Category: Ask Jack

By on August 28, 2018

dealership

Serious question: What kind of experience do you need in order to write credibly about the automobile? If you were to ask some of the autojourno Boomers, they might tell you that the minimum requirement would be the career path followed by my time-and-again boss, Larry Webster: engineering degree, followed immediately by a magazine employment history that starts at “road warrior” and ends at “E-I-C of the most solvent color rag in the business”.

Some people would say that my boon companion Sam Smith did it right: college degree, time as a professional BMW mechanic, many years as a self-funded club racer in concert with his experienced and mechanically knowledgeable father. I’d like to argue for my own path: mildly successful car salesman, F&I experience with multiple captive finance firms, ground-floor experience with automotive tech and production, eighteen years of motorsports with a sack full of wins and lap records.

Ah, but these are means and not ends. They are how and not why. They detail the pathway by which expertise is acquired but they are not expertise themselves. If you read everything that Larry and Sam and I have written, you would know a major percentage of the things we know, and then you would be free to go forth and apply that knowledge to future situations. All you would need at that point would be an ability to write.

You could get by with less. LJK Setright was frequently dead wrong but I’d rather read his mistakes than labor through Csaba Csere’s researched conclusions. Gordon Baxter was not a great pilot and he was a worse driver. As a teenager, I read the work of gunwriter Jeff Cooper until I knew much of it by heart; years later, a mutual friend confessed to me that Cooper was only just competent with a .45 caliber pistol.

This is what you cannot be and still succeed, not if there is any justice in this world or the next: ignorant and proud of it, stupid yet blase about it, stilted in prose but unwilling to fix it. Which brings us to this week’s question.

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By on July 26, 2018

“We buy year… then we buy mileage… then we buy condition.” That was a favorite axiom of the used-car appraiser at my old Ford dealership. What he meant was this: In the first few years of a car’s life, people will pay more money if it’s a bit newer than a similar model sitting right next to it. Once it’s about five years old, the conversation switches to mileage: you’d rather have a 2012 ECTO-300def with 75,000 miles than a 2014 model with 105,000.

Usually by the time a car reaches the decade mark, and certainly by the fifteenth anniversary, it’s all about condition, condition, condition. Are you in the market for an Eighties Porsche? Condition is king. Are you limited by fate and circumstance to something like a 2005 Ford Focus? Then it’s doubly true.

Which leads us to today’s episode of Ask Jack, in which the person doing the asking is… uh… me.

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By on July 13, 2018

It’s best to just admit it: I have van envy. The educated among you will know that van envy, like many other communicable diseases, comes in a few forms. There’s Van Envy A, which is the traditional desire to have a boxy vehicle of some sort in the immediate vicinity for carrying children and accomplishing household tasks; this virus is typically found in the water supply of single-family homes. Van Envy B is indicated by repeated involuntary exclamations of “dajiban!” You catch that from accidental subculture immersion.

Van Envy MTB is when you can’t stop thinking about fitting out a fresh new Transit with a toolbox and internal bicycle mounts so you can take a quick trip to Ray’s Bike Park in Cleveland — or maybe Moab. The most virulent and damaging strain of the disease is Van Envy IG, which manifests in a gnawing sense of envy regarding attractive twenty-something couples who rootlessly travel the West holding drum circles and making love in converted high-roof Sprinters, subsisting on nothing but their income from selling woven bracelets at street fairs and an eight-figure trust fund.

Today’s question comes from someone who is suffering from precisely none of that. Instead, he has another condition. One marked by eroding telomere chains, drying skin, and a growing desire to watch Matlock. Chances are you have it too, although it might not be as severe.

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By on June 27, 2018

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

It’s a question that comes up a lot more often than one would think, particularly in the lifelong molasses-sludge known as “middle-class American existence”: When purchasing a new (insert name of new thing here), should you get a fully-equipped or high-end item from an “everyday” brand, or should you stretch to the stripped-out base model of the prestige brand? I have a lot of admiration for the fellow who buys a Grand Seiko Spring Drive for the price of a plain-Jane Panerai or Rolex Submariner — but on the other hand, I think a plain wool suit from a Savile Row tailor is probably more desirable than the pimped Zegna Trofeo coats that have accompanied me around the world for the past 15 years.

The fashion comparisons are fun (for me, at least) but the majority of buyers are most likely to face this problem when car shopping. Loaded Camry or base Lexus ES? Yukon Denali or no-options Range Rover Sport? Nismo 350Z or Corvette Z51 1LT? Then, of course you have my pal Chuck, who after years of trawling Porsche’s bargain basement wants to try… something that isn’t much better, IMO.

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By on May 16, 2018

2007 Honda Element EX, Image: American Honda

A few weeks ago, I took the checkered flag at Mid-Ohio as the winner of the Honda Challenge class and was promptly directed to the scales for a post-race weigh-in. The tech crew pushed my Accord up onto the scales and the young lady at the computer shot me an inquiring look.

“Okay… looks like you’re at 3,176. What’s your listed race weight?”

“Three thousand even,” I replied, since that’s the minimum weight for V6 cars in Honda Challenge. She poked a few buttons on her laptop.

“Are you usually… this much overweight?”

“You,” I replied, “sound like every woman I ever met on an OKCupid date.” Read More >

By on May 8, 2018

2019 Ram 1500

Sixteen thousand, five hundred miles. In ten months. It would be fair to say that I’m getting a lot of use out of my Silverado “Max Tow”. What that number doesn’t make plain, however, is how much effort I put into not driving the truck. Unless the hitch is in use or there is some kind of load in the bed, I don’t take it out of the driveway.

This is not sitting well with my wife, the infamous Danger Girl. She point outs that we should be able to get a quarter-million miles on the truck and it makes very little sense to use something that is plainly more expensive to run, such as my ZX-14R, rather than the Silverado. All I can say in response is that I feel guilty using a three-ton-plus vehicle for the drive to work or dinner. It’s a mild form of mental illness, I suppose.

Not everybody is crazy like me. Which brings me to today’s “Ask Jack” questioner, who is in a rather unique position to go truckin’ like the Doo-dah man.

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By on April 16, 2018

Just in case you’re new to TTAC, let me bring you up to speed on a few things.

0. My name is Jack and I write the “Ask Jack” column.
1. I take Honda Accord coupes very seriously.

How seriously? Well, I’ve been driving one for the last fifty-one months, giving TTAC readers periodic updates along the way. Some time ago, I caused a bunch of Baby Boomers to have mild heart attacks by claiming that the Accord V6 was the last American muscle car. I like Accord V6 Coupes so much that I now own two of them, having recently bought the car that was run in Pirelli World Challenge for two seasons by Rains Racing out of Alabama. So far we’ve had a great season, beating the S2000s for a first place in the Honda Challenge class at NCM last month and taking second place in a Super Unlimited race ahead of everything from an IMSA Cayman to a variety of prototype racers.

You get the idea. I take the Honda Accord Coupe pretty seriously. Do I think it’s a better car than a rare V8-powered BMW M3 ZCP? That’s where today’s episode of “Ask Jack” begins.

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By on April 3, 2018

Chalk one up for the Widow Douglas — or maybe for Aunt Sally. Both of them tried to “sivilize” Huck Finn. His response was to “light out for the Territory,” which was the wildest and least “sivilized” place he figured he could reasonably reach.

How many boys read that book and nodded in sympathy at Huck’s desire to get away from the coddling and constraining arms of civilization? How many of them used it as a model and pattern for their lives, whether they ended up breaking the sound barrier or starving to death in an abandoned schoolbus? And for how long has our primary impulse as young men been to get out and experience life face to face, on our own terms?

Those days are mostly gone. Today’s young men are “sivilized” by default. If they have any desire to leave their mothers, it is just so they can move to a big city and experience life as part of a communal organism. Whatever desire they might have had for some sort of frontier has been ground out of them bit by painful bit until their default approach to the empty and unknown is a fearful one. A few weeks ago, I read a screed by a young man who was planning to quit his job because his employer was forcing him to ride in an unsafe vehicle. Remembering the thrice-wrecked, permanently dogtracking Plymouth Arrow stakebed conversion I drove for David Hobbs BMW in 1989, I eagerly scrolled down until I could get the details of the deathtrap in question: a 2017 Ford Fusion, which apparently did not receive top marks in some part of the Euro NCAP test.

This is not to say that every young man is afraid of his own shadow. There are still a few dudes out there who imagine themselves rolling towards the unknown in the coolest or hottest car they can (not quite) afford. Which brings us to this week’s episode of Ask Jack.

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By on March 6, 2018

Cadillac ATS-V.

My longtime readers know I suffer from a particular fascination with New Orleans, although it’s been six years since I rolled through the city’s streets in a Nissan Cube. You can’t have a NOLA obsession without having a NOLA-music obsession, and you can’t have that without being aware of John Boutte. His rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” isn’t better than Mr. Cooke’s — it’s just different, and heartfelt.

Change comes to all of us. When I wrote that Cube review, I was the absentee parent of a toddler, living with a stripper, and consuming a bottle of Ketel One pretty much every week. I had a lot of, ah, short-term romantic partners. It was not sustainable. There had to be a change.

That idea — of making changes because we need to, or just want to — is central to this week’s episode of Ask Jack.

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By on February 27, 2018

Public domain

About 20 years ago, I was working on the technical staff of a small hospital under the theoretical supervision of a nice old woman whose name escapes me. When I say “old” I mean about the same age I am now, by the way. She had a 1991 Buick LeSabre and she was having some sort of problem with it that required a long stay in the indifferent care of our local Buick dealership. Around day eight she lost her patience and called the dealership for a good old-fashioned screaming fit.

At some point in said fit, she yelled, “I EXPECT MORE FROM A BUICK THAN THIS!” Then she turned around and froze me with a furious glare, because I was laughing my proverbial ass off. What kind of idiot expected anything special from a Buick in 1999?

Yet there was a time when the tri-shield badge conveyed some real prestige and excellence. My friend Thomas Klockau just wrote something neat about the Electra 225 that has me itching to buy one of those old boats. And while Buick’s current lineup is a mish-mash of Asian hatchbacks and anonymous sedans, there have been a few decent cars in the lineup from time to time. Which happens to be topic of today’s “Ask Jack.”

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By on February 16, 2018

I’ve never met filmmaker Spike Lee, and somehow I doubt the two of us would be friends if we did meet. Yet I’ve admired his work since seeing “She’s Gotta Have It” almost 30 years ago. More specifically, I’ve always admired the way Lee holds all of his characters to account for their actions, regardless of their color. In a business that treated African-Americans as alternately evil or magical, Lee gave them the freedom to be real people: flawed, damaged, inspirational.

His fifth film, Jungle Fever, has been politely ignored for the last couple of decades, largely because it asks questions that are no longer permissible to ask in our single-opinion modern media culture. At the time, however, it was intended to be a bold statement both of Lee’s status as a greenlight director and his willingness to use that status to put the audience in some deliberately uncomfortable situations. Part of that statement included having Stevie Wonder write an entire album’s worth of original music to serve as the soundtrack.

That album, too, has vanished into the Orwellian ether, partially because of the cringe-inducing title track, but mostly because the music didn’t meet the standards set by Stevie in the Seventies. There’s one exception: the ballad “Make Sure You’re Sure.” Joshua Redman was the first jazz musician to hop on the train, but he wasn’t the last.

Which brings us to today’s question: When it comes to a trackday, how sure do you want to be?

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By on February 7, 2018

2017 Cadillac XTS, Image: © 2017 Charley Baruth

Way before the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad existed, I had my own financial angel and devil on my shoulders in the form of my grandfather and mother, respectively. Granddad retired at 54 and lived more than four decades in perfect comfort based on the investment decisions he’d made prior to retirement. My mom is… well, let’s just say she didn’t retire at 54.

Mom always had champagne taste and a debutante’s contempt for anybody who did not. When my grandfather decided to buy himself a Cadillac shortly after retiring, my mother told me, in quite snippy fashion, that it was “a used Cadillac, like what a loan shark would drive.” I don’t know what I thought I was going to find in Granddad’s garage when I got there, but the six-month-old ice-blue Eldorado Biarritz that he’d actually bought wasn’t it. He took me to the grocery store in it. When we went to the register, he took out a coupon book.

“Granddad,” I asked, “why do you use coupons if you have a Eldorado with a stainless steel roof?”

“Johnny,” he winked at me, “that’s why I have one.

Shortly afterwards, my father bought a Town Car. It was brand new, which pleased my mother. But in my heart of hearts I always liked Granddad’s Eldorado better, all the more so because I knew he got it cheap. Every time I manage to buy something outrageous at a steep discount, I think of my sharp-dealing grandfather and his delight at never paying retail for anything. Which brings us to today’s questioner, who is considering following in the old man’s footsteps, after a fashion.

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By on January 30, 2018

2019 Ram 1500

John Le Carre’s superb A Perfect Spy opens with a curious quote, attributed to “Proverb”:

A man who has two women loses his soul. But a man who has two houses loses his head.

I’m not so sure about the first part of that. The virtue of dating two (or more) women is that you don’t expect that any one of them will fulfill all your requirements, which prevents you from becoming overly demanding or difficult with them. As to the second part, all I can tell you is that when I’ve owned rental property I’ve found it to be more hassle than it was worth. I suspect the original author of the proverb was not talking about that situation. Nor was he referring to our blessed above-one-percent crowd who frequently own domiciles on both coasts, or vacation homes in sunny spots. Rather, he probably meant that a man who operates two separate families will lose his mind. This sort of thing was more common in the days before Equifax and cell phones, mind you.

The question becomes: Is owning two cars like loving two women, which is often a good thing, or is it like maintaining two households, which is almost always a bad thing? Before we fall back on the truthful but unsatisfying “it depends,” let’s consider today’s questioner and see if we can’t keep him in sound possession of both soul and head.

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By on January 19, 2018

2017 Ford Focus RS - Image: Ford

Did you watch HBO’s new David Simon show, The Deuce? It takes a while to get started, kind of like Season 2 of The Wire, also a Simon creation, but it eventually acquires some real momentum. Anyway, if you ever get around to seeing it, you will hear that the opening theme is a carefully edited version of Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.”

One of the best sections of that song goes something like this:

Everybody praying
And everybody saying
But when come time to do
Everybody’s laying
Just talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”

As you’ll see below, however, when it comes to using performance automobiles for improbable-bordering-on-impossible family tasks, sometimes people do more than just lay around…

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By on January 9, 2018

2017 Chevrolet Silverado - Image: Chevrolet

The word “disruptive” is thrown around quite a bit in the auto industry, usually to mean “some wacky idea that won’t succeed without a multi-billion-dollar investment, an outrageous set of coincidences, and an overnight change of heart affecting two-thirds of humanity.”

Allow me to offer an example of something that has truly disrupted the auto business without so much as a single fawning piece in Fast Company or WIRED: the massive and significant extension of reliable service life among cars and trucks built after, say, 2001 or thereabouts. In 1957, there was no reason to have a sixth digit on an odometer; in 1987, owning a car with 100,000 miles on it meant that you were either dirt poor or a seriously skilled shadetree mechanic.

In 2017, 100,000 miles is the new 30,000 miles. People are paying real money for cars with six-figure odometer readings. Hell, people are taking out five-year used-car loans on vehicles with six-figure odometer readings. More importantly, the social stigma associated with owning a used car has more or less disappeared in many circles.

As a consequence, today’s buyers operate in a sliding-scale market where mileage affects price but doesn’t always have much effect on utility. It can be a good idea to get “more car” or “more truck” even if it means accepting an older vehicle with a longer history. Which is where today’s episode of Ask Jack begins.

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