Friday, January 6, 2017


Photo: Thomas Mielke
One of the great things about Twitter is its ability to act as the proverbial office water cooler for a lot of us who no longer have steady access to an office water cooler; it's a mix of weird gossip, pompous pronouncements, hissing provocations, and all the other good stuff that comes with being around people, with the added bonus of being able to select just who you're likely to bump into at any one time (depending on retweets which originate from various uninvited and unsavory third parties, sincere intention to spark discussion notwithstanding).

And like any proverbial water cooler, in that mix of gossip and pomposity and so on occasionally something genuinely interesting pops up.

So a bit more than a week ago we got this:
Yeah, it sounds like the kind of question that would come up amongst a bunch of gearheads passing a bong and listening to Ummagumma-era Floyd in some off-campus basement. (Maybe that's actually what Twitter is?) But it's also a really good question.

In fact this is a great question, a gloriously iconoclastic inquiry in a world currently obsessed with Can-Am-grade outputs. Forget about the flood of recent mills that have made cars with 0-to-60 times in the four-second bracket seem lackluster. Set aside the Hellcats and the Lamborghini SVs and the ludicrous-mode Teslas and the rest. What's the least motor you need to get by in the world?

Of course the answer is the same as the answer to the perennial question about what the Greatest Car In The World is: it depends*. Or, as quickly came up in the conversation:
Right. Of course this kind of rulemaking has a habit of getting into a deep ontological discussion about what a car actually is and how ridiculously tiny and flimsy a structure one can propose and still take seriously, never mind the inevitable mind-expanding dive into the possibilities of gear reduction enabling a Cox .049 motor to 'technically' motivate a GMC 3500HD or whatever. But those both get to the absurdum part of a reductio ad absurdum way too quickly to be useful and eventually you're better off just admitting that the ultimate solution is to lose the motor completely and ride a bicycle, which is not a bad thing at all but also not the answer.

If we're going to take this seriously - and this is a question well worth taking very seriously - let's consider those parameters that Wojdyla brings up and fill in some sensible judgement calls:
  • First, let's make this a real car and not a Peel P50 or go-kart or powered barstool or something like that. Yes, we'll obviously have to skew small here, but we also want this to be recognizable as a car and (mostly) work in the real world. So small two-seater or very small four-seater, which matters more as weight (and to a lesser extent air drag) than sheer size.
  • Second, let's make this at least passably functional in the real world, which means that our hypothetical States of Motion MicroMotor Special will need to be able to achieve, oh, an arbitrary but not irrational 20 meters per second (that's 72 kph/~44.74 mph), which at least is good enough for suburban streets and country lanes if not Interstates.
Yes, we're going to mostly be using metric through this; it's much easier to perform calculations. I'll throw in a few converted figures when necessary. And there will be a bit of discreet rounding here and there, but it should all work out in the end.
  • Third, to simplify the whole process a bit we will disregard concerns about packaging and displacement and instead arrive at a solution based solely on output, which tends to generally dictate the rest of that anyway.
  • Fourth, nothing else that we normally consider when thinking about a car - handling, design, safety, comfort, cruising range, long-term reliability, appeal to potential copulative partners - matters in the least here. We are strictly concerned with motivating a box capable of carrying a few nearly-normal-sized humans from one place to another.
So let's think about what it actually means to power a vehicle based on some elementary physics.

In idealized steady-state driving, such as cruising along a flat and level highway, the vehicle only needs enough power to overcome various forms of drag, mostly air resistance and the deformation and stickiness of tires on the road surface, and some subsequent driveline friction. Find a way to reduce or eliminate that air resistance and tire drag - think magnetically-levitating hovercraft moving in a vacuum - and our vehicle acts as a pure inertia device which requires zero energy to keep moving. This doesn't work in the real world**, of course, but we can design this thing to be pretty slippery - and at 72 kph it's not going to be facing that much of a wall of air anyway - and we can also go ahead and specify ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires, maybe stolen from a first-gen Honda Insight or something. So barring a shipping container being dragged behind the car, cruising is not a major issue.

I'll even say that acceleration isn't a huge issue here either. Yes, we need this thing to convert a certain amount of potential energy of some form into kinetic energy as it gathers up its skirts and eventually works its way up to our 72 kph, but we won't have a mandatory minimum acceleration parameter. Any continuing application of force sufficient to overcome drag will result in acceleration (basically force = mass times acceleration - or, as we'll use later, acceleration = force/mass - with some minor parasitic factors) and we'll have an adequate amount of that given how this is something which will get resolved in the course of dealing with our biggest concern.

That biggest concern is what happens when that road isn't flat and level. We do not live on a giant ball bearing, and hills are a fact of life***. The SoM MicroMotor Special - oh, what the hell, let's call it the Mouse - will have to pull itself up an incline to be considered a functioning automobile, and this is where the fun starts.
Photo: Andreas Praefcke
Let's add another bullet point to our list of Wojdyla parameters:
  • The vehicle must be able to climb an arbitrary 7% grade of indefinite length while maintaining a speed of 16 m/sec (57.6 kph/~35.8 mph).
And for this to occur the motor must do honest-to-Archimedes work and deliver it at a set rate, which means we need to have a certain definite minimum power figure, which can be calculated.

Notebooks out.

So some terms need to be clarified: First, we're concerned with weight instead of mass. Mass is a measure of how much matter something contains; weight is that matter under the influence of gravity. A kilogram really doesn't weigh one kilogram, but rather 9.8 newtons***.

Work is the act of moving an object by applying force. More commonly, and more relevant to our concerns, it's the act of lifting a certain weight a certain distance or rotating an arm (or a wheel, which is just kind of a continuous arm if you think about it...hey, anything left in the bong?) around an axis, which we all know as that glorious thing that is torque.

Power is the act of performing that work in a certain time.

Let's get our parameters set up in real units:

A 7% grade is almost exactly 4 degrees from horizontal. That doesn't sound like much until you have to climb it; a 7% grade is the maximum permitted on Interstate highways and even then only for short distances in mountainous terrain (a 6% maximum is more generally enforced). For visualization purposes, 7%/4° converts to a rise of 1 meter for every 14.3 meters in straightline distance.

We next need to consider the weight of the vehicle. Naturally the Mouse will be as light as is practical, but again we're aiming for at least some sort of real-world relevance so yes, a real structure, and no, not a carbon-fiber skeleton wearing a Reynolds Wrap skin. Quick research shows that most tiny people movers with (ostensibly) four seats - the Tata Nano, the original Issigonis Mini - scale in at about 600kg. Weave in some Japanese engineering genius and a small parallel-twin motorcycle engine and you have the Honda N360, which weighs about 500kg and which we'll accept as a reasonable minimum for something that won't fold in on itself*****.

Photo: 天然ガス
That's just for the vehicle; at the very least we also have to include a driver. Yes, we could hire some winsome and fawnlike ultralight Eastern European fashion model to be our test driver, but let's again aim for a certain real-world element. Propriety says that to cover various arrangements of passengers and luggage and drinks in cupholders and whatever we should skew the driver's mass slightly large, towards the Matt Farah/Jack Baruth/yr hmbl svt end of the body mass index, and so we'll add 100kg****** as our operator/payload mass.

That gets us up to 600kg that has to be hauled up this 7%/4° grade at the mandated 16m/sec by something more than good intentions.

The equation to find the required power turns out to be very straightforward, especially when using those metric units:

Weight (in newtons) times rate (in meters per second) times distance (vertical component only since that's what the work here is doing so sine of 4°) equals power in watts.

(Yeah, I also thought it was too simple at first as well, except that a watt is defined as (kg × m²)/sec³ so that cleans it up in a hurry.)

Plug in our Wojdyla parameters of 600kg vehicle mass and 16m/sec speed up the incline, and using the accepted 9.8m/sec² constant for gravity and rounding sin(4°) from 0.069756474... to a more palatable .07:

600 × 9.8 × 16 × .07 = 6585.6 watts

Or 6.6 kilowatts, or 8.85 horsepower. Add 10% or so for mechanical losses and various invocations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and we can say that the Mouse really needs no more than 7.5 kilowatts, or 10 horsepower.

That's not much as far as motors go, even in the pre-Hellcat era.

Just for the sake of it let's figure out the resultant torque and acceleration.

Two things: First, given a constant power output the motor can either spin faster with less torque or spin slower with more torque. A motor producing x torque and turning at n rpm will make the same power as one producing 2x torque and turning at n/2 rpm. This conversion will happen repeatedly below.

Second, one important note about calculating this and what it means to the vehicle itself: In order to know how much force is being applied to the pavement, we naturally need to know how much force the motor is generating at any one instant. This is not an easy thing to do with internal-combustion motors; because of cam timing and ignition curves and a bunch of other factors they do not produce consistent torque throgh the rev range, which anyone who has ever looked at a dyno chart knows. If we fitted the Mouse with a CVT we could theoretically have it run at a consistent ideal speed, but it's better to go ahead and use a power source which produces wonderfully steady (if subjectively boring) torque, run through a constant ratio.

Yes, it's an electric Mouse.

Okay, so those wheels and tires we stole off of someone's 2000 Insight are sized 165/65R14, so they have a circumference of just about 179cm. In order to make the Mouse move at that mandated flat-surface speed of 20m/sec they have to rotate 11.17 times per second, or 670.39 times per minute.

10 horsepower being delivered at 671 rpm [HOLD ON IMPORTANT UPDATE HERE: We're NOT spinning the wheels at 671 rpm to get 10hp; that power calculation was done at 16m/sec so we actually have to figure this at 537 rpm - corrected numbers follow] translates to a decent 78.3 agreeable 97.8 foot-pounds of torque, or 132.6 joules, delivered consistently at the contact patch. (The motor will spin a bit faster; redlines on  commonly available 10hp electric motors tend to be around 1700-1800 rpm. If we run it through effective 2.6:1 reduction gearing, that means the motor is making about 37.6 foot-pounds, or 51 joules. Seems about right.)

And by the way, this 25% correction means that the Mouse's motor now should make about 12bhp at max revs, given how torque tends to fall off a bit at top with electrics.

The radius of the wheel-tire combo is 28.45cm (1/3.515 of a meter) and 132.6 joules is 132.6 newton-meters, so the drive wheels are pushing the Mouse forward with a more or less constant force of 132.6 × 3.515 = 466.1 newtons.

Acceleration is force divided by mass, so 466.1n/600kg for the win.

The Mouse will accelerate at a generally consistent rate of 0.78 meters per second, per second. It will take a little something over 26 seconds to hit our mandatory top speed of 20m/sec - but it will eventually get there.

Yeah. Um...that's slow*******. (Not as slow as with the miscalculation based on 671 rpm, but still.) Admittedly if we used a multiple-ratio gearbox we could use that magical reduction gearing from very early on to get more force to the ground and clip a substantial amount of time off of this figure. Something to maybe work on later.


Having gotten through all this, let's look at some parallel real-world/historical examples of barely-adequately-powered vehicles, even if none of them are electrics:

Photo: Daimler-Benz
We might as well start at the beginning. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen produced a whole roaring 2/3 of a horsepower (500 watts) from its near-liter of displacement but did so at all of 250 rpm, which means that torque at that engine speed was a slightly more palatable 14 lb/ft or 19 joules. (And it probably needed every bit of it to rotate those big carriage wheels from a start.) Even so, it was enough to get Berta Benz and her two teenage boys through a near-200km round trip to see her mama at about 15kph, which was audaciously fast in 1886.

The N360 from earlier was overpowered for our purposes; its 354cc parallel-twin spun out 23kW, or about 31bhp, and top speed was an excessive 105kph/~65mph.

Photo: Thomas Forsman
The closest equivalent to the Mouse in real life is probably the Citroën 2CV, which weighs about 600 kg and in its early 375cc form cranked out 9 hp/6.7kW - although as with the Benz that would likely translate into a somewhat less existentially troubling torque figure. Unfortunately, its top speed of 65 kph was apparently adequate when meandering from charming Gallic village to charming Gallic village in the 1950s but doesn't measure up to our modern requirement. (Later ones were faster, although the idea of "fast" when talking about 2CVs is always a bit relative.)  The electric motor might provide a bit more oomph, though, and its super-short 1st gear apparently gave it some impressive grade/stair-climbing potential.

So that's what you need. Would anyone actually want a Mouse, though? No, not really. The inability to operate at Interstate speeds is a massive handicap, general around-town effectiveness would be marginal at best, and again we haven't thought about anything else that goes into making this thing the slightest bit likeable.

Absolute minimum real-world power is probably along the lines of a 36hp Volkswagen Beetle, which again does better if you measure torque; in more realistic terms the 68hp of a three-cylinder Mitsubishi Mirage is about as low as anyone is willing to go to propel a modern car. Even the very Mouse-like Mitsu i-MiEV makes 63hp from its electric motor, and no one thinks of that as a rational all-around vehicle.

But I do sometimes think it would be cool to own a 2CV, though.


*: Of course this answer is a total evasion. Everyone really knows that the Greatest Car In The World is an Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ2, unless you unfortunately have to carry more than one other person with you and in that case it's a Mercedes W123 wagon. But no one wants to say this all the time because most normal people tend to get that kind of furrowed-brow thing going on when you say this, so it's better to punt.

**: Although I'm certain someone in Silicon Valley thinks otherwise and will be hitting up venture capital shops to fund this particular exercise in disrupting an anachronistic status quo as soon as they figure out how to put it in an app.

***: No, not that kind.

****: Residents of Kansas may beg to differ.

*****: Seriously. Even early Lotus Sevens weighed around 500kg (and those occasionally folded in on themselves).

******: By happy coincidence also the normal weight of an average adult male Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or giant panda.

*******: Maybe we should find one of those Eastern European models.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hot takes to ward off the winter chill

Story ideas conceived and to some degree pursued then eventually left apathetically to gather virtual dust over the last few months (or longer) by a writer busy prepping lesson plans when not drowning in ennui, some with more substance than others:

1. Pickup trucks are the new pony cars. (This one actually has a point to it, but it also meandered into some kind of sociological argument about changes in the working class and rock music vs. country and so on without actually getting past superficialities. Great for a serious feature article by a pro journalist who can get out and do interviews and so on, not so great for a geek blogger.)

2. Simple is good! Old BMWs and Hondas are good! Quirks and gimmicks get old. (I think I've done this one before.)

3. Hygge but in car form. Insert many getting-snuggly-and-then-some-in-Volvos quips here.

4. Insanely complex million-dollar-plus hypercars are irrelevant. Mostly. Somehow. But maybe not Lamborghinis, just because. It gets philosophical.

5. Cars have identities. But identity is somewhat plastic and evolutionary. And does it matter that a Fiat is built in Japan or that a Corvette doesn't have round taillights? Does anyone care? (That question has an unfortunate double meaning here.)

6. Variations on tired "favorite car/car you'd buy right now" questions to use when necessary: What car do you daydream about most often? What do you want to drive but not own? What car do you think your significant other most wants? (Besides, does anyone really have an all-time single favorite car?)

7. Small and light and balanced and ~200bhp is better than big and heavy and thundering and 500+bhp and obnoxious. (See #2 above alongside many Mustang crash videos.)

8. Joy of vintage racing, good people, cool cars often with license plates, etc.

Dear Lord I need to get out more.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The comfort of the new

At rest in the suburbs of the Lord (with apologies to Peter Matthiessen).
So I'm now closing in on five months into my three-year term with the Jetta, and I think I owe the collective vehicle manufacturers of the world a bit of an apology: having a new car isn't that bad after all.

Yes, really. It's not a total sacrifice of my ideals and ambitions. It's not penance. I didn't sign the lease agreement with a pricked fingertip. I've just had to realize a few things that were too easily glossed over before.

As one of those irascible reactionaries who venerates some past noble age of directness and mechanical integrity - the Golden Era before stability control and networked vehicle systems management and ventilated massaging seats became mandatory either by regulation or product-planner diktat - and who greets each great leap forward into a passive and cosseted future (autonomy! connectivity! active crash mitigation! gesture control!) with a renewed determination to someday have an Alfa 1750GTV as a daily driver, the idea of a New Car has just seemed off-putting.

And it's not just me; a durable common consensus among Hardcore Gearhead Nation is that there are a bare handful of factory-fresh machines which are even remotely desirable or worth serious consideration, especially compared to any number of wonderful and reasonably attainable vintage cars. (And by no means does that select few automatically include upscale speedsters, given their often-questionable usability and eye-watering continuous costs and "am I wearing enough cologne? let's make sure!" owner image.)

But right now I'm okay with the Jetta. This is working. I'm not exactly flooded with a sense of exhilaration and aesthetic fulfillment every morning pre-commute, but this is a net positive state of affairs in the current world. If 2016 has been a year of ongoing disappointment and gathering melancholy, having this thing is definitely one of its much lesser issues.

Part of this state of general contentment is surely due to that fact that the Jetta is a base-model S and as such is spared much of the gratuitous hedonistic/anesthetic silliness that apparently enhances the popular appeal of more upscale cars. Part of it is that it's a pretty good machine on its own merits. Part of it is me growing up a bit.

A few notes behind this Zen-smiley-faced outlook:

1. Given my usage and local conditions there's a primal sense of security derived from something that hasn't aged excessively. Sure, it would be nice to have an E30 325is or a slightly tuned NA Miata, but on a very day-to-day level it's also nice to not have the accompanying 25ish-year-old suspension bushings and coolant hoses and relays and the like. A new car is a not-worn-out car. And a warranty helps.

2. Good marks for well-rounded usable performance. The turbo motor is a bit tricky (more to follow) but once off idle it scoots. Handling is nice and direct without being edgy, ride is well-controlled without being wallowy or brittle. It lacks some of the tossability and forged-aluminum feel - light, simple, strong - of my old Audi Coupe GT, but within its contemporary mainstream paradigm it's very well-resolved.

3. Highway fuel economy has been startlingly high. I have to be driving like one of several varieties of idiot to average less than 40 mpg on the short hop between Norwalk and Bridgeport. An extended run in clean conditions will see the trip average edge up towards 50 mpg indicated. Fuel stops are once every three or so weeks, and I can (and did) make a round trip to Mom, 280 miles away, and back on a single tank. Nothing that I was directly considering would have come close to this. Serious fuel mileage is an underappreciated innate Good too often dismissed by people who see an indulgent permissiveness in low oil prices.

Purely on the side, time spent so far has softened my deep loathing of steering-wheel controls. Yes, I still find the redundant sound-system rockers to be less than unnecessary, but having the trip-computer controls on the right spoke and the cruise-control buttons on the left works really well. (No, I haven't even used the cruise control yet, but it's still good placement.) And Bluetooth isn't the worst thing in the world either.

My one demand going into this car-acquiring situation was that I needed three pedals; turns out that many of the Jetta's quirks revolve around the transmission and its interplay with the motor. Most immediately, gearing is astronomically high - 1st overall is 12.6 to 1, which puts it at about 1 1/2th in most gearboxes, and 5th overall is a Mulsanne Straght-grade 2.11 to 1 -  which helps explain both the excellent fuel economy and my occasional tendency to stall during the first few weeks around town. Well-judged clutch slip is a constant part of life.

That, um, relaxed gearing also means that getting into the power at highway speeds often requires an assertive downshift to 3rd - and trying to rev-match across a big gap with nonlinear pedal response (ECU tuning? random effect of boost factored in?) makes a smooth shift almost impossible. I've taken to a very deliberate and slowish 5th-to-4th-to-3rd approach in appropriate cases, even if it means sometimes forgoing a potential opening in the midst of oblivious and uncooperative Connecticut drivers.

It's interesting: When I was growing up in the '80s turbos were all heady top-end rush with a gutless low end as the accepted tradeoff; think 930s or F1 cars. This one, and by received description apparently many more using this kind of trendy boosted-low-displacement approach, instead is punchy and torquey from something like 1200-1500 up to maybe 5000 where it runs out of breath. I can get a nice assertive jump away from a stoplight with a bit of clutch/throttle shuffling, but short-shifting is required to keep things at max pull.

That's about it as far as unintuitive behavior goes here, which also kind of parallels my one standing disappointment with the car: it doesn't have much character. It's very rational and well-considered, sure, but it doesn't do much for the soul. It is businesslike in the straightest sense of the term. It has no interest in pursuing even a taste of the Bohemian sensibility of its air-cooled and A1-chassis ancestors and very clearly wants to grow up to be an Audi A6 instead.

🎼Don't be afraid of the dark....
That's part of what goes with buying new, though. Charm is something that tends to get picked up along the way with mileage and the influence of an owner's personality. Cool old cars often - usually? -  start out as shiny, emotionally inert new cars and only earn their panache over time.

I've been trying to work with my end of this bargain, jazz it up a bit with a few well-considered stickers, trying to think of what else could be reasonably done to shift it leftward out of its spreadsheet mentality, but at the same time am mostly resigned to it being what it is for now.

And, again, it's good. It works. It isn't a betrayal of the central idea of a driving machine, even if it is mainstream and slightly tech-ish and has mandatory stability control and fat A-pillars and (some of) the rest that generally comes with being a new car in 2016.

Of course, part of being good is again also because it's new, and in so being it's not a continuously suspect pile of aging electronics and decaying rubber pieces and incidents that the previous owner decided were best left unspoken during the sales process. And on the flip it's also the beneficiary of plenty of genuine progress in safety and useful tech and engineering - and their subsequent trickle-down availability - in recent years. Hey, a streetable turbo 4-valve motor putting out over 100hp/liter bolted into a solid chassis with multilink suspension and discs at each corner? This didn't really exist at anything less than Serious Money all that long ago.

Even the curmudgeons have a bit more reason to be comfortable with the status quo. Peak New Cars Suck was probably about five years ago, to be honest. Since then the market has seen more than a few good choices show up, especially at the lower end. We now have the hugely desirable Ford STs and the return to form of the new Civic (Si and R-Type still inbound but happily anticipated) and the vintage-Alfa-reincarnate brilliance of the Mazda3 and the flawed but still wonderful Toyobaru 86 and the ever-developing goodness of the Miata and the VW GTI and GLI. Maybe even include the Chevy Cruze and Kia Soul if we just want something really good to recommend to the neighbor who can't tell a braking point from a shift point. All of which are perfectly desirable and satisfying from a purist perspective.

And many of which have a bit more character than the Jetta - especially the sneaky superstar of the bunch, the Fiesta ST - and so maybe the undeniable logic of a very agreeable monthly payment means I'm missing out. Tradeoffs.

Simple is good. Simple and cheap is very good. Simple and cheap and hugely fun is very, very good.
But tradeoffs go every way, too. And how much do you trade to have this insulation around anxieties about electrical gremlins and expensive suspension rebuilds?

Depends on the cars, of course. Or what you do to the cars in the process. Think first-gen Miata, with the likely-for-me installation of a Racing Beat suspension kit and the consequent ability to renew much of what has aged. Think E30 and the simple-but-evolved effectiveness of its systems from the two-valve straight-six to the trailing-arm suspension and how those can also be refreshed on fair terms. (Yes, my yuppie-scum E30 grudge has thankfully been defeated.)

Think how often people grab for Shiny New even if the current state is still very usable and enjoyable, and Shiny New isn't that much of an improvement.

And it goes deeper than that.

A lot of us have been trained to venerate the old: we have vintage races, we have concours shows, we have that joy of being slackjawed at Cars & Coffee as we stare down a row of Weber carburetors perched atop hand-machined castings. We have the equivalent of warrior sagas in Fangio chasing fate around the Nürburgring and the 300SLR carrying Moss and Jenkins to Valhalla-in-Brescia and #1075 pushed by angels a few hundred feet ahead of that 908 after twenty-four hours and many more.

We like old stuff. It's cool, in that classic echt-hipster definition of cool in how it marks us as somehow enlightened. It's a signifier of intangibles like feel and gratification over chilly rationality. And it's still eminently usable, even if airbags are nice to have.

And they act as a way of showing what has changed, what has been gained and lost.

Even if many of the legends have finally been eclipsed - there are any number of modern sports cars that will run neat well-controlled circles around a 427 Cobra, and old muscle cars are now more cultural signifiers than actual not-like-this-anymore speed machines - there's that understood pure sensibility that goes with the Old that has been processed out from modern machines.

Used to be that Grand Touring machines meant something, were an expert's tool that required skill and sensitivity to use well. Now anyone who holds a license and can cover the bill can get a 650i Xdrive that will swiftly run between Paris and Rome in any conditions without perturbation.

There's not much meaning or satisfaction in that - but is it a fair tradeoff? Do we or should we truly value stability and security over visceral engagement? Turn it around: Would the well-dressed driver of 1966 facing a rainy mountain pass in his Maserati Sebring have had any problems with skipping ahead fifty years to that 650i, with its scarcely credible advances in speed and roadworthiness?

What do we want from the old, anyway? How do we find justification for what often turns out to be troublesome and costly? What's the significance here, other than subjective aesthetic appeal and some tactile gratification and a limiter on a peculiar strain of proto-Marxist technological alienation and the benefits of depreciation?

All of this kind of meshes together as we face up to the idea of autonomous vehicles, which promise to strip away every bit of humanity and art from the act of going from place to place. And that now seems the much more worrisome concern.

I suppose it's human nature to grasp for what has slipped by, to recognize some greatness - or maybe just comfort - in what was normalcy as things churn. A lot of it may be that as a culture we have a nasty habit of backfilling wonderfulness into time gone by, letting slip frustrations about difficulty even getting started on cold mornings and focusing on winding roads and sunsets that may never have existed. And yeah, there are definitely any number and kind of losses along the way.

So still the two paths: find where that past greatness was retained, or work to keep that which came before viable for today. Yes, there is the potential case of simultaneously pursuing both - one daily driver and one vintage toy, and the attendant dual citizenship in each world. Somehow that's an unsatisfactory conclusion. It's not a complete answer.

Maybe there is no complete answer, and maybe we just have to pick our fights and arguments with some discretion and skill. And maybe we have to still stubbornly advocate for what we even still have - those STs and GTIs and 86s and Miatas and even kit cars - and hold the moral ground we even still have, in terms both economic and influential, before it slips further away into a wasteland of autonomous crossovers. You want good simple fun cars? Ask for them. And then buy them. And tell other people to buy them.

And at the same time maybe recognize where there is a shared mentality - like in those base models that do without the excesses. There's plenty to be appreciated about the simple minimal approach, which is much of the point in the first place. Tuning also exists, and it's easier to add a few choice pieces (hmmmm, those Rial wheels aren't too expensive...) to something than strip off what needs to go.

Yes, part of me is already looking forward to what might come after the Jetta. But it won't be that difficult to enjoy driving until then.

Friday, August 12, 2016

In memoriam

Less about wheels and more about writing about wheels:

Of the smallish subset of humans who know (and inevitably have an opinion) about Gawker Media, I am in the distinct minority: I dearly love the place and have been watching the events of the past few months with nothing but dismay. Maybe I came along too late after their peak slash-and-firebomb, apocalyptically misanthropic years to really grasp why people think so ill of Denton and his legions as they still do. Maybe it's because I was just a weird kid from the Midwest and not the kind of gasbag that somehow attracts their kind of necessary puncture. I know I assign an outsize importance to the time I spent at Jalopnik and still feel a kinship with what goes on there even knowing how marginal my existence was (six months at one of the less-loved titles in the network) and how far removed it is from today. I am far from the only one so affected, though.

So over the next few days Gawker Media as an independent entity will cease to exist, being up for auction early next week, and with its demise comes an end to a truly important experiment in the evolution of media. The dangers that Peter Thiel's monomaniacal action represents will have to be unpacked and hopefully countered over time, and I would like to think that someone will see the need for safeguards against this kind of assault on a free (if occasionally obnoxious and antagonistic) press. That this case was even given consideration indicates something worrisome in the waters of American jurisprudence.

Beyond that I fear the loss of what Gawker is in itself as a sort of cultural autoclave, trying to burn layers of fatuousness from places which desperately need it. God knows that's what we tried to do at Jalopnik to and for an industry that still needs it just as much as New York media.

(And which I only rarely managed to do with any skill or style in the midst of just trying to keep up, hammering through a straitjacket three-paragraph template and verging on circulatory-system trauma at least three times a day. I probably shouldn't have been there anyway. I'm too nice, too unwilling to be intrusive and accusatory. Matt had to cajole the hell out of me sometimes to get me in the right mood, and the only real lasting legacy from those exercises was a fit of frustration that tagged Bernie Ecclestone as the billionaire Muppet, which is admittedly still one of my prouder moments. And yeah, there was also the grad school thing.)

All of which will most likely cease to matter in a few hours, depending on how the new corporate adoptive parents choose to treat their wild child. It will be interesting in a kind of postmortem sense to see how everything gets broken apart and redistributed and remade or shut down completely. I fear for the folks at Jalopnik and wonder how on Earth they'd fit in anywhere else, and that extends throughout the network.

At the same time, there have been any number of Gawker alums who have started to remake the broader media world according to Denton's rules, kicking aside niceties and coziness in favor of high-level writing that lays reality bare in any number of older publications that needed it. So maybe that will work out.

I'm just glad I was there for a while, fortunate to be part of something different. The world is less well off for its passing.

Friday, July 29, 2016


I would like to think that in each battle between ideals and reality that there is always somehow some kind of happy synthesis, some way to gather together everything and frame it just so. I'm sure that could theoretically be one of many answers, given the right chain of coincidences and decisions, but reality is rarely so generous - to me, at least, and I would wager to most other people as well.

Especially with calendar pages turning and a budget being eaten away by everyday life in parallel.

So yeah. It's mine, at least for the next three years. 2016 Volkswagen Jetta S, 1.4 TSI motor, manual transmission.

No, not what I wanted. Of course not, But probably what works best for the current situation. Or that's what I keep telling myself as a defense.

It's a good car, decently direct and lively and usable, acquired in what seems like a really good deal. Volkswagen lease offers are ridiculously generous for some pretty obvious reasons right now. So for the money it was about as good as anything else I could have found, especially considering such necessities as upkeep and usability in potentially harsh coastal weather and so on.

(Yes, I leased it, which is even more out of character for me. I'm almost wondering who actually bought or owns this machine.)

And it's new, which resolved a number of nagging fears in my head whenever I thought about something else. And whenever I thought seriously about something else, a list of mechanical or situational neuroses tended to follow. Miata? Cooling system. RX-7? Apex seals. Audi A4? Terrifying maintenance costs. GTI or WRX? Tuning abuses. Honda? That plus theft. Fox Mustang? Same plus driving on icy roads. 944? Have a seat and clear your schedule. MGB? One big reality check required in every possible way.

Never mind deep-seated uncertainties about twentysomething-plus-year-old suspension bushings and potential crash damage and so on.

Do I even have to go into how it's so much easier to want than to have, to dream about the good stuff without feeling that stomach-tightening sense that something will inevitably go wrong? Especially given my budget ($5000ish) and the fact that whatever I get would be a year-round commuter machine between a couple different campuses in the region?

Both parts of that fed into the ultimate decision. First, getting something even remotely good was likely to just about clear me out; if anything even moderately expensive had to be done on top of the purchase I was in bad shape. And if anything went wrong later on it would not only be financially troublesome but also cause major grief on a professional level.

So yeah, reality. Reality in its dismal dream-grinding functionality now sits in the lot downstairs.

I tried. Drove an MGB which had (more than) a few needs. Tried a well-worn and hail-damaged NA Miata; first thing the seller talked about was how easy it was to put back together after the radiator blew up on the drive to New Jersey from Virginia. Spent I don't even want to know how long scanning ads trying to find something that would work only to find repeated abuses against both cars and the English language.

The Miata issue deserves its own lamentation, just because it seems that Miata sellers are weirder than the norm. Not more crooked, not more difficult, but definitely weirder. Tried to go see a weathered but still promising '95 M Edition while still in Ithaca - and had the seller accuse me of being a scam artist before she hung up on me, which is not how Craigslist usually works. Had another who never returned a number of polite calls. And so on. Probably gave serious effort to at least five, only really got to see the one, and ended up perplexed.

Time and patience ran thin. With Wonderful One starting her new job my ability to do test drives would be severely compromised. Was in for more repairs on the Passat (see "A4," above), wandered the showroom, sales dude mentioned the please-help-us lease offers. Deal done in a few days. Problem solved.

It's not bad for what it is. Excellent ride and handling blend, smooth and torquey motor which returns great fuel economy, pleasant environment even given the basic trim and so-so seats (really need more lumbar support). Gripes? The shifter is traditional front-drive VW in its less-than-machinelike feel, the sound system is super-fussy.

And it's not really what I wanted. But again, that's life.

I tell myself (and Wonderful One seconds) that having something like this frees me up to have a pure project situation, something to have and fix and tune and enjoy without forcing it to endure the indignity of everyday life. Something purely enjoyable and gratifying, right? Which is true, although fulfillment of this possibility is dependent on (again and always) my unexciting budget situation being able to manage it while living up to everything else, including those good-but-still-real lease payments. Something to think about and hope for as things take shape this fall.

But this somehow seems slightly corrupt in its indulgence, in its failure to provide that synthesis from earlier. Going in to this whole process there was the wish for some kind of Grand Unified Solution, one good lovable car that would have worked for everything - the daily drive, the weekend two-lane blast, the trip to Mom's, autocrossing, whatever. But such is an ideal - it ironically requires a certain reality.

And quite honestly maybe I need to put all of that aside for a while anyway. The pursuit of ideals has rarely been nice to me. Holding myself to act in accordance with some esoteric faith has usually caused me to miss out on any number of great whatevers in the course of providing what too often turns out to be a very attenuated and sort of hollow satisfaction.

Maybe I just need a good set of everyday wheels to help manage reality for a while.

I hope so. It's what I've got.