The Truth About Cars » Thomas Kreutzer http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Apr 2014 16:54:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 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 editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (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 » Thomas Kreutzer http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com At Toyota, Craftsmen Get Hands-On In Search Of Innovation http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/at-toyota-craftsmen-get-hands-on-in-search-of-innovation/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/at-toyota-craftsmen-get-hands-on-in-search-of-innovation/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:17:45 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=801290 Toyota factory near hard-hit Sendai. Picture courtesy cbsnews.com

Twenty years ago, as a young Merchant Mariner, I was sent to Japan where the ship I was assigned to, the Sea-Land Spirit, was undergoing a major refit. The ship had begun life as a LASH ship, a vessel that carried cargo-filled barges which it offloaded from its stern via huge, rail mounted cranes that ran on tracks down the length of its deck, and now, after the demise of that business model, it was being converted it into a container ship.

Prior to the refit, the ship had been virtually abandoned, left to rot in some bayside backwater for many years, and it had taken a pounding from the elements. To get it back into service, the ship was towed to Korea where it underwent most of the major modifications, after which it was then taken to the giant Mitsubishi works in Kobe, Japan for the final touches. It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work. Some of the massive steel braces that had been welded to the deck, they found, were as much as a centimeter off. Shocked by the poor quality of their counterparts’ work, the Japanese shipyard workers cut the braces off the deck, moved them a fraction of an inch and welded them down again.

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

The Japanese have a reputation for doing things right. Who else could take an iron ore of questionable quality and forge it into blades renowned for their strength, flexibility and sharpness? Who, but the Japanese, could take a pasty skinned, round face little girl and turn her into an object of enduring sexual desire? All cultures make things, but it is only in Japan that the making of things, “monozukuri” is elevated into an art unto itself, and where skilled craftsmen, who spend their entire lives honing their craft to perfection, become “gods.”

In recent years, however, thanks to the amount of production that has been handed over to robots, the number of “gods” on the factory floor has dwindled. Toyota, in particular, has noticed the problem and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the company if now taking steps to reverse what it sees as a new form of brain drain by taking jobs away from robots and giving them back to men. The logic is slyly simple but infinitely deep, craftsmen, it goes, will always look for ways to innovate, always seek out easier more efficient methods and even find ways to reduce waste while robots can only do what they are programmed to do.

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Over the past three years, the article continues, Toyota has introduced more than 100 “manual-intensive” workplaces at factories all around Japan. In one of the sections, men manually turn and hammer red hot steel as it is forged into crankshafts in much the same way that Henry Ford’s workers once did. True to form, the men in the section have been watching and learning and the result of their efforts has been a 10 percent reduction in material waste and a shortening of the production line that will soon be applied to the automated processes used to make crankshafts in the next generation Prius Hybrid.

There is no doubt that the robots are here to stay, but Toyota’s recent experiments show that keeping humans closely engaged in the process can pay real dividends. By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation. It is, I think, a uniquely Japanese solution but it could be applied here in North America as well. Despite the many people who decry the lack of skills and poor work ethic of the North American factory worker, I believe that there are a great many men and women in our factories who would jump at the chance to work harder. Everyone, I think, wants to be valued and most people want to make a difference. This could work here too, maybe some of our own best and brightest should take a look at what’s going on.

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Tesla Fires Back Against Accusations Brought By Lemon Law King http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/tesla-fires-back-against-accusations-brought-by-lemon-law-king/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/tesla-fires-back-against-accusations-brought-by-lemon-law-king/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 11:30:03 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=793490 tesla-model-s-11

Tesla has fired back against the accusations brought in a lawsuit filed against the company earlier this week by a Wisconsin attorney and self-described “Lemon law King” Vince Megna. Mr. Megna’s client, a physician who took delivery of his Model S in March of last year, alleges that he has had repeated problems with the car’s doors and main fuse and that repeated attempts to remedy the problem have met with no success. He is asking that, after four attempts at resolving the issues, the company re-purchase the car under Wisconsin lemon laws intended to protect buyers if a product is faulty and cannot be repaired by the manufacturer.

Tesla’s response, published on their official blog and attributed to “The Tesla Motors Team,” claims factual inaccuracies in the attorney’s statements. The company writes that, although the customer filed an official buy-back request in November 2013, they have continued to work him to resolve his issues, many of which have “elusive” origins. They go on to say that their technicians were unable to replicate customer’s main complaints, problems with the door handles and the car’s main fuse, and that after replacing several of the parts in question without alleviating the situation they began to suspect the car was being tampered with. They noted that all the issues with the main fuse came shortly after the car’s front trunk, which gives access to the fuse, was opened and claim that the part has performed flawlessly since technicians applied a tamper-proof seal to the switch.

Tesla concludes their response by noting that the attorney in question also filed a Lemon Law suit against Volvo in February 2013 on behalf of the same customer and encourages the public to be aware of how opportunistic lawyers can take advantage of lemon laws.

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Smart Cars Damaged In Stupid Prank http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/smart-cars-damaged-in-stupid-prank/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/smart-cars-damaged-in-stupid-prank/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 13:33:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=790201

Photo courtesy of NBC Bay Area.com

San Francisco’s NBC affiliate is reporting on a new wave of vandalism sweeping the City by the Bay, car tipping. At least four Smart cars were flipped over Sunday night, by what one hooded-sweatshirt wearing witness described as a group of six to eight people wearing hooded sweatshirts. The case has drawn national attention, sparking the creation of a Facebook parody site, comments by the website totalfratmove.com, who called the car tippers “heroes,” and at least one cheekily written article on the website regarded by many as the seedy underbelly of the car blogging world, The Truth About Cars.

Many people believe the attacks on the Smart cars, which sell new beginning at around $13K, are a new form of class warfare in which the poor people still residing in the newly gentrified San Francisco neighborhoods take out their frustrations on the property of their wealthier, status seeking neighbors. Proof of these assertions are borne out by the fact that heavier luxury vehicles parked on the street near the damaged Smart cars were not overturned, causing this author to speculate that the larger cars could not be targeted because of rampant malnourishment among the lower classes. Others, however, think the incidents are just a stupid prank by stupid people who simply resent people with Smarts. Whatever the case, police are investigating and any suspects apprehended are likely to be charged with felony vandalism.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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Final Fight Of The 300 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/final-fight-of-the-300/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/final-fight-of-the-300/#comments Fri, 04 Apr 2014 16:56:21 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=787817 300m2

At the big blue water tower, Interstate 90, known locally as the New York State Thruway, sweeps in from the east and turns sharply southward to skirt the city of Buffalo. The main interstate is joined there by I-290, one of the loop roads that comes in from the north, and although the roads are both heavily traveled, the intersection is not especially well thought out. The 290, three lanes wide, makes a clean split, the leftmost lane joining the eastbound lanes of the 90 while the rightmost lane heads up and over an overpass before joining the westbound lanes. The middle lane offers drivers the opportunity to turn either way but most people opt to take the west bound exit and, because the right most lane is eventually forced to merge into the left lane prior to actually joining the 90, most people tend to hang in the middle lane prior to the split and, during rush hour, traffic tends to slow. Naturally, wherever cars slow, dickheads want to use the open lane to pass and then merge at the last moment.

Headed south in the early morning hours, traffic was moving along fairly well and I, in my 300M, was in line with dozens of other cars in the center lane when the big blue water tower and the 290/90 split hove into view. As usual, traffic began to slow, but there were no brake lights. Gradually, our speed dropped from the posted limit to around 40 miles and hour and I, along with everyone else in-line, stayed to the right as the center lane divided, a bare car length between me and the driver ahead. Given the distance, my attention was focused up the road rather than my mirrors so I was shocked when, out of the corner of my eye, I detected something that simply should not have been there, a car on my left.

Photo courtesy of Buffalo Spree Magazine

I hadn’t seen him approach, but there was only one way the light blue Nissan Cube could have shown up there. He had run up the left most lane faster than those of us in line and then, instead of staying left and heading east towards Rochester, he had gone straight-on across the center lane split and was now on the left shoulder and moving a good ten mph faster than the rest of us. In a millisecond he swept past, narrowly missing the side of my prized old Chrysler and then, hard on the brakes, stuffed his little econo-box into the small space between my car and the one I had been following.

Generally, I’m not prone to road rage, but in the moments that followed I saw red. Instead of jumping on the brakes and opening the space between us I stayed right in position bare inches from the offending car’s back bumper. The road moved up and over a small bridge and, on the other side, headed down to the 90 where it became the rightmost lane. At that point, most of the fast cars will generally shift left and scoot away while those of us headed downtown will shift onto the exit for Route 33. To my surprise, instead of moving left and making his getaway, the Cube turned right and since I just happened to be headed the same way I did so too. We ran down the off ramp just inches apart and, as we joined the highway headed downtown, I bumped the big Chrysler into “autostick” mode.

Nissan Cube

As we hit the merge I bumped the 300 down a gear and mashed the gas. The engine spun up and the sound that came out of the back was glorious. I drove the car into the left lane fully expecting to outgun the little Cube and to give him a taste of his own medicine as he attempted to merge but, alas, he wasn’t there. As the Chrysler surged forward, so too did the little economy car and, foot by foot as both of us stayed hard on the gas, the Cube slipped smoothly away.

Looking back on it, I didn’t act very smart that day. Had the Cube caused an accident I might have been justified in being upset but once he had managed to stuff his car into the gap I should have backed off and let him go. Still, I learned something about how quickly technology has advanced and how smaller cars with better performing engines are more than a match for older, larger “performance” (if that’s the right word for a 300M) sedans. The best thing is, of course, that no one had to be hurt to learn that lesson.

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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Rental Car Review: 2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/rental-car-review-2013-chevrolet-camaro-ss/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/rental-car-review-2013-chevrolet-camaro-ss/#comments Mon, 31 Mar 2014 11:30:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=784609 ttac1

The Victory Red 2013 Camaro Super Sport that awaited me on the third floor of what I still think of as the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s “new” rental car facility was not my preferred choice. It was, instead, the vehicle that had appeared at that perfect intersection of my desire to drive something fun during my brief trip home and my own innate frugality. It was, I thought, a good-enough-for-who-it’s-for kind of car, a convenient compromise made possible by a friendly rental agent who had offered it to me for the low-low rate of just $100 per day. But now as I approached it and saw first-hand the car’s cartoonish silhouette, its low roof line, its impossibly high windowsills and its over accentuated, nee, bulging curves, – a modern, steroid-era rethink that has changed car design in the same way that the grotesquely overdeveloped bodies of professional wrestlers have usurped the rightful place of Michelangelo’s David as the embodiment of the perfect male form – I wondered if I shouldn’t have suppressed my frugality just long enough to drop the extra cash for a BMW 5 series.

Of course, I had known when I struck the deal just what I would be getting. Camaros aren’t exactly exotic and I’d seen plenty on the street. Although I had yet to drive one, I had sat in one during a visit to my local dealership a year or two ago and so I knew that being in the Camaro was a little like sitting in an uncomfortably tall bathtub. Time had muted that feeling but, as I opened the door and slipped behind the wheel, that impression returned with real force.

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The Camaro is not like my little cute-ute or the family minivan and, as I sat in it, I had my doubts about my ability to make myself comfortable in what I looked like a fairly small and restricted cabin. After some simple adjustments, however, I found the interior of the car a nice place to be. The leather seats were a tad too low for my taste, I prefer to sit up high and to have my seat back almost bolt-upright. But thanks to the power seats’ wide range of adjustability I was able to make myself comfortable without much trouble. The seats themselves were quite supportive and, although they were deeply dished with high side bolsters, I never felt like I was too big – or too wide – to fit. Leg room was very good and this was the first time in a long time that I haven’t had to have my seat all the way against the rear stops in order to be comfortable.

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Taking stock of my surroundings, I noted that the inside of the car was well-appointed and very well put together. I spent a lot of time looking for imperfections and didn’t find anything of note. The stitching on the seats and the leather dash cover were flawless and the various panels all fit together without any annoying gaps or spaces. The controls were well placed and everything my hand touched felt good under my fingers. On the downside, the gauges, specifically the plastic bezel that surrounded them, looked cheap. Also, I was not especially enamored with the gold-colored hard plastic on the console and I noted that the one in my car had several nasty, deep scratches, indicating to me that this surface may become an unsightly problem after a few years of normal use. The radio was easy to use and although I never really cranked it up, it sounded passable. The climate controls, which looked a lot like a 1980’s boom box I once owned, were retrotastic tacky but easy to figure out and intuitive to use as well.

2013 camaro SS

2013 camaro SS

The view out of the car was much more of a mixed bag. The high windowsills, something I was really dreading, had almost zero effect on my overall driving experience. Thanks to all the liquid sunshine, I never felt the urge to put my elbow on the windowsill. Visibility out the front was, despite A pillars almost as big around as my leg, surprisingly good. Even the car’s low roofline did not prove to be a problem, and I didn’t need to duck my head to see out, as I did when I sat in the last iteration of this car back in the 90s. The high hood and low seat position did make it hard to judge where the front of the car was and, while this was never a problem while I was out on the road, it made me feel especially vulnerable while moving around at slow speeds in parking lots.

The view out the back was a flat mess, with noticeable blind spots on both rear quarters made worse by small sport bike-esque  sideview mirrors. The interior mirror was just as bad and, although it was large enough to block out an entire car at a four-way stop, it offered only a panoramic view of the tiny rear window framed by the car’s package tray and interior trim parts. At the very least, the car I drove was equipped with a back up monitor that I much appreciated, but since it only worked while I was backing up, I needed to exercise extra caution before making lane changes on the highway.

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The drive between the Sea-Tac airport and Snohomish takes about an hour, and uses the same roads that I once spent great amounts of time traversing as a part of my daily commute. Generally, the roads are in good shape and I whisked my way northward without incident in a car that I had already determined I really didn’t care for. The steering felt heavy but precise and the car’s big, wide tires seemed to find every imperfection in the pavement. Still, despite the fact that I hit almost every bump for 50 miles, I simply could not find fault with the way the Camaro drove. The suspension felt perfect, firm but never rough or jarring, and the car motored up the freeway with only the steady drum of tires on pavement finding their way into the interior.

After a stop at my mother’s house in Monroe, I decided to take the Camaro up into the hills, to those roads that I have written about on these pages so often, where I determined that I would, once and for all, ring the snot out of it. On the climb up and out of the valley, I noticed the first thing I felt was a real problem with the car, a transmission that seemed devoted to fuel mileage rather than performance. The car was constantly looking to up shift as quickly as possible, and I caught it several times lugging the engine at lower speeds on the flats or failing to downshift on grades. The answer to my problem was, of course, to put the car into manual mode and control the shifts myself via the paddle shifters located behind the steering wheel. I had hated the Autostick in my 300M and seldom used it, but the paddles on the Camaro worked well and gave crisp shifts as I ran up through the gears. I was more reluctant about manual downshifts and engine braking with an automatic, but I soon found that the car handled most of the downshifts on its own, leaving me solely responsible for the up shifts or on those few occasions when I needed to downshift to bump up the revs.

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I’m not going to say I went crazy out there, the roads were wet and in the decades since I left the hills hundreds of new homes have been built where once only woodland creatures walked, but the Camaro handled itself well on the twistiest of what were once my own personal twisties. With 426 horsepower under the hood, this is hands-down the most powerful car I have ever driven, and it should have been easy to get the car out of shape, but that never happened. Despite the wet surface, the wide tires clung to the road with real tenacity and the big brakes were always quick and accurate when hauling the car down from high speed. On my favorite stretch of road, the one with the curve known locally as “devil’s elbow,” the Camaro set such a blistering pace that I could hardly believe how slow my old Shadow and 200SX felt in comparison.

In the days that followed, I took the Camaro out into the hills at every opportunity and soon I noticed a strange thing happening. Little by little, I began to connect with the car. Just like when I still rode sport bikes, there came a point where the machine just fell away and I found myself working the vehicle automatically while my mind ranged out ahead of my forward progress. One mile at a time the Camaro and I began to gel, and I realized that what I had originally believed to be major faults with the car were just tiny little annoyances that were wiped away by everything the car does right.

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On Saturday morning at 3:00 AM, I rolled out of my brother’s modest abode and made the hour drive back down to Sea-Tac. The rain had abated, and the pavement on Interstate 405 was mostly bare and dry. This time, the roar of the car’s tires did not bother me and somewhere within it, if I cocked my head just right, I could recognize the sound of the engine as I motored smoothly down the freeway. From my seat I looked out through the windshield and across the broad, bulging hood as the road rushed towards me and wondered why it was exactly that I had decided not to like the car in the first place.

The Camaro SS is one of those cars that makes no secret of what it is. It is a Mr. Hyde who does not hide behind the facade of Doctor Jekyll, an Incredible Hulk free to roam about with no concern for Dr. Bruce Banner. It is the monster in its purest form, loud, brash and in your face, even if it is overwrought. Chevrolet has built something amazing here – maybe it just took me a little longer than some to realize it.

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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 Manly Art Of Stick Handling http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/the-manly-art-of-stick-handling/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/the-manly-art-of-stick-handling/#comments Sat, 22 Mar 2014 15:02:58 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=778449 6-speed manual transmission

I was browsing the internet the other day and came across a website that purports to be “A guy’s post-college guide to growing up.” Normally I avoid websites like this. I learned about the manly arts the old fashioned way, dangerous experimentation, but since I have been wrestling with an especially verdant crop of nose hair recently I thought I might find some grooming tips and so I decided to check it out. Amongst all the articles on slick, greasy-looking haircuts, sensual massage techniques and the power of positive self-development, I found this handy beginners’ guide on how to drive a stick shift. Since it was one of the only things on the site I had any real experience with, I looked it over and decided it was pretty good. Naturally, I thought I would share it.

Like sword fighting and bare knuckle boxing before it, driving a car with a manual transmission is on the verge of becoming a lost manly art. One day soon I expect to tune into the History Channel and hear someone explain how archeologists think these devices might have worked and watch as historic re-enactors dress up in their oldest bell bottoms and tie dyed shirts in order to drive around in their automatic transmission equipped replicas while making shift noises and pretending to step on a clutch pedal that isn’t there.

You keep both hands on the wheel, Frankie. I’ll handle the stick.

OK, perhaps I am being just a little facetious here, but let’s face it, manual transmissions are moving out of the mainstream and there will come a time when only cars aimed at the enthusiast market will bother to offer them. History tells me, of course, that it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that all cars had manual transmissions. Some people will say they also had crank starts, hand-operated chokes and manual spark advance too, and that no one ever laments the loss of those things. It is, they will say, the price we pay for progress. The old things go away, replaced with new things that serve the masses better and, despite the fact that a few people may lament their loss, the fact is that vast majority will hardly notice their absence.

That’s not going to be the case with the manual transmission. Learning to shift your own gears is a right of passage. It is something that people grew up watching their elders do and upon a child’s entry into adulthood, the skill was handed down across the generations, person to person. With few exceptions, those clever, intrepid people who had the gumption to teach themselves, every one of us who knows how to work a stick learned from someone else.

Click here to view the embedded video.

I started out the way most young people do, pretending to row the gears in an old broken down Opel Kadette in my parents’ garage and eventually wheedled a lesson from my older brother Tracy who took me out in his, then, fairly new 1978 Nova. It was a pretty little car, a red on red two door coupe that had a 250 cid six cylinder under the hood and was as utilitarian as they come. I started out shifting gears from the passenger seat to get the feel of the shift lever and by the time I slipped over behind the controls had a fairly good idea of what I needed to be doing with my hands. Learning how to work the pedals took a little longer but, with my brother’s encouragement, I eventually got the hang of it.

I won’t say the experience changed my world, but it did open up a part of it that is, unfortunately, closed to many young people today. By the time I got my first car, a slightly older six cylinder three speed manual Nova of my own, there was no doubt about my ability to work the thing and, over the years and in the many manual equipped cars that would follow, I built upon the skills my brother taught me.

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Running a car with a manual transmission connects man and machine in a way few other things can. In that same way the bumps and judders transmitted to a driver’s fingers through steering wheel gives one a connection to the pavement rushing beneath their seat, the vibrations transmitted to the palm of your hand by a shift ball and the sole of your left foot by the clutch pedal gives you a direct connection to a car’s drive train. Also, because you don’t have computer managing your engine speed and choosing the best gear, a manual transmission forces you to watch your gauges, to monitor the tachometer, and to actively think about the process of driving. These things pull driver and car together and when a driver has real focus they can join with the vehicle in the way that jockeys talk about becoming one with the animal during a race. That experience is, in a nutshell, enthusiasm is its purest form.

As a fat, hairy, old-school ape man, I have a special disdain for the “self-improvement” media and magazines that try to tell young men what it means to be a man while, at the same time, attempting to sell them a plethora of products to make them ever softer and ever more sensual, but this time I think they nailed it. Perhaps driving a manual is no longer a skill that every man must have, but it is a skill that every man – and every woman, really – should aspire to. It doesn’t matter if you learn if from your brother or a magazine, just get out there and learn it before it’s too late.

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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Still Thinking About A Small & Sporty Car: On To Something http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/still-thinking-about-a-small-sporty-car-on-to-something/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/still-thinking-about-a-small-sporty-car-on-to-something/#comments Wed, 19 Mar 2014 18:00:05 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=776041 149

I’ve spent the past few weeks examining the possibilities. Some of you might remember an article or two that I wrote back in January about my desire to find something sporty and fun to drive once the family and I get safely relocated to our new digs down Leavenworth way. A few folks who read our fine website contacted me by e-mail to offer up various vehicles that meet the requirements I set and I had a good time imagining myself behind the wheel of each and every one of them. One of those cars struck a special chord with me and its owner and I have exchanged several emails in the weeks since. I am thinking now, should fate somehow not manage to intervene in the best laid plan of this large but mousey man, that I might take some of the mad amounts of money I make writing for TTAC and purchase it. Don’t tell my wife.

I don’t feel bad about my scheme, really. We have two drivers in my house and only two vehicles. Some people think that’s normal, I suppose, but I’m the kind of guy who likes to have a back-up. Today, for example, I emerged from my home in the pre-dawn hours to find that the battery in my Pontiac Torrent was dead flat. Maybe it’s my own fault, I was working in the front yard and the kids, who demanded to be outside with me, decided it was too cold and, rather than simply go back inside, demanded to be put into the car to play. I like it when the kids play in the car, after all I spent a lot of my time as a kid playing driver and it’s an interest I want to encourage, but when they flip a switch and leave the lights on all night it can be problematic. Since it takes time to re-charge a battery I’ve ended up spending the day at home and that wouldn’t have happened if I had some kind of small, fun to drive, sporty car just sitting there as a back up. See my logic? I know my wife will…

Of course she will, right?

Of course she will, right?

Anyhow, the real reason y’all hit the jump wasn’t to find out that I let my kids play driver, it was to find out just what car is the subject of my machinations and that car is (ready for it?) a one-owner 1983 Shelby Charger. The car was purchased at Reed Brothers Dodge in Rockville, MD on July 20, 1983 for $9435 and recently came out of storage to receive an extensive rust repair and repaint. Underneath it has all new brakes and shocks and, while the engine internals haven’t been touched, it also sports a new clutch, oil pump and timing belt. The transmission has been swapped out for a stouter, recently rebuilt unit from a turbo car and the shift knuckles have been upgraded from plastic to steel. Over all, the car sounds really well sorted and the photos I have received back-up the sellers assertion. The best part is, without being so crass as to discuss numbers in public, the price is right.

shelby charger

Naturally, I’m excited, and I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last few weeks learning everything I could about the 1983 Dodge Charger. It turns out I knew a lot less than I thought I did. For one thing, I had just always assumed that all Shelby Chargers were turbocharged. It turns out, however, that in 1983, the first year Shelby decided to slap his name on a car that, up until 1982, had been called the Omni 024, the car was still much closer to its econobox roots that it was a fire breathing muscle car. The 2.2, which had entered service in late 1980 as a part of the 1981 model year, originally made just 84 horsepower.

Realizing the limitations of the cars he was working with, Carroll Shelby hedged his bets and, according to Peter Grist in his book “Dodge Dynamite: 50 Years of Dodge Muscle Cars” that “The main parameters were to have as good a handling FWD car as there is anywhere, that it be unique in appearance, and that it perform adequately.” The car certainly looks unique, its hard to miss a Shelby Charger’s wild graphics, and by all accounts Shelby’s people were able to work real magic with the car’s suspension as well. The High output engine that was created, however, only managed to eke out 110 horses. A few years later, of course, the addition of fuel injection and turbo charging would add many more ponies to that rather modest number, but this car marks the beginning of the process that would eventually lead to those things. That makes it, I think, special. Now, the only question is if I can control the urges that would have me try and preserve it or simply use it as God and Carroll Shelby intended. I’ll be sure and give it my best shot.

shelby charger 1

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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Alternative Technologies: The Power Of Steam http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/alternative-technologies-the-power-of-steam/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/alternative-technologies-the-power-of-steam/#comments Fri, 14 Mar 2014 20:58:21 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=771434 Click here to view the embedded video.

The verdict is in. After two popular articles on the inner workings of the transmission, it is clear that TTAC loves technical articles about complicated mechanical devices. Always one to try to get into the middle of the latest fad, I thought that maybe I too could use my own hard won technical knowledge to write an informative article. The problem is that the only thing I really know how to work on involves technology that is seldom seen in cars these days: steam.

Many people think the days of steam power has come and gone but the truth is that it is still with us. It’s true that the immense locomotives that once thundered across our great land, pistons pounding wildly as they flung themselves along the rails at speeds that often exceeded 100 mph, have all but disappeared, but the reasons for their demise have little to do with the efficiency of their power plants. No, the steam locomotive was undone by the fact that most of them were one-off creations, each one of which required specially constructed parts and that, when General Motors finally began to apply the miracle of standardized parts and the production line to the creation of diesel engines, the great beasts were finally driven to extinction. No, steam simply retreated to places where it could be used to its best advantage and where it still works with such efficiency that it is utterly unremarkable.

The power of steam comes from its expansion. To people accustomed to thinking about the automobile, the way steam works can easily be compared to the combustion of gasoline which takes power from a liquid fuel, gasoline or diesel, and then ignites it into a gas which forces a piston to travel downward in a power stroke. In the case of steam power, water is heated under pressure in a boiler until it turns to vapor and is taken from the drum via a series of pipes, scrubbed of its moisture and sometimes superheated, before being released through a nozzle or inlet valve into an area where it can fully expand. That expansion can be used to cause a piston to move through its stroke or a turbine to spin. Of course, this is a simplistic explanation but just to give you an idea of the power available, just understand that water expands into steam at a rate of 1700 to 1, meaning that one square foot of water heated to 366 degrees F at 150psi will expand to 1700 feet of water vapor at Zero psi.

Image courtesy of atdlines.com

Image courtesy of atdlines.com

The big, high pressure marine power plants I used to work with were giant systems. The boilers themselves were several stories high, had a firebox big enough for several people to walk around in and thousands of water filled tubes leading into an immense steam and water drum. The steam and water drum mounted several pieces of equipment, including several that were intended to dry the steam so that water droplets could not move through the system and impact sensitive parts downstream, and a superheater to give the steam one last burst of energy prior to its release into a high pressure steam turbine. Once the steam had gone through its initial expansion in the HP turbine, it would then flow into a low pressure turbine where it expended the rest of its energy and then flow into a condenser, basically a big radiator, to condense the steam back into water. That water was then pumped back up to a preheater which brought it back up to temperature so it could be re-injected back into the boiler.

For the most part, boiler water is recovered by the system and never really allowed to cool much below the boiling point. Once the system is up and running the energy demands are not really outrageous considering the amount of power generated and the good news is that the boiler will run on the worst kinds of fuel so long as it is liquid enough to inject into the firebox and burns well enough to make heat.

Of course, a ship’s engine room has a lot of other things going on to support the process I’ve just described. Some parts of the steam are siphoned off to run the high speed, high pressure feed pumps required to inject the feed water into the boiler at the beginning of the process and still more is taken to run other systems like the fuel heating systems and the evaporators that ships use to turn sea water into fresh water. The result is a space crammed full of machinery and a maze of pipes, many of which that are hot enough to burn you right through your boiler suit should you happen to brush up against them in the wrong place.

The steam and water cycle of a steam piston engine is much the same as what I have described above for the steam turbine. Water is heated in the boiler, run through the pipes and recovered in the form of condensate the exact same way. The difference is the where it is allowed to expand and how the energy is drawn from it, this time into a piston rather than a turbine.

Most steam piston engines are two strokes, meaning that they only have power and exhaust strokes because the gas being used does not require and induction or compression stroke. Steam is released into the chamber where it expands and forces the piston to the bottom of the stroke. The exhaust stroke is completed by injecting live steam on the bottom of the piston through a second set of intake valves and forcing it back to the top of its stroke, in what is called a “double action.” The advantage to this system is that every time the piston moves it is making power. That power is put to the ship’s propshaft or the locomotive’s wheels by a transmission in much the same way it would be with a gas or diesel engine. The exhausted steam is then recaptured in the form of condensate and then reintroduced to the boiler where it can repeat the process.

The most famous application of the steam engine to the automotive world is the Stanley Steamer. That vehicle, which was for a time the fastest in the world, utilized a simple boiler and a steam piston engine that featured two cylinders. Produced in various sizes for almost 25 years the design was a great success. The engines were rated by their steaming capacity at 10, 20 and 30 horsepower but had they been rated at their actual numbers produced at their cranks the 20 hp variant would have produced a solid 125 horses.

Image courtesy of stanleymotorcarriage.com

Image courtesy of stanleymotorcarriage.com

Although it is easy today to look back at the Stanley Steamer as some sort of quaint attempt to marry the newly developing modern age with the Victorian era, the truth is that these were well built, high powered cars that were well regarded in their era. The technology was and is solid and, were it not for the lengthy start-up times due to the need to bring the boiler up to temperature in order to initiate the process, I think it would still do well on the road today.

In the years since the Stanley Steamer left the road and steam locomotives left the rails, marine steam powerplants continued to develop and some of the problems that the early boilers faced were eventually overcome by technology. Things like automated feedwater controls, devices that ensure the boiler water isn’t over or under filled, and reliable relief valves, valves that activate in emergencies to release pressure and prevent boiler explosions, have made the highest pressure boilers safe and easy to use and it seems to me that, today, given the willingness of people to plug their car into a wall socket, that the steam car could make a quick comeback by using electricity to maintain the boiler temp while the car isn’t in use.

Today, almost a century after the car settled into the recognizable form that it has taken today, the need for greater efficiency is driving new innovation. New types of cars are being developed every day and in our rush to embrace the alternative technologies of future I think the potential of steam power deserves a second look as a well. With so many new manufacturers looking to capitalize on bygone glories, perhaps one day soon we’ll have a new version of the Stanley Steamer back on the road.

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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Strict Enforcement of NY’s Parking Laws Affects Official Vehicles http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/strict-enforcement-of-nys-parking-laws-affects-official-vehicles/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/strict-enforcement-of-nys-parking-laws-affects-official-vehicles/#comments Mon, 24 Feb 2014 21:08:13 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=753065 Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

The New York Times reported Sunday on how strict enforcement of parking violations in Manhattan is causing problems for government agencies as they are forced to reclaim official vehicles that have been towed. In most cities, official vehicles are kept immune from the effects of parking enforcement by dashboard placards that allow government officials to park in red zones or without feeding the meter while they are on the job.

 

In New York city, that policy ended in 2008 when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to crack down on illegal parking by city employees and gave oversight of parking violations by official vehicles over to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. That agency’s policy is to tow cars, placard or not, no questions asked and, as a result, in 2013, New York City tow trucks removed 1855 vehicles displaying placards. Those vehicle included 242 registered to the Fire Department, 361 assigned to the Police Department itself and another 311 vehicles assigned to Federal agencies operating in the city. Most of the vehicles fall into the category of “safety hazard violations” and were towed for blocking bus stops, no standing zones and other places where parking is prohibited like fire lanes.

On the surface, this seems like a good policy that holds government employees to the same standard as the general public, but the article explains that towing and impound fees are not generally assessed against official vehicles and goes on to say that they are usually released to their agencies upon receipt of an official request. The net result is that the entire operation is one that actually costs the city money in unpaid fees while serving as little more than a nuisance to public employees who take time out of their work day to retrieve their vehicles. Senior officials have stated that the new police commissioner is currently reviewing the program.

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Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/do-you-remember-rock-and-roll-radio/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/do-you-remember-rock-and-roll-radio/#comments Thu, 20 Feb 2014 13:00:15 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=749065 Click here to view the embedded video.

In my office is a clock radio and, if you are a child of the ‘70s or ‘80s, you already know which one. Made by GE, it has a red LED display, a plastic wood grain case and mounts one tinny speaker on top. It runs all day long, playing the greatest hits of the era in which it was built, and it fills the space with the cheerful din of bygone days. Everyone who sees it, thinks that I have owned it forever but the truth is that I spent long hours searching for that exact model. The fact I sought it out at all says a lot about me, that I have a strange attachment to old things, that I think history is important and, perhaps most obviously, that I am not an audiophile. Odd, it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time that most cars came equipped with a radio strikingly similar to the one on my desk. You know the kind, two knobs split by a row of five spring loaded buttons that were wired to whip the tuner manually from one point on the dial to the next. If you were lucky, in addition to those five buttons, your radio also had a little switch that would let you change up to the FM band. If you had that, you were a king.

Tape decks changed that. Although I imagine that they must have come as extra cost options in some cars as early as the very late sixties, I don’t really recall tape decks appearing in the cars my friends and family drove prior to about 1980. The few that did show up were outrageously expensive and of such low quality that most people simply went out and purchased their own. They weren’t at all hard to wire in.

04 - 1981 Dodge Aries Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin

I installed my first car stereo in my ‘74 Chevy Nova sometime in the summer of 1983. Like most modifications to the little car, I did it without my father’s permission and he was enormously unhappy, but the installation was smooth and, thanks to my brother Tracy who provided me with a pair of cast off, wooden speaker boxes that I seat belted in the back seat, I didn’t even had to cut the package tray to install my 6X9s.

The process was simple, I simply stood on my head under the dashboard of a car and went to work. The red wire with the fuse holder got stripped and twisted together with the red line on the car and the black wire got bolted to the firewall. Once the power came on, you messed around with remaining wires in sequence until one speaker or another made noise. A quadraphonic system added an extra layer of complexity, of course, but so long as you had the power on and were willing to work your way through all the combinations you could figure it out before the blood rushed to your head. It was fun and easy and, before I knew it, I had a successful little side business do it for others.

When I turned 20 and started working at Schuck’s Auto Supply, I was pleased to find out that my employee discount included a generous 20% off anything in the house, including the assortment of radios mounted in a large, lighted display off to the side of the sales floor. The brand was Kraco and it wasn’t long before I had one. The addition of a digital clock meant and extra wire, one that required an unswitched connection to the battery, but I made it work by routing that wire to the dome-light circuit ahead of the pin switch in the door.

Radio Shack Car Accessories - 1986 - Picture courtesy of RadioShackCatalogs.com

As time passed, I found that the Kraco stereos came and went from our store with amazing regularity. When the old ones left there was a sale and, as a person who spent a lot of time after work fiddling around with the various combinations that display allowed, I always new what the best set-up was. Like a person addicted to cosmetic surgery, I found myself obsessed with swapping out my car stereo every few months. Looking back now, I think that the difference between the various units was negligible, but back then it was exciting and I always felt like was riding the cutting edge of technology. That stopped, however, when I bought my first new car, my Dodge Shadow, in February 1988.

I factory ordered the best stereo I could. A digitally tuned AM/FM Cassette that, among other things, featured a little joystick that adjusted both balance and fade in one fell swoop. Hooked up with four decent speakers on the factory floor, the little stereo made such a glorious noise that I never felt like I needed another. And so I was for a few years until one auspicious day shortly after I had returned from Operation Desert Storm.

05 - 1992 Dodge Shadow America Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin

I was prowling through the return section of a local electronics store and found something I had never seen before, it was made by Kenwood and was called the CD shuttle. It was an interesting concept, a trunk mounted multi-disk CD player controlled by a small hidden panel in the front of the car. It’s hard to remember now, but CDs were still a new thing in 1991 and even though I only had a single disc, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, I wanted in. Since the box was already open, I sat right down on the floor in the middle of the store and started going through it. According to the spec sheet, it was all there, and the installation looked simple. Some poor shmuck, I reckoned, had ordered the unit before deciding he had bitten off more than he could chew and, despite the fact he had done nothing more than look through the box, the store couldn’t sell the unit as new anymore. Their loss was my gain.

Back at home, however I learned the folly of my ways. Even though all the parts were there, I found the head unit had to be purchased separately and that once you had the system itself wired together, the outputs had to be run through an external amplifier in order to make noise come out of the speakers. The cost was exorbitant, but I was flush with easy Merchant Marine money and would not be dissuaded. $1000 later I had one of the most kick ass systems going and the best part was that it was all hidden. I didn’t even need to replace my own. stock stereo, I simply bought a switching unit that allowed me to control the CD player by remote. When I was done, the only sign I had anything extra in the cars was small LCD screen that sat in my car’s otherwise unused ash tray.

Image courtesy of kenwood.eu

Image courtesy of kenwood.eu

Overall, it worked really well but my ability as an amateur electrician, if there can be such a thing, was stretched to the limit and I knew then the handwriting was on the wall. In later years I changed the radios in a couple of older cars I owned, my JDM Supra was one and my 200SX was another, but never again did I try to build a system from the ground up, it was just too much work and, thanks to the quality of the systems coming out of the factory today, has never been necessary.

My most recent acquisition, the Town and Country we purchased last summer, came with a system that I couldn’t have dreamed of back in the days I was crawling around under the dashboard. AM/FM/Satellite radio, a CD/DVD player, a built in hard drive I can load from CD ROM, DVD or memory stick, blue tooth networking for cell phones and a navigation screen. Added to that is a blue ray player and two fold down screens as well as four wireless headphones that can operate independently of the main system so the kids can enjoy their own noise while I enjoy my own. It plays into the cabin through a dozen or more hidden speakers, and the entire experience is one of light and crystal clear sound. It is simply amazing. No amount of tweaking, I think could make it any better.

The odd thing is, other than my tinny little radio at work, I rarely listen to music at all anymore. And when I do, thanks to almost a half decade spent working in ships’ engine rooms, the many days I’ve spent staring down the barrel of one rifle or another and all those days I spent testing the limits of my own eardrums via the many aforementioned car stereos, the ringing in my ears never stops and it doesn’t really matter how good the quality is. Of course, it was never really about quality tunes anyway, it was about the fun. When you look at it that way, any radio, it turns out, can be a rock and roll radio.

2012 Chrysler 200S Convertible, Interior, uConnect, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

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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Testing The Limits Of Civil Obedience: An Experiment http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/testing-the-limits-of-civil-obedience-an-experiment/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/testing-the-limits-of-civil-obedience-an-experiment/#comments Thu, 13 Feb 2014 11:00:04 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=740529 2013 Taurus Police Interceptor -02- Picture courtesy David Hester

Yesterday, while folks in the Southeast were getting hammered with their second severe winter storm in two weeks, the skies over Buffalo were wonderfully bright and sunny. Of course, when you count the wind chill factor, the temperature barely climbed into the double digits but as a result of the sun and a whole lot of road salt, the highways here were mostly bare and dry. That means my evening commute was a breeze. I hit Route 33 and ran my little CUV up to just over the 55 mph limit and sailed right out of town. Things were going great, but then, unexpectedly, traffic began to slow.

I shifted left into a place I really don’t run that much these days and wicked the speed up to a smidge over 60 in order to keep up the pace. I found myself fourth or fifth back in a line of cars that was whizzing up the fast lane overtaking car after car and, as a student of the road, I began to wonder just what the hell was holding all these people up. I found the reason at the head of the line, a Buffalo City Police cruiser running right at the limit and, like all the good people of the Earth who don’t want a senseless speeding ticket, I found myself easing off the gas. But as I noted his lack of response to all of the cars ahead of me that were simply accelerating away into the wide open space the officer had created, I decided that for whatever reason he simply wasn’t interested in writing tickets and so I continued on, barely adjusting my pace.

Always on the lookout for something that will make a meatier TTAC article than my usual shtick of old time reminiscences, I came home and spent some time on the computer looking at traffic patterns and wondering just how these rolling roadblocks affect the flow of traffic. What, I asked myself, is the point of setting a speed limit that is so low that people simply disobey it as a matter of course? Virtually everyone, I found, pushes the limit and. unless an officer is looking for an excuse to stop a suspicious vehicle, the least of these transgressions are simply ignored and so we receive a sort of tacit approval to speed. Knowing how fast to go can be a problem, however, but most people are pretty good at judging the speeds of the cars around us and we usually just fall into line and run with the crowd. When that happens, people who follow the strict letter of the law become road hazards.

Click here to view the embedded video.

In 2006, a group of Georgia college students decided to point out the absurdity of the 55 mph speed limit by getting in their cars, lining up next to one another on the interstate and then actually following the rules as they drove around the city of Atlanta. Their Youtube video “A Meditation on the Speed Limit” explains the genesis of their plan and gives us the opportunity to observe first hand as we ride along during their daring act of “civil obedience.” It’s like most amateur videos, shaky, poorly framed and without enough shots of the girls, but its an interesting watch. If you are in a place where you can’t actually view the video now, just know that the beginning has several young people railing about the speed limit and talking about their plan, the middle cuts to the car where we see the kids annoying a whole lot of people and nearly causing an accident as they proceed to back up traffic for miles and miles and then ends with them talking about how great their plan was and how they proved the absurdity of the speed limit.

What grabbed my attention were the reactions of the other drivers around them. We all know the law, American roads generally have signs telling us the limit every few miles, but every driver also understands the unwritten rules of the road that tell us we can exceed that limit in a reasonable way so long as everyone else on the road is running somewhere around that same speed. It is a social norm and, when faced with the rolling road block, the social contract we have with other drivers broke down. People were outraged and they started doing anything they could to break through. They even got downright dangerous at times, a couple of people going so far as to use the breakdown lane to make high speed passes!

Writing this now, had I been driving one of the cars stuck behind them, I’m not sure how I would have responded . I would like to think that I would have enough sense not to make a dangerous and illegal pass, but I probably would have followed too closely, hit the headlights, blared the horn and eventually made some pretty threatening gestures after the blockade ended and the kids were busy patting themselves on the back. This kind of thing really makes me angry. We may be a nation of laws but we are a society of norms and whenever the two clash people can get seriously hurt. It is generally accepted that we get at least 5 to 10 mph over in most cases and we damn well better get it.

The strange thing is that I could find no proof that anyone involved in this stunt was ever punished. I found contradictory statements in the press from Georgia State Police officials who said that it was against the law to block the fast lanes, but that the kids did nothing wrong because they were running at the posted speed limit. I expect similar confusion when we hit the point where our in-car technology is used to report speeding violations or to assess us fines. It will be interesting to see if the government continues to allow us the traditional few over or whether they decide to turn this into a cash-cow and get people for every little infraction. The lure of easy money is there and if the whole traffic camera fight is any indication, some municipalities will take the bait. If people react to that intrusion into their daily lives the way they acted towards these kids’ silly experiment, you can expect a revolution. Let’s just hope it happens in the voting booth.

Obama angry.

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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A Testament To The Urealized Dreams Of My Youth http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/a-testament-to-the-urealized-dreams-of-my-youth/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/a-testament-to-the-urealized-dreams-of-my-youth/#comments Wed, 12 Feb 2014 13:00:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=739513 Nova 1

According to the clock, it would still be more than an hour before the sun slipped over the Western horizon and sank into the Pacific, but from my place behind the wheel of my 74 Nova beneath the leaden November skies and running through the steady drizzle, the dark of night was already beginning to ooze its way up and out of the hidden spaces of the great forest that lined either side of the narrow roadway. Ahead, a single mailbox loomed up and out of the mist and I checked its number against the one I had written on a small scrap of paper some hours earlier. To my satisfaction they matched and I pulled off the pavement and onto a long gravel driveway, my headlights cutting a bright swath through the increasingly murky darkness as I worked my way back into the woods.

At the top of the driveway I emerged into a broad clearing that had been hacked out of the living forest and, at the edge of a wide gravel turnaround, found myself looking at a double-wide trailer with several cars parked out front and a recently constructed metal garage. Dogs barked loudly at my arrival and, in response to their cheerful noise, the porch light flicked on and the door suddenly opened. A grizzled man in his mid-thirties man stepped out and extended his hand as he met me at the bottom of a set of roughly hewn wooden steps that led to the door of is humble abode. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it.” He said with a smile.

“It was a little further than I expected.” I answered, straightening up from my typical teen-aged slouch and giving him my firmest handshake. Despite his rough looks, he seemed friendly enough and I felt instantly at ease. Looking around, I noted the different cars in the driveway and but it took another moment of to before I found the reason I had come so far up into the mountains, a forlorn looking Nova parked alongside the metal outbuilding, practically invisible in the growing dusk. Together we crunched our way across the gravel toward the old car and it was only when we drew close that I noticed the silver SS badge at the center of its blacked-out grill.

Taken aback, I paused. The classified ad had only mentioned that the man was parting out an old Nova, I hadn’t expected a super sport. When I had called, he had described the car and told be that it still had its bucket seats, a console and some other interior parts that I needed for another old Nova I was trying to fix up and so I had made the trip but now, faced with a real SS, and one that seemed to be in fairly decent shape, I was at a loss how to proceed. “Wow.” I gasped. “Would you like to just sell me the whole thing?”

The man shook his head. “No,” he answered, “I need the sub frame for a truck I’m building. I’m just parting the Nova out to get back some of the money I spent and once people stop coming I’ll cut off the parts I need and graft it onto my Ford.”

Nova

I was shocked. “You know,” I offered, “This is a pretty nice car on its own, it seems a shame to cut it up for an old truck.” The man replied with a simple shrug but it spoke volumes and I knew then that he would not be swayed from his chosen course of action. I opened the car’s door and found a beautifully preserved black and white interior, just waiting to be taken. “I can use a lot of this stuff,” I said, “But I only have $50.”

“No one else has asked about it,” he answered, “you can have everything you can carry.” It was almost too good to be true so I paid the man and went to work.

It took about an hour, but by the light of a flashlight I removed the door panels, the console and the buckets and then added a few exterior trim pieces, things like chrome rain gutter trim that I bent horrible trying to remove, in an effort to fill every bit of available space before my long return home. When nothing more would fit, I bid the man a happy farewell and headed home. I had done well, but I felt bad. Sure the car wasn’t perfect, but it was still too good to be scrapped.

My $50 had purchased quite a lot but, had been a little older and a little wiser, there are a lot of other parts I would have taken instead. In my rush to get all of the obvious bits I forgot many of the most important parts, things like the mounting plate and linkage to go with my floor mounted shift lever I had taken and all of the interior trim pieces that would have been required to complete my planned interior swap but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The next morning, in the full light of a new day, I realized that the parts I had seemed far too nice for the gutted piece of junk I was trying to repair and instead I chose to put them into the attic of one of my father’s outbuildings where I knew they would be safe while they awaited their eventual installation in the much better car I was so certain that I would eventually purchase. That purchase never happened and so I imagine that they are still there today, some thirty years later, a moldy, forgotten testament to the unrealized dreams of my youth.

Nova

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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True Confessions: Revealing My Secret Crush http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/true-confessions-revealing-my-secret-crush/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/true-confessions-revealing-my-secret-crush/#comments Fri, 07 Feb 2014 13:00:32 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=734625 Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Photo courtesy of wikipedia

I was about eight years old when I fell in love the first time. She was a long, lanky and curvaceous piece of work, sexy and sophisticated, and I knew the moment that I first laid eyes upon her, her and her sister for there were two parked alongside one another in the driveway, that one day I must possess her. Looking back I can tell your she was a big girl, but compared to the my father’s Oldsmobile Delta 88 she seemed impossibly lithe and trim. Her chrome nameplate told me she was called “Jaguar” and once I spied her no other car would ever be quite good enough.

It’s funny how you can use a car every day for years and years and, when it is finally gone, be unable to recall a single detail. You know the make and model, of course, and probably have a general image in your mind, but when it comes to specifics you have only the vaguest of recollections, more an emotional impression of how the car made you feel than a single, hard and fast memory you can point to. But to this day, and despite the fact that I probably only spent about ten minutes next to them, in the driveway I still can recall enough of the details of the two cars I saw that just now I was able to get on line and identify them as Mark IIs. That says something.

The Jaguar Mark II is, of course a sedan – saloons as the British call them – and because of them I have always had a thing for the manufacturer’s larger offerings. To be honest, I wouldn’t turn down on of their sports cars if it were given to me, but the only one I have ever actually imagined owning is the most sedan-like XJS. I can’t tell you what it is about the big cats, but they have always had a special appeal to me. They ooze sophistication, and the thought of finding myself ensconced on a hand stitched leather seat, surrounded by old world craftsmanship as I survey the world across a long bonnet and monitor my progress via a set of clock like gauges mounted in burled walnut makes me a giddy as an English schoolgirl.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, the brand’s reputation for unreliability, especially among the older models, means I will probably never actually own one but in my mind they are still the perfect combination of power, good looks and luxury and I still find myself pausing to look whenever I find one for sale. I’m not sure why that is. Logically I know it’s a relationship that could never work, but I still I have that hope that owning a Jag could turn out to be the craziest, wildest, greatest thing that ever happened to me and so I have to pause to consider that whenever the chance presents itself.

I’m not nuts, am I? Please tell me you feel the same way about some brand or another. Tell me that there is one car that you have always admired but, for whatever reason, have never indulged in. One of those cars that you could not resist if only they sold on this side of the ocean or that specific model you would buy if you had that extra spot in the driveway. That car you swear you will get when your children get out of their car seats, or that other one you are looking forward to owning when they finally get out of the house altogether so you don’t need to worry about rear seat legroom. You cannot be a lover of all things automotive if you do not have at least one secret crush. What is it? We must know.

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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EU Secretly Planning To Add Police-Controlled Kill Switch To All Cars By 2020 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/eu-secretly-planning-to-add-police-controlled-kill-switch-to-all-cars-by-2020/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/eu-secretly-planning-to-add-police-controlled-kill-switch-to-all-cars-by-2020/#comments Mon, 03 Feb 2014 10:30:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=731658 2007: "The Managing Director of Ferrari in Great Britain, Massimo Fedeli, boasted “our 60th anniversary tour is the perfect opportunity to provide this special 612 Scaglietti HGTS for the police service of England, Ireland and Wales to drive. This reinforces Ferrari’s commitment to responsible driving and promoting road safety.” (courtesy motorauthority.com)

The British Newspaper The Telegraph is reporting that, if senior European law enforcement officials have their way, all cars entering the European market may soon be fitted with a remote shutdown device that would allow police officers to electronically deactivate any vehicle at the touch of a button.

According to the article, which appeared in the paper’s January 29 edition, the program came to light after confidential documents from the European Network of Law Enforcement Technologies listing the development of a remote shutdown device as a “key objective” were obtained by an organization that monitors police powers, state surveillance and civil liberties in the EU. The report goes on to say that the secret papers justify the program by citing the need to protect the public from dangerous high speed chases and that the technology would put an end to the practice of spiking a car’s tires in order to end a chase. The documents, The Telegraph says, spell out a six year development plan.

Similar car stopping technology is already available on some vehicles in the United States via systems like On Star but, unlike what is being proposed in Europe, as of this writing remote shut-down on this side of the Atlantic is offered only to a car’s owner and can only be activated at their request. Still, once the technology is fully developed and mandated in Europe, chances are good that it will find its way to the United States and, given the way that most cars currently bundle their technology, it will probable be impossible to remove.

The application of this technology could change the way law enforcement works. More than simply putting an end to high speed chases, the system could conceivably be used in situations similar to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and allow the police to shut down every car in the immediate vicinity of a fleeing suspect to prevent them from seizing control of other vehicles. Paired with systems like GPS, it could also be used to stop cars from entering disaster zones or other restricted areas and, taken to its extreme, the technology could even incorporate additional features like remote door locks that could be activated in order to contain suspects inside of a disabled vehicle until law enforcement arrives to make the arrest.

This then, is more than our cars being used to track our movements or using our on-board technology to report us when we exceed the speed limit, this is our cars being actively taken out of our control and possibly even used to imprison us against our wills should some law enforcement officer watching our actions via a camera from the safety of a computer console in a secure room believe that we are a threat to public safety. Like so many other innovations, I see the real public benefit of this system if it is used correctly, but I also fear the potential for mayhem if it is misapplied. It will be interesting to watch the debate now that the development of this system has gone public.

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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Up And Out Of A Hopeless Situation http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/up-and-out-of-a-hopeless-situation/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/up-and-out-of-a-hopeless-situation/#comments Sat, 01 Feb 2014 14:00:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=729754 1991 GMC Jimmy SLE

1991 GMC Jimmy SLE

Sometime in the middle of the night, while I was hard at work moving pallets, opening boxes and arranging Christmas merchandise on the sales floor of the giant wholesale buyers’ club, the clouds moved in and it began to rain. The earth was cold and as soon as the first drop hit the ground it turned to ice. More drops followed, untold millions upon millions of them, and, in the matter of minutes, everything they struck was encapsulated in a growing coat of ice. The rain continued through the night and by the time the sun rose the storm had moved off towards the Cascades, where the increasing elevation forced the clouds higher into the sky and turned the rain to snow. But in the valley the damage had been done and people awoke to a crystalline world in which everyday objects had been transformed into works of art and where every branch and wire were hung with rows of dagger-like icicles.

I paid little attention to nature’s wonderful trick as I emerged from the store and shielded my eyes from the light of the morning sun. I was a night dweller, one of the nameless rabble who worked through the dark hours in order to fill the shelves with merchandise that the good, normal people of the world would happily purchase amidst warmth and light while I struggled to sleep. I hated my job, I hated my life and I hated anyone who had the those things that I, too, had worked so hard to attain but had found denied in what should have been my hour of triumph.

College hadn’t been in the cards for me when I had left high school more than a decade earlier, but a chance encounter with Japanese cartoons in the darkened exhibition hall of a Sci-Fi convention had shown me that there were more things in the world than the Snohomish district had managed to impart in 12 long years of basic education. I was amazed by the images I saw and I promptly sat down and remained in the room until the convention ended two full days later. Those cartoons led me to a lifelong study of the Japanese language, the Merchant Marines and eventually back to college at the ripe old age of 28 years old. For five years I chipped away my education, just over two years of which I spent in Junior College while I worked full time in the warehouse of a local hospital, and then another two during which I got my first taste of grinding poverty as I tried to live on student loans as I finished up my Bachelor’s degree at a four year school on the far side of the state. When it was done I was 33 years old, a new college graduate with a degree that included the words “Cum Laude” above my name, and ready to step into that better, brighter future that I had worked so hard to attain.

But the world doesn’t want 33 year old entry level white-collar workers. And it doesn’t want 33 year old college educated truck drivers, either. I was unemployed and no matter how many I sent, my resumes generated little interest. Without even the meager subsistence afforded by student loans to sustain me, I was forced to returned to my mother’s home where I resumed the residence in my childhood bedroom and where I soon found a pistol in my hand. Every day I pulled the .45 Caliber Springfield automatic from its cushioned bag, removed the trigger lock and turned it over in my hands while I decided whether or not to use it on myself. Every day, after examining its lines and feeling its weight, I told myself I wasn’t a quitter and returned it to its place. Eventually, as the early Summer turned to Autumn and Autumn gave way to Winter I was able to score a job as a seasonal temp worker for a Seattle area warehouse chain.

To this day I have mixed feelings when I walk into a warehouse store. I walk along the rows of pallets and note their perfectly aligned edges. I see how some worker has worked to pull product up from the backs of the pallets and form the boxes into rows along the aisle to give the impression that the store is stuffed to the gills with merchandise. I keep my cart in the middle of the lane to avoid accidental contact with the carefully positioned goods and anything I chance to pick up but not buy is returned to its prior position perfectly faced with the other packages, right-side-up and label out. I know the effort that has gone into the presentation, that some worker has laid hands upon and carefully positioned everything that strikes my eye. And I know that if any part of it was less than perfect, some 21 year-old dickhead shift-manager would have berated the poor worker who had chanced to leave it that way while still exhorting him to work faster.

The truth was I couldn’t give a shit if the world was encased in ice or fire at that point. My shift was over and I was exhausted. My bedroom, such as it was, lay back up in the hills some 20 miles away and I had an appointment with the pistol I kept under the bed there before going to sleep. My big GMC Jimmy had crossed the mountain passes in the dead of winter more times than I could count so, no matter what the weather was, a trip across the valley and then up a few hills was an easy morning’s work. I locked in the hubs, flipped the floor mounted lever to 4 Wheel High and rolled smoothly out of the parking lot while other the other workers were still fishtailing their pitiful econoboxes around in circles next to their parking places.

The interstate was jammed and I eased my truck into line with everyone else unfortunate to be going somewhere that morning. We headed North at a snail’s pace to the scene of a massive pile-up. I looked in awe at the twisted wreckage, one of the cars on its side, still smoldering despite the steady stream of water the firetruck on-scene poured upon the hulk. Later, I learned the accident was fatal. Likely some other poor work-a-day shlub like myself trying to get to or from the place that barely paid for his daily bread. God rest his soul.

Where Interstate 5 North met Highway 2 I slipped off the three lane freeway and onto the two lane bridge known as “the trestle” that first spans the Snohomish river and then crosses the width of the flood-prone valley elevated upon row after row of concrete columns. This road, too, was crammed with cars moving no faster than a slow walk and the normally quick trip took an interminable amount of time. But as the end of the bridge gradually approached, I noticed one place where the cars dared not go.

Photo courtesy of WA State DOT

At the end of the trestle, Highway 2 takes a sharp right turn and heads South along the edge of the Snohomish valley before eventually resuming its Easterly route up over Stevens Pass. At the same point, an exit branches off towards the North and the town of Lake Stevens via another local highway. There is, however, a third option: a branch exit onto a road that leads dead east, right up and over the rim of the valley.

The road is one of those pieces of pavement that would never be built today. More than 300 feet tall, Cavalero Hill rises up like a sheer escarpment above the floor of the Snohomish Valley. From its top, a trip down the hill is like a ride over a waterfall. As you approach the edge of the precipice, the landscape on either side falls away and the horizon fills your vision. Ahead, the City of Everett sits atop what seems to be a small knoll and beyond it lies Possession Sound, Whidbey Island and finally the snow covered mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. For a moment it seems as though you will fly off into space, but then the road tilts and your perspective skews into a headlong dive towards the valley below. In the old days, that road went all the way to the floor of the valley and then up and onto a rickety two lane trestle where cars sped towards one another inches apart with no margin for error, but in the early ‘70s some thoughtful civil engineer designed an on-ramp that reaches up fully a third of the hill’s towering height and slingshots you down onto a Westbound bridge that whisks you safely across the valley.

Headed East, the way I was going that icy morning, an improved off ramp similarly reaches up onto the slope. But once you begin the ascent of the hill itself, engines strain to make the climb and drivers find themselves pushed back against their seat cushions while their vehicle struggles upward like an airplane fighting against a stall. Even in the heat of summer it is an arduous climb and now, that road stood as empty and icy as the Matterhorn

Photo by Thomas Kreutzer

From my position on the floor of the valley, the situation seemed hopeless. Everywhere I looked was a line of cars blocking my progress. To the South an endless, slow moving procession headed towards my home and to the North a similar line headed more-or-less away from my house. But ahead the hill was open and, deep inside of me, something simply snapped. I pointed the Jimmy’s hood ornament at the slope and mashed the gas.

I saw them looking. Mortal men and women trapped in their tiny cars as my massive GMC thundered by and accelerated towards the slope. People gaped, mouths fully open in shock and one man had the audacity to lay in his horn in a hopeless attempt to dissuade me from my chosen course of action. But no fucks were given that day my friends and I hit the hill at fully 50 miles per hour.

The earth tilted upwards and the sky filled my vision. The weight of my body shifted onto my back, like an astronaut preparing to launch into space, and the GMC began to claw its way up the hillside. The tires skittered on the icy pavement and the truck slipped to the side but I corrected the steering and stayed hard on the gas. One tire found traction and then the next and with increasing confidence and speed I rose up and out of the valley on a plume of snow and ice, ascending to the edge of the precipice and onto the flat ground beyond without incident while those below could only watch in amazement. I could not – would not – be stopped.

Maybe it’s crazy but something inside of me changed right then and that morning and before I went to sleep I made a conscious decision to leave the .45 where it belonged under the bed. The next day I did the same and, although my life didn’t get better right away, I never again picked that pistol up with the thought of turning it against myself. The world sucked, I knew, and the roads that I thought should have been opened to me after years of hard work and sacrifice had been jammed by the narrow minded bastards who had achieved their stations in life before I had thought to go there, but there was still a way ahead. I could stay trapped behind them forever or I could climb the hill and go farther than they ever dreamed. There was only one real way to go.

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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Rolling History Or Rolling Junk Pile: Which Would You Own? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/rolling-history-or-rolling-junk-pile-which-would-you-own/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/rolling-history-or-rolling-junk-pile-which-would-you-own/#comments Tue, 28 Jan 2014 16:51:16 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=726058 Photo courtesy of golden2husky

Photo courtesy of golden2husky

Last week, I wrote a short article about my impending relocation to Kansas and asked for your input on my plan to purchase some kind of an old car to play around with while I am there. I got a huge response and, thanks to so many people’s thoughtful responses, I’m already considering cars I might otherwise have passed right over. Since the move is still some months away, the article was intended to help launch my search and I was having fun reading everyone’s replies and cross checking the various suggestions on Craigslist when, about 235 comments in, I got an interesting offer…

One of TTAC’s most consistent commenters, golden2husky, wrote and asked: “How about a near flawless 1995 Probe GT 5 speed, 71K, spent its life in a heated garage and never saw salt? A Corvette will be taking its place and it needs a loving home….and in Leavenworth KS, the discreet Melissa Etheridge window sticker will be a bonus!”

I won’t lie, the second generation Probe GT was already high on the list of possibilities. They seem to regularly appear on the Kansas City Craigslist at good prices and I’ve always thought they were good looking little cars that have aged really well over the past two decades. They have a sleek, modern design that makes them look surprisingly up-to-date and, although they may not be as powerful as most of the cars being built today, the 164 horsepower that wikipedia says the V6 made is more than adequate for my purposes. With a five speed stick under your right hand, a car like that can be a lot of fun and this one sounded like a peach. Naturally, I responded right away.

The pictures I received backed up golden2husky’s claims of a low mileage, garage kept one owner car and it was clear to me that the little Probe had been affectionately cared for since the day it was purchased. It was a stunning, ruby-red jewel of a car with a grey leather interior and, although he wanted a little more than I had stated I wanted to pay, his price was not outrageous for such a fine car. I was tempted, but in the end I had to decline. The reason, however, has nothing to do with the car and everything with my state of mind.

300m

Over the past decade or so I have owned two older cars that may have been as nice as golden2husky‘s Probe, my father’s 1984 Cutlass Supreme and my 2002 300M Special. In both of those cases I started out with the full intention of driving the car every day and, for a while, I did. It’s a lot of fun owning and driving an older car in great shape. People notice it. They see it parked on its own at the back of the supermarket parking lot. They ask about it when they see you pumping gas and sometimes they even chase you down with offers to buy it. Your heart swells with pride and you begin to think you have something really special, something that needs to be protected and preserved.

Soon, you buy into the notion and find yourself driving your “classic” car less and less. Every day becomes once-in-a-while and then, when the car enters the garage and you get it snugly secured under its cover, once-in-a-while becomes the occasional sunny day. Driving and tinkering goes by the wayside and you fall into an endless pattern of washing, waxing and self admiration. You feel good that you own such a wonderful car, but gradually it dawns on you that no one ever asks about it anymore, they don’t see it anywhere in the supermarket parking lot and it isn’t on the road enough to cause anyone to chase you down, either. The same impetus to protect and preserve your car has left it locked away in the garage, like a fairytale princess in a tower and you, the formerly happy owner, have become the dragon that protects it from all who could possible do it harm.

In my case, because I couldn’t find it within myself to turn my “classics” back into daily drivers, I ended up walking away. In the case of the Olds, I gave it to my nephew who used it for a while and then wisely sold it before he became trapped in the same untenable situation I had been, and in the case of the 300 sold it to a local man here in Buffalo who, for at least the time being I am sure, uses it on a regular basis. As I looked at the photos of Golden2husky’s Probe I realized where purchasing it would lead and, after a long hard look in the mirror, knew I had to take a pass. I just don’t have the self control it takes to use such a fine car every day but if you do, you know where to find it. For me, so long as I want to have any real fun at all, there can be only junkers.

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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A Road Runs Through It http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/a-road-runs-through-it/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/a-road-runs-through-it/#comments Tue, 21 Jan 2014 13:00:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=704082 Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The road led out of town, crossed over a set of rusty, unused railroad tracks and spanned the Pilchuck river via a rickety, one lane, wooden bridge before beginning its climb into high hills above the town of Snohomish. For the most part, the road was long and straight, it’s only when you get up into the hills and forest proper that the landscape becomes rugged enough to force the roads to follow the lay of the land, and although I haven’t been on it in years, I can still see every inch of its length in my mind’s eye. Every dip and bend along its course, the veritable spider web of cracks that decorate its surface, and the broken bits along the edge that claw at the tires and attempt to wrest control away from drivers who are unwary enough to allow their vehicle to stray too far from the center line, are as familiar to me as the faces of old friends and I have carried them, quite literally, around the world and back again.

As I crossed the bridge and began my ascent into the hills on that hot August afternoon so long ago, my relationship with the road was still in its infancy. At fifteen years of age, the lessons the road had to teach about driving were still more than a year away and, instead of being ensconced in air-conditioned comfort behind the wheel of a car, I was out in the heat of the day mounted atop my trusty old Schwinn. It was an ugly, battered bicycle, something my father had found at the curb or fished from some farmer’s junk pile, and it had taken some creative repairs to make it road worthy. Now, it worked well enough that it had become my regular mount for the long trip into and out of town but, like all Schwinns, it was stoutly constructed and weighed almost as much as a horse.

The bike’s weight, though, was no problem as long as you were headed into town, but once you made the turn-around and started back up the hill, you felt every ounce and as the bridge fell away behind I shifted into the lower gears as my real assault on the slope out of the valley began. It was slow going, each turn of the bicycle’s crank sapping some tiny portion of my strength in exchange for a few feet of forward travel. But like all young men, I had a great reservoir of strength and although there were miles ahead, I was confident that I would not be completely tapped before the trip was completed. I had been here before, dozens of times on the back of this very bicycle, and like any kid from the country who wants the excitement that even a small town can bring, I knew this was the payback for my day’s adventure.

Image courtesy of cyclespa.blogspot.com

One turn of the crank followed the next and I was making slow but steady progress when the rear tire gave a sudden snap. As the air that had been captured in the inner tube began to hiss its way back into the atmosphere, I felt the tire go soft and the bike begin to settle onto its rear rim. Knowing that my day’s ride was at an end, I gave the pedal one last kick and, when the bike would roll no further, swung my leg up and over the seat in a fluid, well practiced dismount and stepped off of the pedal and onto the roadway. There wasn’t any point in looking at the tire, I knew, I had neither repair kit nor pump, so I simply started pushing.

I had walked about a mile and was just nearing the top of a small knoll when a Chevrolet pickup truck exploded over the crest of the hill. It was an older truck, but in nice condition, and I would have paid it little attention but for the fact that the driver was someone just about my own age. In fact, it was a someone who had been in my Freshman gym class a year earlier, a skinny, gangly outsider named Rick. He had been new to our school that year and, although he and I hadn’t become close friends, we hadn’t become enemies either. We were, at the very least then, friendly acquaintances and so I gave a slight wave as he sped past and then turned my attention back to the road and the long trip ahead.

I hadn’t very gone far when the truck pulled up behind me and its driver gave a friendly honk. We had a brief exchange, both of us shocked to see someone we sort of knew outside the confines of a high school classroom and after a few seconds Rick told me to put my bike in the back of the truck. It was a simple thing really, but not the kind of thing everyone will do for someone they barely know. It was a nice gesture and it formed the basis of a friendship that lasted through the remainder of our high school years and even into the first few years of adulthood.

But time took us in different directions and by the time I joined the Merchant Marines when I was in my early 20s, it was clear that our lives were already leading us in different directions. While I spent months at sea, life at home went on without me and gradually many of my oldest friends, Rick among them, slipped away. By the time I was closing in on 30 and decided to trade a life at sea for life as a college student, we seldom encountered one another and I heard through mutual friends that Rick was getting a good start on life and holding down a steady job somewhere in town. I suppose I could have tracked him down, but with college on my mind it didn’t make sense to try and pick up old friendships. Too much time had passed.

1988 Dodge Shadow

The road stretched out before me and I pushed my little Dodge hard as I made my way down out of the hills. Gravity pulled on the car as it sped down the long slope of a steep hill, but I paid no attention to the added speed and by the bottom of the hill was running well above the posted 35 MPH speed limit. Ahead, the road dipped as it crossed over a culvert pipe and then rose up and over a small hill where, I knew from prior experience, the car would shrug off a great deal of its excess speed. Still, I was kicking along well above the limit as I crested the hill and flashed past the place where so many years earlier Rick’s kindness had made us friends and I paid it scant attention.

At the bottom of the road, at the point where I could have turned and gone into Snohomish, I headed instead towards the highway on ramp that led to the City of Everett and wound the car out on the long, flat road that followed the river up the valley. The road was wide and fast and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of the fast little car as it sped along on the hot August afternoon. Racing along above the speed limit, it would have been easy to ignore the man I saw walking alone alongside the road but as I neared, the long, gangly form became strikingly familiar. Although it had been years since we had seen one another, as our eyes met for that one fraction of a second as I raced past, recognition flashed between us.

The man gave a slight wave but I noted in my rearview mirror that he did not turn to watch me pass as I accelerated away. At the first opportunity, I turned around and went back for him and, sure enough, it was my old friend reduced to walking because his ratty old Dodge Charger had run out of gas. He seemed shocked that I would come back for him and I noted as I drove him home to retrieve his gas can that he was both the same person I once knew but also someone profoundly different. Later, I waited while he filled and then started his old Charger and, after a few friendly final words and platitudes about meeting again soon, we parted ways, him towards wherever it was that life was taking him and me in my own, new direction. Our friendship had lapsed, but in the end we were at least, once again, friendly acquaintances.

A year or two ago, more than a decade after I finally left the Pacific Northwest for good, I made the long trip home and, although our family homestead has long-since been sold and my mother has relocated to a smaller place in the valley, l found myself drawn to the deep forest and the high hills of my youth. The road, of course, still leads down into the valley and every dip and bend along its course remains much as I knew it. At base of the road, close to town, however, the one lane bridge has been replaced by a new cement structure so wide that it even has breakdown lanes and the old, abandoned railroad tracks have been pulled up in order to create a nature trail.

The veritable spider web of cracks that decorated the road’s surface and the broken bits along the edge that once clawed at the tires and attempted to wrest control away from drivers who were unwary enough to allow their vehicle to stray too far from the center line have been paved over and I noted that, although many of the houses remained, the names on the mailboxes were new. It was the same, yet profoundly different. Better, but somehow worse. Another old friend and I, reduced once again to a casual acquaintanceship. I guess that’s just how the world works.

Your author at 17

Your author at 17

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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Little Car Lost: When Thieves Come Calling http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/little-car-lost-when-thieves-come-calling/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/little-car-lost-when-thieves-come-calling/#comments Tue, 07 Jan 2014 13:00:28 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=693545 Honda

The joke was that the little Honda was so old and undesirable that it would take a ten dollar bill on the dash and the key in the ignition to attract a thief. With 300K miles on the clock, the little car was old and tired, but my sister Lee and her husband Dave aren’t the kind of people who replace their cars very often. The Chevy Chevette they bought new in 1981 lasted ten long years under their care so the little Civic, purchased used in 1991 from one of my father’s workmates, was on target to last forever. Other cars came and went in the driveways of the other houses up and down the street, but in their driveway the Civic endured, a fixture of solidity and reliability in an ever changing world. And then one day, it was gone.

The little car had aged in the 21 years since it had left the assembly line. On the outside, its body was still in good shape but its rubber pieces had gone grey in places and its bright red paint had had faded from decades under the summer sun. Inside, daily use had made the car’s once plush velour seats worn and threadbare and the touch of human hands had removed the texture from the plastic shift knob, leaving it cue-ball smooth. Those same hands had worked on the steering wheel as well, leaving patches of shiny black plastic where they rested the most while other body parts, a resting elbow here a rubbing knee there, had worn other interior pieces. Below the line of sight, the edges of the pedals were worn smooth from use while the carpets, protected by at least three generations of thick rubber mats, still looked surprisingly good. It was not a luxurious place to sit, perhaps it never had been really, but time and familiarity had made it comfortable.

Photo courtesy of: imganuncios.mitula.net

Photo courtesy of: imganuncios.mitula.net

Mechanically, like almost all Hondas, the little Civic was solid. Thanks to regular oil changes and the kind of thorough maintenance routine that only an aerospace engineer like my brother-in-law could abide by, under the hood the car was as good as ever. Sure, things wore out once in a while, but they were supposed to, and when they did they were replaced. The efforts paid off and, despite the decades that had elapsed, the car remained a reliable daily commuter; a testament to its engineers and its owners.

The theft of the little Civic hit my sister’s family hard. Like anyone who is a victim of theft, they took the loss of the car personally. They may have joked that the old car was undesirable and toyed with the notion that not even a thief would want it, but that didn’t mean the vehicle was unloved. Losing it was like losing a member of the family and anger welled up inside. Within minutes of noting the car’s loss they were on the phone to the police.

Salt Lake City isn’t a hot bed of criminal activity. It’s a safe, clean city filled with upstanding, honest people who take pride in their community. Even so, the theft of the Honda wasn’t front page news and, although the police took the report and promised to get right on the case, the return of the car in useable condition wasn’t likely. Most “vintage” cars, my sister and her husband were told, end up in chop shops and even a simple joyride could end in a crash or vandalism. Chances were, the police informed them, if the car wasn’t already in pieces, it soon would be – one way or another. They steeled themselves for the worst.

Photo Courtesy of Wikpedia.org.   Photo Credit: Brett Neilson

Photo Courtesy of Wikpedia.org.
Photo Credit: Brett Neilson

Sometimes, however, there are happy endings and just two days after the police were made aware of the car’s theft, the little Honda turned up abandoned downtown, the flotsam and jetsam of a night’s worth of petty criminal activity, and a bag of half-eaten gummy worms, left scattered around the interior. There was no real damage, no bashed in body panels and no sliced up seats. In fact, the worst thing the thief, or thieves, had done was to shake up a can of Red Bull and spray it all over the headliner. Overall, the damage was light and with a little elbow grease the cars was soon restored to its former glory.

Today, the little Honda is back where it belongs and everything is, once again, as it should be. Other cars come and go from the driveways of the other houses up and down the street, but in my sister’s driveway the Civic endures, a fixture of solidity and reliability in an ever changing world. There are no more jokes about leaving the keys in the car and a ten dollar bill on the dash. The car is old but it’s not undesirable. It’s family.

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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Poles Vie With USA For Greatest Homemade Car Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/poles-vie-with-usa-for-greatest-homemade-car-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/poles-vie-with-usa-for-greatest-homemade-car-ever/#comments Fri, 03 Jan 2014 15:31:42 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=692122 Click here to view the embedded video.

In the past few days virtually every automotive website on the intertubes has reported on the Polish man who hand built his own McLaren F1 replica in his shed. If you have been stuck under a rock and have missed it, allow me bring you up to speed. Jacek Mazur, a man who describes himself rather modestly, I think, as an “amateur mechanic” built his own tubular space frame, mounted a used BMW v12 amidships, popped on a homemade fiberglass body and built a car capable of a claimed 200mph. This isn’t the first exotic car that Mazur has built either. Previous builds include no less than three Lamborghini Countachs and a replica of the highly exotic, much sought after, Pontiac Fiero. Despite Mr. Mazur’s impressive work, America has not ceded victory in the war for the homemade car to the Poles. Not by a damnsight.

Photo courtesy of Oddimotive.com

Photo courtesy of Oddimotive.com

Years before Mr. Mazur even thought to begin constructing Supercars in his garden shed, loyal American patriots were hard at work in our own sheds. Today, the fruits of one American’s work can be found on Ebay. Offered to the public without reserve and a Buy-It-Now price of just $3000, undercutting Mazur’s efforts by a stunning $29,800, the incredible “Street Legal Micro Jeep Custom Body Mini CONVERTABLE 2 CYL” offers clean, All-American upright styling, a rear engine capable of a claimed 50mpg and an automatic transmission. Outfitted with a 2 cylinder Anon engine, something that turned up a whole bunch of porno search sites and probably put me on the NSA’s watchlist when I tried Google it, the “SLMJCBJMC2C” as I have just now dubbed it is capable of a stated 55 mph.

Fortunately, the world has gone through some significant changes in the years since the SLMJCBJMC2C was constructed the two vehicles will never find themselves pitted against one another. As one who yearns for days gone by, however, I almost wish they could be. It would be glorious.

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The Stroke Of Midnight http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-stroke-of-midnight/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-stroke-of-midnight/#comments Tue, 31 Dec 2013 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=690098 Supra

At the stroke of midnight, a new millennium would begin and the whole world was supposed to come unhinged. Religious leaders were telling us that we needed to be afraid because Jesus Christ, aka the “Prince of Peace,” was coming back to wreak holy vengeance upon us all, cosmologists hinted that that an ominous planetary alignment was going to totally screw up our Feng Shui and computer experts were saying that the silicon chips that they had been relentlessly incorporating into everything since the late 1980s were going to suddenly freak out. It was this last thing that got most people’s panties in a twist. When the computers stopped, we were told, power grids would fail and modern society would grind to a halt. Anything that had an internal clock, they said, would simply stop working.

By the dawn of that fateful New Year’s Eve, I was firmly established in my new life as an English conversation teacher in Japan. My move to the Land of the Rising Sun was a jump made of the sort of desperation that only poverty can induce, but my change of scenery had done little to improve my situation. Where my previous hell had been my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house, it was now a tiny, virtually uninsulated, one-room “mansion” in the Kyoto area where I slept fully clothed under a few thin blankets atop a lumpy futon spread out on the floor over an electric carpet while the winter wind, right off the Siberian steppes, whistled and wailed as it forced its way into the shabby little room through a million small openings. Although I ran the heater almost constantly, I had given up hope of actually trying to warm the space and now the cold added just one more layer of misery. The world was a shitty place, I had decided and it t really didn’t matter to me if it ended. In fact, thanks to the sudden resurgence in popularity of “1999” by Prince, I was looking forward to it.

There is a certain mindset that comes with grinding, persistent poverty. Managing your money becomes an all-consuming thing and you pick and choose your luxuries. For me, someone who has always loved vehicles, my own personal mobility took priority over some of the other luxuries I might have enjoyed and, over the 9 months I had been in-country I had managed to acquire two reliable, but beat-down vehicles of my own, a Honda motorcycle and a Toyota Supra. Now, as Y2K bore down upon me the weight of what those computer experts had been saying was beginning to hit home. Both of my vehicles, I knew, had chips in them and, as they were both old, there was a chance they might actually be affected by the software glitch. Would they start on the day after? Could I fix them if they didn’t? I wondered.

cbr

As the fateful day approached, my girlfriend decided that we needed to ring in the New Year with a trip to Lake Biwa. Japan doesn’t really have any mighty rivers, no inland seas or anything even remotely like the Great Lakes, but given the small size of the country, at 39 miles long and 14 miles wide, Biwako does a pretty good impersonation. Set in Shiga prefecture, just across the prefectural boundary from Kyoto, the lake is a scenic attraction and its shores are lined with industry, hotels and entertainment complexes. One of these hotels was planning a celebratory fireworks show to ring in the New Year and, I was told, we would be going.

We headed out early in the evening, wending our way through the busy holiday traffic and through the center of the city of Kyoto before turning east through the small mountain pass that separated the city from the lake. Traffic intensified as we neared the shore and we eventually found a parking place in a crowded hotel garage an hour before the event was set to start. As we left the car and moved towards the viewing stands, I noticed a row of gasoline powered high intensity work lights, the kind that are often used during night time road construction, along the edge of the garage and it suddenly struck me why they were there. At the stroke of midnight, should the power fail, these would be fired up to provide the light that people would need to get back to their cars. Someone was taking this pretty seriously, I thought, it was an ominous sign.

Despite all the hype, until that moment I hadn’t thought of the Y2K problem outside of my own little miserable bubble. Now, it hit me with a real force. If the doomsayers were actually right, I realized, I was out on a limb. I would be trapped in a foreign country on the other side of the planet from my own personal support network and if things really came unglued, I would be irrevocably on my own. I felt a touch of fear rise up but just as quickly as it emerged, I shoved it back into its place. The threat of disaster doesn’t equal the real thing, I reasoned, and I wasn’t about to let it ruin my night. If poverty had taught me anything it had been to focus on the here and now. Tomorrow, for better or worse, would arrive soon enough.

My girlfriend and I climbed the stairs, found our places in the viewing stands and had a great night. As the seconds ticked down the lights dimmed and then went out as the fireworks show began. It was so engrossing that the possibility of disaster didn’t even cross my mind again until the show was over and the hotel lights came back up. As we walked back to the garage, I noticed the overhead lights burned as brightly as ever and that the line of generators stood silent and alone, sentinels against a darkness that did not come. I found my Supra safe in its parking place and smiled to myself as the engine snapped to life at the turn of the key. The world would continue, technology had triumphed and fear had been banished.

I pulled into the lane and joined a long line of cars making their way out of the facility. One by one the line of cars moved towards the street and then slipped away into the night, each vehicle whisking its occupants away into their own individual futures. When my own turn came I turned onto the street and pressed the accelerator. As the revs came up, the twin turbos on my 14 year old Supra sang their own special song and pushed the car forward with a sense of urgency and purpose. The new millenium was upon us.

Toyota Supra

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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Vintage AMC AMX PPG Indy Car World Series Pace Car Up For Sale http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/vintage-amc-amx-ppg-indy-car-world-series-pace-car-up-for-sale/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/vintage-amc-amx-ppg-indy-car-world-series-pace-car-up-for-sale/#comments Sun, 22 Dec 2013 12:00:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=685570 amx 1

In 1981 the CART/PPG Indy Car series was in its third year. Formed in 1979 by racing teams who had split from the previous sanctioning body, USAC, over how races were promoted, the way that television contracts were handled and what they believed to be the small size of the winners’ purses, the ‘81 PPG Indy Car World Series had 11 races on the schedule and featured drivers like Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti. In time the series would go on to become the sole sanctioning body for all of Indy Car racing, but in 1981 the series was still in its infancy and, despite having Indy Car as a part of it name, did not even include the Indianapolis 500 among its officially sanctioned events.

To help promote the series, CART/PPG approached several major American auto manufacturers and asked them each to construct pace cars for the different events. Five manufacturers responded, including American Motors, who produced a custom bodied AMX. Based on the production “Spirit,” the AMX featured a fuel injected, turbo charged 258CID in-line 6 cylinder engine capable of a reported 450 horsepower. The car made its debut at the Milwaukee 150 on June 7 and at the end of the season went to AMC’s Vice President of Design, Richard Teague.

amx3

Today that car very car is being offered on eBay by the West Palm Beach specialty car dealership Marino Motors. Based on the many photos offered, it looks like a very clean, well thought out car. It has a full roll cage, period safety gear and a surprisingly complete turbo themed interior that makes it appear more like a production car than something that was constructed exclusively for the race track. Currently, the bids are in excess of $33,000 and the reserve has yet to be met. To an ordinary guy like me $33K is a lot of money, but to a high end collector looking for something truly unique, this car might just be an interesting opportunity. Pop over to either of the above links to see dozens more detailed photos. Love it or hate it, at the very least, it’s one of a kind.

amx2

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Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Unless You Get Away With It http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/stupid-is-as-stupid-does-unless-you-get-away-with-it/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/stupid-is-as-stupid-does-unless-you-get-away-with-it/#comments Fri, 20 Dec 2013 19:09:50 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=685066 1956

It wasn’t my first job, not even close. In fact, by the spring of 1986 I had been fired from several different places. I had drifted a bit in the two years since I had graduated from high school and had gone through an entire string of dead end jobs. No matter what kind of work it was, I never seemed to last more than a few weeks. I wasn’t a bad guy really, I didn’t steal or do horrible things, it’s just that I wasn’t a hard worker and for some reason, a lot of employers really objected to that. Eventually, however, something inside me clicked into place and when I finally landed a job as a clerk at an auto parts store I was determined to keep it.

When Schuck’s Auto Supply announced that they were opening a new store in Monroe, WA dozens of people were called in for interviews. To this day I’m not sure why they picked me over some of the others, but I can still recall the first time stepped through the back door, into a store that was just finishing construction. There were eight of us new-hires and our job in the run-up to our grand opening was to stock the shelves, learn the inventory and be ready to help the opening day crowds. I didn’t know it then, but the manager had hired twice as many people as he actually needed and the plan was to lay at least half of us off once the initial surge of customers had ceased.

Given my history, I suppose now that if I had known the truth I would have assumed my fate was already decided. Not knowing, however, I threw myself into the work. I came in early almost every day and found something to do every minute I was there. I helped assemble the shelves and filled them with merchandise. I hung the banners, priced the items and was in the middle of everything. My efforts got noticed by the manager and by the string on corporate VIPs that regularly came to the store to monitor our progress.

Our grand opening was a big deal. A local AM oldies station broadcast live from the store and corporate even brought up the 1956 Chevrolet they were giving away as a region-wide promotion. I spent the day in the parking lot in front of the store constantly rubbing it down and urging anyone who came to look at the grand old car to visit the store. I don’t think I stopped moving the entire day and every time the store manager or some corporate big shot came by I didn’t even have to pretend I was hard after it, I was all assholes and elbows all the time. As the end of the day approached it became apparent there was no plan to keep the car overnight. When I questioned whether we should just leave it in the lot, the store manager responded by jangling the keys and asking me if I wanted to take home.

Even an idiot like me didn’t need to be asked twice. I took the keys and hit the street. It was a magic time, a point in my life where I was responsible enough to work hard at protecting the car all day but not smart enough to just park it when they handed me the keys. I probably put 200 miles on the old Chevy that night. I hit the local strip and cruised like a big-dog for the first time in my life. I did burnouts in front of another Schuck’s store in Everett and showed the car off to everyone I knew. The next morning I was back with the car in front of the store polishing off an entire nights worth of bugs and, fortunately, no one was ever the wiser.

In the following weeks about half of my coworkers were purged from the corporate rolls, but I kept my job. A month later I was promoted to a full-time spot at a bigger store and, a couple of years after that, ended up as assistant manager of a store in Seattle. I stayed there until I joined the Merchant Marines. Of course I could have blown the whole thing that very first night. All it would have taken is a minor fender bender, a traffic ticket or even an eagle eyed Schuck’s employee to spot the car and rat me out. It was a foolish thing to do and I have matured a lot over the last few decades. But it was glorious, too, and I wonder now just why the hell I ever bothered to grow up.

Nova

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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American Graffiti – X http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/american-graffiti-x/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/american-graffiti-x/#comments Sun, 15 Dec 2013 12:00:08 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=679594 Click here to view the embedded video.

Way back in 1973, a relatively young and inexperienced director by the name of George Lucas made a movie that starred a whole bunch of nobodies. Called “American Graffiti,” it turned out to be the little movie that could. Co-Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz for just $775,000, it went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time, making an estimated $200 million dollars and, in the process, turned several of those “nobodies,” people like Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Suzanne Summers, and Cindy Williams, into bankable stars. In 1995, the National Library of Congress declared it to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation by adding it to the National Film Registry.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the story by revealing any of the finer points of the plot. Generally speaking, it is the story of teenage angst and antics set amid classic cars and punctuated by great old-time rock and roll music and the action follows several teens on a hot August night in the far away year of 1962 as they cruise their cars around the California town of Modesto in search of action and adventure. The movie hit theaters just as the first wave of the baby boom generation, people born between 1946 and 64, began to close-in on the ripe old age of 30 and to see it now is to look back upon the days of their youth through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate it. I was all of 7 years old when American Graffiti went into theatrical release and didn’t actually sit down and watch it until VCRs became commonplace in the American home sometime in the early 1980s. Frankly, I didn‘t get it. For me, a founding member of Generation X who was born in 1966, the movie seemed a cloying tale of ancient silliness that had long since been wiped away the decades that had followed them. I think now, however, that the real problem was that, even though I was the same age as the kids depicted, I would never have done the things they did. Having nothing real in common with any of the characters, I ended up listening to the dated, but admittedly wonderful, soundtrack and watching that old Detroit iron endlessly circling the town. In that regard, at least, the movie reflected a reality that I actually knew. That’s because, despite the 20 years that had elapsed between the action depicted in American Graffiti and the tawdry days of my own youth, virtually nothing had changed.

Yours truly, master of the pin-stripe tape.

Yours truly, master of the pin-stripe tape.

I got my driver’s license in early 1983 and by my senior year of high school, 1984, my Nova and I were a regular part of the street scene. My car, armed with a six cylinder and a three on the tree, was never competitive but, thanks to my ability with pin stripe tape and a set of rallye wheels that came from my brother Tracy I had a good looking little cruiser that was both reliable and about as fuel efficient as I could get. It was my buddies who had the heavy iron, Rick with his Javelin at first and later a 69 Charger and Denny with a 340 Demon, who carried the honor of our small group. Even so, we were never the “fast guys.”

The fast guys were older than us. Already working solid $4.00 and hour jobs 40 hours a week, they had real money to throw at their cars. There was Jim, who had an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a 442 front end grafted on. It wasn’t fast, but it was custom. Then came Dave, whose father owned a local body shop, who had a wickedly fast 68 Camaro but who spent most of his time selling and smoking pot rather than actually racing. Next was Bob, who had a custom bodied Comet Caliente that mounted square headlights above a front spoiler do big we called it “The Bulldozer.” And finally Tye, our own local hot-rodder who had finished school just a year earlier. His 68 Mustang had none of the shine or polish the other cars enjoyed, but he worked relentlessly to make it just a little bit faster each week.

Perhaps it was because their cars were so similar beneath the skin, or perhaps it was because, when everything was said and done, they were both a couple of jerks way down deep inside, but for some reason Bob and Tye who should have been, in my opinion, friends were instead mortal enemies. I remember them now, a couple of wanna-be toughs in greasy pants and with cigarettes dangling from their lower lips as they glowered at one another from opposite ends of our local video game arcade’s parking lot. They got there early and staked out their spots, their supporters filling in around them while the rest of us endlessly circled around like a giant school of fish.

Like stags in the rutting season, each boy was compelled to trumpet his prowess in the loudest way possible and every so often, one or the other would jump into his car to start and rev his uncorked engine. If we were lucky, the other boy would respond to the challenge and a burn off contest would ensue. Back and forth it would go, the pressure of imminent conflict gradually increasing by the hour as the witching hour drew nigh. Then, just before midnight, when most of us had to be home, both boys would lead their troops to the battlefield.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

We had a special spot close to the Everett Boeing 747/777 assembly plant. The factory is immense and tens of thousands of people work there. Every shift change floods the roadway with commuters and as a result the plant is served by its own 6 lane wide highway spur. At one end, close to the factory gate is a stoplight to control ingress and egress from the huge parking lots that line the roadway and approximately ¼ mile away is a giant overhead sign that directs traffic onto the main highway, East to Mukilteo or West to Everett. The course was wide, safe and, at anytime other than shift change, totally desolate.

The two caravans of cars, and those of us who had dared to break our curfews to become hangers on, would converge on the spot just prior to the main event. Looking back on it now, the local police had to know what we were doing but for the most part they left us alone. Generally they were good to us so long as we were good to them and, unlike the movie (spoiler alert!) we played no shenanigans. Usually we would get about 30 minutes on-site before a single cruiser would roll through with its lights on reminding us that we needed to go home.

In that 30 minutes we had, however, the ritual was unvaried. Bob and Tye would stage up singly and make a practice run while the other watched. Final adjustments would be made and burn offs would follow. At last, the night culminated as they came to the lone, door handle to door handle.

The stoplight switched to green and both drivers hammered the gas. The sound of their Fords’ engines pounded the night and reflecting back at us off the wall of the factory as the two cars accelerated. Bob hit his shifts perfectly while Tye’s automatic did the work for him as they came out of the hole and ran up to speed. It was neck and neck and then, slowly the Bob’s Bulldozer began to inch away. He stretched out his lead to one car length as then two before they passed the finish line. The winner would slow and turn, making a victory lap along the line of kids while the loser, unwilling to face the jeers of the masses, would continue up the on ramp and onto the freeway.

With the main movers done, the rest of us would take our own turns. Rick or Denny would take on all comers, sometimes winning sometimes losing, while I looked for someone whose engine was as deficient in acceleration as my own lest I be beaten to a pulp every time. There was never money involved, we never had more than a few dollars in our pockets anyhow, it was all for fun and, perhaps, just a bit of pride. And then, as he 30 minute mark would approach, that single police cruiser would come and, as quickly as it started, it would end.

At the end of the movie, we get to find out what happened to the kids those “nobodies” played. As the credits rolled, a single subtitled line told us their fates. Without ruining for you, all I can say is that some of them went far in life and some of them didn’t. I would imagine it is the same for the kids I knew too. Some of us have found our way to places no one would ever have believed we could go while others of us still struggle. The one thing we have in common now are those nights and the heady days that came at the ends of our own childhoods. Maybe one day, someone will make a movie about that.

Snohomish High School Auto Shop 1983/84

Snohomish High School Auto Shop 1983/84

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 Value Of A Father’s Love http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-value-of-a-fathers-love/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-value-of-a-fathers-love/#comments Thu, 12 Dec 2013 17:09:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=678626 Image courtesy of allpar.com

Image courtesy of allpar.com

I am sure the diagnosis came as a shock. It was cancer and the prognosis was not good. The man must have looked at what he had made of his life, weighed the good and the bad against one another, and realized that his 13 year old son was his crowning achievement. He was a good kid, honest, innocent and open to the experiences of the world, but not without that streak of mischievousness that all boys his age had. He would, in time, become a fine man but there remained a long road to manhood. A road he would soon have to walk alone.

The man knew he would miss so many important moments in the boy’s life, the baseball games, high school, his first date, his graduation, college and career. He would never meet the boy’s wife or be there to see him hold his children. Still, there was one thing he could do, never mind the fact that there were years left to go before the boy could get his driver’s license, a rite of passage that had bound father and son together for decades. He could buy the boy his first car and then pass on in the knowledge that he had been able to help his son reach at least one of life’s great milestones.

I was always on the lookout for a cheap car. Of course I had a fairly late model Dodge Shadow at home and didn’t really need another, but the old Plymouth Scamp caught my attention the moment I saw it sitting alone and unloved beside the ramshackle trailer house. I knew all about old Plymouths and Dodges, my family had enjoyed a long relationship with a 1968 Dodge Dart so I knew the old cars were solid. My father had found it for sale under a coat of thick dust at the edge of a farmer’s field and brought it home for my oldest sister, Lee, when I was about 10 years old. It was as plain as they came, as simple as a stone axe and, with its venerable slant six engine and an automatic transmission, practically as indestructible.

After Lee had finished college and switched to a brand new Chevrolet Chevette, the Dart had gone to my other sister, Connie, who hated its Spartan simplicity. She chaffed at is lack of style and sluggish performance and eventually dumped it into a ditch beside the highway, tearing the front suspension out from underneath it. My father had it towed home and proceeded to fix it in the driveway with nothing hand tools and a big damned hammer in less than a day. Despite her hopes to be rid of the basic old car, Connie ended up using it for another three years before finally splurging on a little, white convertible and then, eventually, to a Nissan 200SX.

Photo courtesy of cargurus.com

Photo courtesy of cargurus.com

The old Plymouth piqued my interest and I kept my eye on it for a week or two. It sat, forlorn and unloved with the grass growing up around it and when I was satisfied that it never moved, I turned into the driveway to make my offer. I was met by a tired looking woman, a man who I took to be her husband and several kids ranging in age from a few years to mid-teens. The woman was eager to talk about the old car, it was supposed to be her son’s she told me, and from there the whole story spilled out. Her former husband had purchased the car for the boy prior to his death, had it put into good mechanical shape and then passed away. Despite the tragic back story the boy, she told me, had no real interest in the car. His father, it seems, had also left a motorcycle and the boy wanted that instead.

After a bit more conversation, we struck a deal and I took the car home. There were a couple of small mechanical issues to sort out, but once it was up to snuff the old car ran like a top. It was a fun weekend cruiser but eventually I headed back to sea and I ended up using the little Scamp as a pier car. When I was at sea, the car spent most of its time stashed under a viaduct near the Port of Tacoma waiting for me to roll in from a 35 day trip to Asia whereupon it would be put into immediate service carrying me on a full day’s worth of errands before being returned to its place just before we cast off for another run. It made my life a lot easier and I was glad I had it, but when I gave up the sea for life as a college man I let the car go.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the old car. It had a sort of honest, upright styling that seemed so old and outdated at the time and so enviably classic today. But looking back, I’m not sure now if I should have purchased it. There is something sacred about a man’s dying wishes and his desire to be there for his son after he is gone. It doesn’t matter if his widow and her new husband, or even the son himself thinks different, the man’s desire to help his son into manhood should have been honored. It’s sad to think that his final act of love was worth just $800. Sadder still that, in the end, I may be the only one who remembers it.

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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Sunday Stories: “A Father’s Obligation” by Thomas Kreutzer http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/sunday-stories-a-fathers-obligation-by-thomas-kreutzer/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/sunday-stories-a-fathers-obligation-by-thomas-kreutzer/#comments Sun, 08 Dec 2013 14:00:17 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=670074 Several months ago, when he assumed the editorial responsibility for the The Truth About Cars, Jack Baruth made a the readers several promises. Among those promises was a commitment that this web site’s home page would be “100% work safe.” Anyone, he said, should be able to visit this website any time and not have their career put in danger. NSFW material could still be published, he promised, but it would always come with a warning and be kept behind a link.

This week, I found out first-hand that he meant what he said. Ladies and gentlemen, the following story begins with certain language that, if taken out of context by someone in your place of employment, might get some of you into trouble. Click the following Sunday Story link at your own peril.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this work in the comment section. – TMK

Pho

The girl snapped her eyes shut and reflexively turned her face away from the stream of cock sauce an instant before it struck. Time dilated and James watched in slow motion as gooey mixture impacted the gentle curve of her cheek and then sprayed in every direction. The blast painted the side of her face, spattered up into her hair and dribbled down onto the front of her obviously expensive dress. The girl’s mother shrieked, her sister giggled and her father, an enormous stern-looking man, silently studied the boy who had just sullied his daughter. The man‘s expression showed nothing but James knew he was being judged. His entire unhappy life flashed before his eyes, replayed in its entirety from his ignoble beginning and culminating in the night’s events. From there, the future stretched without cheer or hope towards an oppressive black horizon.

They weren’t the kind of people who usually ate at the Pho-King. The Vietnamese noodle shop was one of those places that attracted business with a large neon sign that read “You’ll love our Pho-King soup!” and its usual customers were broke college kids and working class families on tight budgets. This family seemed above such silliness but, for whatever reason, on this night they had chosen the fluorescent lights and plastic place mats of the Pho-King over the many better restaurants in town. The other customers could only watch and wonder why.

The matriarch was a stunning Asian beauty who spoke in the gentle tones of exotically accented English. Impossibly petite, with flawless make up, impeccable clothes and expensive jewelry, she had the look of a trophy wife. The father was a broad shouldered Caucasian with salt-and-pepper hair who, despite his age, was impressively fit with massive biceps – “guns” the Frat guys would call them thought James. The man’s clothes were nowhere near as expensive as his wife’s but his attention to the fine details of his appearance, the Rolex watch on his wrist and the high powered European sedan that had quickly attracted James’ attention when it first rolled into the parking lot told the world he was a man of real means.

The couple’s two daughters were as different from one another as the two parents. The older girl, the one James had just hosed down with hot pepper sauce, favored her mother and was a small Asian American beauty with soft brown eyes, clear olive skin and long auburn hair that fell in long, naturally curly ringlets down to the middle of her back. The other girl, around sixteen years old and just as pretty as her mom and sister, favored her father. She was already a head taller than the other two women and had the hard, muscular look of an athlete. Telephone in hand, she giggled happily at her sister’s misfortune as she filmed the scene. “This is Pho-king hilarious!” she snorted.

Time reasserted itself and James, in a panic, seized a napkin and swiped at the girl’s face, carefully trying to sweep the mixture of red peppers and vinegar away from her eyes. Thank God she had quick reflexes he thought as he cursed his own carelessness. She could have really been hurt, he realized. Why on Earth had he decided the bottle needed to be shaken up before he added the pepper sauce to her plate? He had been trying to impress her, he knew, and a wave of shame swept over him.

He knew her, of course, her name was Sachi. They went to the same college and they often found themselves together in the classes. They had been paired countless times for group projects and made a good team. James was smart, maybe a little too nerdy according to some girls, but he was a popular choice for joint assignments as he usually did the lion’s share of the work. But Sachi wasn’t a free rider, he knew. Perhaps she wasn’t as cerebral as James liked to think he was, but she did her fair share and, he had to acknowledge, her contributions always made their projects better.

They had, over time, gained a mutual respect for one another’s abilities and an odd “Beauty and the Beast” sort of friendship had taken root. Not long after that, James found that his heart began beat faster whenever she was near. He wanted to be with her, but there were always papers to write, tests to study for and, of course, his own difficult work schedule in the way. He just didn’t have the time, at least that’s what he told himself, but the truth was that he had learned early in life that pretty girls like Sachi didn’t date nerds like him. To ask her out was to court rejection and so, he had taken a different course.

He had done his best to seem casual as he passed her the 50% off coupon and invited her to come and visit him at work. He never really thought she would actually follow through and when the girl arrived that very night with her whole family in tow, James had nearly lost his mind. That she had come at all meant something important, he knew, but exactly what he could not fathom. The uncertainty made him nervous and the added stress of facing her mother, father and sister had driven him towards panic. He had felt sick to his stomach when they had come in, but he did his best to rise to the occasion. Things had been going well until…

The father spoke sharply and his tone had the hint of a real threat to it. “Yuri, put that damn camera away. If this ends up on the internet you’ll be off-line and at home for a month.”

The girl filmed for a moment more, gave a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes before putting the phone away. The mother, meanwhile, dug through her purse and pulled out a small bag of wet wipes. Gently pushing the boy’s hands away from her daughter, she cleaned the girl’s face and then tried to blot away at the stain on the dress before it could set. The daughter objected and there was a brief exchange in a foreign language. A moment later, they both stood and headed towards the rest room, the mother still fussing over the girl like a hen over a baby chick.

James stammered an apology but no one seemed be listening. He turned his attention to the mess on the table and had almost finished cleaning when the manager arrived. “Looks like you’ll be paying for this family’s dinner tonight.” He said ominously. James nodded without looking up, it was better that way. A day’s lost wages would be a burden, he knew, but it was fair. He’d probably get asked to pay for Sachi’s dry cleaning, too. Damn, would there ever be a time when money wasn’t an issue?

After cleaning up the mess, James took a 15 minute break and exited the kitchen via the back door. He needed to decompress and the parking lot was the only real option. He liked cars and for some reason being around them always made him feel calmer. Behind the wheel of his Mustang the world made sense. He wasn’t the world’s greatest driver, he knew, but when he was in the driver‘s seat, he could go anywhere his heart desired. He looked at his car and wished he could slip into it now and slink away but he had a meal to pay for and he needed the hours. Escape was impossible but, at the very least, Sachi and her family would be gone when he got back. Of course, he would still have to face her at school on Monday. He shivered at the thought.

The curvaceous shape of the expensive sedan on the far side of the parking lot caught the boy’s eye and, awestruck, James wandered towards it without thinking. Sleek and powerful, the car hunkered in its space like a predator waiting to pounce. It was beautiful, thought James, more art than machine. He stopped at a respectful distance as he admired the car’s lines in the in the unnatural brightness of the streetlights. He would never own anything like it, he realized suddenly. Even after he had graduated, a teacher’s salary would never pay for something like this. He hadn’t guessed that Sachi’s parents had this kind of wealth and, feeling suddenly foolish, he hung his head.

For a big man, Sachi’s father was surprisingly stealthy and James was startled by the man’s sudden presence at his side. The two men stood together silently, both eyeing the grand car while they each searched for the words that would bridge the gap between them. As the silence stretched out, James reached down deep and found the courage to speak. “Nice car.” he squeaked.

The man smiled and looked at the youth. “Thanks.” he answered. “When I was young, I couldn’t have imagined that one day I might own something like that.” He gestured towards the car with his chin. “Sometimes, life takes you places you never thought you could go. You just have to keep getting back up every time you fall down.”

James had been expecting a rebuke and was surprised at the man’s gentle tone. He searched for something else to say but Sachi’s father continued, “Your boss wouldn’t let us pay our bill.” he said seriously. “Is he really going to make you pay for our dinner out of your own pocket?”

James nodded. “Yes.” he answered. “But it’s OK. I ruined your dinner, and Sachi’s dress and, well,” his voice broke, “everything.”

“The entire bill came to about $50.” said the man. “There were times in my life when that much money was a day or two of hard work. That’s a high price to pay for what was obviously an accident.” The big man fished out his wallet, withdrew a $100 bill and offered it to the boy.

James gaped at the money, too afraid to take it. The older man responded to the boy’s silence by stuffing it into the pocket of the younger man’s apron. “My daughter says good things about you.” he continued. “That you’re smart, funny and that you want to be a high school teacher when you graduate from college.”

James was dumbfounded. Sachi talked about him? To her parents? It was too much to believe.

“Looks to me like you’re earnest and hard working too.” the man added. “Those are qualities that I find a many young men lack these days.” Sachi’s father paused and, for the second time that night, James felt he was being judged.

The expression on Sachi’s father’s face softened ever so slightly. “You know,” he said at last, “lots of boys call our house asking to speak to our daughters but Sachi has good sense when it comes to people and most of them don’t get very far. Tonight, when she insisted that we spend our family Friday here, I knew it was important.” He shook his head. “Not my kind of food to be honest, but a father has an obligation to help their children get what they want in life.”

Before James had time to think about what the words might have meant the door to the restaurant opened and the three women came out in a group, Sachi’s mom still fussing over her eldest daughter while the younger girl tittered and laughed at her big sister’s distress. Sachi saw the two men standing together and broke from the others as her mother and sister went to the car. She approached the men furtively, sidling up to her father and taking him by the hand. “Daddy,” she asked in the sly little voice she used when she wanted something. “You’re not hassling James, are you?”

“Well,” replied her father with the hint of humor in his voice, “he did assault my daughter, did he not?”

“It was just a silly accident.” she argued playfully. She looked at James, her face radiant and the boy suddenly flushed deep red in response. Was it possible to see someone blush under the streetlights?

“We were just talking about cars.” replied the big man as he shot the boy a wink.

“You’re always talking about cars, daddy.” she teased. Her tone brightened suddenly, “Did I tell you that James promised me a ride in his Mustang?”

A ride? Had he really promised her a ride? The boy’s mind raced but he was finding it difficult to think. Something was happening but he wasn’t quite sure what.

The big man hugged his daughter with one arm and put his other hand on James’ shoulder. “That’s great.” he answered. “I’m looking forward to talking with him some more when he comes to pick you up. It’ll be nice to have someone around who appreciates fast cars for a change.”

The big man guided the two kids together, placed his daughter’s hand in the boy’s and muttered something about starting the car as he turned to go. But the words were lost to the night. Sachi’s touch was electric and for the second time that night James’ entire life flashed before his eyes. Only this time, when the vision had ended, cheer and hope and begun to bloom and, out on the distant horizon, the sun was rising.

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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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