Monday, August 24, 2015

Justin Wilson, 1978-2015

Just back from two weeks in Germany and the Czech Republic - something on that soon - but tonight is obviously dominated by the very sad news from Pennsylvania.

Lots of thoughts, hard to organize or connect them right now, but all under one very dark sky.

Be at peace, sir.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wishing well

Like just about everyone on the North American end of the scene, I've been watching with a kind of religious anticipation as Alfa Romeo stakes its measured return to our shores. Unlike a lot of others, at least openly, I've been doing so with a serious dose of apprehension and skepticism mixed in with the longing.

If any single name embodies what I believe about cars and what I've intermittently tried to express here at SoM, it's Alfa Romeo - at least as it's presented in the rose-tinted oral history passed along by the true believers. The Giuliettas and Giulias and GTVs and Spiders, we are led to believe, existed simply to make the bliss of driving - in its spirit and elegance and Enlightenment empowerment, its ability to be a full performance art and act of evolved vitality - exist in the modern world. They were never scorchingly fast or exceedingly well-built, but they made the task of proceeding down a road into something very special.

A quick look around the modern market shows that kind of vivacity to be in scarily short supply, and so the idea of Alfa Romeo - Alfa fottuto Romeo - coming back to reclaim its rightful place and save us from the automotive world's standing sense of dour competence is enough to spark the kind of heightened emotional excitement that's usually reserved for Star Wars films.

So what's been going on?

Alfa's North American effort has been handed to Reid Bigland, late of Ram trucks, whose sense of Alfa history seems little expanded from what's viewable on Wikipedia and whose pompous steakhead blustering is totally at odds with this most civilized of marques. The first tangible product of this latest cross-Atlantic offensive is the 4C, a profoundly unrefined carbon-chassis bullet which exists perhaps solely because FCA desperately needed a cultural touchstone beyond Dustin Hoffman and (apparently) racing gamers found the 33 Stradale somewhere and thought it is/was cool. It looks like a Lotus Elise with worrisome hormone issues and its dynamic profile has been subject to more dispute and conflicting opinion than the average political platform. We are all now loudly applauding the mere idea of the new Giulia, with a (promised) ridiculous amount of Ferrari-sourced power under the hood and a Maserati-derived chassis which is due to arrive sometime next year, probably, we hope. All of this does not give me confidence.

But let's go broader. Never mind that the Giulia really does look like an F30 3-Series with a nose and tail job (pause to reflect on the loss that was suffered with the collapse of Bertone and the diminishing of the other classic coachbuilding houses) and we have no clue how well anything will work with anything else. Quell the mixed emotions in the air about the 4C. And let's completely set aside the heresy of the CUV due to follow in short form according to their marketing plan, lucrative though that will probably be in its own likely dreary way.

Two things:

First, we won't know if the Giulia is a real Alfa, and therefore the real renaissance, until someone actually drives it and can honestly tell us all that the magic is there. The power output is great for advertising, but is secondary to the sense of the car as sensual entity and ennobling driving device. The Giuliettas and Giulias never had much gross oomph - Christ, they were little inline-fours - but they were pretty much the main reason the word brio exists in the American vernacular as it does. We have to see how this thing feels, how it is, instead of just being satiated by a bunch of projected numbers

Second, nobody wants to think that all this will be anything less than the Second Coming. Because that would be wrong.

Yes, I'm skeptical. But I really, really want to have those skepticisms be proven totally groundless.

We WANT this to be something brilliant and wonderful. We WANT this to succeed. We really desperately are praying that Marchionne's minions don't screw this up and hand us an overpowered lump of a car that ignores and defies what an Alfa is supposed to be.

A lot of this is because of how legitimately special the idea of a new true Alfa is to us. Past the lingering bitter aftertaste of the Milano and the 164 and the last asthmatic plastic-clad Spiders, if even then, most of us have never been able to know the truth of the name from the showroom floor. We'll take the unresolved 4C as it is because we're so desperate for a return, but the new Gulia is the real case.

A lot of it is because we, as enthusiasts, just don't like to see anything fail. Seriously.

This wish goes beyond Alfa, useful though it is as a focal point. This becomes something more encompassing and uplifting, if too often unrequited and tragic.

Being a gearhead is a constant exercise in hope and anticipation. Every new-model mention brings the promise of something better and more exciting. Reality hasn't been entirely kind to these ideals lately, but the constant flow of chatter and rumor serves to keep a sort of spirit alive. We want something good, we want something new, we want something that makes this emotional investment and devotion worthwhile.

Maybe we are at our core a hopeful and optimistic folk. Maybe we've weathered enough induced silliness and deferred gratification that we'll project our wishes and expectations on any available screen. Maybe we just like to be titillated by something new and interesting.

Take something far away from an established identity like Alfa's. Take Elio.

Yes, that ridiculous little three-wheeler econocommuter tooling up for production in the old GM truck fatory in Louisiana, with its pie-in-the-sky promises of simplicity and efficiency and extreme low price and so on.

I'd love to see Elio become a sustaining success. I want them to come out and do well, almost just as a rebuke to the dreariness of the lower end of the market. I want them to be a lovably eccentric presence on the road. (Will I want to own one? We'll see.)

Hell, take Tesla and all they've done. How can you resist the story of a slightly unhinged dot-com billionaire who stumbles through an unlikely and occasionally troubled start with a Lotus-based electric (two concepts that do not share space comfortably) roadster and then drops arguably the best car in the world on us? Yes, so they're behind on their ambitions for battery swapping and a few other things. The car is still amazing and the whole story should have us applauding every time one drives by.

Enthusiasm isn't - shouldn't be - a zero-sum game. We want everything to be great, and we want everything on the horizon to fulfill some unspeakable life-fulfilling mandate. We want Camaros and Mustangs to both be terrific. We want BMW to rediscover its Wagnerian soul and Honda to relocate its Zen-speedster center. We continually hope that Jaguar somehow defies both its shoddy rep and underappreciated current product line and gets its act together.

And we really, desperately, achingly want Alfa to be Alfa again.

Because we don't want the world to fail us - again - when it can be so good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A room of one's own

It's raining again. Raining like it has for days, raining and cool after the coldest winter this place has known. The dismal heaviness of the skies is only occasionally punctured by overheated blasts of nuclear light and suffocating humidity.

So I'm mostly inside or on my way to another inside, playing the wage slave, keeping a few different jobs stapled together in hopes of covering all the bills and so on. That's not really the inadequacy, although the situation has been and will likely continue to be marked by a certain meager sufficiency at best for the time being.

Actually, that contributes to the inadequacy, because it makes it that much harder to get what I really want.

No, more than want. What's the space between want and need? What's something that's more - much more - than just a casual desire, but maybe not an official existential necessity? How do we describe something whose absence is not necessarily a threat to continuing existence, but whose presence and availability would be such a profound contribution to emotional - psychic - well-being?

It's not about having a specific vehicle right now, some sort of tangible assembly of preferences and wishes. Those exist, but that's not the point. And the Passat is a perfectly acceptable machine in the absence of something more sublime, although I am constantly reminded of its position firmly within the paradigm of the modern car as comfort and convenience device that insulates and protects more than engages. But that's secondary, because this consideration is beyond that concern.

It's about having available space, a designated volume within which I can plan and act and consider, a construct that defines the ability to perform tasks as it protests the results of those tasks.

I want a garage.

That's the longing right now. That's the want. More than anything that would immediately go into it, I want a workspace and storage space.

Not having one in Astoria was understandable, part of the urban bargain at that point. They existed but were unreasonable on several fronts, and I took that as part of how it was. Here? Not so much. Or else something has been driving the longing for a project past previous rationalizations.

The project - a project, some kind of project - is the underlying primal concern. I need something specific to do, some sort of mechanical puzzle to ponder and solve, some manifestation of individual beliefs and conclusions rendered in steel and wiring and rubber to build. And I need a place to do it.

If you have a garage, you have space for things and processes. You have a place defined by activities and creations that can't really be done or kept in other places.

And this is not happening in the current situation, with an apartment two floors up from ground level and parking in the open-air building lot at $50 per month per space. Yes, I've heard about how someone rebuilt their Suzuki dirt bike or BMC A-Series motor in their kitchen blah blah not happening here. (Besides, I do like to cook and that requires space as well, and at least in this respect the current situation is a vast improvement over the small-craft galley I had back in Astoria.)

I've considered - am still considering - renting a space at some local self-storage lot, although anything large enough to hold even a motorcycle will run well over a hundred a month and require a dedicated drive out and back. Kills off the ability to do quick little things on impulse.

Even so, it's tempting. A project bike would be a great start: find a ratty CB360 or SR500 or something, strip it down, clean and tune and idealize and personalize until it's happy running around the hills and looks good enough to pitch to Bike EXIF.

Also, motorcycle ownership in general around here is largely predicated on the availability of storage during snow season, so there's that.

After that delusions of moderate grandeur set in, largely involving frames made of mild steel tubing and various components from terminal rust victims or local parts yards. All in good fun, all devoted to a deeply sort of soul-satisfying venture, all ambitions which are at least somewhat mindful of my limited circumstances which is part of the point of the whole homebuilt thing anyway.

And all of which needs space.

This is not about insisting on some idealized environment, some deluxe man-cave Garage Mahal. Actually, the less full of odious excess this whole concept is the better. This is simply about having a place to work, a place where I can tune and disassemble and paint and polish and fit and drain and replace and improve, a place where I can understand how to adjust a Weber carburetor and learn to use my grandfather's oxyacetylene welding torch.

That's the real desire. I desperately want to work on something, buy it cheap and make it better and live well, acquire and practice skills and understandings, and I need a garage for that to happen.

Emphasis on the acquisition of skills and understandings. As much as this is primarily about having something and doing something, this is also about perpetuating something.

I like being able to work on things, to know how they function and how to fix them when something goes wrong. That's a large part of why I've always been more attracted to machinery, in its clear and logical (if often complex) relationship of forces, than something as intangible as, say, computer programming.

Part of being able to restore or build something is to act counter to a number of cultural currents, from unthinking acquisition to willful ignorance of underlying processes to disposability. Part of it is the pure gratification of being able to solve problems and create something tangible and reasonably permanent. Part of it's a movement against the increasing obliqueness and unknowability of modern machines, especially vehicles. It quietly bothers me that I can't check the transmission fluid in the Passat. When a valve in the turbocharger intake system conked out - or its demise was finally registered by the on-board computer, on comes the CEL - it was frustrating to think that I really could not have done anything about it myself, the way that I was able to replace a relay in my old Audi or add fluid to the clutch hydraulics on the 240D.

There's something valuable and meaningful about being able to work with one's hands, especially in a mechanical context. It's a signifier of evolution. And I fear it's being marginalized, or even lost.

I recently picked up a copy of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class As Soulcraft, It's not perfect; he's trying to do entirely too much in about two hundred and fifty pages, and much of what he says could (and should) be explored in two or three separate books. But it is a wonderful dissertation on the significance of spinning wrenches and working in a garage and manual labor in general, and how it isn't accorded the respect it deserves in a society too enamored of money managers.

A serious argument can be made (and probably already has been made more than once) that the ability of Americans to work with and on machinery was a major reason behind our successes in the two World Wars. All those kids off the farms and from greasy machine shops were able to keep airplanes running and fix troubled tanks and all the rest. Today? It's broken, toss it and get a new one. Doesn't help that everyday build quality has tangibly dropped in many cases while complexity has increased exponentially.

So there's a practice that has to be maintained here, like speaking a foreign language or playing a musical instrument. And certain devices lend themselves to this practice much more than others. And that all has to be done sometime, somewhere, somehow.

And so somewhere, somehow, there's a damp patch of concrete flooring and a roof to keep out the rain waiting for me to set down my toolbox and size up some neglected masterpiece-to-be that's just rolled off a truck.


Monday, February 9, 2015


One of the running jokes in car circles for some time has been conjecture about the idea of an Apple car. Mostly it's a latter-day parlor game involving guesses about which stereotypical Apple traits would make their way onto four wheels and how the end result would function in the world of less insanely great Toyotas and BMWs and Chevy pickups. (Yes, I've indulged in this myself.)

Eventually the exercise falls apart when everyone begrudgingly accepts that Apple is as likely to build a car as it is to start making technical mountain climbing gear. It's not their game, it has little connection to their core strengths, it makes no real sense in the modern market.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with Apple's very clear desire to be in vehicles. CarPlay, the on-dash iPhone extension, is undergoing a slow and cautious rollout, but the idea is definitely sound. And, more importantly, it's scalable.

I'm starting to think that CarPlay is just the welcome screen of something very interesting that Apple plans to introduce soon.

There's an intriguing article in Business Insider tonight alleging that a mysterious Apple vehicular development program has been busy poaching Tesla employees - engineers, mostly, with some specific skillsets, including manufacturing and robotics. The anonymous source still clearly exists in the reality-distortion field, claiming that the project will "change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money."

This comes on the heels of reports of an Apple-owned Chrysler minivan fitted with an array of cameras roaming Bay Area (and Brooklyn) neighborhoods. The simplistic first guess as to this thing's intention is that it's Apple's response to Google's familiar Street View fleet; on second thought, it could be a self-driving project. The camera positioning favors the second interpretation. No one is certain, though, and Apple is as characteristically tight-lipped about the project as ever.

Two Tesla-specific deductions come quickly to mind: First, one of the big features touted on the P85D is the inclusion of a rather highly evolved autopilot function.
Photo: Tesla
Second, look inside any Tesla. There are two panels: one driver information display, and one big, very iPad-like (aha!) screen between the seats that controls most secondary functions.

The deeper consideration is for the plight of modern product planners and vehicle-interior designers and electrical and computer engineers at any car company - and, by extension, the car companies themselves. They must face the very difficult task of presenting an ever-increasing number of features and functions in a rational usable form. They have to combine and connect sound systems, navigation systems, security systems, telecommunications systems from phones to OnStar-style services, maybe chassis and driveline dynamic-control systems, and do it all with an interface that is usable and responsive. They also have to include such modern gotta-have-its as keyless entry and keyless start. 

Setting up any modern car to include even some of these functions is enormously complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Parts and systems come from any number of suppliers and must be made to work together harmoniously. Many components can be shared across a manufacturer's lineup, but others are probably model-specific. And no one has really done a truly great job with it all yet. (iDrive, anyone? Sync?) We won't even talk about how quickly some of these systems age. Tesla's system is likely the best, because they more or less cribbed the idea - big glass panel, ability to download updates and improvements - from the masters.

No one does interface better than Apple. And, arguably, no one surpasses Cupertino's ability to combine a broad multitude of sophisticated features in one easy-to-use arrangement.

What I've got on the mind is pure speculation at this point, but still:

I think Apple's working on a full in-car electronics suite, something that unifies connectivity and entertainment and navigation and probably some degree of self-driving ability and a lot of other features, in one coherent and networked package that can be offered as a finished off-the-shelf product to vehicle manufacturers.

That BI article very briefly mentions the potential for something this ambitious towards the end ("a much deeper set of integrated experiences"), but I think we can see the possibilities here.

It will use a standardized iPad-like controller - like CarPlay, like Tesla - to manage basically everything that requires operator input and computer modulation. It will be a component-based arrangement - want autopilot? No problem! Click on the option box and the factory will plug in another standardized bank of sensors. It will be capable of receiving over-the-air updates and upgrades, so the systems won't quickly become obsolete. And it will work very well.

Those Tesla engineers that defected to Apple? The manufacturing folks will help figure out how to make all of this into an affordable and installable package. The robotics heads are working on the autopilot system and how it can be adapted from vehicle to vehicle.

This vendor-supplied complete solution is, of course, more or less unheard of in the car and truck world where manufacturers either do all the work in-house or with a few choice suppliers, or at most go in for limited marque-specific partnerships (Ford and Microsoft, for example). However, it is common practice in aerospace, where an aircraft manufacturer purchases a complete aviation-electronics - avionics - package (radios, navigation, displays, autopilots, other necessities) from an outside supplier like Honeywell or Garmin and installs it in the airplane. This is what I am guessing Apple wants to provide to vehicle manufacturers.
The flight deck of the Cessna Citation M2 bizjet, with Garmin avionics and touchscreen displays. Photo: Cessna
Set it up to be compatible with Android and Windows phones and the rest in addition to iPhones - Boot Camp on wheels - and it's done.

Apple doesn't need to build the whole car. It can just build the parts of the car which it can do better than anyone else.

I wonder if Tesla will be interested.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Raising awareness

Unlike 114.4 million other people I didn't watch the Super Bowl this year (long story, mostly because I don't own a TV), which means I didn't see any of the ads until afterward - the most noteworthy of them being the surprise unveiling of the new Nissan Maxima (and the slightly-less-surprising-at-that-point, if still deeply weird, GT-R LM). After the first few slightly fuzzy screenshots got posted, my curiosity was piqued and I pulled up the full commercial.

Oh, dear.

Even a few days later I remain utterly baffled by this ad: what its deliberate marketing intention is, what thematic connection it has to Nissan's showroom products, what positive statements it's trying to say about anything.

Past that, as the son of a man who was spent a significant amount of my childhood away on business trips and with whom I had an extremely complex relationship up until he died of cancer fifteen years ago, this took me on an unwelcome trip to some pretty dark places. I can only imagine how many other people likewise got a nasty kick in the consciousness from the whole "#withdad" thing. Quick note: I prefer my car ads to somehow concentrate on cars, not subliminally suggest that I might still need therapy to deal with unresolved personal issues.

At the very least Nissan and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day spared us ghastly M. Night Shyamalan twists, and they didn't directly insult our intelligence or preferences, and it seems like this one fit in with what turned out to be a flock of other similarly downbeat ads this year. (And on a really extended conjecture, I wonder if this little film gives us a clue about whether the wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional actor, maybe eventually realized that she was actually the wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional racer, and because of that is therefore now the ex-wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional racer. But I digress.)

Even appreciating that and glossing over the bad vibes for many in the audience (and it would take a year's production from PPG to come up with that much gloss), it's hard to get past the fact that this is a really, really horrible car ad. It offers Nissan as a sponsor of emotionally strained families and distant father-son relationships. It makes racing - and Nissan's involvement in racing - look flatly sociopathic. And, worst of all, the cars themselves are reduced to mere props. They're secondary at best to the storyline. Nissan paid for the ad (handsomely, apparently), but I don't see how it's about their vehicles.

At this point, fine, it's time to eject Jim Croce from my mental sound system and write this thing off as an expensive lapse of judgement on someone's part and get on with it all. But I guess underlying all of this is a very literal take on a modern cliche: What were they thinking?

Not joking, not dismissing: What was the idea here, how was it developed, why did enough of the right people agree to this without realizing what they were making?

Look, I understand: The people who craft vehicle-related advertising to appear in the modern media multiverse are devoted to an immensely complicated and delicate task, working to promote a product whose appeal must combine the objective and subjective and pragmatic and romantic to a degree unique in the sphere of consumer goods - and to deeply varying degrees from product to product. They must come up with a production that manages to stake and hold a place in someone's thoughts, something increasingly difficult in this everyday life. They must also answer to marketers, to lawyers, to accountants, and to their own ability to create something.

That said, the general quality of automotive advertising has always seemed a bit less than brilliant. Maybe it's an understandable conservatism and apprehensiveness on the part of people effectively risking millions and millions of dollars, maybe it's just entrenched Detroit-style attitudes about the way things have always been, maybe it's Sturgeon's revelation at work, but car ads are rarely inspiring.

More insidiously, there are certain issues that occur in vehicle advertising over and over that do significant, if subliminal, damage to both any single effort to promote a high-quality well-engineered product and to the field as a whole.

It's little things. And it's stuff that should never have become common. And it's all quickly, eminently correctable.

I'm not going to do a full orthodox David Ogilvy-style list of rules for how to do a proper successful ad, mostly because I'm not David Ogilvy. However, I would like to offer a few simple suggestions to those in the system for creating a more appealing ad versus one that subtly pisses me off:

- Be deeply mindful of the images your work is explicitly showing and implicitly inducing. That little Nissan fiasco is its own case, but there have been way too many other episodes of advertising hyperbole and strangeness-by-association that go past reasonable limits or in really odd directions - think the MTV overkill of the Plymouth Duster or Infiniti's original Zen poems. A personal favorite was in a brochure for some mid-'90s Oldsmobile sedan that described engine output as feeling like "an avalanche of honey." Maybe it's me, but I don't find the appeal in powerplant characteristics exemplified by the Blob.

- Use complete sentences and proper grammar. Sentence fragments are irritating, as are comma splices. Have enough respect for your readers or viewers to use language properly. Trust that they will read or listen through well-written copy of the sort that used to make Volkswagen and Honda and Porsche ads so effective. (On the flip side, trust that people who will read through well-written copy are the sort of intelligent and discerning people you want as customers.)
Look! Words! (More legible original here.)
- Comparisons to other vehicles should be kept to a minimum, if done at all. The product should be able to speak for itself without inducing a sort of distasteful keeping-up-with-the-Joneses insecurity in the proposition. If I hear one more exclamation about how Product F or Product C has X more features and better mileage than Camry or Accord, that manufacturer is off of my purchase list for life. Also, why remind your potential customers of how the competition is a respectable benchmark? (This rule may perhaps be reconsidered in serious objective cases like full-size pickup towing ratings, but again, discretion is the better part of valor.)

- And for the love of all that is good in the civilized world, stop trying to be down with the hip street lingo. There is a real perceptible difference between writing something that is psychologically accessible to young adult customers and writing something that is the equivalent of a fifty-year-old account exec trying to rap during the office Christmas party.
Yes, this really happened.
The purchase of any vehicle is a significant act of identification and faith on the part of a buyer. Respect the buyer, respect the car, aim for a bit of enlightenment and intelligence throughout the presentation, and the market just might be a better place as a result.


Oh, the new Maxima?