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Boring or Brilliant? Ferrari 456

November 20, 2016 by Matt

Ferrari 456

Is it an understated study in minimalism and proportion, or an overly-timid effort by a design house whose visual currency is Italian passion? The Ferrari 456, produced from 1992-1997, and from 1998 to 2003 in upgraded 456M guise, was the automaker’s top-of-the-line grand tourer, designed to convey two occupants (and their small children in the occasional rear seats) across continents in peerless style at breathtaking speed. Capable of cruising effortlessly for hours at triple-digit speeds, Ferrari equipped the 456 with its most powerful non-supercar mill, a 5.5l, 442-hp V12, and the car could be specified with either a 6-speed gated manual or a 4-speed automatic. The cabin is supremely comfortable and the chassis brilliantly capable, especially considering the car’s two-ton curb weight.

Ferrari 456

All that said, is it exciting enough to warrant a place alongside Ferrari’s greatest? There’s little dispute the car the 456 replaced in the automaker’s lineup, the unlamented yet underrated 412, is generally considered a sub-par effort, so the 456 arrived unburdened by the expectations inherent in following a truly outstanding Ferrari. Also, the market niche the 456 occupies is slightly different than that targeted by Ferrari’s bread-and-butter models like the contemporary F355, with a prospective buyer a bit more reserved, perhaps less interested in a hair-raising joyride than drivers of the smaller Ferraris.

Ferrari 456

Still, the idea of a Ferrari means something to enthusiast community, and given the strength of the brand, to the wider public as well: Speed, passion, excitement and a touch of flamboyance. Does the 456 live up to that preconception? I think it does, but it takes patience to extract those qualities from its shape and demeanor. The dramatic side cuts on the flanks of the car, for instance, and the way the character lines on its flanks change from concave to convex as they move back toward the rear—these elements admirably bridge the design gap between Ferrari’s outré ’80s and more restrained ’90s visual vocabulary. I love the way the 456’s proportions are allowed to come to the fore, accented with touches like the fender-top vents (sadly eliminated for the 456M) and the very obviously staggered 5-spoke wheels.

Ferrari 456

Above all, the 456 looks timeless and tailored, like an Armani suit, a shape with far more longevity than either the 412 that preceded it or its successor, the truly awful 612 Scaglietti. Would it look out of place in Ferrari’s current lineup? Perhaps—but the 456’s owners can rest easy knowing they have the pleasure of driving one of Ferrari’s truly classic shapes. And given my penchant for big GTs, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more than a bit jealous.

Image credits:,,,

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Movie Stars: The McLaren P1

October 22, 2016 by Matt

Editor’s note: Content advisory (language) in the clip above.

McLaren’s P1 hypercar is featured in the music video for The Weeknd’s new single, but it’s not the only piece of high-dollar machinery name-dropped by the Canadian R&B artist.

Overlaying the insistent beat, the singer seems to simultaneously flaunt and lament his fortune and what it’s turned him into. The video mirrors this concept, showing The Weeknd at first reveling in the tokens of his fame before systematically trashing them after the first chorus. The cars escape the carnage, and it’s a good thing, too, since the singer shows excellent automotive taste. He mentions his Lamborghini Aventador SV Roadster, Bentley Mulsanne and of course, the aforementioned P1 in the song, and gives us a glimpse of the first two before a lovely nighttime montage of the McLaren driving down Mulholland Drive with The Weeknd at the wheel. The nighttime setting gives the P1 an opportunity to display its quasi-alien lines and driving light arrangement to good effect, and nicely compliments the surreal tone of the video. Billboard reports the British carmaker was unaware the singer would include the car in his video, but was pleasantly surprised at the free publicity. All-in-all, it’s a worthwhile fusion of visuals and music, with some very heavy-hitting automotive iron thrown in.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing cars which featured prominently on film or television. Read the other installments here:

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I Hate Black Wheels on Cars

October 10, 2016 by Matt


It’s over. Done. Played. The party’s over. The fad has reached its tipping point, its 15 minute of fame are up, etc etc.

Black wheels, I mean. Cannot stand them. I maintain that they were never attractive to begin with, but even allowing for the ebb and flow of popular taste, the trend is decidedly far past its expiration date.

Why the hate? Simple: When the wheels are painted black, the wheel design does not stand out and does not complement the car’s lines. Might as well be running steelies with no hubcaps. Especially complicated wheel shapes, which otherwise would harmonize with the styling of the vehicle to which they’re fitted simply disappear in a mass of black nothingness.


This epidemic is present everywhere, from expected places like wheel-and-tire ads in magazines to muscle cars even to factory fitment on $100K luxury SUVs like Jaguar’s new F-Pace (above). Visually, it does not work and has never worked. The design intent may be to make the car seem more badass and muscular, but the effect is to erase any visual gains by making the car seem like it has an egregious brake dust problem on all 4 wheels.

It’s time for a de-escalation of the wheel size arms race anyway, and a side effect of black wheels is to camouflage its true diameter. Perhaps if a car’s wheels flaunted a brighter finish, people would recoil in horror at their vehicle’s stonking rollers and demand a bit more tire sidewall. One can only hope…

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Local Finds: 1974 Opel Manta Rallye

October 7, 2016 by Matt

1974 Opel Manta Rallye

It’s always nice to see an example that’s obviously received some care and feeding during its lifetime. Most Spannerhead readers know I have a real soft spot for the Opel Manta, so I was pleased when this ad popped up.

1974 Opel Manta Rallye

The seller is asking $4,200, an entirely reasonable price for a Manta in the condition shown, especially since—by the seller’s description—there’s very little rust, and none of it structural. The color doesn’t really appeal, but the paint appears to be in good nick. If I bought it, I would consider painting the hood to match; the black hood was part of the “Rallye” trim package and doesn’t really jive with the brown.

1974 Opel Manta Rallye

The above really represents the Manta’s best view. The mini-pony car proportions are shown to good effect and the simple, cohesive lines draw together nicely at the rear. I don’t even mind the federally-mandated crash bumpers. Are they big? Sure. Would I prefer the thin chrome bumpers fitted to the 1970-1972 cars? Yes I would. But they’re not a dealbreaker.

1974 Opel Manta Rallye

I believe the seats are aftermarket pieces, or at least not original to the Manta, although they look period and quite comfortable to boot. The aformentioned Rallye trim package includes a tachometer and additional auxiliary gauges.

1974 Opel Manta Rallye

The car is equipped with a 1.9l CIH 4-cylinder engine and a 3-speed automatic transmission. As much a fan as I am of rowing my own gears, I’d gladly make an exception for the Manta, since the whole point of ownership isn’t about performance so much as style and presence. When it was first released, the Manta boasted very competent handling, but nowadays an average modern family sedan could wipe the asphalt with it in the corners. Owning and driving one, then, would be about cruising and enjoying the elemental feel of a little gem of a car from the 1970s.


Datsun 240Z Restoration: Dashless

September 8, 2016 by Matt


The dash came out a few weeks ago with little drama. After unhooking the HVAC ducting and removing (what I thought) were all the fasteners, I disconnected the cables from the heater box and tried to pull it out. No dice. Turns out there are a pair of bolts at the very corners of the dash pad up near the base of the windshield that I had missed. These removed and a little elbow grease brought the whole assembly out the passenger door without much trouble.


Once out, I took out the heater box. Many of the flappers were rusted in place; will have to go over this, free them up and recondition. I removed the firewall insulation, fresh air ducts and hooked up the steering column again. The brake and clutch pedals and a few other things are attached to the column mounting bracket. Once it’s removed they’ll come down too.

All the car’s wiring harnesses converge behind the glovebox area, so it took a fair amount of labeling with blue tape to keep everything straight. I’ve been religious about keeping fasteners in labeled bags, but it occurred to me that I’ve been neglectful in simply keeping a record of the sequence in which components have been removed from the Z. Without this, it’s going to be a real mystery come reassembly time as far as what gets reinstalled first. Beyond the remaining few bits I need to remove under the rear of the car, my task now, before too much time passes, is to go over the car and remember the order in which I removed bits. Shouldn’t been too hard, and even if I’ve forgotten a thing or two, whatever I have should be a good guideline to go by.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 24 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:


The Sweet Spot: ’04-’05 Audi A8

August 27, 2016 by Matt

Audi A8 D3

As with the ’95-’97 Lexus LS400, I really like this car—but only in a very specific flavor.

In contrast to BMW and Mercedes’ practice of rolling out their most avant-garde technology (and design) with their respective top-of-the-line 7-series and S-class ranges, Audi’s flagship has charted a rather more gradual, evolutionary path since the original D2 platform’s arrival here in 1997. In the best Audi tradition, its styling has always been understated, if perfectly tasteful and proportionally spot-on.

Audi A8 D3

Unfortunately, for the mid-cycle design refresh of the 2nd-generation D3 A8 featured here, Audi decided to add its newly-minted corporate “deep grille,” intended to circumscribe the front license plate of cars so equipped. And while I understand the desire to give that bit of necessary evil some context, styling-wise, the A8’s look suffered for it—as did, admittedly, the rest of Audi’s lineup. That said, the pre-facelift D3 A8 stands out in my mind as the absolute pinnacle of the Ingolstadt automaker’s non-deep-grille look. It looks breathtakingly elegant, and in the flesh has a presence matched by few other vehicles. Every line resolves perfectly and there’s a real cohesiveness to its styling that was undone with the refresh. The pre-facelift car looks all-of-a-piece, machined from a single aluminum ingot, and has very real shades of that loveliest of Audi concept cars, the Avus quattro.

Audi A8 D3

Mechanically the D3 A8 was an upgraded carryover from the D2 platform, with 4.2l V8 and 6.0l W12 engines offered here, developing 335 and 444 horsepower, respectively. Audi’s quattro AWD system was naturally fitted to all US-bound cars, and the aluminum-intensive unibody kept weight reasonably low at around two tons.

Audi A8 D3 Interior Inside

The interior is Audi’s typical symphony in leather, wood and metal accents, ergonomically flawless and beautiful to behold and interact with. Mirroring the A8’s outside, it’s businesslike, without the fussiness or gratuitous flourishes typical of many other luxury car interiors. And best of all, the central screen is retractable into the dash.

Most range-topping luxury cars I would feel ostentatious driving; out of place, like I was behind the wheel of something that didn’t accurately reflect my income bracket. The pre-facelift D3 A8, though, in a similar way to the Mercedes W123 coupe, overwhelmingly exudes such a sense of good taste that it transcends petty concerns of class envy when it comes to cars. It’s a timelessly beautiful car, and one I could visualize with little difficulty parked in my garage.

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
Gutting the Interior

August 24, 2016 by Matt


I’ve been chipping away at it, 15 minutes here, an hour there… It’s amazing how much progress you can make after a few weeks of piecemealing it. Would I prefer a large chunk of time—say, an afternoon? Sure. But I’ll take what I can get, and at the moment, the car is very close to being ready to go to paint.


Starting at the rear, I removed the fuel tank and all the hatch trim. The taillights, finishing panel and rear bumper came off. The rub strips, which I loathe, were very difficult to pry off, and the body guy is going to have some restorative work to do to smooth out the holes and dimples their removal left behind.


The scary-looking rust in the spare wheel well isn’t structural, fortunately. All the red vinyl diamond-pattern upholstery came off too. I fished the rear wiring harness around the right rear wheel well and removed the quarterlights.


The door panels came off with little drama (I love my set of blue plastic interior trim tools!). I removed the steering column to make way for the eventual dash extraction. I took out the windshield washer motor and linkage and gave everything a good once-over with my shop vac. There were a lot of pine needles in the cowl area, some (most?) of which had probably been there for 30-40 years, assuming they can last that long…

It’s been interesting to see what the painters chose to remove and what they left in during the 240Z’s blue repaint back in the 1970s. Some things I’d have thought would have been tough to pull were left in, and other bits were painstakingly removed. Regardless, the car’s all going back to its original 901 Silver.

Very encouraged by the progress. Next up is the dash itself, the final removal of the wiring harness, the heater core and then the rear-end mechanical bits like the diff and brake lines. Onward!

Update: Since drafting this post, I’ve removed the dash. More on that in the next installment.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 23 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:


Flawed Beauty: Lancia Gamma

June 4, 2016 by Matt

Lancia Gamma

The Lancia Gamma reprises a familiar story arc when it comes to Italian cars: Beautiful, ambitious, flawed.

Produced from model years 1976 to 1984 and sold only in Europe, the Gamma was offered in coupe and 5-door sedan (berlina) bodystyles. Powered by a SOHC flat four developing a healthy 138 horsepower in its later 2.5-liter version, the FWD Gamma moved with respectable alacrity for its day. The coupe weighed in at 2,850 lbs, a figure that ensured competent acceleration, handling and braking.

Lancia Gamma

The boxer engine configuration was chosen for a couple of reasons. Its lower center of gravity aided handling balance, but the real benefit was in the styling department: The hoodline could be more gradual, allowing for a very sleek profile. The overall design was penned by Pininfarina and is a masterpiece of proportion and understatement, especially considering the tacky, overwrought 1970s context of the car’s genesis.

Lancia Gamma

Rust was a major bugaboo for Lancia unibodies up until the late ’80s, and the Gamma’s sheetmetal had its share of challenges in that department. But the ambitious engine was the source of most of the Gamma’s problems. Its all-aluminum construction was underengineered, and any minor problems with one of the engine’s peripherals had a tendency to cascade and result in total failure. And speaking of peripherals, instead of being driven off the crank pulley as with most cars, the power steering pump was connected to the left timing belt, and when an additional load was placed on the pump—say, the steering was turned to full lock—the timing belt snapped under the strain, and, well, you can imagine the carnage that ensued.

Lancia Gamma Interior

The interior is sensibly laid out and has a decidedly no-nonsense German appearance, mildly surprising for an Italian machine but perhaps understandable in light of the Gamma’s competitors: Executive coupes like the BMW E24, Mercedes SL and Jaguar XJS. At least the switchgear is mostly reliable, especially compared to that of its British and Italian rivals.

Lancia Gamma Engine Motor

The Gamma was never imported to the US. While that might seem superficially unfortunate, at least the car’s lovely shape and powerplant were never marred by the 5-mph impact bumpers, sealed-beam headlights and performance-killing emissions equipment that afflicted those of its contemporaries that did make the trip across the Atlantic. No, the Gamma remains unmolested by US regulations, and the 25-year-old import rule makes it fairly straightforward for a moderately-determined enthusiast to be able to buy one in Europe, ship it and register it here. Sourcing replacement parts would be a challenge, especially given the Gamma’s maintenance requirements, but like with so many lovely Italian machines, I think the rewards of driving one or hell, just looking at one would outweigh the hassles of ownership.

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Existential Moments with the BMW

May 17, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

Do you have to drive your car, or do you get to drive your car?

Relegated to daily-driver duty, even the most special car can seem mundane to drive. What used to thrill us about its engine note, interior design or chassis balance recedes into the background of our commute. Its ergonomics are familiar and we focus more on the car’s little annoyances (every car has some) than on its essentially good qualities. We have to drive it, and the enjoyment of the experience is muted.

I’ve lived the emotional trajectory of enthusiast car ownership many times over the course of my 20+ year driving “career.” Like any good relationship, it takes intentionality to overcome the fade of initial spark of attraction. My truck is currently up for sale, so my 2002 BMW 330i will assume daily-driver responsibilities soon, and I worry that living with it every day will sap some of its emotional pull.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

From an automotive perspective, the cliche “absence makes the heart grow fonder” could be rewritten “lack of wheel time makes the heart grow fonder,” and it’s true that when the 330 has been down for repairs for a few days and I’ve had to drive the truck to work, I really itch to drive it again in a way I don’t when the BMW’s been my commuter all week. Also, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that the daily wear and tear my “fun car” experiences is lessened, so I feel less guilty about exacerbating the car’s natural level of entropy by driving it.

I’ve had to make peace with the situation in a couple of ways; both of them, as mentioned above, require an intentional mental effort, but they’re worth it.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

The first is simply to remind myself, however long or short my tenure of ownership lasts, that I have the privilege of owning and driving a truly exceptional car. The 330i won every single comparison test that Car and Driver (and others) could throw at it during its model run. I remember leafing through those magazines, admiring the car’s abilities but considering it completely, utterly out of reach. And now one parks in my driveway at night. I get to drive it. The needles of its gauges swing through their arcs for my benefit. If it has an issue, it’s my responsibility to diagnose and fix it and hopefully improve the car in the process. I don’t write any of this in a bragging tone; but more simply a recognition and remind of what a great car BMW designed and screwed together, and how fortunate I am to be able to own one.

The second mental method I use to assuage my guilt over consigning the car to commuter duty is simply to accept that the car will deteriorate. It may sound obvious, but the reminder of that fact helps alleviate my low-level nervousness about small dings and scratches, or that some subsystem will suddenly go belly-up on the highway. It’s gonna happen, and when it does I will fix it. Parts can be replaced. Bodywork can be straightened and repainted, all in good time. The car is not old; there’s a huge supply of replacement parts out there, and whole industries with very talented people devoted to the cosmetic aspects of the car. Reminding myself of these givens helps me keep my priorities in line vis-a-vis life in general; it really is just a car, and I have a little while to enjoy it, so why ruin it with low-grade anxiety every time I’m behind the wheel? Doesn’t do anyone any good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few twisty roads to hunt down.