Category Archives: Cars

We have a new transportation appliance

IMG_9075It is a Hyundai Tucson and it is a dreaded SUV. it is also one of the very few cars that I’ve owned in which my relationship is passionless. Actually, when I think about it, this Hyundai is the first vehicle l have ever bought from my left brain. We ended up with the Tucson for three reasons, it is one of the few small SUVs that has a differential lock so it should be at least sort of off road capable, we rented a Hyundai on a drive to Albuquerque and it was surprisingly quiet and comfortable, and most importantly, it comes with free service for 75,000 miles – including a brake job and the 60,000 major service – and Hyundai has a 10 year 100,000 miles warranty.

My justification for buying such a practical car – if soulless, using the term very broadly – is that buying this vehicle will be like an arranged marriage in which the bride and groom learn to love each other after the marriage.  And I think it may already be happening. Yesterday, we were driving over a narrow road that had the right shoulder covered in packed snow, I stopped with the two right wheels on the snow and the two left wheels on dry pavement and floored it. The Tucson drove away quicker than I expected with no wheel spin, channeling all the power to the wheels on dry road. That is sort of astounding and it is all done electronically.

Hyundai has taken on the same philosophy as Samsung, trying to get a jump on the competition by betting the house on an emerging technology. Samsung was making cheap TVs, limping along in the world of Cathode Ray Tubes that everybody knew how to make cheaply. They got out of the CRT business and took a flier on the, then, very esoteric and expensive flat screen technology. Now they are the leading manufacturer of flat screen TVs and monitors. With Hyundai, it is the world of auto-related electronics. The car – and I’m using car in the most general sense – drives OK, but it is not outstanding; this is not a car I would take out to drive the Pacific Coast Highway for fun, but it is quiet, comfortable, and fast enough. What is outstanding are the peripherical electronics like door handles that light up when we get close to the car or a tailgate that opens automatically when we stand next to the back of the locked car. I think that it is the electronics that also control the traction.

As an aside, I was reading a couple of days ago, that smartPhones take such good pictures, not because of the lenses, but because the software is getting so good at interpreting the raw data (much like our brain interpreting raw data from the eyes). The reason the software is so effective is because the cost of development can be written off against the sale of a huge number of smartPhones. High-end digital cameras never sell at the same rate resulting in the software, used to fine tune the picture, being much cruder. We are  nearing the time when smartPhones will take better pictures than profesional grade SLRs. End aside.

Ending here seems slightly incomplete but there is not any more to say. In the meanwhile, we are planning our first big  trip…to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Hopefully, the Tucson will work perfectly.

 

Random thoughts on the road to and from a memorial

Trip South (1 of 1)We drove down to Escondido last week for a Memorial Service and drove back home last Thursday…in a rental car. The Memorial was for Tom Halle and it was more an anthem of his life than a dirge. Still, we all knew we would never see him again and that cast a  pall over the Service and the whole weekend.

Driving down, we were constantly reminded of the drought and how everything, eventually, becomes political.Trip South (1 of 1)-2Trip SouthA (1 of 1) Trip South (1 of 1)-4
We seem to live in a time when everybody wants individual rights over the collective well being and is going to have a hissy fit if they don’t get it. As a liberal, it seems crazy to me that a person’s right to own a gun, without any restriction, should trump public safety. For a conservative, it must seem crazy that the left goes ballistic over Kim Davis’ private meeting with the Pope. All this being played out center stage, in front of  Europe starting to close its borders, Russia jumping into the quicksand of Syria, a growing Civil War in Libya, and Afghanistan convulsing back to tribalism.

The day after the service, we comforted ourselves by spending the morning at one of Southern California’s great beaches. Or, I should say that I spent the morning at the beach with Ophelia Ramirez while Michele and Peter Kuhlman spent it in the water, Trip South (1 of 1) Trip South (1 of 1)-2
and then, for our last night in Southern California, we joined a birthday dinner for Ophelia, in a restaurant…wait for it…in a Lexus dealership. The food was great – no kidding – and we ate outside, in a half tent on the rooftop parking lot near a lovely group of Lexi. It both seemed like an incredible Southern California cliche and a totally unique place and experience.

The pall returned when we were driving home. Michele’s trusty Volkswagen GTI ate its water pump while we were leaving the In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City and we ended up across the Valley in Fresno saying Why did our fucking water pump give out? and, by the way, how can VW blatantly cheat and think they are going to get away with it? 

Both questions have pretty much the same answer. Volkswagen wanted to be the biggest automaker in the world and they pushed hard to make that goal. A big part of that push were diesels, clean and powerful diesels. We all thought that the diesels were clean and powerful at the same time – and so, probably, did the head of VW and the company even ran a Super Bowl ad showing its engineers sprouting angel’s wings for that incredible accomplishment – but, we now know, the diesel engines were programed to be clean or powerful, not both. They did this on purpose, so on purpose that it was wired deep into the software.  Trying to make as much money as possible does not promote morality, it promotes making as much money as possible and that translates to pushing people to get desirable results.

What fascinates me is Who was the highest guy in the Volkswagen hierarchy to know?  Presumably, some software engineer realized that they could cheat the tests – after all they cheated before (and got caught and fined only $120,000 in 1973) – and told his boss. It might have started innocently You know it is possible to tweak the code to make the car act differently on a dynamometer, wouldn’t that be a great rf and it would serve them right for these stupid rules and the more possible it became and the more seemingly impossible, or very difficult, to to be caught, the more plausible a solution it became. At some point, somebody must have said – or thought – You know, I don’t think I am going to tell my boss about this, he wouldn’t want to know. And he probably didn’t want to know, he wanted a cheap, powerful, and clean diesel; he wanted to be a hero in the Becoming the Biggest Company Game.

The disgraced CEO said he didn’t know, and he probably didn’t, but he set the tone of the company. He didn’t say We want to make the best cars in the world or We want to be scrupulously honest or Saving the planet for our children is our top priority, he said We want to be the biggest company, make the most money. It is sad, it is sad for our increasingly endangered Planet; it is sad for Germany and her vaulted automobile industry, but it is also sad for Volkswagen.

Finding the elusive Pagani in a world of excess

Pagani (1 of 1)Standing on a platform, overlooking Carmel beach and the Pacific Ocean, at about 6 o’clock a week ago last Wednesday, I felt like the proud father of a kid that had just sung a solo at her third grade graduation. The temperature was in the low eighties and there was not a breath of air with the Pacific as placid as a millpond. Standing there, listening to the babble of voices and laughter from all over the world – mostly Chinese and French, it seemed – I felt, totally irrationally, that California was putting on a great show just for the out-of-town visitors and I was, somehow, partially responsible.

Later, driving away from the beach on Ocean Avenue, with the top down on Michele’s car, all the better to feel the soft air and see the supercars parked around town, like Toyotas at Costco, we both yelled, There’s a Pagani. It was our first sighting in the wild. We circled the block, found a place to park and walked back. Pagani (1 of 1)-2Pagani (1 of 1)-3Pagani (1 of 1)-4Looking at it parked in a standard parking place, the Pagani looks small. It is only a little longer than the Miata in front of it and not any taller. Somehow however, it has a presence that is way out of proportion to its actual size; it is  about as unobtrusive as Sofia Vergara at that third grader’s pool party.

I do read that the Huayra is easy and pleasant to drive which is not always a feature of a hypercar. Of course, I will never find out, and therein lies the paradox – to misquote the Bard – cars are meant to be driven and while the overwhelming majority of us are only able to ogle, how they drive – how fast they are –  is part of their allure. The Pagani has plenty of allure with a six liter, twin-Turbo, AMG V-12 Mercedes engine that puts out 730 horsepower giving it a 0 to 60 time of about 3.2 seconds and a top speed of about 230 mph.

As an aside, Horacio Pagani made his fortune making carbon fiber and the Pagani Huayra is a legacy of that. Carbon fiber is cloth woven from threads – thinner than a human hair – made from carbon atoms bonded together to form a long chain. These are then woven into a very thin cloth. According to howstufworks.com, it’s five times as strong as steel, two times as stiff, yet weighs about two-thirds less. What they don’t say is that it is way, way, more expensive. The Pagani Huayra’s basic body is made from four layers of carbon fiber, each about one millimeter thick. Because the carbon fiber has a weave and it takes more to match the seams – like making the pocket weave match on a nice shirt – in the least expensive versions of the car, the carbon fiber covered by paint. End aside.

I want to say that, in the Pagani’s case, the exquisite details are what give it the most kick, but that really isn’t the case. Everything just adds to its show stopping presence and I think that is because Pagani is the creation of one person. Most cars, most for-sale designed things, are compromises with what people supposedly want. When a designed object gets too far from the mainstream, it risks being ostracized. No matter how good it is (think Raymond Loewy’s Studebakers which, looking back, are much better looking than anyone gave them credit for). The result is that most car designs are watered down, but not the Pagani. Often, I will rave over a car and Michele will be lukewarm saying Yeah, it’s OK but it is too masculine for me. That is not the case with the Pagani, it is soft and luscious and very feminine.  Pagani (1 of 1)-5 Pagani (1 of 1)-6Even the mirrors are supposed to evoke a woman’s eyes (although who besides Sophia Loren, I have no idea).Pagani (1 of 1) Still, for me, the best part is the heavily chromed steampunk interior which contrasts with the chromeless exterior. Pagani (1 of 1)-2Of course Ferrari wants to remain the premier Italian car so, to take on Pagani, they have come out with the 1.5 million dollar Ferrari LaFerrari. It is drop dead gorgeous, in a very studied way, and the contrast to Pagani is striking. Michele described it as The Pagani is a young rich man’s car and the LaFerrai is an old rich man’s carPagani (1 of 1)-3Of course, the Huayra and the LaFerrari were not the only treats. Everywhere we turned, there were memorable cars. This year, there were lots of Cunninghams – an American supercar from the 50’s – a wonderful 1931 Alfa Grand Sport with a body by Touring, and one of my favorites, a Cadillac built for Rita Hayworth with a body by Ghia. Pagani (1 of 1)-4 Pagani (1 of 1)-5Pagani (1 of 1)-7Pagani (1 of 1)-8 Pagani (1 of 1)-6I can hardly wait for next year.

(Post updated 8/29/15 to reflect credit for Pagani mirror back photo by Michele.)

 

Bloodsport

Wilson (1 of 1)Last year at the Japanese Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi, crashed into a recovery vehicle while racing in a torrential rain storm. Last month, after being in a coma for nine months, he died.

Last weekend, Justin Wilson drove into the exploding debris field from another car in an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. He was hit in the head, by part of the nose of another car, while going over 200 hundred miles per hour. He died on Sunday. Over the last ten years, while watching racing, I have seen probably an hundred cars go off the track. Maybe twenty of those resulted in accidents and probably about ten we serious accidents. In every case except Bianchi and Wilson, the driver walked away.

It made racing seem safe, but it isn’t, auto racing is a bloodsport. The Marquis of Portago, who was killed in a race in 1957, said that there are only three real sports, mountain climbing, bull fighting, and auto racing, all the others are just games. I’m not sure about that, but the possibility of injury or death is part of the sport and is part of what makes it exciting…until somebody actually dies. Then the sport seems stupid and, even, ghoulish; then it is tragedy and we want to look away.

Both Bianchi and Wilson were well liked guys and they will be missed.  But the drivers will still drive and the spectators will still watch. I guess that is good, but it doesn’t seem as good as it did two months ago.

 

Looking for the elusive Pagani in a world of excess

Monterey 15 (1 of 1)-6Last Wednesday and Thursday, Michele and I were stuck in – what seemed like – an endless traffic jam. It was great.

To back up, a couple of weeks ago, Michele suggested we go down to the Monterey Peninsula to see a small car show – small as in only 45 cars, not small as in tiny cars; that would be The Little Car Show +, an entirely different show  – The Mission Classic, in the middle of the week. Not just any week, The Monterey Car Extravaganza Week, the annual get together of cars and car people which has become the biggest car week in the automotive universe. The Week is intense and getting more so every year. There are art shows, tours, nine different car shows, nineteen different car auctions, four days of vintage car racing, and an entire week of lustful car watching much of it while sitting in a traffic jam with other car nuts. It is the only time I don’t mind being stuck in traffic because there is sure to be a couple of interesting cars stuck nearby.

Michele’s suggestion was prompted by her reading that a Pagani Huayra would be at the Mission Classic and, knowing that the Pagani Huayra has become my Holy Grail, she proposed we spend a couple of days on the Monterey Peninsula, looking for it. I have not spent a night during The Week, in years. I used to during the seventies and eighties, but now I will run down for one day, usually with Malcolm and usually at the races . Michele has gone down a couple of times for the races but she has never spent the night, so it was a shock to both of us just how immersed one gets just driving around.

The bigger shock, although not entirely unexpected, was just how much money is involved. When I asked Michele what her first impression was, she said How many rich people there are in one place. Sure, car people come in all wealth brackets – a kid driving a $8,000 1964 Corvair lives in a different world than the old man driving a $1, 500,000 Ferrari LaFerrari, but the Ferrari people – and even more so, the Lamborghini people – take up more psychic space.Monterey 15 (1 of 1)-3 We drive around, seeing cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, just casually parked, with the people walking by on car overload, not even noticing. Monterey 15 (1 of 1) Monterey 15 (1 of 1)-2To increase their exposure Ferrari has even taken over a historic gas station/gift shop at Carmel Highlands, to make it a Ferrari dealership/gift shop/owner oasis. retreat. Inside Ferrari Owners could relax with great wines and food – including the best prosciutto I have ever had and an excellent cappuccino – safely gated off from the hoi polli.Monterey 15 (1 of 1)-5Monterey 15 (1 of 1)-4Outside the Owner Oasis, people – prequalified and almost all men type people – were lined up to take a test drive in one of several Ferrari models. It was hard not to think of the one percent and not in an entirely positive way. Them that’s got shall get, the great Billie Holiday sang, So the Bible said and it still is news. I get the feeling that it was not news here. Here, at the ad hoc Ferrari place, everybody gets the free lunch.

To be contin