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Posts filed under ‘Car Stories’

My Monaco Grand Prix, Part 1: 1987

January 5, 2013 by Matt

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Williams Honda V6 Turbo Engine Motor

The dominant Williams FW11B and its turbocharged, 800+ hp Honda V6.
Click the image to enlarge.

I wish I’d been more into the F1 scene at the time, but I was only 8 years old, and thus the whole spectacle was little more than a collection of extremely noisy cars. It’s not that I wasn’t into automobiles—a white Countach poster proudly adorned my bedroom wall—but to me at that age the F1 race cars were a different animal altogether from the relatively “tame” Lambo.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 McLaren Marlboro

McLaren MP4/3 bodywork in the pits. Click the image to enlarge.

I borrowed these from my parents’ photo albums last weekend. Fortunately for us, my parents have always been into photography, and my dad in particular has always taken it upon himself to organize and catalog our photos. Consequently, we have an almost unbroken chronicle of our family history, from the early ’80s to the present day. Needless to say, I’m glad he decided to bring the camera along for our visit to the Monaco F1 circus in late May, 1987.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 West Zakspeed

A Zakspeed 871. Click the image to enlarge.

We actually got to stroll through the pits. We lived in France at the time, and attended the Trans World Radio church in downtown Monaco; I don’t know if our ability to get so close to the cars was thanks to our connections in town, or simply a byproduct of the more relaxed F1 atmosphere in that era, but regardless, it was amazing to see all the machinery so close.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Anthony Noghes Corner

Coming ’round Anthony Noghés corner in qualifying. Click the image to enlarge.

Sadly we didn’t see the actual race. A friend of a friend had an apartment overlooking the harbor, though, so we were able to observe one of the qualifying sessions from a vantage point above the grid area.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987

Eventual 1987 world champion Nelson Piquet in his Williams.

So many racing legends… I did gravitate toward the Williams cars at the time, and Mansell particularly, for some reason.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Stefan Johansson McLaren TAG Riccardo Patrese Brabham BMW

Stefan Johansson in the McLaren leads the Brabham of Riccardo Patrese.

Want more? Here are some pictures from our subsequent trip to the Monaco Grand Prix in 1994.


Datsun 240Z Restoration: Beginnings

January 3, 2013 by Matt

1972 Datsun 240Z S30 901 Silver

Click the image to enlarge.

My dad dug these up recently, and during a visit home for the holidays, handed them to me.

Along with the photography information like F-stop and exposure, the date written on the back reads “Nov 1972;” in other words, they were taken one month after my dad purchased the car from Cardinal Imports in Jacksonville, NC. This is genesis, folks.

1972 Datsun 240Z S30 901 Silver

Click the image to enlarge.

The photos were taken somewhere in the Raleigh, NC, area (my dad was finishing his studies at NCSU at the time) and to my knowledge remained hidden, moved from house to house in a nondescript box, up until this past weekend. During the handover, another tidbit of family lore emerged: My dad actually proposed to my mom in the Z in mid-December 1973. Talk about a car with family history; the Z has it in spades.

Aside from a couple of details, the pictures represent exactly the state to which I want to restore the Z. The only deviations from the condition shown above will be the wheels (the hubcaps have been replaced with slotted mags and meatier tires), the bumper overriders (deleted) and the hatch lid (debadged). Otherwise, the 901 Silver color will return and everything else will be as you see it. Once it’s all done, I’ve a good mind to find the actual spot those pictures were taken and shoot another pair in the same pose. Before and after, 40+ years later.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 19 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:


Mercs I Would Consider: The W123 280E

December 28, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Euro Green

So, to make an ever-so-slight detour from the theme of this series, the Mercedes W123 280E isn’t really “worthy of enthusiast consideration” if the enthusiast in question highly prioritizes performance. Its target market is the discerning enthusiast, someone who knows performance is only part of a car’s appeal and values qualities like substance and craftsmanship.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Green

I have a personal connection with the 280E: It was my parents’ first car that I really related to. Sure, before the Merc came along, we lived in the US and my brothers and I were shuttled around in “The Big Blue Whale,” a massive Chevy Caprice station wagon typical of the era. Don’t remember much of that one except its girth, the fact that it had rear-facing seats in the “way back” and the fact that my parents were…less than thrilled with its reliability. But then we moved to France in the mid-’80s and needed a family car. Fortunately, our landlord was looking to unload his, so he cut my parents a very good deal on a late-model 280E, dark green, with exactly the same trim and wheels you see in the image at top.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Engine Motor DOHC I6 Straight 6 M110

A few memories stand out. In the ’80s, something like 90% of all European cars were equipped with manual transmissions, and our 280E had an automatic. It was a point of distinction I was very proud of at my young age. I remember the way the door handles felt to pull to open, and the legendary bank-vault thunk of the doors closing. My dad liked the Merc, and when I asked why it was debadged (as is typical of many European cars), he told me it was because the car came with the most powerful engine Mercedes put in that bodystyle, and without the badges would-be theives would mistake it for a lesser-engined model and move on. Sneaky, clever, exciting. The most significant memory, though, was of the sound of the engine as my dad wound it out, accelerating away from a toll station on the Autoroute up into the Alps, heading to church in Monaco on a Sunday morning. The 185-hp, 2.8l straight-6 engine sounded absolutely fantastic, and the surge of power was noteworthy, especially in a fully-laden car accelerating uphill.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

Above all, it was a quality item, built to last forever. Yes, the tape player would overheat and eat cassettes a few hours into a long car ride, and yes, the exhaust system did come apart just after the downpipe and scare my mom half to death in midtown Nice, necessitating a quick search for the nearest muffler shop, but overall, our 280E was a beautifully-made piece of superior German engineering. I wouldn’t object in the slightest to the idea of owning another.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:


On The Psychology of Car Desire

December 7, 2012 by Matt

A funny thing happened as I was poring over a glossy brochure of an Audi A5 acquired from a chance visit to the dealership a few weeks ago. I felt something I hadn’t experienced in quite some time: The desire for a completely unattainable car.

That used to be all I felt as I flipped through car magazines and road tests. Being young, without (or with marginal) employment and without a driver’s license meant that every car was out of reach. But as I got older, more cars entered the realm of possible purchases, not simply because my bottom line was a bit healthier, but also because many of the cars I fantasized about in my early years had depreciated to the point where they were in reach financially. Add to that a penchant for older, boxier, non- or less-electronically-infested cars and the used car market had become my oyster, so to speak.

My experience flipping through the A5 brochure brought those two different mindsets into sharper focus. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two, but basically, we can distinguish between:

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FD Silver

  • The idea of a car. This is all I had in the beginning. Leafing through coffee table books on vintage Lamborghinis and pictorials of the Porsche factory museum, and reading road tests in Car and Driver and my grandmother’s issues of Consumer Reports shaped my views on automotive matters—but it remained an abstract subject. In a way, it was like “car astronomy;” the vehicles I formed opinions about were as remote to me as stars or planets. I gathered data about them from a distance, but any chance of experiencing them was absent.

    This doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that I was dissatisfied with my situation, any more than an 8-year-old is unhappy reading about dinosaurs or learning about fighter jets. Cars were confined to the realm of theory, and just the activity of organizing the various brands and their offerings in my mind and stacking them up against each other was deeply satisfying. However, as I grew older, a new form of automotive enjoyment came alongside:

    Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB SA22C Light Sky Blue

  • The idea of owning a car. This is where the rubber met the road. This is where I began visualizing myself behind the wheel of a little sports car I could actually endeavor to purchase if I were disciplined enough to save for a few months. All of a sudden, worthwhile cars were within reach, and the emotional thrust of my car interest morphed from simple fascination with cars from a distance to “How can I acquire the car I want?” So much time and energy was spent marshaling resources here and there, pondering trade scenarios, working out potential monthly payments on personal loans… I was still enthralled by theory—more than ever, in fact, now that I could dive under the hood of my latest project and familiarize myself with its intricacies—but the additional hemming and hawing over whether a purchase or trade would be the right decision came into play. I agonized over these things. There was, and continues to be, a restlessness absent the gentle succession of internal spotlights on the unattainable magazine car du jour.

That kind of anxiety-free excitement over a particular car model came rushing back to me as I perused the A5’s brochure, and the twinge of forgotten familiarity pleased me, like a comforting smell I hadn’t experienced in years. I want more of the perspective from my younger days; I need to endeavor keep the fingers of potential acquisition from reflexively closing around whatever car I may be fascinated with next. It’s just more healthy that way.

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The RX-7 Story, Part II: Red

September 28, 2012 by Matt

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Red

I pine for this car. Yes, I do.

This is the car on which I cut my teeth mechanically. Before the red RX-7 came along I congratulated myself on being able to change a starter unassisted; afterward I would tackle almost anything with little hesitation (and in many cases, preparation).

It was another eBay purchase, February 2000. This was still before eBay Motors came along and the listing for this car was beyond terrible. Two lines of text and no picture, but the kicker was that it was located just down the road in Greensboro. Having a little extra saved up, Aaron and I made the two-hour round trip to check it out.

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Red

When we arrived we couldn’t believe our eyes. Except for a blown engine, the car was pristine, perfect, cherry—literally. The seller worked in an automotive paint shop and had painted the car himself with loving attention to detail. However, aside from his artistic talents with a paint gun, he was a stereotypical American auto enthusiast who, “didn’t know nothing ’bout no rotary engine.” Thus, when the engine blew, he was baffled. Aaron and I, being rotorheads, saw opportunity. We thanked him for his time and returned to Raleigh, intent on scooping it up.

And I did. No one else must have driven out to see the car since my bid was less than $300. The owner delivered the car the following week on a flatbed trailer, visibly bothered that his eBay sale hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped, but a man of his word.

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Engine Motor 12A Wankel Rotary

So the plan was hatched. Between the black RX-7 with its strong engine but rusted-out northern chassis and the red RX-7 with its blown engine but sound body, I would make one complete and perfect little sports car. My dad was less than optimistic about my chances of success, having never attempted something as involved as an engine swap, but his skepticism just spurred me on. To shorten the story, I learned a lot, made a couple of time-consuming but non-terminal blunders along the way (keep grease away from the clutch disc!), and by early August, after about a month and a half of work, I fired up the good engine in the red car for the first time. That was an experience unto itself since the car had no exhaust but the manifold at the time and rotary engines create noise all out of proportion to their small displacement. Not only that, but I had squirted some automatic transmission fluid into the combustion chambers to lube the seals pre-startup, and the ensuing cloud from the burning ATF completely blanketed the cul-de-sac. But it ran, and ran well. I was ecstatic.

So where is it now? Why didn’t I keep it? The reasons sounded much more plausible at the time, but today I wish, oh how I wish I had reconsidered. After having the car for a few months and enjoying it thoroughly, for easily-preventable reasons the good engine ate an apex seal. Being in college at the time and in a bit of a temporary financial pinch, I somehow decided the car had to go. So in a fit of misdirection I put it up on eBay and sold it, with a blown engine, for $1500. I probably made money on the whole ordeal, but I still regret it.

The buyer arrived to haul it away the same way it had arrived in my parents’ driveway: On a flatbed trailer. From what I gathered, he was a Wankel enthusiast from somewhere around Goldsboro and planned to do a blow-through Weber turbo install. I never heard from him again after the car disappeared around the corner. Funny thing that’s never happened before or since: My mom witnessed the transaction and actually teared up as the red RX-7 was being trailered away. I didn’t quite know what to make of it then, and still don’t, really. I never knew she’d been so attached to it. If I had only known then how much I would long for it now, perhaps I would have been more sympathetic.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. Read the first installment of the two-part series here.


The RX-7 Story, Part I: Black

September 19, 2012 by Matt

Black RX-7

Acquired mid-October 1999, this was my first real project car. It also doubled as my first eBay purchase. On a whim while at the State Fair in Raleigh that fall, I decided to really go for this car. Aaron owned an ’86 model, the first year of the 2nd generation and a very different machine, albeit with the same “heart”—a rotary engine. I bought it in the days before eBay had a separate section of their site devoted solely to cars, so killer deals (read: bad listings) could be found by trolling the search fields regularly. Aaron happened upon the listing for the black RX-7 and tipped me off to it. There were no pictures and a very terse description of the car.

I won the auction with a bid of around $500. The car was in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania. I talked my friend Jonathan into driving up there with me to retrieve the car. It wasn’t that difficult, seeing as how a friend of his (and unbeknownst to him at the time, his future wife) attended Messiah college nearby and he was eager to visit her. We drove the family minivan north through the night, stopping only for dinner at a roadside Blimpie’s. I left him at the college and drove back down the highway to a motel near Shrewsbury, intent on picking up the car the next day.

The following morning, after a few wrong turns I found the house and the car. The actual owner of the car (a student) wasn’t present, so I did the title transfer with his parents, who were a little perturbed at having to sacrifice part of their Saturday morning to get rid of a front yard eyesore.

Paperwork squared away, I turned my attention to the car. It hadn’t moved in a year or so and was a bit rough, with a mismatched silver front right fender. Amazingly, it started well enough and ran, at least until I got the car about 50 feet out of the driveway, at which point it went completely dead. No cranking, no dash lights; nothing. I panicked for about 10 seconds and set about trying to solve the problem. I wasn’t keen on having to tow the car from PA to central NC, so there certainly was a sense of urgency. I knew it was an electrical problem, so I rooted through the minivan to see what I could find to aid diagnosis. After some searching I came up with a spare taillight bulb and a pair of twist-ties. I rigged these together to function as a test light and poked around the engine bay of the RX-7 looking for the break in the system. Turns out a fusible link, one of the main fuses protecting the electrical system, had broken from the strain of not having had current flowing through it in some time, so I twisted the two halves of the link together, tried the car again and it fired right up. I drove the minivan back up the highway, picked up Jonathan from Messiah, and we booked it back down I95 and I85, going 80+ mph the whole way. We made excellent time, and returned home that night.

At the time, I was 20 and had very little experience working on cars, though I had a considerable amount of “theoretical” knowledge. With Aaron’s assistance and encouragement, though, I started to tear into the RX-7. A project day at his house cured a couple of electrical bugs, and he showed me how to prep and paint the fender to match the rest of the car (though I later “got happy” with a can of spray paint and ruined the day’s work). I bought a high-flow downpipe and catalytic converter to install as well, and while we were able to get it on, the rest of the exhaust system crumbled as we unbolted it, having been exposed to many northern winters. I drove it home with no catback, and marveled that such a little engine could make so much noise…

Continue reading with “Part II: Red.”

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. The photo above does not depict the actual car; the only image I have of it resides in one of my parents’ photo albums and will be added once scanned.


Needs A Good Home:
Joel’s 1973 Porsche 911T

September 3, 2012 by Matt

1973 Porsche 911 911T Classic Red

My experience behind the wheel of this beauty is, to date, my only time in a Porsche. As a long-time car guy, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit ashamed of that fact. But it doesn’t take anything away from the transcendence of the event.

Joel and I had been friends for a little over a year, and I was on the verge of a significant move. As a kind of going away present, he let me tool around for a little while at the helm of the car pictured in this post, his 1973 Porsche 911 911T, now for sale.

1973 Porsche 911T Classic Red

It was everything I thought it’d be and more. The steering’s communicative nature was evident even at low speed, and there was a pleasing mechanical directness to the gearchange and the bottom-hinged pedals. I loved the overabundance of gauges spanning the dash, and the 911’s racing pedigree was evident in every response; the classic air-cooled thrum from behind me eager for more gas, more speed.

1973 Porsche 911 911T Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

For those who don’t know, the “T” submodel of the 911 was the new entry level replacement for the outgoing, 4-cyl 912. Featured a slightly detuned, 140-hp variant of Porsche’s signature 2.4l flat-6, the 911T slotted in nicely below the contemporary 165-hp 911E and 190-hp 911S. The 911T’s lack of power compared to its brethren may initially seem like a turnoff, but the classic lines and handling and still present in spades, the engine still has six cylinders, and even the range-topping 911S isn’t going to win any stoplight drag races nowadays. Any Porsche is partially about the speed, sure, but the classics are more about the experience, and that the 911T delivers just as well as its stablemates.

I’d love to see it go to a good home. From Joel’s description, it’s in excellent, original condition (read: pre-restored), with only hints of surface rust in a couple of places. It deserves to be well looked after.


Early Impressions: Mark 3 Ford Capri

September 1, 2012 by Matt

European British Ford Capri Mark 3 III Mk3 Blue Gray Grey

The year was 1988. I was 9 years old, living in southern France with my family. A third grader, I took the bus home from school every day with my best friend Timothy.

By some incredible chance, the house in which we were living was situated directly across the street from one occupied by a British family, with boys whose ages corresponded almost exactly to those of my brothers and me. Not only that, but our interests were nearly identical as well, so Timothy and were inseparable for the 2 and a half years we lived in France.

One day, though, we didn’t take the bus home. Timothy’s uncle was visiting from the UK, and instead of flying, he decided to drive his late-model Mark 3 Ford Capri, and that afternoon, picked us up from school in it.

European British Ford Capri Mark 3 III Mk3 Silver

It was low and rakish. I did like cars, to the point of having the requisite white Lamborghini Countach poster on my wall, but didn’t know much about “lesser” vehicles like the Capri. Still, I liked what I saw. Crammed in the back seat with Timothy on the way home, I remember being mildly amused by the fact the steering wheel was on the right side (this being my first ride in a British car), and beyond that, by the size of the wheel. It may be an odd thing to stick in one’s mind, but the one thing that stood out was how incredibly small it was. Beyond the car’s external shape, that steering wheel communicated an undeniable sportiness, as impractical as it must have been, and made an impression on me.

European British Ford Capri Mark 3 III Mk3 Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

I’m still slightly jealous that Europe got multiple generations of the Capri while we here in the US had to make do with pony cars like the Smokey and the Bandit Firebird and the Fox body Mustang. Ours were worthwhile in a straight line, but profoundly crude with respect to handling. The Capri, on the other hand, possessed a remarkable amount of cornering sophistication, low (~2,500 lb) weight and a whole host of engine options, ranging from a miserly 1.3l 4-banger to a 185-hp 2.8l turbocharged V6. Sure, it still sported a live axle out back and it was rough around the edges compared to its pricier rivals, but its priorities were in the right place, and for that, I wish my memory of it hadn’t been isolated to my time in France.

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The Greensboro Car Expedition

August 11, 2012 by Matt

He wanted to see a Mercedes SLS AMG. Well, we saw one. And a few other gems.

Having dropped by our local Mercedes dealership, we heard from a salesperson there was an SLS AMG in the showroom at the Greensboro store. My son is very interested in car superlatives at the moment (i.e. the fastest, the best put-together, the most expensive, etc), and having got wind of the rumor that the fastest Mercedes lived just down the road, we had to make the pilgrimage. We also took the opportunity to visit the “Porsche store” (his word for it) as well—in reality a premium performance car dealership with a variety of makes.

Click on the jump to view the photos!