Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Yeah, I've Been Busy! (Car Surfing)

New house, grandchild, work, etc., etc... But it is time to get TCOR back on the road! Here is a short thought just to get me back in the habit.

I tend to spend an abnormal amount of time surfing car-related sites. My tastes are all over the place, with a little bit for everyone. Here's a quick sample of where I can be found:

AutoBlog - A good general automotive interest site. Particularly good coverage of auto shows and industry news.

Jalopnik - Originally this was a very snarky and occasionally rude site. It has now generally grown up, with breaking news, reviews, and a crowd of decent writers.

The Truth About Cars - Another older site with good, daily content. TTAC features one of my favorite bloggers, Steven Lang. A used car dealer in the Atlanta area,  I find his insights on the ins and outs of the trade, and particularly auctions, simply fascinating.

Edmunds Long-Term  Road Test Updates - This mainstay of Internet car coverage is of course primarily focused on providing information for prospective new car buyers. I don't find much value in the traditional short road test popular on many car sites. But I like this feature, where staff members post short articles about their daily adventures with the wide variety of cars in Edmunds' long term fleet. And it is not all Camcords and SUVs, the fleet currently includes a Porsche 991 cabriolet, a Tesla Model S, and a new C7 Corvette. They just sold their long-term '87 Buick Grand National! These year long log book comments give readers a much better idea of what it is like to live with a car, rather than simply test drive it.

Curbside Classic and Daily Turismo - Both are fun sites to quickly slide through, aggregating found by the side of the road photos and Internet sales listing for interesting, usually older cars. Often a journey down memory lane, where suddenly a '74 Maverick is kind of interesting simply because you haven't seen one in a couple of decades.

Bring a Trailer - If you have not been to BAT, go now. As addictive a site as a car person can stand. Just go look.

CarGurus - This is my current go-to site for car shopping, particularly related to fairly accurate pricing.

So... Those are the sites that make up my almost every evening Internet car surf. I also tend to wander around Rennlist, the Pelican Parts Porsche board, and a few other spots on occasion. 

What are some of your favorite car websites?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

#5 - 1988 Ford Mustang GT, Part 2

When we last saw our intrepid hero (that would be me), he was crashing his brand new Mustang...

Actually, and sadly, true. The simple fact was that I had an attack of stupid that night, spinning the car on a wet cobblestone street in Bremen, Germany. Eventually the car came to rest against a bus stop sign, creasing the passenger side door. A badge of stupidity.

The GT on a 1988 trip to Holland
My friend Joel was along for the ride, the first time he had been in a car with me since I had totaled the GTI in Denmark the previous Easter. After we stopped spinning, he turned to me and quietly said, "Man, I don't think I want to ride with you anymore."

Now that was funny, but also more than a bit ironic as Joel wrecked his share of cars while we served together. You see, that is sort of the deal with being a young combat-arms officer. With the expected lifespan of a tank platoon leader in combat against the expected Russian onslaught actually quantified at less than five minutes (thank you Rand Corporation), we really did not spend much time contemplating the future. I drove reckless and fast, caroused wildly, and lived to tell the tale. And that Mustang was a big part of the adventure.
It took a lot of paperwork to get past this sign.

While there are many Mustang tales to tell, I'll keep it to a minimum, beginning with driving it through Checkpoint Charlie and into Communist East Berlin. Under the agreements that governed post-war Germany, members of the Allied Powers had free access to all of the occupation zones. So while East Germany and East Berlin were behind the "Iron Curtain," my friends and I could visit there in the Mustangand cow the evil Commies into submission with my American muscle car.

And people said Reagan won the Cold War.

Transiting the Iron Curtain was a complex task, involving lots of paperwork and waiting. The communist border guards would make you sit for hours before stamping your paperwork and allowing you to enter. But once through you had surprisingly free access to most of East Berlin.  Due to exchange rates, shopping and dining in the eastern zone was very inexpensive... I'm talking five star meals for a few dollars. Flaming deserts!
The Trabant - the cutting edge of East Germany automotive technology
The sheer size and looks of the Mustang GT combined the V8's rumble on the narrow cobblestone streets would draw a crowd whenever I parked. Stunned "Ossies" literally stood and stared, jaws agape. Considering the average East German car of the time, that was actually not so surprising. Glasnost hell, the Mustang brought down that wall.

Back on the side of democracy and freedom the Mustang was not completely unknown. Several German teams raced Fox-bodied Mustangs in the popular DTM racing series and the cars sort of held their own against BMWs and Mercedes, sort of. Perhaps because of this I continually found myself challenged on the autobahn by M3s and 190 2.3-16s.

A Mustang GT chases an M3 in a 1989 DTM race at the Nurburgring.
It was on the autobahn that the aerodynamic inadequacies of the Mustang's many spoilers and wings became disturbingly apparent. These parts were designed for looks, not downforce. The Mustang could hit about 140 before running out of breath just short of redline. But at any speeds over 120 mph the GT got light and scary. Downhill sweeping corners were terrifying at high speed, as the car lost traction and began to float.

Funny thing, 140 (225 kilometers an hour) was about the top end for the M3 and Merc as well. Nobody would win these races, but nobody lost either. Occasionally we gave up and all pulled over to check out each other's cars. Maybe it was during these impromptu meetings that I began to realize that much of the fun in car enthusiasm was other enthusiasts. Funny that it was my Mustang that probably started me on the road to PCA.

And the Mustang GT? I brought it back from Germany in 1989 and promptly got three speeding tickets in as many months. Faced with losing my license, I traded it in on an Acura Integra. I never really missed the car, but in hindsight it was the perfect car for that part of my life. It was also the last V8 engined car I would ever own.

1988 Ford Mustang GT
Owned: 1987-89
Music: U2, Bananarama, and always, Elvis Costello
Rating: 4/5 (If it just had better aerodynamics I could have beat those darned Germans)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Neil Hyland and his BMW

In a change of pace, I want to tell the story of a non-car enthusiast. In fact, my friend Neil really could have cared less about cars. And yet some of the funniest automobile stories I know revolve around Neil and his BMW. Mostly these stories are funny because of Neil, not because of the car.

We first met at Fort Lewis, Washington in about 1990 when both assigned to the 9th Infantry Division. We lived in the same apartment complex in the little town of Steilacoom, overlooking Puget Sound. With a common interest in Depeche Mode, history, and quality furniture, we became fast friends.

Neil was unlike anyone I have ever known. He grew up in Los Angeles and New York City and attended Notre Dame. After earning his degree in English Literature he entered the Catholic seminary, only to decide that the church was not his calling. Casting about for a purpose in life he somewhat suddenly joined the Army, eventually graduating from Officer Candidate School.

Neil would hilariously imitate his mother's reaction to his joining the military, "You have ruined your life!" He served in Germany, the U.S., and Hawaii and commanded a company in Operation Desert Storm; Neil of Arabia we joked. An outstanding officer, he was serious about his profession. He was also serious about friendship.

Once Neil accepted you, he was your friend for life. Even after I was reassigned to Germany we kept in touch. Every once in a while, usually late at night, the phone would ring. "Telephone cocktails" he called these conversations and they would go on for hours, covering every subject under the sun. Laughter was a major part of any time with Neil. He was funny in that droll, sophisticated way that I have never mastered. It was like having a young Noel Coward in the living room.

Neil in Heidelburg, Germany about 1995
Our adventures are too numerous to recall, but a furniture buying trip to Seattle and a wine tour of the Yakima Valley stick in my memory. Truthfully, alcohol was a staple of any Neil adventure. Lots of alcohol.

Oh, Neil's car... A 1989 BMW 325i four door with automatic transmission. Its trunk was inevitably full of empty coffee cups, rolling around. He took a cup to work each morning and when they piled up in the car he would simply transfer them to the trunk.

And that famous Yakima Valley wine tour? The air conditioning in that damned car failed on the way home. 110 degrees, badly hung over, and the AC goes. Misery. Hilarious misery.

I visited him in Washington, DC in 1996 or '97 and he still had the car. It wasn't running and I asked him why he didn't get it fixed. Neil explained that with plenty of public transportation available, he had applied for a AAA membership and planned to call a tow truck once the card arrived! Soon afterwards he transferred to Hawaii, and so telephone cocktails got a bit more expensive. In 2000 he was reassigned to Washington, DC.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Neil Hyland, Jr. was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. On the back of his headstone is this epitaph, a phrase I remember him mentioning from time to time.

                    He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

I dearly miss my friend. I also wonder what happened to that damned car. If I knew where it was I would buy it and never let it go. I'd probably put some coffee cups in the trunk.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Peter Egan says farewell to Side Glances (but he's not going anywhere)

It's Friday the 30th. I thought Friday the 13th was supposed to be the bad one. Apparently I was wrong, as today Road & Track announced that Peter Egan was stepping away from Side Glances, the monthly column he has written for... well, forever.

It was just two months ago I wrote this prophetic paragraph, in a blog post about how I turned from a Hot Rod kid to a Road & Track adult:

I doubt I've missed more than a handful of Road & Track issues over the years, mostly when the Army sent me to places with only vague mail delivery. I still read every issueand will until Peter Egan retires. Best automobile writer working today.

What happened? Did I tempt the automotive gods once too often? Is this somehow my fault?

Yes, it's autographed... What's your point?

Peter Egan began writing Side Glances in 1983 and his life and mine have been curiously intertwined ever since. At times our core automotive directions coincided in an almost bizarre fashion. Just after I bought my Mustang GT in 1988, he bought a 5.0 LX. A few years later as I bought a Miata, Peter bought a Miata. And then around 2001, as I returned to Porsche ownership... yup, you guessed it, Peter bought a Boxster S.

I relate this not to imply any cosmic oneness of souls (I voted for Reagan for goodness' sake), but to put into perspective how Peter Egan's observations and musing so directly affected me. It felt at times as if he was writing just for me. A column he wrote in the early '90s about maps, "Charts," spoke to me in ways that only a kid who spent hours pouring over the pages of an atlas and then later found himself on the East German border with a British Army of the Rhine 1:100,000 map tucked in the .50 caliber machine gun mount of his M1 tank could understand.

But I suppose all good things must come to an end. And though Peter will continue to contribute to Road & Track and Cycle magazines, I will truly miss that moment 12 times a year when I eagerly opened a familiar magazine to see what my friend was thinking about this month.

You can read his final Side Glances column here. You should do this now.

Post script:

Peter's column titled, "The Right Tool for the Job" is another classic. Here is an excerpt.

Hammer: Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer nowadays is used as a kind of divining rod to locate expensive car parts not far from the object we are trying to hit.

Mechanic's Knife: Used to open and slice through the contents of cardboard cartons delivered to your front door; works particularly well on boxes containing convertible tops or tonneau covers.

Electric Hand Drill: Normally used for spinning steel Pop rivets in their holes until you die of old age, but it also works great for drilling rollbar mounting holes in the floor of a sports car just above the brake line that goes to the rear axle.

Hacksaw: One of a family of cutting tools built on the Ouija board principle. It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes. 

Vise-Grips: Used to round off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Zen and the Art of Car Washing

I am not a great iPhone photographer...
August has been a blur. Between work and life I have barely been home. I've had little time for fun, much less carsor car blogs. The fleet is dirty and neglected. This afternoon I finally had a chance to get the red car out for some much needed scrubbing.

As I went through my car wash routine it occurred to me that I have a car wash routine. It's not rocket science: I start with a good rinse, use decent soap, wash from top to bottom, and have a different sponge/mitt for the lower panels. A thorough rinsing, a little water blading for the flat surfaces, the small leaf blower to get water from the nooks and crannies, and then a good soft toweling and I'm done. A routine.

Friends have been influential in the routine's evolution. From my army buddy Eddie I got the two different sponge strategy. From Jerry I got the leaf blower (my neighbors love that part - cements their opinion of my insanity). Tom at EP recently convinced me of the importance of good soap. In my case these days it is P21S. I tend to stick to Griots' products, along with a few other solutions that seem to work well (If you don't use Griot's Speed Shine there is no hope for you). I moved pass the mass-market/parts store crap years ago, but I'm not willing to spend big money in search of that perfect shine.

Embarrassingly I am not a big waxer. Sure, I do a thorough clay bar and decent paste wax every few months. But that's it. Not even the red car has seen a proper buffer in years. Actually, buffers kinda scare me.

Some of my car friends are far more fanatical. I've watched them disassemble Corvette dashboards in search of dust, wash their Porsches in the garage to avoid drought restrictions, and commit various other acts of car care obsession. Their cars do usually look better than mine.

I find that there is something about handwashing a car that appeals to some primal need. I enjoy it, even in the wonderful humidity of a Southern evening. Like just now. I think my blood pressure actually went down as I used polishing compound to get a slight abrasion off a bumper. Or maybe it was the beera car washing staple that I do not skimp on.

What are your car washing tricks or obsessions? What beer goes well with a clay bar?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cars for Kids

There is a strange point in the life of an auto enthusiast when practicality and safety suddenly overrule power and design... When you have to find cars for your kids. And there has been a sea change in this field of endeavor with Gens X and Y. They don't care nearly as much about cars as I did when their age, and when they do their values seem sadly twisted. I shudder to hear a 17 year old who cares more about the environment than about looking cool or going fast. Kids today!

A few years back when it came time to expand the Moore motoring fleet to account for teen drivers I found myself in a strange positionbuying cars I did not necessarily want, and was not going to drive much. My first choice (or should I say our first choice, as my wife had an important say in all these decisions) was a Mazda Protege. That was tough as we traded in our beloved Miata M-Edition to buy the Protege. For the first, and perhaps only time in my life, I did not have a performance car of any type (that didn't last long and was actually how I got back into Porscheanother story sometime).

The Protege was a very good car. It had the classic three box shape of a BMW 2002 and the 1.8 liter engine from the Miata. As it was for our daughter I went with automatic transmission. And there was my big mistake, making assumptions

Anna Lea was different than most of her peers. Not only did she want her license the day she was eligible, soon afterward she announced that she wanted to learn to drive a stick shift. Hallelujah! There was an enthusiast in the family!

Of course we already had the Mazda. So we waited a year or two. But just as Anna was about to head off to college she somehow conned me into trading in the Mazda on a Jetta GLS with the 1.8 turbo, sport suspension, and a five speed manual. She named the car JJ and the rest was history (I'm not sure I have actually ever said no to her, come to think of it).

JJ the Jetta
Brother Rob also got his license and his grandparents kindly gave him their 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT. It seemed like a nice car, at first. But eventually the Cruiser showed its dark side, going through ball joints, tires, wheels, and other parts with a reckless abandon. While it served Rob fairly well and really never left him stranded, it was a poorly designed and badly built car.

A Chrysler manufactured in Mexico. Say no more.

This last week, with only 72,000 on the odometer, the Cruiser was done. Facing thousands of dollars in computer and suspension repairs it was dumped at Carmax in the middle of a horrible rain storm. The appraisers missed a lot, dodging the deluge, and offered us far more than hoped. I think they were sort of surprised we took the offer, and then they were startled to see the car up close in the delivery lane. I suspect some other poor customer got low-balled later that evening to make up the difference.

And so I was off on the inexpensive, used car hunt. At first I looked at a 2006 Saab 9-5, then a 2004 BMW 2004. If it had been for me I think either would have worked. But it wasn't for me, and that shopping is actually harder. An inexpensive Camry was also considered, but it had too many miles.

After much thought - and discussion with Rob about his priorities - today we helped him purchase a 2008 Honda Fit Sport. I already like the little thing... Even with only 109 horsepower and automatic transmission. The 1.5 liter VTEC spins willingly and the paddle shifters (!) help keep the engine in the torque band. The cargo area is cavernous, with origami rear seats that fold into the floor. Rob liked that it gets 35 mpgand has an easily accessible AUX jack.

I guess he sort of cares about cars after all, his parameters are just different than mine.

What cars have you bought for your childrenand have you managed to raise car enthusiasts?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

#5 - 1988 Ford Mustang GT, Part 1

Old car enthusiast rule: After you wreck a fast car, always buy a faster car...

Following the untimely demise of the Volkswagen GTI in the spring of 1987, I set out to find a replacement that would be effective on the autobahn but that I could also take back to the U.S. in 18 months. I needed to buy a new or used American spec car. My 1977 Porsche 911 was German specand honestly it was not that reliable a car anyhow. Luckily there were some good options available.

By the mid 1980's Ford and GM had reignited the muscle car wars with new models of the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird. Freed from the emissions-choking malaise of the late carburetor era, fuel injection and early engine management computers made the small block V8 relevant again. With top speeds of 140+ these cars represented a relatively inexpensive way to join the big BMW and Mercedes speed trains flying down the German highway network.

For some reason I have always been more of a Ford guy than a GM guy. Comparing the Mustang GT and Camaro IROC-Z, the Ford looked to be the better, and more modern choice. It was also a bit smaller: important on narrow European city streets. My mind made up, I bought a train ticket... Huh?

Service members stationed overseas who want to buy a new American car are at the whim of the Army/Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). The nearest AAFES Ford concession was in Fulda, hundreds of miles to the south. I headed down on a Saturday and ordered a 1988 Mustang GT in dark gray with gray cloth. Leather was only available in the convertible. The car came standard with a 5.0 High Output V8 rated at 225 horsepower; and of course I chose the five speed manual transmission. I then waited patiently for my dream car to arrive. I waited, and waited, and waited. Months flew off the calendar, just like in old movies.
I ordered the exact color combination as in the brochure.
By late September I was impatient. The guy who sold me the car had no answers. Remember, this was 1987: no internet, no email, no nothing. Your choices were phone, if you had a number; or mail, if you had an address.
Finally somehow I tracked down the phone number of the Ford dealer in New Jersey responsible to get cars headed to Europe through customs at the Port of Newark. They didn't know anything. I begged the guy to go and look for my Mustang. When I called back 15 minutes later (the middle of the night in Germany) he had found the car
in the back of the lot covered in dust. A paperwork error. He promised to get it rushed out the next day.

Zweihundert funf und zwanzig Pferdestärke
A mere month later my new car arrived at the Port of Bremerhaven, Germany. I got the call late on a Friday afternoon. A friend set a speed record in his Peugot 205 GTI getting me to German customs so I could have the Mustang before the weekend.

Later than night I wrecked it.

Read the rest of the story.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Top Ten Time!

Trolling the interwebs just now I ran across this Brit's opinion on the "Top Ten Cool Cars." Which got me thinking... Anyone can throw up a list of cars they want: Ferraris, unpronounceable Paganis', etc. etc. It is predictable, and it gets old. But I got to thinking about a top ten list of cars friends have owned that I would like to have today. So here goes!

10. Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser Wagon

Confession time: I love station wagons and have lost count of the number of Audi avants I almost bought (hmmm, Cars I Almost Bought - there is a future blog post!). We had a Passat wagon for a while and it was outstanding. In middle school a friend's sister took us to one of the first Day on the Green concerts (Zeppelin, Rick Derringer, and Judas Priest) in her mom's Vista Cruiser. I still remember looking out the roof panels. If I was looking for one today it would have to be a 442 of course.

9. Peugot 205 GTI

Arriving in Germany as a new lieutenant I was met at the Hamburg airport by an officer from my assigned tank battalion. As we got into his little French car I could not help but notice that it was the spitting image of my VW GTI (then somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean). A few moments later, screaming down the autobahn at about 125 mph I realized that little French car had, in the words of David Hobbs, "huge appendages." Rare in the USA, one was just for sale on Bring A Trailer!

8. 1985-87 BMW M6

The Deutsche Mark rate was low in the mid-1980s, low enough for a young officer to buy a fairly nice new car. Several of my friends bought one of these. I didn't. Big mistake. There is something about the aggressive front end and the overall balance of the hood and trunk lines that, to me at least, make this one of the most beautiful road cars ever made. They are gaining value now and low mileage original versions are hard to find. Yes, sometimes I look for one.

7. Toyota FJ40 (Landcruiser)

A friend picked one of these up for a winter driver in Alaska. In Washington State I helped her with it some; replacing the full doors with vinyl half doors and the metal roof with a bikini top. A complete beast in every manner, it was glorious cruising around. On a camping trip near Mt. Rainier it took we everything threw at it. Unbreakable and unstoppable is pretty much it. These are also getting collectible now and Icon Motors will gladly build you one of their custom FJs for around $150,000. Really!

6. Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia

Ghias are fast. I'm not joking! A good friend had one in high school and college and we drove the pants off that car, flying down to San Francisco for Giants' games at 85+. The Ghia was tough too, once going through four or five Craftsman extension bars as we tried to change a wheel hub (the Sears return policy only goes so far, you have to go to different stores after the first couple of exchanges). In fact, I could get that car today as it is parked in his aunt's backyard, slowly returning to earth.

5. Chevrolet El Camino

The El Camino was probably the first muscle car I was aware of. A friend's older brother owned one and during the time I lived near them, turned it from stock to outrageous. Eventually it became a drag car that he trailered to the track. He also owned a '40 Lincoln Zephyr that slowly became a hot rod as well. They must have had money... anyway, to this day I still like the look of the El Camino, particularly in SS 396 form. The Aussies seem to like them as well. Why Chevy can't get this done is a mystery.

4. Saab 900 Turbo SPG

Near my brigade's base in Germany there was a small Saab dealership that specialized in military sales. Run by a smooth Brit, they sold Saabs hand over fist to army officers convinced it was the greatest, fastest car on the planet. Now they were fast, but my Mustang GT (next up on TCOR!) would run rings around the Swedes. Except for the SPG model. My friend Jeff ponied up for one of these special edition cars and it was just plain fast. Saab only made 7,000 US spec SPGs and they are remembered today as the pinnacle of Saab turbo performance.

3. BMW 2002 tii

If you are like me (a hopeless car nut), you probably have a list of cars you troll eBay Motors looking for. My list includes 1963-64 Buick Rivieras, early M6s, and the BMW 2002 tii. Friends have owned a few, and always regretted selling them. I have almost bought a few, though practicality (particularly in the South - that AC thing) has always stopped me. I drooled extensively over the one pictured here, listed recently on Bring A Trailer. While the price is ridiculous, it is just about perfectly modified. Luckily for me it doesn't have air conditioning.

2. E30 BMW M3

In 1988 a colonel I worked for asked me if I wanted to go with him to pick up his new BMW at the factory. The heyday of DTM racing, M3s and Mercedes 190 2.3-16s fought it out every weekend of the summer. How could I say no? Delivery in those days was cool. A white coated engineer handed him the keys after taking the car for a lap of the test track outside Munich. Of course the five hour drive back was awful. Engine break in requirements kept him from going over 4,000 RPM. Confession time: early M3s are also on my eBay troll list.

1. 1987-89 Porsche 911

To be honest, I could have made the entire list Porsches. I'm privileged to know people with some very nice ones, both early and modern. But for all of the beautiful, historic, and sinfully valuable Porsches I have met, this is the only one that I really want to own for myself. The 87-89 Carrera is the car most people think of when they think of Porsche, and for good reason. The look is iconic and this is the best of the original breed. The G50 transmission coupled to the 3.2 liter air cooled engine was probably the finest combination in Porsche history. These cars are fabulous performers, and yet very reliable. They will literally go 200-300 thousand miles if properly maintained. And they sound just right. They sound like a Porsche.

Well, that's my list, along with a few random trips down memory lane. Interesting: the number of Porsches matched the number of Saabs, Chevys, and Toyotas. I didn't see that coming when I started.

What cars of your friends would you like to have today?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rental Car Review - 2013 Mustang V6 Premium Convertible

Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt County, California
First in an occasional series...

I consider rental cars fun. National is my preferred vendor simply because I can choose any available car, rather than getting stuck with the white Chevy Impala the bored high school dropout assigns the next customer. I refuse to drive bad cars, and so should you.

Only a few years ago the major manufacturers each owned a rental car company. As a result you were stuck with Fords at Hertz, GM cars at Avis, and so on. But now each company makes fleet purchases from a variety of manufacturers, greatly widening the selection. Much more fun for car enthusiasts.

Another big change in car rentals: even the cheapest Nissan Sentra or Hyundai Elantra is a decent car, a far cry from the horrible compact and midsized cars of just a few years ago. Simply put, there are few bad cars to choose from on the rental lot, with one important exception... I refuse to drive any compact or midsized Chrysler. The seats are horrible and the entire experience just awful. Nope, I will sit and wait for another car to come available before leaving the airport in a Dodge Avenger.

That said, one fun aspect of renting cars on a regular basis is the ability to try out new models. I've been looking for the opportunity to drive a new Dart and will probably grab one the next time I have the opportunity. It's really an Alfa, right?
California Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County
But last week was not the time for Dodge Darts, or any other midsized business rental, No, this was vacation in California with a route that would include miles of Highway 1 north of San Francisco. I'm talking convertible.

Rental convertible choices come down to three: Sebring (see Chyrysler statement above), Camaro, or Mustang. All have V6s with decent power. But the Mustang has more trunk space with the top down: an important consideration on vacation. So Mustang it was. National came through for me and soon I was cruising out of SFO at the wheel of a nearly new 2013 Mustang V6 Premium. And the premium part was important as that package includes Sirius satellite radio, a must for long vacation trips - and we had many miles to go (and the woods were actually dark and deep).

Over four days and a thousand miles we drove on every type of road and in every type of weather the west coast has to offer. With assistance from the lovely Lynne (she daily drives a BMW 330ci Cabrio and has strong opinions about ragtops from her early days in an Austin Healey Sprite), here are some good, some bad, and some ugly.

The Good:

  • The 3.7 liter 305 HP V6 in the Mustang is a strong and efficient engine. The car had plenty of power and averaged 26 mpg over the course of the trip. Unless you really need 400+ horsepower I think the V6 is the way to go in the 'Stang. Add a manual transmission (see The Ugly) and some suspension bits and this could be a fast and fun car.
  • Track Apps. I was very surprised to find this part of the V6 Premium package. My best 0-60 was 7.1, but I wasn't trying very hard.
  • A comfortable and spacious interior is key to vacationing, and the Mustang has it. Decent seats too (the V6 Premium had leather - in the old Mustang seat pattern!).
  • LED driving lights and HID headlights are common in better European cars, and nice to find in the Mustang. 
  • In black the car has a menacing look, helped by the cool LED driving lights. Multiple times on twisty Highway 1 slower cars pulled over to let us pass. And no, I wasn't tailgating, though I may have arrived a bit suddenly.
The Bad
  • Johnny Rotten once said of Pete Townsend, "He's got a big nose." So does the Mustang. To see over the cowl I had to shove the seat much higher than usual. Parking was mostly guesswork.
  • Cheap interior bits. The glove box's plastic lock jammed, broke, and then refused to close. There were numerous unfinished plastic edges, particularly around the windshield. 
  • Everyone always mentions the Mustang's solid rear axle. To be honest, most of the time it was not an issue. But in the 22 miles of mini-Nurburgring that is Highway 1 from the Pacific Coast to US 101 at Leggett, handling suffered. The car just couldn't get out of a corner smoothly. And any pavement seam caused an unnerving lateral hop.
The Ugly

  • The good V6 was seriously compromised by a balky and slow transmission. The five speed box had decent gearing, but glacial shift times. And why Ford thinks little autoshift buttons on the side of the shift lever make sense is beyond me. If you are not going to provide flappy paddles just give me a side gate for the console. On that intense section of Highway 1 I eventually just locked the car in second and screamed to redline (I mentioned it was a rental, right?)
  • How can any manufacturer can sell a $32K+ convertible without some sort of rear windblock? A simple plastic panel between the rear headrests would probably suffice. Instead the car is useless in colder weather or at speed on the interstate.
  • Worst steering wheel in a sporty car ever. Period. Look where your hands sit at 9 and 3! I held cheap aluminum-look plastic for a thousand miles. How does that happen? The rest of the wheel was nice leather. Epic fail.

In the end the Mustang was fine. But if I ever do Highway 1 through Mendocino County again, I'm taking my 911.

Everyone has a rental car story. Share yours!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

#4 - 1977 Porsche 911S

Truth be told, my first Porsche was a bit of a basket case. I bought it on a whim and had no idea how to maintain or repair it. Most critically, I had no idea how to drive it, and early narrow-bodied 911s are treacherous animals. What could go wrong?

In the 1980s there was a thriving market in used American cars among the half million servicemen stationed in Europe. Yes, minivans and beat up Pontiacs doing 90 mph down the autobahn. Scary indeed. Soldiers could also purchase German cars, but this got tricky. The German government considered a German car sold to an American to have been exported. These cars rarely returned to German ownership. And since most European cars did not meet the more stringent U.S. crash and emissions standards of the time, they were difficult to bring back to the states. As a result German spec cars bounced from soldier to soldier, often falling into disrepair as American-owned cars were not subject to the stringent German inspection requirements (the dreaded Technischer Überwachungs-Verein, or TÜV inspection).

An American officer bought the Guards Red Porsche new from the factory, selling it when his tour ended. The car then went through a series of owners, each no doubt with little clue of how to properly maintain an expensive high performance car, much less afford to repair things as they went wrong. By the time I bought it the car needed a lot. But like many other young men, the allure of a red Porsche blinded me to the puddle of oil and the burning electrical smell.

Of course I immediately took the Porsche out on the local autobahn and drove it as fast as it would go. Even with its leaks and other problems, that was really fast. My GTI topped out around 100 mph. The 911 would do over 225 kilometers per hour, or around 140. Did I mention that I really had no idea how to drive the car? 

Before traction control and anti-lock brakes a rear-engine 911 was a handful under the best of conditions. Sure it was fast, both in a straight line and in the corners. But with the engine's weight hanging out behind the rear axle, the darned things were downright treacherous. If you started to feel the back of the car losing traction in a corner, basic self-preservation told you the lift off the throttle. Wrong answer... In an older 911, instinct kills. 
Lift off oversteer - like this!

Porsche 911s suffered for years from a condition known as lift off oversteer. Lift off the throttle in a fast corner and the car would spin in the blink of an eye. Ask me how I learned this. To be honest, at high speeds the car was frightening. I vividly recall flying down the autobahn, getting in to a downhill sweeping corner and just plain being scared. It would take everything I had not to lift. Amazingly though, if you simply stay on the throttle the inherent ability of the 911 design will usually hang on. Usually.

Between scaring the hell out of me and quickly mounting repair bills I should have hated that car. But I loved it. Did I mention it was a red Porsche and I was 23 years old?

Until I wrecked the GTI in April 1987 the 911 was just a weekend toy. Unfortunately it was worthless as a daily driver, particularly in the nasty weather of Northern Germany, and I sold the car soon after... to another young lieutenant in love with the idea of a red Porsche of course. It would be nearly 15 years before I would own another Porsche. But I would own another Porsche.

1977 Porsche 911S
Owned: 1986-1987
Music: Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Joe Cocker, and always Elvis Costello
Rating: 3/5 (Sort of like the song from A Chorus Line: Dance 10, Looks 3)

And please note my explanation about the photographs used in this blog.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I could drive one of those...

As you may have figured out by now, cars occupy a lot of my thoughts. And not just the cars that I have owned, or do own, but cars I might own. Anyone can dream of a new Ferrari or a vintage Aston Martin, but what about practical real cars?

At any given time I have a few cars in mind that could join my current fleet if one of those fails, the families' needs change (this happened recently), or my wife and I just want something else. Here are a few cars I like in the affordable range...

2005-2008 Acura TSX
Some of you probably know this, but the TSX is actually the European spec Honda Accord. Gussied up with an Acura interior and the top range 200 horsepower VTEC four cylinder engine, they are a very nice ride. Under strong acceleration there is some torque steer and the rear seat is a little tight compared to Camrys and Accords, but the overall driving experience is outstanding. These are tight, well-built, and attractive cars.

I prefer the first generation TSX. Starting with the 2009 Acura went all samurai in their design language and I just don't like the heavy front end and needless overstyling. The first generation's styling is clean and simple.

Full disclosure: my daughter and her husband have a TSX. I find excuses to drive it when we visit.

2002- 2009 Toyota 4Runner

I consider the vast majority of Toyotas to be soulless automotive appliances. Sure, they used to be rugged and reliable. But that's no longer true compared to other cars available today. It bothers me that people still think  they are great cars and buy them simply for that reason, passing by Fords, Hyundais, and Mazdas that are just as reliable and well-built, and far more interesting in terms of design and performance. But I digress...

A few years ago on a business trip to Houston I wound up in a rental 4Runner for a few days. That truck amazed me. I don't know that I have driven a vehicle better screwed together and solid this side of an older Mercedes. The standard 4.0 liter six cylinder was more than adequate and it was easy to drive around town. Looking more closely I was surprised to learn that the Japan-built Toyota weighed in at only a little over 4,000 pounds, fairly lightweight for a vehicle as large and as solid.

The 4Runner's styling is attractive, tall and sleek. The interior is just simple truck, with lots of space and big dials and knobs for everything. The exterior features a smooth and industrial look with a few graceful curves that serve to make it seem trimmer in width than the truck really is. And of course the optional rear spoiler is cool. I'll take a later production (2007-10) Sport Model in red... Sport gets you a fake hood scoop!

A few other cars from my ongoing interior monologue include the BMW 335i sedan, MazdaSpeed3 hatchbacks, either of the Ford Bullit Mustang models, and the Fiat 500 Abarth.

What cars catch your eye?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

#3 - 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

Just as the car landed, I woke up. Unfortunately the brakes were of no use as the GTI tumbled down the E55 autobahn just south of Køge, Denmark, eventually coming to rest against a bridge abutment. It's my favorite car of all time, and the only one I ever destroyed.

I found the car in Sacramento as I graduated from college. It carried me across the country and then somewhat unexpectedly along the autobahns in the land of its parentage, mixing with German-spec GTIs to sometimes hilarious results. Silver with a blue cloth interior, it was fast, attractive, fun to drive, and economical.
The GTI was Volkswagen's greatest creation after the Beetle. On paper the car was under powered, managing just 90 horsepower from its 1.8 liters. But that engine only had to pull 2,100 pounds of Volkswagen, giving the car a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 108 mph (well, sort of—more on this later), while returning 36 mpg on the highway!

Don't just take my word on the greatness that was the GTI. Car and Driver named it to their inaugural
"Ten Best" list in 1983 calling it, “the car we've all been waiting for.” For the 1984 list the great automotive journalist David E. Davis, Jr wrote, "It’s tough to imagine anything that delivers more pure, uncomplicated fun than a Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The car is eager to please, always ready to roughhouse, perfectly willing to cruise at the redline if that’s what turns you on... It is the modern BMW 2002."

One of the best features of the GTI, aside from a fun to drive quotient almost unmatched by any car in the 1980s, was its vast cargo space. The car was large enough to carry me and all of my earthly belongings from California to my first Army assignment, the Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

At Knox my path took a big change. Following training I was supposed to spend three years at Fort Hood, Texas, However, a fellow second lieutenant had a girlfriend in Oklahoma. Apparently struck stupid by love, he traded me his posting in Germany to be closer to her. 

And so it came to pass that in December 1985 I drove the GTI to Newark, NJ and put the Pennsylvania-built U.S. spec Volkswagen on a ship bound for the land of its design (after having the catalytic converter removed: in the 1980's Europe still only had leaded gas). It was the beginning of a great adventure, an adventure that nearly ended on that early Sunday morning just outside Køge.

1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
Owned: 1985-1987
Music: Depeche Mode, Neil Young, and always Elvis Costello
Rating: 5/5 (The best car I ever owned - in death it saved my life)