The Truth About Cars » Road Trip The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 29 Jul 2014 20:41:18 +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 » Road Trip Piston Slap: The Buy or Rent Pitfall? Wed, 26 Mar 2014 12:44:41 +0000 pitfall2

Henry writes:


My wife and I are planning on taking a large 20 day vacation this summer where we plan on driving aver 5000 miles with our three older children. My wife drives a 2008 Ford Taurus X, which we love, but does not have enough space for a family of five for such a long journey. We were originally going to rent a minivan from the local enterprise, but a two week rental will set us back $1,300 with tax.


Recently I noticed that there are some good deals to be had on fourth generation Chrysler minivans. My wife and I bought two of these vans new, a 2001 and a 2005, and we loved both vans. This has me thinking, why not just buy a loaded up low mileage van for around $3,000-$4,000, use it for the summer/trip, and then sell it after we are done. Any advice?

Sajeev answers:

If you have the cash flow/time to buy-then-sell AND assuming you can do a bit of repair with your own hands, then yes, you should absolutely do this! This will be cheaper than renting (obviously) and maybe even flying to your destination. Plus, road trips are all about the journey.  That said, let’s make sure you are safe and not stranded on the journey.

A list of items you must check on your short list of minivans you want to buy, then sell:

  • Tires, tires, tires. Road trips are hard on old tires, so new-ish tires are almost mandatory. And not just tread depth wise, also age wise. Don’t forget the spare, either!
  • Service records: buy the van with the most comprehensive service history. Even if it’s Barney purple and has stains/rips inside, that’s the safest bet.
  • Fresh fluids, good rubber hoses/wipers/belts/vacuum lines, fresh brakes and all the stuff we preach in this column on a regular basis.
  • Clear headlights with new bulbs, as you will drive at night and want to actually see where the hell you’re going.

There are other granular bits to discuss (strength of transaxle if subjected to neglected ATF) but that’s hard to armchair in terms of being a relevant concern to your short-term ownership.   I would buy the van with the most records, the best tires/brakes you can find and hope you can add value in your ownership (via repairs and detailing) so you can actually make money on your vacation!

Best of luck with that.

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.


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Road Trips, Pit Stops & Public Employees Fri, 20 Sep 2013 15:18:41 +0000

In the next couple of days Autumn will officially begin. For most of us, however, Summer ended back on Labor Day, that final day of freedom before kids all over the country had to get up early, stuff their new school supplies into their backpacks and board those big yellow nuisances to all of us who have a daily commute. Anyone with kids, kids, kids is tied to home so, for all but a privileged few, the season of great cross country road trips is at an end.

I am a seasoned cross-country road tripper. I started road like most children of my generation, in the rearward facing back seat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon as the Kreutzer family made our regular pilgrimage from our home in the mist shrouded forests of Western Washington to the vast, sun scorched plains of Eastern Kansas. Five kids, ranging in ages from 4 to 14, and two adults were crammed into the interior of the silver-green machine while our luggage was secured up-top in an old-time wooden roof rack covered under a tightly lashed canvas tarp. A couple of years later, we made the same trip in the back of my father’s newly purchased Chevrolet pick-up, the adults isolated happily up front while we kids rolled about loose in the atop blankets and sleeping bags protected from the elements by an aluminum canopy. Later, when my older siblings were deemed just “too big” to be forced into making the trip, my sister Connie and I shared the back seat of dad’s Delta 88.


I made my first cross country trip behind the wheel around 1990, with my friend John in my Dodge Shadow Turbo, when I drove from my home in Washington State to the Seafarer’s International Union’s School of Seamanship in Piney Point, MD. To this day John will tell you that I am some kind of control freak because, despite his many offers to relieve me, I drove every damn mile of the trip. Despite the fact that I hadn’t ordered cruise control on the car, the little Shadow proved to be a good ride for the cross country trip. With a tall 5th gear it positively loped along the interstate and, thanks to tall comfortable seats, we made the trip in good shape. When my training was done, I made the return trip alone in just under four days.

In 2001 I made virtually the same trip in my 1984 Cutlass when I drove from Washington State to Washington DC, a trip I made at the end of February managing to stay just ahead of a wicked arctic air mass that dogged me all the way across the great Plains, and, after storing the Olds for two years while I was overseas, made a leisurely return trip with my wife. In 2010 I crossed the country yet again in my 300M Special and, if the best laid plans of mice and men work out, expect to make the trip the opposite way in our new Town & Country sometime next summer.


The trip out to Buffalo in the 300M was probably the worst trip I have made. The car itself was great, it was the man in the driver seat that had real trouble and the reason was my as yet undiagnosed Diabetes. The ancient Greeks called Diabetes the disease in which you drink away your arms and legs and extreme thirst is one of the first signs that your blood sugar is out of control. As I understand it, when your body’s own insulin fails to bring your blood sugar down to normal levels, your body reacts by making you drink gallons and gallons of water. The water, in turn, carries away excess sugar in your urine and that sugar makes every trip to the bathroom smell like Lucky Charms.

The big Chrysler and I probably got about the same miles per gallon all the way across the United States. Unfortunately for me, my tank was a lot smaller than the 300’s and I ended up stopping at damn near every rest area on Interstate 90 as I made my way out from the west Coast. For the most part, I am pleased to report that the vast majority of rest areas along my chosen route were perfectly serviceable facilities and I feel nothing but gratitude for the men and women of the State Highway Departments that maintain them. One state, however, has rest stops that are head and shoulders above the rest. Are you ready for it? That state is South Dakota.


Rest areas in the State of South Dakota are beautifully maintained facilities. Their grounds are always impeccable, my own yard should look as good, and inside the restrooms are always sparkling clean. In their lobbies, many of the buildings have computerized informational kiosks and interactive geographic and historic displays that make them seem more like museums than public restrooms. Larger Information Centers are actually manned by staff who can help plan side trips and point out special attractions along your route and feature much appreciated extra amenities like pet exercise areas and places where RVs can empty their septic tanks. Having had the opportunity to visit almost every one of them, I think I can say with some certainty that they are consistently the best in the United States and I think it is important to note that Interstate 90 through that part of the country is not a toll road. These services are provided at no cost to Interstate travelers by the people of South Dakota.

In these still somewhat austere economic times, a lot of the services provided by federal, state and local governments have fallen by the wayside. We hear every day about poor service, bureaucratic nonsense, deteriorating infrastructure, new taxes and new forms of revenue generation so it’s nice to be able to report on something good for a change. That’s the discussion I would like to engender here today. Earlier this week we all had a chance to tell our stories about the times public employees have been less than helpful or about how our government has given us the runaround. Today, if you dare, let’s talk about the times they have got it right. Sure, it’s more fun to complain but somewhere, some public sector employee is fighting the good fight. It’s time they got a pat on the back. If you don’t like that, just to keep it classy, tell us about the best place to take a roadside dump.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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The Indulgent Road Trip, Circa 2013 Sun, 11 Aug 2013 13:00:09 +0000 Click here to view the embedded video.

Be forewarned:  This post contains some Porsche content.

Those with a strong appreciation for the automobile often romanticize the idealized Road Trip, the Grand Tour.  With rose-tinted glasses we esteem those transcontinental slogs made in cars suitable for the occasion, the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and so on that are exemplars of the (often) 12-cylinder, Gran Turismo genre.  Indeed, it’s difficult to read a review of such a car and escape reference to the hypothetical playboys who only interrupt sumptous repose to flog their aristocratic motors on epic drives of endurance.

In 2013, however, a road trip encompassing thousands of miles is quite a luxury, given the pressing hustle and bustle of the modern world.  It’s much quicker and easier to fly, after all.  In fact, it seems like the only people electing indulgent road trips these days are well-coined automotive journalists, like my friend Doug DeMuro.

That said, some people buck the trend.  An Englishman named Richard Morris goes by the alias “Jackal” in Porsche circles.  His website has likely bankrupted several 993 and 996.1 GT3 owners with its exhaustive DIY instructions, which allow other owners to maintain their cars as stringently as aircraft.  Morris is part of a motley crew of 911 owners who take annual pilgrimages across the Chunnel to exercise their cars.  Once they’ve returned to Blighty, Jackal compiles and edits the media memorializing the trip, illustrating the skills that allow him to pay for his motors.  His summary of the 2012 journey proved to be a minor hit:

Click here to view the embedded video.

If this is a lazy weekend for you, take a few moments to live vicariously through Jackal & Co., who’ve managed to have a pretty Grand Tour, despite having about half the cylinders needed to legitimize such a trip.


Driving a Porsche 911, especially an older or hardcore variant, for nearly 400 miles a day multiplied across 10 days must have been tiring (on both man and machine).


Nevertheless, I doubt any members of this party required an alarm clock to tackle each new day.


Instead, I’d wager that the not-so-diluted tincture of octane, the sounds of the engines gradually ticking cool, and the residual adrenaline coursing through the participants’ veins took care of things.  That, and the knowledge that the road ahead would be as good as what passed.


Of course you don’t have to have a Porsche or 10 days of vacation time to have your own Grand Tour.  You just have to go.

Please share your own videos, pictures, and stories of memorable, long-distance drives in the comments!

David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta.  A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.

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The Cross-Country CTS-V Wagon Roadtrip Starts Tomorrow Thu, 08 Aug 2013 16:19:24 +0000 Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 12.04.48 PM

Different cars serve different purposes. Of course, you already know this. You know, for example, that people buy compact cars for fuel economy. People buy minivans to haul other people. And people buy Acuras because they’re confused.

So why do people buy station wagons? For practicality, of course. People buy wagons so they can pack up all their belongings, load them inside the cargo area, and hand the keys to a car transporter who makes constant runs between Greenwich, Connecticut, and Palm Beach.

Of course, here I am thinking of the Mercedes E-Class wagon, a vehicle that’s owned by many esteemed wealthy people, all of whom are still mad at Bernie Madoff. But this behavior isn’t true of all wagons. Some people, after all, purchase their wagons to drive. And I happen to be one of those people.

And that’s why I’m leaving tomorrow morning to go on a cross-country, 5,500-mile roadtrip through 17 states with my station wagon. I’ve decided to devote the remainder of this post to a Q&A session that covers what I can only assume are the questions that you, dear reader, might ask. Here goes:

Q: Are you nuts?

A: Yeah.

Q: Why the hell are you doing this?

A: Because it’s fun! Remember when people used to take roadtrips? It’s a lost art, sort of like those people who churn their own butter. I’m not much of a churner, so I decided to do this instead.

There are two other big reasons. One is that I want to go to this year’s Monterey Car Week and the various Pebble Beach automotive events. And two, my East Coast-born girlfriend wants to see the West. What better way to kill two birds with one stone than by driving to Pebble Beach through the West in the single least-efficient automobile I have ever owned?

Q: Fine, but I want to see pictures. Can I see pictures?

A: I don’t know, can you? (Don’t you hate when people say this? Whenever someone says this to me, I want to condemn them to a life of churning butter.)

The real answer is: yes, you can see pictures. The easiest way will be to follow me on Twitter, where I will be posting constant updates from the road.

Q: Twitter? What am I, a nine-year-old girl?

A: Yeah, I know. Telling people to “follow me on Twitter” is the single most embarrassing thing I have ever done, so if you don’t do it, I won’t be offended in the slightest. With that said, Triple-A follows me on Twitter, though this is probably because, as a Land Rover owner, I am their biggest client.

If you don’t want to go on Twitter, I will also be photo-dumping as often as possible on my website, And I’ll try to post the occasional update here, though you might have to hold out until I get back. After all, what was supposed to be a romantic summer roadtrip has quickly turned into a large-scale automotive event. Like usual.

Q: Are you going to do burnouts in all 17 states?

A: Probably.

Q: What are you bringing with you?

A: Funny you should ask! We will be bringing luggage, more luggage, and (since my girlfriend is coming) even more luggage. We also have extra tires, largely because I don’t want to get stuck calling a tow truck in rural Nevada, where the preferred method of towing involves a lifted Chevy pickup and a fraying rope.

Q: How much is Cadillac paying you for all this free publicity?

A: I know, right? Cadillac, if you’re reading this, can you send me an unsold 2009 DTS? We all know you have them sitting around somewhere.

Q: Will you be stopping anywhere?

A: Yes.

Q: Uh, where?

A: Well, for one thing, we’ll be stopping every 45 minutes or so for fuel. After all, the car can’t even break 18 miles per gallon on the highway, and its fuel tank is roughly the size of a regulation softball. So if you live in any county along the route, be on the lookout for a Cadillac station wagon filled with tires, luggage, and two people who are thinking: Maybe we didn’t need to see the West so badly after all.

We’ll also be stopping at all the major sights. Big Sur. Yosemite. Death Valley. The Grand Canyon. The Gateway Arch. The place in Aspen where John Denver was arrested for driving under the influence after he wrecked his Porsche. The place in Aspen where John Denver was arrested again for driving under the influence, but because driving under the influence is so widely accepted in Aspen, his punishment was that he had to play a concert.

So, basically, we’re seeing all the important sights.

Q: Well, this sounds like fun.

A: Doesn’t it? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go prepare for the trip. In other words: I have to get gas.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars and the operator of He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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Highway Star: Road Tripping In The Ford Freestar Fri, 05 Jul 2013 16:14:18 +0000 1978 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Sometime in the predawn hours of a day in early August 1974, my father loaded his wife and five children into his recently purchased Chevrolet ¾ ton pickup truck, the adults isolated safely in the cab while we kids were locked like monkeys in a cage under a canopy in the back, and left Snohomish, WA for Horton, KS. It was a trip we made several times during my childhood and I have vivid memories of waking up in the predawn hours when the air was still cold and first rays of the sun were just beginning to paint the sky in the East. In the decades since, my road trips have always begun that same way and so now, having just completed their first big road trip from Buffalo, NY to Washington D.C. my children will share those memories as well.

With my glorious, mile-eating 300M now in another man’s garage and my daily driven Pontiac Torrent far too small for three car seats in the second row, there remained only one choice of vehicle for our trip: the “Gray Lady,” the 2005 Ford Freestar van that I have previously written about because of its transmission issues. Despite my previous assertions that I was entirely happy with the repairs my local Ford dealer had made, I must confess that the discussion that accompanied that article, and the long list of problems many of TTAC’s best and brightest recounted about this particular model made me a little concerned about making the 8 hour jump to DC. The good news is that the Ford made the trip without incident, on days when the temperature hovered solidly in the mid 90s, air conditioner blasting the whole way.


I have always thought the inside of the Freestar is a comfortable place to be for driver and passengers. With my daughters in car seats in the second row captain’s chairs and my son atop a booster in the back row our ability to cram in the necessities of a life with young children was somewhat limited. Still, the well at the back of the van, an area large enough to swallow the third row seat to create a flat floor for loading larger cargo, had enough room for a large cooler, a folding stroller and three medium sized suitcases. In addition to the booster, the back seat held my son’s electronic-filled rucksack, presents for the people we were visiting and our Jack Russell Terrier in her medium sized travel carrier. On the floor between first and second row seats, a space made possible only by the fact my girls are still too small to have their feet reach the floor, were bags with still more personal electronics, DVDs, toys and other things and between my wife and I was small cooler with drinks and snacks. Even loaded to the gunnels, I was able to have the driver’s seat in its rearmost position and the seat back tilted the way I liked it. My wife, too, had her entire foot well to herself.

Out on the New York State throughway we wicked up to speed and ran on cruise control right at the posted limit all the way to Erie,PA where we peeled off south across the rolling hill country towards Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania turnpike. The van handled well, our new transmission transitioning on its own between overdrive and the lower gears without so much as a judder in order to perfectly maintain the speed I had set on the cruise control. The steering wheel was steady and firm, and the van’s soft suspension soaked up the road’s imperfections without transmitting them to my velour ensconced back side. As I have said before, the view out the front of the van is unobstructed and I soaked in the sights as they rushed towards me.


The Pennsylvania turnpike is a miserable road to drive. Road crews are working hard to make it better, but using it to cross the state remains arduous. Steep grades slow the big trucks down below the limit and force most of the cars to the left where those of us who are not interested in doing 20mph over the speed limit end up obstructing those who are. To passengers it feels like you are on the ocean, the vehicle pitching and heaving on the grades and rolling ponderously to one side and then the other as you continually change lanes. Eventually you hit the turn-off to DC, a maelstrom of traffic known as Breezewood, that puts you on city streets and subjects you to stoplights and a left turn across oncoming traffic before putting you back on another freeway, which leads to another that soon fills with ever increasing traffic as you bore in on our nation’s crowded capital.

Thanks to a couple of big accidents on the highway and backups that stretched into the dozens of miles I also had a chance to test my van in stop and go traffic. The brakes worked great and the van accelerated smoothly six or seven feet at a time everytime I pressed the pedal. We were, at the end of our long wait, rewarded for our patience by the sight of a broken car in the middle of the highway, both ends smashed as it contacted the cement barriers fore and aft while it spun. That sobering sight passed, we headed on into DC and arrived in time for a late dinner.

Enola Gay

If you have never visited Washington D.C. it is a trip worth making. The Smithsonian is free, but the parking is not so don’t forget your wallet. We visited the National Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles airport one day, played in the pool the next and went to the National Mall the third. It was not the kind of mall my kids were expecting, but they persevered. The fourth day we loaded the Freestar back up with our luggage, electronics, dog, still more presents and souvenirs and placed our now sunburned bodies back in our seats and made the trip back across Pennsylvania home to Western New York.

We ran through some vicious thunderstorms and the Freestar responded well. The wiper blades I had changed out prior to our trip did a good job of clearing the water off the van’s massive windshield and the tires I bought new when we got the van two years ago had more than enough tread to channel away the water on the roadway. We dropped our speed according to the conditions and despite the incredible downpours I never felt anywhere near the limits of control. We rolled into Buffalo just after suppertime, still running on the tank of gas I put in before we left our hotel in Arlington, VA, put the van into the garage and our trip was completed without incident and totally trouble free.

Once again my Ford Freestar has impressed me with its comfort, cargo capacity and its solidity. I have never been a Ford guy, in fact this is the first FoMoCo product I have ever owned, but other than the vehicle’s somewhat dowdy styling I haven’t a single complaint about my experience. I see these rigs selling on Craigslist for just a couple of thousand dollars these days and, if one is prepared to deal with the possible mechanical issues, they are an appealing alternative to their much more expensive competitors. Although I would rather have kept the rather large amount of money I had to pay to replace my van’s transmission in my pocket, I am glad that I did not dump it at a loss and purchase something else when it ran into trouble. She truly is a Gray Lady and although she is aging she remains graceful and competent in all that she does. I am proud she is a part of my family.

2003 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Sluggish Economy Makes For Faster July 4th Road Trips – Even On A Budget Thu, 20 Jun 2013 15:18:53 +0000

“Fewer drivers will take to the road during the Independence Day holiday in part due to a sluggish economy, but also because people will take less time off,” the  AAA told Reuters.

Gas is around 10 cents a gallon higher than last year, but that’s not what’s keeping Americans off the highways.

Americans are worried about the effects of the spending cuts, and hits from higher taxes because of the expiring Social Security tax cut this year, the wire says. \

The calendar also plays a role. July 4 fell on a Wednesday last year, which led people to take a longer vacation. This year, it’s on a Thursday.

Good for those who hot the roads nonetheless. Fewer people, fewer traffic jams!

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Dealing With Loss: My Father’s Oldsmobile Tue, 26 Mar 2013 18:19:03 +0000

My wife with the Oldsmobile at Storm Lake, WA

Nobody likes to think about the passing of a parent. When it happens it leaves you with a lot of different feelings, sadness, emptiness, loneliness and even, if your parent has been effected by a long illness or a prolonged decline, an unexpected sense of relief and completion. The grieving process is different for everyone, the legal process isn’t. Within a few days of your parent’s passing, the division of assets, property and cherished mementos begins to grind relentlessly forward. If your family gets along well, who gets what is generally handled gracefully and your relationships are actually strengthened by the process. So it was with my family and, since I was the only “car guy” among my brothers and sisters, it was a foregone conclusion that I would get my father’s Oldsmobile.

Despite George Orwell’s dire prediction, 1984 was a pretty good year. Sure the economy was tough, but America felt like it was on the rebound and the music was generally good. It was the year I graduated from high school and it was also the year my father purchased a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. It was a lovely little car in a stately gray color with good-looking Oldsmobile Rallye wheels shod with white wall tires. My father was a working class guy, a telephone man, and he understood what made a car reliable over the long haul. More stuff meant more opportunities for a car to break, so he passed over the optional V8 and chose a car with the Buick V6. He also skipped the landau top, leather seats, power windows and all the other upscale options. Still, the car never felt like it was missing anything, it was simply beautiful.

Over the next decade the Oldsmobile saw a lot of light duty. It made a few cross-country trips but spent most of its time under a cover in the garage waiting for Sunday morning trips to church. By the time cancer finally overtook my father in the early 90s, the little Olds had just 60K miles. My mom, who had never been a driver, let the car sit for months until she finally worked up the courage to take a driving course. Once she got her license, the Olds went back on the road, but even so my mom stayed close to home and over the next few years the car continued to see limited use.

Upon my return from Japan in 2001, I purchased a well-worn 200SX Turbo. Later, when I got a job on the other side of the country, my mother stepped up and offered me the Oldsmobile. I was thrilled to get it. The car still turned a lot of heads and it drove out well too. It was the perfect car to take across country and in March of 2002 I took it to Washington DC, but when I was sent overseas in July of that year I faced a hard choice. I really didn’t make sense to hang on to the car, but at the same time it was a tangible link to my father. It just seemed wrong to sell, so I stored it instead.

My Son Harley and me with my father’s oldsmobile

In July of 2004, I returned to the United States and my wife and I took the car back across the country. It was a great trip. We came up to Niagara Falls then drove across to Michigan where we boarded the SS Badger for a trip across the lake. A couple of days later we spent the night in Wall South Dakota, a place I always stop at on my cross-country journeys, and then headed to see Mt. Rushmore. Then it was on to Yellowstone where we had reservations at the Old Faithful Inn and finally, after a couple of days in the park, we headed home to Seattle. Three weeks after that, the car was back in storage and I was on my way to Japan.

After two years in Japan I made another lengthy trip home and I decided that I should finally go ahead and get rid of the Olds. It was a hard decision but the long periods of storage were not good for the old car, I knew. When my two years old son in tow, we went up to the storage unit, prepped the car and brought it home. We had a nice month with the old car and took a lot of pictures. It was important to get a lot of photos with the car and my son Harley, who is named after my father. At the end of the trip, rather than return it to storage, I passed the car on to my twenty-something nephew who was just starting a family of his own.

I suppose I should have known that the car would be more of a burden to him than it was an asset. He did use it to carry around his wife and baby for a while, but when he hit a period of extended unemployment, he decided to sell it. I was, and still am disappointed. Over the years I had spent thousands of dollars in storage and maintenance fees on the old car and all that was gone in an instant. My father, however, would have approved. He was, after all, a pragmatist and no piece of property, no matter how many good memories were associated with it, would have stood between him and supporting his family.

Owing the car for as long as I did was like a final gift from my father. Letting it go was hard, but with it also came a sense of relief and completion. As it turns out, too, the money that my nephew got for it went to purchase a set of tools required to start a new job – as a telephone man just like his grandpa. Maybe that’s the happy ending I needed.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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First Annual White Knuckle White-Out Challenge Sat, 23 Feb 2013 11:45:57 +0000

Most harebrained ideas are hatched under the influence This was no different. A thousand miles removed from Canada’s largest city, two freelance automotive writers were guzzling beer and bandying about ideas for potential stories. Most of the concepts were actually elaborate ruses designed solely for gaining access to OEM press fleets.

“Let’s drive to Toronto!” Mark heartily suggested. “It’s only, what, a thousand miles?”

“That’s sixteen hundred kilometers, in Queen’s English,” I corrected him. “Why? For what purpose?”

“Well, the Canadian International Auto Show is in February. Let’s crash that party.” White out!

Perfect. Smartphones were synced. Billfolds were audited. A plan was put into action. Deciding to go was the easy part; now we had to figure out how to get there. Clearly, driving would be the preferred method, given that we both write about cars. For me, a personal rule is that if I can drive to a destination with minimal fuss and aggravation, I will do so rather than suffer the anguish of thundering through the atmosphere in a poorly ventilated jet-engined cigar with wings.

Several OEMs were approached and the idea was pitched that two Large Persons driving a thousand miles to Toronto in the dead of winter would make for a great story. Two manufacturers grabbed hold of the concept – Mazda provided an MX-5 and Chrysler ponied up a Fiat 500 Turbo. Shod with winter tires, having a couple of sport compacts out of their natural elements promised to be entertaining.


Little did we know just how entertaining. Setting off at promptly 9:48am from far flung Truro, Nova Scotia, spirits ran high. The sun blazed, crystallizing the record snowfall from a major snowstorm that had dumped a foot of snow the day previous. As we vacated town, the hills rang with snow-blowers, and the occasional mating call of a rare species, the Snowplowus Interruptus.

We were in northern New Brunswick, about seven hours on the road, when the snow was back, to strike hard and fast. With little daylight remaining, we exited the highway, trundling to a halt at a little used coffee shop that smelled like pee. Eschewing their blackened offerings, we weighed our options. The snow was falling at an apocalyptic rate. Even a military convoy ahead of us had sought shelter at a nearby, downtrodden motel.

“I’d rather get a kick in the nuts than drive in the dark in this shit,” I blustered aloud while beating two inches of ice off the little Fiat’s wiper blades.

Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Mark flatly suggested that we at least make a run for the Quebec border, some 200km distant. Knowing full well that once I had the chance to curse the weather and refill the windshield washer fluid tank on the Fiat, I’d be game to continue the drive. He was right. We reentered the divided highway full of gusto, verve, and fuel.

“The little red-headed Italian likes to wiggle her hips,” I tersely reported over the two-way radio. Hardly the car’s fault, this. In fact, the snow was so deep that the front bumper of the MX-5 often acted as the most rudimentary of plows, biffing fluffy white powder up in the air and back over its bonnet. Snow was a good six inches deep on the road surface.

In the Fiat, the windshield washer fluid reservoir continued to stick in my craw, running dry at what seemed to be three second intervals. Memo to Fiat: please, please increase the windshield wash capacity. At a mere two litres, all it takes is for a few trucks to roar by the 500 Turbo to deplete its meagre allotment of blue liquid. At minimum, add a LOW WASHER FLUID idiot light to the cinnamon bun of a gauge cluster. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Fiat driver’s seat was astonishingly comfortable for this six and a half foot author.

Trucks rocketed past in the fast lane, secured by the weight of their 52 foot heavy trailers. With visibility near zero, I went on ahead in the Fiat, hazards blaring. I figured that if I illuminated the car, my chances of being found when I eventually deposited myself into a crusty roadside snowbank would rise from None to Slim.

It was during this leg of the journey that I dubbed the whole event the First Annual White Knuckle Challenge.

But you know what? The sojourn into the snowbank that seemed so inevitable simply didn’t happen. Not only did we forge through to the Quebec border, we made it all the way to our planned stop at a hotel which had been booked several days prior. It was a solid thirteen hours after setting out from Truro that morning and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

For two cars that are usually approached in winter with the same caution as one would approach a lump of plutonium that has suddenly appeared in the lettuce crisper, the 500 Turbo and MX-5 were totally and superbly competent machines. Cars are like sex: with the correct rubber on, they can go anywhere.

The next morning brought more snow covered roads and much appreciated daylight. Precipitation and perspiration ceased about an hour after we left the hotel, and we approached the froggy delights of Montreal with élan. Pausing for some photos at the base of a picturesque mountain in a random megabucks suburb, the two sport compacts suddenly looked like the entirely right choices for this journey. At that moment, I couldn’t have imagined driving anything else. Onwards, then.


Montreal drivers frequently displayed a dangerous mixture of apathy and aggression, prompting banzai lane changes and the occasional furrowed brow. In fifth gear, the Fiat’s turbo lag is best measured with a calendar, forcing one to row their way through fourth and even third gear in order to keep the 1.4L on full boil while maintaining flank speed in heavy traffic.

Navigating the busiest highway in North America, we wound our way to our hotel in downtown Toronto. Arriving in the dark, I reflected on how damn well these two cars performed, completely out of their element. The Fiat even returned good fuel economy, 7.2L/100km. That’s 40mpg , as close as makes no difference. On snow tires. In rough conditions. Win.

At the base of CN Tower, high fives were exchanged. We made it in one piece, even though the brown pants factor was high on occasion. That evening, more alcohol was consumed and more plans were hatched. What kind, you ask? Let’s just say it involves a couple of full-sized trucks and some precision driving. VTEC just kicked in, yo!

For this journey, Mazda provided an insured MX-5 while Chrysler provided an insured Fiat 500 Turbo, both with clutch pedals. Save the Manuals!

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]]> 45 Real-World Review: Fleeing Hurricane Sandy Across 8 States In a Rented 2012 Kia Sorento Wed, 14 Nov 2012 13:30:06 +0000 So the Halloween Hooptiefest 24 Hours of LeMons at New Hampshire Motors Speedway went well, with the Rust In The Wind Saab-powered Nissan 300ZX taking a very improbable overall win, and we of the LeMons HQ crew were packing up the gear on Sunday afternoon and getting ready to head home… when we heard that all of our flights out of Logan— in fact, all flights out of the northeastern United States— were canceled due to ZOMG THE END OF THE WORLD IS COMING PANIC YALL!!!1! The plan had been to drive our rental Kia Sorento 70 miles or so to an airport hotel, spend the night there, and grab our flights early Monday morning. We got to the hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts, where we convened an emergency meeting of the very exhausted LeMons brain trust.
The four of us— me, Nick Pon, Jeff Glenn, and Jay Lamm— figured we could hunker down in the hotel for what was shaping up to be at least three days of hurricane hell, probably without electricity and most likely fighting with roaming bands of storm-maddened locals for D batteries and maybe rat carcasses to roast over burning tires… or we could leap into the Sorento and drive west or south in order to get to an airport both out of reach of Sandy’s path and featuring flights to San Francisco (for them) and Denver (for me). If we were going to go for the latter choice, we’d have to start quickly; it was already 8:30 PM and the edge of the fast-approaching storm would soon be closing roads and probably gas stations along any route we might take. We’d all been running on a few hours’ sleep per night for the previous few days— running a LeMons race with 100+ entries takes a lot out of you even when you are catching eight hours of Zs each night— but each of us had plenty of wild-eyed road trip experience and we figured we could split the driving four ways, crank the Melt-Banana to stay awake, and arrive alive. After a flurry of calls to airlines and frenzied study of weather maps— all four guys on laptops and phones— we narrowed our choices to Cincinatti and Charlotte. The storm looked likely to head east, but it had already been south, so we opted for Charlotte, North Carolina, close to 900 miles to the southwest. OK, let’s do it!
Jay Lamm samples Pickle Vodka - picture courtesy of Judge PhilLeMons Chief Perp Jay Lamm, however, decided that he just wasn’t crazy enough to do the drive; he’d tried to dodge Hurricane Irene when in New York the year before and just ended up dealing with more hassle than if he’d just stayed put. So, he handed us the keys to the Kia and all the cash he could spare and sent us on our way. It was 8:50 on Sunday night and we had reservations for flights out of Charlotte for early Tuesday morning. No sweat, as long as we didn’t get trapped by closed roads and/or panic-stricken crowds clogging the roads in an escape frenzy.
Because we had visions of getting trapped on a dead-stalled highway in Maryland or Pennsylvania (I was getting sweated by visions from Cortázar’s endless-traffic-jam story La Autopista del Sur), we blew into the nearby Trader Joe’s to get provisions to last us a few days. I had several bottles of quality bribe booze from racers in my luggage, so I figured we’d be able to barter that for a few tin cups of mulligan stew from friendly hobos camped next to the miles of abandoned cars. Our shopping expedition was a whirlwind affair, since we showed up four minutes before closing time; three race organizers grabbing random stuff off the shelves as the apocalypse bears down results in a strange menu indeed. Two weeks later, I’m still eating leftover Plutonium Joe’s Isotopes-n-Capers Trail Mix™ and Hukbalahap Joe’s Balut Sticks™.
Assuming that the power was about to go out everywhere, we filled up the Sorento at the first gas station we found. While Jeff pumped, I went in to the station to buy Nitrute-Enhanced™ meat-stick snacks and caffeinated beverages. “Stocking up for the storm?” asked the clerk. “Hell no!” I replied, “We’re driving straight to North Carolina!” Everyone in the place turned and gazed upon me with respect. Or something.
The cargo area of the Sorento was just about completely filled with our luggage; we bring all the transponders and a bunch of other bulky race gear with us as checked baggage when we travel to races, so we had a lot of crap. It was a good thing that Jay had decided to stay behind, because we needed the unoccupied rear passenger seats for our food, phone chargers, and other stuff we’d need to be able to reach while the Sorento was in motion. So, if you’re traveling heavy, the Sorento barely has room for three adults and their equipment.
Even though Jeff had just spent a long day as Race Manager in the NHMS tower— that is, the guy who coordinates all the flaggers, emergency crews, pit-in/out staffers, sends me the penalty information, everything, a job akin to being an air-traffic controller combined with a police dispatcher— he swore he felt alert and ready to go and he insisted on driving the first leg of our journey.
We decided that we’d need to give New York City a wide berth, due to the increasingly scary reports of evacuations from the city, and so we planned a route that took us west to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then southwest to Charlotte. Since Sandy at this time was just off the Virginia coast and moving due north, our route would be taking us down into the storm— or at least its western edge— but we figured we’d be far enough inland to avoid the worst effects.
The wind was getting wilder, the rain was starting to pelt down pretty hard, and I-84 was crowded with erratic-driving hurricane escapees, but Jeff kept saying “I feel great!” and kept the hammer down. The unibody, car-chassis-based Sorento proved to be surprisingly agile for a tall-looking CUV packed to the rafters with passengers and cargo.
One of my jobs as Chief Justice of the LeMons Supreme Court is to write the post-race summaries for the race sponsor, preferably on race day, so I tethered my laptop to my PDANet-equipped smartphone, fired up Photoshop to prep my shots of the winners, and got to work. The Sorento’s back seats aren’t up to, say, Crown Victoria levels of roominess (starting out, we felt that the Crown Vic/Grand Marquis would have been the ideal rental vehicle for this situation) and the ride got fairly bouncy, but I was able to get the job done before the laptop’s battery died. Meanwhile, the final game of the World Series was going on, and lifelong Giants fan Nick was doing his best to pick up the ballgame broadcast on the Kia’s radio.
We managed to pick up the final pitch of the game while we were somewhere in New York, and Nick wanted this shot to immortalize the moment (I’m an Oakland A’s fan, but— unlike most A’s fans— I don’t wish ill upon the Giants). Outside the car, the weather just kept getting uglier, but Jeff rebuffed all suggestions that someone else might take the wheel: “No, no, I feel good.”
At this point, the wind levels were getting worrisome. 18-wheeler drivers were pulling off at rest areas and hunkering down while many of the car drivers were getting increasingly erratic; some were creeping along at 35 while others pulled off head-clutching thread-the-needle passes on the road shoulder. Our Sorento was the quickest thing on the road, hauling distinctly un-CUV-ish levels of ass under dangerous conditions, and yet Nick and I weren’t the slightest bit nervous. Here is the place in this tale where I need to discuss the differences between good drivers and professional racers, because Jeff Glenn is a member of the latter group.
Jeff came from a racing family and was autocrossing an MGB and a Mini years before he was old enough to get a street license. As he got older, he graduated to faster and faster cars, until eventually he was piloting open-wheelers for a living. A few years older than the competition— because he’d opted to get a college degree and “wasted” four years— he realized that the reality of being a pro racer hadn’t turned out to be as much fun as he’d imagined as a kid, and so he became an automotive journalist and, when his editor started putting on goofy races, a race promoter.
Most of the time, Jeff is just the well-organized LeMons HQ staffer who talks to corner-workers on the radio, answers confused questions from racers who can’t figure out how to choose a car number, and makes sure all the gear gets shipped to the correct tracks. It’s when he gets behind the wheel of a vehicle— any vehicle— and the situation turns weird that you realize that you’re dealing with a heavy-duty, alien-DNA driving mutant here. Running late for your flight and need to do a 60-MPH bootlegger turn in an Aveo on a crowded airport road in order to get to the rental-car dropoff in time? No problem, Jeff makes it happen. Or, say you’re in Jamaica on the LeMons corporate retreat, you’ve got a diesel Toyota HiAce with 13 passengers and right-hand drive, and you need to navigate Jamaican roads teeming with stray dogs, overloaded buses, and “drug dons” in Escalades. Again, this is the guy you want driving.
Jeff gets an unnerving sense of focus when a driving situation becomes serious; his responses to communication go all robotic and he lasers holes in the windshield, looking several turns ahead at all times. In Jamaica, he had a way of knowing that there’d be a Montero with a busted axle blocking the road just around the next blind curve and he’d have the HiAce ready for it. In the Sorento, he got faster as the worsening weather conditions chased the other drivers off the highways and we knew that we had to outrace Sandy before she trapped us for three days at the Northern Maryland Chlamydic Lot Lizard Rest Area.
By the time we reached I-81, the southbound direction was empty save for a few hell-bent-for-leather diesel demons determined to get their 18-wheelers out of Sandy’s reach and barreling their wind-tossed trucks along at 85 MPH. The Smokeys were all tied up dealing with storm-related problems, and so Jeff really got on the Kia’s throttle at that point. I can’t say that the Sorento is quiet at speed in a hurricane, nor can I say that its ride is smooth. In fact, all that marketing talk about SUVs coddling you in a cocoon of isolation from the scary world outside— be it full of Uzi-packin’ carjackers or cataclysmic weather extremes— had nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of our Sorento experience. At one point I thought to fret about storm-addled cervidae hurling themselves into our windshield. “Don’t worry,” said Jeff, passing a careening Freightliner uphill as various tree parts bounced along the tarmac, “I’ll see them.” The storm got worse and worse as we blew through Maryland and the corner of West Virginia where we hold the Capitol Offense LeMons races, and we resorted to blasting Blood Sugar Sex Magick, repeatedly, to drown out the road noise. The sound system in our Sorento— I’m assuming the fleet version gets the El Cheapo stereo— was adequate, with a handy USB jack for our iPods, though the rear speakers deliver tinny sound reminiscent of the Flavoradio and the interface is on the maddening side.
We were in too much of a frenzy to keep track of fuel economy, but we had to make several fuel stops to refill its 18-gallon tank. Our all-wheel-drive, squarish pseudo-truck probably didn’t crack the 20 MPG barrier, given our not-so-efficient pace.
We encountered snow and sleet in the hills of Virgina, but the winds began to calm as Sandy and the Sorento headed in opposite directions. Nick and I gave up asking Jeff if he wanted to take a driving break, even as he began talking up the idea of roaring straight through to Atlanta, where we’d be able to catch Monday-morning flights.
Somewhere near the Virginia-North Carolina line, the skies cleared and the sun began to rise. We woke up the LeMons Travel Boss and official moonshine taster and had her start looking to move our flights out of Charlotte from Tuesday to Monday. Success!
Just before 9:00 AM Monday, exactly 12 hours after beginning our journey (that’s an average speed of just over 74 MPH, including fuel stops and the traffic-slowed leg to Scranton), we arrived at Charlotte Airport. We had a few hours to kill before our flight, so we blew some of Jay’s cash on an airport hotel suite to shower and catch a few hours of sleep. Then we dropped off the Kia at the rental-car lot (it turns out that the rental companies waived the drop-off-at-different-airport fees for customers traveling from Sandy-affected areas) and settled down to wait for our flights.
By 3:00 PM Monday, I was on a Denver-bound plane, just six hours later than I’d have been if my Logan-DIA flight had taken place.

As for Jay’s idea to ride out the storm in Massachusetts… well, he tells his story in the official LeMons wrapup video (all the 2012 season’s wrapup videos may be viewed here).

Here’s my (probably) NSFW personal wrapup video of the drive.
As I contemplated rummaging through my troubled fellow passenger’s carry-on bag— yeah, it was very difficult in my sleepless, giddy state to avoid provoking an entertaining incident with Mr. DO NOT Touch— I thought about the 2012 Kia Sorento as high-performance hurricane-fleeing machine. Was its impressive high-speed performance all driver/no car (as was the case when we stuck Randy Pobst behind the wheel of a worse-than-stock MGB-GT at Charlotte Motor Speedway)? If we had it to do over again with a different vehicle, would we have taken the Crown Victoria or— shudder— the Mitsubishi Galant from the rental-car lot? The choice of the Sorento makes more sense when you consider the “what if” scenarios. Say, the nightmare 48 hours stuck in the vehicle when the highway floods and you need to sleep in the thing, or the highway gets covered in a foot of mud and only four-wheel-drive can get you unstuck; in those cases, the Sorento provides the right mix of decent speed and versatility that your discerning race organizer prefers. The Kia Sorento: It’s Reasonably Competent™!

19 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Nick Pon 01 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Nick Pon 10 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 2010 Toyota HiAce  - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 2010 Toyota HiAce - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - Jeff Glenn at Laguna Seca - Picture courtesy of Jeff Glenn Jay Lamm samples Pickle Vodka - picture courtesy of Judge Phil 19 - Psycho Kia Sorento Drive - Picture Courtesy of Google 20- Kia Sorento Drive - Picture courtesy of Nick Pon 21 - Psycho Kia Sorento Drive - Picture Courtesy of Google 22 - 2012 Kia Sorento - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 28
My Introduction To Panther Love: Inaugural Police Interceptor Road Trip! Fri, 25 May 2012 14:30:42 +0000 Back in 2004, I was doing a typical East Bay highway commute to my job writing software documentation. Ten miles each way in a Tercel (I had my choice of an ’85 wagon or a ’90 hatch), and the ever-increasing numbers of badly-driven SUVs on the Dreaded Nimitz were making me feel quite vulnerable in my little rice-burners. I needed a more substantial daily driver, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be an 8-MPG truck with 64-ouncer cup holders. What I needed, I decided, was an ex-cop Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor!
My first thought was to get an ex-CHP car, with only highway miles on the clock and much better maintenance than most local police departments perform on their cars. Plus, highway patrolmen don’t do much arresting, which means fewer gallons of urine and vomit emitted by cuffed-and-stuffed drunken back-seat passengers. California state vehicles get auctioned off once a month near Sacramento, so I headed up I-80 to check out some black-and-white P71s. Unfortunately, every P71 aficionado in Northern California knows that ex-CHP cars are less thrashed and piss-soaked than Crown Vics that spent their lives driving over Oakland curbs or chasing miscreants down potholed Redding alleyways. Late-90s cars were selling for upwards of $3,000, which was about a grand more than I wanted to pay. The K-9 cars, with their cool-looking hood louvers and extra-oversized AC compressors, were going for even higher prices. So, I passed on the CHP cars.
Not long after that, I went to a big car auction specializing in ex-government vehicles. Hundreds of Crown Victoria Police Interceptors were going under the hammer every couple of weeks; most of them were completely trashed city black-and-whites (complete with spotlights, push bumpers, and icky odors), and they were selling to cab companies for a grand or less. Right in the middle of all these cars, however, was a group of a dozen or so ex-San Joaquin County unmarked Police Interceptors. Every one was a ’97 model, none had spotlights or cages or antenna holes in the roof, all had decent interiors, and all were bronze or dark blue. They were going for $2,500 to $3,000 apiece, but one of the bronze ones had a big shallow dent in the driver’s door and the bidding was much slower on it. I was willing to go to $2,000, and my bid of $1,600 was the winner. Sold!
At just seven years old, this was the newest car I’d ever owned. The trunk was full of stuff, including a bunch of paperwork indicating that it had been driven by a San Joaquin County parole officer. I also found crime-scene Polaroids, Parolee Handbooks, and urine test kits. Everything worked, it drove very nicely, and I decided that I needed to take it on a serious road trip as soon as possible. At the time, I was a serious fan of the Oakland Athletics, having attended 25 or so games a year going back a decade. 2004 was the height of the Moneyball era, with the “big three” of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson pitching, and the A’s were locked a nail-biting September battle with their archrivals, the Anaheim Angels, for the division championship.
I’d been shooting photos at ballgames for a while (here’s Hudson in his rookie year), and I decided that what I really needed to do was pack up my homemade stereo camera (a pair of Konica point-and-shoots, loaded with slide film and mounted on an aluminum bracket) and take my new car the 430 miles down to Orange County and shoot some 3D slide pairs of the A’s playing at Angel Stadium.
That meant, of course, driving the same highway as so many of my Impala Hell Project road trips, with the destination just a few miles from where the Impala had put in so much work lowering property values.
So, a couple of days after buying my parole-officer Panther, after having put only 15 miles on it and with no idea about any mechanical problems this 130,000-mile car might have, I gathered up some of my A’s-fan friends and headed straight to Interstate 5.
The game started at 5:00 PM and we wanted to get to Angel Stadium in time to do some barbecuing in the parking lot, so we departed early in the morning. I was a little concerned about the lack of license plates, but I figured I could just show any inquisitive CHPs my auction documents. The drive went smoothly, the car was very comfortable for four occupants, and I became increasingly pleased with the superiority of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. It was the kind of car that all the rear-drive/V8 Detroit sedans of the 1960s through the 1980s should have been.
The tailgate-party scene at Anaheim Stadium bore about the same relationship to the corresponding scene at the Oakland Coliseum as touring with the Pope does to touring with 2 $hort. I could make all sorts of Oakland-versus-Orange-County comparisons here, but you probably get the idea.
We ate a lot of sausages, drank a lot of beer, and threw a baseball around the parking lot. Then we headed into the stadium… where Mulder got lit up by the Angels and the A’s lost 6-2. In fact, this was the game that began the downward spiral for the ’04 A’s, leading to the team losing the AL West to the Angels by a single game. This ended a run of several postseason appearances for the team. I was still happy, though, because my new car had turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.
My ’97 Crown Victoria P71 remained my daily driver for several years; even after I picked up my ’92 Honda Civic DX, I still drove the Ford at least a third of the time. My Crown Victoria suffered from plenty of nickel/dime problems (including an average of one dead window regulator per six months and endless maddening Check Engine Light adventures triggered by flaky smog-control devices), but it never once stranded me. It managed to get 24 MPG on the highway (all Crown Victoria drivers claim 25 MPG, but they lie), and it served me well in many, many tailgate parties at the Oakland Coliseum (here we see it with the Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox in the foreground).
It made a fine 24 Hours of LeMons Judgemobile, and I brought it to most of the California races.
Then, while I was preparing to move to Denver in the summer of 2010, the Check Engine light came on again. The scanner code meant “Lean Condition, Bank 1,” and I just didn’t have the time or energy to deal with yet another chase-the-malfunctioning-low-bidder-smog-component game. So, I traded it to the Angry Hamsters LeMons team in exchange for a custom-narrowed RX-7 rear end for my Toyota 20R-engined Austin-Healey Sprite, with the idea that the Ford would one day be a LeMons racer. As it worked out, my ex-P71 is being used as a daily driver, and my Sprite is still in California, awaiting installation of that RX-7 rear. If I ever get another Panther— and I might— it’s going to have a supercharger and a manual transmission!

12 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 01 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 02 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 03 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 04 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 05 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 06 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 07 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 08 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 09 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 10 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 11 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 13 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 14 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 15 - Tim Hudson rookie year - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden Impala7-22 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 33
Bored On a Long Road Trip? Bad Car Bingo! Tue, 17 Jan 2012 20:00:24 +0000 Image by Phillip GredenI’ve played many a game of Buzzword Bingo with equally bored coworkers while stuck in 19-hour PowerPoint presentations, back when I slaved as a tech writer in the software biz. Why not apply this concept to a bingo game for car freaks trapped in a boring rental car on a road trip across one of those states that’s nothing but cornfields? Yes, Bad Car* Bingo; you’ve got your card, you look for the cars on your card, and you cross them off when you see them. I tell you what, if the 24 Hours of LeMons crew had some of these cards for those four-hour drives from the airport to the racetrack in a (shudder) Galant or (consider walking as a real option) Nitro, the time would pass a lot quicker. Imagine the thrill of finally spotting that elusive Caddy That Zigs and shouting “BINGO!” to the dismay of your competitors. I’m going to make some more of these cards for my trip to Texas next month.

*My definition of bad, in this case, could be a perfectly good car that failed in the marketplace, or a car that has a negative popular perception… or just a terrible car, period. Feel free to make your own suggestions for further BCB cards.

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Piston Slap: A Saturn Wagon’s Bad Timing (Update) Mon, 19 Dec 2011 12:10:24 +0000 Click here to view the embedded video.

Dave writes:

Hello Sajeev,

Well, better late than never.  I did get my Saturn running again.  Due to weather, parts delays and misdiagnosis I spent a lot more time and money than I planned or had to, but she does seem to be in good shape now.  Although the timing chain was still in place and looked OK, I replaced it.  I actually did the whole timing set replacement, which includes chain, crank sprocket, two cam sprockets, fixed guide, top guide, adjustable guide and chain tensioner.

The timing chain alone costs about 50 bucks and the whole set was 150.  I briefly considered just getting the chain to cut down on costs that I had already put into this high mileage car, but then realized how stupid that would be.  Closer inspection of the old timing set parts also revealed clearly that they were totally worn out and the reason for my jumping chain.  The adjustable timing guide was made out of some kind of hard plastic and had deep grooves in it.  The guide at the top of the timing loop which must control chain jump between the cam sprockets was also damaged.  I thought it was just metal, but when installing the new one I realized there was supposed to be a hard plastic contact service that clipped on.  This had worn so badly on the old one it had broken off.  I had seen a piece of it early on in the job after I had removed the valve cover, but didn’t realize at the time what is was.  Once I realized it had broken apart in the engine, I did as one of the commentators on your blog suggested and removed the oil pan to look for the rest.  I did find some, but not enough to reconstruct the whole piece.   I am hoping most of the rest of it had already left the car during previous oil changes.

I had a brief scare after putting the car mostly back together.  I ran a preliminary compression check with the newly installed timing set and had expected/hoped to see vastly improved compression values.  Although they were better than before and one cylinder was a bit above 100 psi…they were not good.  After calming myself from a brief panic, I decided to put the rest of the car back together in the hopes my compressions were just bad, because the car had been sitting so long.   That proved to be the case as it fired right up.  Checking the compression again after the engine was warmed up gave me values for all four cylinders between 170 and 190 psi.

I am now in Calhoun, GA having driven the car from Maryland with no issues.  I will be traveling onto my end goal of Texas in a few days.  I anticipate no further difficulties on the journey, but if I have any, I’ll be sure to drop you a line.

Thanks for the help!

Sajeev Answers:

This website (and others) occasionally stuff our comments section with the notion that America is full of auto-wieners that wouldn’t know a master cylinder from a smog pump, and never did an oil change in their lives.

Dave and is Saturn L-series Wagon is proof to the contrary.

Too bad neither him nor I knew to ask Google the right keywords about the Saturn’s initial diagnostic failure.  Sorry about that. I had no idea it has the same colossal timing chain failure of the Cadillac Catera. Thanks to the Best and Brightest, we (collectively) nailed it. A question remains: does Dave have any compensation/recourse because this was a recalled item? 

Thanks Dave, your epic roadtrip to Texas gives me a lot of faith in automotive humanity.  If Houston is in your travel plans, dinner is on me.

Send your queries to . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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Review: 2011 Audi S4 Wed, 16 Nov 2011 20:10:03 +0000

I needed a suitable car for a spirited 500-mile run to the “coolest small town in America,” and back. One leaped to mind: the Audi S4 with its optional active differential. In our first encounter, the current “B8” S4 underwhelmed me. Though quick and capable, it just didn’t feel special. “A4 3.0T” seemed more apt. But that car lacked the trick diff. And metro Detroit’s roads aren’t the most challenging. A re-test was warranted. The roads of Southeastern Ohio and West Virginia would provide it.

My first reaction upon seeing the imola yellow sedan: “So much for stealth.” I needn’t have worried. Though subtly attractive, the S4 is nevertheless a four-door sedan that’s decidedly less sexy than the related S5 coupe. Even in yellow it doesn’t attract unwanted attention from law enforcement the way a sports car would. Scratch the “even in yellow:” against a background of fall foliage the bright hue serves as camouflage. The wheels’ $150 “titanium” finish attractively contrasts with the yellow, but could be obtained for free by simply not washing the regular 19s (the brakes’ plentiful dust is nearly the same color). The tested S4’s black leather interior is similarly tasteful to a fault and all business, with only some dark gray alcantara and aluminum trim to liven the place up. (Silver/black and red/black are available interior color options, though the latter does nix the butt-restraining alcantara and require another $1,000 for this favor.) Audi’s “MMI” interface is much easier to operate here than in the Q5 crossover, as the shifter serves as an armrest while working the system’s knob and foursome of buttons.

The biggest problem with the drive from Detroit to West Virginia: with roads running straight to the horizon (and far beyond), the first 250 miles are mind-numbing. The S4’s performance tires clomp and roar on Michigan’s pockmarked concrete highways, less so on Ohio’s smoother asphalt. Luckily even the S4’s base sound system is quite capable of drowning them out without distortion. The car’s ride, though far from harsh, jiggles enough that putting off rest stops is not an option. Every ripple gets reported to the ears and bladder. Even the S4’s rearview mirror is stiff. The driver’s seat includes four-way power lumbar and provides very good lateral support, but I can’t get comfortable in it. Put less delicately, the seat often puts my ass to sleep. If there had been passengers in the back seat, they would have found it livable but tight. Though the S4’s body structure and interior possesses the solidity and refinement expected of a premium car, it’s not the ideal turnpike cruiser.

A bright spot: hitched to a six-speed manual and driving all four wheels in a 3,847-pound sedan, the 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0-liter V6 covers 25 highway miles on each gallon of gas (the trip computer reports 25.8 while driving nearly 80 MPH, but manual calculations suggest it’s about one MPG high). Drive it like you stole it down a mountain road, and you’ll still observe mid-to-high teens. The previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 was far thirstier, with EPA ratings of 13/20 vs. 18/27. Unfortunately, what the engine giveth the fuel gauge taketh away: the latter reliably reported a 0-mile DTE with about three gallons left in the tank.

Once south and east of Columbus the roads become increasingly entertaining, and with Ohio 555, full of tight curves and blind knolls, the fun really begins. The V6, though it lacks the soul of the previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8, produces an encouraging mechanical whir when revved, some of it courtesy of the supercharger, along with a modest amount of exhaust roar. (With no lag, the blower’s muted whine is the only sign that boost is in play.) The “3.0T” engine is louder here than in the A6 and A7, but still far from too loud. There’s no drone when cruising at highway speeds. Oddly, the six is least refined at idle, where it suffers from a touch of the shakes.


The V6 is so strong through its wide midrange that deep downshifts are rarely called for—a sharp contrast to the Mazda RX-8 I’ll drive the rest of the long weekend. Push down on the accelerator, and the six rockets the car smoothly out of curve exits. This broad torque curve proves especially welcome on West Virginia 14, which is much more heavily traveled than I had hoped. Half the state drives pickups, the other half drives Chevy Cavaliers (which I hereby nominate as the Official State Car of the mountain state). The blown six is ever ready to jump past clots of them whenever the briefest passing zone pops up.

If you need to shift, or simply want to, the S4’s slick, solid, moderate-of-throw stick serves better than Audi shifters of years past. Second can be a bit hard to hit when rushing a downshift, but this is the full extent of its shortcomings. Unlike in late model Volkswagens where the tach was numbered in hundreds, the S4’s rev-meter is numbered in the thousands with a large font and is consequently far easier to read at a glance. A light and/or beep 500 rpm short of the redline would be even better, but wasn’t much missed. Don’t care for a clutch? A seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual is optional here—and the only transmission Europeans can get. On the other hand, they can still get an S4 wagon, while we’re limited to the sedan. An S4 wagon with a manual transmission? No longer offered anywhere.

I take a side trip to hilly Charleston to sample a couple of R-Design Volvos—you’ll read about them later. Afterwards, the S4 is a perfect match for the more convoluted sections of US60 east of Gauley Bridge. At Rainelle I take a shortcut, miss a turn (no nav in this lightly optioned $49,625 car), and end up on a delightfully undulating single-lane ribbon of asphalt. Later, on the way back to Detroit, with a nav system lifted off my old man to warn of impending hairpins, the S4 chews up WV16 (with an especially glorious stretch after it splits from 33) and OH26 once across the Ohio. If anything, the S4 makes driving all but the twistiest bits of these roads too easy.

The Audi’s steering deserves only second billing in the credits. It’s fairly quick, naturally weighted, firm at highway speeds (especially in “sport” mode), and finds its voice as the car’s high limits are approached. Placing the car precisely never poses a challenge. But luxury was clearly a top priority, and the system doesn’t feel as nuanced or as direct as the best. You do your part, and it will do its. Melding as one? It’d rather not.

The S4’s suspension takes up some of the steering’s slack. As mentioned above, though far from harsh it’s communicative even when you don’t care to chat. Firm springs and taut damping keep body motions under control, with just a hint of float in quick transitions to remind you that this isn’t an extreme sport machine. Partly because the V6 weighs less than the old V8, and partly because the differential is now ahead of the transmission (enabling a 55/45 weight distribution), the current S4 doesn’t plow through tight curves like the previous one did. Instead, it feels almost perfectly balanced. The 255/35ZR19 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires grip the tarmac tightly as long as no snow is falling. Add in all-wheel-drive and strong, firm, easily modulated brakes, and even the most challenging roads can be tackled with extreme confidence.


The resulting lack of drama can get a bit boring, as discovered in my first drive. But with the optional active differential, progressive, easily controllable oversteer is just a dip into the throttle away. Unlike with the Acura TL’s SH-AWD system, driving sideways isn’t happening without an unpaved road surface or extreme steering inputs. But a tighter line is there for the taking, just dial in the desired number of degrees with your right foot. This agility enhancement should be standard equipment in an “S” car. As is, it’s $1,100 very well spent. I would not buy an S4 without it.

Ultimately, the S4 proved a perfect choice for the trip to Lewisberg. Some other cars would have been more engaging and entertaining. Others would have been more isolating and comfortable. But for moving rapidly along an unfamiliar twisty byway with never a wheel out of place, rain or shine, the S4 could hardly have been beaten. It’ll get you there, quickly and securely and even somewhat efficiently, with plenty of smiles along the way.

Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail OH555 Look whats coming on OH26 Co Rte 60-32 Audi S4 US60 Audi S4 trunk Audi S4 rear seat Audi S4 rear quarter near home Audi S4 old Buick Audi S4 OH555 barn Audi S4 interior left Audi S4 interior Audi S4 instrument panel Audi S4 front quarter near home Audi S4 front Audi S4 engine Audi S4 Co Rte 60-32 After the S4's seats 555 takes a hit ]]> 70
Drivelapse USA: The Great American Road Trip In Five Minutes, Fifteen Seconds Wed, 16 Nov 2011 00:40:54 +0000

Americans may no longer be as completely obsessed with road travel as they once were, but for first-time visitors to the USA, a round-the-nation roadtrip is always the ultimate fantasy. And really, what better way is there to appreciate the great expanse and diversity of this great nation than by car? Luckily for those of us without the time, money or reliable transportation to discover America by highway, we can now get a taste of the magic in an internet-attention-span-friendly morsel: five minutes, fifteen seconds. Someone named Bryan DeFrees condensed a 12,225 mile-long road trip in a giant loop across the US into this film, making one of life’s epic adventures available from your desk or smartphone. Warning: Video may cause sudden desire to “hit the road”…

[via: Laughing Squid]

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New or Used: Dude, Where’s My Gig Van? Fri, 07 Oct 2011 14:32:10 +0000  

(courtesy: Jan London Band)

Hman writes:


Long time reader, first time emailer. (Except for two published Ur-Turns.) Anyway, I’m in a two-piece “rock” band and we are doing a 6-week tour in April and are shopping for a van. I’ve long been a Toyonda/Hondota fan, but alas, they make no full size cargo vans, so I’m forced to go domestic.

A prior band of mine used a Ford E250 to great effect, and I’ll admit I’m partial to the brand. Craigslist is chock full of Econolines of all trim and year. I’d like to solicit the advice of the B&B here at TTAC ASAP! I.E., years to avoid, brands to avoid, etc. All suggestions welcome.

Mr. Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist has $3-4 grand to spend, so lots of miles is expected. All told we will have three people, one drum kit w/trimmings, three vintage Fender tube amps (Hi, Jack!), two guitars, one bigass pedal board, t-shirts, cd’s, vinyl, and clothes.

This will be a coast-to-coast-and-then-some trip, so reliability is paramount.

Sajeev Answers:

Luckily this is a small(ish) band, so just about any full size, 15 passenger (i.e. long wheelbase) van should do the trick. Diesels aren’t necessary and are probably not worth the pricing and servicing premium, even with the amount of miles you’ll be driving. Having spent a lot of time behind an E-150 and a little with a Chevy Express, I’m pretty certain that the Ford is the way to go. The older GM G-series vans are just as good, maybe even better than a similar vintage Ford. But you probably can get a newer van with your budget, and I like the seating position/wheel arch design better in the Econoline versus the Express. This holds true for long periods behind the wheel, something that has been verified from a LeMons racer/HVAC tech that has experienced just about every van on the market.

Honestly, the Ford also looks better inside and out. I know some have spark plug thread problems (mostly from less-than-anal installation when installing new plugs) and transmissions are always a concern on vans of any shape and size. That said, if you find a clean Chevy for the same price as a ratty Ford, go ahead and pull the trigger. It will be condition and service records above all else.

There’s no wrong answer here, except the Freightliner/Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter. While some perform reliably and get good mileage, I’ve heard an overwhelming number of complaints about this vehicle’s difficult diagnostics, expensive parts, lack of parts, and overall poor value compared to the Ford or Chevy.

Steve Answers:

I will disagree here.

The best option for a band is a conversion van. How do I know? Those are the only young folks who ever bother to look at these glorified mastodons.

Get a 1996-1997 Chevy Conversion van with a 350 and low miles. With this generation you get the benefit of OBDII diagnostics along with a powertrain that will easily chug along for 200k+. It’s not a sin to get a small enclosed trailer should your needs expand. But if I were you guys, I would look at a few and see if they can handle all your gear. Some bands do remove the third seat for extra space. But you may want to keep that for other purposes.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 12: Next Stop, Atlanta! Thu, 15 Sep 2011 21:00:36 +0000 After the Nixon-head-hood-ornamented Impala’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of Richard Nixon in the spring of 1994, I left Oakland and moved across the Bay to an apartment on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, home of the best burritos in the world. Little did I know that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be packing all my possessions into the Impala and blasting 2,500 miles to the southeast.
By early 1995, I’d settled into a routine of office-temp work in the Financial District, cheap burritos for dinner (El Toro and El Farolito were— and still are— my favorites), and evening drives over Twin Peaks to see a girlfriend who lived about 50 yards from the Pacific Ocean (this was only a five-mile trip on paper, but a grueling 40-minute/thousand-stop-sign slog by automobile; San Francisco makes blocks seem like miles). I used BART to get to work, because only Daddy Warbucks can afford to park in downtown SF, so the Impala spent its days parked near the corner of Valencia and 24th. In those days, back when this part of the Mission was cheap and not yet fully hipsterized, any car parked in my neighborhood had about a 100% chance (per week) of being broken into, vandalized, or bashed into by a drunk in an Electra 225 running three space-saver spares. Actually, the gentrification of the Mission hasn’t changed a damn thing; the cars are nicer today, but they still get just as trashed on the street.
But my car didn’t get touched. Even the most desperate crackhead could sense that it wasn’t worth smashing a side window with a chunk of spark-plug porcelain in order to rummage for 16¢ in the glovebox. Parallel parkers with 11 sloe gin fizzes under their belts exercised unprecedented caution when squeezing 18 feet of car into an 18.5-foot space bounded by my car. It’s possible that my car got key-striped or tagged, but I wouldn’t have noticed. I’d remove my 20-pound pull-out octophonic sound-system rig, leave the glovebox door open to show its emptiness, and the car would be left alone.
In short, my Impala turned out to be not only an ideal long-distance road-trip machine but a perfect urban survivor as well. About the only drawback was its size; the big Chevrolets of this era have a surprisingly tight turning radius, but in San Francisco you’ll find a lot of spaces that only a CRX or smaller can squeeze into.
Everything was going fine. I’d settled into a decent-paying long-term temp gig with a junk-mail-mill of an environmental charity I won’t name because they’d probably sue me out of existence, removing the names of dead donors from the mailing list and answering angry letters from live donors upset about said charity taking money from Pollutco, Inc. (by the way, I learned that gluing a junk-mailer’s Business Reply Envelope to a chunk of 2×4 or stuffing the envelope with lead plates from a car battery totally works, or at least it worked in 1995; I was the one who threw out such objects every day). As winter became spring, my coast-dwelling girlfriend’s graduation from San Francisco State loomed. In spite of my warnings about the perils of academia, she decided that she really wanted to pursue a PhD in American History. Emory University near Atlanta offered her a fat fellowship— in essence a free-ride tuition deal with a juicy stipend check on top— and it was an offer she didn’t refuse.
So, the decision had to be made: dump her or move to Georgia with her. All I knew about Georgia came from obsessive reading of Flannery O’Connor’s work, supplemented by Eric Foner’s no-punches-pulled history of Reconstruction, and I was uneasy (to put it mildly) about moving there. This sort of dilemma calls for a road trip!
My friend— and future brother-in-law— Jim was itching to drive a circuit of the country in his much-traveled ’88 Toyota pickup, and I figured we could visit Atlanta on the way and see if I could stand living in the place. I put together a special mix tape, we loaded up the camping equipment, and we hit the road.
Our route was a circuit around the perimeter of the country: up to Idaho, across the Upper Midwest to New York City, down the Atlantic coast and then west across the Deep South, Texas, and the Southwest. We’d sleep in campgrounds or on friends’ couches at various cities along the way, cook our own meals, and do the whole trip in 22 days. It was a blast, but The Man kept sweating us (I’m pretty sure the Toyota’s California plates and Grateful Dead stickers contributed to John Law’s low opinion of the vehicle). The South Dakota Highway Patrol pulled us over outside Rapid City, put us in the back seat of the Crown Victoria, and dumped the contents of the truck onto the shoulder in a quest for nonexistent drugs and guns (“There’s a regular traffic in stolen firearms from California to Minneapolis,” one cop grated, “and you boys fit the description perfectly”). We got hassled at rest stops, where the cops were doing random warrantless searches of vehicles with dogs, and we happened to be entering Atlanta during Freaknik, a gathering of black college students that had every law-enforcement officer in Georgia roaring about the highways in a heavily-armed frenzy… and then some nutjob mass murderer went and blew up the Federal Building when we were a few hours east of Oklahoma City. We heard reports on the radio that “two men in a blue pickup” were seen fleeing the scene and we figured we’d be arrested and/or lynched any minute. To us, the best move seemed to be to continue to drive toward OKC, because that’s the one direction the perps probably wouldn’t be going. We were spared a nightmarish experience with law enforcement and/or vigilantes when McVeigh and his beater ’77 Marquis made the world’s lamest getaway, and we passed through Oklahoma without incident (other than being freaked out by the horror that had taken place).
The upshot of all this was that I figured Atlanta looked interesting as a place to live, and that cross-country driving in a sketchy-looking vehicle with California plates is extremely stressful. What the hell, I thought, it will be an adventure. We’d leave San Francisco in August.
I wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to fit all our stuff inside the Impala (even after ruthless culling of our respective book collections— including most of my first-edition Philip K. Dick paperbacks— we still had hundreds of pounds of the things), so I screwed some junkyard-sourced tie-downs on the trunk lid and rear quarters. That way we’d be able to travel in true Joad Family style, with crates of squawking chickens and kitchen utensils tied to the outside of the car, though we’d be leaving California instead of fleeing to it. Too bad about the Doll Hut sticker, but I’d get a new one during my next Orange County trip… whenever that might be.
It appeared that the only way to haul our bicycles— which were worth more than the car— would be on the trunk lid, so I devised this trunk-mounted bike rack to keep them secure from motel-parking-lot thieves. We’d lock the bikes to the bar— which was a galvanized steel plumbing nipple with a few hacksaw-jamming 283 pushrods inside— using our San Francisco-grade U-locks. This bar now lives on as the grab handle of my Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox, which provides tunes when I’m working in the garage. As it turned out, the disassembled bikes fit inside the car, stacked on all the boxes in the back seat, so the trunk bar served only to confuse onlookers.
I felt confident that no thief would be able to figure out the bewildering array of dash switches and hot-wire the car, but what about battery thieves? Cutting a few bars of grille out of the way and attaching a chain to a carriage bolt through the hood solved that problem.
And I didn’t want the same motel-parking-lot thieves who’d be frustrated by the locked-down bicycles to have a shot at the valuables in the trunk, so I added this hasp and bolt-cutter-proof padlock. I thought about adding hasps to the doors as well, but decided we’d just keep the not-worth-stealing boxes of books in the back seat and put everything else in the trunk. Just as well, because I wouldn’t have wanted my car to look like this Cadillac.
The plan was to drive I-80 through Nevada and into Utah, then turn right at Salt Lake City to visit some relatives in southeastern Utah. From there, we’d take I-70 east, visit some more relatives in Kentucky, then head south to Atlanta. Driving a 30-year-old car loaded with a half-ton or so of cargo across the desert in the height of summer seemed like a bit of a gamble, so I invested a couple hundred bucks in a new Modine radiator (the old one had a JB Weld patch about 4″ wide, from a baseball-sized rock that had bounced off a gravel truck and put a huge hole in the radiator a few years earlier, and I didn’t quite trust the patch) and added a junkyard transmission cooler. All my tools would be on board, and I figured I’d have no problems finding parts in the event of a mechanical failure. Pack it up, move it out!
At this point, we run into the limitations of the pre-digital-camera era again; this cross-country drive was so hectic and stressful that I managed to take only a handful of photographs, all on a point-and-shoot camera loaded with color print film (yes, the old days sucked in so many ways). The car made it to Moab just fine, with the only incident being a busted tailpipe caused by the car bottoming out in a gas-station entrance. A little beer-can-and-hoseclamp work fixed the tailpipe, and the car kept rolling. Note how low the rear of the loaded-down car is in this photo; I considered adding some JC Whitney overload springs before we left, but ran out of preparation time.
The mercury hit 115 degrees on the day we left Utah, and it stayed above 100 for most of the drive to Kentucky. We were sweating like crazy with no air conditioning (rolling all the windows down and spraying our faces with a plant-mister bottle helped some), but the engine never came close to overheating.
While the Impala got a lot of double-takes from the Smokeys, we didn’t get pulled over even once. My assumption is that the car was just so shockingly blatant in its California wretchedness that the law figured “Damn! Anybody this obvious couldn’t be doing anything illegal.” Such a relief— I’d counted on having to unload everything for police searching on a scorching road shoulder while 18-wheelers blared by, at least a couple of times.
The stop at the Kentucky in-laws’ place was a nice break, and then we turned south. Tennessee was my first real experience with the Southern flavor of surrealism. We started seeing stuff like this more and more frequently the further south we went. Tin Can Baby… Test Tube Baby… Stick Baby… Just Say No!
I wasn’t one of those Yankees (are Californians considered true Yankees?) who based his entire conception of the South on “Deliverance” and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but coastal California is full of ex-Southerners who fled the place and then scare the shit out of Californians with endless horror stories about their homeland. I was nervous. So when I stepped out of our room at the Stonewall Jackson Motor Lodge in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and found a couple of overalls-with-no-shirts-wearin’, tobacco-chewin’, toothless, gristly, possum-innards-eatin’ cronies leaning on the Impala’s fender and drinking tall cans of Colt .45 at 8:30 in the morning, well, I didn’t know what to expect. The tall skinny one looked at the short fat one, took a swig of Colt, then looked at me. “You gwine pint thet car?” he asked. Why, no, I wasn’t. “I like the way it looks right now,” I replied. That seemed to satisfy them, or at least that’s how I interpreted their nods.
Atlanta was a very weird place in the summer of 1995. The Olympics were coming the next year, and the whole state was wild-eyed with excitement about Atlanta emerging from the games as a “World Class City,” a destination for international dealmakers and tourists from all corners of the globe. The Olympics would change everything!
At the same time, the screaming matches over the state flag— which had received its Confederate-ization treatment in 1956, as a response to the Civil Rights movement— were freakin’ deafening, what with the international attention it would be receiving as soon as all those Olympic visitors showed up. Atlanta’s unofficial slogan, “The City Too Busy To Hate,” seemed pretty defensive, and also a dig at archrival Birmingham, which Atlantans sneered at as “The City of Lazy No-Goodniks That Always Have Time To Hate.” This Olympics-fueled civic pride translated into landlords believing they’d be rich once the athletes showed up (apparently believing that high-buck renters would start showing up six months before the Games), and it was a real challenge finding a place to live at a price we could afford.
After a week or two of living at a crackhead motel, however, we found an apartment just off Ponce de Leon (that’s pronounced “Ponse duh LEE-on”) in Decatur, walking distance from Emory.
I roamed around exploring the area and looking for jobs, and found that a non-air-conditioned car in dark primer paint was not ideal under conditions of hundred-degree heat and 98% humidity, especially when wearing an interview suit.
It felt cool getting some Georgia plates for my ride— the peach color looked great in contrast with the grim grayscale look of the car— and I enjoyed eating biscuits and gravy in old-time Southern diners full of chain-smoking 100-year-olds. Other than the interior temperature, the Impala was well suited to its new home.
We took a brief trip south to visit a relative near Talahassee and a turn down the wrong dirt road led to a long Heart of Darkness-style drive on muddy trails in the jungle. I never did find Mistah Kurtz, but I did find the long-sought Refrigerator Graveyard, a swamp where thousands of dying refrigerators and other large appliances crawl off to die. The Impala turned out to be an excellent dirt-road machine, even with its open differential. I wish I had more Heart of Darkness Impala photos from the jungle expedition, but this is the only shot that came out.
I found plenty of interesting cars during my travels, including this “ran when parked” Cad, and Georgia junkyards were great (more on them later).
I also found plenty of historically interesting stuff as I roamed in the Impala. Here’s Martin Luther King’s church, located a few miles from my apartment in Decatur. General Sherman’s headquarters during his stay in Atlanta— or, rather, what was left of Atlanta after he got through with it— was also near my place, and the locals had allowed it to become completely buried under tons of kudzu.
The Impala’s leaky rear window (a GM trademark for decades), which I thought I’d fixed forever with silicone and roof cement, became a real problem during Atlanta’s torrential summer-afternoon thunderstorms. The right rear corner was the main trouble spot, with California-style rust-through where water had sat for months at a time during 30 years of West Coast winters. I decided to get serious, ground away all the rot with a wire wheel, and applied large quantities of JB Weld to the problem spot. It worked perfectly.
My employment search turned up nothing but more office-temp work for the first month or so of Georgia residence, but then I stumbled into the perfect job. Next up, Mad Max at Year One!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11 • Part 12 • Part 13

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 11: Son of Orange County Tue, 06 Sep 2011 23:30:48 +0000 In Part 10, the Hell Project Impala got Fiat scoops on the hood and hit the I-5 trail again. By late 1993, the car looked more or less the way I’d planned when I started the project and had become a surprisingly good daily driver (thanks to more modern brakes and a reliable, HEI-equipped 350 engine). I still planned to do some suspension and horsepower upgrades, once the early 1990s recession relaxed its grip enough for me to land a decent-paying job, but the setup I had was fulfilling my driving needs very well. Then, in the spring of ’94, Richard Nixon died, and I decided to take the Nixon-hood-ornamented car down to his birthplace and mingle with the mourners.
Before all this happened, however, I’d finally managed to ditch the office- and light-industrial-temp gigs and get a full-time job: delivery driver for a tropical-fish wholesaler.
Every morning I’d drive the Impala to the company’s East Bay warehouse and report to the 120-degree, 100% humidity Fish Room to help pack the day’s merchandise.
The entire aquarium/tropical-fish business is a festival of cruelty from start to finish, particularly with the salt-water varieties; first, starving divers in various Third World coastal towns in the Pacific jump into the water while breathing from a compressor air hose, and they hose down fish habitat with cyanide to stun the fish. Most of the victims die, but some get netted and put into plastic bags, and after another death-filled journey that culminates in the few sickly survivors making it to an American airport’s cargo facility, a Fish Driver (that was me, generally at SFO) arrives in a Mitsubishi Fuso van to pick up a bunch of insulated boxes full of plastic bags containing dead, dying, and (a few) living tropical fish. The fish then take a ride to the Fish Room, where they live in aquariums until being ordered by a retailer. Then the employees of the wholesaler net the fish and dump them in 5-gallon buckets full of salt water, at which point the Fish Driver puts them in plastic bags, fills the bags with oxygen, and dumps them in a styrofoam box for delivery to the customer. Then the fish— those that survive— are sold to the public, and they spend the rest of their abbreviated lives swimming in tiny, desperate circles, searching in vain for an ocean that will never again be their homes. Yeah, this part of the job sucked. If you’re now an underemployed 20-something who’s been on the same sort of not-so-encouraging career path for a couple of years after graduation, you are experiencing a harsher, less forgiving version of the job market of the early 1990s recession, and you probably have a pretty good grasp of the Fish Driver-type jobs out there.
I had no complaints about my commuter vehicle at this time; it drove very well and looked great. My commute covered about 15 miles of some of the nastiest traffic in the East Bay, so I spent a lot of time on the plush green upholstery of my Buick (or maybe it was Oldsmobile) bench seat, inching forward in stop-and-go traffic on I-880 and listening to music on my eight-speaker, twin-amplifier, all-junkyard stereo system.
Being a Fish Driver was pretty stressful, and so I made a special mix tape to listen to while driving to and from my route. Its name: I, Fish Driver.
The vehicles in the Fish Warehouse motor pool were the Fuso, a battered diesel Ford Econoline van, and a diesel Isuzu pickup with rattly-ass camper shell. In order to play cassettes while driving, I drilled a hole in the back of a cheapo Emerson boombox (seen here with a Les Faquins sticker) and ran some long power leads terminating in alligator clips. After loading all the boxes of fish into the Isuzu, Ford, or Mitsubishi, the final step in preparing for my fish-drivin’ day involved crawling under the vehicle’s dash and connecting the alligator clips to 12V+ and ground.

At this point in my life, the Flaming Lips song “Jesus Shooting Heroin” had become more or less the theme song for my days toiling on the Fish Route. In truth, it became the theme song of my life, and my incessant replaying of the song drove everyone around me nuts in a big hurry. When the album containing this fine song first came out in 1986, I wrote off the band as an Oklahoma-fied Butthole Surfers ripoff (which, of course, they were, in most glorious fashion), and I was such a Butthole Surfers fanatic at the time that it took me until the early 1990s to begin to appreciate the genius of the Lips. It goes without saying that “Jesus Shooting Heroin” was the first song on my “I, Fish Driver” tape.

Sometimes I would allow “I, Fish Driver” to run past the first song, in order to hear the mournful Sister Double Happiness song “Wheels A Spinning.” Yes, those two songs make for sort of a Generation X, diminished-expectations/downward-spiral one-two punch, but it made perfect sense at the time. Following them up with Hüsker Dü‘s “Never Talking To You Again” and the Minutemen‘s “Jesus and Tequila,” on the rare occasion that I didn’t hit the Rewind button right after Gary Floyd’s voice stopped.
As a Fish Driver, my days started very early. Into the Impala at dawn, slave in the Fish Room for a couple hours, load the truck, then drive for the next ten or so hours. Repeat. Endlessly.
None of the Fish Driver vehicles had working air conditioning, and my route took me to the broiling-ass Central Valley at least two days a week. Here I am sweating in a Jenny Holzer T-shirt, which is appropriately meta-irono-Gen-X-esque.

I’d usually bring a camera along, so that I could capture old Buicks on Interstate 5 and weird scenes like this “Get Hooked On Fishing, Not On Drugs” bait shop in Stockton.
I shot quite a few proto-DOTS-style interesting street-parked cars during my travels. How about a partially-stripped RX-7 parked in front of an abandoned Pinto?
But mostly I saw strip malls, grim pet-supply chain stores, and about-to-go-out-of-business independent aquarium stores.
I’d finally managed to put a stop to most of the leaky windshield and rear-window weatherstripping— a common GM weak point of the era; my $113 GTO got so bad that crops of mushrooms sprouted from the carpeting by about February— using copious quantities of caulk, Henry’s #204 Roof Cement, and JB Weld. That meant that the Impala’s interior no longer reeked of mildew during Northern California’s rainy winters.
I had gotten used to having weeks off between temp jobs and taking lengthy couch-surfing expeditions to Southern California, but being a Monday-through-Friday Fish Driver meant that my Interstate 5 expeditions had to be weekend-length.
One trip to Los Angeles seemed to promise a job much more interesting than being a Fish Driver.

My friend Ben’s girlfriend had taken a job as “Mistress Nina” at a dungeon in City of Industry, and the dungeon management wanted somebody to weld up some proper torture equipment, preferably using rusty old car parts. Yes, underemployed 20-somethings in a recession will jump at any quasi-interesting job possibility with ice-water-in-hell enthusiasm, an effect one can see all around us today.
Truth was, Mistress Nina’s employer— I’ll call the joint Humiliation-’Я’-Us, because I can’t recall the real name— had some pretty lame torture equipment. There was a medium-cool Triumph chopper sitting in the waiting room, and this head cage was sort of menacing… but check out the weak-ass chain running to the ceiling. How could a client of Mistress Nina feel the proper mix of fear and arousal, knowing that he could just snap the chain by not-very-desperate struggling?
Clothespins and Icy Hot are fine, sort of your bread-and-butter dungeon implements, but wouldn’t the addition of some gnarly, oxidized jumper cables and a big jar of well-used hose clamps add that extra dungeony je ne sais quoi? The mistresses wouldn’t actually have to use that stuff, so my additions to this sort of gear would be purely cosmetic. Humiliation-’Я’-Us, after all, was a legitimate, tax-paying business, not some fly-by-night operation that sent its customers to the ER with hard-to-explain injuries.
And this so-called rack? Why, this spindly thing would be smashed to kindling by any real struggles. Why should the customers of Humiliation-’Я’-Us have to exercise such suspension of disbelief during their ministrations at the hands of Mistress Nina and her coworkers? What this place needed was a rack based on bumper jacks! You know, the big ratcheting jobs preferred by Detroit in the 1960s, the ones that would let you hoist a Chrysler Newport at the top of a teetering shaft of cast iron. Imagine being chained to my rack, with hefty steel manacles at wrists and ankles (attached to clanking, logging-truck-grade rusty-ass chains you’d know you could never break no matter how desperate your struggles). My rack would be vertical, for a greater sense of vulnerability. Mistress Nina and her assistant would, with great deliberation, insert their tire irons into the twin bumper jacks behind your back and, at the count of three, crank down another notch. The glorious fear! Who knows what those evil torturin’ mistresses might do next? I’d use drum-brake return springs as safety devices, to limit the amount of torque on the victim. What could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the job of dungeon-implement-maker never panned out. Negotiations with Humiliation-’Я’-Us broke down over the subject of remuneration. First, they wanted to pay in services. No, thanks. How about speed? Hell, no! I wanted cash, and that seemed like a foreign concept to the graduates of the Dungeon School of Business.
That was sort of a bummer, because it would be unimaginably hip to be able to put “Sex Torture Equipment Designer” on my resume today. Still, I was able to put the knowledge I acquired about the world of dominatrices and dungeons to good use more than a decade later, when I wrote Torment, Incorporated (now available for the Kindle!). Actually, my disdain for the low-budget, make-believe setting of the Humiliation-’Я’-Us facilities led me to come up with my own ideas for a really effective dungeon, and most of you will be pleased to know that I won’t subject you to any more of this digression here; jump over to for a semi-work-safe excerpt from the novel.
The Impala was really looking and running great around this time; the Fiat hood scoops were the crucial finishing touch for the car’s look, and now only a few more years of patina acquisition were needed.
I was still loosely affiliated with the anti-nuclear canvassing organization for which I did occasional wrenching work on the donated cars used to transport canvassers to door-knocking “turf” (a great San Francisco-to-Reno road trip in a ’76 Nova with one such canvasser is documented here). After spending most of 1993 suffering under the cruel lash of the Fish Master, I finally quit my Fish Driver job, which gave me time to visit my friends protesting imminent thermonuclear annihilation at Lawrence Livermore Labs aka Edward Teller‘s Commie-Vaporizin’ Playground. The sight of the Impala among all those hippie-driven Tercel wagons and lefty-sticker-encrusted Vanagons caused some consternation among the jaded CHPs who were keeping the rabid peaceniks from storming the facilities, but no harm came to me or my wheels.
I was surprised that nobody seemed upset about the Richard Nixon hood ornament (which started life as a rubber shower-nozzle decoration, for those who wanted to feel that Tricky Dick was spitting on them in the shower) above the car’s grille. I was also surprised that no Mission District hipster ripped the thing off while the car parked in San Francisco, since the Nixon Head was held in place by a just couple of easily-sliced lengths of speaker wire.
Most who saw my car just tuned it out as “yet another hooptied-out Detroit heap,” but a few recognized it as the art car I’d intended to build all along. Here’s a note left under the windshield one night in early 1994: The Sinester (sic) Car of the Week!
Greasy handprints, three-dimensional texture, and blacked-out trim. I’d returned to the temp-gig lifestyle; the light-industrial gigs were too similar to Fish Driving, so I stuck with office-temp jobs this time around. I had some sort of weird job working a microfilm camera at a Ross Perot-owned facility with an incomprehensible purpose involving billions of cancelled checks being pumped through thousand-yard industrial lines; I still don’t know what they did in that place, which had a spy-movie-style security tunnel with remote-operated doors (through which bewildered temps had to pass after being interrogated via PA speaker every morning) and such uptight security that my job was never explained to me.
I was eating lunch in my car in the parking lot (all office temps have an aversion to eating in the break room with the perms, who look upon temps as not-quite-human creatures) when the news came over the radio: Richard Nixon was dead. At that point, I thought to glance at my car’s Nixon Head hood ornament and found that someone had cut one of the wires affixing it to the car, so that Nixon’s face was now facing the ground. It meant something, and I decided in that moment that it meant I’d better tell Ross Perot that I was done working in his mysterious check-eating facility… and head down I-5 to Richard Milhous Nixon’s homeland: Orange County, California.
So, I finished my last shift, told the temp agency I was through with that gig, packed up the Impala, and headed south. My destination: Yorba Linda, California, birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

A bit of background might be in order here. At this point, Frank Zappa’s ode to the 37th President of the United States, “Son of Orange County,” seems the appropriate background music (my dad, a big Zappa fan since the days of “Freak Out,” i.e. my entire life, played this song endlessly during the era of the Watergate hearings; therefore it’s etched forever in my mind as “the Watergate theme song”), so crank it up.
Where did my Nixon obsession come from? As a kindergartner and first-grader in Minneapolis during the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections, I didn’t have a very clear grasp of politics; I knew we had been bombing the shit out of Southeast Asia going back to before I was born, for some reason that didn’t even make sense to the grown-ups, and that somehow the upcoming election had something to do with bombs and protesters, but that was about it. What I did know, however, was that my mom (a tough ER nurse from union-stronghold St. Paul) hated this Nixon guy’s guts, and the anti-Nixon tirades I overheard her delivering had me convinced that Terrible Things would ensue if Nixon won the election. I wasn’t sure quite what these things were (nor did I get that Nixon was already president at the time), but I somehow came up with the idea that we’d all be rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the desert if McGovern lost the election… which he did by the biggest blowout in United States presidential election history.
So, Nixon won… and a few weeks later, my parents quit their jobs, sold their house, bought a 1973 Chevrolet Beauville passenger van (shown here after the family got totally 1970s-California-ized, down to the floppy leather cowboy hats), and we left Minnesota for California… or that was the cover story. I knew that we were really heading to Nixon’s camps in the desert, where we’d be put to work digging holes and filling them up again, or whatever evil presidents did to innocent Minnesota families.
Actually, my parents left Minnesota because they’d gone to visit friends in California on a week when the temperature in Minneapolis was 25 below and the temperature in the San Francisco Bay Area was 75 above. That 100-degree difference was all they needed to ditch the Midwest, forever. The Beauville survived long enough for me to wreck it as a teenager, incidentally; here are my sisters on a family trip in the red-and-white Chevy, circa 1981.

Even though the camps in the desert never happened, I remained fascinated with Nixon. During the period starting with the Watergate hearings and peaking with the Fall of Saigon, the Malaise Era was in full effect, with a downward-spiral sense that all principles had been betrayed, no institution was trustworthy, life would always get worse, etc., and Richard Nixon’s face was always front and center for me throughout all of it.

Nixon would be regarded as a flaming socialist liberal these days, what with such Trotskyist big-government/nanny-state moves as the EPA, Clean Air Act, radical economic moves, and so on, and he might have made an OK president (in spite of his SoCal-real-estate-money-backed reprehensible campaign tactics and general lack of moral compass), but unfortunately he was driven completely insane by having the ’60 Presidential election stolen for Kennedy by the vote-generating machines of Mayor Daley and LBJ and then— a mere two years later— losing the race for Governor of California to liberal Pat Brown (no, not this Pat Brown). Nixon had spent his life up to that point convinced that he needed to crush his enemies before they crushed him (an activity at which he excelled), but after the ’62 elections he became convinced that everyone, particularly the “East Coast media elite,” was out to destroy him. By the early 1970s, he was all hopped up on Dilantin, obsessed with legions of real and imagined enemies, and surrounding himself with cronies who felt it necessary to burglarize the offices of the (obviously hapless and doomed) opposition. As I got older, I read everything I could find on the subject of Richard Milhous Nixon, and came to see him as a profoundly American tragic figure— I didn’t exactly empathize with him, what with the permanent damage he inflicted on everything America was supposed to stand for and all, but I couldn’t look away.
When the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace had its grand opening in 1990, I was living 20 minutes away and had just purchased a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan. Naturally, one of the first trips I took in the car was to Yorba Linda, to be there when two ex-presidents and one current president (Ford, Reagan, and Bush I) dedicated the site honoring yet another ex-president.
Even though I was an obvious freak with a huge red beard at the time, I figured that my appreciation of Nixon’s significance would be understood by the wholesome Orange County Republicans running the show, and that I’d be welcomed to the ceremony outside the little house that lemon farmer and grocer Frank Nixon had built with his own two hands.
Unfortunately, the Secret Service guys saw it differently. The nice old ladies in red-white-and-blue dresses who guide visitors around the place (right side of the above photo) are very friendly and welcoming to visitors, no matter how unlike clean-cut La Habra Republicans they might appear, but the SS guys obviously figured I was about to produce a five-gallon bucket of pig blood and dump it on Gerald Ford, screaming about millions of dead Southeast Asians, tit-for-tat presidential pardons, and so forth.
I probably risked getting hustled off to an unmarked van and given a very unpleasant lecture about the lack of wisdom shown by photographing Secret Service personnel with four United States Presidents nearby, but this guy just gritted his teeth and told me to take off and never come back.
I did come back, of course, returning a few months later to tour the place. It may be different now, but the Nixon Museum was extremely… well, Nixonian. In stark contrast to the LBJ Museum (where they’re proud of the fact that LBJ stole elections, treated his subordinates like crap, sold out his allies, and lied like a sumbitch every chance he got), the Nixon Museum is a temple to spin and revisionist history, like the sort of thing Assad will set up if he gets booted out of Syria. The Silent Majority speech has its own little house with a white picket fence, the Vietnam War is blamed entirely on Democrats (fair enough, until 1969, not counting Eisenhower and the French), and Watergate was a conspiracy to destroy the Executive Branch of the United States government. Needless to say, I loved the place, especially the gift shop that provided me with the pewter Nixon Museum & Birthplace keychain shown here with my Impala keys.
So, I steered the Chevy onto I-5 south. The Northridge Earthquake had occurred a couple months before, and the freeways south of the Grapevine were a nightmare of construction and detours.
But I persevered, because I knew that I had to be present at the Richard Nixon Museum & Birthplace when the distraught Orange County mourners showed up to pay their respects to their idol.
In truth, I was a little worried that I’d be lynched by a yowling mob of enraged retirees from Laguna Hills and .38-packin’ Tustin housewives the very moment anyone caught sight of my wretched-looking car and its disrespectful hood ornament, but I had no choice. The Nixon Head hood ornament would stay, lynch mob or no.
I needn’t have worried about getting strung up on a lamppost at some Yorba Linda strip mall, because the mourners at the RNM&B were so caught up in their own grief that they didn’t even notice my car rumbling into the parking lot. The nice old Republican ladies in their red-white-and-blue dresses just wanted to make sure I had a chance to sign the guest book.
The steps of the Museum were covered with flowers, flags, and heartfelt notes. “Love from my children. Sleep well, sweet Nixon.” You can’t make this stuff up!
I hadn’t thought to bring flowers, but I did feel a sense of loss that we wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more. Not quite the sadness that I felt when, say, Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, and Kurt Cobain died during the several months prior to Nixon’s death, of course, but it did feel strange knowing that Nixon was gone.
“Soon. Very soon. Under golden skies and in fair clime. We’ll all be there again to meet & greet you again.”
Maybe so, if heaven turns out to be something like a Corona del Mar guard-gated community, peopled with honest small businessmen out of Yorba Linda, circa 1922. I hung around the mourners for a while, then climbed in the Impala and headed out of Yorba Linda. Perhaps it’s time to let the late Hunter S. Thompson, a man whose life often seemed bound to Nixon’s, have the last word here:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

Next up: Packin’ up, movin’ to Georgia!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 12

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Hammer Time: 17 Hours of Hell Mon, 29 Aug 2011 18:38:35 +0000
A 2000 mile road trip to drive…the 2012 Toyota Camry? Oh well. I needed a break from the world, and what better way to do it than with some quiet time and a huge tax write-off. At 5:54 A.M. I fired my ride for what turned out to be 17 hours of pure hell.

It all started in a nice quiet town in northwest Georgia. Powder Springs. A small hamlet somewhere between civilization and Deliverance. You can still pet cows and horses where I’m at. Yet it takes only 20 minutes to get on the interstate.

I give thanks to a brand new roadway that eliminates my need to use the intravenously gridlocked I-75 corridor. I have no idea why it was built since Powder Springs has only 15,000 residents. Other than perhaps as a collective thank you from our nation’s taxpayers for allowing Newt Gingrich to live in our county.

20 minutes into my travels on this pristine roadway and I was already on I-285. A circle of asphalt that completely enshrouds Atlanta. The beauty of Georgia interstates is that 80 mph won’t get you pulled over anytime soon… if ever. I went from there to I-85 and within two hours I was completely out of Georgia.

Things were looking good. Damn good. Too good. 40 minutes into my drive I got clocked by an officer doing 83 in a stretch of highway that mysteriously drops down from 75 to 65. I get pulled over by a young guy with one of those Texas sized brim hats. Conversation went like this…
“Sir, why are you driving 83 on a 65?”

Yours truly ((in an unintentionally annoying radio voice)) “Because I’m on my to NEW YORK CITY! to test drive the 2012 TOYOTA CAMRY!”… betcha never heard of that excuse before officer?

(laughs) “Can’t say that I have… are you a dealer?”

It turned out that I got pulled over less than a mile away from an auction I worked at in my younger days. Carolina Auto Auction was a brutal place to be a member of the auction staff. 100 degree heat. Near 100% humidity. 4 hours of strained vocal chords and rapid weight loss… all for a few hundred bucks. I had my dealer plate on the back of van and it turned out this guy did security for them on auction day.

It helped. But not much. I got a ticket for doing 9 mph over which means no points, but I was $81 poorer. Damn! But with so many miles to burn I sure as hell wasn’t gonna slow down a lick. I clicked it up to 85. Take that two-bit speedtrap!

The next couple of hours were spent admiring the scenery that is South Carolina. On the road, South Carolina has three claims of fame to it. The first is that no matter where you are in the state, you are no more than five miles away from a Waffle House. To the folks who have never had the pleasure of eating at a Waffle House, imagine a redneck version of Denny’s with no more than 5 edible food items.

The second is that South Carolina is the home state of Jesus. You turn on the radio and 17 variations of evangelical Christianity will pop into your life. The financially enterprising preachers for Jesus. The angry white conservative radio hosts for Jesus. The personal investment advisor for Jesus (there’s gold in dem’ old Roman coins folks!). And of course the ‘Jesus is a Republican’ three hour program.

After about 13 minutes of station surfing, I turned off the radio for the rest of my trip.

Finally South Carolina has the cheapest gas in the country. $3.29 a gallon. I filled up my car and with the leftover money bought a Subway club made by a guy who had a foo-fro about two feet high. Poor gay guy with questionable tastes. He looked like a walking cartoon character in the Simpsons. After eyeing his 11 visible facial piercings and Buckwheat inspired dreadlocks, I drove off from the Kwik-E-Mart and headed for the border.

By 10:30 I was headlong into North Carolina. A wonderful place to live, eat, and raise a family. I can say this because I used to live in a place called Carrboro which is a pedestrian friendly outlet of Chapel Hill.

North Carolina has a lot going for it. The state is home to 5 of the 50 best high schools in the country. The research triangle is the largest R&D center outside of Silicon Valley. Plus the state has a famous legacy of gifted tall people who play basketball for Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. The track record on basketball alone makes North Carolina far more marketable than their bible thumping cousins down south.

As a former resident, I can also tell you that the collective IQ of the residents also follows a steep curve as you travel northward. It rises gradually to about 25 points higher than the national average when you hit the Duke Street exit in the center, and then plummets down to near Georgia levels as you head further north.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Let’s just say that the north side of the state ‘peters out’ as you head to Virginia. ‘Nothing but trees and sunshine!’ as the old saying goes.

Virginia is the beginning of what can be aptly called the clusterscrew of modern day travel. Some call it Interstate 95. But I would call it ‘the automotive version of hell on Earth.’ Everything stays. Nothing moves. How did such a calamity of modern day transportation come to be?
Well I have a theory about this. See, some guys in Washington D.C. thought it would be a great idea to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the D.C. area without improving the transportation infrastructure. Republican. Democrat. Hired lobbyists of all colors and affiliations. They can all take the blame and the credit. What I ended up with at 2:00P.M. on a Sunday afternoon is a road completely covered in cars with no place to go.

Interstate 95 would serve as the beginning of my wit’s end. Cars drove in two speeds. Slow and reverse. No one did anything. No accidents. No ambulances. No police cars. Nothing but 5 lanes that went to four… that went to three… that went to two as you inched ever closer to the nation’s capital.

Even Buddha would have been pissed off after two hours of this. I know I was. Virginia also happened to offer enough porn inspired billboards on this journey to stimulate any weary traveler. For a few fleeting moments it was like almost being stuck in a Vegas strip without the neon lights… or an exit.

I called my wife. To say hi. Really. Besides, there were no more Jesus stations.

Maryland represented the beginning of two evil realities of northern life. High taxes and limited choices. Toll roads are well manned, and the price was about $2.00. Not too bad. But if you want a convenient exit and good food, you’re SOL. The nearby rest points are great if you want fried chicken, overpriced coffee, and candy bars.

This goes on through Delaware and all the way out to Pennsylvania.

They say that if you look at the state name of Pennsylvania hard enough, you can eventually make out the word ‘tax’. But that didn’t happen on my ride up. By the time I got to Pennsylvania it was already getting dark and the road was thankfully open as can be. From Virginia on up to New York, I can say that Pennsylvania lays claim to the best state of the bunch if you’re driving at a very high rate of speed.

What’s the worst. Without a solitary shred of a doubt it was New Jersey. The state motto may be the ‘ Garden State’. But it should have been, “Guess who owns this state?”

Not only was traffic dead, but the entire parking lot of cars was apparently man-made ordeal. Three lanes of traffic were at a standstill through Princeton and beyond while police cars accessed two full shoulder lanes.

Where we they going? Beats me. I never saw anything other than a parked group of police cars and some warning cones. No accidents. No construction workers. No kidding. But the worst was yet to come.

$6.95 in tolls with a high eclipsing $9. More than all the other states combined. Eventually I ran low on gas and came to the only rest stop within 30+ miles. The price of gas.. was $3.55. More than a quarter higher than South Carolina. But that was not the worst part.

The worst was that despite having 20 pumps, only 2 people were able to access those pumps. The wait for gas was well over 50 cars. I decided that a quarter tank would be enough to get me through after all.

More third world fun and frills were awaiting on the inside. While the men’s room only had a 20+ person wait, the ladies restroom was lined out the door. As in so many people (50+) that the line stretched completely outside the building. Prices on the inside for junk food were primarily inspired by the bodegas of Brooklyn. As I told another fellow traveler, “You have three choices. High, WTF, and OMG.”

After exactly three hours on the Turnpike and 17 hours into my journey, I finally reached Fort Lee, NJ. A town loaded with affluent Koreans and Japanese expatriates. Yet the town can’t seem to put anything other than old steel plates in place of their canyonero potholes. I got the keys from a family friend, walked into her empty condo, and called her.

“Where are you mom?”

“In traffic Steve. Welcome back to New Jersey!”

More authentic words about my state have yet to be spoken…

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 8: Refinements, Meeting Christo’s Umbrellas Mon, 08 Aug 2011 18:00:30 +0000 IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9Part 10
In the last Impala Hell Project episode, the now-disc-brake-equipped Chevy and I hit Interstate 5 for some Generation X-style road tripping. Through late 1991 I continued my process of junkyard upgrades, and the car racked up some serious highway miles.
I’d enabled the heater by fashioning a block-off plate to cover the torn-out evaporator core housing, which made my second winter with the car much more pleasant… but then the blower motor’s bearings started to scream. 26 years out of a part that The General’s low-bid supplier probably charged $1.04 for wasn’t too bad, but I’d become spoiled after a few months of not being forced to wear several grunge-grade flannel shirts while driving.
In case you were wondering what happened to the Impala’s original air-conditioning gear, I’d given all the parts to my friend Paul (who provided invaluable help during the 283-to-350 engine upgrade in the summer of ’90). He ended up knocking together this Field Expedient Engineering AC setup in his ’67 Mustang, using a weird mashup of 1965 Impala and 1980 Fiat Brava climate-control components. This rig gave the Mustang meat-locker temperatures on even the hottest Anaheim days, though it did have a tendency to spray condensation all over the passenger.
Since this generation of full-sized Chevrolet was designed to be bashed together by a bunch of dudes who started each shift with a six-pack of Country Club apiece, I figured the heater blower fan would be easily accessible. Sure, it was accessible on the assembly line, before the fenders and hood were installed, but it turned out to be a serious pain in the ass on a complete car. Not anywhere near as bad as replacing the heater core on a Volvo 240, mind you (if the heater core in your 240 goes bad, my advice is to scrap the car), but way more work than I’d expected.
The replacement blower motor was under 20 bucks new (and still is, 20 years later), so I decided to splurge and avoid the junkyard-parts route this time.
Aaaah, the pleasure of driving in winter without bundling up like the Michelin Man!
Replacing the sagging rear springs, along with new front ball-joints and control arm bushings, solved most of the car’s wandering-in-freeway-lane problems. However, the completely played-out shock absorbers— no doubt installed by Manny, Moe, and Jack in about 1979— made the car way too bouncy and ill-handling. I scored a full set of new KYB Gas-A-Justs on sale at Lee Auto Supply, and the car started taking the turns in semi-modern fashion.
Applications of various shades of gray and black primer paint, plus the normal patina acquired when you never wash a car during coastal California’s dry season, were really helping me achieve the look of the art car I’d had in mind all along.
Around this time, I’d become more serious about photography in general and hacked-up thrift-store cameras in particular. I’d been bulk-loading my own Kodak Tri-X 35mm (film of choice for generations of news photographers), and I’d discovered that you could pry open the early disposable cameras and reload them with your own film. Just the thing for gloomy winter shots of the Impala with skeletal trees and a Pinto wagon!
The car was really starting to look exactly the way I’d envisioned the project when I bought the car; the glossy industrial-gray paint that a previous owner had hosed over the original Tahitian Turquoise had been transformed into a gritty urban camouflage with texture.
I’d load the car up with disposable cameras, pinhole cameras, $2.99 panorama cameras, and so on and take it out on long photographic expeditions. At night, I’d set up a darkroom in the bathroom and huff Dektol for hour after hour.
It wasn’t a bad life, but the ongoing early-1990s recession and the Vietnam/Watergate/Energy Crisis experiences of my formative years made it clear to me that I’d spend the rest of my life working a series of shit jobs while The Downpresser Man drank the big champagne and laughed. Eventually, The Downpresser Man would round up everyone who didn’t have at least $10 million in his or her bank account and ship them off to shovel radioactive uranium-mile tailings in the Spiro Agnew Memorial Re-Education Facility in the Utah desert. In the meantime, I was going to enjoy driving my Impala.
My long-suffering parents were cool about me and my wretched car staying at their place when my various 10-slackers-in-squalid-apartment living situations fell through, and so I helped them out by re-foundationing and reinforcing the 1880-stable-turned-useless-garage in their back yard; a dim-witted do-it-yourselfer had destabilized the structure by installing a half-assed garage door in the 1950s, and the ’89 earthquake had come within seconds of knocking the whole thing down. By the time I got to the project, the entire building was being supported by two come-alongs stretching steel cables diagonally from corner to corner.
Still, I had to put in my time in The Downpresser Man’s salt mines. There were exactly zero real jobs available in California for recent college grads during the early 1990s, but temp agencies had a vast assortment of low-pay/low-prestige gigs available. Since I could type 60 WPM and lift 150 pounds, I qualified as both office temp and light-industrial temp. This meant that, one day, I might find myself in a tie and shiny black shoes, filing medical records or answering the phone in some grim, fluorescent-lit veal-fattening pen… and the next day I might be stacking boxes of laundry detergent at a soap factory. For one two-week period, I drove fresh-from-Japan, plastic-wrap-protected 1992 Honda Del Sols the two miles from the Port of Richmond docks to the yard where they were loaded onto train cars and transporter trucks. Hundreds, thousands of Del Sols; I became expert in filling the 30 seconds while the other temps climbed into their Del Sols by finding the radio security code (remember those?) in the glovebox, entering it into the stereo, and finding some gangster-rap or metal song to blast during the five-minute drive from the docks.
The Impala didn’t cause any real problems when I showed up for light-industrial temp jobs, since most of my fellow temps drove equally grimy-looking machinery, but managers at office-temp gigs usually ordered me to park my car far, far from the premises. That meant that I didn’t have time to walk to and from my remotely-parked car to enjoy some blissful solitude during lunch breaks; instead, I had to endure the slow death of office gossip in the break room. Fortunately, most office lifers ignore temps and I wasn’t required to participate in conversations.
Around this time, I obtained this very expressive Richard Nixon hood ornament (originally intended for installation over one’s shower nozzle, so that a shower feels like Nixon is spitting on you) and wired it to the Impala’s grille. I’ve spent most of my life obsessed with the Son of Orange County (a digression far too lengthy to get into here), and so the Tricky Dick hood ornament just felt right.
The Impala had become an excellent long-distance road-trip car, comfortable and reliable. Late in 1991, I headed south on Interstate 5 in order to do some sort of meta-art-car installation with a much more famous work of public art.
On October 9, 1991, Christo and Jean-Claude’s 3,100 gigantic umbrellas were opened up along inland valleys, one in Japan and one in the United States.
Christo’s American umbrellas were set up along the Grapevine portion of Interstate 5 (immortalized as the setting for “Hot Rod Lincoln”), about 75 miles north of Los Angeles.
At the time, you could still get 126 film, and I shot a lot of grainy, blurry photos on 50-cent-at-yard-sales Instamatic cameras. Nowadays, you just use an app in your phone’s camera to get terrible shots like this.
But you can’t get Flash Cubes for your iPhone!
After visiting the Christo Umbrellas, I headed south to visit my friends at UCI’s Irvine Meadows West trailer park.
Incomprehensible rituals were still the order of the day at IMW.
The Impala’s back seat, a ’66 Caprice unit I’d found in near-perfect condition for cheap in The Recycler, proved to be most comfortable for road-trip sleeping.
On the way back north, I visited The Umbrellas again. By this time, high winds had toppled some of the umbrellas, killing a woman and injuring several others, and Christo dismantled them soon after.
Time to head back to The Downpresser Man’s offices and warehouses. Next up: Shoulder belts, bailing from academia.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9Part 10
92-TurnSig_Markers_Frt 91-AC_Blockoff 91-BackSeat 91-BenTrailerNastyPhotos 91-ChristoUmbrella-2 91-ChristoUmbrella-4-126Film 91-ChristoUmbrella-5-126Film 91-ChristoUmbrella-126Film-3 91-ChristoUmbrellas_w_EuroCars 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-1 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-2 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-3 91-Engine_Firewall 91-Grapevine-126Film-2 91-Grapevine-Umbrellas-126Film 91-Impala_on_I5-foggy 91-Paul_Homemade_Mustang_AC 91-Quadrajet-On-Fender-Pieces-1 91-Quadrajet-On-Fender-Pieces-2 91-Rear-126Film 91-SelfPortrait-I5 92-3223-Garage-DoorGone 92-3223-Impala_Driveway 92-Alternator 92-AntennaHole 92-Battery1 92-Battery2 92-DeadShowTripRanger 92-Driveway_w_Urinesport 92-Frt_RH_High 92-FuelFilter 92-GrapevineTraffic 92-Grille_w_Nixon 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-1 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-2 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-3 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-4 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-5 92-HirsuteHeadragged-ChicoTrip 92-HOP200-Front 92-Impala_w_Pinto 92-ImpalaFender3223 92-ImpalaRoofPinto 92-LH_rr_quarter 92-NimitzAtMarina 92-NixonHead 92-OaklandAirport2 92-OaklandAirport 92-OaklandDriving1 92-OaklandDriving2 92-OaklandNightScene 92-Pinto_Rainstorm 92-PontiacWheel 92-RaceCarChico 92-Radiator 92-RearShock 92-RearWindow_TrunkLid 92-Skylark_GasStation Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Road Trips: Cruising Oakland In a 40-Year-Old 1951 Chevy Tue, 12 Jul 2011 18:30:10 +0000
I’ve been scanning a lot of my old 35mm negatives and slides for the ongoing 1965 Impala Hell Project series (using a time-slows-to-crawl 1999-vintage SCSI film scanner), and I ran across this series of panoramic black-and-white photos that I shot in the early 1990s.

I was a hopeless, if financially challenged, photography geek back then; for my darkroom, I’d tape aluminum foil over the windows in the bathroom, put the chemical trays in the bathtub, and set my ancient enlarger on the toilet seat. During this period, I was into low-tech artsy stuff: black-and-white 110 film (yes, such a thing existed), prying open disposable 35mm cameras and reloading them with hyper-grainy 3200-speed film, hacksawing off the lenses of thrift-store cameras and JB Welding beer-can-sourced pinhole lenses onto the wreckage, and so on. At some point, I picked up a $5.99 Malaysian-made point-and-shoot panoramic 35mm camera, complete with hazy plastic lens, 1/15th shutter speed, and light-leaky film door and went through 100 feet of half-price expired Kodak Tri-X film in it. Most of the resulting photographs sucked, but the effect worked pretty well for interior shots of a scurvy, property-value-lowering ’51 Chevy full of my scurvy, property-value-lowering friends.

The car was a Seafoam Green 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe, and my housemate Anthony had inherited it from his original-owner grandmother as a teenager. This was the only car he had ever owned at the time, and so for him a very loose and rattly— though extremely original and unmodified— three-on-the-tree-equipped 40-year-old Chevy was a perfectly normal daily driver.

And drive it he did; his job required a 60-miles-each-way commute, Oakland to Santa Rosa, through some of the most apocalyptic traffic that the San Francisco Bay Area had to offer. The Styleline, while underpowered and primitive by 1992 standards, never missed a beat during all of those miles, requiring only regular tune-ups and oil changes.

Anthony was— and is— an anachronistic sort of guy, and so he never understood any of the complaints from passengers in his car about, say, the Styleline’s AM-only tube radio that took ten minutes to warm up, or the lack of seat belts, or the vacuum-powered windshield wipers that stalled under full throttle.To him, Grandma’s car did everything a car was supposed to do.

The ’51 Chevrolet was actually a perfectly competent motor vehicle by modern standards, provided that the driver planned ahead a lot more than he would with a newer machine. Uphill freeway onramps required a great deal of patience and the ability to spot the correct opening, and even fairly short downhill grades would cook the brakes in a hurry. But just look at it!
Image source: Old Car Brochures

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any exterior photos of Anthony’s Styleline other than this one; my negatives are much more difficult to keep organized than my digital photos. This is one way in which the 21st century is superior to the mid-20th.

I’m not sure where we were driving that day, but it involved a drive through Oakland to Interstate 580.

Zooming in on the last photo reveals a nice pair of Down Behind The Barbed Wire Fence finds.

All the photos show the dash clock stuck at 2:05. It would be too much to expect, a 40-year-old working clock in a Detroit car.

The one location I could identify in this sequence was this shot on MacArthurthur Boulevard near 72nd Avenue in Oakland, which was my neighborhood at the time.

Anthony still has the ’51, but it got T-boned pretty catastrophically in the late 1990s and has been in storage, awaiting major body/frame repair, ever since. His daily driver became an early S10 pickup, which no doubt seems quite futuristic to him.

51_Chevy_Adventures-12 51_Chevy_Adventures-01 51_Chevy_Adventures-02 51_Chevy_Adventures-03 51_Chevy_Adventures-04 51_Chevy_Adventures-05 51_Chevy_Adventures-06 51_Chevy_Adventures-07 51_Chevy_Adventures-08 51_Chevy_Adventures-09 51_Chevy_Adventures-10 51_Chevy_Adventures-11 51_Chevy_Adventures-13 Styleline_Brochure-550px 51_Chevy_Adventures-14 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 15
What It’s All About: Old Car, Two Lane Blacktop, AM Radio Thu, 12 May 2011 13:00:58 +0000
I’m normally pretty curmudgeonly about the inherent inferiority of old cars. A 5-year-old Camry will outperform just about every classic Detroit muscle car or Italian sports machine in nearly every category from comfort to acceleration. The windows fog up, you just push a button: problem solved. The asphalt gets rough, you don’t notice it: problem solved. Road trips in 60s cars in the pre-cell-phone era could turn particularly hellish; I’m trying to conjure up a sense of romance from my mid-80s memories of limping a Fairlane with a failing distributor down some godforsaken California Central Valley highway, in search of a junkyard with a Windsor-equipped donor car… and I just can’t do it. Yeah, the good old days were really pretty terrible. However, all that sensible real-world nonsense gets thrown right out the window when I go for a nighttime drive in rural America in a rattly-ass old car and a good song comes on the radio. Quick, get me a ’71 Plymouth Cricket and a stretch of two-lane!

Last time I was in South Carolina, I caught a ride from Kershaw to Camden with Tunachuckers team captain Mike, in his 1967 Volvo Amazon wagon. Here comes Warren Zevon‘s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” on the radio.

Sure, the Amazon rides like a Kävlinge grain harvester (only without the harvester’s fuel economy) but this sort of experience is one of the best things about being an American with car keys.

Even my 19-year-old Civic, EFI and all, manages to pull it off… when the highway is a two-lane stretched across the eastern edge of the Great Plains, that is, and the song on the AM is by George Jones. Not even a 21st-century GPS unit can ruin this moment.

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Despite Water Pump Woes, Citroën Hell Road Trip Reaches Louisiana Tue, 28 Dec 2010 18:00:18 +0000
Yesterday morning, it seemed that Spank’s LeMons-veteran ’71 Citroën DS would be stranded in El Paso due to a bad water pump shaft seal. When your car is made out of pure unobtanium, Miami seems much farther than a mere 2,800 miles from San Diego.

The clutch started slipping somewhere in the California desert, Actually, it started slipping during the Sears Pointless LeMons race in March, but it became alarming in the California desert.
Thanks to some help from Quattroporte-drivin’ Pendejo Racing, Spank figured out that the weight of the clutch pedal was overwhelming the weak spring and causing the clutch to disengage slightly. The fix: bungee cord on the pedal!

Things were going fine for a while.

But then Spank’s Honda-motorcycle-radiator-and-AC-condenser-fan heater rig stopped blowing warm air. Uh-oh.

No water! Turns out the Citroën’s water pump shaft seal had let go, causing water to pour out the drain holes designed to keep water out of the bearing. Water was still being pumped, but most of it was being pumped to the wrong place.

After spending the night in El Paso, Spank worked on the car while dozens of LeMons veterans called every auto-parts store and junkyard in West Texas. You want a water pump for a whaaaaat? That’s when the 12-volt RV hot-water pump came into play: just remove the Citroën’s fan belt, block off the pump’s drain holes, and let electricity cool the engine.

Weirdly enough, it worked! As you read this, the Citroën is well into Louisiana on a “no sleep till Miami” run. You can follow the ongoing adventure here, as legions of LeMons racers offer help to heroic solo Citroën road-tripper and Index of Effluency winner Mike Spangler aka Spank in his crazed cross-country journey. And I thought I’d made some epic road trips in hoopty-ass cars— San Francisco to Atlanta in a beater ’65 Impala loaded with all my stuff now seems like nothing!
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Solo Road Trip Heroism: San Diego To Miami In a Caged $500 Citroën Sun, 26 Dec 2010 17:50:14 +0000
Readers of On The Road gush about the incredible asphalt journeys taken by the book’s protagonists, but they did most of their driving in a brand-new Hudson and a brand-new Cadillac limousine. Here is a truly heroic road trip: a solo San Diego-to-Miami drive in a basket-case Citroën ID19 that ran for the first time in 25 years when it clanked a single lap around the Sears Point paddock and then headed onto the track.

Meet Mike Spangler, the man behind the Lunar Rover Mini Moke and turbocharged ’62 Austin Mini race cars. He decided that it would be fun to drive the Citroën— veteran of two incredibly punishing 24 Hours of LeMons races— nearly 3,000 miles to the season-ender LeMons race in Miami.

A single LeMons race generally kills most cars. Honda Civics? Toast. Fox Mustangs? Crusher bait. The Citroën hadn’t even had an oil change since 1985, so Mike decided he’d do some routine maintenance before leaving on his lunatic journey. You know, tune-up, adjust the valves, that kind of thing. Whoops, busted rocker pedestal!

After much thrashing, the car was ready to go this morning at 7:30 PST.

He’s been rolling east for two hours now and the Déesse appears to be running well; he’s made it across the mountains and out of the wet weather. Text message from a minute ago: “4k @ 70mph. climbed into mtns over 4k elevation gain in the rain no prob. Babying throttle because clutch slipped under uphill throttle test last night b4 departure.”

I hope to see the man and the car when I show up in Miami to judge the race. Wish him luck!

Citroën DS 24 Hours of LeMons car, photo by Nick Pon 1226100732 1226100733 1226100823 1226100827 IMG_7663 DSC04467_detail 1226100937_2 1226100932 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 21
Review: 2010 Infiniti G37S (A Road Trip Five Years In The Making, Part Two) Mon, 20 Dec 2010 20:35:20 +0000

As recounted last week, I had been wanting for years to meet up with my best friend and both of our fathers in a pair of Mazda RX-8s for a spirited West Virginia road trip. Finally, the appointed day arrived for the drive from Detroit to West Virginia. The car selected for the task: a 2010 Infiniti G37S six-speed coupe.

I requested the G37S because I’ve been curious about the right-sized rear-drive Infiniti ever since it launched back in 2002, but have never spent much time with the three-pedal variant. Also, while I’d personally need the sedan, I’ve never driven the coupe at all. The drive called for a car that would still be comfortable after 6+ hours, but competent on a challenging mountain road. A perfect opportunity to evaluate the G.

Nissan was not willing to let me drive the car all the way to Virginia and back (my original plan). Do other journalists ask the manufacturer if they can drive the car X miles, or do they realize it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission? Well, I had asked. Fortunately, when I offered to limit the miles to about 800, they relented. The Infiniti would sit in Bridgeport, WV, while we spent a few days in the RX-8s.

Leaving as little as possible to chance—delays happen—I asked Nissan to drop the car off two days early. They dropped the car off on schedule, but when I drove across town that evening to meet up with Edward and Ronnie for the Volt drive, I drove my personal car. After all, every mile spent driving in the Detroit suburbs was a mile I would not be able to drive in Ohio’s fabled Hocking Hills. This was all for the best. All three of us ended up in my car after the event, and even someone of Ronnie’s physical stature would find headroom lacking in the back seat of the G37 coupe.

Friday morning arrives. The temperature is a bit below freezing, and a thin layer of ice coats the coupe. The 2010’s shape is less chiseled than that of the first-gen coupe, but it’s still quite attractive, especially in “Athens blue.” Wheels with an even number of spokes tend to look less dynamic, and I’m generally no fan of multi-spoke designs, but the ten-spoke 19s look great on this car. The G37 coupe’s trunk is about as tight as they come, but I manage to fit a huge duffel containing far more clothes than I could possibly need (packed mindlessly at the last minute), hiking boots, laptop bag, and a box containing a 21.5” LCD panel (I work most efficiently with a pair of full-HD displays).

The road to Ohio is almost unavoidably Interstate. In general the G37 feels like a more refined, more upscale car than a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. As it should, given its significantly higher price. A comfortably cushy driver’s seat includes power adjustable side bolsters to provide lateral support when you need it, and space to relax when you don’t. But the sport-suspended Infiniti doesn’t ride well over expansion joints, tar strips, frost heaves, and the like, reacting with sharp vertical kicks. The more compliant base suspension isn’t available with the stick. Also, road noise on Michigan’s concrete is fairly high. The difference when you cross the state line into Ohio, which employs asphalt, is striking. One nit: the armrest on the driver’s door is too low to use while steering the car. Fuel economy isn’t bad: about 25.4 MPG while averaging 75 MPH.

Usually I hop onto the Ohio Turnpike southeast of Toledo, but wanting to employ the Interstate as little as possible head east on US 20 instead. US 20 is as straight and level as the Interstate—we are in northern Ohio—but though four lanes wide is much more a part of the surrounding terrain, and so (relatively) more interesting to drive. The small towns along the way provide some interesting sights—like the “Korean Karate” studio next to the American Legion post and canteen in Bellevue. You can see these easily: the Infiniti’s cowl is relatively low and its A-pillars are blessedly thin by current standards. The obvious downsides of towns: low speed limits and traffic lights. The latter highlight the heaviness of the Infiniti’s clutch. Farm equipment dealers seem more common than car dealers. I briefly stop at one just west of Norwalk, but with places to go and people to see do not request a test drive. Maybe next time. Aided by the 55 MPH speed limit, the Infiniti averages 27.5 MPG on US 20.

At Norwalk I exit onto US 250, which atypically for a US highway runs diagonally, in this case southeast through Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia. This generally two-lane road is the shortest route to where I’m going, but not the most entertaining, at least not in Ohio. So after twenty miles I hop onto OH 302, a more intimate road that includes the trip’s first entertaining hills and curves. There aren’t many, but they provide a taste of what lies ahead. Though no sports car, the Infiniti handles 302 with aplomb. I don’t feel at one with the machine, but the meatiness of the coupe’s steering and composure of its chassis are reassuring. With the fun up, fuel economy drops into the low 20s. A few miles east of Lattasburg I pass a horse-drawn cart—the Infiniti’s 330 horses easily outpace the cart’s one. We’re now in Amish country.

Which makes the VW dealer on the western outskirts of Wooster, where I rejoin 250, a bit of a shock. On the other side of the small city I pass a “Volvos & More,” with a few pre-Ford Swedes parked out front. I’m intrigued by the “& More,” but don’t stop to investigate. This stretch of US 250 is quite boring and I just want to get through it. After picking up I77 for a few miles I exit onto US 800 just south of Uhrichsville. After 230 miles the real fun can finally begin.

Well, not quite. Back during a college trip to Jamaica some friends bought batch after batch of ‘shrooms. With each batch they’d sit around the table and ask one another, “Feel anything yet?” “I think so…maybe…no.” My best friend Trey (also there) and I didn’t take part, but we certainly enjoyed spectating.

Well, this time I’m the one attempting to feel something, side bolsters cranked tight and seatback adjusted upright in anticipation. For the first 15 miles or so on 800 each curve made me think I had finally reached the promised land, only to exit into another long, boring straight. But the road does become increasingly curvy and hilly, and by Freeport (Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco!) you’re definitely feeling it. And, in the G37, it feels good.

Sounds good, too. The 3.7-liter “VQ” V6 isn’t the most refined engine, but its moderately throaty exhaust is appropriate for this car on this road. Given the big six’s plump, flexible midrange, there’s no need to venture near the redline unless you want to vastly exceed the speed limit. Even so, fuel economy averages 18.5 on OH 800.

Storied OH 26 more-or-less parallels OH 800, running a few miles to the east. But I’m planning to take 26 on my return trip, so I stick to 800 to see how it compares. Bad move. The seven miles between Barnesville and Somerton aren’t all that curvy, but are apparently too curvy to include even a single passing zone. I’m stuck behind a Ford Escort and a Chrysler minivan.

Suggestion for navigation system manufacturers: indicate the location of passing zones and/or the distance to the next one. A further suggestion for the supplier of the Infiniti’s nav system: provide an option to view minor roads even when zoomed out. As it is, zoom in far enough to view minor roads and you can’t see enough of them to learn where they go.

I reach Woodsfield, where 800 and 26 cross. But, given the need to keep the total miles near 800, I take neither. Instead, I head east on OH 78, which proves a thoroughly boring road. Luckily I’m only on it for about ten minutes before turning onto OH 536, which runs through barely populated Round Bottom and proves a match for the best roads I’ve ever driven. For ten miles this zero-traffic narrow two-laner hits curve after curve and hill after hill. My notes sum it up this way: “Awesome.”

Work the VQ, and it drinks to the tune of 16 MPG. The manual shifter, though pleasantly hefty and not overly long of throw, isn’t as willing a partner. Fourth can be especially hard to find in a hurry. The G37 initially understeers, but just a touch of throttle balances the chassis, and the car feels planted throughout, with the sport suspension as appreciated now as it was unappreciated on I75. The six-speed coupe seems less prone to excessive, unprogressive throttle-induced oversteer than the two-pedal G37 sedan I reviewed last July, and its stability control doesn’t cut in as early or as often (when I have it enabled). Also appreciated: the lateral support provided by the driver’s seat, with a tighter hug from the backrest and cushion bolsters always just a tap on a hard-to-reach switches away. I love this feature (the adjustability, not the poorly located switches) and cannot fathom why BMW seems to be phasing it out.

Well, you know what they say about all good things, and 536 terminates at the Ohio River. Six hours and 307 miles into my trip I cross into New Martinsville, West Virginia.

Infiniti provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Follow Michael’s journey in part three of this piece here.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive and reliability data

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On The Road, In 1948 Fri, 29 Oct 2010 19:45:48 +0000

We take our modern, reliable and comfortable cars (and lives) for granted. How would your teenage daughter take to spending a road trip like this? If you’re old enough, you’ll relate to that look of profound boredom: no iPhone, DVD player, not even music of any sort. Not even a window! How did they/we do it (he asks rhetorically, remembering all too well)?

carrosantigos has collected a series of typically superb old LIFE magazine photos shot on Hwy 30 in 1948. It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve come; well, except those that have been left behind.


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