Friday, January 23, 2015

Future tense

All photos: Buick/GM
If we learned anything from the press cycle of the Detroit auto show, it's that good old-fashioned surprises still work. The Ford GT would have been the class of the show in any case, but the way it was such a colossal shock - from deeply vague rumor to there on stage in about 1.3 "Oh, my God"s - just added that much more drama and grabbed that much more attention. It's been said repeatedly, but still: Pity the poor folks at Acura who had to follow the blue storm by presenting the by-now-familiar-looking NSX.

The GT was the biggest and most lust-inducing surprise of the show, but I think the one that occurred the day before was more interesting - and I wonder if it may turn out to be more significant.

Buick is in kind of a curious spot right now. Its position in the GM car hierarchy doesn't really align it with many competitors in the North American market. Chevrolet is of course the mass-market nameplate, and Cadillac is well on its way to facing off against the Germans. Buick is left somewhere in a vague middle, trying to establish and assert a new identity as it moves past the velour-and-whitewalls stereotype.

If the Avenir (French for "future") is any indication, I think they could be onto something very appealing. I just wonder if, provided this effort turns out to be what I think or hope it might be (a stretch, to be sure), it will be enough to matter in the vehicle market of the near future.

Start with what we have: The Avenir is, simply, a lovely car. It is elegant, it is interesting, it looks like the kind of machine driven by someone who knows and cares about tailoring and presentation. Some have complained that it is not as original or audacious a design as it could have been. So? Better to assemble styling traits that has been developed over the last few years into a coherent and attractive whole than push into yet another direction without resolution. One of the defining features of a good brand is a certain continuity in design and character; the Avenir uses the existing Buick design language, but moves all of it to a much more impressive and appealing level.

It is also clearly not a German car. It is a comfortable, stylish tourer instead of some Nürburgring-tuned exercise in merciless Teutonic competence. It seems more humane, more relaxed, more charming. And in that - even in concept form - it is something special, something of a rebuke to an increasingly dreary status quo.

I certainly don't have problems appreciating the numerous traditional strengths of German - and, in a similar way,  Japanese - vehicles. I am, however, starting to dislike the way in which the often dour and clinical paradigm that they embody has become the prevailing standard by which luxury cars are judged in, and designed for, the American market. Luxury is now too strongly defined by stiffness and arrogance and technological overkill, a state which has been developed and refined for decades to the strong exclusion of other understandings.

That attitude is where Cadillac is going right now, very much on purpose. It's playing by the German rules and working hard to live up to that metric. It's apparently working; in some ways Cadillac has already out-BMW'd BMW, if the published impressions of ATS chassis tuning are to be believed. But in the process it is forgoing a significant sense of individuality and reinforcing this status quo.

I wish we had more options. I want luxury to be broader than overbearing sedans and CUVs, draped in computer controls, with all the warmth of a submarine. Does the marketplace really dictate this kind of adherence to one standard model? Do we live with a strict communal idea of "luxury" - in the same way that pillow suspensions and opera windows were the accepted norm in the '70s, do we have to abide by this uptight and increasingly tired set of rules?

In an ideal situation we could depend on various companies to provide thoughtful and appealing alternatives given their different identities and cultural roots. Unfortunately, Lexus and especially Infiniti both model themselves after - and even influence - that same proto-Teutonic ideal; Maserati is very appealing in its more Italianate approach, but is still a marginal player for the foreseeable future; and Jaguar is Jaguar in its perennial tendency to be charming without being all there somehow. If only.

Someone else seems to think they can indeed be different, because there's this graceful creation wearing a tri-shield badge that seems to point somewhere else.

Buick, like Cadillac, has moved to shed its shipload of cultural baggage, but in doing so it's looking at an existential freedom that Cadillac is not allowed to have. As it continues to distance itself from a legacy of of wire wheel covers and vinyl roofs and burled plastiwood, it can - should - develop a definition of moderate-upscale luxury that is more graceful and comforting and, arguably, much better suited to driving in the United States.

And, yes, probably China too, but just for the sake of conversation let's stick with the more familiar frame of reference.

The great thing about the Avenir is that it's very different. It's not a prisoner of that same paradigm. It sees luxury as something less harsh and more comforting, maybe more humane: it's cashmere instead of creases, leather instead of steel, a fountain pen instead of a laser pointer.

Strangely, wonderfully, this is a more contemporary take on the idea of luxury and high living. Styles are moving towards a less structured, less rigorous, more colorful, more serene ideal. The concrete-and-arrogance attitude of the recent past is weathering. (Looking at Audi's recent trends and the interior of the new S-Class, I wonder if even the Germans are getting a bit tired of it all.) The Avenir is dangerously close to reflecting this.

Really: Buick is being the progressive and fashionable party here.

Consider the menswear collections on display in Milan this season. The designs uniformly shun severity. There is an ineffable degree of richness and stylishness on display, but it's all draped and casually elegant. These are not the clothes of a hard-edged (and perhaps slightly insecure) stockbroker; these are the clothes of someone who is comfortable with himself and knows how to live well.

The Avenir makes much more sense to this mindset than, say, a 5-Series. It's almost accidentally a wonderful reinterpretation of much of the grace and civilized good cheer of vintage touring cars - Lancias, old Jaguar sedans, the Citroën DS, machines that very often show up in fashion spreads as signifiers of the Good Life.

However, it remains to be seen whether an identity this removed from an entrenched and rigid status quo can find success, especially coming from an American company, especially coming from Buick. They do deserve serious credit for trying and continuing to try; this new perspective has shown up in some of the ads, it's shown up in some of the detailing applied to their takes on certain platforms, it's become a steady current of taste and refinement. Admittedly, though, as the division is making serious thematic progress on some fronts it still seems to be learning how to apply that more evolved and civilized identity across the board. (Quiet advice to Buick marketing heads: you need a better website. Go look at Volvo's, then steal it in its entirety and you're pretty much there.)

But if they get the pieces in place and persist with the marketing and identity, I seriously think Buick has the ability to reach a deep well of customers out there, even worldwide, who want something other than, even better than, what is too common now. In the midst of consolidation and narrowing mindsets, this is a chance to make a genuinely ambitious move towards something great and desirable.

This car deserves to start something.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A quick note on being in second place

I tend to be a fairly deliberate person. I like to think things through, consider options, let the process of forming an opinion or making a decision gather direction and momentum, make sure I'm comfortable with an action after it has been chosen but not done. In many cases this trait has served me pretty well. Once something is set and done, I tend to be pretty satisfied with it. I'm sure I've missed out on a lot, but I'm also in one piece here and life keeps getting better.

There are two downsides to this as pertains to the reality of SoM here, though: First, I like to have a discrete block of time available - on the order of two or three hours, if not more - to sit and write and consider and revise and expand and so on, and my ability to schedule such an indulgence is limited at best. My everyday is starting to shift a bit, so this will change for the better. (Maybe I also should hold off on writing magnum opus comments in response to other people's original stuff. That's sort of why this is here, right?)

Second, and more annoyingly, it is deeply galling to see an idea that I have been mulling and wanting to really sit down and explore for some significant time get done almost as a side thought by someone else, sometimes summarizing weeks of contemplation in a sentence or two.

So yes, as a dismal summer of too many sadnesses and outrages turns into a complicated autumn and a foreboding winter, it is good to remember that enthusiasms and hobbies are good things. I've been thinking about this going in any number of directions, especially since everything that happened in Ferguson, but those first two sentences cover it pretty well.

Time and tide and all that. More to come soon.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Liveblogging the ND Miata Reveal

7:30 PM EST - I have personally be waiting for this day for about two years. I have spent the last few Septembers (and Octobers, and the other ten months) expecting it to happen soon. Somehow.

It is now happening. Today. In about an hour and a half.
What do we know? Lots of lovely necessary continuity, gleaned largely from the exposed chassis that the world saw back in New York in April and the small handful of details that have surfaced since then. It will still be a front-engined rear-drive two-seat convertible. It will be slightly smaller than the current one, more in line with the original.

The unknowns? Lots of fun there. The shape is still to be revealed, of course, although the renderings are starting to coalesce into an understanding in the collective consciousness. Details about the powerplant have been kept secret - forced induction? size? It'll undoubtedly be a product of Mazda's Skyactiv approach, which means many good things by itself. Other details - weight is a big important question  mark - will likewise be revealed.

I'm just glad it's here. Finally.

8:20 - No need for the history lesson here; this is one of the best-known products in the industry. Maybe it's better to remember why this is so important.

The Miata isn't just a fun little car; for a lot of us, it's the one living embodiment of certain ideals that were otherwise lost thirty to forty years ago. It is small; it is simple; it does not traffic in fads or gimmicks. It favors balance and responsiveness over raw numbers, an enlightened innate purity over attempts to mitigate liabilities with complexity and flash.

It's a belief. And that fact that it exists in reality is a bit of a miracle.

8:30 - Broadcast is starting. Feed is unstable, although you'd probably need half the servers in California to cover the likely audience. Gawd, Mazda, what's up with the music?

I am going to be very annoyed if this derpy synth-pop is all that happens for the next half-hour.

7:37 - Okay, that's better. Every Gen Xer in the audience is now having a very appropriate Nineties moment.

A few personal notes: I've driven a Miata once, the first NB that I saw on a dealer lot back in 1998. Miatas aren't great dealer-test-drive cars - they're not immediately visceral, certainly not when buzzing around Ypsilanti. You need time to understand them, preferably time on a twisty road. One - from any generation - would be ideal for my situation right now, with its everyday mix of two-lanes and tight city streets and a bit of Interstate.

Personal favorite? Very hard to say. I love the essential simplicity of the original cars, though I'd skip the first year to completely avoid the (rare) crankshaft issues. The glass rear window and exposed headlights on the NB are big pluses to me. The post-facelift NC Touring/Grand Touring may just be the most elegant and refined and lovely of them all.

Forced to pick one (and yeah, like that's such a violation of my human rights)...'99 or '00 NB with whatever package gets me the Nardi steering wheel - leather package, right? Probably would look into a Racing Beat Stage One suspension, would distantly contemplate a new set of camshafts and high-compression pistons and a lightened flywheel. But most likely as-is; wouldn't want to disrupt the balance that much.

9:00 - Showtime, or thereabouts. Only 21,000 people watching?

9:01 - Here we go. Tribute to the ancestors; how pleasantly Japanese.

9:02 - Good evening. (Addendum later on: Derek Jenkins, head of design)

9:04 - He didn't say Miata. He said MX-5. Hmm.

9:05 -I hate the overuse of "icon." This is close to not being an overuse.

9:06 - Hmm. Totally modern and new? Tensions builds.

9:08 - Oh, damn. That last in-house rendering was DEAD on.

Please not the black wheels on all of them

9:10 - It's a baby F-Type.

Still has the fabric top.

 9:12 - Wait, more music? No, I want details. Hold on.


Sigh. And I like Duran Duran - but really?

 9:15 - Y'know, one of my minor gripes about the Corvette intro was that they just had the one guitarist looking kinda lonely onstage. I would have preferred a good band. But not stomping all over the actual unveiling like this.

9:20 - While we're waiting for the oldies revue to run its course, here's the first official pictures of the car:
Interesting. Not traditionally cute/pretty, but not at all unattractive. Slightly fish-like?  I have a standing aversion to all-black wheels

9:27 - My YouTube feed has gone to hell. Ugh.

9:30 - No, it's just stopped.

I went to the livefeed for one of the two or three most important car introductions of the year and a Duran Duran concert happened

9:32 - What happened?

I went to the livefeed for one of the two or three most important car introductions of the year and it was a PR fiasco.

9:34 - I get the sneaky feeling that that's it. We're back to the derpy music from the beginning

Cripes. Okay, what do we know? Low hoodline, black accents...balance of traditional and modern....

Right. Okay, another released Mazda press shot that maybe gives us some real information:
Four-cylinder. No turbo. Structural element along the driveshaft. Um...smallish tires.

Video feed has a "stay with us to see more!" message. Sigh.

Interior is cool (Photoshop brightening via the other Patrick at Jalopnik):
9:45 - Okay, the three-part global reveal thing is starting to make some sense. How'd we draw the straw labeled "more Duran Duran, less tech babble", though?

9:51 - Oh, hi again. Program Manager Yamamoto speaks.

9:54 - Oh, hi again. Dean Case and HEY! BOB HALL! COOL!

9:55 - Oh, come on. We do not need the history lesson.

At this point I am getting important information only from around the edges and whatever gets sent from people who are there.

10:02 - At this point word from a well-placed source says that important tech details will be forthcoming later - much later. Ugh.

10:05 - At this point if you want information go check Twitter. The live feed is turning into a bad joke. I'm done.

That was not well-produced.

10:10 - Thanks to Mazda's really odd idea of a product intro, we are left hanging in a lot of ways for now. Wish list: Basic powertrain specs and dimensions, pricing info, pictures of it wearing black paint with non-black wheels. Release date. OH CHRIST DEREK IS TALKING AGAIN.

10:12 - Yeah, really want to see it in black to match the windscreen frame and mirrors.

10:14 - All of the designspeak is not doing anything to change my impression that this is a smaller mass-market F-Type. Wonder what Ian Callum is thinking right now.

10:19 - That is sort of a big bulgy rear, at least from the livefeed's perspective. Ferrari California a subconscious influence?

10:20 - Chris Paukert from Autoblog has a shot with it wearing the 17" wheels.  Nice.

Okay, livefeed is officially over.

I am really disappointed that we don't have more real information. I'm really wondering what the folks who put this together were thinking.

That said, I think the car itself is, safely, a good move. It looks interesting, if a bit derivative. It keeps all the important ideas intact (we think).

Now we just have to wait again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Financial counseling

Original photo which included that white space: Bonhams
It's one thing to note the current insanity in the alternate universe of collector cars right now; it's another to try and make some sense of what's really going on and where this whole hot mess is going. And doing any of this requires a steady commitment to seek a sort of Truth and not just throw up your hands in frustration (or just throw up) and go find out what's happening at the community theater or something.

I've paid attention to a few of these cycles, all of which were reflections of certain market conditions that grew into speculative rushes and eventually collapsed as such things are wont to do. This time, though I'm really wondering what is going on. This is way too big and has gone on too long and makes increasingly little sense. Emerging market players? Tax dodges? Has market inertia just become a perpetual motion machine?

I think one fundamental market condition underpins a lot of the general runup lately: there is (technical term here) fuck-all else that makes a lot of sense in the current investment sphere right now, especially if your idea of "makes sense" is "consistent 10+% annual returns." But really, unless you're in it for the long haul with green energy or biotech or something else on the relative margins, the opportunity to play pump-and-dump games is slim pickings right now. Indices may be posting record highs, but it's a broad situation; there's no hot sector right now. (Bo-ring.)

So we go to collectibles, especially ones as approachable and media-friendly and well-documented (sort of, occasionally subject to inaccuracy and outright fraud) as cars. And who can argue with the appeal? Sure, if you've got the funds, go right ahead and pick up a Gullwing or Carrera RS or something else that looks pretty and costs something respectable. Have some fun, impress your friends with arcane facts. Next year it'll be up God knows how much.
$4.2 million worth of alloy-bodied 300SL. Photo: Gooding & Company
Of course, the fun part happens when all those obvious cases - the Gullwings, the Carrera RSs, the Daytonas and Cobras and Miuras - have all been worked up into low Earth orbit and people, especially people of variable morals, start scrounging around for the Next Big Thing that will take the market by storm and earn unspeakable returns for the prescient, and isn't that you, my dear favored client?

And with that we're off, and the greedy go after what most collectors would consider the bottom-feeders of the classic marques and crank up the hype. We don't need to discuss what's happened to the market values of E30 M3s and 901-chassis 911s. Anything with a Ferrari badge is again being grabbed like a free margarita. If it can be tangentially linked to something great, it becomes great by association and is therefore so much more valuable.

And what happens after all the investment-grade-by-association games get played? Two things: First, everyone becomes an expert and automotive "investment" advice starts to get batted around in certain circles like fantasy sports hunches. Second, everyone goes scurrying into the shady corners to find potential gems - or at least chunks of glass that can be polished up and offered to the market in some form, hopefully before the whole sector craters.

We are now very deeply situated in that last part. Everyone is offering next-big-thing advice, and everyone is casting about for something that just might catch fire in the market. It's now gotten to the point where quasi-respectable sources are putting a "buy" rating on such moaning dogs as the Jaguar XJ-S (among other debatable cases, here) and the Chrysler/Maserati TC (Hemmings this month, God help their credibility).

Joe Kennedy knew that it was time to run from the stock market in 1929 when he was getting investment tips from his shoe-shine boy. If an amateur blogger can be considered to be at about that same position on the food chain in an era when it is somehow cool to wear sneakers with a suit, then I suppose it's my turn, no?

So, without further ado, I present the SoM MarketMotion℠ Hot List. Standard classic-car investment rules: car should be over about twenty years old, it should have some sort of important associations or history or ability to somehow further abuse the word 'iconic,' and be completely and oh-so-unfairly overlooked (so far) by well-informed collectors (read: speculators). Make notes, check that savings account balance, get in now before the rest of the market gets a clue.

Alfa Romeo 75/Milano
Photo: Wikipedia
Anything with an Italian nameplate is on a Mille Miglia-grade run right now, including the 75's esteemed predecessors like the Giulietta and GTV. This one has all the right ingredients to earn its due as an iconic part of Italian motoring: a snarling V-6 powering the right pair of wheels, a chassis developed by the people who basically invented Grand Touring, avant-garde styling. (So just like a Stratos, really. Have you seen prices on those lately?)

1987-1995 BMW 7-Series (E32)
Photo: Wikipedia
One of the most historically significant cars of the past few decades, the E32 (protip: always use BMW's in-house chassis code to boost your credibility) was the first car that took the Best Car In The World fight straight to Mercedes. Timeless styling and state-of-the-art tech were standard across the range; the 750iL featured an iconic V-12 and is the MarketMotion℠ pick for best market return potential in this line.

Saturn S-Series
Photo: ibid.
Child of the kind of radical project only General Motors could think to do, the Saturns were nothing less than a leap away from Standard Detroit thinking and towards the zeitgeist at the heart of the Nineties: earnestness. In its pleasant unpretentious good cheer and usability and happy-vibe sensibilities (no dealer bickering! no parking lot dings!) the Saturn SL sedan is as iconically a part of the Nineties as the Mustang was for the Sixties and the BMW 3-Series for the Eighties.

Renault Alliance
Photo: Wiki...wait, are you even reading this?
The tragic total absence of French cars from the American marketplace has provoked a deep reassessment of some of the most iconic nameplates in automotive history. While the Peugeot 505 has started to find an appreciative audience among the nation's influential younger-and-hipper set and the Renault 5/LeCar continues to move into the space occupied by the beloved Citroën 2V, the MarketMotion℠ experts believe that the time has come for the undervalued Alliance. Winner of numerous awards in its day, available as a (potentially much more valuable) convertible, still usable on a regular basis: the Alliance has all the makings of an everyday appreciating classic.

Triumph Spitfire
Call your Mom. Buy some flowers for your girlfriend.
As the prices of such iconic machines as the Jaguar E-Type and MG TC continue to climb, there is every reason to expect the lovely Spitfire to quickly follow suit. Proven a consistent race winner, that graceful sheet metal and minimalist cockpit speak to a lost era of pure motoring pleasure. Abundant available parts and club support mean that this investment won't be an overnight flash-and-crash, either.

Remember, the market is moving faster than a comp Daytona these days. Don't let the opportunity to be part of this fantastic investment opportunity pass you by.

(Disclaimer: All opinions, news, analysis, prices or other information contained on this website are provided as general market commentary and does not constitute investment advice, nor a solicitation or recommendation for you to buy or sell, as if you haven't figured that out already. Past results are not indicative of future returns. Your mileage may vary. Take any of this seriously and try to call me on it and any institution with the balls to call itself a court will laugh you into exile. Donations willingly accepted. You have something hanging out of your nose.)