A Cadillac at Le Mans

One of the more amazing feats in automotive history was when, in 1950, Briggs Cunningham took a basically stock Cadillac Series 61 Coupe to Le Mans and placed it in tenth place.   Co-driven by Miles and Sam Collier, college friends of Cunningham’s and founders of the Sports Car Club of America in a race that fewer that half of all cars entered managed to finish, the Colliers managed an average speed of 81.5 MPH for 24 hours.
The car, along with a modified Caddy with an aluminum body, dubbed LeMonster by the French, that placed 11th that some year are on display at the Collier Museum in Florida. (see link, below)

Collier Museum

After the race, Briggs Cunningham had the car modified and used it as a tow car!  I went to the Cunningham Automotive Museum that used to be in Orange County in the 1980’s, and it had a license plate and current California tags.    They actually fired the car up and drove it off when I was there, and although the engine was basically stock internally, the dual exhaust made it sound more like a race car than any Cadillac I ever heard.  I’d like to think that the then 76 year old Cunningham would take the old car out for a spin and drive down highway one with the windows down to listen to the exhaust.
Before it drove off, I took a peek inside it and noticed it still had the radio inside.  Supposedly, the Collier Brothers listened to the radio while tooling around the course as the 3897 pound Coupe (about what a modern V-8 Camaro weighs!) leaned over like a sailboat.
The photo shows the addition of a tach and also that the car had a “Three on the Tree” transmission and shifter.

The main reason any of this happened is the amazing 331 cu. in. Cadillac V-8 was one of the more advanced engines on the planet.  In fact, the 3rd place finisher, and Allard, was powered by the same motor in a much lighter car.  Cunningham wanted to put the engine in a much lighter ford based car and call it a “Fordillac”, but was informed that he needed to make a bunch of those to enter the car in the race, he just stuck with the two Cadillacs.

The fact that a basically stock luxury car sedan could compete at this level and place ahead of every one the Jaguars and Ferraris at one of the worlds premier races was no mean feat.

The Urge to Tinker

People can’t just leave well enough alone.    At least I can’t.    I’ve never left a guitar, amp, car or motorcycle in “stock” condition for long.  “No user serviceable parts inside” might as well be a challenge instead of a warning.    As time goes on this is getting harder and harder.   Modern cars don’t leave that much room for “improvement”, and the tools required to work on them, along with the skill necessary to perform much of that work are much more complex, or at least different.

I grew up in a working class small town culture where seemingly everybody worked on their own cars and owning things like a grease gun, timing light and a dwell meter were common place.  My dad took tubes out of our TV to the drug store to test them, and my first car was a Ford Falcon station wagon with a good body but a tired engine that my dad and I rebuilt over one summer.

I’ve never been what one would call proficient as a mechanic, but I know enough to “get by”, with the aid of a shop manual and basic mechanical knowledge.    I also know when I’m in over my head and when I should take things to a “pro”.    I used to do front end alignment on my VW’s, following instructions in the “How to keep your VW alive for the Complete Idiot” book.   (An apt title if ever there was one) After I rebuilt the suspension on my 98 Z3, I didn’t think twice about driving to somewhere that they used lasers and other sophisticated stuff to set everything straight and was happy to get a “You did all this without a lift lying on the ground?” comment.

Okay, I’ve wandered a little off track here, but I think there are lots of people out there with a similar story.

Many guitar players are as much “into” tinkering and modifying their equipment as they are into actually playing them, and for many, part of the fun involves the time they spend working on guitars and amps.  (For some, it’s probably most of the fun.)

By 1966 I owned a Fender Bandmaster and a 1963 Fender Telecaster (which I still own) along with an Alamo reverb tank.    I probably could have played every gig I’ve had with that particular rig and 98% of the audience would have not noticed a difference.

Guitarists, unless they are fairly wealthy, usually develop a degree of expertise in performing routine maintenance on guitars and amplifiers.  Over the years I’ve picked up a few skills like leveling and dressing frets, filing nuts, setting intonation changing pickups, switches and pots, replacing transformers and I even learned how to set the bias on my Bandmaster.   I’ve even worked on a few of my friends guitars for minor stuff.   I have several mongrel “parts guitars” and a couple of heavily modified Chinese Strat knockoffs that have become mainstays onstage.

Virtually every amp I’ve owned has used vacuum tubes, which renders the technology involved to be on the same approximate level as a 55 Chevy.     Most of us can perform simple tasks and modifications and perform limited “experiments” while avoiding catastrophic failure or electrocution.  I suspect this could be one of the reasons that guitar amps still use tubes when most other electronic devices haven’t used them since the late 60’s………

I recently acquired a Quilter 101 amp head.     I’ve addressed this in the last three blog entries, so I won’t go into details about it.  But it seems about as likely to need repair or maintenance as a crowbar, nor does modification seem too likely, at least in my lifetime.   I’m also running out of stompboxes and speakers to try with it.   At the age of 64, this might be the last amp I will buy——–  maybe I’ll wear out a pot or a switch——–

But, who knows?

There’s still plenty of “fun” to be had working on my guitars, and I’m in the middle of turning this nice ash Tele body into a working guitar.   I won’t deny that working on the gear and trying new stuff has been part of the appeal of being a guitarist, so nobody will get the lecture: “You’d improve your sound by practicing more.” from me.   I discovered long ago that there’s only so much difference that your equipment will make.    “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I don’t actually think I was born to tinker, but I’ve been conditioned that I should do whatever needs to be done myself and only pay people to do stuff that I can’t.   The thought of taking my Sportster to a mechanic and pay them $120 an hour to work on something about as simple as a lawn mower just didn’t sit right with me and the only time anyone other than myself took a wrench to it over seven years was the guy who put new tires on it.

The world is changing, fewer and fewer people work on their own cars and nobody even thinks of repairing a toaster.  Home electronic devices change so fast that by the time something wears out buying a new one is cheaper than repairing an old one.

I remember selling one of the first 63″ Fujitsu Plasma TV’s back in 2003 for $25,000 dollars, and you can now buy a 65 inch LCD TV for $1200.   Probably not a lot of them will ever go to the shop.

I have no grand conclusion to make here.   The world isn’t going to drop out of orbit because we’re all surrounded by things we don’t understand.

It does strike me though, that someone from, say, 1890 probably understood more about everything he or she was surrounded by. The “world” was much simpler to behold on a day to day basis.    Human beings are naturally control freaks to the extent that some of our activity has to be directed at controlling the number of factors that are “just out of our hands” that the simple act of repairing something yourself provides a degree of comfort.

In an increasingly bewilderingly complicated world, each of our “spheres of influence” is shrinking and the era of the “jack of all trades” is surely coming to a close, along with the “mechanical” era.

But, people will still “tinker” with stuff, they’ll just be playing with computer programs and such.   Much like people now modify their vehicles by adding a different “chip” to the engine management software instead of replacing the carburetor.


Wildcat Canyon Trophy Dash

I’ve sort of neglected the “Vehicular Amusement” category for a while now, and I’m not totally sure as to why this is so.    I enjoy driving my BMW Z3 as much as any car I’ve owned over the last 40 years or so.    I live in the middle of wonderful mountain driving roads and I can take off in any direction and quickly find myself lost in the tactile pleasure of driving.
Z-3 August 1Viewing the car as a “project” has pretty much ceased since I finished with the suspension work: new control arms, ball joints, harder bushings, new shocks and a fresh set of tires.    I’ve added a cold air intake and an exhaust that I can actually hear.   The stuff I need to do basically boils down to cosmetic stuff.

Part of the “fun” with every previous car I’ve ever owned that might have pretentions of being called a “drivers car” (or motorcycle) has been a never ending project waiting for my next modification to “improve” it.  I’d rather drive the Z3 than be plotting my next improvement to it.    I do love the way it looks, but I can’t see it when I’m in the driver’s seat.   “Pride of ownership” is a very small part of my involvement with this car, but driving it always brings a smile to my face.

I love the steering.    Replacing the soft rubber bushings had a major impact on steering feel.  It’s a big part of the sense of involvement that driving the car brings to the occasion, along with the sound and feel of the inline six.

I love going into a corner and giving the car enough throttle (and maybe a little flick of the steering wheel) to where I can feel it start to rotate through the steering and power my way through the corner riding the creamy waves of torque and wonderful sounds from the engine.

The Z3’s torque curve has been criticized in a number of quarters for no being “sporting” enough, but it makes it super easy to “steer with the throttle”.

I have no concern if this isn’t the fastest way through a corner and I’m not taking lap times.   Most of the time, I stop short of hanging the tail out and just add enough throttle to give the car a neutral attitude.    It’s really fun to go at about a “seven tenths” pace.   I think I probably went faster in my Miata over the same roads as you needed to keep the little four cylinder on the boil to keep the pace up to the point where the car was fun to drive.   The Z3 is fun at most speeds and the motor has enough torque to make going up the mountain as much fun as going down.

The Z is also entertaining to drive at less than banzai velocities although I can go about as fast as I’m going to go on public roads if I want to.   Sheer speed has lost most of it’s appeal to me at this point in life.

The other day, I found myself behind a Porsche Cayman with an aftermarket exhaust going over Wildcat Canyon Road, which is one of my favorite driving roads once you’ve got past the casino and the school.    There was no traffic and when he spotted me in his mirror, took off in a cloud of glorious noise.   For a while, the chase was on, and he had the extra power to pull ahead on what short straights do exist.   Knowing the road as well as I do, I managed to reel him in in the twisty parts.   I noticed he was often drifting into the other lane, probably trying to see a little further down the road, and I decided to back off and let him go at his own pace. We both ended up behind a mini van anyway and when we parted company at the end of Wildcat Canyon, he gave me a friendly wave.

I’m not trying to make myself look like a paragon of responsibility, it’s just that the capabilities of my car, beyond a certain point, have little to do with my enjoyment of it.

Back in the 80’s, I had a Honda VFR that I had to ride for miles to get anywhere I could use it’s speed and acceleration capabilities for more than a few seconds.  It was a superb machine, but almost boring to ride in normal conditions.

The Z3 is faster than most of the machines I lusted after in my youth, like an XKE, a Stringray or a late 60’s 911s, or maybe a 1973 BMW 3.0 CSI.    On the other hand, you probably could beat it on a track with any number of modern sedans, or maybe even a SUV or pickup.   (You probably would NOT be having as much fun, though.)  Attaching your ego to an automobile is a little bit of a lost cause.  Or at least it is for me.

What is important is fun, which is something entirely separate from lap times for me.   It’s much more of a subjective thing.     A lot of people can’t grasp why people love their Miatas, often dismissing them as “chick cars”.    Most of these people have probably never driven one, or feel  a car with the personality of a playful puppy isn’t macho enough.

I’ve noticed that my interest in automotive magazines has faded somewhat.    Few of the vehicles have much interest for me beyond mere technicalities.    I’ve always preferred lighter vehicles and a two ton sports car has little interest for me, no matter how quickly it gets to 60 MPH.

The other day, driving home from band practice (the BMW being large enough to carry two guitars and an amplifier), Wildcat Canyon was nearly free of traffic beyond the Casino and it was about 70 degrees, sunny and calm.    I found myself downshifting to 2nd gear for a couple of corners where I normally use 3rd for no other reason than to hear the exhaust burble on the overrun.  I then turned off the traction control so I could get a little drift action through two of my favorite sections of the road without fear of the electronic nanny cutting in.   I love the sensation where the car hooks up, straightens out, and then seems to shoot down the road.

Having worked the inner Hooligan out of my system, for the rest of the ride, I was happy to resume a more rational pace and enjoy the wind, the sound of the engine and the zen-like experience of driving briskly and smoothly.

z3 kiddycar

Harley Davidson Street 500 and 750–Hit or Miss?

A new from the ground up Harley Davidson doesn’t just happen every day.   This is their first new platform in 13 years.   They’re going to be assembling them both in the US and India, and I’m not all that sure where most of the parts they are assembling them come from (The engines will be built in both locations).   As a former Harley Sportster owner and motorcycle salesman I view these new bikes with more than passing interest.  (An odd little side note is they are again building Indians in the US, while there are now Indians building Harley Davidsons.)



First off, if you took the badge off the tank, I wouldn’t peg it as a Harley.  It looks to me more like the Harley clones the Asians have been selling for 30 years or so.   I read one review of a Honda Shadow in the 80’s comparing it to the then current Harley Sportster where they said something to the effect of:   “Viewed objectively, it does everything better than a Harley Davidson, except BE a Harley Davidson.”  Objectively, these new bikes could be better performers than the Sportsters and might do all the measureable motorcycle stuff better than the current Sporty.  But this is nothing new, the Japanese have been doing it for 30 years.   They won’t be successful (or not) based on how good they are as motorcycles, but how they are viewed as Harley Davidsons.   

Harley has been making the V-Rod series of motorcycles for about a decade now, and they haven’t exactly been a big hit, particularly with the Harley Faithful.    And they really weren’t good enough or unique enough to attract enough people who weren’t attracted to the rest of the Harley line into the fold.

I’m wagering that these new bikes will have the same problem.    This bike shares something with the Japanese cruisers in that it looks contrived, it tries to look like something it’s not.  It shares no mechanical DNA with any Harleys of the past, it didn’t evolve from the bikes of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, nor does it look the way it looks for any functional reasons: it’s been styled, not designed.  They do make an attempt to catch some of the Café Racer appeal  of the XLCR from the 70’s, but that bike wasn’t a big sales success for Harley back then, and most of the people they are trying to market to weren’t even alive in 1977.     

The big, ugly radiator is one of the least elegant and integrated attempts to integrate such a device into the “cruiser” (Or should we call it a Cafe Racer?)  school of styling and will look god awful if Harley offers the bikes in any color other than black or possibly white.    The attempts to show kinship with the Sportster XLCR, like the fairing and the seat are likely to be lost on anyone under the age of 50. (and look odd with the wide bars).

What is going to be the kicker though, is the sound.    The 500 and 750’s motors have the cylinders splayed at a 60 degree angle as opposed to the traditional 45 degrees, and no matter what you do to the exhaust it will only sound louder and certainly not like any other Harley, save for possibly the V-Rod.   That strikes me as odd, as Harley was willing to go to court at one time to try to prevent other manufacturers  from making bikes that sounded like Harleys.

Harley had a chance to do something new and fresh and they end up making a bike that looks like a 15 year old Japanese Harley clone mixed with styling clues from a bike that was a major sales failure?   It looks less like a Harley Davidson than does Yamaha’s new Bolt does.  Since it ushers in no new technology and breaks no new ground stylistically, the only reason someone would choose to ride one is because of the badge on the tank. 

In the end though, we’re talking fashion here.   People don’t buy this sort of motorcycles because of any functional reason, and even if these two turn up to be fun to ride that won’t be the reason for their success or failure.   I’ve read that this bike is aimed at a new generation of young urban riders that aren’t necessarily interested in the whole “Harley Lifestyle”.  I’m too old to be in the target market, so my opinion isn’t the one that counts.   What is going to matter is if enough people who want to wear a costume that looks good with this bike manage to find a way to buy it.

Lessons from a Rusty Old Car

A few months ago my wife and I took a hike in the foothills near San Diego and we came upon an old Ford (I couldn’t find any identification positively proving this was a Ford.  It does appear to be a model A chassis, but I’ve never seen a modal A firewall with that exact pattern.   Someone more astute than I about old cars may know exactly what this is.) slowly rusting away.   I was amazed at how it looked like a diagram you’d see in a “How Things Work” book or website. Rusted Old Car FrameI took a walk around it and marveled at it’s simplicity. car4As I went front to back it was easy to see everything and figure out what it’s function was. Car2You could easily see how all the controls worked and intuitively  understand what they controlled.car3I also understood that I was looking at the basic blueprint of the American Automobile for the next 50 years or so.    Oh, there were some refinements for sure: power steering and brakes, coil springs, independent suspension, bigger engines, automatic transmissions, disc brakes and so forth.   But, you could look under the hood of something like a Dodge Dart, or even a Ford Pinto, and pretty much grasp what was going on and identify it’s function in pretty much the same fashion. Some say the high water mark of this basic layout was reached in the 60’s with the typical American Family car following the same basic layout.   Much of the technology developed and refined (Including some of the same basic engines and transmissions) during the 50’s and 60’s was still around in the drivetrain of large SUV’s being sold until very recently.

Not long after shooting those photos I happened to drop by a Tesla showroom and looked at a basic chassis they had on display in the showroom.  What struck me was the elegant simplicity of it and how much it reminded me of the rusty old Ford in that respect.

It looked like a new design, a car designed from the ground up to be powered by an electric motor, not just a gasoline powered one adapted for electric power.   I contrasted this with the experience of working on my wife’s Prius, which is a little like working on the space shuttle if it had an extra layer of alien technology grafted onto it.

I spent much of the period from around 1973 until sometime in the early 90’s mostly driving 1960’s era air cooled VW’s (three busses, two squarebacks, and a 914) mainly because I understood them well enough to work on them.  My experiences with mid 70’s – early 80’s automobiles convinced me they were unreliable; they didn’t run very well and I remember the typical engine compartment as an unruly maze of wires and hoses leading to lumps of metal and plastic with functions that were not readily comprehendible by mere visual inspection. The automobile manufacturers had trouble adapting to the demands of increasing safety and emission regulations and grafted things like catalytic converters, “smog pumps”,  steering wheel locks, air bags, and compression ratios designed to work with unleaded gas onto existing designs.

Cars from this era didn’t run very well, and made little power.   A 1975 Camaro took 10.9 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour  and a little over 17.2 seconds to get through the quarter mile, both slower than my wife’s 2010 Prius.   Along with reduced power, things like 10 mph bumpers, air bags, other safety equipment and higher standards for crash worthiness added weight: this further slowed the cars down, and the advent of the “energy crises” demands for better gas mileage resulted in a sort of automotive dark age that lasted until the late 80’s when manufacturers started to find the thread for making powerful, reliable and economic vehicles that met modern regulations.  

One probably shouldn’t be too shocked by any of this, as manufacturer’s really couldn’t afford to start with a clean sheet of paper and were forced to use a Band-Aid approach to adapt existing design paradigms to a new set of conditions. They also had to not stray too far from what buyers were familiar with.  Look at what happened at General Motors with the Corvair: not only was it not a big hit, sales wise, but people weren’t able to adapt to it’s different layout and handling characteristics.   Never mind the fact that the Corvair wasn’t all that different in engineering than the offerings of VW at the time, it just wasn’t what Americans were expecting.

In the world of Software design, this sort of thing is often called a “kludge”.   Rather than start with a fresh design, an older system will often have features added like band-aids to create something that will be backwards compatible with previous systems, but with new functions.   The problem is these “patches” will often have “bugs” in them that will cause more problems than they solve.   I suppose we should be grateful that Microsoft doesn’t design operating systems for automobiles;  “Windows 8 has encountered a problem and will shut down in five seconds.” is probably not something one would want to see at 85 mph on the I-5.

Flash Forward to today, and most of the “bugs” have been worked out in modern automobiles. Toyota Camrys (and other cars of similar design) are now faster than 60’s muscle cars (and have more real horsepower), get better gas mileage than an old air-cooled Beetle, outrun a 60’s Corvette or Jaguar XK-E around a race track while providing much better occupant safety than any car from 40 years ago.   And they use computer software to do it.  (obviously not Windows 8)

Going back to the 60’s and 70’s, one remembers a lot of complaints about all the new regulations.   Lots of calls to “let the market decide”.   It’s a debatableif the marketplace would have managed to produce the same or better results than what has actually happened, but it’s hard to argue that what we currently have offered to us aren’t reliable, fast, safe and economical, by any standard. My own take is that unless pushed to do it, Detroit would have continued to drag it’s feet and not take a long term view.

The “kludgy”, “band-aid” engineering is a thing of the past.   One can justifiably complain that we had to endure 15 or 20 years of fairly awful cars before things started to improve: with each new design, the modern features and engineering were much more integrated with the cars themselves, as they were designed from the ground up to meet modern regulations, rather than adapt them to 1950’s designs. Part of the problem is that you essentially had people who weren’t engineers making essentially what were engineering decisions about how automobiles should be constructed.  

On top of that, when congress was drafting the new safety and emissions regulations, they had to deal with making the auto industry and it’s powerful lobby happy.  Back in the 70’s, Detroit claimed that emissions and economy standards would eliminate large engines and reduce all cars to the size of subcompacts, which obviously didn’t happen.   You might take a look at this report for some further background on the subject: Auto Lobby .  that article was written in 2003,  I was trying to focus on the 70’s 80’s and 90’s.  With the government bailouts, the auto lobby hasn’t been quite as strident in it’s criticisms of regulations.

The down side is that modern cars are fairly complex as my own comments about my wife’s Prius will attest.   It’s really difficult for the average DIY guy to do much of anything beyond fairly simple routine troubleshooting or repairs.   Fewer and fewer gas stations or small town garages have the ability to work on modern vehicles.    (That’s slowly changing, but that will be a post better suited to the “Automotive Amusement” section of this blog.)

The early attempts to meet safety and emissions regulations were a little like trying to upgrade to Windows 8 on a computer designed to run on Vista: you can do it but your computer will still be clogged with unnecessary programs and things will happen that nobody has foreseen.  You won’t likely see too much improvement  If you do a reinstall on a Windows 7 era computer when upgrading to Windows 8, (which means you backup all your existing files somewhere else and then reinstalling all applications, one by one after you’ve installed Windows 8) you’ll probably have much better results.  

Going back to the Tesla, I think it’s important to recognize that they haven’t started from a totally clean sheet of paper, it still has four wheels with rubber tires, has a steering wheel and conventional accelerator and brake pedals.  Most people could hop inside and operate it with little instruction.  It also looks familiar, which is an important marketing consideration, as most people are more concerned with what a car looks like than anything else about it.  It’s too early to know if Tesla will be a success or a failure.   Viewed on it’s own as an engineering exercise, it’s brilliant.    It’s performance is a testimony to that, and a sharp rap on the knuckles to those naysayers who predicted the cars of the 21st century would be golf cart sized, egg shaped, slow and dangerous.

400,000 Hits and being the one of the leading authorities in a number of obscure fields.

At least according to the counter at the bottom of the page.   If one looks a little deeper one finds that a lot of this traffic consists of bots looking around and if you jettison the hits where someone spends less than 30 seconds before discovering nothing they were actually looking for, you understand the real number is considerably smaller.   But, more than enough people spend enough time here each month to convince me that I’m communicating with someone.   That makes this site sort of a public journal.   It’s largely replaced the mass E-mailings I used to send out to people on an almost daily basis.   But, I’m happy it exists, and I get enough feedback from people to make it seem worthwhile.   Thanks.

So far I’ve published 156 posts that average around 800 words per post, so one can see that writing a book is indeed within the grasp of the average person.   That little factoid alone is sort of fascinating to me, as I really had no concept of the shear quantity of stuff one could create fairly easily.   If I were a novelist I’ve written the equivalent (at least in numbers of words) of two average size novels over the course of a couple years.  Which is amazing to me, for one.

One wonders if blogs will one day be a curious artifact from the early parts of the 21st century when almost anyone could first gain access to such a potentially large group of people.   My biggest “success” has been an entry about Irena Sendler and a Facebook “chain letter” inspired by a Glenn Beck program.  If you Google “Irena Sendler Obama” my blog entry is one of the first you’ll come across.   I also get some “interesting” E-mail from Glenn Beck Fans to this day.  (Who knew some of them were literate.)

I’m also fairly high up on Google for anyone who is looking into either a 1961 Honda C110 or a Datsun 1500 Sports Fairlady.  Or someone who wants to replace the control arms on a BMW Z-3.   Anyone who Googles both Ted Nugent and Jerry Garcia at the same time will find Fauxsuperblogs in the top five.   Seemingly, I’d be a great source for “Trivia” players.

I also was one of the first people to review the Badcat Unleash, (a guitar attenuator re-amp device) and I still get quite a bit of traffic from those who are interested in those.  Curiously, I get a couple of questions a week of a technical nature, which I answer if I’m up to it.

Anyone looking for Horse Butte in Lebanon Oregon will also be directed to my site.    I would also seem to the an authority on Deodorant Shelf alarms as well.   A couple of times I’ve actually been directed to my own blog site when doing research on something, which is hilarious.   It’s a bit like everyone being famous for 15 minutes: “In the future, everyone will be an expert on something.”   Or at least appear to be one. 

Oh, I understand that I’m in the same boat.   I do try to confine my comments to something I actually know about.   But, I could be wrong.   I often wonder if anything I’ve written has been cited in someone’s term paper or research project.     So far, at least, and as far as I know, Rand Paul has yet to plagiarize anything from my blog.   (But one can dream, eh?)  On Facebook, I’ve seen political and economic citations to blog pages of people much like myself.   That, in itself, gives me reason for pause; I mean, “What do I know?”

OK, it’s probably time to sign off here before things get totally silly.   I just couldn’t pass on the chance to reflect on a milestone of some sort, and let anyone who reads this know:  “I’m glad you’re doing so.”

A Question of Scale.

Let me describe a vehicle for you by giving you a few statistics:  

Weight:         2,400 lbs.

Wheelbase:   90 inches

Length:        168 inches

Seats:                      Two

Doors:                    Two

Motor:        2.8 liter six

What IS it?


What did this make you think of?  Some sort of Porsche, perhaps?  Some obscure British roadster or coupe?  What I was actually describing was a 1961 Ford Econoline pickup, the one with the engine inside between the seats and based on the Falcon Chassis.   When introduced they were the least expensive new pickup you could buy.  They only sold well for a couple of years, with most of them selling to fleet operations, (as did the Econoline van, which was based on the same chassis) and few going to private owners.  They made them up to 1967 when they only sold about a 1,000 of them.   What killed them off were the new little Japanese pickups that Datsun and Toyota  were selling along with the fact that you couple actually buy a full sized pickup for only about $85 more, so the only real savings were in operating costs.   When gas was around 25 cents a gallon, only large fleet operator accountants were likely to notice any savings.

It’s been a while since I was actually behind the wheel of one of these (actually, I’ve only driven  the van versions),  and there are few dynamic similarities between an Econoline and anything sporty.   You can tell the thing doesn’t weigh very much: the inline six easily moves the light weight van around town.  It’s due to what I might call the “displacement to weight ratio”.   The engine isn’t in a very high state of tune, and doesn’t make much power, but it’s big enough to move the light van with dispatch.  It’s why an old flathead V8 can seem fast powering a 32 Ford hot rod.   In fact, it’s all too easy to spin the rear wheels when it’s wet and drum brakes work OK, but you quickly realize it won’t stop like a modern car;  I can only imagine what a panic stop might be like.   Here’s an hilarious video from General Motors comparing a Corvair based Chevy pickup with an Econoline:   Stoppies!

The last time I drove one of them was in the 1980’s when a buddy of mine essentially inherited one (The Station Bus version) from a relative and found it sufficiently bizarre enough that he was sure I’d find it “interesting” to drive:  he encouraged me to take it “out for a spin” and he was right.   A three speed with column shift attached to an almost vertical steering column with a nearly horizontal wheel is bizarre enough, but you’re also seated directly over the front wheels.  It’s not too much different than driving an old VW van except for the sensation of being about a foot from the motor and a much more jarring and bouncy ride, not unlike an old Willys Jeep.   You can thank the primitive straight axel front suspension for the uncontrolled ride motions and vague steering.

But it was surprisingly easy to drive around town and in parking lots; the very short wheelbase made it quite maneuverable despite the painfully slow manual steering.    The thing that also made it easy to get around in  (and actually sort of made it fun to drive), was  it was surprisingly tiny.  After all, it was envisioned as a competitor to the VW Microbus.   By comparison, a modern Toyota Corolla sedan is a full foot longer than the Econoline, has a wheelbase that is also longer by a foot, and weighs 300 lbs. more.  (at least if it was empty, adding a couple rows of seats would add  to that weight, the one I drove had the seats removed)  The Econoline is literally dwarfed by a Honda Minivan, with an Odyssey being three feet longer and outweighing the Econoline by almost a ton.   The smallest modern Econoline is 4 feet longer than the original and is more than double the weight.   It would seem that Ford invented the microvan.

My whole point is that mass does have a quite discernible effect on how much fun anything is to drive.  What entertainment value an Econoline might possess was largely due to it’s go-cart like wheelbase and low mass.   Generating any speed would have it leaning like a sailboat and the steering only gives one the slightest indication of where you’re headed, but in normal driving the crazy thing is quite nimble.  It feels small.

If you’ve ever driven a Honda 600, which is not a sports car in any sense of the word, you quickly grasp that the thing is a major hoot to drive, despite not being able to go faster than about 70 MPH.   30 MPH feels about like 60 and even a two lane road looks like is a freeway.  An Austin Healey Sprite or an MG Midget provides a similar go-cart like experience.    I’ve ridden in one of the original Mini-Coopers at over 100 mph and it was like being inside a slot car.
I’ve also ridden in modern performance cars that impart so little sense of speed that going fast isn’t all that much fun.  A little like going 600 mph in an airliner.  It’s a matter of scale.

It’s one of the reasons I seem to gravitate towards smaller and lighter vehicles.    A two ton sports car doesn’t interest me a whole lot, no matter how fast it will lap the Nurburgring.

Here are a couple of links  that further expand on this theme; one is from James Elliot’s blog on Classic and Sports Cars.com and the other is a fun thread on Pistonheads

Classic and Sports.com

Toy Cars, part 2

Click on the photo below to link to a great article about the Honda vs. Jaguar vs. Porsche shoot out, entitled “Soccer Mom’s Revenge” on Grassroots Motorsports.

 This is already 10 years old and so it’s already quite out of date, and I imagine it’s even more true than it was 10 years ago.   The basic premise is that a modern mini-van will “outperform” most vintage sportscars on an “autocross” course, at least as far as lap times go.   You can sum up the magazine’s conclusion by reading the last line of the article:

“Go on a trip in the Odyssey, and you’ll remember the destination; go on a trip in a sports car, and you’ll remember the drive.”

In the “comments” section, one can see this point failed to register with a lot of folks, and one wonders if some people reading this will run right out and buy a 10 year old Odessey.  No harm if they actually have some fun with it.

The current issue of Car and Driver magazine has a comparison test of  three 1/2 ton, crew cab 4×4 pickups.  They’re all 60’s muscle car fast, with the Ford  doing the 1/4 mile in 14.8 seconds and 0-60 in 6.2 seconds.   I’d imagine that a standard cab with 2 wheel drive would be even faster, since it would weigh about a 1,000 pounds less than the crew cab with 4WD.   I’m surprised they didn’t post lap times at Willow Springs.

I’m all for automotive progress and all, but $50,000, 6,000 pound pickups with dragster acceleration that can’t carry any more in their beds than a 40 year old Datsun pickup (The Ram has a Maximum carrying capacity of 801 pounds, which means with four two hundred pound men inside, only one of them can order anything at a Starbucks drive-through.)  seem a tad absurd.  As does the fact that these trucks all got 13 mpg during the road test but are all rated above 20 MPG highway.   (The EPA test is not much of a reflection of real world conditions. ) But that’s just me—————-

The magazine doesn’t make a big point of how fast these trucks have become because they must seem almost slow to people who drive cars that can easily turn sub 12 second 1/4 miles.     In a recent comparison between a new Miata and a Scion FR–S in Motor Trend I had to read the following paragraph a few times———

“At the track, these two cars are a wash. The Scion accelerates from 0-60 mph in,   6.2 seconds and the Mazda in 6.1 seconds — I’ve failed math tests faster than  that. Quarter mile times for the two were also virtually identical, with the  MX-5 taking care of business in 14.7 seconds at 92.8 mph and the FR-S just  trailing it at 14.8 seconds at 95.1 mph.”

The lead in to the article was about how these cars didn’t look too good on paper.  That they are slow.  To put these numbers into perspective, both of these cars would easily outrun a Ferrari 308,  be a virtual dead heat with a 60’s Corvette with a 327 V-8 and a four speed, or many other cars that would have been considered “fast” at some point in time.  Nobody really ever accused the original 240Z as being a “slow”, and yet either one of these two “entry level” sports cars would make it seem to be standing still in any sort of acceleration contest.    To the author’s credit he does go on to explain there are more than numbers to look at in terms of evaluating how entertaining a car might be to drive.

The auto industry obviously believes that to be viable, an entry level sports car has to be as fast as either of these two.  That’s why you don’t see any $20,000 two seat roadsters with 8 second 0-60 times that weigh under 2,000 lbs and get 40 mpg.  Which is something I’d think should be possible.  Mazda, obviously, moved the Miata upwards in terms of power, rather than refining to the car to lighter and more agile.  There are rumors that the next gen Miata might move closer to this, but I’m wagering the price will be much closer to $30,000 than $20,000.  It will have to be faster than the current one and the technology to do that will not be cheap.

In my imagination, a modern version of an Austin Healey Sprite would be possible:  the above specs with a 1,500 cc, 130 hp pushrod engine with a 7,000 RPM redline and a five speed manual transmission with manual steering, top and windows.   But, my imagination is the only place where such a car will ever likely appear, so most of us who want fun on a budget will have to look in the used car market.

Old VS new, the real alternative and the case for an older toy car.

I’ve been a fan of Road & Track magazine since I was around 14 and started to find it more interesting than Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics, which I’d been reading since I was 11 or so.  Along with Car and Driver it has been the major force in my automotive tastes and outlook.   Lately, I’ve been leaning more towards British magazines as they don’t (at least some of them) confine themselves just to new, fearfully expensive new cars.  I can barely stand to read another test of some $100,000 plus hyper car, complete with lap times, I’ll never have a chance to drive on the street, much less the Nurburgring.   Any speed over 100 mph is, for me, academic.  I’m more concerned about the experience of driving than the pride of ownership or bragging rights.

This month’s Road & Track is running a comparison test between a new Scion FR-6 and a Used 2005-2008 Porsche Boxster.    They make the point that the Scion is probably the rational choice, but their entire staff was unanimous in preferring a used Boxster to a new Scion.  They do recite what has been my mantra for the past  five years or so: cars last longer now, that you can likely afford a nicer used car than buying brand new can provide on the same budget, etc.

They just don’t take it far enough.   From my financial standpoint, any $30,000 car is not an “affordable” purchase.   For one, you’re going (or at I am) to have to finance it and unless you have a large down payment, you’re looking at something around $500 a month.

For my money, there are plenty of cars in the $4,000 to $16,000 range that can provide automotive entertainment in the same league as the $30,000 examples in the September Road & Track.   My current daily driver is a 15 year old 1998 BMW Z3 with 105,000 miles.  I currently have less than $8,000 invested in it and have been slowly updating the suspension and replacing anything I find that’s worn or might become a problem in the near future.    I bought it for $6,500 and so, far I’ve found most parts for it quite reasonable, from numerous aftermarket sources.

Along the way, I’m making changes to tailor the car to my tastes, like adding a shock tower brace and performance bushings when I replaced most of the front suspension with the exception of the steering rack.  The Z3’s performance envelope is fairly close to the Scion, comes with the advantage of having a charismatic 6 cylinder motor, and a LOT more midrange torque.  And, I live in San Diego and the top folds back.  The fact there’s a picture of it below means I also like to look at it.


If one is set on a Boxter, there are plenty of them with less than 40,000 miles on them that are around $15,000, even a few S models for a little more.     Myself, I looked at a few in the $10,000 range, before deciding that I was more of a front engine roadster guy, and that if I was going to work on the car myself, it would be an advantage to have a car where you could actually see the motor when you opened the hood.  But they are wonderful cars and you can still find a nice example for a low as $8,000 if one is patient.   One thing about cars like this is that a lot of people use them only for fun, and don’t drive them a lot.  There are lots of sports cars around that are over ten years old with less than 100,000 miles on them.  ( There are also a lot of cars with over 100,000 miles that have been well take care of and might have a lot of life ahead of them, and they can be real bargains.)

For more ideas, take a couple minutes and look here.  (That’s an active Link) Take the time to look through a few pages to see the full variety of cars available.  My criteria were convertables under $15,000 with manual transmissions and less than 100,000 miles, so change the search to fit your tastes and you’ll discover a lot of 5 to 20 year old cars out there, that fit into the “goldilocks” spot where the cars are old enough to be inexpensive but not worn out yet.  In any case, one need not confine oneself to two seat coups or roadsters, European cars, or even imports.  Take a look around and you’ll find a world of fun-to-drive cars out there for reasonable prices.  (Some of these are listed at the bottom of the page.)

I know this might not be for everyone, it helps if you have some mechanical skills, but there are also plenty of independent repair shops out there that do work at reasonable prices and the main (RE; EXPENSIVE) systems in most cars built over the last 15 years or so are fairly long lived  and reliable.   One reason I prefer somewhat older cars as they are a typically a little simpler, (I’ve been able to handle virtually all stuff on my Z3 that’s required attention, so far), but most cars made in the 90’s and beyond are new enough that they are generally much more reliable that the cars of the 70’s and 80’s.

Take a look at some of the forums and you’ll discover a large support group out there for these sorts of cars.  You’ll also find out the weak points every car has, what modifications are worthwhile and tutorials on repair procedures.   If there are forums dedicated to a given model of car and aftermarket support in terms of parts and service for it, then the cost of operation is likely to be less that it might first seem.  Not all aftermarket parts are high quality,  but there are an amazing number of aftermarket parts that are actually made by the companies that supplied the manufacturer with parts in the first place, at much more reasonable prices that you can get from the dealer.  Again, the forums will help you sort this kind of thing out.

I discovered how extensive the aftermarket support system can be when I had a Mazda Miata (Which has got to be one of the all time fun per dollar champions) and was amazed at the virtual “cottage industry that exists based on those little cars.  When I was considering buying a Z3, I entered BMW Z3 parts, (a car that hasn’t been built in a dozen years) into the E-bay search feature, and got over 110,000 responses on E-bay and a search for “BMW Z3 parts” on Google turns up over 3.7 Million(!) responses.   Similar support exists for other “Hobby Cars”.

I’d advise checking out some of these “support systems” for any model of car you might consider purchasing, or maybe check out the independent repair shops for prices of major and minor services, or how much they charge for an oil change.   Or pick out four or five commonly replaced parts, like brake rotors, water pumps, air filters, or an oxygen sensor and compare prices for those same parts as the same ones on a Toyota Camry or Honda Civic.

If you’re in a situation where you can have more than one car (or more than two if’ you’re married) then this concept works even better.   You can have an inexpensive “commuter car” and an “almost-a-classic” for less money that you’d spend on a new Scion, Miata or a 4 year old Porsche Boxter.   Having more than one car means that you can tackle repair jobs that might take a couple days and also means that you’re not racking the miles up on your toy at an astonishing rate.    Or, you can do things to your “fun” car that might not be practical on a car you drive to work, or have a manual transmission car to drive on back roads, and an automatic one  if you’ve got a stop and go commute.  Or,  drive something like a late model Jetta or Mazda 3, and also have a Boxter, Miata, or 350Z for fun.   Or, you could, if you just HAVE to have a new car warranty, but something like a Ford Fiesta or Fiat 500 as your commuter rig, and still have enough left over to buy a toy.

I was only partly jesting when I referred to “almost a classic”.   There are a bunch of cars out there that are now “just used cars” that will be considered “classics” of some sort in the near future.   There are a few cars from the 70s and 80’s, that have hit bottom and are going back up in value:  Porsche 914’s, 944’s and 928’s, BMW M3’s Fiat and Alfa Roadsters.  They’ve hit bottom and are now are appreciating, albeit slowly.   You might call these “cult cars” as opposed to classics, but that’s just semantics.  Older “NA” Miatas are likely to soon enter that category, as well.

But, it’s a hard thing to predict exactly what cars will stand out, but I’d think that any car that has discussion or Facebook pages dedicated to it, would be a strong candidate, as well as any car that has strong aftermarket support.    People once thought that 65 to 73 Mustangs were too common to become collector cars, but nowadays they might be the backbone of the  collector car industry.

In any case, cars are supposed to be driven, not looked upon as assets.    The important thing, is there a lot of cars out there that have enormous entertainment value, and you have access to them when they are probably as inexpensive as they ever will be while there’s still plenty of them in great shape.   They are modern enough to have performance and safety features that they can be compared to current cars, and are reliable enough to be daily drivers, while making a trip to the grocery store an adventure———————

For more on this topic Look HERE for part two.


Nissan 350Z, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3, BMW Z4, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Camaro, Porsche 944, Toyota MR2 Spyder, Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan 370Z, Infiniti G35, BMW M3, BMW 328, BMW 330, BMW528, Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, Volkswagen GTI, Audi TT, Audi Quattro, Mazda Miata, Pontiac Firebird, Pontiac GTO, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky