Stephan Wilkinson

I'm the automotive editor of Conde Nast Traveler and a freelancer for a variety of other magazines as well. Go to amazon.com and read more about me than you ever wanted to know if you do a search for either of my current books, "The Gold-Plated Porsche" and "Man and Machine." Been a pilot since 1967 (single- and multi-engine land, single-engine sea, glider, instrument, Cessna Citation 500 type rating all on a commercial license) and I use the gold-plated Porsche, a much-modified and -lightened '83 911SC, as a track car.

By on October 18, 2009

Do you remember?

Matthew Crawford is a practicing motorcycle mechanic out of Richmond,Virginia. He’s also an excellent writer who holds a philosophy degree from the prestigious University of Chicago. This unusual trifecta informs “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” Anyone who’s changed their oil or timed a distributor (remember them?) will appreciate the result.
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By on September 3, 2009

On September 1, the Collier Collection of Naples, Florida, brought to Lime Rock its 1939 Mercedes-Benz W 154 Grand Prix car. (Yes, Collier’s is a collection, not a museum. Don’t bother looking for a website; visitors by invitation only.) The word from Lime Rock’s PR person: this would be the first time the engine had ever been started on a racetrack in 69 years and 363 days, having last run in anger at a minor street race in Yugoslavia on September 3, 1939, two days after the start of World War II. Two ringers from Stuttgart had been sent to Connecticut to help with this historic ignition, as had the British restorer who’d rebuilt the engine. The Collier guys also planned to run the car on the track briefly, which, it was said, would also be a 70-year first.

By on January 10, 2009

There’s a piece in the Sunday NY Times automotive section (we get it a day early) about a New York congressman, Eric Massa, who drove a Chevy Equinox fuel-cell vehicle from Corning, New York (his hometown) to DC as a demonstration of personal greenness, forward thinking and the potential of hydrogen-fueled vehicles. How is that possible; it’s 280 miles form Corning to DC and there are no hydrogen stations en route? Turns out greenmeister Massa actually drove two Equinoxes. One he drove from Corning to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he changed horses to the fully fueled second Equinox. How is that possible, since you’d think a fuel-cell Equinox would use a certain amount of hydrogen just getting to Harrisburg? Well, it turns out GM towed the Harrisburg Equinox– and also the Corning Equinox, which had to arrive there fully fueled– with a pair of hybrid Tahoes. So Massa actually used four cars and a fair amount of fuel, and produced a goodly amount of CO2, to get to Washington while “burning no fuel and producing zero emissions.”

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By on November 7, 2008

Are you aware of the appalling rate of Boxster engine failures, which I’m only now becoming aware of through participation in some Boxster forums? Some estimates (Bruce Anderson, for one) are that 20 percent of Boxster engines don’t make it past 100,000 miles witout a catastrophic failure. The standard failure is what the cognoscenti universally refer to as the IMS–the intermediate shaft. It’s apparently bolted together, and the bolts fail, then everything internal claps hands and you’re looking at a replacement crate engine. I’m hoping the fact that Susan never revs past maybe 4,000 will spare us, but I’d be careful if I were you. There was a recent Porsche Club event that 11 Boxsters participated in. One had an IMS failure during the event and two of the other Boxsters participating had previously had their engines replaced due to IMS failures. Three out of 11 equals 27 percent. It’s a quiet secret within the Porsche community, and there are reasonably knowledgeable people who claim these engines were built as cheapies to get through the warranty period unscathed–which the apparently often don’t–and that PAG hasn’t the faintest interest in second, third and fourth owners. And they used to say the entry-level Porsche was a used Porsche.

By on October 23, 2008

Interesting letter to the editor from a guy in Baytown, Texas in this week’s Automotive News. “Chevrolet should give an electric generator for home use to the purchaser of every new Volt,” Ralph Buerklin wrote. “Hurricanes, ice storms, tornados and thunderstorms wreak havoc with above-ground electric lines. That is an Achilles’ heel for electric vehicles.” Tell me about it. While the Volt has an on-board ICE to rely upon, a pure EV is a whole ‘nother story. We have a generator.  We need it anywhere from two to five times a year here in semi-Upstate New York just to run the water pump, the furnace and the refrigerator—forget about lights, TV or computers. It typically happens when thunderstorms blow tree limbs across power lines, and if there are two things we have lots of, it’s thunderstorms and trees. Every 10 years or so, there’s a late-fall or early-spring ice storm that pulls down all the electric lines in entire counties. Last time it happened, some Hudson Valley homes were totally without power for two weeks and more.  I can do without TV, but I’d hate to be stuck in a dark house with a dead electric car. Nor do I think those little portable job-site generators can do the job. Our 4,000-watt generator dies from too much current draw if the furnace and water pump come on simultaneously, which is why we’re upgrading to a 10,000-watt propane- powered unit. The new one will be the size of a St. Bernard’s doghouse, and installation is not a trivial matter. So add one of those to your Volt options list, since I doubt the guys who live in Grosse Pointe even know how to spell “emergency generator.”

By on September 25, 2008

Apparently, there’s an ad-copywriting school that offers a course called “If It’s Way Too Complicated To Explain, Just Lie.” In the October issue of Vanity Fair, a Saab 9.3 Turbo ad proclaims, “We believe every person should recycle. And so should every engine.” So far so good. But according to the body copy, “By taking exhaust that typically escapes out the tailpipe and redirecting it back into the engine, the Saab Turbo maximizes performance…” Now wait a minute. Saab engines can run on exhaust gases? There are three possibilities here. One is that the copywriters simply decided nobody actually cares how a turbocharger works. Another is that one of the creatives remembered hearing about something called “exhaust-gas recirculation.” But the most likely is that the dumb strokes have no idea how a turbo works and don’t care. How the mäktig have fallen.

By on September 16, 2008

Driving well has nothing to do with how well we late-apex Oaktree Corner at VIR, how cleanly we rev-match a heel-and-toe downshift or how much we know about F-bodies and Kappa platforms. It’s all about simple movement and complex congestion, intuition versus intelligence, myth versus reality. Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt is a shot across the bow of the typically clueless, not very competent, generally thoughtless, surprisingly unsafe, unjustifiably over-confident average driver. In other words, you and me.

By on August 8, 2008

Nice, but a Lexus?  I don't think so.Interesting review of the new Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan in today's Wall Street Journal , which makes the inescapable point that the car is a Lexus GS460 for nearly $16,000 less ($53,785 versus $38,000). It has the second (to the way more expensive Mercedes E550) most powerful V8 engine in the class, runs on regular, sources its gearbox from ZF, has a warranty 10,000 miles better than Lexus's or BMW's, more front and rear legroom than either one, and an interior of equal quality and tastefulness. For better or worse, the Genesis even has a mock-BMW iDrive. (The reviewer, Jeff Sabatini, says it's better than BMW's, though, precisely because it does less.) The assessment comes to an unfortunate but inarguable conclusion: aside from whether or not a strong market still exists for cars of this size and cost, Hyundai has missed the point of why Lexus buyers pay an extra $15,785 "just for that badge on the hood… the fact remains that these cars are immensely popular precisely because they are symbols of money, power and success. The people who buy them aren't likely to spend their year-end bonuses on a Hyundai…" Sad.

By on August 7, 2008

I know which one I\'d prefer... (courtesy globalgiants.com)There's a Letter to the Editor in the current issue of Automotive News that encapsulates everything that's wrong with the North American automotive industry. It's even the letter of the week, boxed and highlighted in GM taupe, given special prominence and headlined “Why won't consumers buy Detroit cars?” The letter is from a third-generation Canadian Chevy dealer, a guy whose family has been selling GM vehicles for nearly 90 years. You'd 'a thunk he'd learned the basics during that almost-a-century. But no. “Our small car, the Chevrolet Aveo, fell 19.7 percent in U. S. sales in June,” Tom Wills of Wills Chevrolet writes. “Why? Surely this must be the right car for the times…. We have the best product we have ever had… Why aren't you buying our products? What have the imports got that we don't?” Here's a guy who not only flunked grammar but thinks a rebadged Korean Daewoo Kalos is “the best product we have ever had.” And because it has good mpg numbers 'Murricans should be required to buy it even though it's a stumpy little crapcar. What have the imports got? Let me count the ways: quality, performance, styling, resale value, reliability…oh, never mind. Wills didn't actually write this, but he might as well have: “We threw you this rotten bone and you won't chew on it, so you should be sent to the pound until you learn which cars we require you to buy.” Madness.

By on July 28, 2008

A not uncommon tragedy. (courtesy stanleylawoffices.com)A friend of mine killed a motorcyclist Sunday night. He was so out of it, either on beer, vodka, blow, crack, meth or god only knows what, that he simply drove into the young biker from behind on Route 9W, fast enough to squash him dead. Early word was that Jack left the scene, but if so, it was probably only because he was in a stupor, since at least the police don't seem to be charging him with that. He is in the county jail, though. Everybody in our small town knows that Jack is a doper and a drunk. He's the genial alcoholic still drawing from the reservoir of sympathy established when his own 16-year-old son died instantly in a car-versus-tree accident while racing a friend on a dark back road. It was long enough ago that my wife, who biked past the tree yesterday, said the “shrine” is gone— a football, a deflated party balloon, a small white cross, some faded we'll-miss-you-Bobby signs. At least we kicked Jack out of the ambulance corps, where he was one of our drivers. But there was even argument about that. Could we do it without proof, without specific evidence? Well, how about numerous arrests both for DWI and possession? Yeah, but… One of the frequent arguments against permanently suspending a confirmed drunk's license is that you're removing his or her livelihood. You're turning them into a contractor without a pickup, an appliance repairman without a van full of tools, a commuter stranded 30 miles from work. Last week, I watched the cleaning lady from our fancy health club climb wearily into a taxi in front of the gym's big marquee. I barely knew there were cabs in our small town, but the cleaning lady apparently couldn't afford a car and paid fares twice a day to get to and from work. Maybe the suddenly truckless contractor needs to find a new line of work and call a cab. I'm sure at least one 20-year-old motorcyclist would have agreed.

By on June 11, 2008

862549446_dc20417a0f.jpg Having just watched New York City barely make it through a four-day heat wave, and being aware that Con Ed is only by the skin of its teeth able to keep up with air-conditioner/escalator/elevator/refrigerator demands during the summer–and sometimes can't–you have to wonder what will happen when first 5k, then 50k and then who knows how many plug-in hybrids add their loads to this precarious system. I have yet to read any power-industry statement, "No problem, we're ramping up powerplant construction by 80 percent in anticipation of this demand." Instead, all I hear is emergency-this and backup-that, plans to borrow power from Canada and whines that NIMBYs won't allow the construction of nuclear plants. Everybody seems to assume that the world will recharge its hybrids at night "when demand is low." Fact is, that's exactly when a lot of blackouts have occurred: 95-degree day, everybody gets home at six when it's still sweltering and turns on the a/c, the TV, the stereo, the lights… Blackout. How much more likely is that to happen when thousands of hybrids also get plugged in at six? And what about all the hybrid owners who deplete their batteries simply getting  to work and then, simultaneously, plugging them in at nine in the morning?

By on May 7, 2008

2009_gt-r052.jpgThe GT-R is the blind date everybody’s been telling you about for months: incredible body, second in her class at Harvard, fabulous conversationalist, star athlete. Then you meet her. Yes, she has obvious “assets,” but nobody mentioned the halitosis. She graduated with a B.A. in accounting. She’s a great conversationalist, but her voice sounds like run-flat tires with three-inch sidewalls running over a concrete-aggregate rumble and tar-strip slap. She's an athlete, but a grunting shot-putter, not a Sharapova. In short, the GT-R is SO not a supermodel.

By on March 21, 2008

01_battery_lg.jpgOur ’06 Volvo V50’s battery crapped-out three days ago. I jumped it, got 100 yards down the driveway… The dash panel turned into a Christmas tree. POWER SYSTEM FAILURE! SERVICE IMMEDIATELY! The engine, brakes and steering died; the car had to be flat-bedded to the dealer. And then the 2004 Porsche Boxster’s battery lunched. It exhibited so many odd symptoms— power windows flopping up and down, radio mysteriously turning on, baffling warning lights— that I never thought instant battery failure. Independent techs who work on Eurolux cars tell me that Audi and Porsche and Volvo (and the like) batteries are so under-sized (in the interest of economy) and overstressed (thanks to electronic-toys overload) that they’re failing prematurely. If this is the state of the 19th century lead-acid art, what are we to expect when millions of cars are powered by batteries? 

By on March 7, 2008

TTAC commentator Winklovic recently posted a link to an interesting website that introduced me to aftermarket air horns. I don't mean the pissant little Marchel and Hella beepers. Go to www.hornblasters.com and you can hear them; by God they're straight out of a Johnny Cash train song. I drive an ambulance with an air horn– the kind where you reach up and pull a chain when the kids on the sidewalk pump their elbows– and I'm here to tell you, those things can evoke miscarriages, soiled pants, split colostomy bags and pacemaker misfires. I was never aware that it's legal to put them on a car. A search of FMVSS, ISO and DOT standards turns-up nothing about maximum-horn-noise regulation. There are, however, numerous local noise regs that can get you ticketed for blowing one (apparently silent ownership is perfectly legal). Unfortunately, people who actually have these things seem to use them solely to cruise city streets at 15 mph and get close enough behind pedestrians to literally blow them into the weeds. That ain't right.

By on March 4, 2008

bad_car_wrecklarge.jpgI live in a hilly area of high-crowned, barely two-lane back roads. There are no center lines, lots of blind corners, hills and crests; and not much traffic. You could say it’s an enthusiast's paradise. But then… stupid drivers. It happened to me last week, for the third time in a year. A driver without the slightest situational awareness put me into a ditch, leaving me yelping moronically and bleating my horn while they sped off. This has got to stop.

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