Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'm watching Top Gear at the moment. James May is driving a Merc SL Gullwing. Earlier Hammond was flogging a Morgan Aero. Both such unique looking cars. You could maybe successfully argue style over substance with the Morgan, but I'd contend any proper sports car has to look the part. The Gumpert Apollo goes like stink and looks like it. Like stink, I mean.

Great design. All good cars, not just supercars, have it. I think Pininfarina.



The Italians.

I also think Harley Earl.

And Jean Bugatti (his Type 57 Atlantic is the prettiest car ever penned).

I don't necessarily think "corporate" design, which is how most cars are designed. Let's say Hyundai for example. They're now making cars that are, in terms of build quality, performance and technological innovation, on the level with most of Japan and certainly with most American cars. They even have a bit of "style", or a common design language. Same goes for Mercedes. Or BMW. They all have developed a design language that was committeed into existence. It's tooled and applied like makeup to every car in the lineup. The Acura Superman Shield is maybe the best/worst example of this. Or Mazda's smile. Or Toyota's Beige.

It's trite and it's boring. It's a substitute for personality and creativity. It's branding replacing style. It's corporate rock. Maybe they're good cars, but they're just so devoid of anything that would ever stir your soul. And it's 90% of the automobiles sold in the world today. Unfortunate.

But that's the nature art. If you, like me, consider cars capable of being works of art, even if they're mass produced, then you look for that blending of form and function, quirk and practicality, ostentatiousness and practicality. Can you look at a mk1 VW Golf and see art?

Pop art. It's Kanye West or John Lennon or Kurt Cobain. It's created within the sphere of mass culture for that very culture. Doesn't mean it has to be uninspired or uninspiring. Doesn't have to be Ke$ha. Doesn't have to suck. And maybe every once in a while someone gets it right. The new Mini or Fiat 500, pretty much anything with an Alfa Romeo badge, even the new Mustang. You see those cars and you feel something. They evoke emotion. What happens when you look at a Chrysler Sebring? Other than a gag reflex.

So maybe car design is like this; Bugatti Atlantic = Miles Davis. Comes along maybe once a century, changes everything, remains the high water mark for decades. Be thankful for that art existing in the world and inspires honest to God attempts to create something that doesn't suck the world's soul deep into a void of gray. Maybe the next time you see one of these, you'll appreciate it just a bit more for what it is, and also because of what it is not.

(designed by Kevin George, who even based on his corporate profile seems like an interesting guy)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bending brakes and angle grinders

Confession: My sophomore year at Baylor, I was a recluse. Weekends, I'd plant myself on our black vinyl sofa and play Tetris on the SNES until I was crosseyed and sweaty. I would fall asleep aligning blocks that fell endlessly from the blank void of my subconscious. It was French Existentialism in video game form. The relentless, eventually overwhelming march of opposition. Why continue when you know you will lose?

So that's what working sheet metal is like. You remove what seems to be a perfect 2x2" bit of cancerous metal, draw and cut out a replacement from a clean sheet, and lo, it slightly overlaps in one miniscule area. You file it down a hair, only to find there's now a massive gap. So you file a bit more and create a filler patch to complete the expanded gap. Too big. So you start over. And again. And so on. Ad nauseum.

Granted, I'm a total clod when it comes to fine, detail oriented work, so maybe attempting my own body work was a monolithically terrible idea. I do have the steady hands necessary to cleanly weld the patches into place (I've already filled trim holes), just not the dexterity to manufacture the patches. I'm slightly terrified of the windshield base repair.

On the flip side, my bumpers came out great! I flat-blacked the diving boards and refinished the plastic trim with some satin Plastidip spray. I drained the shock mounts so I can bring the entire bumper assembly, front and back, about three inches closer to the body. I'd PREFER a Zender kit, but as rare as they are, when they do sell, they sell for a lot.

My biggest issue is the tail lights.

The red circles are spots that have rusted though. I need to cut it out and replace, but bending new metal to match the surrounds is well beyond my capabilities. I'd not even bother with it, but I want to replace the monstrous plastic tails of the GTV6 with the simpler, more elegant lenses of the previous GTV.

Or I could just roughly patch, then fiberglass and Bondo my way back to some semblance of the original shapes and leave it at that.


Monday, November 1, 2010

I'm really terrible at this

One month after pledging to write more frequently...

Back off man. The wife is pregnant and I've found my free time vaporized. We've been to several doctor's appointments (the baby, AKA Slothbert, is perfectly healthy and cooking up nicely), Washington D.C., NYC, had a family member die and rebuilt our fence. No time for love, Doctor Jones! I wish I could report the remainder of that idle time went into the Alfa, but alas. Finally, this past weekend, I was able to fire up the welder and get to work on the rust. It's going to be a couple more months, but it does look like I'll be able to repair most of it with scrap panels rather than order brand-spanking new ones form the UK. The kid's not even born yet - I'm not about to sign him/her away for fresh steel just yet. Give me a year or two... jeesh.

I was recently given a smidge of hope, jumping back to the purpose of this blog. I was wearing my old Top Gear "Nurburgring nipple" shirt, standing in line at the HEB, when the checker girl asks me if that was indeed the 'ring. Ummm, yes, and too bad I'm already married. She proceeds to tell me how she learned to drive, LEARNED TO DRIVE - FULL STOP - in a Porsche GT2, and will never ever ever have a car that was not a manual transmission. She seemed college aged. Definitely upper middle class (duh). And an avowed devotee of the clutch pedal/stick configuration.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Alfa meets the highway

Last Saturday, I dropped the Alfa to all four of its tires for the first time in almost a month. The front suspension, including bearings, bushings, and ball joints, was complete. Everything replaced, de-rusted, sealed and gussied up. In a last minute, last ditch effort to have music, I managed to find live wiring for an eBay special Audiovox amp and an iPod. My brother and I hit the road that evening, bound for LeMons Houston more than 250 miles away. I wasn't necessarily a ball of nerves, but I did tell the wife I'd know the car was roadworthy if we made it.

We made it.

The car was a total sweetheart on the long haul. Yeah, a set of classic Recaros would help, and the transaxle is still balky as all get out (there's a spare sitting in the garage, waiting for cooler weather to prevail), and oh my God would air conditioning have been a great idea. Otherwise, we did fine. And we felt cool, regardless of the AC situation.

LeMons, the first time for both of us, was a hoot and a half. We spent all day Sunday at MSR Houston, watching the beaters go round and round. I was maybe expecting a bit more demolition derby, but what I got was clean, disciplined racing. Racing. The fight between the winning Mitsubishi Mirage, aka Team Mid Drive Crisis, and the second place Saturn SC2 Mach 5, was a true battle. Great stuff. Fun people. Frito pie.

The drive home led us to the conclusion our grandma's derelict Cimarron would make an excellent racer, especially in faux Cadillac CTS-V LeMans livery. It's gonna happen.

It was a great weekend driving a great car to an event that I think is the summation of American gearheadedness. Get out and drive, people.

Monday, July 26, 2010

And speaking of Dan Neil

From his most recent review of the new Porsche Boxster Spyder,

"Speed is primarily a perception and so I think I know what's going on here. First, the Porsches I've been driving lately have all had the dual-clutch gearbox, which is vastly superior to a manual transmission—more efficient, quicker, faster, more exhilarating. Those purists out there still clinging to your six-speed manuals, please go home. Your black-and-white TV is on the fritz."


Inky Wretches

I went home to Arkansas this past weekend for a friend's wedding. This post has nothing to do with the trip other than the drive from Austin to Hot Springs will swallow your soul, the Camry is without a doubt the single most boring piece of consumer machinery that has ever been conceived, built and sold in this country, even considering that Automotive Hand Tools are cheap and easy to get. Seeing my old Saab 92x is like seeing an old girlfriend who's married someone else (I certainly don't want her back after the hell she's been through, but that doesn't prevent a few fond memories form tainting any rational response).

No, this is about automotive journalism. Automotive enthusiast journalism, rather. You see, I had a layover in Dallas during the flight back. I decided to see what was what in the magazine rack and decided on European Car Magazine. It's been about four years since I let my Automobile and Car & Driver subscriptions lapse, so I am willfully oblivious to what is going on in the traditional publishing arena. For $6 it was a better investment than Cinnabon. The mag is published by Source Interlink, formerly Primedia, formerly Petersen Publishing. It was a famished looking waif of a book, maybe 100 pages, two-thirds of them ads. There were two features of more than five pages, a couple of build-up and restoration pieces, a bit of news.

I don't expect Dan Neil or Ezra Dyer to write very automotive article published these days, but I hold out a bit of hope for some degree of creativity and originality in an enthusiast mag. This isn't Consumer Reports, after all. I'd hoped the more gonzo stylings of blogs like Jalopnik had lit a small fire under the tuchuses of the luddites. What I found would have caused my college journalism teachers to reflexively gag. Basic grammar and copy-editing errors. Bizarre layouts. Rote, recycled prose. The only words that come to mind are lazy and sad. My wife likes to goad me when I become a whinging, morose heap. Sad turtle. That's how I felt both reading the magazine and about it.

The death knell of American automotive journalism, according to some purists, was Csaba Csere's firing of Brock Yates from Car & Driver.  Yates is an ass, but he's also an enthusiast on fire. Avid readers seem to agree a mild renaissance occurred in the late 90s with the advent of Sport Compact Car Magazine under Dave Coleman and Josh Jacquot. Technically well-versed but relaxed and conversational, the book promoted the same sort of gonzo enthusiasm that likely gave rise to the blogs that sustain and nourish the enthusiast community now. Ill-advised comparisons and contests coupled with admiration of the show up and race mentality of pre-commercialized racing might have fostered the LeMons ad Chump Car series.

Maybe that's a stretch... but I recognize the same mentalist mentality that simultaneously asks Why not? and How hard can it be? I suppose credit has to go to Top Gear and even Grassroots Motorports for that. Or maybe the frenzy of rulemaking in more traditional sanctioned racing series like SCCA and NASA that led to an exodus of casual drivers from their ranks.

The print medium is faltering. So what? Does the medium have to be the message? What's the difference between writing for a traditional print mag or writing for a blog? Deadlines? Why is it I see a better quality of writing and editing at Jalopnik? More interesting concepts for pieces? Of course the blog is going to beat the print book to the punch when it comes to breaking news, but what's the excuse for quality photography? It doesn't really matter how the content is published. Right?

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I haven't given up on the blog, I just got distracted. My wife and I finally got around to planning our honeymoon a few months ago, which was more of a time consumer than I had anticipated. It wasn't that it consumed my life, it's just that I could only spend so much time on my laptop after getting home from work, scanning, digging, researching the lowest airfares to Europe, hotels, restaurants, all that jazz. If anyone is interested, here's the result of those many hours.

Three days in Barcelona, fly to Rome and train to Florence for three days, rent a car and drive to Vicchio for three days, drive back to Florence and train to Rome for a final three days.

Here are just a few automotive observations:

Automatic transmissions are not available in rental cars. Drive stick or don't drive. We had a Lancia Ypsilon 1.1 for our three days in the Tuscan countryside, and it was a hoot. I wanted a Panda, but c'est la vie. I still dug the little Lancia, which was a surprisingly good little car for what it was. And I only got honked at one, which I consider a triumph.

Scooters. I witnessed a Vespa rider lean his ride into a corner on one of those bonkers backroads through the mountains. Lean it. Like a sportbike. Is that even possible? His knee was on the ground.

Italians still love their cars. After living in England for a while a few years ago, I'd developed the impression Europeans pulled out the torches and pitchforks whenever someone bought a new car. From what I saw, Italian car culture is alive and well, at least in the cities we visited.

A Lancia Delta HF Integrale draws more of a crowd than a new Ferrari 458, even in Italy.

Not many old cars on the road, the result of draconian emissions policies. The only cool, older cars I saw, aside from beater Minis, a few Fiat 500s and tired 1-litre Pandas were a pair of Lancia Betas. Not a single old Alfa. Le sigh...

Driving in cities is the most harrowing experience in this country's repertoire, shaming even the single track mountain roads with two-way traffic and a simmering, impatient and possibly drunk guy in a Civic Type R behind you. The road design makes no sense whatsoever, and if you don't read Italian (holding up my hand here), you are taking your savings account out and putting it on the roulette table.

My wife wants a Fiat 500 cabrio. I want a Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse. Waiting patiently for 2012...

ANYWAY, the long and short of it is this - we had an absolutely amazing time, ate everything put in our path, and are planning an eventual return. Oh, if only...

So back to the bloggy blog. It's been a slow few months for car related news. On a personal note, my brother is in the market for something cool. He's been driving a 2005 Mazda 6 for the past couple of years and is frankly tired it. Suggestions? I think he'd do well to look into the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. I personally have a semi for this car, but without a hatch or even a fastback, I just can't give it serious consideration. It seems like the perfect successor to the Nissan 240 in almost every way. But the trunk is essentially unusable and the back seat is punishment for bestiality in many Orthodox countries.

Why the aversion to utility? Honda had it so very right with the Acura Integra/RSX. Even if it's wasn't as voluminous as the Fit, you could at least stash some suitcases in the back, or in my case a Yorkville half-stack and a Fender Jazz Bass. I was trying to imagine what a Genesis Coupe with a tapering fastback-style hatch, a la the Integra, might look like, and came to the conclusion that it would be slick. Maybe not pretty (the Genesis' nose precludes pretty in any configuration anyway), but slick. So whataboutit, Hyundai?

I think he's also considering a Mustang, since his boss owns a Ford dealership. Therein is another weighty decision - high-tech V6 with 30+ MPG and the performance of a WRX STi for less than $30k, or the noise of a V8? Blerg. Another car I'd happily drive if for but a wee bit more utility. You can guess what I'm getting at... I'm dying over here for a hot hatch. A Renaultsport 200 or a Scirocco or an Abarth anything. Just give me something here, before I decide to turbo my Fit. That's never a good solution, is it?