Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's With the Whole Car Thing?

I'm occasionally asked, "What is it about cars, why do you care about them so much?" Usually the person asking is a friend or acquaintance with a history of minivans or beige Camrys, so I know my answer, no matter how concise and insightful, will no doubt fall on somewhat deaf ears.

Recognizing that simple enthusiasm for cool, fast cars is perhaps a bit of a lightweight explanation, my standard reply is something like, "cars are a fascinating expression of individual choice and personality," or "we devote such a large amount of our hard-earned money to cars (for most people, car expenditure is third behind the mortgage and feeding/clothing/schooling the kids) they deserve real thought and passion."

It's a good answer, a passable answer.

Today I found a great answer.
"Our cars are our partners, our sidekicks, our modern take on a cowboy’s trusty steed; they’re our sanctuaries, love nests and music halls. They are the setting for adventures, dramas and conversations that stay with us for lifetimes. We imbue our cars with personalities, with sentient quirks, and our bonds with them mimic all too many human affairs of the heart, passing through a chain of predictable stages—lust, abiding love, companionable reliance and, finally, heartache."
Earl Swift penned this thought as part of  a recent Wall Street Journal review of Neil Young's new car-centric biography, "Special Deluxe." Turns out Old Neil is quite the enthusiast himself, with a fondness for '40s and '50 American iron. One of his first cars was a 1953 Pontiac hearse owned during the early Buffalo Springfield days in LA.

I don't have much else to add. Mr. Swift said it all. What drives your passion for cars?

Oh, it turns out that a bunch of Neil Young songs are about cars, including this one...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Blyth Brothers Hit Big Time!

I enjoy the Blyth Brothers car blog for a couple of reasons. We share an interest in 1980s European cars, and I served with their father in the US Army in Germany during that very same decade. The boys, Graham and Taylor, mix a solid knowledge of engineering and auto repair with the enthusiasm of, well, enthusiasts. They also have a soft spot for some of my favorites, including the GTI and Alfa 164.

Also fun, they have shared one of my car adventures from back in the day. Most of it was even true!

Well today I was perusing my regular daily car blogs and sites only to discover the BlythBros getting serious attention from GermanCarsForSaleBlog.

Congrats boys, and say hi to the old man for me!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The 80's: Performance and Style Strike Back

Driving through the Poconos last summer we were passed by a well-preserved BMW M6, probably about an '87. I got to thinking about how much I wanted one of those beautiful machines at the time and started rolling across some internal list of my favorite cars from that decade.

The 1980's saw the rebirth of automobile performance. From hot hatches to the reigniting of the Pony Car Wars, to the advent of the modern supercar, performance cars were finally worth lusting after again. Let's start at the begining...

From the days of the Model T enthusiasts have been making cars go faster, and high performance cars from the Stutz Bearcat through Bugattis and the Mercedes SSK always existed, But this route to power and fun was the world of either the garage mechanic or the wealthy. For average folk cars were simply transportation. Performance was not a particular critieria. And then beginning in the late 1950's, automotive performance for the masses began growing in leaps and bounds.

I don't actually know what car started it, whether it was the popularity of small British and German sports cars, the first Corvettes and T-Birds, or simply the growing power in family coupes and sedans like the '55 Chevy Bel Air. But suddenly performance as a desirable element of consumer-focused automobiles was a thing. By the mid 1960's the GTO, Mustang, and Camaro had burst performance wide open. Families were going to the movies pulled by fire-breathing V-8s.

But all good things come to an end. By the early 1970s air pollution concerns, oil prices, and perhaps sanity took hold. The era of the muscle car (and muscle station wagon too!) came to an abrupt end. To be honest, the 1970s were agonizing for auto enthusiasts. Remember the Mustang II? Even the mighty Corvette fell victim, with the 25th anniversary edition featuring an anemic 185 HP  and no available manual transmission. Heavy sigh.

My vote for the low point. 
Sure there were a few points of light. The 1970s saw some nice Alfa Romeos, the birth of the Lamborghini Contach, the 2002 and 3.0 BMW's. And certainly Porsche never really fell victim to the malaise. But overall it was a grim time. Little did we know, us high school kids of the '70's, that help was right around the corner.

It probably began with the VW GTI, the first Fox-bodied Mustang, GM F-body coupes, and the C4 Corvette. I noticed the change in college, the stirrings of faster cars. By the mid-1980s the Pony Car Wars were back in full swing and great cars like the 3-Series BMW, Audi Quattro coupe and sedan, Toyota Supra (and even MR2), made performance and design relevant again.

For me, the pinnacle of the 1980's automotive rennaissance was the M6. The car was powerful and beautiful. From the shark front grill to the that wonderful inline 6 through the driver-focused cockpit to the tip of its rear dual exhaust, The M6 was everything that a car should be.

The list of great 1980's cars is long and wonderful...

Porsche 944 Turbo And S2
Audi Quattro (particulary the 200 turbo 'cause I had one)
VW GTI (Gen 1 and the late 80's 16 valve Gen 2 models)
Ford Mustang GT
Chevy Camaro and Firebird
C4 Corvette (Gen 2)
Mazda Miata
BMW 325is and M3
Porsche 3.2 Carrera and Turbo

Some of my favorites from the decade never made it to the US...

Lancia Thema 8.32
Lancia Delta Integrale
Peugeot 205 GTI
Ford Sierra Cosworth
Nissan Skyline R32

Come to think of it, the 80's may be the greatest decade of all time!

So, what's your vote for the best car of the 80's?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I'm No Edd China, But Time To Try

(Note: I write a tech column in the Hurricane Region, Porsche Club of America newsletter. Desperate for content for the blog, I decided to begin plagiarizing myself.)

The car enthusiast hobby has changed a lot since I caught the bug as a teenager. You probably followed the same path as I did, getting hooked on messing with cars in high school and gradually working your way through a succession of faster/nicer/cooler cars (with a few bad decisions along the way – I see you, Acura Integra). (I take exception to that; mine was an excellent car. -Ed.)

I started out doing many repairs and upgrades myself, from installing stereos to ripping out rusty exhaust components and welding in a straight pipe... and man, did that ‘74 Capri sound cool. In my 20s and 30s I changed my own oil and even attempted deeper repairs on occasion. I have a fairly good set of tools, jack stands, and a floor jack. I did go to mechanics for big stuff, like timing belt changes, but more from a time and confidence standpoint, than an actual skill thing.

It used to be so much simpler. What happened?
But, when I moved into modern Porsche membership with my 996, maintenance got a lot tougher. For one thing, OBDII now rules fault diagnosis. Sure, I’ve changed the brake rotors and pads, but I’m no Ray Munsch or David Brown (Porsche guys I know with real wrenching skills). Modern cars are just too darned complex for the average enthusiast to tackle much other than oil changes and brakes.

This reality has led me to create the “Home Car Repair Continuum” chart. It graphically shows a simple fact: the more expensive and complex the car, the less willing and able the average enthusiast is to repair it himself (or herself!). To be completely honest there is an additional factor at work     
here... let’s call it the sloth of affluence. Generally, we can afford to have done things we could actually do ourselves. But we rationalize we don’t have the time and pay one of the fine shops in the area to maintain our rides (waves at Hurricane Region sponsors). This is not wrong, but it is a bit lazy. I don’t have time to change the oil, but I did watch about 20 hours of basketball during March Madness...

So what to do? I have come to this decision: I am going to try to do everything that I can myself. Oil changes? I can do that! Brakes? I can do those! Motor mounts? Sitting in the garage waiting for warm weather.

Where Should I Get My Oil Changed? (Finding a Mechanic)

(Note: I write a tech column in the Hurricane Region, Porsche Club of America newsletter. Desperate for content for the blog, I decided to begin plagiarizing myself.)

One question that has come up lately, mostly from newer members, is where to take a car for routine maintenance, track inspections, and the like? There have been lots of helpful replies, some recommending local independent shops and some recommending using the dealership.

Since you have chosen the foolish route of owning European sports cars, which are inherently expensive to maintain and prone to needing repairs, identifying a shop and mechanic you trust is important. Just how do you go about finding the mechanic right for you? Well, the first step is exactly what members are doing on Facebook: asking questions. You can also find good options on the pages of this very newsletter. Our advertisers have supported the region and its’ members for years, sponsoring events on the weekend and fixing members’ cars during the week.

While I advocate doing maintenance yourself whenever possible, you can also benefit from having routine tasks done at a local shop. You may find it useful to ‘test drive’ a mechanic before a major problem arises. You really don’t want to get that big repair estimate only to wonder if the shop knows what it is doing. Better to have established a relationship prior to that moment. 

So what to look for? I have a few things I want from any shop. The first thing is basic customer service stuff; do they return phone calls, answer questions directly, and do what they say they are going to do? Porsches can be complex machines, and estimates are just that, so you have to go into any repair with your eyes open. But you should never get surprised when the bill shows up. 

Don’t be afraid to ask about the experience and training of the mechanics at the shop, and to get a short tour. A good shop should welcome the opportunity to show off both their facilities and employees.

Finally, and this is the acid test question: if things don’t turn out exactly as they should does the shop do the right thing? Again, these are complex machines and not every problem is simple to diagnose and repair. To be completely honest I have heard supposed horror stories about many shops in the area. When you repair thousands of cars over the years a few things are bound to go wrong. I had just such an experience, and the shop immediately made it right. I continue to use them to this day.

As for the question of independent shop vs. Porsche dealer… well, there are pros and cons to either option and again, we are lucky to have outstanding examples of each who support the region. So my answer is the same: build a relationship with a shop over time. Owning a Porsche is going to cost you money, perhaps a good bit of it on occasion. Better to spend that money at a shop you trust, where you have done business successfully in the past.

Where Did You Go?

This space has been a bit quiet lately. Too quiet. There are a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious being that blogging is hard work! The time to develop good topics and craft a post that doesn't suck takes time and efforttime and effort I've been using elsewhere.

In the real world I work in digital education, developing resources and helping teachers learn and practice integrating technology in their classrooms. Over the past few years education has rushed headlong into the wild world of social media. As a result I've been tweeting, blogging, and generally writing full time in that space. Great fun to be honest, but all this digital content creation put a real crimp in my car-related thinking and blogging.

Well, I'm determined to turn that around. Starting now. Or soon. In the meantime, I've been writing a column as the tech chair of my local PCA region and realized there was no reason not to share those here as well.

(Waits patiently for laughter to die down. This takes around five full minutes)

It's certainly true, virtually anyone who knows me realizes that perhaps only Lancelot Link is less qualified to dispense automotive technical advice.

Perhaps Oddball said it best...

But I've actually learned quite a bit over the years, usually the hard way. And so why not help others learn from my mistakes!

By the way, if you are interested in digital education check out SAS Curriculum Pathways and our attendant social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter (@SASEducator), and our Pathfinders blog.