How to finance an older (sports) car.


First off, I think the term “Sports Car” is a little limiting as I don’t exactly mean a to limit the discussion to two seat roadsters.  It’s hard to think of an all encompassing term that fits:  if anybody has a good one or two word term for our little hobby, I’d sure like to know what it is.  

To clarify things: I’m speaking about older (approximately between 6 and 20 years old) cars that have a high entertainment factor in terms of actually driving them. Sport models of BMW’s, most any Porsche, Miatas, 350Z’s, WRX’s and Toyota MR@ Spyders. (see a more comprehensive list at the bottom of the page) Not just imports either, as there are plenty of Mustangs, Corvettes, Firebirds and even the (re-badged Holden) GTO.  Most of these cars are also reasonably simple to work on and fix, or modify; either by the owner of the car themselves or an independent repair shop.   Some people race them, take them to track days, or just enjoy driving them.  I’m talking about enthusiast oriented cars that have discussion forums and Facebook pages devoted to them, with a plethora of companies stocking repair parts, accessories and other assorted Tchotchkes. 

Although today’s cars are faster than ever, performance in a car that’s also entertaining to drive comes at a price.  Anything that’s much fun to drive at all is going to be north of $25,000 and anything with 8 or more cylinders is going to be over $30,000, as will most new Miatas.  A new Boxster is going to be over $55,000 and a Z4 will be over $60,000.   

The idea here is one can find cars that can deliver a similar driving experience to a new car, for a fraction of the cost by purchasing a nice used car from the 90’s or early 2000’s.  There are thousands of fun cars out there in the $4,000 to $16,000 price ranges out there with plenty of life left in them.   Go to Auto trader and set the upper price limit at $16,000 and see how many cool cars there are out there for Under $16,000.   Here’s a link to one I just pulled out of the San Diego AutoTrader.  1998 Porsche Boxster with 45,000 miles 

Pretty sweet ride for less than $14K, I’d say.  Put $3,000 down, finance it for three years and you’d own it free and clear before the next presidential election for around $300 a month.   But, take a look at the link to RoadLoans in the advertisement and in the fine print, you’ll discover they don’t give loans on anything made before 2004, six years after this nice little roadster was made   But don’t give up just yet.   There is a myth out there that you can’t get financing on cars older than 10 years and there are still companies that are living in the 50’s and think that any car that is over a decade old is about to wear out and fall apart when it hits 100,000 miles.   If you Google “How to finance a used car over 10 years old?” you’ll get all sorts of answers including advice from “experts” telling you how bad an idea it is and to go by something like a Chevy Cobalt with a new car warranty.  That’s probably, in fact, the rational thing to do.  But, if you’ve read this far, that might not apply to you———– 

Modern cars are much more durable than that, many of them will now put 150,000 to 200,000 miles (or more)on the drive train, (Along with being serviced regularly) without having to be rebuilt.  That’s not to say things don’t wear out,  I replaced a bunch of stuff when I got my 1998 Z3; Water Pump, Belts, Fan Clutch, Control arms and ball joints, and am about to fit a new set of struts to it this weekend.  But I planned on having to do that, and the car is simple enough for me to work on it myself.  Anyone contemplating buying a used car can easily find out common faults and how often things are likely to need replacing by looking in online owners forums, and taking a prospective purchase to a mechanic to have them check a car out is also a very good idea.     

Going back to the concept of the rational thing to do, you or I might not be in that category, but I can tell you someone who IS and that’s a banker.   These are people with no emotional involvement with the car you want them to lend you money to buy, and they’re only going to let you do it if it makes business sense.  And you’ll be happy to know that I talked to three of them on the phone who seemed more than willing to lend money on performance-oriented older cars.   And all three would make loans to people who wanted to purchase a vehicle from a private party.  So much for the advice of experts who say this is always a bad idea. 

The first company I talked to about this that told me they were open to the idea was Nationwide, the same company that sells insurance and they told me that everything they do is on a case by case basis, depending on the circumstances, but that it someone called them they could  take an application a pre-approve you for “X “amount of dollars and some guidelines for selecting a car.  

You can find them online:   

Nationwide can be reached by phone at:


The second company I spoke to was Wells Fargo and I had noticed they stated on their web site  that cars manufactured more than 7 years ago as might NOT qualify, and when I told them this, they told me while that was true, there were many cars that might, and I read them off a list similar to the one at the bottom of the page and they said those were exactly the types of cars that might.    They also told me that everything was handled on an individual basis and that the best thing to do was to call and  get pre-approved.   They said they only made loans in  areas where Wells Fargo operates banks.

Wells Fargo’s Website is here:

The Wells Fargo phone number is: 1-877-700-9345

Finally, the last place I contacted was the most helpful.   I spoke to a man named “Chris” at JJ Best Banc and he understood exactly what sort of cars I was talking about and how they are the largest company of their kind in the United States, specializing in Antique Cars, Classic Cars, Exotic Cars, Kit Cars, Muscle Cars, Hot Rods, and Sports Cars as well as Antique Motorcycles, R.V.’s, Boats and Aircraft loans.  They have traditionally specialized in cars made prior to 1990, but have expanded to include newer sports and performance cars.  Chris also recognized that this was a new niche that a lot of companies might stay away from because they don’t understand the collateral involved.   Chis was obviously a car guy himself and made me comfortable that people wouldn’t be greeted with:  “What, you want us to lend you $10,000 on that ancient piece of crap!”.   If you want to speak to someone who understands your hobby, I’d advise to you call and ask for Chris and be sure to tell him I sent you.  You won’t get any better deal, but I’d like him to know I appreciated his time

Their website is here:

and a great FAQ page:

And here is the phone number, and be sure to ask for Chris: 800-872-1965

If I can find three potential lenders in less than an hour, there are probably more out there.  The point I do want to make is that you don’t need to go to a dealer to get financing for an older performance car and it’s probably to your advantage to get financing arranged before you go out an look for a car. It’s a little beyond the scope of this blog to give anyone financial advice, save for telling you that finding loans for older cars is possible, but I do hope this might open the door for a possible purchase you might not have considered otherwise.  OLD CARS RULE!!!!!!

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, Mercedes Benz

Endangered Species?

Stick2I recently read that  cars and trucks with manual transmissions represent only 3.8% of the market in the United States.   Looks like the stick shift and clutch pedal are going the way of dial phones, manual typewriters, crank windows and MySpace.  It’s not in just everyday family cars and mini vans, but trucks and sports cars as well.  Already, only 36% of the cars on sale in the US even have a manual available as an option.  You can’t even buy a new Ford Truck with a manual transmission as far as I know; and in an admittedly non-scientific survey of the San Diego market on Auto Trader, I found that out of slightly more than 10,ooo light trucks offered for sale on Auto Trader in the San Diego market, only 86 had manual transmissions.

A similar Search of all new Porsches on Auto Trader revealed only 27 manuals out of 754 cars, and out of slightly less than 5,000 BMW’s only 231 examples of new “Ultimate Driving Machines”  equipped with a clutch pedal can be found.

The only car where I located more manuals than automatics was the relatively new Subaru BR-2 where there were 15 manuals and 6 automatics.   It’s Scion twin,  the FR-S, showed 123 automatics for sale to balance out 92 manuals.   Sadly, I could only find 37 Miatas with a manual transmission (including several left over 2012’s) as opposed to 73 equipped with an automatic.  The fact that there were NO leftover 2012 Miatas with Automatics has got to tell you something.

There ARE a number of reasons for this trend, including the fact that automatics ARE improving, and at a rapid rate.  Included in the term “automatic” are the new dual clutch transmissions that allow nearly complete manual override and control and will out perform a manual in most situations.  This is why they are found in Ferraris, and nearly all other “exotic cars”, including the latest GT-3 Porsche as well as the upcoming $850,00 918.     A number of these new transmissions also feature 7 or 8 speeds and Ford and GM are working jointly on a new  transmission reported to feature either 9 or 10 speeds.

Another form of automatic transmission is the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission),where the engine goes right to the most efficient speed for either economy or acceleration and stays there.   My wife’s Prius has one.   It makes the car sound like you’ve got a slipping clutch at first, and you mostly get used to it, but up a long hill it can be quite annoying.  They are currently the most popular type of transmission in Japan

The thing these transmissions with a lot of “speeds” or an infinite number of them have in common is they promise greater fuel economy than manual transmissions, and that will usher in their use in Europe, where manuals are still the favored choice for a lot of people.  Evidently, the Chinese seem to prefer manual transmissions as well, but I feel the quest for fuel economy will eventually override that preference.

I mention Europe and Asia because the automotive market is becoming world wide.  The fewer variations between cars destined for multiple locations, the lower the cost per unit.   As fewer and fewer cars use manual transmissions, it makes less sense for the manufacturers to offer them.   Most major manufacturers now outsource production of manual transmissions to outside suppliers,  and this can not only increase the cost, but can present quality control problems as Ford recently discovered with the Chinese transmissions it was installing in Mustangs: Transmission Disaster.

WHY would anyone would want a car with a manual transmission?

I’ve always preferred a manual transmission.   I’ve never had a car that I’ve truly enjoyed driving that didn’t have a manual transmission.  For me it’s a question of involvement.  I want to be part of the process of driving.   I love the whole process of shifting gears; simultaneous braking and blipping the throttle with the heel and toe of the right foot, while actuating the clutch with my left comes automatically to me.  I can feel the gears slipping into place and feel the clutch disengage the engine through my foot.

Along with the steering, throttle and brakes, the clutch and shifter are another point of control when driving that combines to not only give one a sense of control but a feeling that the car is an extension of your body.   Many modern cars seem so remote that driving them is a little like operating a video game and watching a video screen.

I’m looking for the right descriptive word here, but in the right car, driving is a lot like skateboarding, surfing, skiing and other activities like riding a motorcycle that require balance.   Automobiles are different in that although they don’t require a rider to make them stay upright, and you don’t control them by shifting your body mass, the fun parts come when you are on the edge of a situation where you inputs to the controls are at the edge of traction provided by the tires.    Feathering the clutch to prevent the wheels from spinning, braking to the edge of tire grip, sliding the tail of the car out, blipping the throttle and letting out the clutch in a manner so as to not lose traction  while downshifting.

One does not have to be going at race-track velocities to enjoy this either.   Driving smoothly enough to not frighten or jostle one’s passengers on a winding mountain road or just balancing the way the steering feels by how much throttle or braking you are using are similarly rewarding.   To do this right, you need to be able to not only feel through the “seat of your pants” what the car is doing but sense it through the controls and the best cars manage to integrate all these sensations and have controls designed to be a pleasure to use.  (This is also why I seem to favor cars that weigh less than a ton and a half.

We’re at the point where most racing cars don’t have three pedals and the transmissions have some sort of automation involved and they shift gears through paddles mounted on the steering wheel.   As I’ve noted, most “EXOTIC” and seriously fast cars now feature some sort of automated shifting.   They allow faster lap times than a manual transmission car can produce.   The automated shifting is faster than any human can manage, and many cars also have what is called “launch control” to keep you from lighting up the tires when accelerating from a dead stop.

The current practice of taking ones car to “track days” (or using published lap times as one of one’s criteria in selecting a car for “bragging rights”) probably has already sealed the fate of manual transmissions in performance cars.  For most, “faster” means “better”.

While I find the disappearance of new cars with manual transmissions to be lamentable, I really don’t mourn for them.   There are more than enough manual transmissions out there now to keep me supplied with entertaining cars as long as I can still drive, and at reasonable prices too.   But, along with roadsters, naturally aspired engines, and rear wheel drive platforms, we’re seeing the end of the era of a certain type of vehicle.

The modern “affordable” sports car (and by modern, I mean the last 60 years or so) has always been so because it was based on mass produced parts of an inexpensive sedan.   The MG, Triumph, Fiat, Sunbeam,  and even Jaguars of the 50’s and 60’s were all based on a sedan of some sort, and the modern counterparts; the Miata, Z3 and Z4  and even “ponycars” like the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger, all exist because they share drivetrains if not platforms, with some other production car that is built in great numbers.  (And to a lesser degree, the Corvette)

Not that there won’t be entertaining cars produced, I think there will always be a market for cars that are fun to drive in some way;  I just question if anyone will be building, in 2020 an inexpensive, light, rear wheel drive roadster with a manual transmission and rear wheel drive if there are no suitable smaller sedans to base it on.

Maybe a retro theme of sorts will be required.  I just worry that it will end up being like the market for mechanical watches: either a piece of rolling jewelry or a status symbol for the well heeled————————-

Why the Z3?

“It’s only a car, Scott.”    This was the advice that one of my friends, who was formerly an automotive enthusiast, gave to me when I  mentioned to him that my 1986 Toyota MR2 had been stolen.  I’d owned it since brand new: it had 60,000 miles on it and nobody other than myself had laid a wrench to it.   It had a few modifications to it, suspension, TRD exhaust with a dummy catalytic converter and a few simple mods to the engine management system.   The police had located it in a few days, sitting in the desert minus engine, transmission, gauge package, seats, windows and sunroof.   It was sitting on four space saver spares and covered with oil, to make getting fingerprints difficult.  I was allowed to go to the junkyard to see if any personal belongings remained with it.  (I was in the process of moving, and both trunks were filled with stuff) I only found a couple of old photos, and one shoe.

88 GT crop

I used the insurance money to purchase a 1988 Mustang GT, which I set about turning into something closer to my preferences in rolling stock.   I spent a lot of money on the suspension.  On smooth roads the car  was enormous fun, and I took it on a couple of epic road trips up and down the California coast and the Sierras.  On days off it was lots of fun to take up on the Angeles Crest highway.    On broken pavement it was a handful and  as a daily driver it was a bit punishing to drive.   I remember chasing a 300ZX up the Pasadena Freeway and I could see the ZX driver seemed practically serene whereas I was not only all over the road but making lots of steering corrections over every expansion joint in the concrete freeway.   The stiffness of the suspension turned the car into one giant collection of rattles that were exacerbated by the hard plastics used in the dashboard, and by 50,000 miles the car was a rattletrap.  The thing the Mustang had over the MR2, was a V-8 motor, and all that torque sort of made up for the lack of precision inherent in the leaf spring rear suspension and solid rear axle.

For the next dozen years or so, I had pretty much avoided any vehicle that I would self-identify with or make into some extension of my own persona.   I think it was a half conscious decision, partly dictated by finances.   It was one of a couple periods in my life where I did not have access to an entertaining vehicle of some sort.    In 2003 I purchased a Harley Davidson Sportster which brought me back into the world of vehicular amusement.

Sportster Miata

When I sold the bike, the funds went into a 1996 Miata, which ultimately turned into the Z3.


I really don’t have an exact name for my brand of motorcycle/automotive enthusiasm.    I’m mainly concerned with the  pleasure of driving a motor vehicle that allows you to become part of the machine.    This can encompass a wide variety of vehicles and is at least partially independent of the quality or capability of the vehicle.   One of the most entertaining vehicles I’ve owned was my Datsun 1500, which was a rather crude, noisy and unrefined early Japanese knockoff of an MGB.  But it was small and light enough that you could throw it around all over the road and it was especially a hoot to drive in the rain, which was good, because I lived in Oregon at the time.


I also had a 1965 Mustang, which was little more than a Ford Falcon with a sporty looking body and a 289.   Mine had a 4 barrel carb, a 4 speed and disc brakes and had just enough power to overcome the understeer built into the chassis.    Neither of the above cars had especially communicative steering, so you had to “drive by the seat of your pants” as far as understanding what was happening with the car’s dynamic movements.   But both were fun to drive in a moderately sporting manner.


Back in the 80s, just prior to the MR2, I owned a 1973 Porsche 914 2.0.   Although derided by some for it’s VW drivetrain as not being a “real” Porsche (while conveniently ignoring the history of the VW derived 356)  the front end and steering were basically 911 parts and without the added problem of dealing with the engine stuck behind the rear axle the car was a delight to drive on a mountain road.   I added a set of Bilsteins to it and lowered the car slightly.  It had a set of Webbers and an Ansa exhaust.   I divorce sent it down the road and my ex traded in on a VW Rabbit so she could haul her surfboards.    The  MR2, I bought as a replacement was a better car by any objective standard: faster, more cornering power, better brakes and way more refinement.   On a racetrack, it would run away and hide from the 914.   It just wasn’t as much fun.   It never got my adrenaline pumping, and driving it didn’t produce the little shot of dopamine that makes driving addictive.

And that brings us around full circle to the Z3.    I loved to drive the Miata on mountain roads, it combined the Japanese refinement and reliability of the MR2 with the involvement levels of the 914, and some of the lovable  classic roadster nature of the Datsun.   I did sometimes wish for more power, and maybe a little taller gearing when I was on the freeways.   When I was looking for a newer sports car (selling the Miata is another story, and explained in an earlier post), I wanted something with enough torque that I wouldn’t have to continually downshift to keep up with traffic; something I could short shift when I wasn’t in the mood for banzai driving.  Maybe something with a 6 or 8 cyl motor?

Like the 914, the Z3 has never been a darling of the automotive press.  (although, everyone seems to love the 914 now, and good ones fetch good prices)   Even the reviews that are mostly positive usually find something to be critical about, even being critical of the  wonderful motor as being too flexible.   Often, the car is paired with the Boxster and criticized for essentially not being a Porsche.   There is also some grumbling about the rear trailing arm suspension not being as modern as the latest designs.

When the 914 was introduced, it was powered by a 1.7 liter motor right out of the Volkswagen bus.  Although competitive with many other 2 seaters  in terms of power, people expected more out of it and it had the misfortune to come out around the same time as the 240 Z .   There was also a 6 cyl version available with a “real” Porsche engine, so that seemed to relegate the “entry” level car as for people who couldn’t afford a “real” one.   A similar thing happened with the Z3.   When the car was introduced, it only came with a 4 cyl engine and was often compared to the Miata, which was much less expensive.  Although it was faster than the Miata, it was often criticized for being too slow.  It was even criticized for  not being as fast as it looked.

I’d been drawn to the Z3 for sometime.    I’d driven a used one of the 4 cyl cars when I was trying to decide buying a sportscar or a motorcycle about a decade ago.   I really liked it, much more than I expected, given the sort of reviews I’d read,  but it was more than I wanted to spend, and I ended up buying a bike.  I’d been intrigued by the 6 cyl cars, thinking it might be a modern version of an Austin Healey 3000 or the Jaguar XKE.   Although, if I couldn’t justify the purchase price of the four, the six was WAY out of sight, at that point.


Flash forward to a couple months ago and when I test drove the car I ended up buying I found it to be an eye opening experience.   The car seemed MUCH faster that I’d suspected it would be and the handling seemed very similar to that of the Miata.   I started looking up old road tests and discovered that the performance envelope was similar to some of the most exciting cars of my youth and about as quick as your average 60’s muscle car.   It was only slightly heavier than the Miata, and only 3 inches longer.   It was sort of like a cross between the Miata and my old Mustang GT.

I’ve been slowly upgrading things on the car and I’m about halfway through the suspension.    I’ve added a East Coast Induction Systems intake and a Magnaflow muffler.   I’m quite happy with the sound the car makes now and it adds a visceral aspect to the car that it didn’t have before.  I doubt it’s any faster , but when you wind it out now, it takes on a feral growl that seems appropriate and has a nice soft burble below about 4,000 RPM.    I can have lots of fun just driving around town and short shifting, or letting it wind out a bit in the mountains and feel it charge out of corners.

I know it’s not as fast as the current crop of performance cars, or even compared to some of the 6 cyl family cars out there.   A Toyota Camry V6 is about as fast from 0-60 and so are a number of other family cars.    It seems quite fast to me, (at least fast enough to have fun) and that’s all that counts.   I don’t plan to take it to the track.  At the speeds I drive in the mountains, it accelerates as hard as any number of what would have been exotic machines in my youth, and handles and stops better than any of them.  I’m also having fun working on the car.  It’s simple enough that I can comprehend a lot of it;  the internet is crawling with DIY resources and parts are plentiful and relatively inexpensive.    The basic motor seems fairly bulletproof and even Consumer Reports recommends

After re-doing the front suspension, (The steering rack and tie rod ends are all that’s left of the original stuff) particularly the control arm bushings, the steering has a wonderful feel and I can easily steer precisely into the exact spots I want to place the wheels.   For a total investment so far of under $9,000, I couldn’t be happier.

I’m not thinking that the Z3 is for everyone: classic roadsters aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.   But, there are a whole class of entertaining cars out there priced from $4,000 to about $15,000 that offer amazing bang for the buck in terms of fun to drive:  Z3’s, Boxsters, Corvettes, Toyota MR2 Spyders, Miatas, Subaru WRX’s, Mustang GT’s, Chrysler Crossfires, RX-8’s Nissan 350 and 370ZX’s and a host of other roadsters, coupes, convertibles and sedans.   If you can live without GPS or the ability to plug your I-pod in (and you can always add these to an older car) there’s a lot to look into.  Cars last longer than they used to, there are plenty of cars available in the above price ranges to choose from that have a lot of life left in them.   When I was a kid, a car was at the end of it’s rope when it had 100K on the clock.  Now the average car on the road in the US is 11 years old and has 150,000 miles on it.    You can drive a future classic for less than the price of a new econobox.    I’m pretty sure I have more fun that the average Versa, Cruze, or Rio driver, and probably have lower operating costs as well.

Take a look at Auto Trader.   Narrow your search so you’re not looking through mini vans, pickups, and SUV’s.  Set the maximum price to $15K, (or whatever your personal maximum is) and sort by mileage, low to high and see what pops up.  I imagine you’ll find a whole host of cool stuff that you would have never thought of purchasing when it was brand new.   Then, enter the models of cars you find into Google and you’ll likely find a forum where you can find out all sorts of things about the car, what goes wrong, what to look for in a used one and maybe even some idea of how much it costs to maintain one.

BMW Z3 Control Arm and Bushing Replacement Tutorial Suplement

ArmsThis whole enterprise started when I wanted to replace the control arm bushings on my 1998 BMW Z3 with some polyurethane bushings made by Powerflex.  I’d read a Blog Post on ZRoadster.Org by Mike Fishwick about them and since he seems fairly rational in terms of the things he recommends thought I’d give them a try.    When I got the car up on the jack-stands I discovered some bad ball joints, so decided to replace the control arms and all associated parts with new stuff.

There are plenty of tutorials and videos online to give someone a fair idea of what it takes to remove the Control Arms on a BMW Z3, and other BMW’s that use basically the same chassis.  (Mine is a 2008 with a 2.8 liter engine).  There are also a couple of manuals that one can turn to for advice on how to accomplish this task.  Before putting my car up on jack-stands, I probably watched and read most of them. If you plan on performing a similar operation, I’d suggest you do the same.  At best, my comments are intended as a supplement, and I plan to bring up things that the tutorials and manuals didn’t mention and some comments about what worked for me.   At the end of this entry, I’ll list a few links I found helpful.

What you see above are the right and left Control Arms from my Z3.   That alone should provide you with some comfort as I managed to do it by myself using only hand tools.   See Below:Tool complement

The only specialty tools were a couple of pickle forks and the little black device in the lower right  hand corner which is a $19.95 ball joint separator from Harbor Freight.

I should add that all my comments are stated with the idea in mind that I’m replacing the entire control arm assembly, sway bar end links , bushing and bushing bracket (identified as “C”). Thus, I don’t have to worry about preserving things to re-use them.   The new bushing brackets, along with the Powerflex bushings made installing the arms a snap as everything just pressed into place, with a little coaxing with a rubber mallet

In any case, the major obstacle you’re likely going to encounter in this  job is getting a wrench on the 22mm lock-nuts that hold the Inside Ball Joints  (Identified by the letter “B” in the top photo, “A” indicates the outside ones) loose.  Open the hood to let some light in and  use a flashlight to locate them.   They are a little hard to find from below without doing this.  They are located is on top of the cross member, to either side of the motor, and they are a large nut, 22mm.  To get to it, I had to remove the air cleaner assembly and also the black plastic “snorkel” that leads cold air to the alternator and to get to that, which required that I unbolt enough of the plastic fender/ wheel well liner to peel it back to get to the snorkel.  The snorkel is held in place by just one bolt, (it snaps on to the alternator and behind the bumper without an fasteners) and you’ll have to jiggle it around to get it to come loose, but be patient and don’t force it, as you want to get it out of the way without breaking it.

(It would be a good idea to use some sort of spray lubricant/penetrative spray like PB Blaster to loosen the nut and bolts at this point, particularly if the control arm assembly hasn’t been removed in quite some time.  I’d give it a half hour or so to let the spray soak in and so you might want to find some other task, like giving a shot of PB to other nuts you’ll need to remove at some point.)

Once you do get access to the nut, there seems to be something in the way of the wrench, or at least moving it very far, no matter what you do and also it’s hard to get a good position to put any force on the wrench.   I think I had to use the open end wrench to loosen the one on the passenger side but was able to get the 22mm socket on the driver side.

Looking at the outer ball joints, most of the videos and write ups explain that they are fastened to the steering knuckle in such a manner that you can’t get fully remove the nut until you pop the ball joint loose.  That was the case with my car and so I loosened it till it was flush with the top of the bolt. I had to keep the shaft from turning by using vice grips, so I pretty much destroyed the boot, but I’m tossing the ball joints anyway, so it wasn’t much of a concern.

Since I wasn’t going to re-use them, it was pretty simple to remove the sway bar end links (“D” in the photo).  When detaching the links from the sway bar, the  shaft of the small ball joint rotates when you try to take the nut off of it and it’s pretty easy to destroy the boot attached to it, by using vice grips or something else.  The new Lemforder end links I installed  have a place to insert a Torx tool into the bolt to prevent rotation, but I didn’t look to see if the old ones did.

The next step is to see if you can get the ball joints to drop down.  If you’re lucky, they’ll pop out easily, with maybe a tap on the side of the steering knuckle where the ball joint attaches. I wasn’t quite that lucky and had to resort to a pickle fork and a 5 lb sledge.   I managed to get the inner ball joint to drop fairly easily on both sides of the car, but the outer ones stubbornly remained attached.

I ended up using the Harbor Freight tool you see in the photo.  It’s a little hard to get upper arm of the tool on the bolt as there’s not enough room, but you can get it on the nut that’s attached to it.  It pretty much finishes the nut off, so you need to get new ones, which is something you should do anyway.  But just make sure you have them before you start the job.   Pelican Parts, where I got most of this stuff, has them in stock, along with new ones for the inner ball joints.

Doing this job put quite a strain on the little Harbor Freight tool; the threads on it look fairly worn (yes, I greased them) and I was actually quite amazed how much force I had to use before I heard a sudden “crack” when the joints break free.  It’s a curiously rewarding sound, in the same league as the sound of coins falling into the tray at the casino, (or the old “pop” on pinball machines if you’re a baby boomer.)

That’s about it for the removal of the old stuff: putting the new stuff back on was a LOT easier.    As I said before, using the Powerflex bushings make this a fairly easy job.  I bought new brackets to avoid the hassle of prying the old bushing out of the bracket, or even bothering to remove them from the control arms, as you can see by the (above)photo. The new Meyle arms are shown, below, with their thread-protecting blues caps on the ball joints.  You’ll notice the bushings and bushing brackets are already mounted.


I used my floor jack to position the arms right under the holes for the ball joints, inserted them into the holes  in the knuckle and cross-member far enough to get the locknuts on them but didn’t tighten them down fully.  The only thing that presented much difficulty was getting the bolts onto the holes in the new brackets to mount them to the bottom of the car.

You’ll notice the brackets have a countersink around the mounting holes and there are a couple of circular fittings around the mounting holes on the bottom of the car.  I used a pair of vice grips to sort of force the bracket into place over the holes in the frame and then was able to get one of the bolts to start to thread into the hole.  You just need to make sure the flat part of the bracket where the holes are as flush with the frame. It only took me a couple of minutes to do each one.

I did both sides of the car, reinstalled the snorkel and fender liner, then went back and tightened everything down  with a torque wrench.

The car now steers precisely and has much improved steering feel.    You get a great sense of what the front tires are doing.  You can now place the car exactly where you want it and bumps in corners seem to bother it much less.

I spent a little over $400 total to do this, and I find the return on investment to be worthwhile.  I’d posted a little blurb about this on a Facebook Z group and a couple people  replied they were intimidated by the prospect of doing something like this.  I’ll agree it’s not for everyone, and I don’t think it would be a great first project if you have little or no mechanical experience.  But it’s pretty straightforward.   I think if you have a good manual, and take a look at a couple of tutorials and write-ups, you’ll start to get a good mental picture of what is involved.     Using just one as a guide, you might find that there are things they didn’t mention, but by reading or watching multiple methods, you eventually have the confidence that you can take on something like this.

I’ve worked on cars and motorcycles since I was a teenager, and my father and uncles were they kind of guys who always worked on their own cars, but I’m no mechanic by any means.  I have friends who are mechanics, and I do call them once in a while and humbly ask them for advice.    I’ll tell them about some dead end I’ve reached and they usually tell me some simple way to get on track.   I don’t do it often, in fact, It’s been a few years since I’ve done so.   So far, I’ve managed to complete every task on the BMW with my own resources, and what I’ve been able to glean from the web and a Bentley Manual.


Pelican Parts Tutorial

You Tube Control Arm Replacement Video

Powerflex Bushing Replacement Video

Old School Bushing Replacement

You are where you live. Adapting to Living Full time in a Travel Trailer

For a little over eight years, (2000-2008) I lived full time in this travel trailer, the last four of them in San Diego. It is a 1977 Silver Streak and when it was new it was a top of the line travel trailer.   Silver Streak was founded by folks from the aircraft industry, specifically McDonald-Douglas and the trailers were built on South El Monte Ca.  They were competitors to Airstream and were manufactured until the the late 90’s.  In fact, the first Silver Streaks were designed by the same guy, Wally Byam, who founded Airstream.   He was working for Curtis Wright shortly after the war and they built travel trailers for two years to give their workers something to do prior to selling the rights to the design to the guys who founded Silver Streak.   They were extremely well built and had both an inner and outer aluminum skin built around a tubular aluminum structure attached to a steel I beam frame.

Every time you move a trailer you go through this adjustment process where you re-orient yourself to the magnetic field of the planet.   Virtually every place I spent the night in the trailer I knew where the orientation of the trailer was in terms of North and South.   In the photos above you’re looking due West.

Just prior to moving the trailer to the above spot, I was in another location in the same park, but facing 180 degrees in the other direction.   It completely changed the feel inside the trailer.  You were aware of the fact that you were now going in a different direction when you’d take the three steps to the bathroom if nature happened to call in the middle of the night.  I’m not sure if this is really due to sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field or just the intellectual awareness of the direction you’re facing.  There’s a re-orientation process you go through each time you move.

A year before buying the trailer from a friend of mine, I actually lived in it for about a week when I went through a rather sudden breakup with a woman I was living with.  The trailer was oriented  with the front facing East: that seems to be the baseline that I carried with me with each move.   I think I can remember the trailer’s orientation every time I stayed somewhere, even for a just a night.  Any memories I have of life in the trailer include how the trailer was oriented at the time.   If I had a choice I think I prefer facing East, if for no other reason than avoiding the afternoon sun heating up the front room.   

We spend most of our lives in regular houses where everything always faces the same direction, (other than moving your bed to the other side of the room) you pretty much know when you walk out the door that the street and the sidewalk are quite likely to be in the same spot as they were the week before.   The view out your front window changes, if at all, at a fairly glacial pace.  If you use a travel trailer for—-well—-travelling: your view outside can change every day, along with the direction the window itself is facing.

After adapting the direction awareness thing, the next thing you adapt to is the lack of space.  The entire front area of the trailer that is the “living room” in a Silver Streak is a wrap-around window that makes one quite aware of the outside world.  The sight lines inside the trailer are so short that I think there’s an aspect of feeling like you’re outside because of this.  Basically, the closer you are to the window, and the larger your field of vision is, the less you feel like you’re indoors. Opening the curtains in the morning was always an “ahhhhh” moment.

When your home is less than 250 sq. ft., feeling like you’re outdoors is a good thing.    

The reality is I adapted fairly quickly to the small space and the only time I felt cramped was when I lived in Arizona.   It sort of felt like living in a submarine (or a space capsule on Venus) as I tried everything to keep from frying in the 120 degree heat.  Styrofoam panels in all the skylights and some windows, curtains drawn, and two air conditioners running 24/7.    The outside environment was so harsh that I did have a sense of felling trapped in a cell.

Aside from that hell-on-earth experience, I really didn’t mind the compact living situation at all and never gave it much thought beyond the adjustment period after a move of the trailer.   In San Diego the weather is nice enough that I left the skylight vents and windows open much of the time which added to the out-of-doors feeling.

I think there’s a certain amount of  “Mine’s Bigger Than Yours” thinking that goes into deciding how big your house needs to be.    When I was selling electronics  I was in a number of 15 to 20 thousand sq. ft. houses.    They always seemed a bit silly to me and I often wondered if anyone makes a riding vacuum cleaner.

Even your average McMansion is a bit excessive, and I’ve got this feeling that some of the neighborhoods down here, the upper-middle-class ones filled with 3,500 to 4,000 sq.ft. homes, are going to get a little “interesting” when they get near to the end of their economic lives.

Since the housing boom of the mid 2000’s has turned to bust, houses of that size have somewhat fallen out of favor and the trend seems to be towards “walk-ability” and people are looking for houses in more “traditional” neighborhoods on a less vehicular oriented scale.  These are usually closer to the inner city and have  much smaller physical footprints.   Energy usage is going to become more of an issue as time goes on and larger houses tend to be “energy hogs” as well

Remember what 60’s Cadillacs and Lincolns were like in the 70’s?  You could get them really cheap in really good shape, particularly when gasoline shot up in price during the first “energy crisis”.   They were too big, cost too much to operate, and if they weren’t new, they weren’t status symbols.   I’m thinking some of the communities filled with these high end stucco-and-drywall palaces might be the residential equivalents of those old Pimp-mobiles. And like those old barges, some of those houses could conceivably fall into the hands of those who could afford the house but not the proper upkeep.

There are many people now living full time in RV parks, who more or less never move their trailers or motor homes.   It’s an interesting subculture and I’ll probably explore that in a future post.   Most people aren’t aware of how easy it is to adapt to smaller spaces.  You almost never hear full time RV people mention anything about the adaptation adjustment to one another: it’s sort of assumed you have already managed it if you’ve been in your RV for more than a week.

We’ve become sort of spoiled in the US and live in much larger houses than the rest of the world.  Most people around the world live in houses that are less than half the size of houses in the US, with people in the United Kingdom living in houses that are about 1/3 the size of the typical US abode.  After years of expanding square footage, (The average home size more than doubling since the 50’s) the National Association of Home Builders predicts the average new US home will have fallen from its current size of 2,438 square feet to 2,152 square feet by 2015.

I feel fairly safe in thinking that a smaller home is likely to happen in my future.    I doubt it will be as small as my Silver Streak, but who knows?  I’ve done it before, and it really wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d think if you haven’t tried it.    My experience tells me that it probably won’t be somewhere like Arizona, or Alaska, but aside from that, the future doesn’t sound too bad.

The Stingray, Captain Kangaroo, and the rise and fall of Schwinn Bicycles

When I was growing up in the late 50’s early 60’s, the basic bicycle looked pretty much like the one in the photo below:

This would be pretty much the top of the line.   $76.95 was quite a princely sum in 1960, around $600 in today’s money.   One in the same 26″ size, but with painted fenders instead of chrome and with a “coaster brake” could be had for $49,95 from Schwinn or even less from Columbia, Roadmaster, Murray, Huffy, or JC Higgins.  

This basic style of bicycle was created by Frank “F.W.” Schwinn in 1933.  Schwinn, the founder’s son, had designed the bike around motorcycle concepts, since Schwinn had produced motorcycles under the Henderson and Excelsior names during the 20’s and had been the # 3 manufacturer of motorcycles after Harley Davidson and Indian prior to the depression.

The bike, which they called the Aerocycle was designed for the “youth market” and had a heavy (the whole bike weighed close to 50 lbs) “cantilevered” electro forged steel frame with two top tubes, balloon tires, (developed especially for this bike), a dummy “tank”, streamlined fenders.  It became known as the “balloon tire bike”, “newspaperboy’s bike”, (after the late 70’s they started calling this style of bike a “cruiser”) and within a couple years, most of the other manufacturer’s had followed Schwinn’s lead and were making bikes that were basically copies.   There was at least one lawsuit filed by Schwinn, and probably a lot of threats of law suits.

For the next 30 years or so, virtually every bike made in the US followed this pattern.  The only exception being Schwinn’s high end racing bicycle, the Paramount, which was made in it’s own factory in limited quantities.   There were a quite a few lightweight multispeed (usually 3 speed) bikes from England (they were incorrectly called “English Racers“) brought in during the 50’s and Schwinn and the other US bike manufacturers persuaded congress to place tariffs on Imported bicycles, as the foreign bikes captured almost 1/3 of the bicycle market. (The tariffs were initially fairly low, but hit a high of 50% during the Kennedy administration)

In 1950, most bicycles were sold through department stores, who bought the bikes in bulk from the manufacturers and sold them under their own names.  Schwinn decided to change all that and began to only sell bikes under it’s own brand.  They were quite aggressive, pressuring dealers to only sell the Schwinn Brand and some of their activities lead them into a 10 year court battle with Schwinn being accused of restraint of trade.

Schwinn also developed a large advertising campaign, featuring full page adds on the back of youth oriented magazines, “Boy’s Life” being the most prominent.    They also sponsored Captain Kangaroo, who appeared daily on his show touting Schwinn Bicycles as “The Best!”

Although crude and heavy compared to European bicycles, the Schwinn bikes were well made and had durable paint and chrome. The steel they used wasn’t a high strength alloy, but they made up for low quality materials by using a lot of steel   The steering head bearings were of very high quality and were adjusted correctly and carefully and this gave Schwinn bikes a quality feel that other bikes couldn’t match.  As noted above, Schwinn bikes sold for around 20 to 25 percent higher prices than you’d pay for a Huffy or Western Flyer.  Nonetheless, the US Government was starting to take a dim view of children’s programming hosts directly hawking products on TV as part of the show, and Schwinn altered it’s approach in 1971, and the Captain deferred to “Mr Schwinn Dealer“.

During the summer of 1963, I was “courting” a girl who had recently moved from California.  Her little brother was all excited about “Stingray” bicycles, saying how “cool” they were and mentioned they featured “motorcycle handlebars and a real big seat”.  I couldn’t quite picture what he described, as they weren’t for sale in Oregon just yet.

In 1963 Schwinn designer Al Fritz had noticed that kids in Southern California were making custom bikes out of 20″ children’s bicycles that resembled “chopper” or “bobber” motorcycles.   He added a “polo” or “banana” set and some “ape hanger” handlebars and an oversize knobby rear tire to a 20″ bike and showed it to company executives who initially laughed at it.  They introduced it in California and sold every one they could make and only had to stop because they ran out of tires.   They introduced it to the rest of the country in 1964 and it became their biggest selling model.

Prices were $56.95 for the Deluxe Model with Fenders and whitewalls, $49.95 for the Standard Boys model, and there was a special model for girls, called the Fair Lady, which was also $49.95.

The bikes were fun to ride and they were especially good for wheelies, but the reason they sold well is because they were cool.   Kid’s saw them and just had to have one.  I bought a bright blue one in the summer of 1964.

Most every other bike manufacturer had a competitive model on the market within weeks, and in a few months they were everywhere.  As practical transportation, they were slow and uncomfortable to ride for long periods.  Most adults found them bizarre and wondered why their kid, who had badgered them for months a year or so ago to get a full size 26″ bike, now wanted a bike that was the same size as the one that they’d learned to ride on.

By the early 70’s, Schwinn was the undisputed king of the US bike world and their sales peaked at 1.4 million units in 1974.   The Schwinn Stingray had expanded into several models: the Slik Chick, the Fastback, the Manta Ray, the Krate and a line of Mini Rays for little kids.

The US was also in the midst of a bike boom centered around dropped handle bar 10 speed bicycles.   Schwinn’s main entries were the Schwinn Varsity and Continental. They looked like the European bikes, but weighed much more with all the heavy steel parts (everything but the seat and tires) and non lugged frame.  They were dead feeling to ride and were way less responsive than European bikes and increasingly, bikes from Japan.

The Schwinn executives were convinced by the success of the Stingray that bikes were merely “rolling jewelry” for most people and that the bikes just had to look the part.  People turned away from the heavy Schwinn bikes and Schwinn failed to capitalize on the early 70’s 10 speed boom.  By the later part of the decade, Schwinn had lost serious ground to European and Japanese bikes who were taking a lions share of the 10 speed market.  Those companies were also operating more profitably, as they had modern factories using modern production methods, as opposed to Schwinn’s 80 year old factory.

Schwinn also missed out on both the BMX and Mountain Bike markets with products that were too late to market and without the features that customers wanted.   Their marketing strategy exceeded the limits of brand loyalty and few people thought of their products as “The Best”.    Schwinn was in a downward death spiral that lead to bankruptcy in 1992.

Check out E-bay and look up “Schwinn Stingray” and you’ll see them selling vintage models for $3,000 or so.    What the people who purchase these bikes do with them is beyond me..

What I do find interesting is that Harley Davidson has basically been using the Stingray marketing plan for the last 35 years or so by increasingly selling a line of motorcycles that are the motorcycle counterpart of the Stingray.  Slow, relatively crude machines that are sold mainly on image.   The riders often have the same stance as a kid on a Stingray.  The chopper “stance”, with your arms and feet out in front of you which serves no purpose other than making the rider look like they are badass.  Or maybe the position just seems strangely familiar.

A Sense of Direction

From my point of view the map below leads to the center of the universe: 365 Williams Street in the town of Lebanon, Oregon.   This is the address of the first house I lived in when my parents took me home from the hospital on December 15, 1951.  My main focal point would have the be the view off the small front porch.   On a nice warm summer evening, this was a great vantage point from which to watch the world go by.


The house was a little two bedroom, one bath (949 sq.ft) that had been built in 1947.   It was situated on the Truck route through town which ensured a steady supply of log, sawdust and dump trucks passing by, mostly during daylight hours.    We were 4 blocks from the nearest stop sign so we were mostly spared the noise of the trucks building up to speed.   Since the aforementioned stop sign  was the only one along the entire 4,250 ft of Williams street, we also had fairly high vehicular traffic of all types.   I think this probably accounts for my lifelong fascination with most anything with wheels attached.
365Williams#4But it wasn’t just vehicular traffic.   We lived a short distance from Field’s Grocery, which was on the SE corner of Williams and E Rose St., a half block to the South.   This ensured a fairly steady stream of foot traffic as well.  This being the 1950’s, people actually left their houses and went for walks through the neighborhood.   Being a small town, people actually would stop and chat with people who happened to be on the front porch, and would sometimes chat for quite a while, or maybe even “come in for a drink”.    Kids riding pedal cars, trikes, apple crate scooters and clamp-on roller skates with steel wheels, the occasional pair of wooden stilts or even a pogo stick.

I remember lots of neighborhood kids on the way to the store to get candy and/or soda pop.    The earliest memory that I can put an exact date to is from the summer of 1955.   A group of kids (Mostly the Roosa Family) were walking by and I was playing with my matchbox cars on a “road” I constructed in the front lawn.  Somehow, the conversation involved identifying everyone’s ages, and I remember that I was three.   The group was on the way to get some candy and I also remember them walking by on the return trip, chomping on red whips and drinking soda, and looking like they had won the lottery.

I can remember playing with sparklers on the fourth of July, “swimming” in my little inflatable pool and “Hula Hoops” in the summer of 1958, just before I entered the first grade.   In the evening in the summer, most kids would be out of the house and playing.    “I’m going out to play.”, I’d say.  This would give me the freedom to roam the neighborhood, which initially was the block I lived on, and by the time I was around ten, consisted of pretty much anywhere I could ride my bike to and get back home before dark.  This could be as late as 9:30 in the middle of the summer in Oregon.

There seemed to be an almost endless supply of playmates.  It would be almost impossible to walk more than 100 feet in any direction and not find another kid, if not a group of kids, within a couple of years of your age doing something outdoors.    We had softball or workup games in the vacant lot across the street.   Or sometimes a kid would yell in through the screen door: “Hey we’re playing hide and seek, can you come out?” On a truck route, playing in the actual street wasn’t much fun, but it was a short distance to a side street.

Being the place I called “home” for the first 12 years of my life, I pretty much reference my sense of place back to that spot.  My concept of direction, like most kids from any town that was laid out in “blocks” and 90 degree corners is pretty much connected to the streets that ran either North/South or East/West.   Since most houses followed the same rigid paradigm I automatically  assume any structure does the same. When I first moved to San Diego, which is covered with mesas and canyons, it took a while to realize that few roads run directly North/South or East/West.  Right now as I sit here and type this it feels like I’m facing dead East, when I’m actually facing Southwest.  I intellectually know that the street I live on does not run East/West and is actually on a 45 degree angle, but my internal GPS tells me different.

I also tend to think this same directionality extends to the interstate system, where I assume that I-5 runs directly North/South.   Since I currently live nearly the same distance from I-5 as I did when I was growing up (about 8 miles) it came as a little bit of a shock to find that San Diego is some 250+ miles to the east of the place of my birth.

Another navigational habit I acquired in my home town and further  developed over the years has been to orient myself by looking for mountains or hills.    Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve been able to do this and when I spent some time in Minneapolis I was lost the entire time.   It was overcast the entire time I was there, so I received no clues by the position of the sun.

My memories usually have a directional component to them, as do my dreams.  When conjuring up an image from the past, I’m usually aware of  where North is.

On a trip to London, England a few years ago, the area around the hotel we stayed in seemed turned around 180 degrees from what I thought it should be.  The direction I was sure was North was actually South.   Since I’d checked out the neighborhood via Google street view, this was disturbing.  We’d taken the tube from Heathrow, and just popped out of the ground at Gloucester Road Station, and despite knowing the direction we needed to go it just felt wrong.  

Everywhere else we went in London,  I had no problem figuring out the direction I was facing , but get back to the Hotel and I’d be all turned around again.  It still confuses me if I go to Google now and look at the neighborhood.  I can get lost on Google street view in a one block area.  The window from our hotel room faced North, but in my memory, it faces South, and try as I might, I cannot reconcile that fact.   I can look at a map and think:  “Now, I get it.”   But, I don’t.

And this all goes back to the place I grew up in.   Somewere in the ride from the Airport, that connection, either through actual observation, or from looking at a map, with the internal feelings associated with facing a particular direction was lost. My internal compass wasn’t working here.  For whatever reason, when I came out into the daylight I had to rely on a whole new directional paradigm completely separate from the one that had been serving me for the last 55 odd years.

A sense of direction might very well be the sixth sense, but it’s as much knowing where you’ve been as where you are.

Who Really Invented the Volkswagen?

These photos should look somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen a VW Beetle. As should the Car below.

The two at the top of the page are a 1936 Mercedes Benz 170H and the car below is a 1933 Tatra 570 prototype.

Here’s another photo (below) that should look familiar to anyone who’s ever looked under the hood of a VW Beetle: an air cooled, horizontally opposed 4 cylinder engine.  Only this one is in a 1936 Tatra Type 96 from 1936.

The  small rear engined Mercedes series, which were first shown to the public in 1934, started development under Ferdinand Porsche when he was the head of Design at Daimler Benz from 1923 to 1929, while a series of small rear engined cars were being developed at around the same time by Hans Ledwinka for Tatra, which was located in Czechoslovakia.

Tatra actually sued VW for patent infringement, which wasn’t settled until after the war, but the reality is that there were many people designing and making rear engine automobiles in Central Europe who all seemed to “borrow” from one another rather freely.    Ferdinand Porsche described the relationship between him and Ledwinka: “Well, sometimes I looked over his shoulder and sometimes he looked over mine”

It’s not that different than Detroit in the 1950’s when the 1955 Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth all came out looking quite like each other.     In addition to the VW, Mercedes, and Tatras there was the “Standard Superior” designed by Josef Ganz.

File:Standard Superior 1934.jpg

There are actually brochures from 1934 where the Standard Superior was actually referred to as a Volkswagen, which is literally the “Peoples Car”, in German. There are some that claim that Porsche “stole” the design for the VW from Ganz but Tatra had been building similar cars since the 20’s and some of Porsrche’s own early designs (like the NSU from 1933 shown below) were more or less constructed at the same time as Ganz was designing the cars for Standard.

In addition, many of the features people claim Porsche “stole”,  such as a chassis designed around a central tube and swing axles were also features of the rear engined Mercedes as well as the Tatras.

What is obvious is that Porsche didn’t invent the Volkswagen out of thin air, and that some of the ideas that seemed so novel to us in the US were actually rather standard practice in Central Europe.    What Porsche did to was figure out a way to build the cars in a manner that eventually (after the war) proved to be profitable with the cars selling for reasonable prices.  The rear engined Mercedes Benz cars, for example, sold poorly (mainly due to prices that were higher than Mercedes front engined vehicles) and were largely failures in the marketplace.    Production of the smaller Tatras did not resume after the war, but the now nationalized company did produce a larger, rear engined, air cooled car for six years after the war.

The reality is that out of all these similar vehicles the one that became the best selling car of all time was the Volkswagen designed by Ferdinand Porsche.  It did have a number of distinctly Central European design features, but what sold the car was that it was cheap and profitable to build, reliable, durable and easy to maintain with simple hand tools.

And the rest is history.





Mercedes Mystique, German Engineering, Marketing and Matchbox cars

I recently acquired a used Mercedes-Benz, which has surprised a lot of my friends as an odd choice.   That lead me to ponder just how I ended up with it, which lead directly to this post.  My first experience with a Mercedes was one very much like the car you see in the picture below.  It was owned by a friend of my Uncle Carl.  The car was brand new so it would have been a 1959 model.  It looked old fashioned to me with the radiator grill looking very much like American cars of an earlier era and the overall body shape reminded me Chrysler products of the early 50’s.    It looked just slightly more modern than my parents 1947 Packard.    Considering what the new 1959 cars looked like, the Mercedes looked positively ancient.

(photographed by R. Persicke in Arnis, Germany)

I have been fascinated with cars since an early age and so whenever a relative of friend with an unusual automobile would come by, I would be all over it, asking interminable questions, wanting to look under the hood, etc.  The appearance of the Mercedes caused quite a stir as it drove up, as my uncle Carl rarely visited us. He was much older than my father and had sort of a parental interest in my dad.  He was always trying to get my parents to move to Portland where my father could work for him and stop working in the plywood mill.  In addition, my grandfather (on my mom’s side) was visiting us and he was quite interested in machinery of any type.   So, we all went out to take a look at it.

I already had a collection of “Matchbox” cars: my father would bring me a new one every two weeks on payday.  One of my favorites was a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, which was the “best car in the world” and cost $16,000.   The upright radiator on the Mercedes-Benz reminded me of the one on the Rolls, so I asked the car’s owner (who’s name was Johnny): ” Is it as good as a Rolls Royce?”  My uncle chimed in with:  “Ask your grandfather, I’m sure he appreciates fine German Engineering.”   My grandfather, who was born in Germany, was a tool and die maker by trade and also possessed with the patience of Job.  My uncle was tying to shield Johnny from the barrage of question he knew were going to come from his annoying nephew. (Carl was childless, and we already had a combative relationship)

Fortunately, Johnny was a car nut, and anxious to show off his new toy to anyone, even a hyperactive kid with the curiosity (and energy level) of a ferret.   Even at that age, I could pick up on the fact that my uncle found the German car kind of silly, dismissive of the idea that this little “German Rambler” cost more than his new Chrysler Imperial.

My grandfather disliked my Uncle Carl, and quickly joined Johnny in explaining that the Imperial was huge but crude compared to the sophisticated Mercedes.   My Uncle derided the “little car” for not having an automatic transmission, a “puny” six cylinder engine, and for being “noisy and cramped” inside.   “You can only get two people in the front seats.”

I didn’t quite grasp all the reasons why the Mercedes was “sophisticated”, but I later found out that it had a fully independent suspension and an overhead cam engine and that the transmission, while still a manual, had four gears.  My grandfather seemed fascinated by all the technical  details and Johnny was only all too happy to have an ally in what was obviously an ongoing “friendly” debate with my Uncle.

I remember going for a ride in the car, and remember that the car moved around a lot less than other cars (mainly my parents Packard) when we went around corners over bumps, and that I liked the mechanical sounds that it made and the fact that you could hear the exhaust note.  It reminded my Uncle of a “sewing machine”.  Johnny was quite busy shifting up and down through the gears and seemed to be having a lot of fun driving, when most other people, except for my baby sitter, seemed to regard driving as a chore, if they thought about it at all.

The result of all of this was that the Mercedes became the “second best car in the world” in my mind, along with a bias towards “German engineering” that I seem to have to this very day.  I’ve owned nine German cars so far in my life and I trace all this back to my grandfather.  I remember him telling me that German cars were much “better designed” than America cars, and that even Volkswagen had engines “just like you have in airplanes”.  I also got a little Benz sedan as my next “Matchbox” car.

The other Mercedes-Benz cars I remember from my childhood were a little diesel one that Mr. Walker (the man that owned the music store where my mom worked part time) owned that made clattering noises and smelled like a logging truck, a 190SL that was owned by a lawyer, (It looked a lot like the 300SL Matchbox car that I had) and a “fintail” sedan that a local doctor owned.

With hindsight one can see that different conditions in Europe and the US resulted in vastly different approaches to automobiles.     For one, the US had oil, and for much of our history we were able to supply a much higher percentage of oil than most other countries that had high automobile ownership.  The US became a society on wheels way before most other countries.    Europe was a good 20 years behind the US in terms of per-capita ownership.

Since oil was relatively cheap, American automobiles became larger and were typically equipped with larger and more powerful motors.   V-8 engines wer relatively rare anywhere but the US prior to the 1970’s, where we’d had them in family cars since the first Ford V-8 in 1932.   Our larger engines had enough torque that they worked well with the two or three speed automatic transmissions that were common back then.  Smaller four cylinder cars with automatics were not only sluggish to drive, they also didn’t get very good gas mileage compared with the four speed manuals typical in European roads.

European roads were also not as good as roads in the US, so suspensions were more sophisticated to deal with both more bumps and curvier roads.   The fact that Europeans tended to race on road courses instead of oval shaped tracks has had an effect on auto design also, with nimble handling valued as much as brute horsepower.

The ability to make a 1,000 mile trip was not much of a priority in Europe, since most countries rarely had a dimension of greater than 300 miles.

Europeans tended to use relatively small engines and developed horsepower by making them more sophisticated whereas Americans could get more power by just making the engines bigger.  The 3.8 liter motor in the first Jaguar XKE worked out to 232 cubic inches and was considered quite large in Europe, while that would be considered fairly small for an American Sedan or station wagon. European cars also got taxed by engine size in some countries, so there was further incentive for smaller engines.

Mercedes-Benz had earned it’s reputation for advanced engineering back in the 1930’s with both the Ferdinand Porsche designed SSK  and W125 and W154 Grand Prix cars as well as a lineup of advanced-for-the-day passenger cars.  Designed by legendary engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the race cars were the dominant racing cars of the era, and quite technically advanced.    All this screeched to a halt during WWII as the Mercedes factories were prime targets for allied bombers.   In 1945, Mercedes-Benz had virtually ceased to exist.   The tooling for only one model, the 170 managed to survive and the companies first postwar designs were based on that model.

The first true postwar products Mercedes made with the “Ponton” sedans like the one in the first photo at the top of this page.    The drive-trains were carried over from the 170 models, but the body, which was of unitized construction, (no separate frame) and the suspension were brand new.

Mercedes also returned to racing, with the amazing Uhlenhaut designed 300SLR and W196 Grand Prix cars dominating sports car and open wheeled competition, respectively.   However, disaster struck at the 1955 24 hour race at Le Mans in 1955 when a 300 SLR plowed in to the back of a much slower Austin Healey and somersaulted into the crowd, killing the driver, 82 spectators and injuring over 100.    Mercedes withdrew from organized racing at that point and didn’t return for over 30 years.

Max Hoffman

It’s impossible to talk about German Cars in the United States without mentioning Max Hoffman.  At one time or another, he was the sole US distributor of  BMW,  Mercedes-Benz,, Porsche and Volkswagen.  (as well as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin and   MG)  he is credited with convincing the factory to make various models to sell in the US, the 300SL (road version of hte 300SLR race car), Porsche Speedster, and the 2002 BMW amongst them.    Although he was an automotive enthusiast, he knew that sometimes European tastes didn’t exactly coincide with American ones.  He imported Mercedes-Benz automobiles from 1953 to 1957, when Mercedes handed over importation duties (After buying Hoffman out of $2 Million) to Studebaker from 1957 to 1963.  Studebaker then folded and Mercedes started handling importation itself, with many Studebaker-Packard dealers becoming Mercedes Benz dealers.

Hoffman is important because he realized that Americans would buy “foreign” cars at premium prices and the importance of having a sophisticated image involving mechanical superiority and driving pleasure, if you were importing cars that cost more than the typical US automobile.   Some argue that BMW’s current success in our market is due to Hoffman’s insistence that they put the larger 2,000 engine from a four door sedan into the smaller 1,600 body.   Prior to the 2002 model (the car from 1968, not the 2002 year), BMW had barely dented the US market and were better known for producing the “bubble car” Isetta than “real cars”.  (Pictured Below)

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Copyright:  Pablo Alberto Salguero Quiles

During the 60’s, Mercedes-Benz updated the Ponton sedans with the W111 (commonly called the Fintail, because it had American-inspired fins on it’s rear fenders) and W112 models, that introduced disc brakes, crumple zone technology and a fresh (if ungainly from some angles, mainly because of the fins) appearance with much more window area.   In the car magazines, the fintails, along with their relatives under-the skin: the 230-250-280 SL roadsters, were regarded as superbly built, if unexciting vehicles.

The six cylinder cars were re-styled in 1965 by a design team lead by French designer Paul Bracq (later design chief at BMW during the early 70’s, and Puegeot in the late 70’s).  These cars, the W108-109 series, while looking much more modern, had the same basic suspension design as both the Ponton and Fishtail sedans.   This ushered in a look that would serve as the pattern for Mercedes Sedans for next 20 years or so.

In 1968, the W114-W115  series, also styled by Paul Bracq,  not only updated the looks but introduced some new engineering, as both the front and rear suspensions were also significantly upgraded.

These were the cars that made the Mercedes Mystique in the modern world.    They did this at opposite ends of the spectrum.   The ones with the little 4 cyl diesel engine became famous as Taxis in much of the world and some of them have run up to 2.5 Million miles.   They were durable (with the chassis designed to take much more power), reliable and and rugged.  Simple enough to be repaired by third world mechanics when they did break, but designed well enough they didn’t do it very often.

The car magazines were mostly positive about the cars and they were considered the most advanced and modern ones in the world.   You still see people who refer to these as “The Best Cars Ever Made”.   Most of the Sedans that survive seem to  the 240D and the 300 5 cyl diesels, with the occasional coupe.

While the more basic versions were sold and marketed to most of the world as premium quality vehicles and used as Taxis, the US arm of Mercedes concentrated on selling the cars as “premium luxury cars with a high level of engineering built into them”.  The more basic models with smaller engines were never sold here and most of them were well optioned and most had automatic transmissions, air conditioning and power seats.  Models with V8 engines were developed with the US market in mind.

The next generation, The W123 series, was produced from 1975 to 1986.   Paul Bracq was no longer at Mercedes, but the designs are little changed from the W114 Models and mostly are regarded as a continuation of the older vehicles, with a similar reputation for reliability, durability and ruggedness.  They were even more popular than the W114, and MB produced  over 6 million of them over the next decade.

The next two series, the W201 and the W124 followed the W123 with the W201 known here as the 190E or “Baby Benz” was built on a 105 inch wheelbase and the W124 built on a 110 in wheelbase.


The Baby Benz was replaced by the W202 “C Class” in 1993, which in turn was followed by the W203 in 2001 and the current version, the W204 in 2007.

That sort of brings us, (or at least me) full circle.  I recently became a Mercedes owner for the first time after years of looking at them, reading about them and occasionally even manging to drive one.  If I’ve been captured by the mystique, it happened a long time ago.  But I still see a lot of the same things I liked about the preceding 50 years of Mercedes Sedans: subdued classic styling with not a lot of decoration for it’s own sake, advanced engineering and a high standard of finish.    It’s a 2001 Mercedes C320 that I own by the magic of letting someone else pay the first $35,000 of depreciation during it’s first 65,000 miles of existence.

I mentioned why I bought it in an earlier post:

After a couple weeks of ownership, my impressions still hold up.   It’s even more fun than I’d thought initially and I’ve taken it up on a couple of mountain excursions and found it an absolute blast to drive in an undignified manner.   The steering is very precise, the car goes where you point it, it has enough power to induce over-steer (if you turn off the stability control) and the brakes are fantastic.   It’s fairly small car,  about the same size as my old 1965 Mustang, (actually 3 inches inches shorter) with a wheelbase one inch shorter and it’s the same width.   It weighs about as much as a new Mustang V6 , so it’s a fairly easy car to toss around.

I know it was a fairly expensive car when new, so I do understand parts and repairs are not likely to be cheap.  But I have no car payments, so the pain of repairs should be somewhat lessened, if needed.    I just need to make sure I take care of the expensive parts, like the transmission and engine.  I’ve been assured those parts are fairly durable, as the existence of plenty of them out there with over 150,000 on them already proves that.

I’ll keep you posted.

Hippie or Redneck: Are you what you Drive?

In today’s Washington Post, George F. Will’s column was entitled: Dreams On Wheels in which he sets up the rather unoriginal premise that the Toyota Prius is the ultimate liberal automotive icon and the F-150 obtained it’s “best seller” status as a reaction to to yuppie’s fondness for BMW’s, Starbucks, and Dove bars.

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Will often refers to the book: Engines of Change: A History in the American Dream in Fifteen Cars , by Paul Ingrassia.  I haven’t read Ingrassia’s book so I don’t know if he even agrees with Will’s interpretation of events.   Quoting from the book, George casts the automotive market as a fight between “haute cuisine verses hot wings”.

The problem I have with this is Will barely conceals his contempt for Prius owners, with references to “Prius Preening” and “Prius, vehicle of the vanguard of the intelligentsia” that have a rather Spiro Agnew-ish tone to them.

Somehow, he casts the F-150 as the All American vehicular Anti-Prius, when it’s not even an automobile.  Some people may be purchasing a pickup to affect a certain country cousin look or be making some sort of political statement, but most people purchase them because they need to haul stuff, not to prove they are “real men” or thumb their noses at BMW drivers.   “Look at me, I can afford a truck that gets 15 MPG” .

There are those for whom vehicles are rolling jewelry or part of the costume they use to present to the world as who they are: the guy with the Cowboy hat in the raised 4 wheel drive truck who has never been near a cow, the dentist on the the Harley wearing a helmet styled after those the Germans used in WWII come to mind.  But I don’t think too many people choose their rides as a political statement.

I’m a liberal, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis, and I’ve owned two Jeeps , a Harley Davidson, a BMW Motorcycle, a Chevy Blazer, three pickups, (including a Ford  F150!)  a Mercedes and a Porsche, along with three VW vans and currently have a Prius and 15 year old BMW.  What political statement have I therefore been making?   I don’t change my political philosophy when I switch vehicles.  My wife who is more middle of the road in her views than I am, drives the Prius most of the time and has had people imply that she must be a liberal because of the fact that she drives a Prius.

It must be hell for conservatives that own a Prius.  There have to be a few out there with the residue of a “Santorum for President” sticker on their bumpers.  Do they drive around with the windows open, blasting Rush Limbaugh at full blast?   Maybe fit a gun rack? Have a license frame that reads: “My other car is a Hummer”?

Like all stereotypes, these sort of observations do have some basis in fact.    Someone who drove a “63” VW van  in 1972 was more likely to be a self identify as “hippie” than “redneck”, but I wouldn’t count on it.  I also knew plenty of hippies that drove beat up ol’ trucks.

I think people like Will, who think Prius drivers are “smug” or affect some air of superiority because they drive Priuses are projecting their own reasons they would like to think these people had for buying their cars.   There may be some truth to the fact that Prius owners tend to be liberal, but most don’t buy the cars to make a political statement.   We bought ours because it had a roomy interior and was comfortable for our entire family to ride in and yet it gets much better gas mileage than our two seat BMW: not part of some grand scheme to save the planet.   I do think being responsible with energy use is a good thing, but I’m not just trying to annoy people in SUV’s that get 12 mpg.

Typecasting Prius buyers as “libtards” isn’t any worse than thinking anyone who drives a pickup truck is an inbred knuckle dragger with a single syllable vocabulary, but it’s just as ignorant  and just as likely to be wrong.