Sunday, June 30, 2013

Die Motorräder von Rolf

I have never ridden a Harley Davidson. That surprises me. I've always liked them, just never had the chance to ride one. But I have owned a few motorcycles along the way. Well, two actually.

I first learned  to ride on a friend's Honda 70 Mini Trail. These little half mini-bike/half-motorcycles were everywhere when I was a kid, but I haven't seen one in years. I rode his into a tree; the whole clutch, brake concept eluded me at first. I wonder if that one survived?

Flash forward to my junior year of college. With the Capri's reliability a bit of an issue and on-campus difficult, I found a 1981 Honda CB125S at Spinetti's Bike Shop in Jackson, California. Interestingly it was brand new and yet three years old when I found it, having languished in the back of the showroom hidden behind the real motorcycles.

The CB125S was small, but slow.

My mother was of course terrified. To buy the motorcycle I had to promise her I would attach one of those red safety flags kids put on their bicycles. After a convincing lie, I bought the little blue Honda and headed for Sacramento where she would never see it. But mothers don't forget. The next time she visited she went right to the garage and caught me. I probably lied again.

I rode that Honda all through my senior year, hiding it in a bush at school to avoid buying a parking pass. With a whopping 12 horsepower it would do almost 65 if I hugged the tank. Once, fashionably California in a polo shirt and shorts, I had a bee strike me in the throat at about 45 mph. Man, that hurt! I didn't go down, but in the future did wear more clothing.

Here's perhaps the most interesting part of this tale... I never actually got a motorcycle license. I don't remember why, only that I didn't. This caused a bit of a problem a few years later when I decided to get a bigger bike, a much bigger bike.

In 1986 I was stationed in Germany. My neighbor Deiter had a couple of nice BMW motorrads, including an R100 with a sidecar (he called it a "boat"). I badly wanted a BMW. But I didn't have a license from the states, and to get one in Germany would have been expensive and time-consuming.

So, without much thought I broke a half dozen or so Army regulations and bought a 1976 BMW R75/6 from Deiter. We just left the bike in his name with German plates. A simple solution, unless I had gotten caught which probably would have ruined my career as an officer. Did I mention how cool it looked?

Hanging out with Deiter and some other German motorcycle friends, I took the big BMW on a few road trips in Northern Germany and into Holland, the horizontally opposed pistons pulling the handlebars back and forth as I flew down the autobahns. It was all great fun, but eventually the threat of being stopped by the Polizei or military police weighed on me and I sold the bike. I think I even made a bit of money.

That's it. I have not ridden another bike to this day. Interestingly, most of my friends who once owned them don't any more. For most of us there is some internal self-preservation mode that kicks in, as if to say, "this is fun, but the odds are against you." However, if the chance presented itself I would try a Harley, as long as I don't need a license.

Friday, June 28, 2013

All by myself... The Car Game

It's a big country. If you have never driven across the United States it's hard to explain facing a wide, broad valley in the middle of Nevada or Wyoming, the highway ahead disappearing over a ridge miles in the distance. It can be lonely, but it can also be invigorating. A chance to drive, see, and think all melded together... along with a chance to sit nearly motionless for hours, and that is always fun.

I've driven cross-country alone four or five times, twice from nearly coast to coast. But I built up to it. My parents twice circumnavigated the U.S. from California to Florida, up the the East Coast and then returning west. The first time they took me along in the VW bus and a few years later they drug my sister Kelly and me along in the dungeon that was the back seat of the Ford Falcon station wagon. In college I made a few long drives of 350 miles or more. So when it came time to begin my Army career and drive to Fort Knox, Kentucky from California, I was ready.

And after a couple of hours crossing Nevada en route to my first stop in Salt Lake City I was bored out of my mind. Music helped, but I would have needed a trailer to carry enough cassettes to cross the country in 1985. The "license plate game" is for children, I needed something else. So was born the Car Game.

Here is how it works: First, choose a car from those you see around you, any car. Then, over the next hours or days, you trade up. Say you start with a Toyota Camry. A few miles later you see a Jeep Wrangler. Maybe you would rather be bouncing along in a Jeep than quietly gliding along in the Toyota. So you trade up. And so it goes, changing cars, looking for opportunity. It is a game you can forget about and return to anytime. I will admit it is a bit trickier to play at night.

Getting started: I would go with the HUMMER here... or maybe the
blue Toyota pickup. Hope something better comes along quick! 

If you are a car enthusiast this can occupy hours. It also forces you into real choices: found a nice Audi A6 but then you spot an old 240Z... do you change? Practicality vs. style; performance vs. comfort, etc., etc.

I taught my car crazy daughter Anna the game and she developed a two-player version. Here you announce what you are driving, trying to one-up the other player. And in a nasty variation, she also added relegation! One moment you have settled in to a nice Mercedes, the next minute the other player puts you in a rusty '88 Hyundai Excel wagon with a Baby on Board window cling. Dump trucks are her particular favorite.

Anna and her husband now live in New York and recently drove down to North Carolina for a visit. Along the way we played a new variation of the game, by text message!

Yes, that is a dilapidated, rusty Ford Pinto on a flatbed trailer. She is without mercy. Of course I put her in a dusty beige minivan a few minutes earlier.  I guess I started it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

#2 - 1974 Mercury Capri

Finishing up my first year of college in Sacramento I decided to transfer up the north coast to Humboldt State University. It was a long way from home and I was going to need wheels. The Chevelle SS, car #1, came to me somewhat by chance. I was looking for something cool and a friend knew about the car. Car # 2 was the first car I actually went shopping for.

With a budget around $2,000 I was looking for something sporty, reliable, and different. Prowling through used car lots a few Alfa Romeos caught my eye. I love the look of the Giulia to this day, but the combination of questionable reliability, rust, and my own admittedly limited mechanical skill set stopped that plan.

I kept looking, passing by a series of Volvos and some Japanese coupes and sedans (including a rotary-engined Mazda or two). I test drove a Beetle with a bored out motor and a big carbs, but the drive up to Arcata included a mountain pass whichever route you took and I was done with long hills in a Bug. And then I found the blue Capri.

The little Mercury was on the back of a used car lot, a fresh trade-in still cover in dust. Dad helped me with the negotiations and I think we paid around $1,500. It was a good deal, but the car needed exhaust work and a valve adjustment. A local shade tree mechanic in Amador County cut out the blown resonator and welded in a straight pipe. The Capri would be loud for the rest of its life. He also pulled the bad smog pump and closed up the holes in the manifold. Luckily for me rural California counties in 1980's did not require emissions tests.

Ford imported the Capri starting in 1970, advertising it as the "sexy European." Originally they came with a 75 horsepower 1.6 liter four cylinder, but in 1974 engine options included a 2.6 liter V6 and the 2.0 liter, 100 horsepower engine in my car. Coupled with a four speed manual the 2.0 (shared somewhat ominously with the Pinto) wasn't really fast, but it was fun to drive. The Capri was the first car I loved.

The Cologne, Germany made Capri was a good looking car. Sold by Ford in Europe, it was badged a Mercury in the US so as not to compete with the Mustang on dealer lots. The 5 mph impact bumpers added for 1974 actually improved the look of the car, making it seem longer and lower. The optional Rostyle wheels added to the sporty image. It had a proper driver's cockpit, with full instrumentation, kind of sport seats, and a gear lever that fell right to hand.

The car was fairly reliable and got me back and forth the 350 miles to the Northcoast several times the year I attended Humboldt. The speedometer broke soon after I bought the car and so speed was sort of relative;  the car felt faster than it probably was. It was on these trips that I discovered the thrill of pushing a sporty car along a mountain road, throwing yourself into a curve, braking late, and then getting on the gas to power out of the apex. The Capri hooked me on performance cars, an obsession that remains to this day - and explains this blog.

I kept the Capri  through the rest of college. It was rear-ended my senior year and while still drivable, I stuck to my motorcycle as much as possible. Eventually I sold the car for something like $250, surprisingly to a guy who bought it for his son. Mercury Capris are one of those cars that I occasionally troll eBay for. Not many survived it seems, and this Bring a Trailer car was mighty tempting.

1974 Mercury Capri
Owned: 1982 - 1985
Music: John Cougar, The Pretenders, and always Elvis Costello
Rating: 4/5 (The beginning of my life as a "car guy")

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pre-First Car - 1964 Volkswagen Beetle

Technically the Bug was not mine, but Dad's. It was the last VW he owned. Occasionally I was allowed to drive it after I passed the driver's test my junior year of high school. Originally light blue, Dad had it painted bright yellow for better visibility. He moved on to white with the Falcon. And make no mistake, these were cheap paint  jobs. I think the interior metal was still blue.

The VW was a great platform for a new driver. When it needed a rebuild Dad had the original 1.2 liter four cylinder motor bored out to 1.3, producing probably a whopping 55 or 60 horsepower. I had to learn to use the tiny engine's torque band and gears to extract the maximum performance. The car was not fast, but it was surprisingly quick. It had great traction in snow and once I got the hang of hustling it through a corner it was actually sort of fun to drive. Of course at 16 anything is fun to drive.

On the minus side, the car's heat came straight from the engine without benefit of a fan. To start getting warm faster in winter it was a good idea to drive an uphill route.
VW Beetle Heating Diagram

On the highway 60-65 mph was about tops and the slightest head or crosswind could throw the car around like a leaf. Add to that small drum brakes, an all steel dashboard, and the adventure that was snap-oversteer from the rear engine's weight and skinny tires. In retrospect the car was simply treacherous.

But none of that was apparent to me in 1979. What I knew was that great American teenage experience of freedom. Freedom and AM radio.

Car: 1964 Volkswagen Beetle
Owned: 1978-79 (when Dad let me)
Music: Whatever was on KFRC out of San Francisco and sometimes on a clear night KFI from LA.
Rating: 2/5 stars (in the '70s a good car for a new driver - today parents would be arrested for child endangerment)

Hot Rod to Road & Track

We probably miss the more important and influential events in our lives simply because they do not announce themselves with fanfare. Think about it, did trumpets sound or doves arrive when you chose which college to attend or asked that girl to marry you? Probably not. You can only look back and try to recognize the twisted past that got you to today.

Sometime around 1974 or '75 I spent the night at the house of my middle school friend Chris. I missed the trumpets that night, but in retrospect they were loud. Chris's father Roger was a car guy in the way my Dad was not. He drove a BMW and had a vintage HRG and a Jaguar XKE project car. He was in the car industry (Roger hooked Dad up with a good deal on the Falcon station wagon) and it was from Chris that I first heard of Bob Lutz; Roger had worked for him in Europe at some point. Anyway, for some reason that night we slept on the floor in Roger's home office, sharing space with a desk, a television (probably why we were in there) and a bookshelf full of... Road & Track magazines.

I had actually been reading car magazines for a few years and had a subscription to Hot Rod. I poured over them from cover to cover and names like Snake and Mongoose, Big Daddy, and Grumpy were well-known to me. But at some point Hot Rod went through a custom van phase that just put me off. And then along came R&T.

The cars were exotic and unfamiliar: Lamborghinis and Porsches and Lotuses and Ferraris. And there was detailed race coverage from Le Mans, Monaco, and The Nurburgring. Some of the names I had heard of, but now I had contextand pictures! I was hooked and remember staying up most of the night going through issue after issue.

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.

If Chris's dad had been a bus driver, I might have saved a whole lot of money over the next 40 years. Maybe I would have learned the trumpet.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

#1 - 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS

When you grow up in a rural area, even a rural area of California, cars equal freedom. I remember around the age of 10 or 11 thinking that I would never make it to 16 and my driver's license. Saving money for a car was an early task. For two summers in high school I had the opportunity to work for the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), planting trees and building trails in the El Dorado National Forest south of Lake Tahoe. I saved those earnings with maniacal ferocity. At the end of the second summer I had amassed around $3,000.

I knew I wanted something fast and something cool. But what? A friend from the YCC worked part time at a wrecking yard in Elk Grove, CA  and he had a lead. The shop had a Chevelle SS that was partially damaged. My friend said all it really needed was a front fender. Dad took me down to look at the car and wrote the check. We found a front fender off an El Camino that fit. I was officially a car owner!

State Highway 88  - Pioneer, California

The Chevelle was dangerous. Amador County, California is full of twisty mountain roads, the worst possible environment for a muscle car, particularly a muscle car driven by a 17 year old. To be blunt, I'm lucky I did not kill myself or any of my friends in that beast. But it was fast. And it was fun.  I had "the fastest car in the county" until Rick Cutsinger got that damned Hemi Charger.

Anyway, I owned the SS for less than a year and sold it when I started college for about what I'd paid. But it was a good start.

Car: 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
Owned: 1980-81
Music: Elvis Costello, The Who, The Clash
Rating: 3/5 stars (Not greatbut my first!)

The cars of my father

In addition to his camera hobby, and his bee keeping hobby, and his gem and mineral hobby, and his sailing hobby, my Dad was a closet car guy. I say closet because he was not actually an enthusiast; he didn't soup up his cars or buy cars that were not practical. But he did often buy cars that were offbeat and he maintained them largely himself.

That leads to an interesting story, a common theme around here if you pay attention. My mother joined the Navy in WWII and was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. She trained as a mechanic and eventually became a plane captain, responsible for an SNJ, the primary advanced trainer. So when Dad would head out to change the oil, or adjust the valves, or whatever, he would jokingly invite my mother to help. I don't recall her reply, but I never saw her under a car.

September 1966 - Danville, Illinois

Anyway, we lived in the SF Bay Area and Dad owned mostly VWs, the local vehicle of choice in the late 1960s. We had Beetles, convertible and hardtop, and traveled cross county once in a Bus complete with a canoe on the roof. Hilariously my Dad claimed that we were once refused entrance to a state park in Texas when the ranger saw the license plate frame: Volkswagen of Berkeley. Apparently Dad's crew cut did not balance that Texan's fear of hippie apocalypse.

As the 1970s wore on, driving and maintaining air-cooled VWs made less and less sense and so Dad bought a Ford Falcon station wagon. A white Ford Falcon station wagon with a green vinyl interior and no air conditioning. When it wasn't burning through transmissions he taught me to drive in that car. Despite the V8 it would not do a burnout. I tried. Often.

Eventually the Falcon was replaced with a Ford Econoline van and later a series of Toyota Corollas: the VW Beetle of the 1980s. Dad's last cars were Toyota Tercels. And they were all white. In fact he had the van painted white too. He got in to his head that white was the safest color. When he passed away in 1996 I traded the last Tercel on a Ford Escort with automatic transmission and AC for my mother. She chose white.

A note about pictures...

If the name of the blog is "The Cars of Ralph," I suppose we can't wait too long to get started on the topic at hand. But first, an excuse explanation:

My father was a photography nutNikons, Hasselblads, dark rooms, dangerous chemicals, the whole thing. As a young man after WWII he worked at a photography store in Oakland, CA where Ansel Adams bought some of his equipment. Dad even went on a photo trip to Yosemite with Adams!

Needless to say I was hounded as a child to have my picture taken and as a result grew up desperately avoiding cameras. I became good at it.

Hurricane Fran - September 1996
And then came September of 1996. Hurricane Fran hit North Carolina with a fury, killing 27 people and destroying billions of dollars in property. My losses were minor; a storage shed I rented was flooded and the contents destroyed. But one of those boxes contained most of the few photos I had from college and my years in the Army.

So, while I will use actual images of my own cars whenever possible, mostly after '96, many of the early cars will be represented with images as close to my recollection as possible.

Ralphs Per Minute

Growing up Ralph can be tough. To begin with, there are not a lot of fellow Ralphs to band with for protection. And Ralph seems to be going the way of Harvey and Ethel. Nice names for 1931, but growing up in a world of Mikes and Johns, it presented certain problems. I suspect there were a couple of middle school altercations that could have been avoided if my dad's name was Dave Sr., rather than Ralph Sr.

At times I actually avoided my name. I came up with the concept of the "ski name" for use in lift lines. Trying to reconnect with me at the bottom of the hill? Don't shout "Ralph!" It just sounds funny. Just yell for "Steve!" and I'll find you. Because Steve is the coolest name of course.

But you come to terms with your own name over time. I even kind of like Ralph now. I recently met another Ralph, but in disguise. My friend Benny is a naval aviator. The other day I noticed in his work email signature that his real name is Ralph! Turns out Benny is his pilot name, like Snake, Goose, or Maverick. There is a great story about how he got the nickname that involves Elton John, but that may be another post. My pilot name would have been Steve.

Ralph does work when you combine it with a P middle name (Polister - a whole different story) and an M last name to get the most awesome car guy initials of all timeRPM.

If I had just realized that in middle school.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

I prefer the Formula One style standing start over the NASCAR or Indianapolis 500 rolling start. Perhaps it is the anticipation of the green lights or the sheer excitement of what is essentially a drag race for the first corner. Or maybe it is just that I have always liked F1, with its exotic tracks around the world ("It is a rainy, slippery track here at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix") and names like Ferrari, McLaren, Senna, Stewart, and Fangio.

Of course the old Le Mans start was the best, with drivers sprinting across the track to jump in their cars. Supposedly this is why Porsches feature the ignition on the left of the steering wheel, allowing drivers to turn the key and put the car in gear simultaneously. But couldn't drivers just leave the car in gear and engage the clutch as they crank the starter? Oh well, it is a good story.

Starting a blog about cars seems to present the same challenge, do you get up to speed and cross the starting line with a crowd of posts jockeying for position, or should you just drop the clutch and go for it? Despite my fondness for F1 I'm going with the American model. I think readers  will get a better sense of track conditions if they have a bunch of posts to read from the beginning (well, eventually someone will stumble across TCOR by mistake and read something, right?). Anyway, it would upset the dogs if I ran across the room and jumped into the computer chair every time I wanted to work on the this thing...