355C of 1933. Changes from the previous two versions were mostly cosmetic, including new fender and bumper treatments. That said, the C also received individually-controlled pivoting side vent windows in the front and rear — new for the time. This car also has a ride control system that allows the driver to adjust the suspension by manually changing the rebound of the shock absorbers.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1933 Cadillac 355C V8
The V8 engine on the 355C produces 115 horsepower, and the car can attain speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. About 2,100 355Cs were built, but pundits estimate there are only around 100 still in existence today. The base MSRP was a stout (for the time) $2,995.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1937 Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75
Like the Cadillac V16, the Fleetwood Series 75 was available with coachwork by either Fisher or Fleetwood. The Fleetwood came in three different wheelbases, and the 1937 model features diecast horizontal hood louvers and an egg-create grille, as well as wheels with another new feature of the day: hubcaps.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1937 Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75
This Fleetwood is powered by a 346 cubic-inch 135-horsepower V8 engine. Engine improvements for the 1937 model include an automatic electric choke and a lighter-weight flywheel. The model sold slightly above 4,200 units, with total Fleetwood production coming in at just over 14,160 cars. Base price for a Fleetwood Series 75 in 1937 was $2,645 — a considerable amount, at a time when a loaf of bread or a box of cereal were less than 10 cents.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1939 Buick Roadmaster Series 80 Phaeton
Considered a more modestly priced vehicle than a Cadillac, yet espousing some luxurious appointments, historically Buicks sit in the GM lineup between Chevrolet and the luxury marque. Named for its large frame and commanding presence, the Roadmaster line originated in 1936. Even though Roadmaster had significant styling changes in 1937, a scant two years later this 1939 reflects new design directions yet again — the Series 80 has a narrower hood and front door pillars, larger hubcaps and a redesigned two-piece “waterfall” grille.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1939 Buick Roadmaster Series 80 Phaeton
The 1939 Roadmaster features a 320 cubic-inch 141-horsepower 8-cylinder engine. Touting some modernist tendencies, the model has a pushbutton-operated radio, an in-dash analog clock and standard turn signals (an industry first). This Series 80 Phaeton features the optional side-mounted spare tire and leather interior, contributing to the car’s stately presence. Reflecting post-Depression buyer hesitancy, or perhaps a nervous consumer base on the cusp of World War II, Buick sold a mere 311 Series 80 Phaetons in 1939.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1945 GMC Model AFR523 Tank Truck
This Sinclair Oil-liveried gasoline delivery truck was one of the first vehicles built (serial number 887) when civilian truck production began after the U.S. victory in World War II. In fact, the first light trucks produced in the latter half of 1945 (basically carryovers from 1942) were dubbed “Victory” models and sported a conspicuous lack of chrome trim. Note the painted grille on this tanker.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1945 GMC Model AFR523 Tank Truck
The standard wheelbase on a GMC AFR523 was 160 inches; this particular Sinclair delivery truck was modified down to 133. It has three independent gravity-fed storage tanks of approximately 500 gallons each, with fuel flow controlled from one tank to the next via a prop switch in the cab just above the steering column. The AFR523 also has a two-speed rear axle, and the cab is a GMC 1506 heavy duty cab-over configuration.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
The 1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille brought many “firsts” to General Motors. The ’49 CDV was the first V8 Cadillac to achieve 160 horsepower with the first new post-war Cadillac engine, which features wedge-shaped combustion chambers and advanced “slipper” pistons. The engine is not only smaller, it runs cooler running than the previous L-head design and could use the new post-war higher-octane fuels. Looking slightly ahead of its time, this 1949 Coupe DeVille foretold the “Jet Age” of streamlined design, and was also Motor Trend magazine’s very first “Car of the Year” — a well-deserved honor.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
A few other notable firsts: This particular car at the Heritage Center is the one-millionth Cadillac ever produced (on November 25, 1949). It also is a Series Sixty-Two, which means it has the distinction of being GM’s first “hardtop convertible” — a “first” it shares with the iconic Buick Riviera and the not-so-iconic Oldsmobile Holiday. A hardtop convertible has no B-pillar, meaning no pillar between the front and rear doors, providing a more open look as well as increased rearward visibility. One last fun fact: The fuel-filler door is actually the left-rear taillight lens — it flips up at the push of a button beneath it.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Chevrolet Corvette
Calendar year 1953 was a notable one for Detroit: the Lions were NFL champs, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, and Chevrolet introduced the first Corvette. The very first experimental Corvette was known as the EX-122, and on June 30, 1953, the first production Vette rolled off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan. During its first year of production, Corvette was only available in Polo white with a red interior.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Chevrolet Corvette
The first production Vette has a 235-cubic-inch 150-horse engine, a fiberglass body and one of the industry’s first wraparound windshields. With a wheelbase of 102 inches, the 2-seat sport coupe captured the driving mystique of America’s open roads, and Chevy’s embodiment of freedom could be had for $3,498.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Firebird I
Built in the same year as the first production Corvette, the Firebird I was the very first gas turbine-powered automobile built and tested in the U.S. Strictly experimental, Firebird I was created by GM designers and engineers to determine if gas turbines could ever be used as motive power in passenger vehicles. Billed as a “test tube car” in a GM promotional video, the kerosene-fueled Firebird I was test-driven by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Maurice “Mauri” Rose.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Firebird I
The concept for the Firebird I was the brainchild of Harley Earl, vice president of GM Styling at the time, and he designed the fiberglass-reinforced plastic body. Although the Firebird I sported a jetlike tail cone at the rear, it was for show only. Unlike a jet turbine, which develops thrust by forcing hot gases through a tail cone, the Firebird I engine transferred the turbine-generated power to the rear wheels via a transmission. An interesting side note: Each year the winner of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 receives the Harley J. Earl Trophy, which is a replica of the Firebird I.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Buick Skylark
Created for Buick’s 50th anniversary, and one of three cars promoting General Motors’ design leadership, the 1953 Buick Skylark was quite an anomaly for the stoic GM division. It was created on the Roadmaster convertible platform, and much of the car is essentially handmade by altering Roadmaster components. The 40-spoke wire wheels were produced by Kelsey-Hayes, and collectors consider them among the most beautiful wheels ever created for an automobile.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1953 Buick Skylark
Skylark gets its motive power from Buick’s first modern “Nailhead” V8 engine, which replaced Buick’s straight 8. Another GM “first” in Skylark is its 12-volt electrical system. The base price in 1953 was $4,596, which was almost double the price of the Roadmaster convertible. Buick sold only 1,640 Skylarks in the first year of production, making the car extremely rare, collectible and valuable today.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1955 Buick Century Hardtop
Ten years after the close of World War II, America was gearing up for a few firsts in pop culture: the first pocket transistor radios became available, Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s, TV dinners hit stores, and the first TV remotes were created — the latter three, it could be argued, doing more than their fair share to contribute to America’s “couch potato” culture. Model year 1955 also saw the release of the Buick Century Hardtop.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1955 Buick Century Hardtop
Featuring the same body and 122-inch wheelbase as the more economically priced Special series, the up-market Century has a 236-horsepower V8 Roadmaster engine, making it the “hot rod” Buick. (Note the fourth “port hole” in the front quarter panel, signifying this car has the higher-power engine.) The car could easily cruise at 100 mph, hence the Century moniker. Base price for the original 1955 Century was $2,601.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1955 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Cementing its dominance in the American luxury market, the 1955 Cadillac Coupe DeVille exudes style, power and grace. Although its body is somewhat slab-sided, the billet grille, Dagmar-bulleted bumpers, pronounced tailfins and skirted rear wheelwells foretell the coming jet and space eras.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1955 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Selling at a base price of $4,305 in 1955, the DeVille houses a 331-cubic-inch V8 engine, a wraparound panoramic windshield, chrome-plated aluminum “saber spoke” wheels and dual rear exhaust that exits through ports in the rear bumper. Similar to the 1949 Coupe DeVille, the fuel-filler cap in the ’55 continues its ingenious concealment and dual duty as the left-rear taillight, popping open at the push of a button.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1956 Firebird II
Billed by General Motors as the “first gas turbine family car built and tested in the U.S.,” the Firebird II was successor to the 1953 Firebird I. The Firebird II was a true test bed for many GM innovations. Features include a titanium body, a regenerative gas turbine, all-wheel independent suspension with automatic load-leveling, 4-wheel power disc brakes, a magnetic ignition key and electric gear selection.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1956 Firebird II
Looking much more sedanlike and roadworthy than Firebird I, the car has two large air intakes at the front, a bubble canopy and the signature tailfin. The 200-horsepower turbine uses a regenerative exhaust system that allows the engine to burn at 1,000 degrees. The Firebird II was also test mule for GM’s “Safety Road,“ or highway of the future, whereon Firebird II could drive unaided by input from the driver via an electrical wire embedded in the road. The Firebird II also predicted future use of a screen displaying weather reports and traffic information.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1956 GMC Suburban Pickup
Sibling to the Chevrolet Cameo, the GMC Suburban pickup was in production from 1955‒57. The smooth-sided truck has bright chrome trim accents, a panoramic windshield, curved rear glass and “finned” taillight bezels. (An interesting side note: Originally the truck was going to be called the Town & Country.)

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1956 GMC Suburban Pickup
This fully optioned example features the Deluxe Cab, chrome bumpers and grille, and a 180-horsepower V8 engine with a 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. The Suburban employs fiberglass fenders bolted to a steel cargo box. Sales for all Suburban pickups were in the neighborhood of 1,000 units, so this truck is extremely rare.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible
Without question, the Chevy Bel Air has become one of the iconic shapes that symbolize the Fabulous Fifties in America. Whether sporting a fixed hardtop or in convertible form, the Bel Air became a symbol of post-war freedom and power to the people. This Bel Air has the optional 245-horsepower small-block V8 engine.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible
Built in GM’s Los Angeles, California, assembly plant, this Bel Air is equipped with all the dealer and factory options available at the time. Chevrolet produced a total of 47,000 Bel Air convertibles for the 1957 model year. Price then was $2,611.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Chevrolet Nomad
Commonly referred to as the “Chevy Bel Air Nomad,” this small 2-door wagon strikes a chord with many who appreciate its sporty yet utilitarian flair. The similarities between the Bel Air sedan and Nomad wagon are less than subtle, so much so that GM suits felt they could sell more Nomads if it were associated with the Bel Air name. But the Nomad possesses a style all its own — it really is more sedan than wagon, but its utilitarian aspects of have not gone unnoticed through the years.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Chevrolet Nomad
In 1957 Nomad’s V8 engine displacement grew to 283 cubic inches, so the last engine of the first generation put out 220 horsepower. The first generation ran for the 1955-57 model years, and although it was a good looker it was not a hot seller. The 1958 model year ushered in a 4-door Nomad, which sold much better. Highly collectible in today’s market, the 2-door Nomads have a decidedly hip factor that gives them more street cred than their 4-door siblings.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham
The first year of the third-generation Eldorado, this Brougham is considered by many to be the Cadillac of Cadillacs. It is the ultra-rare Series 70, which has suicide doors, a stainless-steel roof, cruise control, the first memory seats, auto-dimming headlights, an automatic trunk opener, power windows, a transistor radio, air conditioning, a silver magnetized glove box, drink tumblers, and cigarette and tissue dispensers — to name just a few features.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham
Powered by a 325-horse 365-cubic-inch V8 engine, this Series 70 is particularly special, since it is one of 400 hand-built, limited-edition cars. (Note the rectangular body-side “cove” and five horizontal splits on the rear doors.) This 4-door hardtop cost an astronomical $13,074 in its day — twice the price of any other 1957 Eldorado and more than a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud of the same vintage.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1958 Firebird III
The third of four Firebird designs, this car was built in 1958 (the year of GM’s golden anniversary) and first shown at GM’s Motorama in 1959; it also made an appearance at the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle. This Firebird was the only one that had any real impact on the design of GM production vehicles (besides the now-famous moniker). The 1959 Cadillac picks up some of Firebird’s surfaces and severe tuck-under rocker panels, and the 1961 Caddy has rear “skegs” from the Firebird III.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1958 Firebird III
A 2-seater with a 2-bubble canopy, the Firebird III is powered by a 225-horsepower Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine. GM can claim it as a hybrid, in that it also has a 10-horse gasoline engine to power the accessories, which include air-conditioning and jetlike “air brakes” — flat panels that emerge from the bodywork to slow the car from high speeds. Other features are an “ultrasonic” key that signals the doors to open, an automated guidance system and “no hold” steering — controlled by a joystick.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible
Like a parade float with two doors, this bright red Biarritz Convertible embodies everything about classic Cadillacs: Big tailfins, big chrome, big engine, big everything. It’s said that these Cadillacs were created in retaliation for the large fins that began appearing on Chrysler products in 1957, as well as drawing influence from the dawning of the rocket age.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible
Priced at $7,401 in 1959 (the same price as the Eldorado Seville coupe), the Eldorado Biarritz runs a 345-horsepower 390-cubic-inch V8 engine and 3-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. This car can cruise at speeds from 120 to 130 miles per hour. Due to low production numbers (just 1,320), the 1959 Eldorado Biarritz Convertible is a highly prized and collectible vehicle today, with fine examples running anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1960 Chevrolet Corvette
Restyled in 1956 to include the now iconic side coves, the 1960 Corvette was a production success, surpassing the 10,000 vehicle per year mark for the first time in its history. Already well established as America’s sports car, the ’60 Vette also features taillights molded into the rear fenders and dual headlights — first seen on the Harley Earl-restyled 1958 model.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1960 Chevrolet Corvette
In terms of performance, this 1960 Vette has a standard 283-cubic-inch 230-horsepower small-block V8 engine, a 4-speed manual transmission and an optional power-folding top. Tipping the scales at 2,840 pounds, the car has a wheelbase of 102 inches and had a base retail price of $3,872. Seat belts were installed at the factory for the first time on the 1960 Corvette, instead of being a dealer-installed option.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1961 Chevrolet Corvette Mako Shark I
The XP-755 or Mako Shark I, a concept car designed by Larry Shinoda under the direction of GM styling guru Bill Mitchell, was created to point to future styling trends for the Chevrolet Corvette. Popular on the auto show circuit, the Mako Shark I bears a striking similarity to the 1963 Corvette, since many of the Mako’s elements made it to the production model.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1961 Chevrolet Corvette Mako Shark I
Legend has it that the Mako Shark I was painted to look like a shark that Bill Mitchell had caught and displayed in his office; after failed attempts to get the car’s graduated paint scheme to match the mounted shark, designers “borrowed” the trophy and repainted it to match the car. Mitchell was none the wiser. The Mako Shark I has a decidedly boatlike interior: simple round gauges and wraparound woodgrain veneer.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1962 Chevrolet Bel Air
Commonly called a “bubble top” due to its concave windshield, curved A-pillars and B-pillar-less greenhouse, the 1962 Bel Air 2-door hardtop was popular among racers. Part of the Chevy lineup between the Impala and Biscayne, the mid-priced Bel Air retailed for $3,152. The standard engine for a Bel Air of this vintage is a 283-cubic-inch 170-horse V8.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1962 Chevrolet Bel Air
A total of five engines were available for Bel Air in 1962, with the top choice being Chevy’s famous 409. A 409-cubic-inch 409-horsepower V8, the powerplant was inspiration for The Beach Boys’ hit record “409.” This car could run the quarter mile in 12.2 seconds, which could have easily been the inspiration for another Beach Boys record, “Shut Down.”

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray Coupe
With its peaked fenders, hidden headlights, split rear window and fastback design, the Sting Ray was the first Corvette coupe. Its radical styling includes racing-derived knock-off wheels and a groundbreaking engine.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray Coupe
Running on an entirely new chassis that features an independent rear suspension, the second-gen Corvette has a 327-cubic-inch overhead-valve 360-horsepower fuel-injected V8 engine. America’s sports car had a shortened wheelbase for 1963 at 98 inches, down from 102 inches in the first generation. The new car weighed in at 2,859 pounds and cost $4,257 in 1963.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1963 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova SS
The Chevy II Nova Super Sport was released for 1963, and has special SS emblems, side moldings, instruments, bucket seats, SS wheel covers and a sport shifter. The package cost $161 extra. The standard engine in the SS is a 194-cubic-inch I6 engine making 120 horsepower.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1963 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova SS
The Super Sport variant was only available on the 400 series coupe and convertible. During the 1963 model year more than 44,000 SS coupes and convertibles were produced. Base price was $2,262. Even though the Nova came from the factory with the 6-cylinder engine, a V8 could be swapped in as a dealer-installed option from 1962 to 1963. The light weight and high-horsepower engine made the Nova SS a popular car for drag racing, and in its time the SS posted many winning times on strips all across America.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO
This was the car that started the “muscle car” era in the United States. The ’64 was the second year of the LeMans variant of the Tempest. The base engine is a 325-horsepower 6-cylinder unit, and a 348-horse V8 was optional.

© 2015 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO
The GTO option package includes the 389-cubic-inch V8 with “Tri-Power” Rochester carburetion, GTO badging, dual exhaust, special dash inserts and dual hood scoops. Base price for the understated Tempest LeMans was $2,852.

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5 Comments

  1. ROGER BIRD

    Great rendition — especially of the Cadillacs. When will we ever see another Cadillac to rival those shown here? We need a new icon without worrying about fuel efficiency and “organic” greenness.

  2. Baba M

    A bright red Cadillac convertible was my ideal car when I was a kid and it still is. They don’t make such gorgeous cars any longer.

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