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)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Adult Car

Your first couple of cars usually represent compromises. Through high school and college you drove what you had, what you can afford. Not that these cars were not fun or fast, but your choices were likely limited by parents or money, or both. We all know the kid that got a brand new Mustang convertible for his or her 16th birthday, but I didn't live in that world.

Kristin's Mini Cooper S - and  yes, this is an adult car
Your first adult car comes when you get that first adult job out of college and you can finance something decent. For example a friend of mine's daughter, who drove her parent's VW Jetta, graduated last year and bought herself a new Mini Cooper S, her first adult car.

Your first adult car might not be brand new, but it is yours. You chose it and you are making the payments. The road to my first adult car was winding and bumpy; I almost bought the wrong one. But eventually I wound up with one of my favorite "cars of Ralph."

By my senior year of college I was a certified car nut. Luckily I did not have to worry "what job could I get in May?" Army ROTC had that covered and I would be commissioned as a second lieutenant the day after graduation. So the raging question in my mind, and one that honestly I spent more time on than schoolwork, was, "what car should I get in May?"

I had developed a fairly detailed list of requirements. First and foremost, it had to be a performance car of some type. This was 1985 and the car malaise of the past 10 years was waning. There were lots of interesting options including the new 5.0 Mustangs, the redesigned Camaro and Firebird, Datsun Zs, and Toyota Supras.

My second requirement was Army-related. I was headed to Fort Knox, Kentucky for tank training followed by three years of duty at Fort Hood, Texas. I needed a car that had some cargo capacity and would be reliable for long distances. Finally, as a Californian headed to the South, good air conditioning was also important.

Cargo capacity, reliability, and AC killed my first adult car opportunity: a pristine, low-miles 1978 Alfa Romeo Nikki Lauda Spider. Owned by a friend's father, the price was reasonablearound $7,000 if I remember correctly. It was gorgeous, sleek and sporty. But it just did not seem to be the right car for Texas, to say nothing of cargo space, reliability and air conditioning. Sadly (or perhaps wisely), I passed. Reading up on these rare cars today I find that many enthusiasts dislike the Nikki Lauda badging and decals. In 1985 I thought they looked awesome. I also liked The Go Gos.

Moving to something a bit more practical, the new Firebird also caught my eye and I seriously shopped them. I could have swung the payments on a Formula with the 305 V8 rated at 210 horsepwer. But my performance inclinations ran more to handling over speed  and the dealers were not budging on price. So a Firebird was out.

Eventually I wound up at Neillo Volkswagen-Audi in Sacramento signing on the dotted line (with Dad co-signing) to buy a slightly used 1985 Audi GT. I really wanted a quattro coupe, but as those were not available in the US I was settling for the 100 hp five cylinder model. It was a bad decision and I sort of knew it. The car was sporty but under-powered, more looks than go.

Literally as I began to sign my name I mentioned to the salesman the one car that I really wanted but had been unable to find. "Actually, we have one out back," he said, stunning me. "The owner's wife has been driving the car and just returned it." I didn't sign my name.

After a circuitous hunt I had found my first adult car. Use the Comments section to tell your first adult car story!