Monday, December 30, 2013

On edge

Photo: rollingstone64
I've always believed that you should never, ever give up and you should always keep fighting even when there's only a slightest chance. - Michael Schumacher, October 22, 2007

Forza, Michael.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Photo: Dave Wilson
The first real chance to catch up on thoughts mulled over during a phenomenally stressful and draining first few months of teaching:
I have taken a few of my random free opportunities to seek out and absorb descriptions of Sebastian Vettel's driving style when possible, in an effort to more fully understand just how he has come to so totally rule Formula One - and how he has done so while being regarded with something between dismissal and contempt.

Seriously: it's hard to think of another athlete, never mind racing driver, who has proven to be so talented and successful while gaining so little respect in the process. And he is immensely, almost supernaturally talented, of which more later.

But he doesn't get a lot of love, which I believe is partially because of his wunderkind ascendancy. Four World Driving Championships by age 26? As has been noted elsewhere, Alain Prost hadn't even won his first Grand Prix at age 26. F1 has plenty of room for bright young talents, but this kind of dominance is a bit much for most fans to handle. Especially given that Vettel drives for Infiniti Red Bull, which is both faintly ridiculous (seriously, an energy drink company building race cars? didn't we go through something like this with Benetton?) and dominated by the presence of design genius Adrian Newey. Neither element does a lot for Vettel's credibility. I wonder how we'd feel about him if he had been associated with McLaren or Ferrari during this run.

Of course, if it was all about the car Mark Webber would have likely shown a lot better over the course of these last seasons. We have to go back to the person being behind the wheel - and the more important part of Vettel's success.

Back to those borrowed moments of research about Vettel's style. People don't have a lot to say about how he sets up his car; it's not like Schumacher's preference for a lively tail-happy feel or Nigel Mansell's very British fondness for understeer. Instead, two elements come to the fore: an obsession with thorough preparation and a sensitivity to car reaction that borders on the superhuman.

No one disputes that Vettel is the most involved, most attentive driver on the grid. He absorbs information like a first-rank field intelligence agent. He talks to the right people at the team's suppliers and asks the right questions. He really cares about knowing what is going on, a lesson learned from Schumacher and then expanded to its current state, and it shows.

Once those suppliers contribute their pieces and the car comes together, though, something really odd starts to happen. Vettel just seems to make them all work together to a sublime degree, more so than anyone else even knows how to do.

Forget for the moment the rumors of illegal traction control. Again, if it was all about that Webber is no slouch and it would have been a lot closer there.

Instead, what we get is repeated displays of a freakish degree of driving skill. But it's subtle. It's not the virtuoso flamboyance of a Villeneuve or Moss or the hardcore intensity of Schumacher or Senna or the cool confident reserve of a Prost or Stewart. And it's not really a robotic anonymity, either.

If anything, Vettel's style is Taoist. He knows the Way. His ability to feel what goes on with the car and react to it is unsurpassed and possibly unsurpassable. His ability to play the game and deal with traffic has improved by quanta even in the course of this short career. He drives with Non-Ado; nothing is wasted, nothing is out of order. He goes out, he drives, he wins, he points his finger in the air, he goes to the next race.

Yes, he is still human, and occasionally he does some pretty human things. (See: Malaysia.) But he knows how to do it, and innately is able to do it.

Which leaves the lack of respect. I think this will change given some time; opinion from the old heads is coalescing firmly in his favor (Gerhard Berger calls him already one of the all-time greats, and coming from someone who raced against many of those greats that matters), and as we further understand his abilities and stop looking for the drama or heroic slashing efforts as signifiers, we may realize what is happening.

Not that he has to worry too much from his perch atop the motor racing world, surrounded by incredible material success, but I have to think he deserves far more appreciation than he's received. Hopefully he has a sense of self-possession to match that fantastic skill; he should be at peace with all of this, even if it's beyond the respect of the masses so far.
Photo: Dave Wilson, again
The flip side of Vettel's style - and popular appreciation - is over at MotoGP, where Spanish phenom Marc Márquez seized the crown in his rookie year at the top echelon. Márquez is a classic devil-may-care charger, a screamingly fast and forceful rider who has already earned a massive degree of love and devotion (except among his competitors, who doubtless still respect him). He's the clear heir apparent to Valentino Rossi; as Il Dottore likely winds down his magnificent career, Márquez comes in to provide a worthy fan favorite and standard bearer for the series.

We are the poorer for not being able to see him race against Marco Simoncelli for several seasons in what would have likely been a rivalry for the ages. In that it remains to be seen what the current field will do to face him, or what talent will come up in the same way. Regardless, Márquez is the most exciting racer in motorsports right now and it will be fascinating to watch his career develop.

I like the new Mustang. Yes, it could have been better in some ways, which I guess is just a different way of saying I would have done a few things differently, but in general it works. Have to wait and see how well it works on the road (and I'd like to see it in black) but given my anxieties about how this could have turned out - see the awful ski-jump rear that Car and Driver was so sure we'd get - this is good.

I feel for Mustang product planners. For far too long they've had to deal with a vociferous fan base that's about as progressive as a Salt Lake City VFW chapter - think about how long it took to get disc brakes, never mind a modern powerplant or rear suspension - but it seems like something of an Enlightenment mindset has finally worked its way in to the conferences. America needs a great, classic, affordable GT car that's not overly trapped by precedent; after too many false starts and retro homages, we might finally get some of that to match straight up against the flawed but very respectable current Camaro.

It's definitely enough to keep it on my "maybe/inquire" list.
The ascension of Mary Barra to head of GM is still slightly shocking. It's not because a female CEO is all that radical in this day - actually, it should rightfully be more common - but that it happened in what is still probably the most traditionalist, hidebound, and insular large industry in the US, and especially at General Motors of all places. In a universe where a certain breed of manly-man attitude and entrenched traditionalism still seems to rule, Barra's coronation is a step beyond expectation. She's more than earned it and will be great for the company, though, if her resume is any indication. Would love to sit down and talk shop with her.
Oh, no manual box for the new Lamborghini after all. Too good to be true, I guess.

Monday, October 14, 2013

School daze

There are certain things I should have learned by now in this life which continue to evade my grasp. Among those truths is this: statements of certainty and confirmation will inevitably be shredded at the first possible convenience.

In other words, the day after I wrote about my futile and failed search for a teaching job was the day before I was hired at a middle school in Harlem. The last month and a half has been dominated by the terrifying demands and stresses involved with teaching math to eighty seventh graders - or, really, trying to get them to settle in and pay attention so that I might try to do that.

It's what I've been working towards doing for a very long time. It is also incredibly frustrating and exhausting. Keeping up with the motor world, and putting down thoughts about it here, have become marginal issues in the face of this massive responsibility.

I'll be dropping in details about certain things here every now and then, especially as I start a legitimate search for commuter wheels. But longer-form works may be on hold for a while as I deal with more important and immediate issues.

So that's been why this is so quiet lately. It's great, but it's also ridiculous, but it's also life. And as much as this is about a very real part of life, there are other parts.

Will keep everyone posted.

Oh, and if anyone has anything interesting for sale for less than like five thousand, let me know.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The other half

A (comparatively) short entry in the middle of a holiday weekend with more than a few things on my mind:

I am not up at the vintage races at Lime Rock. I could be; in a different case I would be. As it is, and in part as explanation to some friends who may be wondering why I'm being so damn weird this weekend, please understand that this has not been an easy couple of weeks. I've been all over the city for a bunch of teaching interviews to no great effect so far, on a violent emotional up-and-down between the peak anxiety and excitement in each meeting and the letdown that follows, especially as time slides on without any responses. And there have been no responses, and as Tuesday is the day that teachers are to report to their schools there's a sense of the clock running out. And I'm still coughing, and I just feel more than a bit flat. It's not a very happy weekend.

So the idea of going to watch a bunch of people have fun in a bunch of lovely old racers surrounded by a bunch of people driving another bunch of generally cool, often vaguely affordable old cars right now doesn't jibe with my mood at all, especially given the sense that I would be right in there with everyone if just one of these interviews had gone just a bit better somehow. Instead, the preference is to stay clear of all that because I know it will ironically just be a ridiculous downer. (There's precedent for this: when I lived upstate I went to Watkins Glen for one of the vintage races. I lasted about two hours, fell ever deeper into a major funk, went back home and mowed the lawn.)

So instead I've been staying close with Wonderful One and her mom, getting out and around a bit. Driving has proven to be therapeutic, especially with them in the car. (It's also precluded the presence of photos in this entry; trying to simultaneously drive and take snapshots with an iPhone is borderline dangerous.) Out to Jones Beach just to be in the sun and sea air for a while Friday afternoon; yesterday with a bit more time and ambition to Montauk Point.

Part of the fun of heading out to Montauk is that one is forced to travel through that alternate universe that is the Hamptons, that notorious enclave of absurd wealth at the far eastern end of Long Island, a place whose presence in the collective consciousness far exceeds its diminutive physical stature.

Seriously: The Hamptons are basically a stretch of Colonial-era small towns not unlike a lot of those in the Northeast that lie along a single narrow road, with modest farms (corn, pumpkins) and the occasional vineyard in between. Nothing that exciting, nothing too profound through most of its history.

Yes, this is a bit like saying that Beverly Hills is a suburb of Los Angeles. It's not so much the function of how things were for three hundred something years as much as it is the current sense of things. With that in mind, a brief primer on the reality of driving a car in the Hamptons:

- Traffic is miserable. Especially on a holiday weekend. Everyone is on the same road as you, facing the same intersection in Bridgehampton that was never intended to manage a fraction of the traffic it now faces regularly, because that's the only real road. You will crawl. Be sure to travel with patient, good-humored passengers if possible.

- Cars that are impressive in normal life become boring in steady repetition. The Maserati Granturismo seems to be this year's favorite among the well-heeled. Seeing (and hearing) one is usually an event; seeing ten per hour gets to be a bit dreary. You will lose track of your Ferrari count, Porsches will attract little more than a sideways glance, BMWs will become invisible. (With occasional exceptions for us obsessives. Word to the 928 GTS driver: Ausgezeichnet, man.)

- Corollary to the above: You will impress no one with your choice of wheels, and you will be upstaged constantly. Your formerly panty-dropping M3 convertible is a non-entity next to one of those Granturismos. If you have a Granturismo, you'll park two down from a 458 Italia. And so on until you think you've reached the peak, in which case you better hope you're not there when Peter Kalikow goes for a drive in his LWB California Spyder. Which he did.

No, if you're going to go driving in the Hamptons with a sense of consciousness, go for something that either expresses discreet enlightened dignity (diesel Golf) or bohemian charm (Alfa Spider). Dare to be different. Whoever had that Citroën 2CV had the right idea, although it may have been Billy Joel.

- Bring cash. At some point you will want to pull out of the slog of traffic to find a cup of coffee or a lobster roll or a muffin or so on, and you will find that in spite of the monstrous net worth of the ambient crowd there are a lot of places that don't care if you're waving around a Centurion card; it's cash only. Feel free to use the ATM that may be there if you're less cautious about your bank info than we usually are. Prepare to wait, because a lot of those people in traffic with you will have had the same idea.

- Get all the way out to Montauk Point. It's a total break from the excesses of the Hamptons, and one of the most interesting shores in the country. Going up to the lighthouse may or may not be worth the $9 admission by your own reckoning, but the surrounding park is a rough-hewn delight.

Not sure what's in store for today. Maybe time to stay in a bit, sort papers and so on, try to rest this cough out of my system. Longer post in the works for later.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


So I sit here, and in front of me is a little piece of paper with two rows of computer-selected numbers, and so I (and many other people across the nation) wait.

Yes, I know. If I never write another entry after this one, it's much more likely that I was clocked by a drunk driver or suffered acute food poisoning or something else than because I've gone into hiding to avoid the inevitable attention that comes with scoring such an absurd amount of money.

Still, the alluring siren song of OH MY GOD FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS - well, actually, let's take about 40% or so off for taxes and we're really looking at OH MY GOD TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS - is hard to ignore, even if...I mean, seriously: a quarter of a billion dollars?

What the hell does someone do with two hundred and fifty-some million dollars? Besides the obvious like how I'd never having to worry about paying the rent again in my life and ensuring that all my nieces and nephews can go to Yale or wherever and getting Wonderful One an engagement ring with a rock the size of an apricot, sure, but that's just a staggering amount of money available to be spent on...well, something.

Other than buying the Washington Post, I suppose.

[Addendum: I've been informed/reminded - thank you, Mr. Smith - that the OMG $425,000,000 is really about OMG $245,000,000 if you went for the cash option, so take 40% off of that and you're still left with OH MY GOD ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS, although I now wonder if I mentioned the cash-value part when I got my tix. Hmm.]

This goes beyond the inevitable Wish List, although that is definitely still there. And this in itself is no small enjoyment. Comparing notes on lists is always good fun, both for reminders of potential overlooked gems and the personality insights such things sometimes allow. (Ask Matt Hardigree about buying all the Volvos.)

That inevitability among gearheads serves mostly to highlight the pernicious reality that cars are expensive, and great cars are often painfully expensive. Yes, if you have the skills and resources you can lash together a Locost-style speedster and have a ridiculous amount of fun, but a person of refined tastes and aspirations requires mad bank to attain fulfillment. It remains one of the regrettable facts of gearhead reality that this is not a meritocratic situation; devotion and knowledge and enthusiasm are great, and separate the true believers from the poseurs, but the folks that probably deserve to experience something grand rarely do.

But in this case, any realistic Wish List is at most a fraction of the total amount under consideration. Given this much financial juice, I mean, seriously: what are you going to do, buy eight five 250 GTOs? You gotta go bigger with something like this. There starts to be something of a moral imperative when you have enough cash to literally fill a swimming pool. Extraordinary human being and occasional killjoy Mohandas Gandhi once railed against the evil of unearned money, so perhaps it's right to consider productive ends for your now-impressive means.

Sure, there are non-vehicular options aplenty out there in a world that can always use help in needy places. Endow a chair at your alma mater to keep other kids from turning out as messed up as you did, fund social programs in Appalachia or on the reservations, do Good Things. But for right now let's stick with ideas about making speed. Stimulate the economy, create some well-paying jobs, leave a bit of that old-fashioned industrial legacy in the face of too many modern financial con artists.

$255,000,000 $150,000,000 is not enough to start a car company from the ground up. It might be enough to acquire a smallish one - Lotus? Saab? - and have a go at making it into a real company again. It may be enough to get a motorcycle company started and into viable shape, which could be compelling. Peter Sauber would definitely love to hear from you if it means he doesn't have to deal with that Russian teenager running around making his team look ridiculous.

Or go bigger. Would that be enough to engineer and build, like, a rail-launched multipassenger space plane? That would be a statement.

I suppose that's the fun of going in for a monster lottery win. For some multiple of $2 in this case, you get a few hours or maybe a day or two of completely liberated daydreaming and what-if games. Yeah, if I won this I'd probably spend the next few days in a completely catatonic state, to be honest. But until then, somehow, it's a blissful little hope of escape. And even in the face of absurdist odds it's okay.


For what it's worth, the Wish List (arbitrarily capped at ten), at least for tonight:

1. 2014 Mercedes E350. Literally the first car, maybe the first thing, I'd buy. No, not an S-Class. Someone recently noted this as the official ride of America's old-money types, and I won't argue with their sense of these matters. Diesel? Maybe. With that out of the way, in no particular order:

2. 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS.

3. Bugatti Type 55.

4. Alfa Romeo TZ2. (Caveat: Have to make sure I fit in it.)

5. Maserati A6 Zagato coupe.

6. Shelby Cobra 427 S/C.

7. 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish.

8. 1972 Ferrari 312 PB.

9. Watson-Offenhauser Indianapolis roadster.

10. A good pickup. Not a huge one. Enough to function as an effective tow/utility vehicle. A Ram 1500 would work, the new GMC Sierra is nice.

That sounds about right for now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Notes in the margins

Photo: Croakx
A few random things on the mind, none of which really make for serious contemplation but still worth a few words as I sit here and deal with some kind of minor but persistent summertime illness (cough):
A subtle point about the GT-R: It's endlessly interesting to see how engineers deal with certain problems and pursue certain goals. In this case, the ability of the big, bulky GT-R to launch as hard as it does has a lot to do with gearing. First gear is super-short, something like 15:1 effective and good for all of 36 mph before redline. It's essentially a dedicated launch ratio - it exists to get the car out of the blocks and makes sure the motor doesn't go off-boost in the process. The launch control is programmed to do the first-second upshift automatically, which makes all kinds of sense given that you'll be at that shift point in well under two seconds from a full-throttle go.
Photo: Dougtone
Between interviews in various boroughs and a test-prep course I'm teaching towards the other side of Queens, I've been doing a good bit of commuter-pod-style driving these last few weeks. It's been interesting to consider just how minimalist a car could be and still function well in such usage, or how well something like a hardcore purist sports car would work in general intersection-and-freeway driving. (General conclusion: Just fine for me, at least, depending on spring stiffness and maybe clutch weight.) I know modern cars sell in large part on the sheer length of their standard equipment lists, but I still long for an enlightened simplicity somewhere. Would not be averse to trying a few good nav systems, though.

Speaking of simple, it's always a good feeling when you can fix a mechanical issue on the spot with a few tools and pure improvisation, like was necessary when the throttle linkage on Raphael's Baja Bug snapped while driving through Westchester on Sunday. A pair of pliers, a wire cut from the business side of the radio (which wasn't even plugged in correctly), a bit of twisting and looping and one square knot and we're on the road. Try doing that on a modern Jetta when your pedal position sensor gets grumpy.

The reason we were up in Westchester in the first was the fourth annual Domenico Spadaro Memorial Drive, a quasi-rally/charity event which attracted almost a hundred machines, most of them Italian, all of them glorious. I had no idea that so many Lancias existed in the greater New York era, although I assume Signor Spadaro had a lot to do with making their existence here viable. Advice: If you don't already, get out and go to things like this. Especially ones for older cars, where the participants are less about money and more about the camaraderie and good cheer.
Speaking of wire, the bicycle wheel is back in service and holding together well (so far, knock on wood, etc.). Will probably fiddle with retruing the spokes sometime soon, but am really happy with how it turned out. The secret to completing a project: After you've spent way too much time thinking things through and getting professional opinions and so on, sometimes if you just go for it things work really well and turn into something very satisfying.

Time to make more tea and find a good book and kick back in bed. At least the weather is blissful.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cybernetics 2: Rectification and Reckoning

Photo: Raphael Orlove

Kazutoshi Mizuno                                                                       Patrick Frawley
Nissan Motor Company                                                            States of Motion
1-1, Takashima 1-chome                                                          Astoria, NY
Nishi-ku, Yokohama-shi                                                          United States of America
Kanagawa 220-8686


I hope that your summer so far has been agreeable and not one of excess discomfort. The extraordinary heat which has burdened us in New York City for several weeks has now thankfully lulled. It will be pleasant to enjoy life in the outdoors in comparative comfort again.

I must start with something of an apology for what I wrote about the GT-R several months ago. At the time I considered it a well-researched and well-considered opinion; in retrospect its credibility was deeply flawed by my lack of direct experience with your creation. Although my expressions reflected a sincere point of view, they were inadequately informed and should not have been stated so publicly.

Thankfully I was granted the good fortune to spend a long afternoon as a driver and passenger in a GT-R during this past weekend, and I believe it appropriate to relate to you my impressions of the experience.

I faced this encounter with the same background knowledge that led to my earlier opinion, but also with a determination to be open to potential enlightenment. After it was over I concluded that my general sense of the GT-R was sound, although that sense was given a vivid new dimension of understanding and appreciation. At the same time its nature has provoked intense considerations about the nature of product intention and personal preference.

To understand the nature of my impressions, please know that this was an unfortunately limited experience. I was a passenger during several highway and side-road stretches which lasted a few hours, and was able to drive it on some rather technical two-lane roads for about twenty or thirty minutes. I cannot say that I was able to develop a deep and subtle understanding of the GT-R during this time, but I was able to witness its many profound strengths and, yes, some of its tradeoffs and some points with which I have some concern.
Photo: Raphael Orlove
As far as the car itself: First and overall, it is simply a fantastic machine. I have never experienced a vehicle of any type which exudes such a sense of total dominance within its environment as does the GT-R. One drives it on a highway knowing that there is precious little to match against it and essentially nothing to which is it notably inferior.

Most tangibly, at this point I understand that I may at some point ride a motorcycle which may accelerate marginally faster than the GT-R, but it is unlikely that I will ever drive another four-wheeled vehicle which can outrun it. The forcefulness with which the car moves defies reasonable description. I intellectually understood before this encounter that the GT-R was a very quick and very fast car, but that grasp of numbers in no way prepared me for the physical experience of such ferocity.

For reasons of both decorum and a desire to avoid self-incrimination I will not say how fast I was able to go while driving the GT-R on that particular technical two-lane road, but the ability to attain that kind of speed will remain with me as effective testament to the phenomenal capabilities of your car.

Every bit as dazzling as the immense power of the GT-R is a facet of its makeup which is perhaps underappreciated in comparison: its brakes. Even given the ability to do so from a brute power perspective, I would not have felt at all confident going as fast as I did without the ability to quickly and safely dismiss that speed. In their power and sensitivity they are a most appropriate match to the driveline.

My appreciation for the car's handling was circumscribed by the nature of the road upon which I drove it. In a general sense it was excellent - it was extremely sure-footed and responded very well to my directions. There was not a surplus of tactile feedback concerning the car's dynamic state, but for the most part on this run I was happy to let the chassis manage balance and traction while I focused more intently on the act of fast driving. At the same time, it did not feel entirely at home on that particular strip of very narrow and tightly curving road; the steering and chassis setup minimized but could not fully deny the car's size and mass, and it would be essentially impossible for any driver on that road to properly exercise the immense grip and sophisticated torque transfer capabilities of the chassis and driveline in the way it was likely intended.

Given the chance, I would greatly enjoy the opportunity to drive a GT-R on a race course - not only for the sheer thrill that such an exercise would doubtless provide, but also because I believe its fundamental nature and abilities are much better suited to that kind of more open environment, as has been shown so conclusively before.

I suppose as a result of all this I see the GT-R in summation as a product of a focus on track performance at the expense of some delicacy and nimbleness in, and perhaps some relevance to, what we usually call the real world. A significant amount of that immense capability can be effectively used on the street (as was certainly the case that afternoon) but there was always an underlying sense that even though it tolerates normal traffic and close quarters, the car all but longs for the opportunity to run free in ways that do not occur in normal driving.

I have no idea if your intent as project head was to make such a broad-shouldered near-racer, but this is the clear sense I understood from my time with your creation. I have read in some published interviews how this may be the case, so in that you have my profound respect for bringing such an extraordinary manifestation of this intent to production.

As far as the car's existence beyond its performance abilities is concerned, I humbly offer a few further observations: Most superficially, the exterior design will never be among my favorites. On the other hand, the interior of the car I drove had the semi-aniline two-tone leather in a very agreeable shade of autumnal red-brown and was most pleasant. We experimented with the different settings of the Damptronic system and although we could discern some changes in stiffness the ride was never what one would call comfortable, especially over the aged and often rough pavement here in the American Northeast. Despite its use and likely abuse at the hands of numerous journalist drivers, the car felt exceedingly solid and well-crafted.

I return to my original opinion, that sort of informed prejudice that I possessed prior to this weekend, and I find myself in the midst of a developing and expanding awareness. My respect for and appreciation of the GT-R has grown significantly; this experience of driving it will remain a benchmark for comparison in the years to come, and - again - I would most gratefully welcome the chance to repeat or expand upon it.
Photo by the author
But as before, I do not feel a deep sense of attraction towards the GT-R. Beyond my admiration for its capabilities and accomplishments, I have no significant desire to own one.

Part of this may be because my station in life, as a schoolteacher and occasional writer, makes such a costly proposition inappropriate (although it does remain more attainable than many of its rivals). In light of this my considerations may be in greater harmony with your Z-car colleagues, and I do remain very interested in their continuing efforts.

More importantly, though, is that everything that the GT-R is and can do is somehow not to my very idiosyncratic and personal preferences in performance cars. I was raised to believe in cars that were fast, yes, but also light, nimble, and rather simple, hewing to a rather traditional mindset. Your priorities in making the GT-R were clearly different.

I am compelled to rephrase this in a more respectful tone: I believe that I was not the driver you had in mind when you created and developed the GT-R. In that I feel more able to both appreciate this magnificent creation which you have brought to fruition and place it appropriately in my understanding of the automotive world.

I am reminded of the first time I saw an Audi R8, at a factory showroom here in New York. At the time I was fortunate to have an interesting conversation with an Audi representative about what that car may have meant to the marketplace. What we concluded was at that point in the market a preference for one car over another was less about a strict sort of feature-to-feature comparison and much more about how the car related to a particular prospective owner. A driver who was interested in an R8 was not likely to be as interested in, for example, an Aston Martin Vantage. Both are terrific machines, but they are so in ways that represent different mindsets for both maker and purchaser. The Porsche 911 continues to be a product of another mindset, so does the Corvette, so does your GT-R.

Competitiveness is important, but so is a sense of the individual. And the world becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable place because of all this.

Please forgive my naive ramblings. I trust you understand this more than I ever can, given that you face it on a daily basis. I mean only to offer my honest and significant appreciation for your creation and my utmost respect for what your vision has given to the world.

My regards to you and your colleagues.


Patrick Frawley

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Culture wars

Photo: BMW AG
So the 1988-91 BMW M3 is this year's It Car. All of a sudden everyone seems to have either remembered or realized how it was such a pure and true driving machine, any number of accolades have recently been written or recorded, and consequently - or in league with this - prices for good examples have been jumping by eye-opening amounts.

Trying to parse the logic of the collector market at this level is a fool's errand, and betting on which former cult darling will be the next to catch fire is a bit like searching for meaning in a four-year-old's finger paintings. I've seen this happen before to certain cars - big Healeys and longhood 911s most notably - where something just comes to the attention of people with a good bit of available cash for no real reason and suddenly we're all reminded about prior exemplars of greatness as prices start climbing.

I have no reason or desire to deny the E30 M3's credentials as a fine-handling car, but I do find its reassessment as an all-time great to be a bit amusing. People love it now, but it was received with very mixed emotions by the automotive press of the day. Most considered it harsh and buzzy and peaky and not appreciably faster or better than a standard 325is; all considered it outrageously expensive at its $35,000ish MSRP - equal to well over sixty large today - which is probably the main reason it was a soft seller in America. (That unenthusiastic reception made Munich ponder the necessity of selling the E36 M3 here, and even when it did show up - well after the rest of the world got it - we received one with a simpler powerplant variant to keep costs down. Reaction to that car from both press and buyers was immediate and overwhelmingly positive, however, and the rest is easily traced.)

Much of the legend comes after this, of course, with the innumerable race victories and the developing appreciation from within owner's clubs and the like. Attrition from race conversions and general hard use has pushed available numbers down from an already scant base, which induces a latent appreciation (and lifts up prices even higher). We also have to factor in the drift of the market in general (and BMW in particular) away from offering anything like a hardcore Group A homologation special in a modern showroom, so this does serve as something of a signifier for a lost faith and as such has a certain pure cachet.
Photo: Martin Pettitt
I've never really wanted one. I certainly understand the appeal; I respect the opinions of those who love them for the right reasons; I'll admire one if I see it on the street. However, it's one of those cars that just doesn't light off my synapses in the right way. (The rapidly appreciating price situation dampens this even further.)

Maybe it's the sort of silly boy-racer looks coupled with the weirdly undersized wheels that were standard in the US. (The not-for-us Evo III is the only one that got the look right from the factory.) Maybe it's that harshness, the kind that doesn't matter for a half-hour blast but wears badly on a cross-country run; in that respect the M3's unduly neglected rival, the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16, is a far better machine. Maybe there's always just been something that I found more desirable at or around that range. On a more recent note, I wonder if the recent flood of accolades about its supreme drivability and nimbleness is a bit groupthink-ish; I'd love to know how an M3 compares back-to-back with something like a Porsche 944 or 944S, which was broadly regarded as the best-handling car in the world at that time.

Maybe it's because it is, after all, an E30 - if a pretty special one - and for some of us of a certain age that model has a very unpleasant connotation. E30s will indisputably forever be associated with that deeply despisable and wretchedly dominant group that so defined all that was wrong and uncomfortable about the 1980s: yuppies. The yuppie stink clings to E30s like radiation to Chernobyl. That car was in there with Polo shirts and expensive tennis rackets and power ties and business-success books on tape as an indisputable signifier of that whole social class.
Photo: Dubber
It's odd to even reflect on this; no one really talks about yuppies anymore, and I fear I know why. It's not because they aren't remembered for what they were so much as that their defining traits - their reflexive selfishness, their free-market (a)morality, their incessant grasping for status symbols as driver for peer approval - have become the constant norm. Their attitudes bought out or took over everything else. They won, which was all that ever really mattered to a yuppie. (The attitude even conquered the counterculture; what's a hipster except a yuppie with different signifiers?)

For people who are either younger than I or who are less a victim of persistent tribal memories, E30s are admittedly pretty sweet cars. They're popular and well-loved for some very good reasons: handling balance, build quality, involvement without irritation. Stick to the later cars - the post-eta sixes or the four-valve 318s - and you've got what may be the last of the classic sports sedans.

Emphasis on that. I wonder if the popularity of the E30s isn't at least partly due to the subliminal but very real sense that they're the last of their kind, the swan song of the simple, quick, classy three-box rear-drive sedan, best represented by the E30's 2002tii grandfather but also including the Alfa Romeo Giulia coupes and four-doors, Ford Cortinas, and even Fiat 124s and Datsun 510s. Consider the E36 in comparison; when it bowed it was hailed as a massive improvement over the antiquated E30, immediately making BMW more competitive and relevant at that market point than it had been in a long time, but in retrospect it seems that something desirable was lost in the transition.

And when it was lost there, it essentially became extinct. Yes, there were still sports sedans of a sort - most of them front-wheel-drive, all of them infused with control electronics, growing ever heavier and larger and more complex and less lighthearted. But there is still, somehow, a longing for that kind of basic but elegant machine. The appreciation of E30s is representative of this; it exists in correlation with other cars, too, if in ways that are almost more intuitive than anything.

Anecdotal evidence: One of my other presences online is a Tumblr page with a slightly impolite name which focuses on, yes, street-legal race cars of some sort or another. Of all the pictures that I've posted (read: ripped off from various external sources), the ones that have gotten the best responses are consistently Alfa Romeos, especially 105 GTVs. My all-time most popular post is a picture of a happy couple in a gorgeous metallic-blue 2000GTV participating in some kind of a rally. How many of those reposters know anything about Alfa GTVs, and how many just innately get a really good-looking car that's probably a lot of fun when they see one?
Che bella. Photo: Stefan Baging
If we can extrapolate a bit and make some assumptions about the demographics of Tumblr users, it's fair to say that at least a few of those reposts - and the endorsement that said action implies - come from twentysomethings or even high schoolers. On one level it's a bit strange that these folks would react so favorably to a car not of their time or experience, but then again maybe it's a compulsion generated by something that somehow feels desirable but is very much not here anymore.

The GTV is also very visibly something of an upmarket product. It may not have ever been profoundly expensive, but it was positioned well above the average econobox. So was the 2002tii, so was the E30.

That upper-class, if still somewhat attainable, appeal is part of the desirability for all three of those cars and several others besides, such as BMW's own E9s and maybe even the Mercedes W123. Even the kids recognize that.

Which brings us forcefully back to the whole idea about Millennials and the pursuit of modern vehicle sales.

I made one major mistake, or more accurately omitted one major social influence, when I wrote up my consideration of the youth-car market debacle a few months back. I still fully stand by the core of my conclusions - the world needs more decently-priced, fun-to-drive, easy-to-own cars - but that's not enough. What's missing from this is the lesson of the embrace of the E30 and the GTV, and by extension the influence of those despised yuppies and their status symbols and the subsequent label-heavy materialism that pervades modern consumer commerce: a successful youth-market car must be perceived to be a premium product.

I wish I knew where I saw or heard it, but an offhand comment from somewhere recently has stuck with me: kids only want upscale stuff. Either they'll buy the populist high fashion of TV and gossip mags or they won't buy at all. They only want the best, however that may be defined by them and their peers. The rules of young-adult marketing revolve around those aspirations to match popular portrayals of the upscale. (This is maybe most visible among young women, but guys are hardly exempt from the same forces.)

Which leads to a massive quandary for product planners: How do you create something that can be perceived as an upscale product at price affordable to an economically underachieving market segment, especially given the less-than-fashionable image of most major automotive brands? How do you design and engineer a car that is decently priced, fun to drive, easy to own, AND makes the owner's friends envious?

Take something that scores very well on the first three of those but misses hard on the fourth: the Mazda2. It's eminently affordable. It's said to retain something of the spirit of the Honda CRX in its nimbleness and eagerness. It's the epitome of everyday practicality. And it does absolutely nothing to titillate anyone's senses of fashion or glamour, and sales haven't been very good at all. Which is a shame, but it's also a harsh reality.

The one that does it closest to right - at least most of the time - is probably Mini. The standard Mini hatchback really does work as a very good normal car at a likable price that also comes across as an upscale accessory. It may not be what everyone wants for one reason or another, but it definitely works within these parameters.
Photo: BMW NA
I'm at something of a loss after that, though. I'm not sure how any carmaker arrives at a magic combination of high quality, low cost, and major social cachet in the current setting. Decontented luxury lines rarely work (see the BMW 318ti or its Mercedes C230 hatch analogue), although the Civic-in-a-nice-suit Acura ILX has been showing up here. Popular images of mainstream automakers range from acceptable at best (Volkswagen) to tolerable (Honda, Nissan) to revolting (the domestics, to some degree or another). Expecting some paradigm shift away from those ingrained upscale preferences is unlikely in the long term and folly in the short term, regardless of how many thrift shops Macklemore and his crew visit or how much pop-country openly advertises its working-class ancestry; neither of those nor anything like them can hope to induce enough of a shift in what is already so very much in place.

So yeah, it's a hard situation right now for anyone trying to sell to the youth market. Kids are snobby and picky, and most companies are not operating with strong favorable perceptions on their side. Probably not too much that can be done except constant product refinement and the implementation of a few serious lessons in upscale design while maintaining a steady aversion to stupid pandering.

Someone putting the E30 or 1750 GTV back into production wouldn't hurt, though.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gates of Eden

Photo: Calvin Kim
According to a rather detailed posting by the UK's esteemed Autocar magazine, the upcoming Lamborghini Gallardo replacement will feature a traditional manual gearbox. What would have been a perfectly unremarkable statement not too long ago instead is now cause for some significant consideration at a time when sports car makers are very rapidly gravitating towards the perceived advantages and market acceptance of automated/semiautomatic/flappy-paddle/robot-clutch/you get the idea transmissions.

There are, personally, two major conclusions to be drawn from this tidbit of information - one about Lamborghini and one about performance transmissions more broadly.

I've never been a huge Lamborghini fan. Yes, I do think the Miura is amazing. Yes, I had a Countach on my childhood bedroom wall, although in my case it was joined by a 959 and a GTO in that well-known "Decisions, decisions, decisions" poster. I don't think it's necessarily that I hold a grudge against them because I am physically unable to drive a Countach and by extension probably a few other models due to my largish size and gigantic-ish feet. It's more about intention and image and association.
Photo: underwhelmer
One naturally compares Lamborghini with Ferrari, and a stated preference is something of a personality test. Ferrari is serious and sublime, decades of successful race history and legendary drivers and il Commendatore behind sunglasses and the grandest of postwar Grand Tourers and endless drama and dark glory. Lamborghini is all nouveau riche playboy flash and noise and a certain trashy glam vibe, the plaything of petroprinces and drug dealers back in the Seventies and Eighties and the Affliction t-shirt set today. I am hopelessly self-serious and classicist and as such have no problem conceptually siding with Maranello.

Which leaves me with a quandary, because I am flat thrilled that Lamborghini has kept the faith and stayed with a proper manual gearbox option for the new car in the face if its abandonment by so many others, especially you-know-who, and in doing so has made a mess of my traditional favorites structure. (Caveat: So far as we know, at least; magazine predictions are rarely guaranteed, although the stack of weights and measurements that Autocar used gives their reporting at least a deeper sense of credibility.)

Ferrari has led the way towards the flappy-paddle future - they were the first to use it in their F1 cars back in 1989, although various other autoclutch experiments were around at the time - and they've developed the idea to the point where you can no longer buy a new Ferrari with three pedals. I'm sure they have a significant amount of owner (oops, client) feedback that justifies this strategy, especially since it maintains a certain connection with the racing cars, and so on. The decisions made by McLaren and, increasingly, Porsche and Audi and others to follow suit only seem to back up the push to be as modern-racer-like as possible.
Photo: kenjonbro
And then here's Lamborghini, which even under Audi ownership seems most content to do its own thing and not take itself so damned seriously. Maybe it's that strain in the company's identity that says that Lamborghinis were never really race cars and don't have to be so attached to that ideal; maybe it's some deep sensibility that says, hey, we build these things so that some guy can go out and have fun and manuals are fun so we'll keep that in the mix. In being less than serious they can focus on offering the pure joy of driving a fast, loud, edgy, flashy car in an often dreadfully sober world, and so we get the Veneno and the Egoista and a manual in the new car. It's wonderful, kind of like the Miata or FT86 mentality with three times the power and fitted in an Italian couture supercar shell. Affliction t-shirt brigade or not, this thing already sounds like a gift.

But all of this further opens up a really strange debate that takes a lot of the traditional received knowledge about auto enthusiasm and threatens to create something of a schism. Sports cars have forever been positioned to be the middle ground between normal passenger autos and full racing machines, bringing the directness and responsiveness of the latter into the everyday world of the former. What does it mean when the desirability of a sports car is increased because its makers intentionally chose for it to not be like a racing car?

This goes beyond the usual concerns about how certain race-car components and arrangements (Rose-joint suspensions, radical cam timing, thong-grade windscreens) are not suitable or desirable for street use. This is about how a major component development with significant objective advantages may not be preferable to an older, now less racer-like approach.
The paradigm. Photo: prorallypix
Once upon a time, it was simpler: A car that was more like a race car was more fun. A good race car set an ideal to be pursued by enthusiasts. A car that was like a race car was lighter, simpler, more direct, faster, handled better, braked better, and by rational extension was a whole lot more engaging and exhilarating. This was what generations of drivers were taught to believe was desirable in a driving machine.

Technology changed this, like it tends to do with everything. Anti-lock brakes and stability control were not considered "racer-like" developments to most people; they definitely were so to folks like the Williams F1 team, however, which successfully used the traction modulators in their dominant FW14B. Said championship winner also featured a semiautomatic gearbox. Racing cars would steadily acquire more electronic aids and assists - up to the point where rules were sometimes required to limit or prohibit them.
Photo: Andrew Basterfield
Back in the production-car world, product planners faced a bit of a decision: Should a "sports car" maintain that classic light/simple/nimble identity, or should it adopt more of the tech that has proven to be so successful in real race cars?

We can see decisions going both ways in place today with, say, the Miata at one pole and the GT-R at the other. One clings religiously to the old-school rules, one relentlessly personifies modern ideals. (The issue has been slightly muddled by cases like mandatory stability control, although whether or not the makers choose to offer an effective system override is telling.)

Which is better? Impossible to say; it's another personality test. What do you want?

Back to transmissions. Racing-derived automanuals have their significant advantages: they shift cleanly, they don't require the lift-clutch-shift-clutch-throttle interruption of power, one can keep both hands on the wheel and focus on steering and braking and such instead of fiddling around with a lever and another pedal. For those of us with less than Sennaesque coordination and speed, the last part is particularly valuable. And, like I mentioned a while back when talking about the new Porsche GT3, some cars now have seven (or more) ratios to select and doing so sequentially is preferable to trying to accurately grab the right slot in an increasingly comb-like shift pattern.

(Parallel thought: Seven speeds just seem excessive. What's the justification? Really, I wonder how often six is really necessary except by marketing-department demands; a good five-speed is often the perfect match to the real world. Of course, so are sixteen-inch rims and 50-series tires, which is almost Corolla territory at this point.)

The GT3 is a very interesting case in this discussion. There has been no end of controversy over it being available only with a PDK gearbox. Again, I think it is a conscious decision on the part of Porsche to make their raciest street car as close to a track car as possible. (The hope that it gives the PDK a bit of street cred and nudges aside the automanuals-are-for-weak-poseurs stereotype may also be in there, but we'll be polite.) It all but goes without saying that a PDK-equipped GT3 would post a better lap time around essentially any race course on Earth than an identical car equipped with a traditional gearbox and clutch.
Photo: Porsche
But is that really what matters in the real world? Is the extra flexibility of a non-sequential gearbox preferable? And is a Porsche customer really going to favor the quicker shifts if it comes at the expense of driver involvement and, by extension, enjoyment? Isn't that why one traditionally buys a Porsche? It's enough to provoke some serious contemplations; it's also maybe enough to make the guys in Zuffenhausen second-guess such an absolutist decision.

Consider the poles again, and their likely adherents. One buys a GT-R because one wants what is pretty close to being, objectively, the fastest car on the market. One buys a Miata because one wants what's likely the most fun car on the market. Ferrari uses automanuals because that's what makes its racing cars competitive and the street cars exist in parallel to that; it's quite likely that Lamborghini wants to use a traditional gearbox because it's more enjoyable.

It may be time for that aforementioned schism to occur. Racing cars are about ultimate lap times and winning, and as such are almost a sort of business weapon. Sports cars as we understand them are about fun and thrills and enjoying life, which is something very different. We seem to be approaching the point where it becomes preferable to turn away from a pure race mentality and begin to actively favor something that's less stopwatch and more human.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Letter from Mexico City

Photos by the author
Travel is the great cure for complacency. It´s also a decent way to shake off the stresses of the end of an academic year (the prior post was assignment-related, hence its likely oddness) and reacquire a taste for reality. How that taste is perceived and processed can be something else entirely, though.

So I´m sitting here in the D.F., sipping a (real) Coke and coming to terms with the last few days in the biggest and possibly most overwhelming city in the Western Hemisphere.

Oh my God you can´t be serious, the sensible folks say. Why would you ever want to go to Mexico City? It´s so dangerous and dirty and you can´t drink the water and it´s dangerous and so on, as if every step made by a tourist here was paced by pickpockets and drunk Emilio Zapata wannabes and toxic air and gastric distress.

Forget it all. The lot of it is nonsense, a bunch of outdated, borderline racist stereotypes. You do realize that you are in a VERY large and often confusing place (especially if you´re not a semi-competent Spanish speaker, which neither German-major I nor Russian-immigrant Wonderful One are), but Mexico City has almost completely outrun its bad reputation. The people here are wonderful, the air isn´t bad (it is thin; we are pretty high up here), I can´t openly endorse every tiny ramshackle taquerita you stroll past but the food situation has been pretty stable so far. Yes, everyone drinks bottled water. They do that in France too, by the way.

But it is insanely crowded and noisy and busy and often chaotic. If you´re not at ease in crowds, this is not your place. If you´ve ever been to Times Square, take that and multiply it by itself and spread it over several dozen square miles. That said, there are times of peace and beauty to be had on a regular basis. The Zocalo alone can be utterly beatific.

Also, if you´re from el Norte and need to find your bearings in the midst of it all, just watching the traffic go by can be very interesting.

The old rep for Mexico being little more than a hive of Beetles is as outdated as the rest of it all. Instead, modern Mexico City traffic is a charming mix of mostly modest wheels from around the globe: hatchbacks and small sedans, Fords and Nissans and Renaults, the occasional SUV or pony car or luxury ride. It´s a very pleasant break from the bigger-is-better/status-symbol subliminal anxiety of motorized American life. I´m sure there´s a flood of serious socioeconomic issues underpinning the prevalence of pretty basic transportation, but regardless it´s nice to be somewhere other than a place where a car must either have a highline German badge or take up more space than my hotel room.

Cars also last a long time here, which makes for an interesting mix. Those basic wheels often require little more than basic maintenance. Rust is nearly nonexistent owing to the desert-dry air. The streets can be rough but speeds are usually modest until you get on the highway, and even then high velocity usually isn´t a high priority. Personal favorite I´ve seen so far was a lovely cherry-red four-door Datsun 510 in impeccable shape with a very happy family out for a Sunday evening drive. I´m still trying to find a good classified listing to check price ranges.

Even if the Beetle hegemony has faded, there is plenty of intriguing stuff here for Wolfsburg partisans. There is still no shortage of Beetles and vans on the street. Past that is the presence of the smaller cars that VW never offered to us decadent oversized Yankees: the Pointer, the Gol, the Lupo. VW´s sexier Spanish sister Seat is also popular.

What is increasingly unpopular is the use of Beetles as taxis. There are still some puttering about, but people in general are encouraged to use the now more common four-door sedans done in traditional gold and red. The majority of those turn out to be Nissan B13 Sentras, here badged as Tsurus.

While we´re on the idea of slightly unexpected vehicle applications, the police car of choice here is the Dodge Avenger.

Go figure.

I´m sure the small-car mentality here is dictated at least in part by the close-quarters knife-fight nature of local driving, although at least the Aztecs had the great logic and foresight to use a grid plan for their cities which puts Mexico City far ahead of many later cities in the ease-of-navigation stakes (looking at you, Boston, although deep downtown NYC is no fun either). The same general size preference goes for motorcycles; there´s the occasional Harley or Open-class sportbike to be seen, but most two-wheelers have 100 to 150cc engines and handling to rival a mountain bike - much to their advantage. Punch the engine out to 250 or so and the Yamaha FZ-S would be a deeply compelling first bike for anyone, especially for its sub-$3000 asking price.

All the same, I´m in no hurry to try my chances in traffic here. The subway system isn´t bad (interesting note: the Bombardier-made subway cars run on tires) and there´s just so unbelievably much to take in that I don´t know if I´d be able to focus on safely navigating traffic. We´ll have four or so full days here and won´t come close to having a clue about what really goes on.

Off to Cancun in two days, back home to the known world after that. It won´t seem the same.