2014 Buick LaCrosse is like 100mph Butter
December 4, 2013—I signaled and swung into the right lane, star-lit saguaros and mile markers whizzing past, as the transmission downshifted. My right foot was already buried in the carpet. Ahead of me, and now to the left, a twelve car convoy vanished into little red dots in the darkness at a less-than-brisk sixty mph. I cursed them all and heard a gasp from the back seat as the 2014 Buick LaCrosse surged forward.
Buick would like me to tell you all about the electronics and gizmos that pack the 2014 LaCrosse or just how quiet the cabin is (very), but all I really care about is the driving experience. Sorry, Buick, this is Wide Open. Please allow me to explain that even though my passengers may have been frightened momentarily during passing maneuvers I never once heard the dreaded, “please slow down for the LOVE OF GOD, youaregoingtokillus!” You may be surprised but it happens to me with alarming regularity. Indeed, there was no backseat driving at all.
That it didn’t happen on our drive from Venice, CA to Scottsdale, AZ borders on water-into-wine miraculous when you consider my passengers: my fiancé and her parents. My fiancé’s folks are both very nice, polite people. I’d like to think that their disposition coupled with my smooth driving allowed me to flirt with (and sometimes exceed) triple-digit speeds, but in fact all credit should go to the LaCrosse.
Simply put, the suspension is tuned well for medium/high-speed interstate driving. The car is just butter-cliché smooth. But don’t misunderstand; this is definitely not the easy-chair land-yacht of Buick’s past. The operative word for the LaCrosse truly is smooth, but the ride has firmness to it and the steering does provide decent feedback (personally, I’d like more but I’m convinced everyone should be driving a Formula One car, so take it with a grain of salt).
In fact, the only thing that threatened my, and perhaps my passengers’, perception of the Buick’s silkiness was the car’s transmission. The six-speed automatic isn’t bad, it just hunts a bit too much and seems to hesitate when you mash the gas pedal (aka the worst possible moment). But the engine is strong and makes ample torque to the point where freeway passing is effortless and doesn’t allow your future in-laws to question whether or not you’ll complete the pass or smack into the back of an eighteen-wheeler.
We flew through the dark desert uneventfully and we made it to Scottsdale in very good time, especially considering the Thanksgiving-holiday traffic. In fact, the most upsetting incident of the whole drive was listening to an eighteen-minute (!) live version of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” off my future father-in-law’s iPod (upsetting for my fiancé, I enjoy folk music). Most importantly, my future in-laws haven’t forbidden me from marrying their daughter. Thank you, Buick!
Would I buy this car as tested for its roughly forty-five thousand dollar price tag? Probably not, but not because it’s a bad car. I think it’s actually quite good, but there are many cars at that price point that are also more than capable. Anyway, I’d rather save my money for something that doesn’t allow for the possibility of rear seat complaints. [kiWO]
LA Auto Show
Novermber 21, 2013—There are two cars that truly captured our attention at this year’s LA Auto Show. Sure there were many, many new car intros, but only two really moved us—the Mercedes-Benz Vision Gran Turismo Concept and the BMW i8. Also rans include the Chevy Colorado, Honda FCEV, Maserati Ghibli, and Porsche Macan.
The MB Vision Gran Turismo is a real-life interpretation of a video game car. If it looks completely absurd, it’s because it is. The wheels flare past the tires (and fenders), eight exhausts poke out of the rear and although many claim the following “this car looks fast standing still,” the Vision Concept actually does. It is a speed form that was able to materialize thanks to Mercedes and Sony’s deep pockets.
The star of the Los Angeles show, the Vision Concept received enthusiastic cheers and applause from the normally jaded automotive journalist crowd when the sleek cover was pulled off. Sadly, the Vision will never see actual production. The closest anyone will ever get to driving it is in the upcoming Gran Turismo 6.
MB did show variations on existing models (GLA 250, GLA 45 AMG Concept and S65 AMG) but somehow stole the show in spite of the fact that they didn’t debut any all-new cars except for a fantasy concept that everyone knows is destined for the crusher. That’s how exciting the Vision is.
The only other debut car that we found compelling was BMW’s i8. Although BMW has been showing its ‘Vision Concept’ (no relation to MB’s) for what seems like three decades now, this was the production version’s North American reveal. It weighs in at 3285 pounds, which certainly isn’t light and makes a total of 362 combined hp (it is a hybrid drivetrain featuring a 1.5L, three cylinder engine and an electric motor). However, as the motor provides the bulk of torque, all available from zero rpm, it sprints to sixty mph in 4.4 seconds.
Not a world-beater, but certainly not slow either. The car is pretty but has sadly lost the glass doors of the concept (which were probably too heavy for production). We love it because it speaks to the future of enthusiast cars. It is still very expensive, priced at $137,000, but a fraction when compared to Porsche’s 918. Especially considering that the i8 delivers much of the Porsche’s performance.
We’re excited that hybrid sports cars are being actively developed by the OEMs and wonder how long it will be before one releases an all-electric performance car. By the way, if you remember last year’s show we’re sad to report that Smart still doesn’t get it. [kiWO]
Question: Can a car be made cool?
October 22, 2013—There are cars that upon seeing them, one instantly thinks, “that’s cool!” And obviously there are cars that no amount of help will ever render them cool. Or are there? Recently, we drove a 1967 Porsche 911S back from Kansas City and we believe that that old sports car is unquestionably cool. Remember the Chevy Cobalt? We’d argue that the Cobalt is a sad monument to GM’s “almost there” self-delusion of the 1990’s. But what if the Cobalt had been outfitted with a 6.0L V8, rear wheel drive and big fender flares? Here it is… the “Gobalt” for your consideration.
Frankly, the amount of time and money invested in this conversion make us want to cry, then laugh and point; not admire. It may be fast, it may be a sleeper, but is it cool? Uhhh, no. I respect the builder’s ability, but it’s like ‘Dogs Playing Poker’: someone had the skill to paint it, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be honored to hang it in my home.
The Gobalt is essentially a hot rod though—a cheap, relatively lightweight car with a powerful engine stuffed in. And yet built '32s regularly fetch high five-figure sums. So is this just a question of time? What do you think? [kiWO]
KC to LA, postscript: Webasto! by Ben Shahrabani
October 17, 2013—I must confess that I was going to withhold this tidbit. The trip from Kansas City to Los Angeles has been covered most excellently (thank you "Bill & Ted" for the right words) by my co-driver, Wide Open’s editor. But upon reflection, my misunderstanding of certain information—that would have been quite helpful—is so humorous that I had to share it.
Bill, the 911’s seller, took some time to review the car from top to bottom upon my arrival in Kansas City. Even though the car is pretty basic, there was a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short amount of time. One thing that apparently stood out was his warning "…this car has the optional Webasto gas heater. I've never used it. Don't touch the controls for it. I'm not sure what might happen…" Well, his words remained prominent in my mind as I immediately told Yoav (when he was already at the airport) that we would probably have little to no heat during our trip. Bill showed me two controls for the heat—one was a floor lever that I believed was the control for the Webasto. Another was on the dash.
In Porsche’s early days, an optional Webasto gas heater could be fitted in the luggage compartment. Later, Porsche settled on using the hot exhaust system to warm air for the heating system, just as Volkswagen did with the Beetle. The principle is basically the same on all air-cooled 911 heating systems. The two exhaust manifolds are enveloped in steel shrouds through which fresh air from outside the car is forced and heated on its way to the cockpit. The Webasto gas heater is exactly what it sounds like. It takes gasoline and converts it into heat for the car's occupants. The idea never caught on and was discontinued on later cars. I myself can think of at least two reasons it didn't—inferior fuel mileage and something that can go "boom" up front.
The lever on the floor in front of the shifter is for the regular heat. One won't get any heat at all unless that lever is pulled back first, as it opens the heater valves on the heat exchangers. Then you can direct how much goes to your feet or the base of the windshield by adjusting the vent seals in the rockers.
The only thing that stood out in my mind was Bill's warning "…I'm not sure what might happen…" if the lever was pulled. So we didn't try the floor lever for most of the journey until we nearly froze in Utah’s high desert. But it wasn't the Webasto that we thought worked and saved us that cold, cold night: it was the car's regular heat! The knob we thought was the regular heater was actually the Webasto. I had them backwards! If I'm totally honest, I think I smelled raw gasoline and smoke when we manipulated the dash-mounted knob. We may have cost ourselves a few brain cells.
So, Yoav, I apologize for almost costing you a toe and poisoning you with gas fumes…but the snafu does make for a better story, doesn't it? [kiWO]
KC to LA, part 3: American Le Mans
October 15, 2013—As I diced through slower Grand Junction traffic in a silent, blind rage, Ben began to snicker. Surprisingly, this did not improve my disposition. It was around this time that we discovered that the 911’s headlights we as effective as birthday candles. I turned on the high beams and they weren’t much better. On a positive note, I don’t think they were powerful enough to blind oncoming cars.
In response to his laughter I felt compelled to share my disappointment and question his constitution and necessity for comfort. While I was furious, I also realized that simply abandoning the trip was more trouble than it was worth and I resolved to see the drive to its end. Accordingly, I recognized that by making a point, such as forcing us to eat at a Carl’s Jr., the tension would only escalate. Also, one of us might shit our pants in the Utah desert (my money was on him).
I turned the Porsche into a restaurant called “Texas Roadhouse” that looked like a pseudo-twangy version of TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s. It was. We walked in to discover a long wait for a table and decided to eat at the bar. We sat in temporary silence waiting for the bartender to take our order; but preferring to resolve the matter, I tried to explain to Ben just why I was so upset, “When we talked about this drive, we spoke about it in terms of the Cannonball Run and hoped to MAYBE get a couple hours of sleep, if we were quick enough, and still arrive at Supercar Sunday at seven AM.”
He nodded and I continued in a measured, clipped manner, “stopping at restaurants, getting a table, sitting down, these are all things that just kill our time. My priority, aside from our safety and the car’s, is minimizing our time. Seeking out some diner, miles from the freeway, is just foolish if we’re really trying to manage our time. Then, arriving there only to discover that they’re closed for dinner is beyond absurd. This whole episode makes me question your priorities and understanding of how difficult it is to drive for roughly twenty four hours straight.”
Ben replied that he is at a point in life where he values his comfort and that he’s less than willing to forego a proper meal for a day. “Look, it’s a good opportunity to get out of the car, stretch, and be comfortable for a moment. We’ve been driving for twelve hours. Why not enjoy it?” The argument ended, my anger left me. I didn’t agree with him and it was obvious that we had different priorities, but further bickering would only make the second half of the drive that much harder and solve nothing.
We finished our chicken sandwiches and Ben paid. He also thanked me for my commitment. I was almost embarrassed. We walked out to the car, snapped some pics, refueled (since we were already off the highway) and we found I-70 once again. Thankfully, the dark road was practically empty west of Grand Junction. The headlights were dangerously useless and I couldn’t see very far ahead as we pierced the darkness. I had to toss my gloves off the dashboard because of their reflection in the windshield.
Dimming the dash lights didn’t help much either. There was a bit of starlight as the Milky Way illuminated but it was a new moon and hence there wasn’t enough light to make a difference. Some time in the darkness we crossed into Utah. In my opinion, southern Utah is the most beautiful area in the continental US. It pained me to cross it while the lights were out—the scenery is incomparable. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to visit and drive, hike, climb, moonwalk, whatever.
Our headlights would illuminate red sedimentary cliffs fading to black, backlit towers high above. The stars would be obscured behind this jagged, soaring curtain and the road would become twisty. I kept my foot in the throttle even after Ben spotted a ram peering out of the darkness as we sped by in the little 911. The fact that the temperature was rapidly dropping in the desert, and inside the car, was keeping me alert but my eyes were beginning to play tricks on me. As we approached underpasses I’d first spot the grey horizontal walls, above and perpendicular to our path, seemingly unattached to anything and for an instant think I was seeing a ghost.
The first time it happened I was shaken. But remembering that I’d only slept about five hours the night before and that I had now been driving close to sixteen hours I realized that I was just responding to poor lighting and fatigue. By the third or fourth time I saw a “ghost” I just chuckled to myself. Anyway, we had a fuel stop coming up and Ben would be taking over.
We stopped in Richfield and I didn’t bother climbing out of the car, I just jumped over the shifter, let Ben pump the gas and left the key in the ignition. In the brief stop I had become quite cold (not just alert), zipped up my leather jacket and put on my newly-acquired gloves and a bandana that I used to cover my head. It wasn’t a hat, but it would have to do. Giving Ben some quick directions back to the freeway, I pulled up my coat’s short collar and tried to cover my chin and mouth with it. I don’t remember falling asleep but it couldn’t have been long after.
I felt the car slowing down and Ben was saying something. “What?” I asked, my eyes still closed. “I think we’re being pulled over,” he replied urgently. Regaining consciousness, I was immediately struck by how cold the cabin was. Blue and red lights and an intense white flooded the dashboard and headliner. I could see my exhaled breath hanging in the air. “What makes you say that?” I asked sarcastically as I once again tried to retreat into my jacket like a turtle.
Ben brought the car to a stop and it was dead silent. I cranked the window down and checked my watch. It was exactly midnight and it was freezing outside. The cop walked up and asked for Ben’s license and registration. Ben handed him his license and explained that the Porsche wasn’t registered as he had just purchased it. He asked the officer for permission to open the glove box and then pulled out the bill of sale.
The officer asked if we had any weapons and told us to sit tight. Normally, I might have made some joke about a howitzer, but I think my teeth were chattering too loudly to be intelligible (this is not hyperbole, I was becoming hypothermic). When he returned he handed Ben a ticket and said that he had us doing 96 in an 80.
Ben asked him if he could do something about the ticket because technically it wasn’t his fault as the speedo wasn’t working, oh and we’re freezing our asses off because neither does the heat. The officer replied that he wondered why I was in gloves and shivering. He said that he’d knock the ticket down to the minimum. He also suggested Ben have the speedo fixed as soon as we got back to LA.
We thanked him and I rolled up the window. “If the car catches fire, we’ll deal with it. We need to turn the heater on,” I declared. The temperature was down in the twenties according to my iphone and that was in the nearest town, not in the middle of the desert. Although we didn’t really have a way of dealing with a fire I figured that if the car burned, well, at least it would keep us warm. Ben agreed, started the engine and I pulled the lever in front of the shifter all the way back until it was vertical.
Ben let the clutch out and we were underway again without flames appearing in the mirror. More importantly, in less than thirty seconds the interior was noticeably warmer. The heat put me to sleep quickly and I dozed in the dummy seat until Ben nudged me awake an hour later, for another fuel stop. I ran inside, used the restroom and bought a large black coffee. I’m not under the impression that cream or sugar decrease the amount of caffeine; I just like to taste what I’m drinking. I did my best impression of a Le Mans start—I ran outside, jumped in the driver’s seat, left hand on the key, coffee in the right (that’s not very Le Mans, don’t worry about it) and fired the engine.
The 911 came to life with its now familiar report, I slammed the transmission back into first gear and floored the throttle. Ben had gotten us through Utah and Arizona’s corner and we departed from Glendale, Nevada for a late dinner in Las Vegas. I was still tired, but buzzing from the coffee and the finish line was almost in sight.
Eventually, the stars began to vanish as the glow from Las Vegas intensified. We were still twenty or so miles out, but damn, that city is bright and there’s nothing around but dirt and rocks and coyotes. In the distance, a discernible single beam of light ascended to the heavens from the Luxor.
A few minutes later we were crossing Las Vegas on the I-15 looking for our exit. My drowsiness had left me and I was ready for a real meal. When we initially planned this drive, I thought we’d hit Las Vegas later and thought a breakfast would be appropriate, but as I researched I realized that we’d be arriving around two to three in the morning. This means dinner to me. And here we were arriving at about three AM. We exited the highway on to Russell Rd. and saw our restaurant just a bit ahead—Crazy Horse III.
That’s right, we were going to have a late dinner at a strip-club. I’m sorry, ‘gentleman’s club’. After all, we’d heard that they serve sushi and what better place to eat raw fish than at a ‘gentleman’s club’ in the middle of the desert? We parked the car and headed for the door, but were detained because I had my camera bag slung over my shoulder. It was not permitted. You’ll have to forgive me but the bouncer was not swayed even after I explained that I was an up-standing member of the media, so no photos of the sushi dinner.
I ordered California rolls, “best to keep it simple,” I thought, “and skip the maguro and hamachi.” Ben opted to skip dinner altogether, I guess the Texas Roadhouse chicken sandwich had been enough. How was the sushi? Well, I didn’t get food poisoning, which is about the highest compliment I think I could ever give to strip-club sushi.
We skipped the pretty ladies’ advances (I think the brunette really liked me!) as we had a date with car nerds like ourselves. Vegas was our last stop except for gas before Supercar Sunday. It was almost 4:30 AM.
At least now the road was familiar. I had driven this route at least ten times and recognized all of the small towns: Jean, Primm, Baker, Yermo, Barstow. The sun began to rise around Yermo, I think. I caught the first rays in the Porsche’s small, cracked wing mirror and even though we were chasing darkness I pushed the 911 harder. This was our backyard and I was feeling good.
We stopped for gas once more in Victorville and I bought a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. No reason to skimp on the caffeine now, I thought. Ben was too drowsy to drive so I committed to completing the drive myself, which I was happy about. Traffic was mercifully light entering the Los Angeles megalopolis and the last three freeways were very fast.
Pulling into Supercar Sunday, we felt like conquering heroes. The honored marque was Shelby, but it could have been Yugo for all we cared. I backed the neunelfer into a spot carefully and shut the engine off. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes for a moment until some guy knocked on the window and asked if the car was for sale. I just laughed.
We got out and Ben began telling people how we’d just arrived from Kansas City. “Yup. Cannonball straight.” Well, I might debate the Cannonball part, but yeah we did it straight: a classic Porsche 911 and roughly 1650 miles in about twenty-six hours including the Great Plains, the Rockies, a fight over dinner and differing philosophies, almost freezing, strip-club sushi, a blast through the Mojave and a lot of caffeine. That’s what I call American Le Mans. [kiWO]
KC to LA, part 2: Colorado Meltdown
October 10, 2013—The water, pretzels and M&Ms had been purchased, the road atlas had not. And since I’d decided to charge my GoPro rather than iPhone we’d be relying on Ben’s phone for guidance. This made me uncomfortable even though I knew our route. We’d head west on I-70 until mid-Utah where we’d switch to the I-15 south and onto I-210 for the brief run to Supercar Sunday.
It was still dark outside when the alarm buzzed. We got ready, ate a light breakfast and headed to the car. I don’t consider the 911 a beautiful car, not in the same way as a Ferrari 250 SWB anyhow. But all 911s appear to be lowered. I’m not sure how this is possible, but in all honesty, every 911 ever built has a wonderful stance. The tires just tuck under the fender and the cars look ready to spring.
We approached the 911 sitting next to a massive SUV that just underscored the already diminutive German’s size and the lighting in the garage, a garish yellow-orange, punctuated the Neunelfer’s Bahama Yellow paint. It just looked like a happy little, underdog 911 eager to run. I immediately noticed a Viennese club plaque on the engine cover and a window sticker from some racetrack in the ‘70s. You’ll notice that the car isn’t perfect; if you look closely enough you’ll spot respray areas and rust on the edge of the bonnet.
But these imperfections tell the story of a car that’s been driven, raced and most importantly, enjoyed. And now it was time to add to its story. Ben attempted to insert the assymetrical key into the ignition cylinder but had it upside down. He flipped it over, turned it to engage the electrical systems and pumped the gas a couple of times. He then held the gas pedal about a quarter of the way down and turned the key all the way. The flat-six engine gradually sputtered and coughed into a loud continuous barking.
The engine warmed a bit while I finished packing our gear into the trunk and back seats. I jumped into the dummy seat and was greeted by a three-point seat belt that wasn’t self-tensioning. In other words, it was similar to the seat belts on the plane that brought us to Kansas City—you click it in, tighten it yourself and hope you (or the pilot) don’t hit anything.
Ben backed out of the spot and I checked my watch: 7:40AM local time. We exited the garage and headed for the highway after briefly stopping to shoot some video and becoming lost (smart phone, ahem). Ben asked if we were taking I-70 east or west, I responded by rolling my eyes and he answered his own question. Patience is a virtue I lack, my apologies.
The road remained wet in places but thankfully the rain that was falling when I landed had cleared. Traffic was light that Saturday morning but we saw the parking lots outside Kansas Speedway filling up for NASCAR qualifying and practice. It hadn’t been too cold in the garage but slicing across the autumn morning Kansas prairie I realized that I hadn’t dressed properly. I also realized that the Porsche’s heater wasn’t working. “I don’t see any HVAC controls, do you know how to turn the heat on?”
“What?” Ben yelled back.
“HEAT! What’s the deal?!”
“Well, there is this turning switch, but I don’t know what it controls. Also, the vents are part of the frame rails, just slide it open with your foot,” Ben replied. “And there is a heater, but I think it runs off gasoline, independently of the engine. I’d rather not risk a fire…” he added. It was cold but not intolerable and I decided that staying warm was less important than using our fuel to make speed and burn miles.
It was also extremely noisy in the cabin. The engine was loud but the real issue was a very loud, high-pitched whistling that emanated from the cracked window seals on the driver’s side door. We had the radio cranked but it was hard to hear over the whistling. Ben asked for some earplugs that were in a hoodie in the back seat.
The green and gold rolled out like a carpet endlessly around us. Once in a while, we’d glimpse a roostertail thrown up by a tractor or combine working the land or a pro-life or quilting billboard. We sped through Lawrence, Topeka, Salina and even smaller towns whose name only residents know, trying to escape a crushing grey canopy. Even at this early stage I was keenly aware of our progress and the ever decreasing daylight that remained. Unfortunately, the odometer didn’t work in the 911 and neither did the speedo (it vacillated in thirty mile-per-hour increments) so I couldn’t even calculate progress roughly. We’d have to measure progress based on fuel stops and mile markers: two miles per minute equals 120 miles per hour.
As the miles and silos rolled by, the clouds began to break and we could see that the sky ahead was an unbroken light blue screen. We passed a small cemetery that was right along the side of the highway but not very close to any towns. It must have been a remnant from the days before the interstates. A few miles further we made our first fuel stop at a gas station that was like a rowboat in the green ocean. The little hamlet of Wilson lay less than two miles to the south, but we didn’t see it.
As I opened the Porsche’s door a gust of wind grabbed it and flung it open. The clearing skies should have alerted me to windy conditions as a high pressure front was settling in. It was good because it meant we wouldn’t have to deal with wet weather, but we would have strong crosswinds for the foreseeable future and it was biting cold, at least for this California boy. I ran inside to use the restroom and bought thick, ugly gloves that had been there since dinosaurs lived alongside people in Kansas. If they sold knitted caps, I’d have bought one as well. Ben and I agreed that we’d switch seats every time we refueled and so it was now my turn at the wheel.
I had trouble starting the 911 as I misunderstood Ben’s instructions and hadn’t held the throttle open while cranking the ignition. Also, I now discovered that the shift pattern was (for me) upside down—first gear was all the way left, but towards you; second gear was in the middle but away from you, etc… To make matters worse, the shift action was rather sloppy and vague. It was tough to tell if whether the tranny was in first or third and second or fourth. By the end of the drive I’d be used to it, but jumping in cold it was a bit of an unhappy surprise.
The car shuddered as we made the left out of the gas station because I was in third gear and I nearly buried the throttle just to keep the car from stalling. I downshifted to second and the Porsche recovered, then rowed through the rest of the gears as I accelerated, full-tilt, back onto the highway. The symphony of the engine sucking fuel down the carburetors and spitting out horsepower was wonderful.
One fortunate consequence of the fuel stop was that the high-pitch whistling didn’t resume when we did and we speculated that Ben hadn’t closed the driver’s door completely earlier. There was still wind noise and it was loud, but it was minimal compared to what we’d been subjected to. We’d crossed half of Kansas and now I set my sights on making Colorado as quickly as possible.
Kansas melted into Colorado as the plains rolled on as endlessly as the sky. We crossed the state border but didn’t see a line across the countryside. When we stopped for fuel again, the only way I could tell that I had just driven 230 miles in a bit under two and a half hours was because my hands were cramping. I was also beginning to question the wisdom behind driving a forty-six year old sports car for twenty-some hours straight. You see, ergonomics in the 1960’s weren’t what they are today and the old Porsche’s steering wheel is awfully hard and extremely thin. It’s just a bad combination for comfort. Fighting strong crosswinds didn’t help either.
But now the sun was out and the day was warming up nicely. We had also made decent time through Kansas and were on track to make it to Supercar Sunday more than an hour early. Perhaps we’d get to park and sleep for an hour or two tonight? Ben pointed the 911 west again and we were off, our spirits buoyed by the fact that we’d driven almost one-third of the distance in under six hours.
Throughout the drive, the cliché “to finish first, first you have to finish” kept popping up in my mind as we constantly balanced maximizing speed and attempting to not break the Porsche. And although we had initially planned to stop for lunch in Limon, Co I argued against it because I wanted to use as much daylight as possible to drive. I knew that after the sun set, and hours behind the wheel, the drive would become much more difficult.
On the horizon, the Rockies materialized out of the thin white sliver between earth and sky. Finally, a change; as they grew out of the ground, traffic around us increased. It never really slowed us down but now we had to contend with large SUVs obscuring our sight lines and people texting around us. Have I mentioned that the Neunelfer’s brakes were less than effective?
I managed to convince Ben that we should forego lunch in Denver to devour more miles before the sun disappeared. As the Porsche climbed the Rockies it began to struggle a bit in the thinning air. Now we had to downshift to fourth each time we were on an uphill. But heading west out of Denver’s suburbs, traffic thinned once more and we knew that we wouldn’t hit traffic again until Los Angeles’ foothills.
The Rockies were covered in snow even though the leaves had only begun to change. The section of highway between Denver and Colorado’s western border is one of the best stretches of interstate that I’ve ever driven on. Even though it’s wide and fast, it’s also very twisty for an arterial freeway. Braking is necessary and I wondered whether a sudden lift off the throttle would cause the rear-engined Porsche to bite us. The ’67 911S is only a two-liter, but it’s still a 911.
It didn’t spin and Ben was able to toss it into curves easily and apply heavy gas to power out and maintain speed. The fact that the car is light allowed it to remain entertaining even though the altitude decreased the Porsche’s output. We darted through passes, up and down and eventually summited over 10,800 ft., atop the continental divide.
We refueled in Vail, CO and I resumed my driver’s duties. As the day stretched, more than eight hundred miles behind us (and over halfway to Supercar Sunday), the shadows grew and the mountains began to block the waning sun. At some point just before sunset, Ben had had enough of my clock management. He needed time off the road and out of the car. He wanted to sit down for a proper dinner and make sure that we both ate well. I just wanted to keep mashing the gas to get as far as possible before we were both too tired to continue and we had to give up our pseudo-Cannonball. In the interest of democracy, I conceded and asked him to choose a restaurant so long as it was close to the highway. He found a diner and told me to get off the highway right as we tore by the exit. “Dude.” I asked him to find something at the next exit.
It was six miles further. I began to get annoyed. He couldn’t find another ‘suitable’ place near this exit and was unwilling to eat fast food. So we had to backtrack through Grand Junction’s small streets to the first place he’d wanted to go to. Pulling in to the parking lot, he read the sign, “Lois’ Place” and on the next line, “Breakfast and Lunch.” That’s right—no dinner, it was closed. My head nearly exploded. After all of our talk of Cannonballs and running the Porsche to the coast as quickly as possible, here we were scampering about Grand Junction like a couple of Guy Fieri’s looking for a fun, hip diner.
I wanted to get out, rent a car and drive the remainder of the route on my own. I floored the Porsche’s gas pedal executing an angry donut in the dark, empty lot, flew into traffic without signaling and informed him that we’d be eating whatever was right next to the goddamn highway. This logistical failure was my proverbial last straw... [kiWO]
KC to LA, part 1: T minus six hours...
October 8, 2013—Of all the long distance drives I’ve undertaken, including a three and a half-week odyssey covering almost 10,000 miles around the US with a girlfriend and our ultimately doomed relationship, this one contained the greatest chance of failure. Contributing writer and friend, Ben Shahrabani purchased the 1967 Porsche 911S you see in these photos, sight unseen, through the internet. It was for sale in Kansas City and Shahrabani did as much research as possible from a distance including reviewing lots of photos and ordering a pre-purchase inspection (PPI).
But as I learned when driving back from Amelia Island, nothing is certain. The PPI looked good and the owner was straight about what worked and what needed work. He also said that he had tracked the car regularly as well as driven it over long distances. The maintenance history was complete and there seemed to be no cause for alarm. All signs pointed to the Porsche successfully completing the trip. But what about us? First, we'd be flying after working a full day, then sleeping in a hotel for less than six hours, followed by an extended roadtrip in a small, forty-six year old car that neither of us had ever seen, let alone driven.
To add to the uncertainty, the first snows of the year had just fallen along our planned route. But then, here was an opportunity to drive a beautiful, little classic 911 on what amounted to a two-thirds Cannonball. It was a chance to drive the first generation of this icon and distill the experiences that would take most people months to discover into one difficult, intense drive. We’d cross plains, mountains, deserts, cities and, due to the season, probably encounter varying weather. How could we not jump in? The Bahama Yellow 911’s allure was too strong.
For me the trip began at 4:30, Friday afternoon a couple miles south of LAX. I was waiting for a public bus to the airport on a warm, noisy Los Angeles street. I fiddled with my camera gear and made small talk with an older woman waiting for a different bus. Her bus arrived first, leaving me to bask in the fumes and cacophony of the busy artery, alone. Minutes later, my bus approached but being unable to get into the right lane, because of traffic, it passed by eventually stopping a block later in the middle lane, forcing me to wait for traffic to clear before boarding. Once aboard, the driver seemed irritated that I asked how much the fare was.
Ben was already in Kansas City, he flew out earlier in the day and picked the car up. Driving it around KC’s outskirt, he said that it ran strong. Additionally, he refueled the car so that we wouldn’t have to start the drive by visiting a gas station. I sent him an email during the day with my version of a concert contract rider—I needed water, M&Ms, pretzels (or popcorn) and a road atlas (because I had forgotten mine and prefer to rely on these rather than a phone).
Fortunately, my flight was virtually empty so I was able to stretch out across three seats and read without distraction. It landed on time in a rainy KC and by midnight, local, I was in the hotel room with Ben making dirty, slightly unsettling quips. Actually, they were dirty, very unsettling quips. Good times. Even though the Porsche was down in the garage I decided to wait until the morning to see it. I wanted as much sleep as possible. He set the alarm and as usual on these drives, I prepared mentally for a very long following day. We’d wake at 6:30, have a quick breakfast and then hit the road for as long as it takes to get to Supercar Sunday or until the car breaks… [kiWO]
Ram 2500: Terrifyingly Good
October 1, 2013—My first car was a 1988 Dodge Raider. For those that don’t know, it was a two door SUV built by Mitsubishi and essentially identical to the Montero. It featured a two-barrel carbureted four-cylinder engine, automatically locking hubs and four-wheel-drive low for getting out of mud or up/down steep hills. It also had an inclinometer on the dashboard so that you could tell at what angle the truck was currently inclined.
I did my best to kill the Raider: driving it through larger saplings in Western Maryland’s Appalachians, attacking hills at steep lateral angles with General Custer’s bravado yet somehow surviving, and bashing through snow banks when the weather made roads impassable. I think it had about 110 horsepower?
And while I’ve been off-roading in the Battlewagon more recently, I’ve never driven or ridden a trail with any sort of professional instruction. My approach has always been a Jeremy Clarkson-esque application of power to simply knock through obstacles and tight spots. So yesterday, at the Motor Press Guild’s track day I took an opportunity to ride along in a Ram 2500 Laramie Power Wagon Crew Cab up some of the off-road trails that surround Willow Springs Raceway.
The truck is beautifully appointed with Sirius satellite radio and navigation, full leather interior, and tons of storage in the cab. It is quite luxurious considering it’s supposed to be a work vehicle. But it’s also quite capable as the drivetrain can be switched from 2WD to 4WD high to 4WD low, selectable independently locking front and rear differentials and front and rear sway bars that can be disconnected automatically to allow for greater suspension travel.
Simply put: the Ram 2500 Laramie is feature packed both for comfort and obstruction-conquering ability. I jumped aboard (literally, mind you, as this truck is quite tall) and was expecting some fun bouncing around like I had experienced on the east coast and Mojave. I began to worry when I realized that we weren't going into the rocky desert but to climb the mountains west of the Streets of Willow circuit.
Up we climbed with Sirius’ ‘80s on 8 thumping through the cabin. In spite of the fact that most of the time the only thing visible through the windshield was hood and sky I enjoyed feeling the suspension articulating and smoothing out the ruts and larger rocks. Anyhow, I could see the horizon through the side glass and yes, it was steep but the Ram powered up at a leisurely pace with the air conditioning blasting nice, cold air.
Then we summited. “Oh and look! Off to your right is Willow Springs! No, down, past the goats laughing at us.” I’ve been involved in more than my share of stupid car shenanigans. I’ve raced Ferraris on tracks, driven a Ford Mustang GT to Quebec in the middle of a snowstorm and ridden a scooter in Bangkok traffic. I have never, EVER been so terrified in a vehicle as when the driver of that Ram 2500 pointed the nose of the truck downward.
Remember my mention of nothing but sky and hood? Now the view changed to nothing but gulley and hood. We crawled along at less than one mph. Stones and pebbles audibly slipped as the truck descended, gingerly as possible for a five-thousand pound object struggling to avoid tumbling down a mountain. We reached a small plateau about half way down and I took a deep, calming breath. As he ominously shut the radio off, the driver turned the Ram left towards what I can only describe as a cliff.
Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to climb or go down this “slope” with hiking boots on, let alone with wheels under me. He must have noticed my unease and told me not to worry as he had seen Jeeps ascend an 86° slope a couple of weeks ago. I considered the rocky gulch in front but far below the wall we were on, laughed nervously and thought, “but we’re DEscending.” My hand was already becoming one with the door’s grab handle as I pondered what the crush strength of the Laramie’s roof was. “This is a 78° down slope, in case you’re wondering, and three-hundred feet long.”
What it was was the longest rollercoaster drop I’d ever been on and we crept down it in slow motion. Except that on a rollercoaster the wheels don’t slip occasionally when rocks get loose underneath you. I alternated my stare between the rocky gulch below and simultaneously in front of us and the perpendicular desert horizon to my right. And while I momentarily considered calmly climbing out and requesting a helicopter, I thought it unbecoming.
As is plainly clear, I survived. The track time in the cars was exciting, but in a fun way, not in a Ram 2500 Laramie-induced I-will-probably-shit-my-pants-if-you-don’t-wrap-this-nonsense-up way. I loved the Lotus Exige S (wish they sold it the US...) and thought the new C7 Corvette Stingray was phenomenal. But I will never forget just how impressive the Laramie’s capabilities are. It is heart-stoppingly remarkable. [kiWO]
Scion iQ Road Trip: Smart or Not?
September 25, 2013—There is a wonderful case to be made for tiny cars in urban environments. Parking spaces are at a premium, streets are tight and the ability to change direction quickly to avoid any number of potential hazards is paramount. However, we’re Wide Open. We may live in a city, but look for any excuse to hit the road and explore.
We were thrilled when Scion lent us a tenth anniversary edition iQ with BeSpoke audio system for a week. At first glance, it seems like a decent enough car for city environs even though the price is a bit steep ($19,803, thank you very much). We did have one misgiving, though: if this car’s mission is to be a great city car, where range is almost a non-issue, then why isn’t this car a hybrid, or better yet, a plug-in electric? But we’ll return to this in a bit.
It had been a while since I’d seen my friends, Joe and Christine (I went to their wedding and played rallye hero, remember?), who live in San Francisco. This presented the perfect opportunity for Wide Open to demonstrate how thorough we are (shameless bragging, sorry); we not only tested this car in the city as most outlets would, but also on a long distance drive.
There was no adventure to this trip; my fiancée and I were going by the quickest route possible. We were travelling to arrive. So we headed north on the 405, got on the 5 and then into SF via 580 and the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, the route is a bit boring as it’s basically a hill climb and descent, 300 miles of flat lands and another hill climb and descent. While the route wasn’t too exciting, the peppy iQ did not disappoint. I wouldn’t call the car fast but the 94 hp (!), 1.3L four-cylinder always provided enough power to pass, even close to its top speed of 105 mph.
Our biggest gripe about the Lexus we drove for coffee, its CVT, was a non-issue in this car. It felt like a properly geared automatic and was always at the correct ratio. The BeSpoke audio system worked well and we enjoyed singing along all the way from the Grapevine to the Bay. If I was using my own funds I'd probably skip it as it raises the price of this economy car nearly $1200; however, if Scion is willing to throw it on their press cars I’m not going to complain. The sound is clear and strong.
California’s Central Valley came and went with each of the 300 miles identical to the one before it. The one issue that we did encounter was the aforementioned lack of range. You see, the iQ has an eight-point-five gallon fuel tank. And since we set out with less than a quarter tank and averaged just over thirty miles-per-gallon we had to stop for fuel twice! Which begs the question—Toyota, why bother with gasoline if the range is going to be so limited? I’d like to go at least three hundred miles without refueling. Yes, it’s an arbitrary number, but the 240 miles that we covered between fill-ups seems woefully inadequate. At least the substandard range permitted multiple snack stops.
The weather was beautiful for the majority of the drive but as we approached Tracy, storm clouds gathered and finally exploded as we passed through Livermore. The rain fell in buckets and the iQ’s short wheelbase caused me to worry that a hint of hydroplaning would result in a Mario Kart-esque 1080° spin. My fears were unfounded and the traction control never even kicked in. As we crossed from Treasure Island (it’s a real place) to San Francisco the clouds began clearing and the sun shone down on the second span of the Bay Bridge.
We spent Saturday with Joe and his family at a beach just north of the Palace of Fine Arts, then ate dinner in Singaporean restaurant with questionable service. I think we went to bed at eight PM that night. The following morning we toured my friend’s manufacturing facility (he builds amazing carbon fiber guitars) and then had brunch with another friend. It was a good time, but it revealed a flaw in the iQ’s design.
Lack of range or a hybrid/electric drivetrain (given such a lack of range) might be forgiven. But for a city car to lack secure storage is mind-boggling. The trunk of the iQ is non-existent, in fact all we could fit in it was a bag of Doritos and some Chips Ahoy (we’re health nuts). This sounds like hyperbole about a Lamborghini, but it’s true. Sure it has rear seats, which are large enough for a couple of bags but then they’re visible to everybody who might walk by. Scion: the iQ needs some sort of cargo cover, it’s that simple. I had to carry our bag and camera gear everywhere we went because
bad things happen in the city I’m paranoid.
It was a fun, quick trip up central California. And overall, the car was great—it had some guts, was entertaining and lively, turned on a dime at low speeds and could park in spaces normally reserved for larger atomic molecules. But the lack of range and particularly secure storage left us dissatisfied and wondering if, for the $19,803 price tag, there weren’t better options for city folk. [kiWO]
September 18, 2013—If you've read Wide Open’s other Monterey stories then you know the trip was a great time (speeding ticket excluded)! The long weekend was an amazing romp that included driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, a stay at Monterey's only all-suite hotel (Yoav chose to sleep in dumpsters instead), and several delicious meals. Oh, and of course, the car festivities.
For those who have never been to Monterey Car Week: it’s not limited to car auctions, vintage racing and the Concours. Yes, that’s why you come but the real car show is what you see on the street. People park what they drive there. On roads and in parking lots are cars costing to the multi-millions—Ferraris from the Enzo versus Henry II era, Aston Martins, Gullwing 300SLs, Porsche 550 Spyders.
I drove slightly over 800 miles during this pilgrimage to Monterey Car Week. Many were surprised that I would put that amount of miles on the 993— "Did anything break?" "How did it hold up?” Questions of that nature, repeated over and over. I'm glad to report that nothing important broke. OK, my aftermarket cupholder was a casualty when trying to get the editor of this fine site into the backseat after a tasting course dinner at L'Aubergine, but if that was the only thing besides the window switch that failed (before I left), I think we did pretty well.
After returning home, the 993 was looking a little shabby: covered in dust, dirt, grime, and 800-plus miles of dead bugs. I decided it was finally time to book a little automotive 'spa' treatment at a place called Glistening Perfection. The 4S has been pretty good to me over its past 5-years, and although a few things (cough, cough) have gone wrong, it never left me stranded. It deserved a little bit of rejuvenation. It got the full treatment: detailing, paint correction, replacement of the fender shields, and most cool-ly (pardon the pun) a German nano-ceramic window tint to keep temperatures down in the cabin. I may have sweat two-pounds of water weight driving back thanks to the hot sun blasting the cabin. This tint cuts heat transfer by 75%.
Moe Mistry, the proprietor of Glistening Perfection, was kind enough to lend me his almost completely original condition 1983 Porsche 944 as a loaner until my car was ready. As you know, the 944 is an aggressive looking car with its big, square pop-up headlights, wide fender flares and fast back profile with a large-ish fixed spoiler. The 944 looks designed and has held up pretty well (especially the later 944's).
Having never driven this vintage of 944, it was all a bit new to me. This is a series I 944, the original. The first thing I noticed was a cockpit from another era. This cabin, besides its obvious tears, hasn't aged well, certainly not as well as the almost immortal 911's. The driving position is low and laid back, but the shifter fell to hand nicely. Sadly, turning the ignition key yielded a letdown. Frankly, the 944’s inline four is a bit agricultural at least at idle. This particular 1983 944 was the normally aspirated model, not the turbo, and over the past thirty-years it probably lost some of its factory-fresh 147 horsepower (even economy cars today have 147 horsepower!). The steering was light, even without power assistance. The gearing short, but the clutch was very light. Comfort? The seat foam had broken down long ago and sucked me into the seat. The climate control was a total mystery to me the entire drive up to Los Angeles so I just left the A/C on.
In all honesty I wish it had been a Tom-Cruise-Risky-Business-928. I drove the 944 in a variety of situations: freeways, canyon drives, and supermarket runs (putting things that need to remain cold under the expansive glass rear hatch is foolish—ask me how I know). The 944 got me to where I was going every time, but something was missing from the driving experience. 944's got rave reviews for handling in their heyday, but this one… well… it just felt a bit wooly and disconnected, the engine a bit gutless. You had to ring it to the upper end of its rev-range to get any momentum out of it (It redlines at 6300 rpm). Also, there’s a 'shift-up' light that comes on very early, like 2500 rpm. Really Porsche? 2500 rpm?! This was supposed to be a sports car. I ignored the light. 0-60 was supposed to come up in 8.2 seconds. Back in 1983 this was heady stuff I suppose. The 1984 Corvette, priced comparably, did 0-60 in 7.0 seconds.
I drove the car around for several more days. My impressions did not change. Would new shocks and bushings help? Probably, but I think it’s just a testament to how far cars have come. This was a good reminder that older cars should not be compared to today’s. Having not driven another factory fresh or concours example, I have no basis for comparison... and this one is hardly a prime example. The 944 had me looking forward to getting my 993 back.
Having just returned from Monterey it seemed like the perfect time to get my 911 cleaned up and looking like new. It already runs great but I wanted the exterior to match. That I got to fool around with the 944, no matter its flaws, was a bonus. It’s just too bad that I didn’t get to experience one in better shape. [kiWO]
The Drive Home
September 3, 2013—What an event Pebble Beach was! When I arrived at 7:45 there were already enough people to make photography difficult. And supposedly, these were only press and VIPs. You can only imagine how crowded it was when we finally decided to call it a day and head home at noon. We’d miss the crowning of Best in Show, but we hadn’t come for that. And that award at such a show seems to speak volumes while simultaneously being irrelevant. The cars are all so amazing, why choose one?
Regardless, we headed towards the exit, endured an inattentive shuttle driver (he flew past our parking section) and were on the highway twenty minutes later. Seeing how the Pacific Coast Highway had been so choked with traffic we opted for the less scenic, speedier 101.
It was as boring as advertised, alas. We stopped for lunch once again in San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Inn, god help us. When I went to use the men’s room though, I was surprised by a group of five ladies in there snapping photos. You see there is a waterfall that is motion activated. Magic! I’m glad that I happened upon the ladies rather than vice versa. Anyhow, Ben, Carlo and I had massive, open-faced turkey sandwiches that I thought were very mediocre. Or maybe I just wasn’t hungry.
Checking traffic on our way out, it seemed that Santa Barbara and Ventura were complete clusters and so I searched for an alternate route. Remember these three numbers: one, six, six. It isn’t some twisty mountain road that you’ll drive in second gear at thirty-five to fifty miles per hour. The 166 is a long, straight, sometimes curvy highway with almost zero cars. It connects the 101 and I-5 and is remarkable because it seems to be the highway that everyone forgot. Commuters, RVs, time, god and most importantly, the California Highway Patrol have all forsaken this long, dusty ribbon of blacktop. And, if driving a Viper you should encounter traffic just mash the loud pedal, swing out past the dashed lines and make them disappear.
The Porsche and I sparred, taking turns leading over the 98 miles. It was sublime. There were times when we didn’t encounter another car for ten solid minutes. However, there was one section that was made up of very, very fast downhill sweepers, that was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. Upsettingly, Ben’s AWD 911 passed me uncontested here. Don’t worry, though, he was reeled back in.
It was quite warm even with the Viper’s AC running. But the scenery was nice, alternating between mountains and farmland. Taking the 166/I-5 rather than the 101 did add about thirty miles, but if we could make good time and avoid traffic then I figured we’d be ahead.
Unfortunately, the I-5 did not cooperate. Initially it was running freely but as we crested the Grapevine it slowed to a crawl. So much for bright ideas; this time there were no short cuts. The Viper loped along at an agonizingly slow speed for the next ninety minutes until traffic broke near the 210. Although I was melting, the V10 did not overheat.
Once traffic cleared I separated from Ben and Carlo. Now, in the home stretch, sweating from places I didn’t know could sweat and tired from seven hours of spirited driving as well as stop-and-go traffic, I had one thought in my head: home. For the last time I flattened the throttle. The Viper happily roared and with the headlights and foglights on, so that people would move over, I covered the final section quickly.
A call to Ben a couple of hours later revealed that they made it home safely. Yeah, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (Historics) and Pebble Beach were incredible and we’re already counting down to next year. But now that we know how amazing 166 is, you can be certain that we won’t be messing around on PCH next year. 166 is THE road to put on your route if you’re looking for real driving. [kiWO]
Pebble Beach Weekend
August 22, 2013—The drive up the Pacific Coast Highway was a bit tedious, but at least the views were spectacular. The elevation changes along that road border on the extreme from sea level to crests that look down on the foggy sea and back down through twists and turns carved by the unrelenting waves (and seismic activity). Ben, Carlo and I separated approaching Pebble Beach, as they wanted to check into their hotel. I went to claim my press credentials so I could wander uninhibited.
On Friday though, the only cars present on the greens were manufacturers’ late model show cars (with a couple of exceptions, notably, Jaguar). Still, the grounds are vast and I enjoyed walking and getting lost on the cool, misty peninsula. Every so often a distinctive exhaust or engine note would shatter the monotony of passing traffic and a pair of round headlights would materialize. Sometimes they’d be pulling a Jaguar XK140 others a Ferrari 250. It was incredible to see such a rich display of automobiles.
The rest of the day was spent in a similar manner, moving slowly to familiarize and appreciate the natural and automotive beauty in this place. My two friends and I reconvened later that night for a meal of meager proportions, but epic flavor and execution at the one-Michelin-starred Aubergine. While the food was delicious, the maître d’ did not appreciate my sense of humor. I replied, “Yes. I am allergic to bad food,” when he asked if we had any allergies the chef should know about. He looked at me in the same manner as the maître d’ from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, below.
We finished the diminutive, tasty meal and decided to call it a night. Saturday was a chaotic shock in comparison to Friday’s laid-back stroll around Pebble Beach. We began by attending a Cars and Coffee at a local mall that was also attended by the Lamborghini club and used as a starting point to their rally. If I had a dollar for every time the organizer repeated, “this is not a race,” I’d be able to afford a new Lamborghini.
They departed and we headed for Laguna Seca. At this point, I feel that I should reveal my bias—I LOVE Laguna Seca. In my opinion, it’s the greatest track in America, if not the world. You can see a great deal of the track from the top of The Corkscrew, it has a fairly long straight and a couple of great hairpins. Additionally, the change in elevation (and the speed with which the elevation changes) is difficult to appreciate unless you’ve seen it in person.
No, I haven’t been to every track in the US and certainly not the world, but Laguna Seca feels like a hometown track while remaining challenging and world class. How I wish I lived closer. It certainly isn’t perfect—it’s dusty and windy, especially at the top of The Corkscrew and can get quite sunny and hot near the straight and infield. But when the sun peaks through the clouds rolling in from the Pacific, it’s just magical.
Anyhow, after passing signs warning of unexploded ordnance, I parked the Viper on a hill that must have been cleared long ago (hopefully). I didn’t hear anything, which is odd because the Historics should have been in full swing and the sound echoes through the valleys and peaks. They must have been in between heats. I called Ben to see where they were. I approached the front straight as he answered and the pace car pulled off the track. Needless to say, the resulting thunder from the track made a phone conversation impossible until the cars cleared turn three.
A paddock pass was included in the price of admission and I walked from Porsche stall to McLaren stall to Allard stall to... nearly starstruck. The diversity of cars was astounding. Jay Leno was admiring a Ferrari 250 GTO while I shot photos, grinned and said, “amazing,” as he walked off. Until he spoke, I hadn’t realized who was right next to me. A brief while later, Patrick Dempsey walked by as I drooled over a ninety year-old Talbot Grand Prix car about to head to the starting grid. Legends surround you, but I’m not just talking about people. There was an ex-Niki Lauda Ferrari F1 car. And there’s George Follmer chatting with Christi Edelbrock next to the transporter.
Ben and Carlo eventually found me and we spent some time on The Corkscrew watching the cars being pushed and getting loose through the right handed descent of the famous corner. They decided that they’d had their fill and sped off to one of the several auctions being held. I ran into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a few years. It was good seeing him and we spent the majority of the time reminiscing about our old cars and trading stories about our new ones. I think we also talked about his wife and my fiancée. Maybe. We’re just a couple of old gearheads, I guess.
I hit the RM Auction afterwards and watched a Lancia Stratos sell for around $350,000. I regretted that the person purchasing it would probably, at best, drive it once a year and permit it to collect dust and leak oil the rest of the time. A Ferrari F50 then sold for about $1.5 million. I guess these sums don’t compare to the $27 million NART Spyder that exchanged hands.
Drifting to sleep, excited for my first Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in the morning, I couldn’t help but think of the irony: I actively contribute to this madness by glorifying and fetishizing cars. Oh well. They excite me, symbolize freedom and adventure and frankly, there are worse ways to earn a living.
The alarm pierced my dreams and I shot out of bed like a lightning bolt the following morning. I was ready in twelve minutes, back at Pebble Beach by 7:30AM and off the shuttle by RetroAuto by 7:40. After some quick shots of cars brought by OEMs, I walked through the Pebble Beach Lodge down to the eighteenth green. If you like Tommy Bahama-esque straw hats, Johann Sebastien Bach or the elderly then you missed quite an event!
It’s easy to poke fun because the Concours takes itself VERY seriously and so do the attendees. And yes, the folks attending are very rich, very traditional and extremely sartorially challenged. But they’re also car buffs of the first order and will happily chat about the car you’re both staring at. The event itself is difficult to describe because there is such a variety of cars and people. I hadn’t imagined that I would enjoy it as much as I did. Comparing Pebble Beach to your local Cars n’ Coffee (which is how I had perceived it) is like comparing the Amazon to the flower section in your local Home Depot. The diversity, richness and historic nature of the cars cannot be understated. The concepts that OEMs display and the cars on the eighteenth hole comprise the cars that actually matter.
And the people? Well, in the four hours I was there I spotted Wayne Carini, Norman Dewis, Art Fitzpatrick, Jean Jennings, Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart, and Ed Welburn. And I am awful at celebrity spotting. I actually managed to shake Sir Jackie’s hand and introduce myself, telling him that I was a big fan and he replied graciously in his famous brogue. That to me is the spirit of the event; regardless of wealth or status everyone is united by a common passion. I’m already planning for next year.
The drive home and the best photos of all the events coming soon... [kiWO]
Fantasy and Reality
August 20, 2013—The Viper roared to life at 6:15 AM on Friday morning and settled into a nice, lumpy idle as I waited for the engine to warm slightly. I plugged one end of the RF transmitter into the cigarette lighter and the other end into the iPod. The morning was cold and damp and while I initially second-guessed my decision to not bring a jacket, I knew the sauna that is the Viper interior would be fully heated soon. A quick call to Ben revealed that his friend, Carlo, who would be joining us, had not arrived yet. Frustrated and eager to get going I told him that we’d meet somewhere on the road.
I like leaving Los Angeles before rush hour to get some miles on the odometer and to avoid traffic. This is especially important when you’re driving a V-10-engined monster that has a tendency to run warm. I ended the call, threw the phone in the small glovebox between the seats and let the heavy clutch out slowly.
There weren’t too many cars on the road yet and I managed to make it to the Pacific Coast Highway in about five minutes. The plan was to run up PCH all the way to Monterey with the ocean on the left, mountains on the right and sun up high and behind. The sun would have to wait as a solid fog hung over the bay and everything was shrouded in a gauzy grey; it was the antithesis of the stereotypical SoCal summer day but it would be great for keeping the Viper, and myself, cool.
The overcast lasted until I turned inland just past Gaviota State Park. Despite the issues with the throttle position sensor the day before leaving, the Viper ran well. As an aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to convey how effortless passing is in a car with a conservatively-rated 490 pound feet of torque. And while saving fuel in the Viper is like picking up a penny while “making it rain,” I do tend to keep the car in sixth gear above fifty mph. But when passing slower cars, especially when putting myself in the path of oncoming traffic on a dashed yellow line, I generally downshift to fourth to complete passes as quickly as possible.
So imagine that you’re cruising along at sixty miles per hour on a two-lane country road. In front of you is a Prius whose driver brakes every time they run over a cat’s eye, which is frequently because those cat’s eyes come out of nowhere! You downshift to fourth to pass—the revs spike to about 3,000 RPM—and you bury the pedal in the carpet. The thrust shoves you deep into the seat. In a couple of seconds, you’re clear of the Prius and doing about eight-five, ninety miles per hour. And that’s if you’re only passing one Prius. Then you brake hard because you don’t want to be arrested when the terrified Prius driver phones it in and suddenly the big brakes are helping to leave a seatbelt shaped imprint on your chest.
When I finally had to stop for gas in Santa Maria, I was already sweating profusely. In this case it was my fault, I hadn’t used the air conditioning yet although it's basically worthless, only cooling your right knuckles. I called Ben to see if he was still waiting for Carlo or if they had actually left. They were on the 101 to make up time, had already received a speeding ticket for doing ninety in a sixty-five (but reduced to eighty) and were roughly as equidistant to San Luis Obispo as I was. We’d meet at the Madonna Inn for breakfast.
Fueling complete and determined to arrive first, I flattened the throttle and left an “eleven” in front of the Chevron while a couple of kids fumbled for their cell phones. Cutting through the small towns leading to Pismo Beach was a delicate balance—I was trying to maximize speed but didn’t want wind up with a citation to match Ben’s. I did see one cop in an alley, but unfortunately for his municipality's coffers, I hit a red light just before I would have flown by.
We met as planned (and I did barely beat him) and had breakfast. I’d love to tell you that the rest of the drive was an epic battle to Monterey with the notes of the V10 and flat6 singing through the mountains marking downshifts, brakes lighting up as they erase speed cheating each cliff, and death, of its due. But the sad reality is that the Pacific Coast Highway from Cambria to Monterey is a two-lane “highway” clogged with lumbering RV’s and
appliances cars driven by people whose last thought would be using a turnout. Beautiful? Yes. Fun? No.
Don’t misunderstand; it is still a winding road with many opportunities to wring your engine, brakes and steering out. But it’s a fantasy, because just as you clear traffic and settle into a good rhythm the following straight defecates a roadblock at you in the form of a Ford Aspire moving marginally faster than jogging speed.
Predictably, the drive became even more tedious as Monterey approached. The fog that had vanished inland thickened again, as did traffic. We slowed to a crawl nearing Pebble Beach. Still our arrival was as grandiose as one might hope as a Maserati Quattroporte led us and a McLaren MP4-12c trailed us. Our supercar parade was directed to one of the greens-cum-parking-lots and after stretching for a minute I headed off for credentials... more on the drive and events, soon! [kiWO]
Ready to Go!
August 15, 2013—We’re planning on leaving for Pebble Beach tomorrow morning before sunrise. This, of course, means that the Dodge Viper GTS we’re driving up had to break today. I went to get a haircut and decided to drive the Viper just to ensure that it was running properly. After a mile or so, I noticed that it was idling a bit too fast, maybe 1000 rpm (usual is about 500).
After another mile it began to idle at about 1500 rpm and when the clutch was engaged it would suddenly drop to normal idle levels. Then the dreaded ‘service engine soon’ light decided to illuminate. After the haircut, I borrowed an OBD-II scanner from a friend and ran the codes, it turned out that the throttle position sensor had failed. I ran to the local auto parts place, bought a new one and sprinted back home. No big deal, just swap it out, right?
Sure... I popped the hood, got my tools, put the torx bit on my screwdriver and sheared the bit in half. Off to Sears—I only use Craftsman tools. One giant argument later and I was back at home with a free bit. They’re supposed to be guaranteed for life, but their saleslady didn’t seem to agree or perhaps she had missed that memo. Either way, this is one reason people hate Sears.
I sprayed some lube in the space between the head of the bolt and the surface of the sensor and waited a few minutes for it to penetrate. After my patience had exhausted, I slapped the new bit on my driver and tapped it on to the bolt lovingly, yet firmly. I first tightened it slightly to see if I could get some movement and the bolt budged.
Then I cranked hard to loosen it and... sheared bit number two. This is when I gave up and drove across Los Angeles to Specialty Performance Team to visit Mr. Dan Cragin, Viper expert. Oh, did I mention that I had to be in Pasadena in a couple of hours for the Art Center College of Design grad show? Yeah.
Anyhow, Butch, one of Dan's mechanics, tried to find his appropriate torx bit but couldn’t, speculating that he had probably broken his as well. Off the throttle body came and Butch proceeded to drill out the super thread-locked bolts. After that it was simply a question of pulling the bolts out of the throttle body with vice-grips. The new throttle position sensor was installed, throttle body refitted and after a brief shakedown the Viper was ready to go! Hopefully, this will be the extent of the drama for the near future, at least. [kiWO]
Off to Pebble Beach Driving a...
August 14, 2013—This year the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is honoring the Porsche 911, just as the Amelia Island Concours did, for its 50th birthday. Which makes our 1977 Porsche 911S perfect for this drive. As has been now been pointed out countless times by countless Porsche enthusiasts in countless emails and Facebook posts, we “shortsightedly” sold the 911 two months ago. Mea culpa.
What is Wide Open to do? How will we write a road trip story without our trusty Porsche sidekick? Well, we’re not sure this will replace it, but we’re fairly certain that 450 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque will go a long way. Introducing the 766th Dodge Viper GTS ever built. This car was originally purchased by a gentleman in Nebraska, then sold to a Air Force firefighter in Pensacola, FL. I purchased the car (on Ebay, unseen with no reserve, thank you very much) before the firefighter shipped off to Afghanistan in 2008. I flew to Pensacola with a friend and drove it home to SoCal.
In spite of myself, I’ve managed to keep it out of the weeds, trees and Jersey barriers. I don’t think it hates me, but the Viper has tried to hurt, if not kill, me a few times. For instance, last time I drove it—I made the mistake of turning right while applying mild throttle through a puddle that contained less water than one square foot of the Atacama Desert. Sideways I went through the intersection of Lincoln Blvd. and Washington Blvd. in Marina del Rey. Weeeee!
The previous two times driving the trusty Dodge, the brakes failed completely at altitude on Angeles Crest resulting in the most prolonged butt-clenching drives of my life (and I used to drive miles through the 'hood in Baltimore on a regular basis). Judicious application of the throttle, ample downshifting and following distances you could safely land a 747 in got me home safely.
Anyhow, the brakes have been properly sorted, oil changed and an exciting event waits on the horizon. And for you Porsche-philes, fear not: contributor Ben Shahrabani will follow along in his 993 until it needs a new muffler bearing or turbo encabulator. This will probably happen within the first ten miles. [kiWO]
P.J. O'Rourke on Lost Love
August 1, 2013—Four years ago, P.J. O’Rourke penned an article, “The End of the Affair,” for the Wall Street Journal on why Americans’ love for cars had ended. For me, it was momentous because I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s in Transportation (read: car) Design from Art Center College of Design. My timing has always been questionable. I remember thinking that his proclamation was quite possibly true and that hopefully some upstart Chinese company would send my salvation in offer-letter form.
While the email from Geely never arrived, with some hindsight it seems that (to paraphrase) reports of the death of Americans’ love affair were an exaggeration. The “pointy-heads” are still firmly in charge and yes, if you look under the hood of a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf you might as well be dissecting an Apple iPod, yet the passion is very much there. O’Rourke’s piece now seems quaintly reactionary to the turmoil that categorized the auto industry a few years ago.
Back in 1800, William Wordsworth railed against the march of technology in “Preface to the Second Edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads’.” Proclaiming that as technology and chaos rise, advancing to prominence in our culture, the human mind declines “to a state of almost savage torpor.” Additionally, Wordsworth specifically mentions the “increasing accumulation of men in cities.” This preface was written in the midst of the industrial revolution when men and society were allegedly losing their souls to the factories, mines and mills of England.
It was indisputably a time of great confusion, which later helped to give rise to socialism, communism, two world wars and corresponded to the transition from farm to city to megalopolis. So did mankind actually lose its soul? I’d argue not, for we never knew the time of Wordsworth, but find much to love in the post-industrial world. Also, waking up at five AM to slop the hogs isn’t our idea of a rich, full life.
Fortunately, we do have the benefit of experience when discussing the automotive industry’s meltdown of five years ago and recognize that it was stressful. But did it help to seal the automotive enthusiast’s coffin?
Absolutely not. Cars are more fuel efficient, safer, and certainly more chock full of nanny-state gizmos. Wide Open also concedes that cars have become more expensive compared to real wages and that a high-school grad working at a gas station can’t go out and buy a V8 Mustang (as might have been possible in 1968). But if, as a car enthusiast, you can’t find a single new car that inspires you, that makes you want to search out your favorite road you haven’t fallen out of love, you’re clinically dead. We’d suggest that the change that Mr. O’Rourke notes is within, that he, and not the enthusiasts around him, became jaded and cynical. Don’t despair Mr. O’Rourke, horse[power] is still one of four things, greater than all things. [kiWO]
July 19, 2013—It’s been quite a few months here at Wide Open. We bought, flogged and drove cross-country, then sold a classic Porsche 911. We received our first test car ever from Lexus. Then we received our second test car ever from Lexus. And finally, since making room after selling the Porsche, brought another car into our garage.
You voted and we narrowed it down to two cars: the Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000 (both used). As the editor and check-signer, I made the final call: Honda S2000. If you don’t like it, send money and I’ll bend to your every whim. Now, on to the specifics: basically, I wanted what I had once owned—a 2002 Grand Prix White S2000. This was non-negotiable. The only problem was that this color was rare to begin with and since I only wanted that one model year (it was the only year the GP White S2000 had an all red interior) I was probably going to have to wait a long, long time.
Turns out I didn't have to. I actually managed to find one in Tennessee within a couple of weeks. The current owner had only had it for eight months and there had been two other owners prior. Although it sounded sketchy the carfax checked out and I spoke to the dealership that had serviced it when Tom (the current owner) purchased the car in November. They said the car was clean and had all the fluids changed. Oh and there was one other thing that calmed me. This eleven year-old convertible only has 9637 miles on it. The little four cylinder has been driven fewer than 1000 miles per year!
The car arrived on Sunday and it’s been sitting since a brief run around the neighborhood following the delivery. This weekend we’re going to ensure that everything is up to spec then hit the Orange County canyons. It seems like a bit of a crime to drive such a low milage example. But then again, it would be a crime not to drive it. So... Sunday Wide Open fun-run, who’s in? [kiWO]
Couple in Car Getting Coffee
July 18, 2013—SoCal is a wonderful place to live. As Tupac (and Albert Hammond) said, “it never rains” in Los Angeles and even if you’ve never been here, as a car person you’ve seen photos of the roads (the non-bumper-to-bumper ones), right? Well, Lexus threw us a keyfob, which frankly felt a bit ‘parts-bin’ and told us to run wild. Unfortunately, Wide Open was supposed to go crazy with their ES300 hybrid. Much like the IS250 we drove recently, there is nothing wrong with the ES but, besides a marked improvement in styling, is there anything truly remarkable about it? Wide Open suspected not. So we just took it to get coffee.
I actually don’t drink coffee but my fiancée, Marcia, does and she’s very particular. She
demands prefers Dunkin Donuts, you see, and there aren’t any DD in California (SoCal's ONLY shortcoming), besides one on a Marine Corps base. She loves the coffee but despite my suggestion, draws the line at enlisting. So we jumped in the ES300h on Saturday morning and went for coffee—in Las Vegas.
Yup, we got on the freeway, let the Bluetooth audio do its thing and prepared for a three and half hour cruise. The seats are comfy and the interior is nice although some of the console material seemed a bit too Toyota and not enough Lexus. The piano black surfaces were a nice detail though and the seats were comfortable if not supportive during transitions.
Speaking of which, the ES leans a tad more than we’d like and seems to be tuned to float rather than absorb. Allow me to explain—during a turn the body leans, yet when rough pavement is encountered the bumps can be quite jarring. Somehow, it seems to be the worst of both worlds: poor handling with lots of body-roll yet bumps are still felt. As expected the steering is extremely light and numb.
The drive to Vegas was uneventful and the car kept us cool through the Mojave Desert in spite of hundred-eight degree temperatures. When we finally arrived in Las Vegas, we exited the freeway and waited at a light when I realized that our lane would be ending shortly after the intersection. I switched the transmission to manu-matic mode, held the steering wheel firmly and prepared to launch hard. But... what? The info display showed the car was in fourth gear. Green light! The Accord Coupe next to us floored the throttle. So did I.
The Lexus didn’t downshift, it accelerated from the stop in fourth, electric motor and gas engine struggling to make power. Needless to say, the Accord won and I merged behind. But what had happened? The ES’ transmission had behaved like a CVT. It’s not that the acceleration was terrible, but why was it staying in top gear (especially when it was in sport mode!). At the next couple of lights, I repeated the “experiment,” much to my fiancée’s chagrin, and the results were the same—the ES300h would just start in fourth gear. Only when I downshifted the transmission myself, did it begin from first.
We pulled into the parking lot and Marcia shouted, “Dunkin [expletive] Donuts!” in exultation. She got her coffee and a small donut and sat in air conditioned, coffee induced bliss while I shot photos and sweated. I was rewarded with Wynn’s buffet: shrimp and crab legs and sushi and ice cream and more shrimp! So full...
After our binge, errr lunch, we got on the road and arrived home just after nightfall. The fact that the car was a hybrid certainly helped our fuel economy. We averaged 33.4 mpg, a far cry from the advertised 40 mpg, but I tend to drive in a spirited manner. In spite of its suspension and pretend CVT, the car is decent and would make a good daily driver as it’s comfortable and marginally luxurious. It would also make a very good long distance car so long as you’re only interested in getting there and not in enjoying the journey.
Obviously when talking about this car, zero-to-sixty times don’t matter. Neither do skidpad nor slalom scores. And it didn’t make us want to keep driving but not every car needs to be an amusement park ride. The ES300h is an unpretentious, entry-level luxury, midsize sedan—it’s an appliance and that’s OK. We wanted coffee and got it. [kiWO]
Fancy (car) Lads and their Dads by Ben Shahrabani
July 17, 2013—In many families, between fathers and sons especially, there is that semi-regular trip to the local car dealer of choice to check out the new 'iron.' It’s usually a familial, bonding event. I’ve always been a car guy; my mum swears my first word was 'carsaaa.' So by the time I was a slightly more formed and cognitive human being, I was accompanying my dad on all visits to the dealership. The Ford Pinto he purchased for my mum in the 70's was a tough moment for us, though.
My father has had his current car, a 2004 Jaguar XJR, for almost ten years. This was a car I steered him into though even though he had two previous Jaguars including the original Jaguar XJR (the supercharged six-cylinder which was a 1995 model, I think. I still miss that car even though I had to replace the trunk latch like 5-times. I got pretty good at it). When time came to replace it, he wanted to stay with Jaguar (the dealership is close-by) but this time, he wasn't concerned with getting another XJR.
Me: Dad, you must get the XJR.
Dad: Son, I just don't need the horsepower.
Me: You never know when you might need it. And it has all the options as standard. So it kind of makes sense.
Dad: It's a more expensive car.
Me: But it’s the better value.
Dad: How is it the better value? It's more expensive, and I don't need the horsepower.
Me: It just is! Trust me!
My father does not trust me. And yet, when I located a very low mileage almost-new 2004 silver XJR out of Texas, I convinced him to buy it. It was pennies (OK, many, many thousands more pennies) more than the plebeian version, but so worth it. At the time it was one of the most powerful sedans you could buy – 400 hp! Ten years on and you can get close to that in any mid-sized sedan (take note, father, when one pulls up beside you), but back then it was heady, heady stuff.
So where to begin? The Jaguar dealer near his house was out-of-business. Porsche? My dad doesn't like the Panamera. Also, everything is an option. Porsche basically gives you just what you need (a key, a seat, and steering wheel) for driving pleasure, and expects you to know everything else is optional. Mercedes? We had driven an E-class a while back, but it was just 'meh.' Besides Mercedes’ values sink more quickly than the Titanic. Audi? Maybe. We’ve owned a couple and the price advantage that existed once-upon-a-time (compared to BMW or Mercedes), no longer does.
Ok, to the BMW dealership…
My father and I had been to BMW Darien three and a half years ago to look at the then-new 5-series. We did not purchase anything. Upon returning two weeks ago, we were approached by a salesperson, Sebastian, who asked if we needed any help. We did. He asked if we had been there before. We had. Did we remember who our salesperson was? We didn't. But he said he recognized us—from three and a half years ago! He remembered where I live! Amazing! After re-introductions were made, he asked what we were interested in.
Salesperson/Sebastian: So what are you in the market for, gentlemen?
Me: I think my dad would be interested in the M5.
Dad: I don't think so.
Me: But why? It would make things so much easier when ordering? There are no options really.
Dad: I do not need an M5.
Me: It is the better value…and has 560 grossly under-rated horsepower. You could pull a house off its foundation, like in Lethal Weapon 2.
Dad: I do not need 560 grossly under-rated horsepower or to pull a house. It is not the better value.
Salesperson/Sebastian: How about a 535 just like last time?
Me: OK… but the M5 is the better value.
My father drove while I rode shotgun. Sebastian planted himself in back. Darien is a small town on Connecticut's 'Gold Coast,' so pretty picturesque. Sebastian directed us to some twisty roads, where my father sedately but competently put the 535i through its paces, while I prattled on about Alex Roy’s M5 cross-country documentary (Sebastian cross-referenced the information on his iPhone).
Me: Father, if we got an M5 we could beat the record, coast to coast, a father-son team. Imagine!
Dad: I don't need an M5.
Sebastian was amused. I was hoping he could assist and help up-sell my dad into an M5 but I think he sensed it might be futile. What happened to the days when a guy would go into a dealership and buy a car with the biggest, baddest engine? My father had a big Plymouth in the early 1970's when I was born. Even though I don't remember it, and obviously since my father didn't have the benefit of my help, I'm pretty sure it didn't have a Hemi. If I had been able to communicate back then, surely I would have directed him to the performance engine option. Surely.
The 5-series is a really engaging car, even the non-M5 version. Plus, they've just revamped it for 2014: new front and rear fascia plus a better nav system. It is a VERY nice car in spite of its piddling 300 hp.The seats are amazing. Supportive, heated…and…wait for it…VENTILATED. I love this. My next car must have ventilated seats. The navigation screen is HUUUUGE, and has traffic notifications too to re-route you in case of a jam. Amazing. The one thing I didn't care for is the gear lever. It's a bit counterintuitive. It's not a P-R-N-D, it's more like a joystick with a 'park' button on top. Why mess with convention, BMW?
The 5-series is definitely bigger than 5-series of yesteryear, but its elegant lines mask its size. It's probably close to the size of the 7-series of a decade ago though. The handling was pretty tight and dynamic (although shouldn't it be as this is a new car?).
We flew by a Darien patrol officer. Luckily, he was looking away… or enjoying a donut. Sebastian said that even though the dealership has been generous to the town, the police won’t cut them any breaks. I sensed an opening.
Me: If we had an M5, we could have outrun that cop. Like in the Cannonball Run.
Dad: Does this 535 have an eject button?
Sebastian: We’ll check the options list.
After the test drive was over, we went back to his desk where we were offered a complimentary beverage—a small bottle of Arrowhead. I’d expect Fiji, from a Bimmer dealer. We went through the options list to configure a car. I pretty much checked off nearly every option. My father's face? Priceless. I guess his needs for HIS car are far more modest than mine.
Me: I think we need that M Sport Package.
Dad: Do I?
Me: We do.
Dad: Isn't this supposed to be my car?
Me: Yes, I'm just anticipating your future needs.
Sebastian was most amused. Eventually my father and I reached an accord about the options, and looks like we'll (I mean he’ll…) be ordering a nicely equipped 535i Xdrive.
Next stop? Dinan Engineering for some upgrades. Dad, are you ready? [kiWO]
Spicy Tangy Chicken
July 3, 2013—We were handed the keys to the Deep Sea Mica Lexus IS 250, or ‘ni goh shu’ in Japanese and were nervous about the “beige.” The problem, as most enthusiasts know, isn’t that Lexus and Toyota build crap cars. Quite to the contrary they build solid, reliable machines without bad habits. It’s just that they’re so ninety-five percent—they can do everything that ninety-five percent of people need and want. So, the remaining five percent, the passionate car-guys and –girls of the world, the real Drivers, thumb our noses treating Toyotas as a commuter appliance for those who simply don’t get it.
We decided to celebrate a bit as this is our first press car and wound up schlepping the girlfriend and Lexus to Santa Barbara. We took canyon roads whenever possible and the IS 250 understeered predictably but was otherwise flawless, if uninspiring. Even with the windows down, the V6 could hardly be called loud. Not bad when commuting, but if this car wants to be a contender perhaps the exhaust note could be a bit louder. For what it’s worth there is a discernable difference between ‘eco’ mode and ‘sport’ mode. Sport obviously quickens throttle response and shift speed (which could still be a bit quicker) while suspension and steering changes are harder to detect.
The cabin remained cool in spite of record-breaking heat (vented seats never hurt) and the subscription-free real-time traffic was good too, routing us around jams when encountered. It has Bluetooth connectivity and XM satellite radio—very entertaining. But here we were, trying to create an event when this car is the very opposite of drama.
This required a re-calibration. Not of any of the car’s components, rather of Wide Open’s expectations. Besides the Scion FR-S and the now-out-of-production Lexus LF-A, Toyota’s cars do not engender emotional reactions. We’re being generous: they’re boring. Great, but boring.
So on the way back from Santa Barbara we stopped for dinner at one of the Valley’s innumerable Chinese restaurants, Joe’s China Café. We’d never heard of it but were tired of trying to pick and just plopped ourselves down, nearly starving. And honestly, who doesn’t like Chinese? The food was good, not too heavy and priced reasonably. I really enjoyed the Spicy Tangy Chicken, delish!
Then it dawned on me: Joe’s China Café was the perfect metaphor for the Lexus IS 250. Without expectations, you’ll be pleased. You might even find something you love! In the Lexus’ case the steering, which is very quick. Yes, it could stand to gain a bit of weight, but still very good. And if Lexus’ evolving design language is any indication they’re attempting to set their own mark. Wide Open applauds that.
We don’t care how quickly it laps the Nurburgring, the IS 250 is the base Lexus sedan. And as a commuter or cross-country vehicle that will run forever, it’s superb. As a track/canyon star, no, it’s not the best, but it’s entertaining enough. Next time we hit the road, we’ll definitely consider asking for the keys again and load up on some Spicy Tangy Chicken. [kiWO]
The King Might be Dead
June 26, 2013—At Wide Open, with few exceptions, we focus on the present. We’re all about living in the moment, man, and enjoying the experience. But last week we attended the Tesla battery swap/media circus and it gave us a glimpse into the future. However, the point of this piece isn’t to bore you with utopian visions of unicorns performing instantaneous battery changes.
Instead, the purpose of this article is to bore you with a bold prediction—the BMW 3-series (and upcoming 4-series) is roughly three years away from being out-3-series-ed. The 3-series is a great car striking a wonderful balance between sport and comfort; it comes in several trim levels of increasing performance and is blessed with a great chassis, responsive steering and good brakes. As we all know, it is the benchmark of the entry-level luxury sport coupe/sedan. Every time Acura, Audi, Infiniti, etc… launch an entry-level car it is invariably compared to the 3-series and invariably falls short. So which manufacturer will usurp the 3-series’ title as “Entry-Level Luxury Gold Standard?”
Tesla. And yes, it has to do with their battery technology. Tesla’s first car, the roadster, mounted the batteries in a rather tall and wide arrangement directly behind the interior compartment (a space normally reserved for the engine and transmission in the architecture’s original vehicle). Since the Model S (which is a blast to drive) and upcoming Model X were developed using a proprietary architecture, they were able to design the battery pack to be thin and flat and thus an ideal floorboard (similar to GM’s Hy-wire concept), which gives the car a very low center of gravity conducive to great handling.
We have to believe that the baby Tesla, Elon Musk’s Model T, which is expected to cost around $35,000 will use the same sort of battery technology, laid out in the same way. “So the baby Tesla will have a low center of gravity, that does not make a great car by itself,” you’re saying. True, but it’s also electric, which means instantaneous full torque. So the moment you punch the accelerator out of a corner the car will be clawing at the road, full-bore. And if the fit and finish of current Teslas are any indication, the car will be nicely appointed. Moreover, the car will be virtually silent. So it will handle well, accelerate authoritatively and be comfortable to ride in. The main issue for Drivers will be the lack of range—which is a HUGE issue. The term “range anxiety” is absurd; it places the blame on the consumer, as if it’s our fault that we’d like to drive our cars here and there and everywhere without worrying about being stranded.
When asked about range, Mr. Musk replied that they want to achieve a “minimum range of 200 miles” with the entry-level Tesla. Not terrible for a commuter car, but hardly ideal for a road trip especially when “refueling” options are neither quick nor abundant.
This prediction of a new entry-level luxury king requires many things to work in Tesla’s favor. It also requires the infrastructure needed to support electric cars to begin popping up much more quickly than it has been. But maybe, just maybe, if Tesla can increase production to meet demand, if its suppliers can continue to deliver quality components and if its engineers can continue to solve problems, we might just get a baby Tesla that finally dethrones the 3-series. The king is dead. Long live the king. [kiWO]
Test-drive #2: 2008 Porsche Boxster
June 19, 2013—After some online digging I found a perfect, private-sale 2008 Porsche Boxster. A call was made and an appointment set. Upon my arrival the car sat in the driveway, the sun setting behind it helping to accentuate the overall contour. It was pretty. Unlike the 911, I believe that the Boxster and Cayman are the cars that Porsche should have been building all along. Their engines are located between the wheels, as on every racecar on Earth.
But I’m buying a street car, not a racecar, so maybe I’m just an idiot for constantly harping on this. The Boxster’s owner, Ray, answered the door and came outside. I give it a quick once-over and asked if we could drive it. “Sure!” he replied eagerly, in spite of the fact that he wouldn't let it be photographed for this piece. If you read the previous article, then you know that we love the Honda S2000 and are strongly biased in its favor.
However, I wanted to try the Boxster as well, due to its legions of fans and reputation (and Wide Open’s fans’ votes). The 2.7L flat-six engine barked to life and I adjusted the mirrors and turned the radio, tuned to NPR, off. The interior of this car has always bothered me—the leather is nice, yes, and the seating position is good but the radio, phone controls and HVAC seem like a 1980’s Sanyo boom-box designer penned them. It’s not that the quality is bad, simply that there are so many buttons and knobs and switches (somehow, still fewer than in the original version). I thought sports cars were supposed to be about the driving experience not a gateway to commanding the Int’l Space Station.
Also, with regard to design, the new Boxster is utterly stunning and has rendered the previous generations dated-looking and slightly dowdy. Whereas the Honda has been frozen in time, a casualty of the automotive financial meltdown. It’s not truly striking but its lines are clean and hence possess a certain timelessness.
Enough nitpicking though, we got on the road and I was immediately impressed by the Boxster’s low-end acceleration. It pulled hard (better than the Honda) from a dead stop, as there was no waiting for VTEC to kick in. Exiting a corner and mashing the gas, we didn't have to downshift from third. Even at 30mph, due to its flatter power band it didn't need constant flogging like the S2000. Flicking the car through Malibu’s tight corners and elevation changes it was easy to appreciate the well-sorted chassis. The steering was good, it had solid weight to it and while it didn’t feel quite as quick as the S2000’s, it was nevertheless very communicative.
The one area where Honda has the Porsche beaten to hell is the transmission. Which is not to say that the Boxster’s shifter is bad, it’s just that the S2000’s is stellar. Also, there is only one transmission offered on the Honda—a manual. Which means that poseurs need not apply.
Back to the test-drive though; the longer I sat behind the wheel of the Porsche, slicing through mountain roads I was familiar with, the more it became apparent that the Boxster was indeed faster than the S2000. Not by much, mind you, it just clawed out of corners more quickly. I didn’t heel-toe the Boxster though, because as mentioned, I didn’t need to shift that much. The Boxster revved loudly under acceleration, but it didn’t scream. It didn’t seem like the engine was trying to shear off of its mounts. Sitting in the Boxster after the drive, looking at the center console with its myriad buttons it became clear that it lacked the Honda's purity of purpose. The Boxster is designed to be a sports car you can drive every day, the S2000 is just designed to be a sports car. Coincidentally, it can be driven every day.
The Boxster certainly has more caché, what with its European crest and larger price tag. It’s also easier to drive it rapidly. But the basic problem is that while the Boxster is a phenomenal sports car—it’s unfortunately less entertaining and lacks the S2000's high-revving drama. [kiWO]
Test-drive #1: 2003 Honda S2000
June 12, 2013—Full disclosure: I owned a 2002 Honda S2000, purchased new. I drove it, happily, until 2008 when a woman driving an Acura MDX decided to smash into it while suddenly attempting a U-turn on a busy, four-lane road from the right lane crossing my path of travel. Oh and we weren’t in an intersection either. Anyhow, to this day the S2000 is the most neutral and exciting sports car I’ve driven, the Ferrari 458 being the only potential exception (Jalopnik seems to agree to some extent).
Yes, I love the Honda S2000, probably an unhealthy amount. It’s just so good. I’m sharing this at the outset because I’m sure there will be claims of bias when I drive the Boxster. So, yes, I am biased. Deal with it.
My S2000 was Grand Prix White with the all-red interior and I’d LOVE to find that same combination but it is extremely rare. What I won’t compromise on however is that if I buy another S, it must be a first generation AP1. They don’t have any electronic nannies except ABS. Pure.
I found a Berlina Black S with about 100,000 miles and after-market rims. I probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway (high-mileage and ugly rims), but before I really started looking I wanted to be certain that this car was as good as I remembered.
Was it? Well, I arrived at the seller’s home close to the 101 in the Hollywood Hills after some extreme rush-hour traffic, but I was excited to drive an S2000 again and wouldn’t let the traffic dampen my mood. The seller, Mike, answered the door and was ready to go. The S2000 was shined up nicely and after a VERY quick once-over I asked for the keys. “You driven one of these before?” Mike asked. “I used to own an ’02 GP white,” I replied. He looked at me briefly and handed me the keys. “Let’s go…” he said.
From the moment I took hold of the key fob it was like being reunited with some glorious past. I opened the driver’s side door deliberately, with its familiar weight and inhaled. Frankly, it was a little funky. I hate to spoil the romance, but Mike needs to stop smoking so much weed in the car. I climbed in and put the key in the ignition slot. This was always one of my favorite moments in the S2000—starting the car. It forces you to pause and think about what you’re about to do—key in, turn the key to ignition, then press the starter button.
The magical two liter, four cylinder fired and the tachometer flashed to life. I backed the car slowly out of the space, remembering the weight of the clutch. We pulled out and I threw the shifter the seeming millimeter into first gear. I drove about aimlessly for a couple of minutes before asking if there were some sort-of empty twisties nearby. Yes, yes there were.
I’m glad I had worn my Pumas. As the road opened up, I floored the throttle and wound the little Honda up to redline. Shift, third gear. Throttle back on the floor. Corner, hard on the brakes, downshift, turn. Straighten the car up and floor the throttle. Upshift, third again. “Could you please slow down?” a very pale Mike asked. “Sorry” I yelled as I wound up the engine to its 9000 RPM redline. 95mph, whoops. I put it in neutral and let it coast back down to a more moderate 50 mph. I heel-toed into the next corner, matching revs to get the S2000 into second gear. Man this car is just SO tight. The shifter is so precise, the engine so eager to rev and the turn-in so sharp!
I’ll spare you the usual go-kart and racecar hyperbole. Suffice it to say that my memory serves when it comes to the Honda S2000. It is a riot and the brakes, steering and drivetrain are a gift from Soichiro’s company. I didn’t buy the car, but am now actively looking. But as an unbiased journalist, and since some of you seem to think it’s better car, I’ll go drive a Porsche Boxster and try to dissuade myself from buying another S2000. [kiWO]
June 6, 2013—100 days. That’s exactly the length of time that Wide Open owned the 1977 Porsche 911S. As many of you know, I sold the classic, silver “Neunelfer” on Monday. I took a lunch break and met up with Shawn, the buyer, to wrap things up. We had agreed to the price the night before and when I arrived he was ready to go, money in proverbial hand. The whole deal took about five minutes.
But I had decided to sell the car before it was even purchased. I’ve never been a 911 guy because I believe that the rear-engine layout is fundamentally flawed. German stubbornness and an inability to admit that Dr. Ing. Porsche got it wrong are the only things that kept the 911 alive during the early 1980’s (that and American Peter Schutz). The fact that modern-day 400hp 911’s don’t go sliding through turns backwards into horrible, fiery wrecks on a regular basis is more a function of traction and stability control than some inherent balance. However, die-hard Porsche fans tried to convince me otherwise.
Having spent about 7,000 miles in the 911 though, I actually did come to love and appreciate the car—the lightness, precise steering, an endless third gear, and the wonderful package. I also realized that the 911’s popularity is completely due to the combination of package and power.
“Package” is a term that describes how the occupants and systems are organized in a car. In the 911’s case, the package is amazing for two reasons: first, there isn’t an engine in front of you so the hood can be low and short, allowing drivers to put the car precisely where they desire because sight-lines are so much better. This is also true of mid-engined cars, but in 1963 how many mid-engined cars were there (let alone the 1930's when the concept behind the 911 was first developed)?
Second, the Porsche’s relatively upright seating affords a much more controlling position than many of its competitors’ more hunkered, leaned back arrangement. When compared to the majority of its rivals, the better view inspires more confidence in drivers (the same reason people enjoy driving SUV’s).
And there are legions of these drivers who believe the 911 is the greatest sports car ever. They also believe it is their sacred duty to convince you of this, ye of little faith. So when I told people that I bought the car to drive it round-trip to Amelia Island with no intention of keeping the thing, I was usually met with a look that was a mixture of disbelief and disgust, “wait... you bought a classic 911... and, and, and... you don’t want to keep it?!”
Then came the usual litany of reasons regarding why I simply HAD to keep the car—it’s a classic! It will only appreciate! It’s original! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IT’S A 911!!!!! What’s wrong with you?! To which I’d usually reply in an indifferent manner, “Yeah, it’s cool. But I’d like to get something better and sharper.” Which effectively ended every single one of those conversations because, obviously, there isn’t anything better and/or sharper.
But Porsche-fan zealotry aside, even Porsche has admitted they got it wrong. That admission is embodied in the Boxster/Cayman—proper mid-engined sports cars. And frankly, there are cars that are better and sharper whose only shortcoming is lacking Porsche’s high-dollar European snob appeal (which is of paramount importance to Porsche’s 911 target demographic—Scarsdale dentists and Venice Beach producers).
The 1977 911S was certainly a fun car (as are all 911s I've driven) at a budget price; it has decent power and a great package. It inspires confidence in the driver and likes to be pushed. Yet, this isn't enough to overcome it's one major flaw: the rear-engine layout and consequential instability. And so as originally planned, I sold the car. The proposition is to replace it with something sharper and more predictable. If all goes as intended, we’ll have such a car in the Wide Open garage in a week or two. Stay tuned... [kiWO]
Have a thought on what our next car should be? Let us know on our Facebook page.
Abdellatif and the Aston
June 4, 2013—About a year ago, my girlfriend and I were in sunny Spain testing the aerodynamic speed limit of a Volkswagen Polo when we decided to take a brief detour to Africa. Hell, it was only an hour-long ferry ride away to the semi-cosmopolitan city of Tangiers, Morocco so we bought the ticket and took the ride. Across a calm Strait of Gibraltar we sped in a large hydrofoil. I have to admit that I was anxious visiting a Muslim country with “place of birth: Israel” typed in my American passport. But Morocco has been a fairly enlightened place throughout its recent history and ultimately, travel is the very definition of leaving your comfort zone.
So off we went to Morocco, thoughts of “Midnight Express” (that was Turkey, yes, I know) dancing in my head. We hired a guide who showed us the market (souk), the main tourist traps, a cave with a hole that looks like the continent of Africa in reverse and we rode camels along the edge of a cliff. It’s tough to describe the sensations of riding a camel. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy the feeling of riding an about-to-stall, seven-foot tall motorcycle with a greased seat and non-functional controls, then you may enjoy riding a camel. To this day, I am surprised that the camel’s owner didn’t get hauled in for questioning, regarding the bodies of the American woman and her Jew-Zionist-Occupier boyfriend found at the bottom of the bluff. Alhamdulillah, indeed!
But what followed the camel ride made me truly made appreciate our guide, Abdellatif. He was taller and balding with a sinister-looking scar that ran from his left eye-brow down to his cheek (Dr. Evil?). But he had a natural, friendly charm; he was a perfect tour guide. Whenever he’d show us a photo-worthy spot he made sure to point this out by instructing us, “you take picture now.” This advice was obviously very handy.
In spite of his friendly manner, there was something distinctly unnerving about riding around in the back of an older Mercedes 190E with your girlfriend, while Abdellatif and his compatriot, the driver, chat in Arabic and the city you’re visiting disappears into the background and houses get further and further apart. Yes, it was probably my prejudice and the houses were getting further apart because they were becoming larger and larger until they were obscured behind ten-foot stone walls capped by bougainvillea. But it was still unnerving. I had a key clutched tightly in my hand in case things went south (take note: if you have nothing else useful, they can be used as stabbing weapons. Er, I mean in self-defense).
Anyhow, we meandered into the hills surrounding Tangiers with houses becoming mansions then castles. The driver finally made a right turn into a driveway ending in a large steel gate, tall as the walls on either side that seemingly extended to the horizon with a small guard shack to the right of the gate, shaded by palm trees. The guard walked up lazily. Abdellatif greeted him non-chalantly in Arabic while the guard looked over Abdellatif’s shoulder at us through mirrored Ray-Bans. “OK” the guard said in accented but discernable English. He walked back to the small, yellow booth. The gate began to open and this is where I really got nervous.
The taxi crawled forward as the steel door parted. I leaned forward in my seat looking straight ahead. Another guard in the same uniform was just inside the wall with an AK-47. Oh shit. “So where are we?” I asked apprehensively. Abdellatif turned to me and smiled broadly. “You just wait,” he replied. Terrific.
“No other guide bring you here, my friend!” he proclaimed.
“I bet,” I thought.
We drove up a short incline and all at once my fears melted. “You write about cars, right?” Abdellatif beamed. “You take picture now!” Sure enough, Abdellatif had brought us to the one spot he could be sure there would be some interesting hardware around. Cars. He leaped out, opened my girlfriend’s door then ran around to hold my door open as I exited the cab. He repeated the Saudi Prince’s name and gave us a walking tour of the extensive grounds, two swimming pools, courtyards, and of course, garage.
While we strolled the nearly abandoned estate, a couple of gardeners glanced at us through their work and guards kept their gazes trained on us, when we were in view. It was surreal. Abdellatif rattled off facts about the Prince, his house, his cars, his parties... I can only speculate how much was true as I suspect that he’d worked out some kind of deal with the guards to add a bit of value to his tours. It looked like the place had been undisturbed for years. Regardless, walking the grounds of some Arabian Prince’s deserted compound in Morocco with a Disneyland-esque tour guide while the few around are busy at their job is something I could never have planned for or imagined.
Ah yes, then came the cars. They were older and while some were rather strange (see van photo), I would have loved to borrow the blood red Aston Martin Vantage for a blast through the rolling hills under the canopy of fig trees. The Rolls-Royces weren’t too shabby either and most appropriate. It seems like the only car an older, gentlemanly Saudi Prince (how I imagine him) should be spotted in. Perhaps I should have asked Abdellatif and the driver if we could dump the Benz 190 in favor of a Roller. No, it wouldn’t suit us.
We eventually made our way back to Tangiers and toured the Kasbah (old fortress) before Abdellatif dropped us back at the ferry for our trip back to European safety and predictability. The cars and compound were such a surprise and our guide’s hospitality was boundless. In hindsight there hadn’t been much risk, but it gave me the chance to see a sliver of a culture limited to me if only because of my passport. Perhaps next time I should visit Morocco and take the ferry for a day trip to Spain. Maybe I could even borrow the Prince’s Aston. [kiWO]
Dinosaurs and Trannies by Ben Shahrabani
May 23, 2013—When I think of 'keeping it wide open' (both the 'go pedal' as well as this fine website), I think of manual transmissions. You've heard of them, right? Sometimes they're called stick shifts or 5 or 6-speeds (Porsche and Chevy now have 7-speed!). Once upon a time they were called 'standards' as in manuals were the standard transmission. Get it? And if you actually wanted to go somewhere in your car, you had to shift the gears yourself. Nowadays, only a very small percentage of cars in the USA are sold with manual transmissions, at last check only 5% or so of total vehicle sales.
The reasons for the demise of the manual transmission are many. Driver's Ed isn't teaching students anymore (although this may be a chicken-or-egg situation). I know when I learned, it was not my driver's education class that taught me, it was one of my uncles in London on a 1-litre Ford Fiesta 4-speed. The gearshift was on the 'wrong' side. I thank him anyway. Another reason is fuel economy. Once upon a time, manual transmissions got much better fuel economy than automatics. Now that's mostly no longer the case. Automatics have gotten so good that in most cases they equal or exceed the mileage you get from shifting yourself. Some automatics are so good (DSG & PDK which are dual-clutch automatics) that the average person cannot shift smoother or faster than the car can.
Another reason is that most people seem to want to do as little as possible. Operating an extra lever and a third pedal is too much work. They feel that a car with an automatic transmission makes life easier. They might also wish to have an extra hand free for eating, texting, shaving, etc. Such is the world we live in.
But for Drivers, driving a car with a manual tranny is a badge of pride. Having full control of your car carries an appeal that may well go back to the time when man first rode astride a tyrannosaurus rex. That's what they say in some circles, anyway. There's the romantic notion of the stick shift too. You don't see too many car movies, whether action (Ronin or Bullit comes to mind) or romantic (I can't think of any right now, but imagine a beautiful girl, a convertible, and a stick shift) where the people are driving automatics.
There is the pride one takes in a perfectly timed two-three upshift, wringing it out to the redline and listening to the symphony of pumping pistons and whirring camshafts, or perhaps mastering the dark art of heel-and-toe shifting and precisely matching revs on a downshift as you brake into a corner. There is the conviction that the driver knows best.
Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure our kind are fighting a losing battle on this one. The news is grim—Ferrari no longer offers a manual transmission option of any kind. Porsche's hard core 991 GT3 and upcoming turbo—same. Who knows when the last manual transmission car will be built?
Truly, we're the last of the dinosaurs. [kiWO]
May 21, 2013—Do you remember the thrill of carnival rides painted with thick, bright primary colors? They spun and twirled and zoomed in the dazzling sun. And when you were finally at the head of the line and climbed aboard, the rush! Is it any different today with the Viper?
I don’t think so. It rumbles and blurs the horizon through a rush of power. You barely notice the people on the periphery watching; all you see are impressions of enthusiastic faces, smiling, wishing they were in your place nevertheless happy to partake in the sight and excitement. So excited, in fact, that they stop their beige car in the middle of the street (as two people did) to photograph and become a part of the spectacle.
So it was with the SoCal Viper Club Cruise from Supercar Sunday to Lavaggio in Agoura Hills via the famed Mulholland Highway. Supercar Sunday had lower attendance than usual but there were some notable cars, including a beautifully restored 1929 Model A (photos tomorrow), a 1963 Corvette “split-window,” and a gorgeous white Audi R8.
The cruise, however, had Viper Convertibles, GTS’ and ACR’s parading through the western San Fernando Valley on to a lunch and tour of Lavaggio’s facilities. Test drives of other SRT vehicles were provided by Shaver Dodge. The drive was entertaining and relaxed, there was no rush and little competition (with the exception of a Pontiac Grand Prix that tried to join the run). All-in-all a fun way to spend a Sunday morning. [kiWO]
Two Balls: a Movie Review by Ben Shahrabani
May 13, 2013—Wide Open obviously loves road trips and when we got to discussing the best road trip/car movies, two immediately came to mind: Cannonball Run and The Gumball Rally. Two movies about man (and occasionally, very attractive woman) and machine racing from coast-to-coast, but which is better?
Before delving into such heady fare: a bit of history. In the 1970s - the days of OPEC, gas lines, poorly built, underpowered American cars and the dreaded double-nickel speed limit - there was also the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, commonly known as the Cannonball Run. This informal, highly illegal, cross-country race was conceived of and run by Car & Driver magazine's Brock Yates in part to demonstrate that it was safe for good drivers to drive arbitrarily fast on public roads (and in part to thumb his nose at authority). It was about the freedom, man!
Two movies were made based on the event. Written by Brock Yates himself – Cannonball Run, was released in 1981, starring Burt Reynolds (then the world’s biggest movie star) and directed by stuntman Hal Needham (Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit). But most don't remember (or know) that it was preceded by a similar movie by some five years – The Gumball Rally – released in 1976. This one starred mostly lesser known actors (apologies to them) as well Gary Busey and Raul Julia (who weren’t that famous yet) and directed by Charles Bail.
Both are about a frantic race from NY to LA, all for the glory of getting there first; the team with the lowest elapsed time wins. Racers could use any car they wished, and there was certainly an abundance of exotics (for their time) in both films. In Cannonball Run, there is the iconic Lamborghini Countach, Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Ferrari 308 (also made famous in the Magnum P.I. Series), and the mighty Subaru GL. To be honest, Cannonball Run was much lighter in exotica than the actual races. Much better were the cars competing in The Gumball Rally – a Mercedes 300SL, Ferrari Daytona, Shelby Cobra 427, Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Chevrolet Camaro, Porsche 911S, and Jaguar XKE (which never leaves the garage, as the drivers could not coax it to start).
The Gumball Rally begins with the racers being summoned by a one word message—“gumball.” Upon receiving the message, they drop whatever they're doing and assemble in Connecticut, where the race will begin. The finish line is the Santa Monica Pier, roughly 3000 miles away. The racers are more-or-less serious; Candy tycoon Bannon, in the Cobra, is played the straightest, whom it is insinuated has a deep rivalry with Franco in the Ferrari Dayton Spyder (played by Raul Julia who instructs, "First rule of Italian Driving. What's behind me is not important," as he rips the rearview-mirror off the windshield). Meanwhile, a "Crazy Hungarian" going solo on a Kawasaki is almost purely comic relief. One of the teams drives a van with enough gasoline on board to make the entire trip without stopping. And, of course, no chase movie would be complete without a Lt. Roscoe, the New York City cop determined to catch the racers, even if it means chasing them all the way to LA to do it.
The driving sequences, particularly early on—through the early morning streets of New York City, are some of the best. Period. There are no camera tricks. The drivers really are launching those incredible cars around the corners at full throttle. The movie is worth screening just for the incredible driving.
The setup of the movie is clean and efficient, and we get to the racing action pretty quickly, but story wise, we don't ever feel we know these characters. It's almost like The Gumball Rally is the sequel to another movie. For instance, Bannon and Franco’s rivalry is alluded to but we don't know their history, which is a shame because it could have added another dimension to the film. It feels very sketchy, something a screenwriter could not get away with today. There is also the unnecessary subplot of some vaguely ethnic hopeful driving an expensive car across the country with his girlfriend in a 'ride and drive' scheme. This component is completely irrelevant and makes no sense as he's driving at low speeds (as directed by the car's owner) yet maintains the same progress across the country as the racers. Comic relief indeed. The real point isn't the characters, I suppose. It's about the cars and the race, hence the title of the movie.
For reasons described more in depth in Yates' book by the same name, The Cannonball Run movie came out 5-years later after lingering in "development hell.” Film stars fell in and out of love with the script (including one time lead Steve McQueen) conspiring to derail it until Burt Reynolds signed on. It should be pointed out that Brock Yates' original vision of the movie was radically different than the movie that got produced. It was supposedly much more of an introspective film that echoed the zeitgeist of the 70's (think Two Lane Blacktop, LeMans or Vanishing Point).
The script that was produced might best be described as the world's longest character set-up (around thirty minutes). Thirty minutes! Which is followed by a flimsy excuse to string together as many gratuitous car stunts and chases as possible. They introduce ace stuntman Burt Reynolds and sidekick Dom Deluise, Roger Moore playing a guy who only looks like Roger Moore, Jackie Chan as a hi-tech Japanese (! - he's from Hong Kong) racer, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as womanizing gamblers, sports personalities like Terry Bradshaw (in the Gary Busey role here as a redneck racer), and MASH's own Jamie Farr as The Sheik (whose role is expanded in the sequel). A-mazing. They certainly went all out. For what it’s worth, the actors looked like they had fun filming, though.
Cannonball Run lacks almost everything. I'm not even sure they shot with a script as every scene has an improvised feel. To be fair, a few moments did manage to make me smile—Jackie Chan kicking biker-gang ass (even though it was preposterous), Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage, and Jack Elam as a drunken proctologist—but the majority of the film left me massively disappointed. Where is the character development (even with 30 minutes of setup), strong plotline, well-crafted humor, well-photographed racing sequences? Not in this movie apparently.
You can't do anything but watch in amazement, though. Why you ask? Well, a lot of the scenes are actually true. The souped-up ambulance that Burt Reynolds drives? True. Brock Yates actually entered such a vehicle in one of the Cannonballs. The guy who drives through the hotel at the beginning? Someone actually did that in their zeal to get to the highways faster than the rest of the racers. Ultimately, Cannonball Run can be classified as "so bad its good."
After watching both movies (clocking in at a combined 200 minutes), and "driving" coast to coast (on my couch, of course) twice, it is my opinion that The Gumball Rally is a better movie except for Cannonball’s opening Lamborghini scene. While both films are entertaining, Gumball more appropriately captures the essence of the actual Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash of the '70s. You feel the people who made The Gumball Rally knew their cars better, and they'll have you craving a powerful engine, a full tank of gas, and the Wide Open road. [kiWO]
Above it All
April 22, 2013—I received my pass for the Grand Prix and wasn’t expecting too much. I love street circuits, but to me street circuit means Monaco. Frankly, I enjoy American Le Mans Series but wouldn’t call myself a big fan and Indy Car barely registers on my racing radar. I love racing in general, but don’t follow ALMS or Indy like Formula One. Still, a day at the track beats a day watching TV.
So I drove down Saturday morning anticipating a fun time but nothing too out of the ordinary. It was a stereotypical Southern California Saturday: the sky clear, a gentle breeze and the sun beaming. It was perfect. Small aircraft circled above pulling banners and shapely Tecate girls roamed the grounds. The action in the pits during Indy Car practice was laid back (or as laid back as racing pits get) and the paddocks were buzzing with activity. But, throughout the area everyone was enjoying their day and wearing a smile.
As the Le Mans race was the one I was most interested in, I made my way to the pits in order to get some good action shots of cars lining up on the grid. In preparation for the parade lap the cars lined up on the front straight, Le Mans style. Now, in order for the journalists to get on the straight, we had to walk from the paddock to pit lane, then over the short retaining wall separating the pits from the straight, via four or five stairs up then down the other side. On either side of the stairs were more stairs leading to a photographer’s podium on one side and the starter’s podium on the other. I made a mental note.
I walked the front straight snapping pics and talking to journalist friends while spectators whistled and cheered their favorite drivers. In my mind the most interesting storyline didn’t regard the prototype cars, rather the GT Corvette and brand new GT Viper. After all, here are two American icons duking it out on the track. That’s good for both brands and spectators. Also, I love the new SRT Viper (yes, I am biased).
Inevitably, as the hour approached, the stewards started shepherding all the people who weren’t in cars off the front straight. I climbed the stairs back over the dividing wall and hey!... Wait a minute!... a couple of people were climbing up the taller stairs to the starter’s podium. Well, it surely wouldn’t hurt if I took a look.
I put on my best “of course I belong here”-face and climbed the stairs knowing that it was only a matter of time before I was booted. I reached the top and took my place among the starter, official photographer, celebrity starter, celeb entourage and race officials. It was like surveying heaven. Beneath me was the start-finish line, across the track were the eager crowds, and now zig-zagging down the track were the race cars warming their tires. Then the short stairs were pulled away from the dividing wall.
The celebrity starter received the word as the cars accelerated toward us and she waved the green flag frantically. Somehow, I was still up there. How was it possible? The cars roared to Wide Open throttle and flew under us. It was deafening. I asked the celebrity (Kim Raver, I think) for a picture. She assumed I meant with her and actually seemed put off when I handed her the camera and beamed happily. Meanwhile, the cars continued turning lap after lap below us. A few laps in, the support staff brought the small stairs back and Ms. Raver and her entourage climbed down. I remained, it was a hell of a vantage point and I was certainly not leaving without being asked (and maybe arrested).
The Vipers and Vettes were running close to one another in an exciting display of good ol’ ‘Merican horsepower. The best sounding car, though, had to be the BMW Z4 GT’s. They sound like an angry buzzsaw chewing through hyperbole. The entire time I was up in the starter’s podium I marveled at the fact that I was still up there and how viscerally exciting the sound and speed of each car were.
Sadly, I was eventually ‘discovered’. A marshal turned to me and asked, “I’m sorry. Who are you?” I replied, “Yoav,” as if I was genuinely surprised that he’d ask and that my name alone should explain everything. It didn’t and he answered with an annoyed, “Yeah. I’m sorry you have to leave. Now.”
It didn’t matter, I still felt triumphant. I climbed down the taller stairs like a conquering hero and jumped down from the retaining wall to pit road and sprinted across. A few seconds later, the Muscle Milk prototype whizzed past. Eventually, a BMW Z4 won the GT class but a Viper beat the Vettes. Yeah, it was a good day. [kiWO]
An Interview with a Cannonballer
April 8, 2013—As children, we watched all the ‘car’ movies: Grand Prix, The Gumball Rally, Le Mans, Smokey and the Bandit, etc. And as we grew older we continued watching car movies, in particular the Fast n’ Furious series. But one film always stood above the rest: The Cannonball Run. Sure it’s kitschy and slapstick, but the original script was much darker, originally written for the late Steve McQueen, and it’s a classic.
The thought of going flat out across the US always thrilled me, but it wasn’t until about the time I got my driver’s license that I learned that The Cannonball Run was based on a true story. This morning Wide Open interviewed a living legend, Bill Warner, who actually cannonballed in 1975.
Today he’s well-known for being the founder and chairman of the premier East Coast car show, the Amelia Island Concours. But when he drove from New York City’s Red Ball Garage to Redondo Beach’s Portofino Inn in forty-one, nonstop hours, he was running his filter company and working part-time as an automotive journalist for Road & Track.
Warner, a self described “life-long car guy,” was friends with Brock Yates who was then editor at Car and Driver and would eventually write The Cannonball Run based on his experiences planning and marshaling the event. Warner happily accepted Yates’ invitation to run. What did Warner drive? His daily driver of course: a Porsche 911T bought new. He purchased the car in 1971 for $7900, much to the chagrin of his dad who called it a “Mickey Mouse car.”
He did make a few modifications to the car including installing the European 911 fuel tank (larger capacity), skinny wheels and tires, CB radio, and Cibie Oscar driving lights. The engine was bumped up to 2.7L displacement and fitted with Weber carburetors. Warner participated because he’d “never been to California before and it seemed like a good reason to go.”
Following Warner and co-driver Tom Nehl’s first fuel stop, at 2 AM in Tennessee, they switched seats and Nehl took over driving. Within five miles Nehl began dozing off and Warner had to wake him and asked what was wrong. “I never could drive at night,” replied Nehl. So it was left to Warner to drive both night legs and half of the day stretch.
While most of today’s Gumballers and Bullrunners are part of the “gold-chain, Gucci crew” looking to be famous because money isn’t enough, “We ran under cover, we didn’t put any decals on the car,” Warner explained, “We just ran looow profile. Now they’ve got these clowns that slap decals all over their Lamborghini.” At this point Warner paused and considered his word choice, “They’re too high-profile, too showy,” disapproval dripping from his voice. “With the original Cannonball it was run silent, run deep.” The point was to go quickly and police stops cause delays. And when asked about recent cross-country record setting runs that employed jammers, night-vision, spotter planes and computer programmed scanners, Warner simply replied, “no, it’s got to be pure.” When the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (its official name) was organized, it was Brock Yates' protest against the (now overturned) federally mandated 55 MPH speed limit. Warner said, “you’d think that the Cannonball guys would be these wild-haired rebels. It wasn’t. It was pretty much a cross-section of society.” Then he added, “nut cases!” with a laugh.
So did Warner win? Who cares?! He raced from New York City to Los Angeles in a four year old Porsche driving three quarters of the way in forty-one hours! Additionally, he and Nehl opted to go south of Ohio due its notoriety as a cash-hungry, speeder’s hell, which extended the route by about one-hundred fifty miles.
The Cannonball Run was a futile, adventurous, rebellious act. Yet it has captured so many imaginations because of the allure and challenge it represents. There are infinite routes, strategies and reasons not to do it. Sure, almost anyone can run. “I give speeches to Rotary Clubs and they ask, ‘but how do you do it?’ You just do it,” Warner explained emphatically. How many have?
Perhaps one day... [kiWO]
Day Twelve: Music
The Porsche 911 was slowly pulled up the flatbed, then gently lowered back down about a mile away at Stuttgart Southwest (SS). Almost immediately after breaking down, there had been an outpouring of offers for help from the local enthusiast community via Facebook. Fortunately, I had a solid plan, executed well and wasn’t caught by surprise like the first time.
Had I not, the local community’s overtures would have been enthusiastically received and acted on. Thank you all again. I stood alone once more after the flatbed left, in the middle of a semi-industrial office park sparsely lit by floodlights, but was almost immediately picked up by my girlfriend’s sister, Lori, who lives in Phoenix. No cheap motel for me tonight. She took me out to dinner and made up the spare bedroom in her house. In the morning, she took me to breakfast and then drove me back to Stuttgart Southwest to check on the car.
When we arrived at SS the parking lot was bursting with Porsches of all types: 911’s of all generations, 914’s, and a few Boxsters. I think there were even a couple of Cayennes. I finally met Jack Doverspike, the affable principal, who exuded competence. He was the polar opposite of Las Cruces’ Manny. Jack apologized for having missed me the previous night and gave his assurance that they’d get me on the road as soon as possible. Lori waited for me to finish in the shop and then left me at a nearby Barnes & Noble where I worked until Jack called, “she’s all done. Just needed new points. Thank you. Youbetcha.”
I walked back and after shooting some video at SS, I threw all of my gear in the trunk of the resuscitated 911 and cranked the engine. She fired right up with a strong aircooled roar. I couldn’t wait to get back on the road.
Once under way, the old Porsche had guts again and accelerated as she had when I first set out. Running through each gear up to 5000 RPM, the Porsche roared and gained ground quickly. It was exhilarating. I couldn’t find twisties in this part of Arizona, but I did manage to get off the highway and ran on Salome Rd. and US60 for a while. It was hotter than the day before, but I wasn’t too worried about the engine any more. I had the windows down, the sunroof open and while the antenna still didn’t work (it never had, yeah, we ran cross-country twice with no tunes), the sounds of the engine roaring and the wind whipping the pages of my road atlas were music enough.
The rest of the drive to Venice was just as fun and relaxing. I parked the car later that night after completing a total of 5661 miles in less than two weeks. Roughly two months before the festivities, I had set out to buy a 911 that was mechanically capable of making it to the marque’s fiftieth birthday celebration in Amelia Island, Florida and home again. I hadn’t found the car until nine days before my departure date. But I found it, drove to Florida in four days, celebrated the 911’s birthday at an incredible car show, was interviewed by Jay Leno’s Garage for a segment, met a couple of my heroes, made it back in five days and drove some great roads.
In three weeks time I’ve gotten to know this car better than most owners ever do. It won’t be easy for me to sell. Thank you 911. [kiWO]
Day Eleven: One More Time and Anthony Leaves
On Wednesday morning I awoke earlier than I should have as we had nowhere to go. I recalled the previous night and was glad that we skipped the desert party. Hanging out with a bunch of tweakers isn't my idea of fun. The sun was just rising and it would be a while before I'd know anything about the car.
Since I had the time and didn't want more fast food, I walked to a supermarket in the cold desert morning and bought a few things including the first fresh produce I’d eaten in a week, a tomato. I returned to the motel and ate on my bed while watching some cable show. Anthony was still asleep.
Over the next three hours, I called the garage a couple of times and both times was told that the car was about to be brought in. I decided that we’d depart, as the motel’s checkout time approached, and walk back to the garage to [hopefully] speed up the proceedings. The mechanic who received us last night was there and directed me to another mechanic with a Russian accent and a crew-cut who had assumed responsibility for the Porsche. The Russian informed me that the car did start, but that the starter was probably bad and would have to be replaced.
“Trast miy. They goe bad all the tyime,” he said. I asked him to whack the starter as the gear can get stuck and rapping on it tends to loosen it. “O-kye, but is not fyix,” he replied. Rather than replace the starter, I asked him to re-gap the ignition points, because I suspected that the points were too closed and were responsible for causing an RPM flutter at high revolutions. The wide Russian started at me blankly. “Hold on.” He went to retrieve the owner.
The owner, Manny, well-dressed and hair slicked back, took me by the arm and said “Don’t worry, we’ll get you a starter.” I argued, but it was clear that he was going to make some money. A few minutes later he told me that he didn’t have a starter and couldn’t locate one in all of Las Cruces. “That’s fine. I didn’t want one anyway. Could you however gap the points as I suspect they’re too closed?”
He smiled and spoke slowly, “look man, this is old technology. None of my boys know how to do it. Me, I do. I’ve been doing this shit for thirty years. But, now, I’m the owner and I ain’t no grease monkey. So I ain’t doin’ it. Good luck to you, LA is that way,” and he pointed west. At least we weren’t charged.
We fueled the car, determined to stop as few times as possible, and got on the road to Los Angeles just before noon. The RPM flutter became worse with every passing mile so that car couldn’t achieve eighty MPH any more. I drove gently, frequently under seventy MPH, trying to baby the car. If the problem remained constant it would take us about eleven to twelve hours to get home.
As I drove, I prayed silently every time the odometer ticked another tenth of a mile that we’d get one more. I glanced nervously from the road to the one mirror to the tachometer to the speedometer to the fuel gauge to the oil pressure to the oil temperature. The day was becoming warmer and so was the engine. We sweated.
We knew that we would have to stop for fuel once more and hoped we’d be able to keep the car running. Our fuel strategy came down to this: if we drove as far as possible until the car was on fumes we’d get closer to LA, but it would be useless if we were in the desert and miles from a real Porsche garage if we broke. We’d learned our lesson the day before.
So we determined that we’d stop in Phoenix near a Porsche mechanic, just in case. We got some suggestions about thirty miles out and made phone calls. Stuttgart Southwest came highly recommended and was about a mile from a gas station right off the freeway. That would be it: we’d either refuel and continue or the car would die on the off-ramp and we’d be calling AAA, again.
Traffic thickened as we approached the off-ramp and I crossed my fingers that we’d get a long, clear green light for our left turn at the top. I downshifted to keep the revs up and the light was green. Yes! There were about ten cars ahead of us and they were crawling, but at least they were moving. We were about two hundred feet from the intersection with five cars to go. Then the light went yellow.
Two more cars made it through and the third stopped. So did our engine. When the light went green again we attempted our habitual push-start but the engine just wouldn’t fire. Some jerk in a Ford F150 yelled, “buy American!” as he passed. For future reference, if you see two people pushing a car in traffic and want to help, please start by offering real assistance. Then, and only then, might you earn the right to pontificate.
I put the hazard lights on and when the light changed again Anthony and I pushed the car over the freeway, across another intersection and into our target gas station. I called Stuttgart Southwest and told Jack, the owner of the shop, that I’d be there as soon as the flatbed came. Although Anthony and I discussed pushing the car the mile to the shop, he wanted no part of it. We called AAA for the second time.
The flatbed still hadn’t shown up after an hour and a half. At this point, the sun setting, Anthony decided that he’d had enough. He called a taxi and gathered his bags. He said he had work to do and couldn’t wait for the car to be fixed. He was right, he didn’t have to deal with this. “Yeah, I’ll take your sleeping bag,” I told him and he left for Sky Harbor.
When I set out over a week ago, I left from Venice and picked Anthony up in South Pasadena about twenty miles away. We’d been across the country once and nearly again in ten days. It was nice to have a companion, but we’d had no time apart and frankly, I was looking forward to enjoying the 911, by myself. I watched the birds and people go by in the waning heat, leaning against my broken Porsche at a Tempe gas station. I waited another hour and a half until the flatbed finally appeared. [kiWO]
Day Ten: Border patrol stop and a cheerleader
Sunday, as soon as the Amelia Island Concours ended we did a donut on the fairway-cum-media parking lot and headed for the exit. Anthony and I were going to try to get back to LA as quickly as possible and thus weren’t staying in Jacksonville another night. We headed out on I-10 and got as far as Pensacola that day. We had planned to go north to Birmingham, Alabama to meet a friend at Barber Motorsports Park but rain changed those plans. So we pressed west and by Monday night, we were in New Braunfels, Texas, just east of San Antonio.
Tuesday morning it occurred to us that if we pushed hard enough, we might make it to LA late that night. We headed out at 8:45 in the morning and while the first hour was slow and choked with traffic, the plains finally opened up and we were able to stay well above the eighty MPH speed limit the remainder of the day. We slowed into Fort Stockton to refuel and passed Paisano Pete on the way to the gas station.
Our fuel stop completed, I put the key into the ignition cylinder and turned. Nothing happened. The engine didn’t even turn over. At first I thought the battery was dead, but the dashboard was illuminated like a Christmas tree. Could it be the starter? Doesn’t matter—"let’s push-start it." Anthony got out and was about to start pushing when the door to the gas station’s minimart swung open and a pretty teenage girl who looked like she should be the head cheerleader of the local high school came out yelling aggressively, “I WANT that car.” Her tone was so belligerent that I thought she was car-jacking us. “I WANT that car,” she repeated for effect. In contrast to her feminine beauty, she looked masculine in jeans, a t-shirt that was too large and boots. “We'll talk if we get it running,” I replied.
Her demeanor suddenly changed and, happily, she said, “I’ll take the right side,” and leaned into the back of the car, flicking her ponytail off the fresh tattoo on her left arm. I popped the clutch while they pushed and the engine coughed to life. I circled around the block and Anthony jumped in. We waved a thank you and continued to lunch. Too bad we didn’t have more seats.
After a mediocre tex-mex lunch we repeated the push-start and continued west. The car continued running strong, but there now seemed to be a flutter in the RPM’s as revs climbed. As we slowed for a border patrol checkpoint on I-10 the Porsche went flat. All systems died and I had to mash the brakes to avoid rear-ending an SUV when the brakes lost power too. We managed to re-fire the engine as we still had some momentum. The car was causing quite a scene because I was trying to keep the revs up and we were cranking it while the car bucked with the clutch going in and out. But as we creeped through the checkpoint and the border patrol agent yelled, “you’re both citizens, right?” the car sputtered ominously.
“Yes!” we answered, still rolling about five MPH. Then, the SUV stopped just past the checkpoint and we were forced to stop completely too. Anthony immediately jumped out and began to push, but it was no good. Our new push-starting ritual had no effect. The 911 refused to start even with a couple of border patrol agents helping. We called a flatbed as the sun dropped.
The driver, Lloyd, suggested a garage in Las Cruces, New Mexico specializing in German and Japanese cars. Fortunately, the mechanic lived next door to the garage and promised he’d look at it first thing in the morning. We left the car and walked down the road, carrying our gear to a small motel and checked in. We even managed to find a brewery nearby and drank some of the homebrew and met the locals, one of whom offered us an invitation to a “desert party with some girls from El Paso.” We politely declined and decided to turn in. [kiWO]
Day Six: Amelia Island Arrival
We didn’t stay on I-10 much longer either. Maybe ten miles after the Magnum PI Ferrari exited we also pulled off to get gas and afterwards, kept driving on a back road through the swamps. Ahead of us, we caught glimpses of a white first-generation Mazda Miata keeping a quick pace. Over several miles we slowly caught up.
Following the small sports car in and out of shady bogs we had fun shadowing but wanted to pass. We thought we had gotten our chance when the road widened into four lanes but the Miata immediately seized the opportunity to swing into the passing lane around a slower pick-up truck. We also went by the truck expecting the Miata to move over after we’d both passed.
The Miata didn’t move over and Anthony decided to pass on the right. But we were rapidly bearing down on an eighteen-wheeler and the Miata was unrelenting. Parallel with the little Japanese roadster our lane began merging with the Miata’s. I looked over and a weathered, puny grandma with a pink visor flashed a grin and moved towards us. Anthony had to yield. We fell in line behind her, she behind the large diesel.
You had to respect her gumption and impishness. It seemed like she was saying, “if you’re going to pass me, you’re going to earn it!” Indeed. A couple of miles later we finally drag raced her into a corner, and won, on a double yellow two-lane. Who knows if she was upset, but since she had closed the door on Anthony and me, we’d been laughing like schoolgirls. That grandma was just having fun in her car, like us.
We eventually wended our way back to I-10 and entered Jacksonville as the 10 ended in the I-95. Through some local streets, we headed as far east as possible and finally saw the Atlantic Ocean on a small bridge leading to Amelia Island. It wasn’t sunset yet and we stopped to shoot some photos near the beach, the sound of the waves breaking and seagulls cawing behind us.
While we photographed, a 1956 Robin’s Egg Blue Ford Thunderbird stopped to ask if we needed help because we were nearly on the road. We said no and as soon as he pulled away, a Miata driver (not the granny) stopped to ask if we were part of the Porsche Club driving event tomorrow (presumably surveying the route). “Porsche driving event?” we asked. Apparently, Porsche was running a drive for owners around the area at 7:30 in the morning with Hurley Haywood and the Brumos Porsche team.
As night fell, we proceeded to the Ritz-Carlton to pick up our media credentials, but arrived after the Concours Media department had closed. We found a motel close to the Jacksonville Airport and checked in. Anthony and I then located a Buffalo Wild Wings nearby and ate about five pounds of spicy wings. The following morning we did not go on the Porsche drive.
I won’t get into details, but we spent the day driving short distances shooting video and taking photos. And we discovered a ferry to a small island with the most animated deckhand on planet Earth. He was an older black man, in a beige Ferry company uniform with matching cap, who befriended everyone because they happened to be there. As cars pulled on the ferry, he enthusiastically shouted encouragement and high-fived drivers, passengers and pets alike. It was a joy to watch him work. If this man doesn’t like his job he is the best actor I have ever seen. Anthony nicknamed him Zatarain’s (after the spice mix).
When we returned, he recognized us and if the Porsche’s California tags initially excited him, Zatarain’s was positively ecstatic upon seeing us again. He high-fived Anthony then ran around the car to high-five me as we drove off the boat. [kiWO]
Day Five: Is that you, Ferris Bueller?
In spite of the fact that we got lost taking an HOV lane on the highway in Houston that simply ended on a surface street near the aquarium, there wasn’t too much excitement through Texas. I-10 was a long, straight road where absolutely nobody followed the speed limit. We stopped in Lake Charles, Louisiana long enough to eat some chicken, beans, rice, mac and cheese, cornbread and cake for only eight dollars.
In a small neighborhood restaurant simply called “The Kitchen,” we were greeted by the staff and other diners alike. Another patron who followed us in asked if we were in the Porsche and then jokingly, offered to sell it to us. The food was exquisite and the people were the friendliest we’ve ever encountered.
After flying through the rest of Louisiana and finally crossing the Mississippi River we arrived on the Gulf coast in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in time for dinner. While we hadn’t enjoyed too many restaurants or bars that seemed to be popular with locals, Wednesday served up two gems: the aforementioned Kitchen and Ocean Spring’s Mezo’s Juke Joint.
Mezo’s was garishly decorated in Mardi Gras colors both inside and out. Lights were strung through the trees outside. Still, Mezo’s seemed dark and slightly dangerous. A couple of cats slept on the sprawling veranda and locals came and went, ordering a beer at a time and disappearing into the night. Some stayed and chatted with the bartender and everybody seemed to know one another. Music played over the PA while a piano player warmed up in small room off of the main barroom. A couple entered looking for some friend but left because their friend wasn’t there.
There was more driving tomorrow and so we walked home early. The following morning, we ate the hotel’s free continental breakfast and a guest wished us a “blessed” day. That was the third time someone had told us to have a “blessed” day since entering the Deep South the day before. The general attitude was thankful and friendly.
We decided to get off of the interstate highways and left Ocean Springs by US90. Small towns, curious faces and fast food joints separated swamps and bayous. Rusting cars sat next to barns with collapsed roofs. Vines hung from trees and the woods were thick only twenty feet from the road. Standing water touched the roadway here and there and it was obvious that the humidity must be oppressive in the summer.
We returned to the Interstate after a fuel stop as there was no way across Mobile Bay other than I-10. We pulled to the side of the road next to the “Welcome to Florida” sign to snap some pics. About to press the shutter again, a distinctive wail shrieked from behind us and went by almost instantly. “Ferrari!” I yelled, “get in!”
Anthony and I dove into the silver machine as a red blur rapidly accelerated away from us. I buckled up and mashed the gas in pursuit. We left a black eleven on the pavement as the Porsche’s new tires struggled for grip. The transmission, usually notchy, seemed to enjoy the acceleration and was compliant engaging second, then third, fourth and fifth gears. The Ferrari, a 328, disappeared around an eighteen-wheeler. I dropped the 911 back into fourth gear and kept my right foot down.
A couple of minutes later we were right behind the Ferrari, the driver’s blue baseball cap visible through the rear window. Finally, we pulled alongside as I lifted off the gas slightly to give him the thumbs up. The driver wore mirrored Ray-Bans and smiled broadly. I flattened the gas pedal again and we proceeded to spar over the next forty-some miles sometimes following, sometimes leading across western Florida until he exited the freeway. As he split off from I-10 he waved through his car’s open targa roof. [kiWO]
Day Three: Not murdered and even better luck!
Fortunately, we weren’t killed in Albuquerque. We rolled over the continental divide late on Monday night and had no trouble finding our Couchsurfing.org host’s home near 12th St. He told us to park in the lot next door, adjacent to a church or community center. It seemed a bit questionable but would have to do under the circumstances.
Our host, Patrick, was a tall, lanky red head about twenty-five years old who rapidly told us how he had just moved to this big city a couple of months ago and was originally from Las Cruces, NM. He also warned us about traffic the following morning. Patrick was eager to share his music with Anthony and me and was adamant about our being honest and not sparing his feelings in our critique. He ‘wrote’ electronica and I thought what he played was decent.
After a few minutes we headed out for dinner and had some trouble finding an open restaurant at such a late hour, but eventually found a good pizzeria, Il Vicino. We each ate a pizza and drank a beer and Patrick spent the entire meal telling us stories too absurd to re-tell. He was trying his best to be ‘one of the guys’ but his innocence and simplicity shone through more than anything. Patrick shared plans of moving to Ibiza to become a world-famous DJ. He just came off as heartwarmingly delusional.
When we got back to his place, he showed us to the living room and Anthony and I each took a couch. I rolled up my leather jacket to use as a pillow and unrolled my sleeping bag. I set our alarm for 6:30 and got my things ready for the next morning. At dinner, Patrick had told us how his spare tire was stolen off the back of his SUV. I hoped the Porsche would be fine for the six eternal hours between then and our wake-up.
The Porsche survived unmolested, as did we, and we set out for Texas on a cold, clear New Mexico morning. The awful traffic that Patrick warned us about amounted to driving sixty miles per hour rather than at the posted speed limit or above and only lasted about four miles. We continued east on I-40 and as we descended the Rocky Mountains we saw clouds ahead at a lower altitude. It was like driving under water—there was a very defined edge to the clouds and once we drove under them, the sun was obscured and the clouds enveloped us in a misty, snowy fog. It didn’t last more than twenty miles, but had a surreal, otherworldly feeling.
Eventually we split from I-40 and took amazing back roads all the way to Austin, Texas. The speed limits are the same, frequently seventy-five MPH but these are usually empty, arrow straight, two-lane undivided roads. The 911 was in fifth gear for hours at a time, only slowing when we’d pass through some sleepy little town with a stop sign. On some of those roads, people would actually move onto the shoulder to allow us to pass more easily. These are some of the most well-disciplined and courteous drivers Wide Open has ever encountered, to the point of endangering themselves. We also had fun running with a Corvette for a little while.
Throughout this drive, we’ve been shooting video and while we’ve been stopping to mount the camera on the exterior of the car and ensure that the suction cup is secure, in the Texas panhandle we decided to try mounting it while in motion. Anthony was driving about seventy MPH and I lowered the window, kneeled in my seat and leaned out to secure the GoPro just behind the front wheel. I attached the suction cup to the door and tightened the lock. Just as I turned my head because I was trying to listen to Anthony, my sunglasses flew off of my head and exploded on the pavement some distance behind us. Shit! I got back inside and Anthony asked if he should stop.
I asked him to and he slowed, made a u-turn and began accelerating towards where he thought my glasses had come off. Just then, the camera, still rolling, decided to leave the car as well. The camera, suction cup and case shattered over the blacktop. Double shit! Anthony made another u-turn. We were lucky that there was virtually no traffic. Unfortunately, the little traffic there was managed to find the camera.
We watched helplessly as a Ford F350 ran part of the case over. Looking at the camera after collecting the various scattered bits, I realized it was still recording. It survived! In fact, almost all the components were in tact, they had just come apart at the clasps and locks. With such good luck, I decided to look for my sunglasses.
About twenty minutes later, I found the frames and one lens that had popped out, the other was still in the frames! I slipped the wayward lens back into the frame and my glasses were repaired! About all that had been lost was thirty minutes and perhaps some of my dignity digging around on the shoulder of this small highway among broken bottles and scrub brush.
We arrived in Austin after sunset and headed to Stubb’s for some delicious barbeque. After our fill of meat and sauce we headed to the Sixth St. bars for some local beers and to close out the evening. We spent the night in a sub-par hotel and after being rudely awakened this morning by construction in the adjacent room we angrily settled our bill and headed east once more. [kiWO]
Day One: Forgotten Tools, Derelict Strip Clubs and Fuel Economy
Everything was ready for the journey: the car was checked out, running well and my co-driver, Anthony Cioffi, was all set. I couldn’t wait to execute this plan, which had been hatched a couple of months earlier. The Amelia Island Concours was honoring the Porsche 911 for its fiftieth birthday and we had already received our press passes. But something was missing. Wide Open had attended the North American International Motor Show in Detroit and while it was a fun show, it lacked a crucial element.
That was the driving factor (if you’ll pardon the pun) behind our decision to drive cross-country to Amelia Island. And while we could have used any car, only two were appropriate. This year, the Amelia Island Concours is honoring both the Porsche 911 and the Ford GT40. We love the GT40 and would do just about anything to drive one cross-country. Unfortunately, our insurance (and our budget) wouldn’t quite allow it. So, as you’ve read in the preceding articles, we decided to seek out a decent 911, to honor the marque as well. So happy fiftieth birthday, 911!
I awoke at approximately 6:15AM, got ready and packed the car. Besides my clothes and toiletries, I was bringing a 117-piece mechanic tool set, jerry can, flares, compressor, sleeping bag, jacket, computer, video gear, photo gear, and road atlas. I set out to battle traffic on my way to pick up Anthony. He was ready and waiting when I arrived and we promptly headed to an audio-visual store as I had forgotten to buy a microphone for our video work. Anthony realized that he had forgotten the tools he packed upon getting back on the freeway and really getting underway.
Traffic headed east was virtually non-existent and we initially drove towards Las Vegas, before cutting east in Barstow and following historic Rt. 66 through Amboy to Needles. The Porsche ran strong as Rt. 66 parted from the side of I-40. Rt. 66 is a bit slower than I-40 obviously, but it’s empty and cuts through the desert like a fast, solitary rattlesnake designed just to carry you.
The Colorado River came and went and still we didn’t need gas. For a thirty-five year old sports car, the Porsche is quite impressive with regard to fuel economy. Hell, it handled everything it had been tasked with so far, with aplomb. It accelerated vigorously and handled slow twisty sections quickly and smoothly.
We pulled off the road at a grimy, desolate truck stop about five miles shy of Kingman, Arizona when we finally needed gas. It had a restaurant and nudie bar in the back and an eighteen-wheeler parked out front along with a roughly twenty year-old Pontiac Bonneville and a burned out limousine. Anthony started walking around back but then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Meanwhile, I tried unsuccessfully to use my credit card and upon entering the storefront to swipe it, couldn’t find an attendant present (he was probably hanging out in the strip club). Anthony and I decided to drive on to Kingman for gas and lunch as we were so close and waste no more time at this truck stop would-be entertainment mecca.
Kingman is an unspectacular town, but has beautiful surroundings, lots of red stone and high bluffs. After the fuel stop, Anthony took over in the driver’s seat and I just enjoyed the drive. We’re trying to make Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a new experience awaits: couchsurfing.org. If you don’t know what it is, check it out. Suffice it to say that we may be driving towards accommodations at an ax-murderer’s home and hope that if needed, the Porsche will fire right up as always. After five hundred miles it’s still rock solid. I hope our good luck continues. [kiWO]
Five Hundred Miles in Five Days
March 1, 2013—Wide Open wanted to get a feel for the Porsche as quickly as possible. Also, since it had mostly been parked for the last four years, we wanted to get the old 911 used to moving again over large distances. So, Sunday we fired up the flat-six engine, let her warm up and headed for Topanga, only stopping to pick up a friend. The sky was clear and so were the freeways.
We arrived in near-record time and quickly headed for coffee to break the cold of the morning, met up with more friends and showed off the new/old Porsche. Someone offered to buy it on the spot, but we needed the car for a special upcoming project.
The following day we drove out to Anaheim for dinner with the parents. I was very surprised that my dad was really taken by the 911. He’s not a car guy and usually responds with a sarcastic, “that’s delightful,” when I share some tidbit of car trivia. But he genuinely seemed to enjoy some of the Porsche’s eccentricities (more on these in a future article) and the overall presence of the car. Cool!
The final shakedown was a run to Palm Springs a couple days later. The car arrived in the oasis without a whimper and the oil temperature never topped one hundred ninety degrees. It ran like a champ! When power was needed to pass on the freeway, there were always ample reserves. When the brakes were suddenly checked, they slowed the car without drama. I’d still have to drive back to Los Angeles, but we were “go for launch.” More soon… [kiWO]
The Test Drive
February 28, 2013— If you read the preceding article, you already know what happened. But the process was less than smooth. William Benoit had called me on Wednesday unexpectedly to tell me that the car would actually be available for a drive on Thursday—the owner, Rob was coming back to Los Angeles (the Porsche was his LA car) early and thus the car would be around earlier than expected.
I eagerly walked the mile and a quarter from Wide Open’s offices to Mr. Benoit’s shop Thursday morning. There were a couple of Porsche 914s sitting outside the bays and an older Cadillac too. A quick glance in the shop revealed a 930 Turbo, but the 911 I was looking for was missing. I called out to William in his office and he came out smacking his forehead, “Rob called late last night to let me know that he wouldn’t be able to make it. Sorry I couldn’t call, it was late.” He apologized for forgetting to call that morning and reassured me that it would be there Saturday as originally planned. I walked home disappointed.
Finally, Saturday arrived after a two-day eternity and I called William to ensure that the car would be there. “It’ll be here,” he said impatiently. Once again, I walked over and as I rounded the corner to the alley I saw William speaking to a young-ish brown-haired guy. More importantly, I saw the silver tail of a 911 peeking out beyond the Cadillac. Introductions were made and Rob spent some time highlighting certain merits and describing his experiences with the old Porsche. We opened the engine cover and it was clean (for a thirty-five year old car). Glancing beneath the car, it didn’t seem too much oil was leaking, for a Porsche.
It was finally time for the drive and I asked Rob to drive first due to the “tricky” braking Valley Porsche (read previous article). Rob seemed to think it strange, but he agreed. He drove the car easily and gently and told me how he’d owned it for about ten years. He was the ideal former owner. I wished all the previous owners had been this gentle with the car. I don’t think he revved the engine over 3500 RPM once. Regardless, his shifting seemed labored and deliberate; I hoped that was lack of experience.
When it was finally my turn, I discovered that it wasn’t Rob’s fault. The shifter was incredibly notchy. You had to be simultaneously gentle and forceful—gentle to move the shifter deftly and forceful to engage the gear. But the 911 was compliant and made the right sounds. We drove around neighborhoods for about five minutes and the brakes were solid and confidence inspiring. I decided to push a bit and I swung it right through an uncontrolled intersection. It held the turn and the unassisted steering was direct and communicative.
The power, while certainly not excessive, was sufficient and it was clear that this little Porsche was meant to be pushed. It bogged a bit under 2000 RPM and seemed to find its rhythm above 3000RPM. I asked Rob if we could take it on the highway and he could probably tell that I was enjoying myself. What car enthusiast wouldn’t be enjoying themselves? Here was a car with go-kart like steering, great brakes and good throttle response.
We got on the 90 and I pushed the 911 over the speed limit. It was solid and felt like it could continue easily to some very illegal top speed. Towards the end of the 90, I lifted off the gas pedal slightly to see if the rear would get squirrely but it stayed planted through the turn. I was sold. The reliability was an issue, but at the end of the day, “even a new car can break down,” William lectured me, his blue eyes unblinking, “there are no guarantees.”
I’d have to put my faith in the fact that this car was powered by 1930’s technology and that the German engineers had refined it over the preceding forty years. The compression numbers were consistent and acceptable and all that was left was to negotiate and sign. If the car had cost twenty percent more I would have bought it. Fortunately, it didn’t and after a very brief negotiation Rob and I shook hands. Then I drove it home. [kiWO]
February 25, 2013— After much consideration and discussion Wide Open concluded that the only appropriate car for our forthcoming road trip/event video was a Porsche 911 (more on why later this week). The trim level doesn’t matter, the cosmetics don’t matter; what absolutely matters is the mechanical condition and the ability to do roughly 6000 miles in a week and a half.
Why a video and what event? For that answer you’ll have to wait a bit longer too, but suffice it to say it’s on the Atlantic coast and we’re driving our newly acquired 1977 Porsche 911S. If you’ve ever bought a car you probably didn’t run out and shove wads of cash in the hands of the first seller you saw. Neither did we because we need to drive 6000 miles in a week and a half.
There was the daily regimen, check: Ebay, craigslist.org, Pelican Parts, Rennlist, theSamba.com, autotrader.com and autotraderclassic.com. I spoke to my Porsche-owning friend Ben every morning and bench raced the merits of every far-flung 911 we discovered. The event looms and a 911 is imperative.
I walked up and down Lincoln Blvd. in Venice stopping at every car dealership beside the long street to inquire about Porsches. We saw slant-nose hackjobs, mid-1980’s SCs that had been turbocharged, lowered, cabrio’d, even one that had a center console retrofitted with a mirror (anyone for skiing?). One 964 was sitting in an ominous oil puddle with a “just serviced” sticker on the windshield. No, thanks.
Wide Open finally found a potential candidate in the Valley. It was a red 1983 911SC and the seller wanted $17,500, negotiable. I arrived on time and the car was parked in the driveway, car cover still on, with a 1970 Pontiac parked between it and the street, also covered. I knocked on the door and a large dog began barking. A woman came to the door dressed in a bathrobe, her hair wet. “Jim went to the store, but he’ll be back in a couple. Feel free to take the cover off yourself.”
I decided to wait for “Jim.” He and his scraggly ponytail showed up ten minutes later and pulled the cover off the Porsche. It was red and shiny, but had clearly been re-sprayed very casually—there was overspray on the exhaust, doorjamb stickers, etc… I asked if I could drive it as the cosmetics were unimportant. Jim looked at me as if had asked him to solve a complicated calculus problem. A test drive?! How very unexpected!
He agreed, uncovered the Pontiac and drove it onto the lawn so the Porsche could exit the driveway. The Porsche finally fired after Jim spent time securing the battery contact. Jim suggested he drive first as the brakes were, “tricky.” Tricky is one way to describe the brakes. Another way is—worthless. Approaching the first stop sign, I heard the brake pedal bottom and yet we weren’t slowing. Jim swung the car right to avoid any potential cross traffic. We drove in this manner for a few blocks and then he announced it was my turn. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too eager at this point. But I sat down, strapped in and gave it a go. We survived, miraculously, and Jim speculated that the brake master cylinder needed to be replaced. This car wasn’t the one.
We found another car in Colorado, owned by a Porsche dealer, in seemingly great shape. But while the dealership conducted the compression test a Brit bought it off Ebay for full-price, “Ahem, we’re very sorry but…” After some back and forth I decided that paying full price, just because they claimed to have an interested party, was unsuitable.
A few days passed and I ran into my friend, Nicolai Iuul of Ammo Films who recommended we speak with local Porsche mechanic, William Benoit. “William’s a lovely guy. If anyone can find you a car, it’s him.” Wide Open visited William’s small, two stall shop in a Venice alley the following day and he reluctantly agreed to help in our quest, in spite of the fact that he thought the compromises between budget and mechanical requirements were too great.
The next morning, at approximately 8:30AM the phone rang and Mr. Benoit was on the other end, “I think I may have found you a car, but it won’t be around till next Saturday.” He went on to give some specifics and we agreed to meet on Saturday. What happened? Check out the photos, we bought it! More backstory and the first drive tomorrow! [kiWO]
Red and Obnoxious
February 7, 2013— There is a chauvinist saying that goes—“if it’s got tits or tires, it’s going to give you trouble.” The statement may have a shred of truth because all relationships (whether with a person or car) require maintenance, and yes, they're difficult. But the trouble with tires (and the vehicles they are attached to) is frequently caused by our need to supercharge/lower/raise/install a new stereo/take the turn using only a handbrake/etc…
Be honest with yourself: remember your first BIG lapse in judgment behind the wheel? Most of us get our license and decide to push our luck just a bit further. Maybe it’s driving home from school, work or late at night when that twisty road leading to your neighborhood is empty.
For me, my first really exciting-, negatively speaking, car moment came with some friends in my 1994 Ford Mustang GT. I bought this car new and it was my pride and joy. I loved this thing! It was red and much like me, obnoxious. I did burnouts at virtually every intersection. I still remember ordering it on December 13, 1993. It was delivered during the February snows. With 215 horsepower and 285 pound/feet of torque I thought I’d be able to reach the moon.
A few months later on a humid July night, my friends and I were hanging out, bored and restless after a couple of hours in someone’s basement. I suggested we go for a ride to “see what was going on,” and piled into the Red Rocket. Four of us in the Mustang, speeding from stop sign to stop sign. The MACH 460 system was blaring Susie Q by CCR and we were ripping through a muggy Washington DC suburb with split-level homes.
I held my hands out the window to try to cool them when the road was straight. We decided to head for 7-Eleven to buy some cold Slurpee’s or whatever. I mashed the gas, dropped the clutch, and we took off in a cloud of tire smoke (or was it clutch smoke?). Second gear. Pop the clutch! Tire squeal... Left turn coming up. Still on the gas. Consider third gear. Too late. Crank the wheel...
Not even close. The car turned but not enough. Understeer. We flew over the curb. Brakes. Brakes. BRAKES! And we came to rest, mercifully, before plowing into a mature maple. Somehow we had avoided another tree on the left. Massive understeer. My friend beside me was as pale as the moon. “Is everyone OK?” Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. “Dude,” someone said. That pretty much summed it up.
The car had three flat tires, three destroyed rims, and the front suspension was toast. Control arms, struts, etc, all ruined. It was an expensive lesson. And it could have been far worse. I’m grateful that the lawn was the only living thing hurt. But I learned my lesson—don’t go buy Slurpee’s on warm July evenings.
It did smarten me up though, if only marginally. What was your first failure with the rush of adrenaline and horsepower? Did it change you? [kiWO]
Saccharine, Rehashed Nostalgia and Memories of Greatness
January 23, 2013—Wide Open recently came across a Facebook page dedicated to a Facel Vega Concept and wondered if the storied coachbuilder was being resurrected and who was behind the effort. The Facebook page only shows a few development sketches that are updated infrequently along with a 3D digital model. The design is an evolution of the HK500/Facel II from the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. Beloved by celebrities of the era and powered by a Chrysler Hemi, the Facel II is terrific inspiration for a new 2+2 grand tourer. Additionally, it started us thinking about other cars that deserve resuscitation and whether they should be.
The first car to come to mind was the 1967-70 Toyota 2000GT. Penned by a German-American and built jointly by Yamaha (powertrain) and Toyota. It was powered by a two-liter straight-six cylinder engine and wasn’t terribly quick but definitely made people rethink prejudices related to Japanese cars. It was however produced in VERY limited numbers (less than 350 examples were built) and quite expensive. They sure are gorgeous though. Toyota has an image problem today, much as it did in the1960’s when the 2000GT was built. The FR-S and LFA are all well and good, but neither is properly pretty and neither is actually badged as a Toyota, in the US. So, Toyota, please build a suitable successor to the 2000GT.
Next, Wide Open would like to see the Alfa Romeo Spider. The original Duetto, mind you, not the early 1990’s fat and bumpered version. The car was largely introduced to the US via the movie “The Graduate” in 1967 and became a sensation around the world. This is the car that pops into most peoples’ minds when they think of a small Italian convertible. It wasn’t super fast or exclusive, it was just unpretentious, sexy and fun. What a novel idea, why can’t we do that now?
How about the McLaren F1? The car was designed to be a road-going version of McLaren’s Formula One cars and was so successful that it was able to race, and win, at Le Mans. Additionally, it had three seats! This way the driver could sit in the center to more closely reproduce the F1 experience and simultaneously terrify his wife AND mistress. It weighed less than 2600 lbs when the Lamborghini Diablo came in at about 3600 lbs! Well, McLaren gave it their best shot, but even they couldn’t reproduce the purity of the F1. McLaren’s latest supercar, the MP4-12c is great, but it falls very short as a follow-up to the greatness of the F1. Almost twenty years after it was first produced, it’s still the fastest naturally aspirated road-going car, ever.
But you have to be careful what you wish for; we are awash in muscle cars and Wide Open doesn’t really want any of them in spite of the fact that we’d happily drive most of their original namesakes. A new Mustang? No, thanks. The Challenger or Camaro? No way. They’ve all grown too fat and bloated. So maybe memories of amazing old cars should remain just that. We don’t really want to see a 5000 lb Facel Vega or 3500 lb Toyota 2000GT blasting down the road, no matter how quick. Do you?
Please don’t misunderstand, Wide Open doesn’t think that carburetion and drum brakes are the way to go. But sticking an old nameplate on a car with rehashed styling cues is cheap and selling nostalgia is an easy way to battle against stronger competitors. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C7 (2014-20??)
January 13, 2013—While American car companies are still firmly in the throes of retro-futurism (when appropriate—think Camaro, Mustang, Viper) there are definitive signs that ‘retro’ is falling out of favor. Ford’s current designs are fresh, if not revolutionary and Chrysler is experimenting at the bottom end of its range (Dart—historic nameplate, but modern design). Chevy is also seeking a new form language (think Spark or Volt).
Internationally, BMW maintains classic proportions, but embraces modern surfacing. VW/Audi continue to explore rational, geometric forms but are clearly moving from the traditional New Beetle/TT proportions. Within this global design context it’s easy to understand why the seventh generation Corvette’s design had to progress.
And so it has. The most interesting thing about the C7 is the apparently different proportion—the hood looks shorter, the rear deck longer and it loses its beltline once again. However, the proportion is actually rather similar to the C6. Throughout the reveal, "European" was thrown about like some sort of magical buzzword conceived to prove the Corvette’s worth. Granted, this new generation is more European-looking than the C6, C5, C4, or C3 and the Corvette was first envisioned as a European gentleman-racer. But is it that different from the sixth gen? Wide Open maintains that it is not. The main reason that the new ‘Vette appears different is because rather than having an all-glass hatch, this generation has a blacked out B-pillar and a C-pillar which runs to the very back of the car giving it more visual length in the back. And while it’s only two inches longer overall than the C6, it looks substantially longer.
Moreover the C7 lacks a beltline. Much like the C5 and C3 it relies on its fender peaks and graphics (the side-cove) to convey a theme. Unlike the third- and fifth- generations, however, it also relies on its roofline. In fact, the graphic that Chevrolet used all over its media kit and wall art consisted of two lines—one the body-side, the other the roofline.
The surfacing of this car is sophisticated and lends the Corvette a much more expensive look (perhaps that’s what "European" means). The surfaces are taut and close to being overwrought (particularly on the hood) but effective. The back of the car is only ‘Corvette’ because it has four tail-lamps and four exhausts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, recognize that the ‘Vette needed to dispense with some of the nostalgia factor. The back end appears to have more section (or 3D) because the quarterpanels leading aft along the side remain fairly flat and appear to overlap the rear slightly.
Wide Open’s initial opinion is that this new Corvette bears a strong resemblance to the Nissan GTR or Ferrari F12. They’re all front engine, rear-wheel drive monsters so no big deal. But there is more than a surface similarity and this is due to aerodynamic considerations. All cars need to move through air efficiently so it shouldn’t surprise you that supercars use comparable methods.
We were also struck by the fact that this latest iteration doesn’t scream Corvette. It has a bit more GT in it than sports car. The C7 has presence; additionally, it's more mature and refined than the Corvette has been in a long time. But is that such a negative? Frankly, the design of the Porsche 911 is boring (also beautiful, but still boring) because the current gen looks like the last gen, looks like the last gen, etc… But this new ‘Vette is more revolutionary than Corvettes have been in a long time. Let the Germans stand on tradition; thankfully, the American sports car is moving forward. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C6 (2005-2013)
January 12, 2013—The sixth generation Corvette was penned while retro-futurist design raged. Chevy was building (or about to build) nostalgia-inspired vehicles such as the SSR and HHR. The Viper had been redesigned and Ford built its own supercar, the GT, a mild redesign of the iconic GT40 that won Le Mans forty years earlier. Naturally, the ‘Vette was going to go for a stroll down memory lane.
As with the previous two generations, aerodynamics remained a serious priority and were key during the design phase. Additionally, the styling had to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The C5 wasn’t a sales failure by any stretch, but it clearly relied on its performance and engineering rather than form. Thus, the challenge of improving the tension-lacking C5 made the job facing stylists simpler.
The real issues facing designers styling the sixth-gen were theme and surfacing, proportions could obviously be left alone. The C5 lacked a strong theme so designers brought back the beltline, which corresponds to the top of the side-cove, connecting the front turn signals and graphics with the rear. In perfect side view the tops of fenders show no matter what, but by rounding them, as on the C5, you lose the gesture when viewing the car any other way (and how often do we see cars in perfect side view, with our eyes level with the fender tops?).
So the C6’s fenders received a sharp radius to define them and give them visual rigidity. This treatment tied the sixth gen to the C2 and C3. These sharp radii were used throughout the new Corvette to great effect, clearly defining surfaces and restoring the tautness that the C5 so clearly lacked. Also, the expansive rear end that existed on the fifth generation was slimmed by decreasing the volume of the surface (in side view) and by expanding the blacked-out area (in rear view).
Detail-wise, the new Corvette received wheel flats on the fenders, visually expanding the tires and wheels. Also, indicators related to the overall design rather than simply sitting on a visual line (what was up with the side-rear turn signals on the C5? Ovals? Really?! Pretty lazy…). And smaller HID’s gave the ‘Vette exposed headlamps for the first time since 1962.
Overall, the C6 relied and built upon an amalgam of nostalgic Corvette elements. Side-coves and dual exposed headlamps relate to the late C1. Slick, peaked fenders and beltline recall the C2 and C3. Finally, the aerodynamics build upon the legacy of the super-smooth fourth and fifth generations. Wide Open loves the heritage, but frankly, we’re ready for a new, futuristic-looking Corvette. We can't for the C7 reveal, let’s see where Chevy takes America’s sports car… [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C5 (1997-2004)
January 11, 2013—Building upon the C4’s successful reassertion of the brand, the C5 sought to bring back some of the extroverted character present in older ‘Vettes while maintaining the fourth-gen’s aerodynamic efficiency. Additionally, the 1990’s saw a resurgence of organic design themes, central to the C5.
High-tech was out as a form language and people desired vehicles and objects that referenced their design history. This era saw the birth of the retro-futurist movement. The Dodge Viper was conceived along these lines and represented a new threat to the Corvette. While the Viper was produced in much smaller numbers it was touted as the spiritual descendant of the Shelby Cobra. It was loud, mean, rough and didn’t care a bit about the Corvette’s refinement.
Chevy’s designers didn’t want to revert back to the C3’s cartoonish styling to out-macho the Viper, but had to turn up the attitude. The result was a failure. While the proportions of the new ‘Vette were still good, its dimensions expanded in every direction. Moreover, it lost the beltline that had been present since 1963 and tried to make do with a resurrected side-cove and meandering fenders as a theme.
The C5 certainly has a wide stance, but it looks bloated rather than purposeful due to the visual weight at the front and rear. The front end melts into the ground through paunchy, lazy volumes. The brake ducts, vents and lights cause the front lip to look like it has inconsistent radii along its bottom, which only contributes to the overall lack of visual control. Moving back along the sides, the fourth-gen is broken into two surfaces below the beltline, but the C5 has no clear beltline and appears more like the section of a pudgy, dented cylinder liquefying into the earth.
Looks don’t improve out back where the mass looks simple and unrefined. The severe taper of the backlight compared to the body further emphasizes the bulk. While this was probably a concession to airflow management, Wide Open would trade ten miles-per-hour or one mile-per-gallon for a more dynamic look (perhaps they could have added two more cylinders? Ahem, Viper).
The C5 was the first Corvette to be digitally modeled from scratch. The lack of maturity in the digital modeling shows and should have been fixed in clay. Nevertheless, all design is a compromise; otherwise we’d all be driving [insert supercar here]. And balancing aerodynamics, design heritage, styling inspiration and packaging (mechanicals, occupants, safety considerations…) is no easy task. Sadly, it seems there were too many concessions for the designers to overcome. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C4 (1984-1996)
January 10, 2013—After a one-year hiatus, the Corvette returned in 1984 sporting an all-new design. The delay was allegedly due to changes in California's emission requirements. It is worth noting that this ‘Vette was touted as the most technologically advanced sports car in the world; a claim supported by its new, slick shape.
Overall, the C4 displays a quiet American optimism. Continuing as the US' only sports car, it was tasked with reviving a name that had become a caricature of itself during a dark era in America’s automotive design history and history in general. The 1970’s oil embargoes and political disasters left Americans reeling. And this automotive icon saw a dramatic decrease in potency and had styling that reminded people of what was lost. The 1970’s legitimized imports and heralded the end of Detroit’s golden era.
Designers realized that the C4 would have to speak to the heritage of the Corvette and do it without braggadocio. It built on the third generation’s dramatic proportions but was heavily influenced by aerodynamics so that this design change is one of the more evolutionary ones in the Corvette’s history. Essentially, the ‘Vette became a smoother, sleeker version of its former self. Gone were the dramatic peaks and valleys, replaced by taut lines and sheer surfaces. And the inward taper that existed on the C3’s waist right before the rear fenders disappeared to improve airflow. Designers used large surfaces with minimal volume to emphasize width, length and low height.
Amazingly, the fourth gen Corvette is about nine inches shorter in length than the C3, while the wheelbase shrank by only two inches, yet manages to look longer. Much of the length was removed from the rear overhang but visually retained by the aforementioned stretched surfaces. The beltline remained virtually unchanged but terminates in a Kammback rather than the extruded looking posterior that had swollen on the C3.
The C4 was the most conservative Corvette to date. The overall gesture of the fourth gen ‘Vette is much more wedge-like than preceding generations relying simply on a forward-diving beltline, visually large wheels and steeply raked windshield. It did away with the absurdity of the third generation. It also dispensed with the majority of ornamentation and the form speaks eloquently to what lay beneath. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C3 (1968-1982)
January 9, 2013—The third generation Chevy Corvette had a difficult task from a design perspective. The ‘Vette, now fifteen years old, was essentially the only American sports car at this point (yes, Ford had the GT40 and Cobra, but they were hardly mainstream sports cars). Furthermore, the styling on the C2 had been so successful that attempts to improve it would likely fall flat.
Whether you believe that the C3 is better or worse looking, it is inarguable that it’s more exaggerated and flamboyant than the second gen. Mechanically, the Corvette’s performance kept climbing until the 1973 gas crisis and one gets the sense that the engineers’ exuberance spilled over into the styling department.
Proportionally, the doors moved closer still to the rear tires. Also, the rear fenders crept further into the doors visually moving the greenhouse back. It retained the C2’s beltline but pushed it visually lower and accentuated the fenders, which on the ‘63-’67 were like small fins peaking above a waterline.
The gesture of the C3 relies on the curvy profile of its fenders to make a statement, this car is all about its fenders. Looking down at the Corvette, one sees much more section with the rear fenders becoming the ‘hips’ and front fenders the ‘shoulders’ of this body. The car has a waistline both horizontally and, with the wheels visually pushed away from the centerline, in plan view.
If the first generation ‘Vette was voluptuous then the third gen was positively pornographic. Additionally, the C3 grew more peaks and curves as time passed including a pointed (in side view) rear bumper that integrated with the beltline, a chin spoiler up front and a spoiler out back. And befitting its namesake, it received a proper prow.
Cartoon-y surface treatments aside, the C3 existed in an era of tumult: strict emissions and fuel economy requirements were foisted on the auto industry, the convertible was killed due to safety concerns and both customer tastes and manufacturing changed dramatically. The evolution of the manufacturing sector and consumer desires led to the virtual disappearance of chrome on the ‘Vette during its third generation. Bumpers went from chromed steel to formed plastic covering stamped steel beneath. Taillight bezels and exterior door sills disappeared completely. The “plastic fantastic” now looked the part too. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C2 (1963-1967)
January 8, 2013—It could be argued that the first generation Corvette ushered in a fresh era of motoring in the US. It was the first modern American sports car—the fenders were flush with the rest of the body and the body enveloped the frame (rather than sitting atop it). The ‘Vette made such a personal luxury statement that Ford was caught flatfooted and responded two years later with the Thunderbird. They quickly diverged though, the Corvette remaining true to its European gentleman-racer roots.
While the C1 laid the foundation, the second generation came to exemplify the Corvette. The C2 also represented a shift in design, generally, and within GM, having been designed right after the styling leadership changed (Bill Mitchell replaced the aging Harley Earl). Design transitioned from voluptuous to sheer and raked. Mitchell’s tenure saw GM cars become less ornate and more futuristic. He also killed that symbol of the 1950’s, the tail fin, which reached its zenith in 1959 in one of Earl’s last production cars (the Cadillac Eldorado).
The Corvette's overall proportions didn’t change much from the first gen. It maintained the traditional long hood/short trunk shared with most other sports cars. But the surfacing became much tauter with the second generation. The 1950’s were essentially an extension of the art deco era that favored a rounded aerodynamic look (fenders) with speed lines for accent (think of the C1’s bumpers and grill teeth).
As the decade drew to a close, the Corvette had been steadily moving away from its slightly pudgy beginnings towards the beautiful, lithe form it acquired in 1963. Under Mitchell’s stewardship, designer Larry Shinoda began with the ‘62 Corvette’s light-looking ducktail rear end and picked up on the 1953’s chrome character line and brought it up, tangential to the tire tops and terminating with the ducktail. Everything below the beltline reflects the ground, giving the car a very lean, low, planted look. The gesture of the beltline is carried through the bodyside giving the car a dynamic, athletic appearance.
Detail-wise, Mitchell did away with many of the chrome tidbits of Earl’s era, but the 1963 C2 was still festooned with a variety of doodads—hood vents that only served a visual purpose, B-pillar scallops, and divided backlight. While the scallops remained a few years, the hood vents and two-piece backlight were nixed the following year.
The reason the C2 is the prototypical Corvette is because it’s clean and purposeful. It wasn’t conservative, it was a bold risk taker. It was designed to speak to an American aesthetic when traditional-looking MG’s and Porsches were beginning to appear on our shores in greater numbers. All of the surfacing and details are laid out to make it look like the gutsiest, fastest racecar on Earth. The first generation made the Corvette’s success possible. But it was this car, the C2 Corvette that defined what a ‘Vette is. [kiWO]
Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C1 (1953-1962)
January 7, 2013—The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette was never intended for production. Like so many cars before and since, it was simply meant to be another of GM’s show cars, a mere tease to whet the appetite and showcase future design directions. Consumers responded very positively at the 1953 GM Motorama in Chicago, where the Chevy debuted, and as a result GM decided to produce the small two-seater.
The Corvette was inspired by small European sports cars that servicemen had seen while abroad. The soldiers (and particularly officers), now eight years into a career, had extra money to play with and some desired a light, fun car as opposed to the more mainstream land-yachts, particularly if their wife had a car too.
From a manufacturing perspective the Corvette wasn’t revolutionary when it was unveiled. In fact, it used many of the same mechanical components as other GM vehicles already for sale. And while its surfacing and details were very much in line with other GM offerings, the proportions were striking and people responded accordingly.
The long hood, exaggerated dash-to-axle (the distance from the dashboard to the front axles) and doors set just in front of the rear wheels spoke to the performance aspect and jaunty intentions; but what really struck the public was how low this tiny sports car was. There had never been anything this low and seemingly-purpose built on American roads before. Even the ‘sports cars’ of the 1930’s had been large, looming machines that seemed as comparatively tall and sporty as the Empire State Building now.
GM touted the Chevy as “clean and sleek, efficient looking.” Indeed. But some of the original design cues didn’t last too long. For instance, tail fins that GM design-boss Harley Earl introduced on the 1948 Cadillacs also appeared on the C1 (first generation) Corvette but only for three years. In 1956, the ‘Vette underwent a mild redesign that also addressed the heavy visual weight of the body side by incorporating ‘side coves’ to make it look more sporting. Additionally, the headlamps were no longer inset, while the smiling toothy grill remained to make the face more aggressive still. Many of the small details that vanished in 1956 were perceived as too small and weak to belong on a Man’s Car. Now that the Corvette was powered by a one-horsepower-per-cubic-inch V8 it had to appear lean and masculine for the discerning gentleman of means.
As the C1 neared the end of its cycle the overall shape became quicker-looking with the main visual mass of the tail rising from the ground line to the belt line. Unlike many of the first generation Corvette's themes, this treatment arguably continues today. More importantly, it would also help define the overall gesture of the next generation Corvette… [kiWO]
Top 5 Vehicles for the Mayan Apocalypse: Ciao, vita bella!
December 20, 2012—Finally, the Mayan Apocalypse is nigh. So we’re suggesting vehicles to ensure that you’re not unprepared while commuting. Who knows the precise moment tomorrow when doom will strike? Stay protected while crawling along the I-10. Go buy one of the following, before it's too late!
5. The Battlewagon—It’s survived the Mojave Desert, snobby valets and a Lindsay Lohan-like thirst for fuel. We’re pretty sure it can handle some fire and brimstone. Need more proof? Click here. Yeah, there’s only one Battlewagon, but it’s for sale! Bro, I like your face, for you: cheap!
4. Toyota Prius C Hybrid—Following Judgment Day, fuel is going to be even more expensive, obviously. So equip yourself with America’s most fuel-efficient vehicle. It just makes good financial sense.
3. Volkswagen Beetle (A5)—The new, new Beetle can’t stand up to too much abuse but being built in Mexico, it may please the Mayan gods who will consequently spare you. Wide Open won’t give odds, but you’re probably better off in a Mexican-built Beetle than a Yanqui Cadillac.
2. General Dynamics MRAP Cougar 4x4—General Dynamics' website states that the Cougar, “boasts an outstanding occupant survival rate,” and has “withstood literally thousands of IED/landmine attacks.” Built like bank vaults, MRAPs have survived Allah’s warriors in Afghanistan and returned our troops home to tell about it. Could there be a better option?
Well, yes, one…
1. Ferrari F12—Let’s be honest, it’s armageddon! Nothing is going to protect you! The least you can do is die in style. Wide Open suggests crossing the pearly gates in a flaming red sports car with the engine bouncing off the rev-limiter at 8,700 RPM and topping out the speedo. At least God/Satan will respect your choice and bravura. Ciao, vita bella! [kiWO]
A Chill, Damp, Wonderful Drive
December 18, 2012—It was warm and dry when I awoke at six forty-five Sunday morning. Condensation on the window meant it was cold outside. The sun was up but hiding behind clouds it merely cast a glow. Having showered and dressed, I ate a quick breakfast and excitedly headed out. It was cold, about fifty degrees and the clouds hung low.
For some reason, all regular weekend SoCal car meets begin around dawn. It’s like car guys and gals have to sneak out before their significant others awaken or they’ll catch hell. More likely it’s just because there is less traffic and therefore the drive just a bit more enjoyable.
Exiting the garage just before seven thirty with the seat warmer on, visions of shiny rosso corsa, Zermatt silber and British racing green danced in my head. The plan was to be at Supercar Sunday in Topanga around eight, meet up with Jeff and his friends, then drive down to Neptune’s Net to meet with a large Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ crew from Torrance and run the canyons. For some, run means drive. For others it means trying to commit suicide with your car. I hoped Jeff was of the former mindset, never having ridden with him.
It started drizzling while making the climb up the Santa Monica Pass on the 405. The ramps to the 101 were closed and the detour led through the Valley via Victory Bl. I was going to be late, but no big deal because drives NEVER begin on time. Never. The rain was a bigger issue however because it meant limited attendance at Supercar Sunday and, more importantly, slippery roads during the run.
I pulled into the Westfield Promenade in Topanga where Supercar Sunday is held every week. There were only a handful of diehards: a gorgeous red Jaguar XK120, a clean Datsun Roadster (top down) with a Silvia engine swap, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Nissan 280 built on a Ford Bronco chassis (?!), a Nash Airflyte and a few others. At one point, a silver Maserati Bora came roaring in, stopped for a few minutes, then left. It’s amazing how Italian cars from the 70’s still look futuristic.
The thin rain kept falling gently but still the hardcore gearheads remained, telling stories, trading information and getting wet. Jeff showed up about a half hour late, his friends trailing by another half hour. But he introduced me to the owner of the topless Datsun Roadster, “it was dry when I started out,” he explained. A friend of his, a Brit in a Pebble Beach/Bentley jacket chimed in, “Anyway, over fifty miles per hour the rain just flies over you," then turning to the owner and adding, "but I can’t stand sitting in a wet seat. You should have put the top up when you parked.”
The Supercar Sunday emcee turned on his bullhorn and thanked the few who turned out, dismissing himself as much as the enthusiasts. We walked over to the Starbucks or Corner Bakery or whatever and had coffees and hot chocolates, continuing our conversations and occasionally checking phones (making sure that significant others didn’t need us).
Stomachs warmed and driving plans reiterated we headed back into the rain for one last look at modifications, a bit of bragging and finally, to get going. I jumped into the dummy seat of Jeff’s Subaru BRZ as he switched off traction and stability control, “I always turn it off.” A roll bar limited the backwards movement of my seat and the trunk and rear seats were gutted.
A quick gas up for Jeff’s friends, Vic and Martin, and we headed south on Topanga. They both drove Nissan 370Z’s. Martin’s was about the dirtiest black I’ve ever seen due to frequent track use and infrequent (read: never) washing; in startling contrast was Vic’s pure pearl white that looked freshly waxed. The convoy rolling, we turned on to Mulholland and the traffic disappeared. Immediately, Jeff downshifted and gunned the throttle as we climbed into the cold, damp Santa Monica Mountains.
This drive wasn’t new to me. I ran SoCal’s mountains before I even moved to California, having ridden Mt. Baldy with the Honda S2000 club once during a visit. After moving to Pasadena, I spent weekends chasing faster speeds, tighter turns and the exhilaration that comes with miles of high-revs and empty mountain roads. I’d seen people drive into cliffs, over edges, and lowside their bikes when they overcooked a corner. Once, a passenger pulled my handbrake because he was frightened in a turn. We spun and tagged a guardrail backwards. At least there was a guardrail. The danger is always present, whether it’s dry, wet or icy (above five thousand feet on Angeles Crest in the winter), but so is the thrill. So with my faith in the seatbelt and Jeff’s ability, I held on and enjoyed the g forces.
As we ascended, the mountains became foggier and the road wetter. In the mirror, I could only see Martin, immediately behind us. From Mulholland we made a left onto Stunt Road taking a few extra moments for a donut in the soaked, empty intersection. And from Stunt we stopped briefly for some photos and then continued temporarily upward and to the sea along Tuna Canyon Rd. The drive was mesmerizing with so much fog. You couldn’t see past the scrub pines lining parts of the drive. There were no houses, no lights, no Valley, nothing but cottony, grey fog and the piercing road. There were no distractions. Appropriately, it felt like a scene from Initial D, “hachi-roku!”
The summit came and went and soon we were flying back down, engines wailing and Jeff heel-toeing and braking at what seemed the last possible moment. We’d be tossed against the seatbelt, then sideways opposite the turn and finally back into the seat as we accelerated. Nearing the Pacific and our altitude dropping, the fog cleared and the canyon almost looked like a lush east coast forest. Every few turns the tail squirmed exiting a corner. Reaching the Pacific Coast Highway at the bottom of Tuna Canyon we headed west.
Cell phone service available again, we checked the Torrance BRZ/FR-S crew’s position (they kept posting photos on Facebook) and discovered that we were about fifteen minutes behind. PCH was a leisurely drive but some clown in a Mercedes-Benz AMG G55 wanted to race us. Realizing that neither Jeff, Vic nor Martin were biting, he took off. We passed a bunch of people running along PCH dressed like Christmas elves. Much like us, they were actually having fun despite the weather. Crossing county line, Neptune’s Net finally came into view a mile later and we parked among the Scions and Subarus. Amazingly, some ribbons of sun were slashing through the clouds while we ate clam chowder and ceviche. To our right, one of the Scion guys had a rabbit hiding in his sweatshirt pocket, “I take him everywhere!” the guy beamed. Maybe the little bunny was a good luck charm.
As we finished, a group of motorcyclists from Venice showed up. They all had VVMC patches and stickers. Several were hipsters and somebody within our group wondered aloud how long the café-racer fad would last. The Scion crew leaders raffled off some car detailing kits and HID headlights and lunch was over. Jeff knew some of them and one, Brian, was going to follow us for the drive back to the Valley.
We went up Yerba Buena and the glimmers of sun quickly vanished. In their place vapor and rain returned. The ride continued as before and somehow we passed another contingent (or was it the same) of running Christmas elves. We climbed and the fog thickened, soon the cars were like ghosts grinding through corners and screaming through apexes.
On Little Sycamore Canyon Rd. we happened upon a turnout where a few young guys had parked to smoke cigarettes. They were also out driving on this chill, damp, wonderful day. We huddled beneath the trees next to the road and talked about nothing. Every once in a while the sound of a shrieking engine would announce a car and the mist would yield headlights and then some sports car or another. Wishing each other fun and safety, we continued to the Snake and then past an apocalyptically vacant Rock Store.
We arrived back at Topanga mall at a quarter to three, where Jeff drove me around till I spotted my car (I swear it moved) with Vic, Martin and Brian all following. Tired, I finally made it home. It had been a long time since I ran or rode the canyons, but this was a great way to return. Sure the weather could have been warmer and clearer but there was no traffic on roads that mattered and regardless of traction control settings, nobody stuffed their car. Who’s coming next weekend? [kiWO]
Solitude in Japan, Companionship in Spain
December 11, 2012—Personally, the end of 2006 was a very lonely time and the loneliness continued for a while afterwards. A long-term relationship that should have ended long before, finally concluded. We had both lacked the courage to declare it dead until that September, unfortunately.
I had always wanted to visit Japan and decided to go by myself, now being free. It was a snowy, grey New Year’s week 2007 in Tokyo and Kyoto spent walking the streets and seeing the sights. I didn’t speak to another person for days. The language barrier didn’t help but initiative was certainly lacking.
Fast forward to this summer, a new-ish relationship, a vacation in Spain and a rental VW Polo. Making our way from Madrid to the southern coast of Spain we had no idea what to expect on the Spanish roads. My only experience driving in Europe had come on a family trip years ago when I was handed the keys to Fiat. I think it had a 250cc engine. That drive only lasted about ten minutes because I pulled over and returned the keys to my dad because mom had freaked out when I hit one hundred and ten kilometers per hour (about 69 mph) on the autostrada. If this eighteen year old couldn’t drive the way he wanted, he wasn’t going to drive at all, dammit!
Back to the present, Marcia and I spent five days in Barcelona, then flew to Madrid as the high-speed train was equally expensive. After three days spent strolling art museums, eating churros y chocolate and tapas in Spain’s capital, we headed back to the airport to pick up the rental. We opted for the cheapest car they had—the VW Polo. The nice thing about renting a car in Europe is that virtually all of the economy models are stick shift. I hadn’t daily-driven manual in a while and was looking forward to it.
Leaving Madrid was the traffic scrum that we had seen while walking and expected. Heading south, once outside the city limits, highways were in excellent condition and congestion eased significantly. Toledo was only an hour away. Exiting the highway one argument and an hour and a half later, Toledo rose before us suddenly and dramatically, placed on a high, defendable bluff over the twisty Tajo River.
It had been hidden from view by the curtains of the steep cliffs and mountainous curves that we drove. Marcia’s trust allowed me the spirited driving that I so enjoy, through this section. Being there alone I would have driven more aggressively, but the ability to share this moment and new scenery with someone who had complete faith in my ability dictated that I tread carefully.
The following day we headed towards Gibraltar. This is where the country and driving really opened up. Travelling upwards of ten miles without passing another car in either direction, it seemed the highways were ours. No police to be seen, no trucks to pass, just sunny rolling hills dotted with olive trees and Spain’s black bull billboards. I think Marcia tried to snap a photo of every last "bull"board. At highway speeds (and above) however, the massive bulls tend to be a bit elusive. I’d love to share our average velocity between Toledo and Granada, but in the interest of returning to Spain, I’ll just quote Rolls-Royce and say it was, “adequate.”
Approaching Granada, the landscape became jagged and mountainous and the traffic increased slightly. We stopped at a roadside restaurant, the Spanish equivalent of a TravelCenter, which had mediocre food but amazing views across a deep valley. We reached The Rock early in the afternoon and again were completely unprepared for the majesty of this formation rising from the sea.
The rest of our trip continued in the same manner. There were no epiphanies or crises, just warm scenery, weather and people. But sharing the experiences and all of the accompanying novelty has a compounding effect on the trip. It’s like seeing and living simultaneously through your and another’s eyes. Japan was a beautiful, electric place; but I’ll return in better spirits and with someone to share the snowflakes and Sapporo. [kiWO]
The Fog of Love
December 4, 2012—A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a life-long friend’s wedding. Joe was marrying a creative, pretty French girl named Christine. I was excited for them and eager to attend because weddings are typically a blast—music, food, alcohol, dancing and the spirit of love. But this was no local, social-hall wedding; it was taking place in a tiny town in the French Alps. I was ready to go!
I had never been to France before and after flying to Milan and taking three different trains and a car across national borders I arrived in Aussois, a village of maybe 200 people whose population was increased by fifty percent that July weekend. Even though it was mid-summer, fog often shrouded the surrounding mountains and the temperature hovered around sixty degrees during the day. Fog notwithstanding, it was as beautiful and romantic as any Alpine fantasy.
I spent much of my time hiking the mountains and swimming in cold creeks during the day and eating my fill at night. I was in paradise. The night of the rehearsal dinner at Christine’s childhood home (where her folks still lived), after everyone had finished eating and toasting, I was talking to a girl who I was trying to impress.
She suggested that we should get some others together and head to an uncle’s house for an after-party. I said great, but how would we get there? She replied that she had the keys to Christine’s mom’s car and that we should totally go. Cool, she had the keys. We said some goodbyes, grabbed three more people and got to the car. It was a Renault something-or-other station wagon. I was a bit disappointed, I was hoping for a Lamborghini Gallardo 570-4 or at least a Euro Ford Focus RS.
I was handed the keys to the Renault because I sort-of knew the way. I buckled up and fired the engine, which anemically coughed to life. Whatever. Headlights on, fog lights on. Let’s go! I got into the first corner and whatever French pop song the back seat occupants were singing turned to howls. That wagon couldn’t handle but it sure could lean. And terrify (that was the wagon, not my driving).
But screw them, they were drunk, what did they know? Second corner came up and I braked hard, downshifted and flung the car hard to the right. My passenger, the girl I wanted to get cozy with, nearly wound up in my lap. Of course she was impressed. We apexed and I mashed the gas. That little wagon sure was scrappy. I revved it to seven thousand out of the corner and shifted back up. After roughly a minute, the protests wore down my resolve and I calmed my driving, a little.
I was saddened because I had been having fun playing Angeles Crest hero in France. But I perked right up when the road turned to a gravel-dirt mixture. We went into the corner and I cranked the wheel while lifting off of the gas pedal. That tiny front-wheel drive wagon oversteered nicely through the turn. Even packed with five occupants the rear came out. I was Ken Block.
Finally, we made it to the uncle’s house. When the doors opened, someone in the back seat climbed out, fell onto their hands and knees and vomited. Lightweight. In spite of my rallye-driving delusions of grandeur we made it safely and were happy to resume our partying.
A little while later Joe showed up in a violently angry mood and demanded to know how I got the keys and what possessed me to ‘steal’ the car. I refused to tell him because I was trying to protect the girl, who was dumbfoundedly looking on in fear because Joe and I were close to striking one another. We were right in each other’s face (more-or-less, he’s five inches taller) when his sister and our friends stepped in.
The fog eventually cleared. The following morning I got dressed in a nice suit and walked to the village square where the procession to the castle and ceremony would take place. I wished him luck and we made up. I never did get that girl. [kiWO]
LA Auto Show 2012
Ken Block, James Bond and Homer Simpson’s Latest Creation
November 28, 2012—The tone of this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show was immediately set by keynote speaker Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA: technology equals sales. And whether discussing the Lexus LFA, the Prius series or Toyota’s “Board of Awesomeness” (powered-skateboard concept), which uses hand gestures to accelerate or brake, it is clear that Toyota R&D will be busy indefinitely.
Not that this is surprising; technological advances drive the auto industry (pardon the pun). What is shocking is that few of the technologies proudly displayed enhance the emotional attachment and appeal of cars to their owners. Lentz mentioned recognition software designed to greet an owner approaching their vehicle. Pretty cool, but how is the driving experience improved?
Furthermore, the majority of press conferences mentioned increased digital connectivity. We enjoy checking Facebook, but don’t need to update our status while driving on the 101 (“just crawled by Sherman Oaks Galleria… holy traffic! LOLZ”). People do it, but with distracted driving leading to one of six driving fatalities, limiting connectivity might be a better use of technology. However, one benefit is better radio improving both spirited driving and commuting (options such as: Pandora, Spotify, etc…).
None of this is new. In the 1950’s, Chrysler’s research led to the Firedome Hemi, for instance. Cadillac showed off its Hydramatic transmission. Technology has always been key at car shows. But where is the pantomime? Chevrolet debuted a new electric vehicle—the Spark EV, claimed to have over 400 lb/ft of torque (more than a Ferrari 458!), accelerating to sixty miles-per-hour in less than eight seconds. Not bad, but when we dream of sunshine dappled downshifts and g-forces on Mulholland, a B-car isn’t going to cut it.
However, there were some standouts. First, Ford Motor Company. At an outdoor press conference following a brief intro, Ken Block came screeching on to the tarmac and proceeded to donut his way around strategically placed Fiestas. We don’t even remember what was new about the Fiestas, but we remember copious tire smoke, Ford, Ken Block and his number 43 Hoonigan ride. This is the theater, the drama that people will recall next year. My apologies to Chevy, but we don’t care about the Spark’s algorithms.
Second, Aston Martin. No, Jeremy Clarkson wasn’t on hand to destroy a ‘caravan’ with a Rapide. But Aston did feature James Bond’s DB6 (seen in the latest Bond installment—Skyfall). What better way to sell an iconic brand than to feature their most emblematic vehicle? Moreover, Bond is fantasy and romance at its purest. I want that car, I want to be James Bond. Aston Martin understands!
Third, Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes debuted the screaming yellow SLS AMG Black and the Ener-G-Force concept SUV. Both are absurd and we want them! Yes, they’re probably terrible for the environment and horrible to live with day-to-day, so what? One will suit us perfectly after the zompocalypse, the other until then.
Finally, one company clearly doesn’t get it: Smart. Featuring a one-off, the forJeremy “designed” by fashion designer Jeremy Scott. Apparently the lovechild of a basketball high-top and a DUB Cadillac, this car is the reason that people go to college to become car designers and should dissuade the uninitiated from attempting their own creation. Who knows? It may have done well at the Tokyo Auto Show, but no amount of positive spin could change puzzled onlookers expressions.
The Smart forJeremy certainly creates a spectacle, but it’s tragi-comedic. Regardless of technology, the car was an inappropriate exercise reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s flaccid attempt.
Technology will always lead, but Wide Open wants to imagine boundless possibilities for fun: road-trips in “fire-apple” red convertibles, arriving in a blacked-out luxobarge, jaunts in British Racing Green coupes, off-roading in Grave-Digger-like behemoths. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, simply filling a car with more info-tainment will not satisfy Drivers. We want a focus on technology that makes braking and acceleration quicker, shifting faster and handling flatter. Simply, technology that makes driving better. [kiWO]
Low Earth Rental
November 21, 2012—Winter is my least favorite time of year, but it’s redeemed by the holidays, parties with friends and family, and doing doughnuts in snowy parking lots. Not here in Los Angeles of course, but snow reportedly falls from the sky elsewhere in the US. Maybe I’ll soon be travelling to snowbound Maine or Montana.
Flying in would afford the chance to drive my all-time favorite vehicle: the rental car. I’ve driven some of the world’s greatest cars, feeling like a nine year-old playing Hot Wheels and winning the Big Race. Yet, my favorite remains the lowly rental car. I don’t care which model.
What other car can be driven at the limit without concern for trees or guardrails? Lotus Elise? Sure, it’s a track-day riot. But give me a Ford Crown Vic rental in Galveston, Texas, where I learned to execute 180-degree parking-brake turns on the beach.
I was there for my sister’s engagement party, and the January beach was empty. So why not? I’d purchased the insurance policy. After an hour, I was laughing hysterically and cramped from trying not to slide too far across the bench seat. To quote ZZ Top, “I’m bad, I’m nationwide.”
What about a Dodge Viper? It has never-ending muscle and grip. But give me a U-Haul truck and spare time. Some friends were helping me move and thanks to their encouragement I decided to find out what the truck’s cornering limits were. The Ford turned more sharply than I anticipated. Somehow, there was no damage to the Toyota pickup I hit, other than a flat tire. I can’t say the same for the U-Haul. But I had the insurance policy. And now, a new nickname: T-bone. My friends were laughing the whole time.
Surely, nothing beats a Ferrari 458. Then again, in New Orleans, I rented a truly awful Chevy Cavalier. Its tires vibrated at a stand-still. Anyway, heading to a meeting, I went through a small dip, then sharply uphill. I made a mental note.
I couldn’t wait to get back into that pile-of-garbage Cavalier after the meeting. I sped back to paradise planning my shenanigans along the way. Idling a few moments, I noted the sun hanging high in the sky ready to witness. The Cavalier shuddered hesitantly (it knew somehow). Then I mashed the gas pedal and let out a “Yeehaw!” At fifty miles per hour, the bump produced sparks in the rear view. Then the engine raced as the front wheels cleared the ground. My shoulder harness kept me off the steering wheel when I landed. But now the Chevy sat lower on my side.
Whoops! Something broke. Apparently, Cavaliers weren’t built for flight. Oh well, that’s why I bought the insurance. The rental car company sent out another car, an upgrade, for my trouble.
This holiday season should I be so lucky to be offered the choice, I’ll skip the Lamborghini and choose the incognito rental, making sure to buy insurance. Low-earth orbit in a Buick Regal could get me in the Guinness Book of World Records. [kiWO]
November 14, 2012—Since styling and design became a concern to the auto industry, design trends have been cyclical (think organic as opposed to geometric) and tended to influence, as well as mimic the overarching fashions in global industrial design. The latest design movement is called “geo-mod” from geometric and modeled (think Apple iPod). But it’s not new (around since the early 1990’s) and can be found in auto design as well (the first generation Audi TT is a shining example). Just as every movement has sub-genres, one of Geo-Mod’s subgenres is Retro-Futurism. While Retro-Futuristic cars can be Geo-Mod, this is not a strict requirement (there are always exceptions).
Retro-Futurism is rooted in the late 1970’s and 1980’s at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. If one had to speculate, it was a response to the severity and absurd formality of American cars of the 1970’s. Retro-Futurism was heavily inspired by California culture: surf wagons, hot rods, and small European weekend racers all had a place in the collective imagination of Art Center’s Transportation Design program those days. Some of the era’s graduates that would bring this design language to us were: Chip Foose, J Mays, Bryan Nesbitt, Frank Stephenson and Freeman Thomas.
When discussing Retro-Futurism the obvious starting point is the VW Concept One/ New Beetle (1994/1998 respectively). Designed by Freeman Thomas and J Mays, it captured the world’s imagination and in the US, where baby-boomers remembered Woodstock (and all of its VW Microbus and Beetle connections) it reminded us of a [supposedly] simpler time. Fortunately for the New Beetle, its Geo-Mod and Retro-Futurist leanings happened to overlap with the design trends (organic) that were prevalent at the time and allowed auto design to make a smooth transition from organic back to geometric.
Other Retro-Futurist vehicles released simultaneously (or before) were the Plymouth Prowler (1997) influenced specifically by the 1932/1933/1934 Ford, but more by hot rods in general. But the Prowler was a niche vehicle, which only sold about 11,000 models throughout its five-year run (for comparison, the New Beetle sold nearly 10 times that amount in its first year of production alone).
From the same parent company as the VW New Beetle came the Audi TT, released almost simultaneously. Designed by the same team as the New Beetle, the Audi TT wasn’t based on any specific car, but was a sort of amalgam of German heritage, borrowing from the Auto Union racecars and the upside-down bathtub aesthetic of early Porsches.
While the Europeans pioneered Retro-Futurism via their American designers, those designers were quickly plucked away from VW/Audi by Ford. The results of this move were obvious: the GT, Mustang, and Thunderbird were all a result of J Mays stewardship over Ford design. But by this point Retro-Futurism was a global automotive design trend. Mini was reintroduced by BMW, Chrysler built the PT Cruiser and a slew of nostalgic show cars. GM sold the HHR and SSR. And today, Fiat has resurrected the 500, GM has brought back the Camaro styled to look the first generation, and Chrysler’s lineup includes Retro-Futurist cars such as the Challenger and Charger.
Unfortunately, the packaging is often better on the original car than on the Retro-Futurist one. But today’s cars are far safer than their predecessors. However, the real concern from a design perspective is how the design will develop once it needs to be restyled post-Retro. Will the next Ford Mustang look like the Mustang II? Doubtful. How about the Fiat Cinquecento?
It seems that many of these cars will require a radical restyling or they will go the way of the Porsche 911. Obviously, Geo-Mod and Retro-Futurism will eventually fall out of favor and be replaced by The Next Big Thing. Perhaps rather than looking to the past for answers the next wave of design will look to the future, emerging markets or materials engineering for inspiration. [kiWO]
March 21, 2012—Twenty hours later, Wide Open touched down on a bright Thursday night to a thermometer that read 92 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of about eighty percent at Sukhumvit Airport. Even without the humidity we desperately needed a shower. A few miles away, about fifteen million people were trying to stay cool and hoping for a late night downpour to refresh the air, if only for a while.
It was a trip to Bangkok, Thailand to visit a friend but hoping that we could also sample car-culture in one of the largest cities in the world. While Bangkok isn’t quite a mecca of motoring, the hope was that we could capture a taste of “Fast ‘n Furious: Tokyo Drift” in the Far East. As it turns out, Tokyo and Bangkok are vastly different cities (shocker!). While some people in Bangkok are immeasurably wealthy, the majority of people do not have the disposable income more abundant in Tokyo. And while Thailand is home to a fair bit of automotive and motorcycle manufacturing (Honda and Toyota have factories there, for instance), it lacks Japan’s established tuning houses.
This is not to say that every car in Thailand is a Toyota Corolla. But even in this city of fifteen million, seeing any car that could qualify as “built” takes some effort and a lot of patience. However, the enthusiast’s experience in Bangkok might actually be better than in Tokyo. Rather than attempting to find some obscure street racing location in the middle of the night to watch local boneheads make a run or two, you have your choice of increasingly terrifying modes of transportation.
First is the Metro or SkyTrain. These are your common, everyday subway (or elevated) trains. They’re nothing special except that they play super-annoying commercials on the TVs installed in every car. For some reason Thai marketers seem to favor screechy, yelling women in their ads. One ad in particular, which features a screaming cow and shrieking orange flying off of a roller coaster and colliding in mid-air to form some sort of creamsicle drink, was especially intolerable. But the trains are safe, mundane, quick and efficient.
Next is the generic taxi. These are usually painted hot pink or bright yellow and may or may not decide to take you where you want to go. For some reason, if the destination is too far (we’re talking about more than three miles, not “driver, take me to Shanghai and step on it”), the driver may simply refuse to take you. If anyone knows why, please explain it to us. We were dumbfounded. As the cabs are metered, the driver will make more money if the trip is longer. Sometimes we had to wait, sweat dripping, after asking several cabbies for one to take mercy. This makes no sense to us.
The local bus is next in the safety hierarchy. Pretty much like any city bus, only without air conditioning and filled with smelly, sweaty people. The city bus isn’t so much scary as it is uncomfortable. I’d rather spend a couple more baht and take a cab.
Walking is also an option and you obviously see much more this way, but when it’s over ninety-five degrees every day with tropical humidity, the appeal of this option fades quickly. Also, while on foot, this writer was clipped by a scooter in Chinatown after looking the wrong way and attempting to cross (they drive on the left side, British-style in Thailand). My bad.
Then there is the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. This is a covered three-wheeler with two or four passenger seats. Before even describing the experience, we should point out the type of courage required to pilot one. You see the driver straddles the shift knob—so in the event of a collision, his delicate bits are going to meet the shift knob very, very quickly and painfully. Sitting in the back isn’t far better though, because they’re open on both sides and very noisy (they’re frequently powered by two-strokes). Also, tuk-tuks aren’t metered so the driver is free to name his price. This is why native Thais don’t take tuk-tuks.
The tuk-tuk was probably a design which evolved from bicycle-powered rickshaws and to this day maintains the original layout with one wheel in front and the two drive wheels in back. While this may be charming and old-timey, it’s also inherently unstable. We saw a couple of tuk-tuks lying on their sides.
The last rung on the ladder of scary is the scooter taxi. The rides are virtually free (when converted from baht to dollars), they move through traffic efficiently, can flow through the gridlock of Bangkok and the wind provides a nice cooling effect. Do you get a helmet? No, don’t be silly. By the way, do you know what happens when a scooter is hit by a car? The riders get to do a Superman impression.
Each option has its merits and drawbacks. There are also water taxis in the form of long boats. On these boats the engine, transmission, prop shaft and controls are mounted on a two-dimensional pivot and manipulated by the driver as needed, rather than using a rudder. Take a moment to think about that—the engine, usually a car's four-cylinder, and transmission are moved along with the rest of the drivetrain!
But aside from the different transportation experience possibilities are also the customization options. You see, people in Bangkok love their shopping. There are six- and seven-story shopping malls. And not just one or two, rather there are several next door to one another in a few places in Bangkok. Well, one of the shopping malls we discovered was dedicated to car accessories and parts. Looking for a ‘DOHC’ sticker? It’s there. How about a Greddy intake and turbo kit? It’s there. Rims? Check. Lights? Horns? Exhausts? Turbo timers? Check. Check. Check. And check. It doesn’t matter what parts you might be looking for, they could be found there or ordered from one of the many stores.
In Chinatown, there were a multitude of scooter and motorcycle repair shops. Guys were working on bikes on the sidewalk and in makeshift garages. So while we didn’t see Vin Diesel taking on the Yakuza, it is a vehicular wonderland. We just wish we could have fit some Thai Domestic Market goodies in our suitcases for the flight home. [kiWO]