The Truth About Cars » The Best of TTAC The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » The Best of TTAC Hammer Time: The Unsellable Car Thu, 22 Mar 2012 16:16:09 +0000  

I once had a vehicle that sat on my lot for over 9 months. It wasn’t anything too bad. A 1998 Plymouth Grand Voyager in the tannest shade of brown. But no one wanted the thing.

I couldn’t figure it out. Did it have too many miles on it? Did brown all of a sudden become the new purple, orange or lime green? It did have four doors instead of the three door minivan albatrosses that were common during the pre-Y2k era. But I couldn’t get so much as a nibble on it for months on end.

Denial can be a hard pill to cough up. Lo and behold, this is what I figured out.

Dead Brands Don’t Go Walking: Pontiacs, Saturns and Saabs may have a little issue with public recognition. But a Plymouth? Most folks simply didn’t know what one was by the time Obama got in office. Over the last few years I have also seen Oldsmobiles and Eagles slowly go the way of Daihatsus and Peugeots. Fewer folks remember them, and fewer folks want them.

No One Loves A Large Marge Barge: Minivans have become the automotive version of disco. Not a lot of people admit to liking them, and it’s fashionable to bash a vehicle made for a brood in a Western world where large families are becoming ever less common. Who among you thought Ford and GM would ever throw the proverbial towel in a market that once spanned the seven figures every year? OK, besides you Bertel!

Brown Isn’t Sexy On A Car: With apologies to Sajeev and the rest of the brown gawkers, brown has indeed become the new purple, pink, lime and orange. The only way you can sell a brown car these days is if it’s rare or cheap. Otherwise this color palette has joined the nostalgia circuit along with forest green and beige.

No One Wants Sticks, Unless It’s Sporty: “Yeah! Yeah! That’s what I really want! A base car with no options on it so that I can get a true feel for the road. You know… today’s base car. With power windows, door locks, mirrors, cruise, ABS, traction control, comfortable seating for five, USB port, Bluetooth, Six Speakers, Eight Airbags, and… an Automatic!”

When it comes to commuting in most major metropolitan areas, only hypermilers and tightwads still appreciate the benefits of a stickshift. Everyone else wants to give their left foot a rest.

Base Cars Always Get Stuck In The Back Of The Lot: A leather seat with minor tears on it will almost always sell faster than a cloth vehicle with minimal wear. Even in hot climates like Atlanta and Phoenix, there are countless consumers who still believe that cloth interiors are neither luxurious nor comfortable.

And The Rest: There are countless examples of cars that don’t sell. Too many miles. Too much body damage. The distinct smell of the prior owner (and their pets). So along those lines, let me ask the B&B a question.

What car was the hardest vehicle for you to sell… and why?

If all your cars have sprinted out of your driveway like  O.J. trying to catch a flight to Barbados, then feel free to mention a friend. Or a family neighbor. Or even someone who is more distant from you than a father’s cousin’s former roommate. The day is long. So feel free to share a story.


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Toyota’s Prius Chief Engineer Reveals The Future Of The Automobile. Part One Sun, 13 Nov 2011 15:05:46 +0000

“Look, when we started the Prius project in 1993, we did not even think of a hybrid system for the Prius. We did not set out to build a hybrid. We studied what was needed for the 21st century, and two things were certain: The need to protect the environment, and the need to bring consumption down. That’s all we knew, and you did not need to be a clairvoyant to know it.”

The man who told me this last Friday better become clairvoyant. On Satoshi Ogiso’s shoulders rests the future of Toyota. Ogiso is responsible for all new technology at Toyota. As Chief Engineer, he is in charge of the Prius and its many siblings, he is responsible for plug-in hybrids, EVs, fuel cell hybrid vehicles, anything apart from the aging internal combustion engine is his.

I meet Ogiso at the world headquarters of the (still, officially) world’s largest automaker in Toyota City. It took me 1 ½ hours to get from Tokyo to Nagoya by Shinkansen, and then about as long again to get to Toyota-shi by subway. Three hours well spent to find out what the future will bring .

I like to talk to engineers about future cars. The answers usually are down to earth, and devoid of marketing hype. In the 80’s, I talked to an engineer at Volkswagen who told me that he was working on the car for the 21st century. I immediately demanded answers. “Well, it will have four tires, a steering wheel, and it will run on gasoline,” was the answer. The man was right.

The Toyota HQ is a 15 floor office building that would look subdued in the suburbs of Cincinnati. A Renaissance Center towers over a city in ruins. A Toyota HQ is hidden between small houses and factory buildings, and is easily missed unless you know where it is. A lone Camry stands in the lobby. The security is likewise unassuming: Three of the usually polite and smiling ladies behind a wooden desk. No ID check, no “Guest” clip, a smiling lady says “dozo”, and there I am, face to face with Toyota’s future.

Satoshi Ogiso doesn’t look the big 50 which he had reached in January. His trademark hairdo is a bit less spiky than usual. He wears a tie. The days of super cool biz at Toyota are over.

Ogiso had worked at Toyota for ten years before he joined what became the Prius team in 1993. He was a suspension man. He worked his way up the ladder by designing chassis parts for the Tercel and the Camry.

In fall of 1993, Toyota created G21, a committee to research cars for the 21st century. The “G” stood for “global”, the “21″ for the 21st century. 32 year old Ogiso joined the group as one of the men of the first hour. He is the longest serving Prius team member.

In spring of 1994 the work started in earnest under Chief Engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada. Ogiso remembers:

“Environment and consumption. These were our sole engineering parameters. Otherwise, a blank sheet. We studied this for more than a year, until February 1995.

This is when we learned that the hybrid system is essential for the future of the automobile. At the end of the study, we were convinced: We need a hybrid system, even if it is difficult.”

It was a gutsy decision. Hybrid technology is nearly as old as the car. Other companies were pulling their hairs out over the technology when Toyota picked it as the system for the new millennium. Audi produced three generations of its Audi Duo concept before the Audi A4 Duo made it into production in 1997. It was a spectacular failure: Only 60 were built. Engineers and journalists questioned the sanity of someone who wanted to save gas by adding extra weight and cost in form of heavy batteries, electric motors, and controllers.

Ogiso smiles when he thinks back:

“At the time, the battery, motor, controller, these components were all huge and heavy. I drew a compact car, 4 meters or so long, with enough interior for 4 passengers. The rest of the space was very tiny, and I had to stuff these huge components somewhere. We had to miniaturize these components. When we showed the drawings around, every engineer, every division, every component supplier said:

Sure, this will be possible – give us 10 years.”

The team did not have that time. In the contrary. The Prius became Toyota’s equivalent to putting a man on the moon. But not by the end of the decade. Says Ogiso:

“In the middle of 1995, we decided to use the hybrid system. Then it was decided to have a market launch 1997, only 2 and a half years later.”

When the Prius arrived, the market was skeptical. The price was high. When the Prius came to the US officially in the year 2000, a gallon of gas did cost $1.50. Officially, Toyota broke even on the car. For Ogiso, turbulent times began, which propelled him in 2005 to the top spot as the Chief Engineer of the Prius.

“Many customers recognized the first generation Prius as a very innovative car, but honestly speaking, the volume of the first generation Prius was not so good. It was beyond our expectations, but we sold maybe 1000 units per month or so.

The customers were a big inspiration for us when we started developing the second and third generation of the Prius. Now the Prius is the best selling car in Japan, and it is also very well sold in the United States.”

In March 2011, Toyota had sold more than 3 million hybrids worldwide, the bulk of them the Prius.

However, the success of the Hybrid remains a Japanese and American phenomenon. In Europe, hybrids are a rarity, when Europeans want to save gas, they drive a diesel. In the emerging markets, hybrids are a dud. According to lore, only one Prius was sold in China in all of 2010.

As it is often the case, the lore was misinformed: Toyota had sold a total of 60 imported Prii in China in 2010. Toyota elected to stop selling the Prius to the Chinese until production of the 3rd generation Prius starts in China early next year.

Ogiso believes that wholesale adoption of hybrid technology around the world is  only a matter of time:

“Generally speaking, the environment and the energy resource situation will get increasingly worse in the future. Other markets will wake up to it. The timing is different. Japan was first, U.S. second. By 2020 to 2025, hybrid systems will be mainstream even in Europe and in the emerging markets.”

Now is the time to ask the question that had brought me here. What car will I be driving in 2020? Will I put gas in it? Will I plug it in? Or will I have to take the train? More on that tomorrow in Part two.

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The Best Of TTAC: The Art Of Noise Sat, 06 Aug 2011 05:08:59 +0000

[Editor's note: This piece was originally published in February 2009, and like so much of TTAC's content, it's timeless enough to deserve another moment on the front page. Enjoy!]

Rolls-Royce used to advertise the fact that their cars were so quiet that the loudest sound you heard was the [analog] clock ticking on the dash. Who said the British don’t do hyperbole? As a quiet car connoisseur, I’d have to say a Clinton-era Cadillac provided the quietest ride I’d ever experienced; if the time was one of peace and prosperity, then so was the car. Nowadays, automakers are telling us that their cars are quiet, or at least quieter than ever before. I’m not buying it. A number of recent drives have been notable for their aural uncouthness. So I set out to find the truth about automotive sonic signatures. Has nostalgia dimmed my memory (if not my hearing)? Is progress on the noise suppression front been less impressive than industry propaganda would have you believe?

The German buff book Auto, Motor und Sport recently opened its archives to tightwads. I’ve spent a few hours perusing the decibel stats. To save space, the table I’ve compiled only deals with interior noise at about 80 mph (130 km/h). It’s a civilized speed (at least here in Germany) at which one would want to be able to hold a civilized conversation, even with a back-seat passenger.

Car and model year Interior noise in dB(A) at 80.78 MPH

1995 BMW 728i 66

1995 BMW 523i 66

2003 BMW 730i 66

2009 BMW 330d 68

2009 Mercedes C350 CGI 68

2009 Renault Megane dCI 69

1996 Mercedes C280 69

2008 Mercedes C250 CDI 69

1996 Citroen XM V6 69

1995 Audi A6 2.8 69

2006 Mercedes E220 CDI 69

2006 BMW 520d 69

2000 Ford Mondeo 2.016V 69

2009 Ford Mondeo 2.5 Titanium S 70

2006 Audi A6 2.7 TDI 70

1996 Mercedes E230 T 71

2003 Toyota Camry 2.2 71

2009 Toyota Auris 2.0 D-4D 71

1995 Honda Civic 1.5i VTEC-E 72

2009 Honda Civic 2.2i-CTDi 72

2002 VW Golf 1.9 TDI 72

2009 VW Golf 2.0 TDI 72

2009 Opel Astra 1.9 CDTi 72

1996 Opel Astra 1.6 16V 73

2003 Toyota Corolla Compact 1.4 73

2009 Porsche Carrera 73

1995 VW Golf Cabrio 1.9TDI 73

1996 Ford Mondeo 1.8GT 73

1995 VW Golf CL 1.6 74

1995 Mercedes E230 74

2000 Toyota Corolla 1.6 76

2009 Ford Ka 76

1996 Renault Megane 2.0 16v 76

In some market segments (e.g., executive cars), you have to ask: where’s the progress? What, for instance, has BMW been doing since 1995? Most cars have gotten much heavier. You think that the extra heft might include some extra soundproofing. But plenty of today;s lumbering leviathans are hardly quieter than their sprightlier predecessors. What does Mercedes expect us to think about zero improvement for the C-Class in twelve years?

VW’s press release for its newest Golf calls it ”the quietest Volkswagen Golf since the model series began” characterized by “first-class acoustic properties.” Yes, “a special sound-damping film in the windshield reduces driving noises, as does the newly developed seal design on the doors and side window guides.”

Significantly less wind noise is generated by the outside mirrors due to their new shape. Furthermore, special modifications were made to better isolate the engine and passenger compartments from one another acoustically. Quiet rolling tires and new engine bearings round out the noise reduction program.

Empirically, the new Golf offers an improvement of 2 dB in three car generations and thirteen years.

Small cars have gotten much better, though. Corollas and Renaults used to be noisy boxes. Intense competition in the compact field seems to be working its magic. The Auris (the more-advanced, Euro-market Corolla) is a quite soothing small car, and the Megane’s low level of noise is a marvel.

Really small cars, like the Fiat Panda or the Ford Ka, are still noisy, and are thus for me un-purchasable vehicles, since they (driven quickly) generate a clamor louder than Occupational Noise Exposure standards would allow.

A noise level of 70 dB(A) seems to be hard to crack in cars for regular folks. But this is, to my mind, a pretty tolerable loudness, unreachable a few decades ago.

You’d think with advanced computer firepower, more precise manufacturing tolerances, double-lip door seals and multi-laminate windows, cars would generally be much quieter than in the 1990s. Why aren’t they? Remember one dirty secret of the car industry: usually, each successive generation of a car is cheaper to manufacture. Cost-cutting means that progress is slow—unless the market actively demands progress.

Or unless the car maker is genuinely forward-thinking. In terms of quietness, the only revolutionary car in recent years may be the Lexus LS 600h, which claims 60db at 60MPH.

On the other hand, where are the technical advancements we’ve been waiting for? Active noise cancellation, once seen as the answer to all things cacophonous and found in Honda’s cylinder de-activating Odyssey minivan, seems to be a pipe dream. This despite the fact that BOSE et al. have been promoting its benefits for years, and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute says it’s working on auseful system.

And what about a microphone-based, user-friendly and effective interior intercom? I’m tired of shouting at back-seat passengers (although it can be useful in the case of children, dogs and back-seat drivers). A car that used electronics to help you converse with everybody on board, without raising your voice: now, that’s something that would lead me to a showroom, and to ponder a purchase.


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Sex And The Common TTAC Reader, Kinsey Edition Sun, 28 Nov 2010 09:34:16 +0000

Yesterday, we ran a story about Art Ross. Ross was the Oldsmobile Chief Designer in the post WW II heydays. He was also a prolific and gifted pornographer. Cars and sex have always been related for some reason. Did you know that in Germany, where the car was invented, “Verkehr” can mean both “traffic” and “intercourse?” I render the guess that there are more people that begun their life by the dashboard light than those who passed away in the passing lane. Many are convinced that autos have aphrodisiac qualities. Many heavily object and say that a car is just a conveyance. Then there are some who think cars are just as vile as porn, and both should be banned. Where does the dear TTAC reader stand in this discussion?

I’ve lived and worked through this antagonism all my professional life. Even at automakers, there are those who think the best car ad is a Soviet style list of specs, accompanied maybe by a cut-away picture. (A good cut-away demands a higher budget than a porn flic shot in Hungary, but I digress. It’s easy …) Others think one should dispense with the car altogether (they all look alike) and show lifestyle scenes instead. What does the TTAC reader think? Let’s take a clinical approach and look at raw numbers only, delivered by the soulless TTAC host computer.

The Art Ross story clearly was yesterday’s most read story. It narrowly beat out Michael Karesh’s review of the Hyundai Sonata Turbo. It was a photo finish, both stories were less than 100 clicks apart. Naked women have a greater attraction on the common TTAC reader than a Hyundai – but just barely.

Now add to that the fact that the Hyundai story was already a day old. On the day it ran first, it had handily beat out … nope, the winner on Friday was “What New Car Is The Best Value For Money?“ That one had attracted twice the numbers of eyeballs than the blown Hyundai.

However, the next day, and with a starting position slightly better than sex, the Hyundai story spooled up fast, raced out of the gate and remained the leader of the pack for most of the day – until sex came from behind and won by a hair.

What does that tell us? The common TTAC reader is interested in sex only slightly more than in a Sonata that had a blowjob. Both topics are valued higher than money: On Saturday, the raunchy Ross report and the Hyundai review received 50 percent more attention than the value for money story that had won the previous day.

Now for the juicy part. Sonatas aside, what genres REALLY pique the TTAC reader’s discerning interest?

The traditional art of Art Ross, including portraits, surrealistic paintings, and a treasure trove of some of the finest car designs of the last century were offered-up for further viewing at The Art Of Art Ross.

A collection of vile and repugnant porn, devised by a deviated degenerate, a lot while he was supposed to support the war effort by designing camouflage netting that kept our fighting men from being bombed by the enemy, was – for strictly scientific reasons – referenced under Erotica By Art Ross. It came with ample warnings. The nauseating nature of the material was clearly flagged.

Now guess what received more clicks.

One more time, you guessed it right. Erotica By Art Ross did beat The Art Of Art Ross more than six to one. Drawing conclusions is left to the reader. All I can say is that warning labels do not impress our readers. They appear to be, as the saying goes, “sure in their sexuality.”

This is where the story would end, would there not have been a late entry. After a death-defying race to Toronto (and after declining my suggestion – made in jest – to type on his iPhone while driving) Jack Baruth wrote the story of a cookie monster that escaped a smashed 1984 vintage Audi GT (I remember them well) unharmed. Said story was posted at 6 in the evening. With sex and Sonata having an 18 hour lead, the story had impossible odds. Old racer’s adage: Better to enter a race late than never. The others could break. Jack’s accident report raced up the charts. By the end of the day, it made a podium finish, coming in third, after sex and Sonata.

In today’s very early morning, Baruth leads, with the Sonata two laps behind, closely followed by Paul Niedermeyer’s story about a futuristic RV from 1959. Pornography is back in the field.

Four possible conclusions (multiple choices ok):

  • The B&B value their lives more than sex or money.
  • If it (barely) bleeds, it leads.
  • Jack Baruth is one reckless heck of a writer.
  • Sonatas will rule the world.

Over to you.

(PS: As this story goes to press – so to speak – word reaches us (finally) that “hyper-texting” leads to sex, drinking or drugs. Scientific fact. Was LaHood right after all? Should Jack Baruth have written the story as a prelude while driving, instead of wasting a precious hour on a laptop in a motel? Will we ever know?)

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The Best Of TTAC: Autobiography 4 – Life’s Intimate Mysteries Unveiled Sat, 20 Mar 2010 18:08:53 +0000

As a boy in the pre-internet early sixties, I became obsessed with unveiling the secrets of that inexplicably alluring object of male interest. I had a general notion of what transpired within: the rhythmic in and out motions, the frenzy of moving members, the rapid inhalations, the (hopefully) synchronized explosions, and in their wake, the murmur of exhalations. Yes, life’s most intimate mysteries sang their siren song, and I was powerless to resist.

And so, one fateful summer afternoon, I pulled my intended victim into a dark corner of the family garage, well out of sight of adults, and I furtively began removing the external coverings. In detaching the final gate-keeper of the mystery, I met unexpected resistance. My clumsiness and inexperience resulted in unnecessary pain. Blood flowed. The rite of passage had already exacted a price. Other sacrifices lay ahead. But for the moment, I savored the sweetness of success.

Crouching down, I gazed lovingly into the oily, shiny bore of the 3hp Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine, which had yielded its secrets (and cylinder head) so reluctantly. Oblivious to my bloodied knuckles, I spun the flywheel endlessly, watching the dance of the now exposed enginealia. The abstractions of the Otto cycle were at last manifestly concrete. I was entranced and smitten.

The air of fitful excitement during the disassembly process eventually gave way to the somber reality of having to reverse my experiment. In my excitement, I’d quite forgotten the details of the tear down. Despite leaving a pile of surplus parts on the floor, I finally managed to get the mower running– minus the linkage from the governor to the carburetor.

So I improvised an inelegant solution: a piece of twine tied from the spring-loaded throttle plate to the handlebar. Once this “fix” had been achieved, the mower required endless manual rev blipping, not unlike an attention-starved motorcyclist’s mount. My father and older brother conveniently (for them) refused to touch the nervous-tic afflicted machine ever again; I’d created an entirely unwelcome lawn mowing monopoly.

My mechanical shortcomings were at least partially due to a lack of mentoring. My father certainly couldn’t provide any guidance; a can opener taxed his abilities. So I sought out other males as surrogates. I found them in the house across the street, where the two teenaged-or-so resident sons had contracted a bad case of hot rod fever.

Their project was a sickly green 1952 Ford business coupe. It was a fundamentally curious beast; its body style traded off rear seat room for the kind of extended trunk only a Mafia hit-man could fully exploit.I hadn’t chosen well. These boys also suffered from DDF (Disinterested and Distant Father syndrome). For all the hot summer days and long summer nights spent in advanced auto-yoga positions under and within the ailing coupe, their results were no more distinguished then mine.

Occasionally, having brought the old Ford to a semblance of life, we would pile in. Progress was measured by how many blocks could be terrorized by the unmuffled flatulent flathead until it expired in a cloud of steam or smoke or some other violent and unnatural event.While the boys failed to teach me the rudiments of automotive technology, they certainly stimulated my desire to master idiomatic English.

For example, I was intrigued by their insistence on prefixing every noun with the word fucken. In Tirolean dialect, the word means swine. I was familiar with the practice of combining word to create vulgarity (as in schweinehund). But the boys’ masterful and ubiquitous combinations– frequently aimed at reluctant pieces of metal– left me breathless in admiration.

One day, after they’d pretty much given up on the old Ford, I heard the strangely familiar belabored bleating of an old engine. Running outside, I was stunned to discover a clapped-out Lloyd Alexander sans muffler, stuffed with the sheepishly grinning wanna-be hot rodders.

I’d never forgotten the 600cc 26hp 2cyl Lloyd micro-car my godfather drove back in Austria. Seeing these Iowa beef-fed football players spilling out the windows and sunroof of the baby-blue Lloyd was as much of a car-out-of-cultural-context experience as my first glimpse of the ’59 Caddy back in Innsbruck.

The tortured Lloyd held up to their endless full-throttle joy-riding abuse for most of that summer.  In the quiet hot nights, you could hear their un-muffled comings and goings half way across town, like a pesky buzzing fly endlessly exploring the house room by room. But one late summer day eerie quiet resumed, and I knew the fly had expired.

The Lloyd had been ditched somewhere near Burlington, an hour away. Some ten years later, driving down Hwy. 34 outside of Burlington, I encountered the unmistakable and immortal Lloyd again. It had been hoisted on top of a tall sign post for a wrecking yard. For all I know, it’s still there.

[Postscript: The Lloyd was seen to still be there by a reader recently]

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The Best Of TTAC: The Audi 5000 Intended Unintended Acceleration Debacle Sun, 07 Mar 2010 06:45:58 +0000

[Note: This piece first ran in May 2007. It seems particularly relevant again in light of the current Toyota unintended acceleration (UA) situation. But please note that the circumstance that caused the Audi UA may, or may not be very different, depending on the circumstances. In the early eighties, electronic gas pedals and complex engine controls and other interfaces such as with ABS/brakes were still on the horizon. Nevertheless, the rules of physics have not been repealed. And an unknown percentage of Toyota UA events undoubtedly are the result of pedal misapplication. Audi's near collapse in the American market after this incident remains a painful lesson in the power of the media, the slowness of the NHTSA, and the critical PR choices manufacturers make in the wake of a crisis like this. PN]

When I first heard about the Audi “sudden unintended acceleration” segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1986, I knew instantly that they were blowing smoke. Literally.

Some years earlier, I was part of a TV crew shooting an educational program. Legendary race-car driver Parnelli Jones was the guest celebrity one day. The producer offered to take us to lunch in his 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Three or four of us hopped into the giant back seat. Parnelli took the wheel, and the Caddy owner/producer rode shotgun.

Parnelli fired up the Caddy’s giant V8, dropped it in gear and floored it – with his left foot on the brake. One of the rear wheels lit up in a screeching howl, and the car was soon engulfed in a cloud of acrid smoke. The Caddy didn’t move an inch; obviously. And neither did Parnelli, glancing at the wincing producer with his wicked grin. he probably burned off half the rubber of that tortured tire before he stopped grinning and gunning. I had assumed (wrongly) that race-car drivers grew up eventually.

The experience seared in a lesson in basic automobile physics: brakes are always more powerful than engines, even when they have 500 cubic inches (8.2 liters). Too bad we didn’t have our cameras running; we could have made a graphic rebuttal to 60 Minutes’ fraudulent destruction of Audi.

Let’s set the scene: it’s 1984, and Audi sales had shot up 48 percent on the strength of their new aerodynamic 5000, the latest hot weapon in the perpetually-escalating suburban driveway status war. It was a stunning slick piece, and Audi was on a roll.

Suddenly, the war turned bloody. Moms in runaway Audi 5000′s were mowing down their little kids in the driveway and pinning granny against the far garage wall with the four-ringed front of the Audi.

This had never happened with the Olds Cutlass Supreme Brougham Coupe, the previous “hot” suburban car Mom traded in for her Audi. The German car certainly felt different. Unlike the Olds’ wide push-bar brake pedal – that some Americans still operated with their left feet – the Audi had that weird, small brake pedal, set kinda’ close to the gas pedal.

And these Audis had a mind of their own. No matter how hard Mom pushed on the brake pedal, the Audi kept on charging, right through the garage door with granny on the prow. This despite the fact that the little five-cylinder mill only cranked out 130 horsepower. And the top-notch four-wheel disc brake system probably could generate well over 600 equivalent horsepower.

Apparently, the brakes were failing at exactly the same moment that the gas pedal decided it had a mind of its own. Perfectly plausible, at least to the 60 Minutes crew, the Audi (non)drivers, and much of the media and public.

About as plausible as ignoring the police report of the most dramatic victim on the show, Kristi Bradosky, who ran over her six year old son. That report said “Bradosky’s foot slipped off the brake pedal onto the gas pedal accelerating the auto.” Denial isn’t just a river.

Ed Bradley’s 17 minute “investigative report” aired on November 23, 1986. Between interviews of the teary-eyed “victims” (drivers) of unintended acceleration swearing their feet were on the brake pedal, CBS showed a clip of a driverless Audi lurching forward on its own.

Viewers didn’t get to see the canister of compressed air on the passenger-side floor with a hose running to a hole drilled in the transmission. An “expert” had rigged the Rube Goldberg device to shift the big Audi into drive and, like any automatic-equipped car, move forward (unless the brakes are depressed).

The clip was blatantly deceptive AND totally irrelevant. Nobody claimed driverless Audis were taking off and killing kids and grannies. Mom was always at the wheel, pushing the 5000′s “brake” pedal with all her might.

In 1989, after three years of studying the blatantly obvious, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued their report on Audi’s “sudden unintended acceleration problem.” NHTA’s findings fully exonerated Audi and some other implicated foreign makes”.

The report concluded that the Audi’s pedal placement was different enough from American cars’ normal set-up (closer to each other) to cause some drivers to mistakenly press the gas instead of the brake. 60 Minutes did not retract their piece; they called the NHTSA report “an opinion.”

(Update: Audi and many manufacturers quickly added an automatic transmission interlock, making it impossible to shift into drive or reverse without a foot on the (real) brake.)

A flood of lawsuits was already washing over Audi, not to mention a tsunami of bad publicity. Audi took a questionable stance: they didn’t blame the drivers for the problem, even after the NHTSA report came out. Hey, the customer’s always right, and we sure wouldn’t want to make our American customers look stupid. Anything but that.

So the German automaker took it on the chin. Audi sales collapsed, from 74k units in 1984 to 12k by 1991. The timing added insult to injury; sales fell exactly during the same years when Lexus arrived to battle for the hearts and wallets of America’s up-scale consumers. Lexus quickly became the latest suburban driveway prestige symbol.

As a final kick to the near-corpse, Audi’s suddenly wanna-be-Lexus drivers launched a class action suit charging lost resale value. No wonder the brand almost abandoned the U.S. in 1993. It’s a killer market.

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GM’s Branding Fiasco Part Five – A Brief History of Buick Sat, 20 Feb 2010 15:01:25 +0000

[This piece first ran in 2007 as part of a five-installment series. I've added some pictures, but note that the ending was written at Buick's all-time product low]

Buick was the special child in the GM family: the beautiful and temperamental second-oldest daughter that somehow always got the most attention from Daddy. Sure, oldest daughter Caddy got to wear the family jewels and formal gowns, but Buick was lavished with style. Whether it was Harley Earl or Bill Mitchell, GM’s top stylists always blessed Buick with their best efforts. For decades, Buick was maintained in the style to which she had become accustomed, and remained America’s fashion-conscious upscale buyers’ wheels of choice. And then, not.

Scotsman David Dunbar Buick founded his eponymous automobile company in 1903. The following year, the inventor of the overhead valve engine sold the struggling concern to James Whiting, an ambitious wagon builder. Whiting turned to William Durant to help jump start Buick.

With an excellent product to sell (the Model C), Durant’s energy, affability and marketing genius ensured Buick’s ascension to profit and glory. Durant used Buick’s revenues to acquire dozens of other automakers and form General Motors.

Right from the get-go, Buick was GM’s anchor brand. Durant capitalized on the company’s engineering excellence and reputation to expand sales around the globe. In 1926, Buick sold a then-staggering 260k cars.

The Great Depression hit the brakes but good; annual Buick sales plummeted below 40k. GM President and future CEO Alfred Sloan used the downturn to rationalize GM’s brand portfolio. He slotted the consummate “doctor’s car” between affordable Oldsmobile and unapproachable Cadillac.

Priced at around $40k to $65k in today’s dollars, pre-war Buicks were the Lexi of their time: refined, smooth, powerful, elegant and built to last. They were the consummate “doctor’s car.”

By the late thirties, GM’s inter-brand demarcations had begun their inexorable erosion. Buick’s product line overlapped a significant portion of Olds’ and Pontiac’s price range. As internal competition intensified, Buick cultivated two selling points to stay ahead: performance and style.

Throughout the ‘30’s and into the ‘40’s, Buick espoused its General Manager’s “more speed for less money” maxim. In 1936, Buick had a brand-new 320-cid 120hp straight-eight, designed for the large and heavy Series 80/90. When the company shoehorned the big eight into the smaller and lighter Series 40, it was dubbed Century, for its readily attained top speed. Thus the first factory production “hot-rod” was born.

When Harley Earl joined GM in 1927, he created the Arts and Color Section: the car world’s prototype styling studio. Earl used the Buick brand to showcase his most significant creative output.

Earl’s Buick Y-Job of 1938 was the world’s first dream-car. Unlike the European salon specials sold to exclusive buyers, the Y-Job’s was created to build excitement for future GM products, and showcase their styling direction. The Y-Job succeeded brilliantly; it solidified GM’s global styling leadership. And Buick’s.

The 1951 Buick LeSabre and XP-300 dream cars initiated the GM Motorama era, a grand traveling carnival of GM-think. Until 1961, Motoramas showed Americans a tempting glimpse of the (ever better) good life to come, from cars to kitchen appliances. And GMAC would finance the dream.

The consumer era was now in high gear, and Buick style led the way.

Buick enjoyed its greatest market-share success in the mid-fifties. From 1954 through 1956, Buick was America’s third most popular automotive brand. During those heady days, models like the Century, Super, Roadmaster and Special defined affordable American automotive luxury, class and power.

In ’57, Plymouth’s radical models pushed Buick back to number four. But it was Buick’s horrendously overwrought ’58 models that really hurt. Renaming 1959’s Buick entire line-up (LeSabre, Invicta and Electra) didn’t help. By 1960, Buick’s market position had tumbled to ninth.

Buick desperately needed a new make-up artist, and found it in Bill Mitchell. The 1963 Riviera coupe was Mitchell’s tour-de-force: one of the most beautiful American cars of the post-war era. It had the class, cachet and authenticity of a Mercedes CL or Bentley Continental. The Riviera’s halo effect worked; by 1965, Buick was back to fifth place.

Fast forward a decade, and Buick’s hot new coupe is the execrable Skyhawk, a clone of Chevy’s Vega-based Monza. Alternatively, Buick intenders could contemplate the Skylark, a padded landau-roofed version of Chevy’s Nova.

The preceding and ensuing string of badge-engineered disasters were unleashed at the exact moment when Buick needed to strengthen its roots– style, performance and quality. Up-scale import competition from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and later, Lexus, stole traditional Buick customers by the tens of thousands.

Buick’s subsequent decline is too painful to describe in detail, especially during the mid to late eighties. After that, it was either too little too late, or another kick in the groin, like the Rendezvous.

No wonder Buick packed her bags and slipped away to China, where she’s once again adored and idolized. All she left behind moldering in American showrooms are ghosts, pale shadows of her former stylish self. And plenty of beautiful memories.

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The Best Of TTAC: Auto-Biography Part 7 – Bus We Must Sat, 06 Feb 2010 07:22:37 +0000 It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of the passenger bus was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee THAT day; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenalin.

I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one caught me off-guard. It was a chilly December morning. Midway through that particular corner, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth old brick cobblestones. As always, I floored it. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. All my wintertime Corvair-hooning experience finally paid off.

I had always wanted to be a bus driver, and I started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures (drifts?) I would take them on.

In Austria in the fifties, the yellow and black Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They looked like a 1940’s school bus: rounded, with a graceful hood out front. There was lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.

It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat behind the driver, watching him shift gears and navigate the throbbing Steyr or Saurer diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence with the four-tone melodic horn: ta-taa, ta-taa.

One day in 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.

I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was un-assisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.

I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly.

As a bus driver in a university town, I got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.

During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As we passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.

Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions.

I was relief-driving one day, and momentarily forgot my route. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, I took a shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.

The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our mutual off-road adventure. Worse, the bus almost got stuck  in the uneven surface. If I had, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job.

Another time, the bus’ 40’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open– a block away from the high school parking lot on the day of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. It was a scene straight out of a cheap thriller. (Update: highly relevant experience in light of current stuck pedals situation; I quickly turned off the engine power switch). I also remember sliding down a hill and across an intersection, wheels locked, surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves.

Spring arrived and wanderlust struck again. One morning, heading out to an office park by I-80, I announced to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”

But there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their cubicles.

It wasn’t long after that I quit and bought my own bus, a 1968 Dodge van. I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in back and cut in windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to California, but she had plenty of enthusiasm. Good enough for me.

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The Best Of TTAC: Auto-Biography 26: There’s A Ford In Your Future Thu, 14 Jan 2010 21:48:53 +0000

Note: Since there’s been several questions about my truck today, and it is Truck Thursday, here’s everything and more you might ever want to know about ‘Ol Yellow: (Gallery at end)

Twenty years ago, I was a well-heeled young exec. One day, I decided to indulge in a four-wheeled “weekend toy.” Instead of a Dino or XK-E, I dropped $500 on a 1966 Ford F-100 pickup. Sure, I’d harbored fantasies about Ferraris and Jags for years. But I didn’t want to be saddled with an expensive toy that offered temporary or unreliable escape. My dream has always been about real freedom. The freedom to wake up in the morning, sniff the air and go… berry picking! Lumber hauling! The simple, rugged, frugal Ford represented my ideal life. And I knew it would get me there.

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For the first five years, I used my weekend toy to haul brush and tree trimmings to the dump. The dump road had numerous tight switchbacks; my kids and I have many happy memories exaggeratedly leaning over on top of each other going around the hairpins. Coming back down the road, I’d turn the ignition off and on, creating lovely explosions out the tailpipe. One time I waited too long and blew out the muffler, ending that noisy pastime.

Five years later, a corporate purge swept away my executive status. I reckoned it was time to go for the dream of a simpler, more honest life. So I sold our expensive Los Gatos property, hooked-up a trailer to the old Ford, loaded our worldly goods and headed north to Oregon.

I bought property, subdivided, and had a bunch of old houses that were about to be torn down moved unto my lots. “Old Yellow” and I were working hard now, doing it all ourselves. When the houses were all fixed up and rented out, I knew that the dream had pretty much come true.

Now, when I drive my battered Ford into a parking lot full of giant 4×4 mega-cab turbo-diesel 24” chrome-wheeled trucks, I chuckle about the equity I made by putting all my dough into assets that appreciate, instead of these rapidly-depreciating show-off toys.

The F-100 is a half-ton pickup rated to carry 1200lbs, motivated by the 129hp “small” 240CID six. It’s tough as nails, never failing to pull or carry anything I’ve asked it to. One time I weighed-out with 3500lbs of building rocks at the local quarry and created a killer low-rider. I’ve also pulled Bobcats on trailers weighing well over 7k lbs. The Ford takes it all in stride.

Since my three-speed doesn’t have a “granny” low gear, I have to plan my route to avoid stopping on a steep incline while grossly overloaded. I stay in low gears coming down hills, as the drum brakes are next to useless.

With no power steering, power brakes or smog controls, there’s very little to break or replace. And so the F-100 rarely breaks down. When it does, it’s the easiest vehicle imaginable to fix. It’s had a new clutch, and the fiber camshaft gear broke recently. Since I replaced it with a heavy-duty steel gear, it howls like a 1920’s blower Bentley.

The Ford’s blessed with a Warner T-85 HD three-speed with overdrive. Freeway cruising is relaxed at 2000rpm (and 20 mpg). Because the OD also has free-wheeling, the transmission shifts without declutching. By splitting the gears with the OD, six ratios are always at hand to play with. It’s a great device for baffling passengers.

But I have to stay on the ball; I don’t want to be caught on a long downhill with the freewheeling on. The little drums will smoke and be useless well before a full stop. The litigation era sealed the overdrive unit’s future.

Plenty of well meaning folks have suggested swapping out the F-100’s drums for disc brakes, or upgrading to a V8 and automatic. But they’re missing the point. Today’s vehicles are utterly effortless and disengaging (no wonder drivers are multi-tasking and babbling on their cell phones). I love driving and enjoy the challenges– and limitations– of the old Ford.

The F-100 doesn’t have a radio and I don’t carry a cell phone; the piece of plywood covering up the pickup’s radio hole gave graphic meaning to my son’s (mis)understanding of the word “dashboard”.

From time to time I take the old beast out for a brisk outing through the local hills and winding roads. Then my easily provoked imagination takes over. I’m driving one of my all-time fantasy cars, a 1920’s era Bentley: a big straight six with howling cam-gear drive, manual choke, complicated gears, leaf springs and solid axles, a giant steering wheel and puny brakes. It’s the unmitigated joy of pushing elemental machinery to its maximum capabilities.

And on the way home I can stop off at the quarry and pick up a ton of rock for that wall I’m building. Try doing that with the typical weekend fantasy toy.

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The Best Of TTAC – Autobiography 15: The Doh-Dah Man Sat, 12 Dec 2009 17:07:06 +0000 It’s a little problematic having me make selections for The Best Of TTAC, but in keeping with the new Saturday truck theme, I offer up this from the vaults.

It was a successful launch, and I was going for the record books. The 534 cubic inch Ford V8 bellowed and roared through the two short pipes exiting under my feet. The wide-open Holley four barrel noisily sucked the cool morning air. The air-scooped hood rose and dropped on the passenger side with each banging shift, a visual testament to massive torque. As my speed approached record territory, I had my hands full keeping the snorting beast under control. I glanced down on the big round speedometer and confirmed my victory: ninety miles per hour.

I was abusing a 1966 Ford F-900 Super Duty dump truck loaded with some 10 tons of gravel down a narrow country road. Normally, the Metro Pavers fleet would top out at sixty-five. But  Number 8 had an erratic engine governor, as well as an Allison six-speed automatic. Every so often, when you first floored it, the governor didn’t engage. And it stayed that way, until you backed off.

These unpredictable moments of Holley-anarchy were the equivalent of turning on a bottle of nitro or a turbo (or both) and an irresistible invitation to explore the true top end capabilities of the giant hot-rod Ford– as long as the engine held together.

The odds of an untrammeled blast were about one in ten; kinda like playing the slots. The random inevitability of a noisy payoff kept me on my toes (literally), and helped break the rapid-growing ennui of hauling gravel all day.

Ford trucks play a recurring theme in my life; from my first truck drive to my most recent (yesterday). My initiation to Ford-truckin’ arrived via the usual baptism by fire.

I was a seventeen-year old car jockey at the local Ford dealer. I had noticed the big F-900 when I came to work after school. A salesman walked in and asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck. Without hesitation, I said yes. The cab looked just like an F-100. How hard could it be?

The salesman imparted his minimalist directions: “follow me”.  I had no idea where we were going or what I was doing. Man, everything sure looked small from way up there. Was that warning alarm ringing away a novice driver detector, or something to do with air pressure?

I found the first of ten gears (a five speed and two speed axle), and released the heavy clutch. A groan and shudder, and then… nothing. The engine stalled. Painfuly. I finally found the air parking-brake release and set off.

The first order of business: keep the big rig in my lane while sorting out the 10 gears. Once I figured out how to stop locking the unloaded rear wheels with the grabby air brakes, people stopped staring at me.

Our route included the busiest and curviest piece of freeway around, followed by surface streets through the heart of downtown Baltimore. I sweated bullets keeping up with him. It was another righteous, riotous rite of passage.

A couple of years later in Iowa City, I grew tired of washing dishes (surprise, surprise) and answered an ad for dump-truck driver. Inexplicably, I was hired without a commercial license. A female state trooper showed up to give me the driving test. There was just one problem: the trucks had no passenger seat.

I found an old rickety wooden chair whose legs I rudely shortened. She gave me a look of disbelief. I gave her my best killer smile. She was a real trooper to perch on that wobbly chair while I drove her around. Mission accomplished.

It was mostly fun driving those gnarly old Ford Super Duty’s (back then that name was reserved for Ford’s biggest commercial trucks). But the day I lost my air brakes wasn’t a lot of laughs.

I had just loaded eight yards of gravel at the quarry. Getting back in the cab, my knee must have hit the air-brake switch. The low air-pressure warning alarm was broken. As I approached the stop at the highway, I realized my predicament. Trees blocked the view in both directions. I seriously considered bailing out. But I stayed with my truck and barreled into the highway, hoping for the best. It’s a good thing traffic was lighter back then.

I still rent a dump truck (Ford, of course) every now and then. Today’s big turbo-diesels have a wonderfully intense but short torque curve. And the transmissions now offer blazing quick clutch-less shifts.

My ’66 Ford pickup with its manual steering, non-power brakes and three speed (plus two speed transmission) keeps my skills in shape. It has the exact same cab as those hoary old Super-Duties, just a whole lot closer to the earth. I’ve even hit 90 with my pickup, but it wasn’t loaded with gravel. So the old record stands.

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The Best of TTAC: The Phantoms Of Flansberg Road Sat, 28 Nov 2009 06:34:02 +0000 The archives of TTAC contain some real gems. Since probably quite a few of you weren’t here three years ago or more, we’re going to mine them occasionally for our weekend reading pleasure. This piece originally ran on November 19, 2006.

Please note that the author is actually Steve Smohlenkamp. I am unable to reinsert his name due to technical difficulties (otherwise known as operator error). My apologies. PN

photo by Steve SmohlenkampAs a six-year-old growing up in the rich farmlands of northern Illinois, I spent my days playing in the creeks that meandered along and across Flansberg and Orangeville roads. One day, I was ambling home when a thunderous roar jolted me from my reverie. A black car came out of the curve behind me and sped past. The passenger waved. Convinced that I’d seen not one but two ghosts (restless souls at that), I ran home.

I told my tale of the phantoms of Flansberg road. My father listened, and then explained my sighting in less paranormal terms. “Some crazy people aren’t happy using an automobile to get them from here to there. They think it needs to look different and move faster. It’s as foolish as standing around with a hot rod in your bare hands. Now eat your dinner and do your chores.” But the image and sound of that car never faded from my mind.

Forty-four years later, Kurt Flannery called to tell me he was building a Ford Speedster. When I said I’d never heard of such a thing, my old friend clued me in. At the beginning of the last century, amateur enthusiasts would buy a Model T or Model A and take it back to their shed or garage. They’d strip the car, soup-up the engine, lower it by a foot or so and retrofit it with aerodynamic bodywork (or leave it bare). These “speedsters” were the world’s first hotrods, patterned after Henry Ford’s early efforts (including a 91.37mph land speed record on a cindered frozen lake just outside of Detroit.)

A couple years later, I went to see Kurt’s finished speedster. As the door slowly swung upward, I saw a ghost. It was the exact same car I’d seen along the Flansberg Road. It had the same sleek appearance, the same tall white steel wheels and same long, low, predator posture. And it was beautiful: a boat tailed speedster worthy of a master builder. In the dim light of the garage, Kurt’s creation lay motionless, like a monster not to be awakened.

My friend handed me a white jacket, chrome goggles, black racing gloves and a soft white helmet. The speedster’s four banger cranked into a low throaty idle. When Kurt cranked the revs, the sound transported me back through time, back a half of a century, to a dusty road just outside of town.

The speedster was fast. I felt like I was riding on the outside of a rocket, sitting beside a steely-eyed missile man in full and unfettered control. We raced past huge trees, casting ever-lengthening shadows in our path. Every bump in the road, every twitch of the ancient chassis had me glancing over at my old friend for reassurance. Each time, he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. On and on we sped…

I don’t think it even dawned on me when Kurt slowed just enough to straighten out the turn that would put us onto Flansberg road. The sun had just slipped beneath the trees to the left as we sped north. Kurt literally screamed over the exhaust noise that there was a set of curves just up ahead that he enjoyed at speed.

When we emerged from the last bend, there was a young boy walking along side the road with a fishing pole over his shoulder, bathed in the red of a fiery sunset. As he came into our view, he turned sharply to see what was overtaking him. He was startled by our quick arrival, and the specter of two men in strange suits, helmets and goggles. I smiled and waved.

When we pulled into the drive, it was dark enough for headlights. They died at the same moment as the engine. The monster was once again sleeping. The silence was painful. Gone was the “ten on the Richter scale” noise, the immense vibration, the cool wind in our face and the fleeting intense beauty of the moment itself.

I now find myself seventy-five years of age. Whenever I get back to the Midwest, I make time to stroll in the countryside where I grew up, just for old times’ sake. Sometimes I look around and find that, after all these years, it looks the same as it did back then. And when I’m walking out there during sunset, and the wind lulls momentarily, and the rustling leaves settle to a whisper, I swear I can hear the faraway distant thunder of the phantoms of Flansberg road, moving quickly out of earshot. Of course, it’s only my imagination. But then, everything worth doing starts somewhere in the imagination.

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