Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wide Cars, War Cards, and Crickets

I kicked off last time with a paean to the idea of automotive extinction, and how many passenger cars are going the way of the passenger pigeon. Yes, it was just a ruse so I could say something untoward about Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes, but there have been worse setups.

Having embarked on that road, I have no choice but to put the figurative pedal to the theoretical metal and discuss some other cards and card concepts that deserve to go the way of the Dodge St. Regis, the only Mopar vehicle named after a second-rate New York hotel (the Plymouth Days Inn having been scratched from the drawing board).

I thought it might be fun to match up these card sets with their automotive counterpart, so I went to and grabbed its lists of threatened, endangered and extinct car species. If you’ve ever wanted to know the trading-card equivalent of the AMC Pacer X, take heart. Your hour is coming.

Dart/Pro Set/Topps/Other Gulf war cards vs. 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT. So much perplexment, so little time. As we sit here in our 14th or so consecutive year of fighting assorted Middle Eastern demi-wars with absolutely no trading cards to document any of them, it is astonishing to me that the first Gulf War, all six months, three weeks and four days of it, generated no fewer than four trading-card sets.

Pro Set had the slickest; you could learn more from a pack of Pro Set Gulf War trading cards than you could from a month of watching Fox News – unless what you want to learn from watching Fox News is how to order catheters over the phone. Pro Set had map cards, map-with-arrows cards, gun cards, bucket cards, missile cards, plane cards, bomb cards, tank cards, Humvee cards, radar-station cards, cards of generals, cards of the enemy, battle cards, skirmish cards, strategy cards, chase cards literal and figurative, announcer cards, and cheerleader cards[1] .

Topps was next; its set was not Son of Mars Attacks, more’s the pity, though it lacked the CNN-ness of Pro Set’s war effort. Topps additionally foil-stamped a special run of its baseball cards, ostensibly for shipment to the troops; however, “troops” in this context meant the troops of dealers who hijacked cases off of shipping docks in search of the ever-elusive Gulf War Mark Lemke card.

After Topps came at least one flag-waving America First set that combined the depressing jingoism of the Koch brothers’ super-PAC commercials with the production values of a rummage-sale sign, and after that came Dart Flipcards’ Gulf War set.

Dart Flipcards was the brainchild of a delightful iconoclast named Dino Frisella. Frisella, like so many of his cardmaking contemporaries, simply appeared one day. He seemed to have absolutely no past, and nothing that would suggest he had the competence to make trading cards other than the fact that he was actually making trading cards.

Dino made his mark with the best Vietnam War set ever made, which should not have its legacy tarnished by the fact that it was the only Vietnam War set ever made. Its strength was that it took a largely dispassionate – and therefore, an entirely Canadian – view of a conflict that did not encourage dispassion through its duration. The card fronts were extremely understated, largely watercolored sketches of war action, but Life magazine and CBS News had already delivered the startling, shocking images and there was nothing to be gained by repeating. The Dart set was a dose of Paul Desmond after years of boiling bebop.

Dino was able to sell his Vietnam cards in packs, and it’s some sort of testament to the frenzied trading-card market of the late ‘80s that a A) Canadian cardmaker could sell B) watercolored sketches of C) cards of an unloved war that ended 20 years prior D) in convenience stores to E) 10-year-old boys.

You’d think the Gulf War would have been a natural followup, but not so much. Dino made the strategic error of selling his set in complete-set form, relegating it to the land of Major League Writers and Harness Heroes. He also lacked the capital to slug it out with Topps and Pro Set, though Dart’s photos of actual battle action came from Reuters and the Bettmann Archive and were every bit as good, if not better, than the big boys’ pix. Finally and fatally, Operation Desert Storm to most Americans consisted of America circling the wagons around Kuwait and Tomahawking Baghdad, and Canadians have to drink from the water fountain over there.

The various Operation Desert Storm sets accomplished one very odd purpose: They transformed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf into a chase card. No amount of gold foil could duplicate the trick for the current chief of Afghan operations, bless his jar-shaped little head.

So where does the Pontiac Fiero fit into this? About the same places it fit into in the automotive landscape of the late ‘80s, which is to say nowhere. The first general thought when Pontiac introduced the Fiero was that the company had lost its mind; the second thought was that this might not be half-bad; the third thought was that this was way more than half-bad; and the final thought was that it all ended just when they got this right. That’s the way most wars go, with the second and third thoughts reversed, and that’s about the way the public felt it went with Operation Desert Storm. In the proletariat’s eyes, we let up just as we were about to turn the Cradle of Civilization into the world’s largest Walmart parking lot.

War cards got as right as they could get with the various Desert Storm sets, but it’s beyond okay that they’re not around anymore. Like the Fiero, this exercise in extinction was more than appropriate.

Pacific Crown Collection vs. AMC Pacer X: Remember the old Puffed Wheat slogan, “Shot from Guns”? No? How about the latter-day Saab slogan, “Born from Jets”?

Good, because this is the part of the blog where we look at cards and cars Designed by Aliens.

Let’s start with the car. The AMC Pacer X was designed and built in Kenosha, Wis., mostly by Americans with the assistance of only a few aliens, a couple of recent immigrants and maybe a foreign national or two.

Unlike the recent Infinitis that drew their styling cues from a brushstroke on paper and the recent Hyundais that were inspired by all-night Gumout-huffing raves in the back room of the Inchon Elks Club[2], the Pacer X’s styling cues were painfully obvious. It was designed to be a four-wheeled version of the ball turret off of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

I’m of that age that can remember Pacer advertising. Pacers were advertised as “the wide car,” apropos of any established need for wide cars.[3]

Its inherent wideness combined with fact that the Pacer looked like a rolling Biodome made the idea of a performance version laughable, yet that was what the Pacer X delivered.

Let’s be honest: The Pacer X definition of performance differs from a Saleen Mustang’s definition of performance in the sense that the Pacer X didn’t deliver any real improvement in performance; instead, it delivered the suggestion of improvements in performance in the form of vinyl-covered bucket seats[4], floor-mounted gearshift, extra chrome, and fancy wheels[5]. And that makes it the perfect foil, so to speak, for Pacific Crown Collection anything.

Pacific Crown Collection actually owes a debt to Hyundai as well, since they share the same value proposition. A fairly basic Hyundai is stuffed with a 12-speaker stereo, navigation system, heated seats, leather, moon lamps, fog roof, a power driver’s seat, and every other gimcrack you can think of to get people through the showroom door and the car off the showroom floor. It’s only after living with the car a couple weeks that you realize the 12 speakers are made of Mountain Dew cans, the nav system is based on 1979 maps, the heated seats fry your butt, and the power driver’s seat only goes backwards. And it has the resale value of an Asian carp.

Cover that with thin gold foil and cut it in the shape of a Pacer X and you have Pacific Crown Collection. Some people want that. Your only recourse is to wonder why.

1971 Plymouth Cricket vs. 1993 Team NFL Super Bowl set: One of the biggest mistakes a seller of anything can make is misunderstanding what the public is asking for. The Pacer was an answer to a request for wideness that never came from anywhere, like a lounge singer hearing a phantom voice from the wings and saying, “What? You want to hear ‘The Pina Colada Song.’ Hey, sure we can do ‘The Pina Colada Song,’” and counting it off. The 1993 Super Bowl set was a similar response to a similarly anonymous small voice in the back piping, “I want a set of some pretty good players sort-of-but-not-really built around a quasi-Super Bowl theme.”

The set certainly fulfilled the request, and threw a couple bucks in the tip jar. There’s a Super Bowl logo on the first card and cards of Dennis Byrd, Junior Seau, Sterling Sharpe, Terry Bradshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Keith McKeller, Kelvin Martin, Alvin Harper, Emmitt Smith, and more than a dozen other semi-luminaries.

The struggle for commonalities begins as soon as you look at the names. Dennis Byrd and Kelvin Martin? Fred Biletnikoff and Sterling Sharpe? You can do some limited grouping – position, team, era, neck injuries – but as a group they’re not unified by anything more than having played in the NFL.

There’s nothing wrong with the production values, though the ghosted field shot that serves as the background for the card backs could do with more ectoplasm and the Arial Extra Extra Extra Bold type face is about one “Extra” too many. Where this set fails is in the raison d’etre category. Even as a Super Bowl memento it’s about as focused as Dez Bryant in the last two minutes against the Ravens.

And that brings us to the Plymouth Cricket. See if you can determine its reason for being from Hagerty’s description:

“Produced in the U.K. by Chrysler’s subsidiary, The Rootes Group, it was known there as the Hillman Avenger. Like most captive imports, Chrysler’s heart was never into selling the car in the U.S. and its dealers were perplexed. Chrysler squashed it just before the energy crisis, selling the entire design to Iran’s state car company where it was produced under license. Add that to the Shah’s litany of crimes. As a genuine car guy himself, he should have known better.”

We should cut Mopar some slack, in the sense that 1971 was one of the postwar car industry’s first what-the-hell? years, when slamming a bigger engine into a bigger hole suddenly did not equate with technological advancement. But the Cricket was small in the absence of any companywide desire for smallness. The car guys didn’t want a rebadged Hillman Avenger, the sales guys didn’t want to sell it, and the bean counters who greenlighted it in the first place curbed their enthusiasm when Cricket inventories started piling up like binders full of women. [6]

I know the trading-card business is infamous for committing to cardboard projects that were better off left for laugh time on the conference call.[7] But every trading card does better when it’s wanted.

The same goes for trading-card blogs, actually. I’ll be back when I’m wanted. In the meantime, toodle-oo.

[1] You think I jest? George H.W. Bush was not exactly in there swinging; what was he if not a cheerleader, short pleated skirt notwithstanding?
[2] We’re talking to you, Hyundai Veloster, and not the Hyundai Azera, the only car whose appearance was improved by adding a Romney sticker.
[3] The Pacer was touting wideness about the same time or shortly after Pontiac was marketing its marque as “wide track,” but there was one big difference between the two: “Wide track” suggested great handling; “wide” suggested obesity.

[4] As opposed to what? Vinyl-covered buckets?
[5] But not spinners, as that would suggest more movement than the Pacer X was capable of.
[6] The first gratuitous political reference, but not the last.
[7] e.g., Pinnacle Inside.