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Posts filed under ‘Car Stories’

On Car Contentment

August 6, 2012 by Matt

Curvy Road

How can a sports car driver ever be happy with their car?

Sports cars, by and large, are about speed. Speed in the twisties, or speed down the strip on a Saturday night, even speed to a halt (braking). But here’s the thing many of us realize, especially after embarking on our car’s modification program: There will always be someone faster. There will always be cars that cling to the corners more tenaciously, are more direct in their responses, and hook up better off the line. How does one reach automotive contentment, then? How can you be really happy with your car when you’re annihilated at a stoplight race or humiliated around the road course? Can you be?

The key I think is to own a car that is special to you for reasons unrelated to pure speed. A car that agrees with you. A car that feels like home when you sit in it and lets you breathe more deeply when you sink into the seat after a hard day at work. A car that makes you smile just tooling around town at 25 mph. A car that is your car.

I used to ponder the owner loyalty of cars I was familiar with—the FB RX-7, the Z-car, FD RX-7, the Mark 4 Supra, etc… and why for example many, many first-gen RX-7 owners will hang onto their cars through thick and thin, whereas more than a few Mark 4 drivers go through a couple of cars in a year, and I think there’s more at work than simply the financial ability to buy and sell cars frequently. For a lot of owners, there’s something the FB has that the Mark 4 doesn’t (and vice-versa, of course), counterintuitive to many of us who are acquainted with the latter car’s prowess, and I think those subtler qualities are lost on a lot of the performance-fixated automotive community.

We’re all addicted to speed, sure, but that intangible special quality of a car we’re really attached to is beneficial in more than one way, I think. It’s that knowledge, that feeling, that promotes a sense of contentment when we’re approached a light and revved on and we decline to go, just knowing that we don’t have anything to prove. It’s that knowledge that makes us humble about our cars, and fosters an atmosphere in which we can genuinely appreciate others’ cars without getting defensive. We see our car’s flaws, to be sure, but somehow they’re okay; they’re inconveniences cheerfully borne.

And that’s what made me keep the Supra. With the addition of a few mods, I felt myself getting caught up in the Great Speed Race™, uncomfortably so, and wanted an “out,” another car where it might be easier to sense its other endearing qualities upon an initial drive, and I immediately gravitated towards my first automotive love (the FB). But then I realized I could have that with the Supra too. All I had to do was to re-experience what made the car special to me.

It was a cold night when I slipped into the perfectly contoured seat, surveyed the dash, with all the controls and switches ideally placed. I turned the key, the car started with an elastic smoothness and settled down to a rock-solid 700 rpm idle. I flipped the lights on; the headlights popped up and the gorgeous analog gauges were lit up with a pleasingly pale green. I gripped the thick steering wheel and rested my hand on the shifter. Everything felt substantial, solid. The car just fit me. I thought about the way the car looked and the image that projected—not the flashiest, most curvaceous body style, but understated, well-proportioned, and attractive—and I thought about my own self-image. My impression of the car and my concept of what I wanted to project lined up perfectly. It agreed with me; it was home—and I wasn’t even moving. After that moment even the metallic rip of the inline-six up to redline and the whistle of the turbo on the way home were just fluff—the car and I shared a bond deeper than raw speed, and any thoughts of parting with it were pushed from my mind.

What makes your car your car?

Editor’s note: This post was originally written in November 2003 and published in a LiveJournal automotive community. Ironically, I would unload the car within a year, but that was more due to shifting priorities in general rather than any dissatisfaction with the car itself.


The Flaws in My Cars

July 9, 2012 by Matt

I’ve owned each of these at one point or another. I’ve loved them all, and miss them to varying degrees. But as much as I pine for one or more on any given day, they all have an Achilles heel. There isn’t a car, no matter how beloved, on which I wouldn’t change a thing.

Mazda RX-7 FB First 1st Gen Generation 1985 85 Red

First-generation Mazda RX-7: Recirculating-ball steering. Yes, I could go after the archaic live axle rear suspension, but somehow that becomes as much a part of the car’s charm as the notoriously vague steering and huge dead spot on center are disappointing. C’mon Mazda, really? It’s not even like the obsolescent British roadsters whose market you helped upend were still fitted with recirculating ball boxes. Not only that, but the 2nd and 3rd generation RX-7s’ steering remains among the sharpest and best in the world. Tell me they couldn’t have rolled that out a bit earlier and given us 1st gen enthusiasts a few model years of rack-and-pinion-y goodness. Unfortunate.

Audi 4000 quattro 4kq 4000CS Type 85 Silver Zermatt

Audi 4000 quattro: Weight distribution. There’s so much right with this car that I just hate the fact that the engine hangs way out in front of the axle line. You certainly feel it when driving. Four wheel disc brakes, AWD, a close-ratio 5-speed, a raspy 5-cylinder engine, responsive rack-and-pinion steering, a commendably low weight of 2,800 lbs…let down by incurable understeer. The factory engine’s 110 hp may feel anemic, but a whole host of stronger Audi 5-bangers drop right in, more or less. It’s just a shame 65% of the weight over the front axle can’t be “modded away” as easily as the power deficit.

Datsun Nissan 240Z 260Z 280Z Z-Car Tires Wheels Slotted Mag BF Goodrich Radial Comp T/A

Datsun 240Z: Rear drum brakes. Yes, perhaps expecting a non-premium car made in the early ’70s to sport discs on all four wheels is a bit much. Still, Jaguar at least had been doing it for 10 years by that point, so is it really an unreasonable demand? The Z’s drums, while competent, are a massive pain to service, increase unsprung weight over discs and just look ugly. Mine are coming off as soon as I can afford the (expensive) disc conversion bits.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

Mark 3 Toyota Supra (’86-’92): Weight. This car would be perfect…if it went on a 400+ lb diet. 4-wheel discs, smooth and powerful 6-pot engine, double wishbones all around, 5-speed, RWD, rack-and-pinion steering, great looks, and a few hundred pounds of unnecessary pork. I could really do without the power adjustable side bolsters. And the targa roof. And the gimicky electronic dampers. And a whole load of additional stuffing. If Toyota had put as much effort into weight control as they had the rest of the car, they’d have had a true world-beater.


Learning To Drive Stick, Part I

June 12, 2012 by Matt

6 Six Speed Shifter Stickshift Manual Trans Transmission Tranny Shift Pattern

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to teach my wife how to drive a stickshift.

The endeavor was borne out of necessity as much as any other reason; there have been more than a few times I’ve had to take the BMW when it would have been much more convenient to drive the minivan, because my wife couldn’t drive a 5-speed. And supposing I was driving the minivan and had an accident, my wife would need to at least have some basic knowledge of how to operate a manual transmission in order to be able to come to me.

She recognized those reasons too, and she’s always loved the BMW, so she was eager to learn how to drive it. Through the years, I’d given a couple of folks quick lessons in the basics, so I had a rough idea of how to approach it:

  1. Find a semi-secluded, completely open parking lot.
  2. Explain the basics of what the clutch pedal and gearshift actually do using a simple diagram, but don’t overwhelm with technical details.
  3. Practice starting off without the aid of the gas pedal in order to develop a feel for where the clutch takes up.
  4. Progress to 1-2 and 2-3 gear changes once the fundamentals of starting out are established.

And over the course of 45 minutes or so, that’s exactly what we did. She killed the car at least a dozen times, but that’s wholly expected for someone just learning the ropes. I was proud of her for always remembering to push in the clutch pedal when restarting the car; new stickshift initiates can easily forget that requirement in the midst of the other half-dozen things they need to remember to do (but are second nature to those of us who’ve been driving stick for years).

I’m most nervous about hill starts. We won’t tackle those until the next lesson or two. When I first learned to drive stick at age 17, hill starts scared me, and I still feel a slight twinge of anxiety when called upon to perform one nowadays, just knowing that a stall or worse, backing into the car behind me, is just a slip of a pedal away. All in good time.


The Joys of a Paid-Off Car

February 15, 2012 by Matt

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal

We paid off our minivan yesterday. It was our first—and to date only—car to have been financed, and after 2 years and 10 months, I’m proud to say we’re in the clear again, considerably earlier than the term of the loan. The extra money in our pocket will be helpful for a whole host of things, from kid activities to home improvement and assistance in paying off other debts. It’s incredibly liberating and satisfying to know that we now hold our cars’ titles, not the bank.

It also makes me want to take better care of the minivan. It’s an ’05 Mazda MPV LX, powered by a 3.0l, 200 hp V6, and it’s been incredibly faithful. 3,000 more miles to go to hit the big 100K, and our only failures to date have been:

  • A PCV hose around the back of the intake manifold a year ago. $50 worth of parts and tools later, and it was good as new.
  • The door handle cable inside the drivers’ door. Found a gentleman online (I love the internet for sourcing car parts) with a spare and was able to fix it for around $20.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Rear Taillights Back

Other than that, it’s been bulletproof, with a couple of trips to the beach and many, many errands around town under its belt. It does have to sleep outside, unlike its siblings (the 240Z and the BMW get the garage), but it doesn’t seem to mind too much. It does need a good wash and wax and clean-out, though, along with a potential transmission service at 100K. Debating about that last one.

Having the minivan paid off makes me think about the ways in which car acquisition and ownership have changed since my parents’ day. My dad always paid cash, and almost always bought new, even if he had to sell some stocks or dip into his other investments to do so. To my knowledge, my parents have never had a car payment, and I have a feeling it was like that for many more families than just mine. New car prices have increased significantly over the past 30 years, and not just because of inflation—modern cars are packed with electronics and safety features, a dozen airbags, traction and stability control, navigation systems, and so on. It makes me wonder how far the avalanche of features and gadgets can really go, how far the market can really sustain the one-up-manship between automakers.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Dash Console

If I had to put forth a prediction, I really do see car ownership going in the same direction as home ownership in the sense that 20-30 years out, everyone will finance their cars; they will simply be an investment on the same level as buying a house. Debt coaches will advise their clients on another type of “acceptable debt” besides a home loan: the car loan. Between cars’ rapid increase in sophistication, the growing complacency (the past few years excepted) toward consumer debt and the looming specter of federal regulations that threatens to hike the price of the average car even more, only a very small percentage of buyers will pay entirely out of pocket for a new car. It’s unfortunate, really, symptomatic as it is of the decline in the average consumer’s purchasing power, even as the shift has the potential to be a boon for the used car and auto repair industries. I really don’t think we’d be surrendering a great deal by shifting our buying habits toward smaller, simpler, less expensive cars and simply taking more responsibility for ourselves behind the wheel in terms of driving safely, entertaining ourselves and finding where we need to go.


The Supra Story

February 14, 2012 by Matt

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

Other than my current ’95 BMW 525i, this is really the only “modern” car I’ve owned.

It was an ’88 Toyota Supra Turbo with a 5-speed manual transmission. Power everything, double-wishbone suspension and a 3.0l, 24-valve, DOHC, turbocharged and intercooled straight six were just some of its features. It was smooth, powerful, reasonably agile and a class act. I felt confident taking this car on dates. I purchased it sight-unseen in while living in St. Augustine, Florida; the car was located in Atlanta and I bought a one-way plane ticket, flew up, got the car and drove it back down to my home on the coast.

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

I miss it very much. I have fond memories of driving it along Florida State Road A1A beachside at dusk with the targa top removed, stereo cranked and enough heat directed at my feet to keep me warm. It was a perfect trip car, with wonderful seats and enough power to pass at will and cruise effortlessly at 75 for hours. It might be an odd thing to miss, but the instrument layout in particular appealed to me. It was a Toyota, and as such there was a clarity and precision to the instrumentation: The needles were thin and seemed to pivot along their arcs with a kind of reassuring accuracy.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Engine Swap

I bit off more than I could chew, or was willing to chew, in modifying the Supra. Aside from the odd repairs it served me well for over a year when I decided it needed more power. I pulled out the tired 7M-GTE engine (whose turbo seal had failed) and through divers transactions acquired a Japanese-only, never-imported-to-the-US twin-turbo 1JZ-GTE engine that had about a third again as much power as the original and was much more responsive to upgrades. At the time I was one of only about a dozen guys across the country who had attempted the swap, and liked the feeling of being a trailblazer, even as I knew troubleshooting would be difficult without the advice of guys who had gone before me.

You can read much of the story here. The car ran well for about two days before the bugs set in anew, and during those two days was far and away the fastest car I had ever owned. But in the end the Supra became too much of a money pit, and with its increasing potential would have been a source of constant temptation in terms of upgrades. It would have been very hard for me to be content with the car, even with the new engine, so I pulled out of the “power rat race” while I still had some money left in my bank account. At least, that’s what I told myself at the time…

The real bummer, as I found out, was how close I really was to having it running properly again. During the winter and spring of ’04, I spent countless hours combing through the car’s wiring harness trying to resolve intractable engine management glitches. I sold the car with the understanding the new owner could use my apartment complex garage for as long as it took to get the Supra into a state where it could be driven to its new home. A few evenings and he had it eating out of the palm of his hand, having simply connected the knock sensors (which I had neglected, thinking they weren’t essential to the engine management system’s well-being for the purpose of just getting the car to start) and swapped a few more wires. Granted, he was a Toyota tech, but still… Bygones.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

I do miss it. I felt confident driving the car. I don’t know how to describe it… Maybe the feeling you get when you’re dressed to impress—something superficial like that. But I enjoyed it. Something about the combination of the power, the smoothness and the targa top made the whole experience more than the sum of its parts.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. It includes a few of the only pictures I have of the car, some of which are stills from a video. I apologize for the poor quality, but it’s all I got. Carry on.

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
Confessions of a Poor Car Enthusiast

November 23, 2011 by Matt

901 Silver Datsun 240Z 240-Z HLS30 S30 Nissan

I finally figured it out. After two and a half years—maybe longer—I discovered the missing piece of the existential puzzle that is my “car promiscuity.”

Since acquiring my driver’s license in ’95, I’ve been through a lot of cars. But more recently, since mid-’09, I’ve made a series of car swaps I couldn’t really justify. Obviously, my automotive flexibility as a husband, dad and homeowner is radically more constrained than it was when I was single, child-less and renting. That said, ever since my car interest “reopened” in mid-’09, I’ve felt this sort of restlessness, discontent, some kind of inexorable force pulling me from one car to the next, searching for what I knew not.

Let me explain our family’s car arrangement. We had established a while ago that there were three “slots” for cars to fill: The family hauler, the daily driver and the project car. The minivan has filled the first slot; no real drama there. The project car slot has been occupied, since late ’01, by my Datsun 240Z. The daily driver slot, in contrast, has seen a remarkable amount of turmoil and turnover. Starting in mid-’09, I’ve been through a ’93 Volvo 940 Turbo, an ’01 VW Jetta TDI, an ’86 BMW 635CSi, a ’95 BMW 525i and I had been searching for its successor. There were a veneer of practical reasons justifying the move from one to the next, but the undercurrent was the aforementioned, irrational restlessness. And it drove me up a wall. It upset my parents. It upset my wife. Why did lose interest in my current daily driver so readily and feel compelled to jump ship? What was I looking for?

The key lay with the third slot, the project car. As a car buff, I love to tinker with cars; there’s little I’d rather do than be working on them. My 240Z is in need of a full down-to-the-metal restoration, and I finally have the space in my new garage to begin the project. So what’s the problem? It’s the realization I came to earlier tonight, and it ties everything together: I will never have enough money to restore the 240Z.

I just won’t. Not the right way, at least, the way it needs to be. Between two young kids, the demands of the house and my line of work, without going into exhaustive detail, the money simply won’t be available for at least another 15 years, if ever. The realization should have been obvious, and I’m sure it was present subconsciously, but tonight was the first time it bubbled to the conscious surface and I “let myself” say it.

And knowing that, deep down, was what drove me (pun intended) from one daily driver to the next. Bereft of a long-term car project I could realistically hope to complete, I gravitated toward short-term “easy power” from my daily drivers. I wanted something that could satisfy my need to get grease under my fingernails, start for me every morning, and haul the family around if the need arose. I didn’t want to admit to myself that the 240Z project was an albatross, but the emotional needs of my hobby would not be denied, and redirected themselves toward my daily driver, creating overlap, cognitive dissonance and great frustration.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of this realization. I feel like a weight has been lifted. It brings so much of my automotive angst over the past two years into focus. My mindset vis-a-vis my car interests going forward is so much more clear.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 3 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:



October 14, 2011 by Aaron

Nurburgring Ring Track Circuit Map

Dubbed the green hell by Sir Jackie Stewart, the Nurburgring is an automotive Mecca (and well worth a pilgrimage). Unlike any other race track in the world, the Nurburgring’s north loop (Nordschleife) is imposing, demanding, dangerous, and oddly available.

The track persists as the yardstick for sports cars the world over (seen the Cadillac CTS-V commercial lately?) but most summer evenings anonymous sightseers have the option to take a self-guided “tour” for about $35 per 12.9 mile lap. As one of those undistinguished tourists, I can attest that 12.9 miles on the ‘ring is allthe thrill that you can handle and probably then some. Aside from major car rental companies who anecdotally monitor the ‘ring to discourage tourists from abusing their fleet vehicles, the track is run what you, um brung…just don’t pass on the right.   The accessibility (and with it, the responsibility for vehicular efficiency) is Teutonic – we all know that this wouldn’t work stateside. The ‘ring is and will always be singular.

I hear that there is an amusement park and macho gift shop in the works at the GP course on the south side of the track. Time will tell, but I’m hoping that this net-induced fame doesn’t sully its austere appeal.

Editor’s note: During my two-day fall camping trip, enjoy this guest contribution by my friend and sometime car-adventure-partner-in-crime Aaron!


Unforgettable: My 1982 Toyota Tercel

August 5, 2011 by Matt

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

First car. First whiff of true freedom. First opportunity to bond with a machine and develop hard opinions about makes and models. First taste of the “me versus the world” rush when you’re driving alone at night, tape deck stereo blaring, windows down on a cool fall evening, the soft glare of the dash lights and piercing stare of the streetlights merging to bolster the rhythm of the music in your mind. There’s something to it.

My conveyance for all those experiences was the chariot pictured at the top of this post: a 1982 Toyota Tercel. 1.5l SOHC 4-cylinder. 60 hp of fury. 5-speed. Twinkie.

Yes, Twinkie. Other than our present minivan (the Minkevan), it’s the only time a car of mine has acquired a name and it stuck. It was so named ostensibly because it was sort of Twinkie-shaped, light brown with white stuff inside. Yeah… The nickname was so apt, actually, that for a time Twinkie was more well-known in my social circles than I was. “Oh, you’re Twinkie’s owner,” was a phrase I heard more than once.

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

The car saw me through everything. It knew more about me than literally anyone. And it was the epitome of faithfulness: Over the six years and ~75K that I owned it, it broke down exactly once, when the timing belt snapped northbound on I95 near Roanoke Rapids. Even then, $45 and two hours repair at a local gas station later, it was back on the road, running as well as ever. Longitudinal, non-interference engines FTW.

The car’s time with me spanned my last two years of high school, and all of college, amassing countless stories, but I’ll just share this one. When I moved to Florida right out of school (early ’02) and got my first real job with a boatbuilding firm, I knew Twinkie was nearing the end of its time with me. Its paint was fading, its silver wheels were darkened and the rust spots here and there were growing, its deterioration exacerbated by the hot, salty climate in St. Augustine.

With the acquisition of my Supra Turbo a month or so after I arrived, I started looking for a new owner for Twinkie. Fortuitously, a coworker of mine, Bob (incidentally, my favorite person in Florida), needed another car. Bob was a ponytailed, chain-smoking ex-hippie who lived in a trailer that looked as if he had constructed it himself entirely of plywood sheets. He had an assortment of farm animals in the backyard and even kept two or three peacocks. He was handy with tools and had built his own catamaran when he lived in Clearwater, on the Gulf side of the state. His family was the most functional imaginable; his beautiful wife and two boys were beyond polite and hospitable.

He was also a VW Beetle enthusiast, with around a dozen rusting Beetle carcasses in his backyard along with some other projects like an old MGA roadster and a Triumph motorcycle in his shed. He drove an orange Beetle to work every day, but complained regularly about how hard it was to start in the mornings. He mentioned offhand to me how nice it would be if he owned a car that would start for him every morning. I told him I was selling Twinkie and we struck a deal.

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

It was hard to watch him drive away from my apartment in the car that had borne me on so many adventures, but I knew it was in good hands. The ultimate confirmation of that came a few days later. Walking from my usual parking spot into work, I passed Twinkie sitting in the lot and did a double take. Bob had completely cleaned it up. The rust spots were gone, filled in temporarily with some putty awaiting a sanding and respray. The wheels had been cleaned and polished. The front speakers, the little paper cones I had meant to replace for years, Bob had yanked and put in new 4″ Sonys. And the whole car had a nice coat of wax and was shiny and beaming. I knew I couldn’t have passed it on to a better new owner. It brought my time with Twinkie to a fitting close.