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Posts filed under ‘Car Culture’

I Hate Black Wheels on Cars

October 10, 2016 by Matt

ford-mustang-black-wheels

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.

jag-f-pace-black-wheels

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…

Image credits: autocar.co.uk, bauercdn.com

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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.

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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.

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A Treasure Trove of Japanese Imports

May 9, 2016 by Matt

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

This has become of one of my favorite internet hangouts lately.

Japanese Classics, a car importer based in Richmond, VA, has built what appears to be a thriving enterprise catering to the pent-up demand for JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) vehicles recently unleashed by the 25-year import rule. The essence of the law is that for most states, any vehicle over 25 years old (as of this posting, that would be MY 1991) is exempt from crash and emissions testing and can be freely imported and registered. For the enthusiast market, it means that a whole crop of heretofore unavailable Japanese machines can now be bought and driven in the US. Vehicles we lusted after from afar are here. And Japanese Classics’ website, more than simply showing the outfit’s current inventory, really pulls out all the stops in creating very nicely photographed and detailed listings:

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

For car nerds like me who’ve had trouble finding pictures of, say, a Mazda JC Cosmo’s interior, or the engine bay of a Nissan Silvia K’s, the site is a veritable encyclopedia of obscure JDM cars. For anyone who’s ever played (especially the early editions of) the Gran Turismo video game series and wondered how all those cars we’d never heard of actually look in the flesh, it’s a revelation. I’ll be revisiting the site regularly. And while I’m quite content with my E46 for the time being, who knows; I may actually spring for one of the featured cars one day. Maybe in a few years when the R33 Skyline hits our shores?

Editor’s note: I have no affiliation with the Japanese Classics.

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Mazda’s New Ad Campaign Shines

September 15, 2015 by Matt

Mazda MX-5 Miata Ad Advert Advertisement Desert Track 2016 ND

Via Autoblog, I have next to no hope that this will gain them any traction with the buying public (of whom a vast majority are simply interested in basic transportation appliances instead of a vehicle they would actually enjoy to drive), but Mazda’s new marketing campaign resonates with enthusiasts. Supplementing their long-running “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the automaker recently rolled out a new slogan: “Driving Matters.” Greeted by a collective “YES!” from car buffs everywhere, the new campaign explicitly reminds us how closely Mazda’s car-building philosophy aligns with our priorities in choosing and enjoying our vehicles.

And yet, as much as I want to preach Mazda’s slogan from the rooftops and shout it to the unenlightened masses, I realize that it takes more than just a fun-to-drive car to derive pleasure from the act of driving. The right road is an equally essential ingredient, and therein might lie another obstacle in the Japanese automaker’s attempts to convert their enthusiast-first philosophy into sales success. Put another way, it would do me no good to insist that a friend is selling himself short from a driving perspective by buying a boring car when his daily commute consists solely of 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. He may heed my advice and buy something dynamically enjoyable, but have nowhere to use it aside from forays onto winding back roads. And those excursions take a level of intentionality even harder to expect from someone whom I’ve already had to convince to buy something he wouldn’t have normally chosen.

The antidote to all this, of course, is to build compromise-free cars; in other words, cars that function equally well whether being used as commuting appliances or back-road burners. And as Mazda’s recent string of comparison-test wins indicates, they’re the current undisputed masters of that formula (6 straight outright victories in Car and Driver alone). Here’s hoping their new ad push can bring more buyers around to that fact.

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Too Much Is Not Enough:
A Car Interior Fantasy

May 11, 2015 by Matt

Millennium Falcon Bridge Cockpit

I alluded to this in my “3 Interior Likes” post, but I think it bears fleshing out. The above picture, a shot of the Millennium Falcon‘s bridge from the film The Empire Strikes Back, represents my holy grail when it comes to car cockpit layouts. In a nutshell: The more instrumentation, gauges, readouts, lights and switches, the better. And it should have a certain ad hoc quality, cobbled together in such a way that only the owner can understand its intricacies.

The desire for such a look and feel is rooted in a few factors:

  • The need to personalize. Other car buffs express themselves through gaudy body kits and coffee-can mufflers; I’d rather my car distinguish itself (and its owner!) via a kind of über-tech interior layout—but one tied, naturally, to a high level of customization under the skin. If I had to give it a label, maybe it’s an expression of the nerd chic aesthetic philosophy.
  • It’s also related to the broader appeal of sleepers, Q-ships, cars that look humdrum but have “got it where it counts,” to borrow Han Solo’s phrase. There’s an appealing drama to a vehicle that has all the outward markings of a loser but sucks its rivals’ doors off when the light turns green. Call it the Susan Boyle effect; it speaks to the underdog in all of us.
  • I might be unique in this, but I derive a degree of comfort from being surrounded by lights, readouts and switches. Maybe they provide a feeling of control? Or perhaps I’m reassured by the fact that they’re passively providing me all the information I need to make a positive decision behind the wheel? On a quasi-primal level, I almost feel like the lights are “watching over me,” that they’re illuminated and vigilant even when my attention lapses, and that thought gives me a sense of security—warranted or no.

Boeing 747 Cockpit Bridge Controls

It’s understood that when they leave the factory, car dashboards don’t resemble the Boeing 747-400 cockpit shown above. The ideal path to achieving the goal, then would be to at least start with a car blessed with ample instrumentation out of the box and add from there. When I look through the steering wheel, I like to see at least 3 secondary gauges (fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, etc) in addition to the requisite speedometer and tach. I’ve been fortunate to have owned several cars with a total of 6 gauges staring back at me—a great starting point.

The closest I’ve come so far to my ideal layout occurred when I owned my 1988 Supra Turbo. Toyota gifted the car with 6 factory gauges, and to start with I added an air/fuel ratio and boost gauge on the A-pillar:

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 Maroon Brown 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Interior Inside Cockpit Cluster Dash Dashboard Momo Wheel Steering

In addition on that fairly standard instrumentation, I decided to go a step further and install some overhead switches and lights. As with many ’80s Japanese performance cars, the Supra was fitted with dampers (shock absorbers) with 3 settings—soft, medium and firm—controlled by servos placed atop the shock towers. The driver was able to toggle between soft and medium using buttons on the center console, but the car itself would automatically set the dampers to firm when a sensor detected sufficient acceleration in any direction. I wanted to be able to activate the firm setting manually, so I wired a pair of Radio Shack rocker switches and LEDs lights inline with a couple of override pins on the diagnostic connector under the hood, and placed them up in the plastic trim panel between the sun visors. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was satisfying to be able to reach up, flick an overhead switch, see a green LED illuminate and hear all 4 servos click in unison as the dampers firmed themselves up. Further instrumentation would have probably required at least the installation of a piggyback fuel computer, and a complete standalone system at the most, which is a tuning goal I’ve pursued for a long time. Who knows; one day I may be able to geek out in my very own Millennium Falcon cockpit.

Image credit: telegraph.co.uk, berghem.tweakdsl.nl

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Missing the Minivan

April 27, 2015 by Matt

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I miss our little MPV.

After 5 years of ownership, during which time we actually managed to pay it off, last spring we unloaded our ’05 Mazda MPV for an ’06 Volvo XC90, reasoning that our minivan days were over. I still daily-drive my truck, mind you, so the Volvo is my wife’s car, and she enjoys it. The XC90 is smooth and fleet, and with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 5-cylinder engine (not the optional 4.4l V8) and 2WD, fairly frugal, even if it does need to drink premium at the pump. The steering is sharp—well, most anything would feel sharp compared to my truck’s vague sense of straight ahead—and the leather-trimmed interior smells of plane trips and IKEA™. The kids like the DVD screens built into the backs of the headrests, and of course we’ve been freed of the “minivan stigma.”

Thing is, part of me misses, if not the stigma, then at least the practical, sensible aspects of minivan ownership. We bought our MPV for a song, in near-perfect condition, when it was only 4 years old. A quick scan of Craigslist confirms that minivan resale prices are ridiculously low compared with SUVs of equivalent size, age and mileage, and the cost of acquisition is even lower if your search terms don’t include the words “Odyssey” or “Sienna.” The MPV could be classified as a “mid-size” minivan, unable to carry a 4ft by 8ft sheet of plywood flat in the cargo area with the rear seats lowered, another fact that contributed to the car’s low profile in the eyes of a typical minivan shopper, interested only in “full size” models such as the aforementioned Japanese wonder twins and Yanks like the Town & Country. So we reaped the financial benefits of the minivan stigma and the Mazda’s lack of name recognition in the marketplace.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Cloth Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Console

Still—it was plenty big enough for us. During our annual beach trip last year, I had to exercise a previously unrequired level of packaging creativity when loading the XC90; with the MPV I simply tossed everything in the back and had no concerns over leaving myself a slit with which to use the rear view mirror while driving. The engine—a 3.0-liter V6 member of Ford’s Duratec family—was easy to work on as well, even if the intake manifold was a bit tucked up under the cowl, and parts were cheap and plentiful. The plumbing associated with the XC90’s engine is more daunting, and parts prices for our European ride are typically half again more expensive than those for the MPV.

I wouldn’t ask my wife to return to a minivan—she’s signed off on that stage of her car life—but I have pondered from time to time the pros and cons of trading the truck for one. The truck’s mileage is high (over 250K) but it’s in great shape, and chances are a straight trade would yield a minivan in good condition. And I can say with a fair amount of confidence that after a year and a half of driving a vehicle I bought with the expressed purpose of owning something I don’t care about, my car ego, at least when it comes to my daily driver, has been tempered to the point where practical considerations are well and truly king of the decision-making process. In other words, I’d be secure in my manhood even behind the wheel of a minivan, knowing that whatever reasons justified its purchase, they were good and rational ones. My sense of internal satisfaction would trump any superficial concerns over my “image” as a man.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I haven’t reached a tipping point yet, though. The truck has a ruggedness few minivans can match, parts are ubiquitous (it’s an F150) and the ability to just throw whatever I’m carrying in the bed, without having to consider height or dirtiness, is very appealing. Best of all, the truck is paid off, and at the end of the day, I think that—besides our 5-year family history with it—is what I miss most about the old MPV. Actually having the car’s title in my own filing cabinet (and not at the bank) gave me a transcendent sense of ownership over the vehicle, and felt fantastic from a financial standpoint as well, knowing that if anything went wrong with it, we had that many more options since the Mazda wasn’t tied to the bank. All that said, I’m sticking with the truck for now. It’s been a great vehicle so far; no complaints.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that minivans will experience something of a sales renaissance. Who knows; maybe all the Millennials who grew up in them will spearhead a nostalgia-driven resurgence of the body style sometime in the near future. Stranger things have happened, and goodness knows the unloved, workhorse minivan deserves its due.

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