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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary of the crash in which I totaled my 2009 Lincoln Town Car Signature Limited and severely injured my bride-to-be, the financial artist currently known as Danger Girl. If I could change any day in my life, it would be that one. I could quibble all day about the physics behind the crash and the reasons why it turned out to be so painful, but the baseline truth is this: I didn’t need to be out there. Not on that road, not in that weather, not with my son and my girlfriend in the car. It was an entirely avoidable decision. The crash changed the whole way I approach travel choices, particularly with regards to my family.
Watching the Town Car utterly disintegrate under the impact of a Hyundai Sonata to the passenger door has more or less cured me of the romantic affliction known around these parts as “Panther Love.” It’s also ruined any plans I had of restoring a large body-on-frame General Motors sedan from the Seventies or Eighties. I’d be fine to drive something like that all by myself but I already own several unsafe vehicles for solo operation; they’re called “motorcycles.” Any dreams I had of stylin’ in a 1975 Gran Ville or 1991 Cadillac Brougham will have to wait until the next life.
With all of that said, I still wouldn’t expect anybody else to give up on their affection for big Fords, which leads us to this week’s question.
We all have our perversions, and here’s mine: I will always have a soft spot for ugly-duckling products that were eclipsed by the competition or cannibalized by their own relatives. First example: the Apple 3 (properly yclept Apple ///). We don’t have time here to discuss how and why the “business-focused” 8-bit Apple failed, but I will forever cherish the fact that Apple put out a service bulletin for improperly seated microchips where the fix was to pick it up and drop it like it was hot — because it was, in fact, too hot.
I could go on… and I will! The Fender Jazzmaster, the Omega Seamaster, the Members Only jacket that cost slightly more because it had a zipper breast pocket instead of the elastic-clinch one, the F-111. Show me something that didn’t quite catch the imagination of the public, and you will have my complete attention. If the reason for that lack of public attention has to do with the product involved being just a little bit too complex, demanding, fussy, or eccentric — well then, my friend, we are really cooking.
One such example of that in the automotive world was the fifth-generation Maxima, sold here from 2000-2003, with particular emphasis on the 3.5-liter, six-speed, limited-slip bad boys produced in the second half of the run. Those were slick-looking, powerful, deeply satisfying automobiles… that had absolutely zero appeal for the credit criminals and shifty-eyed fast-food night managers who, by my scientific calculations, make up ninety-six-point-three percent of Nissan’s customer base. Those people didn’t see the reason to buy a Maxima when they could get an Altima for less.
As a consequence, the sixth-generation Maxima became a giant Altima, the seventh-generation Maxima became a rarity, and the eighth-generation Maxima became a rental car.
I have a profound allergy to corporate-speak, which is one of the reasons I’ll always be poor. With that said, there is one thing I’ve heard out of various room-temperature-IQ managers that seems both reasonable and useful: Some things are important, some things are urgent, some are both, and some are neither. Many of the mistakes we make in both business and personal matters occur because we fail to appreciate the distinction.
Here’s an unpleasant and unfortunate example. Between 2008 and 2013, I had all of my tire mounting done by a friend of the family. In October of 2013 he told me that one of the snow tires for my Town Car shouldn’t be used another year and that he would order a replacement for me. On December 11, 2013, I got tired of not getting replies to my texts, so I texted his wife instead. She told me that he had been injured at work and that he would return in a few weeks. She also informed me that if I went in and asked to have my snow tires mounted by someone else, it would cause him some problems with the shop’s owner (as he’d made some sort of mistake while ordering the replacement tire). He would need a day or two back in the office to fix that mistake so he wouldn’t lose his job. I told her that I understood and that I’d wait until he returned to get my snow tires mounted.
Well, I was still waiting, and he was still sitting at home milking his workers’ comp, while I had my very favorite spleen removed on January 5, 2014, after an icy-road crash.
At the time, I judged that the importance of supporting my friend outweighed the urgency of getting my snow tires fitted. That was a mistake, to put it mildly, one that wandered into the realm of mild irony/tragedy when he ended up quitting the tire business, abandoning his wife, and departing for parts unknown just about eight months after the incident in question.
Needless to say, ever since then I’ve been a bit of an evangelist when it comes to having snow tires fitted. I think it is both important and urgent to get your tires put on before the first big storm of each winter. Except, of course, when it isn’t— which brings me to today’s “Ask Jack.”
It’s called cryptic biodiversity and it’s the process by which genetically diverse species end up looking very similar. This is a big thing with salamanders; apparently the perfect design for amphibian quadrapeds is so obvious that it can be reached via several different pathways. It’s also the reason why I have successfully convinced several convenience store employees that I was, in fact, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
As the automotive market not-so-gently pushes manufacturers towards producing identical-looking products on vastly different mechanical platforms, there’s a bit of amusement to be had in wondering which one of those platforms really serves a certain market segment best. It’s also a source of considerable purchaser angst, which brings us to this week’s question regarding cryptically-biodiverse mommy wagons.
Speed costs money; how fast do you want to go? It’s the kind of thing you see on the back of T-shirts worn by grey-haired men at “Cars and Coffee,” but that don’t make it not true.
With that said, there are a million different ways to spend your speed-seeking dollar, some of them better than others. Which brings us to this week’s $10,000 question…
Quick now: Just how full is your refrigerator at this precise moment? I mean, it is kinda full, is it sorta full, is it totally full, is it almost empty, does it have the bachelor’s portion of beer and Cretaceous takeout? The reason I ask is because when I visit my more successful friends I’m simply bowled over by the amount of empty refrigerator space they have. Double and triple Northlands or Vikings with nothing in them. Deep stacks of empty shelves. Sometimes they have empty sections, doors behind which the air is chilled to 33 precise degrees but where nothing is stored.
My friends tell me that they need the space for the parties and gatherings they are going to have. I refrain from pointing out that in the modern suburban era nobody ever goes to anybody else’s house unless it is on pain of death/shunning/shaming. That gregarious age documented by Updike and Cheever is long gone. My friends won’t be hosts. Nobody’s coming to the parties that they won’t really have. All of that empty fridge space will always be empty. They spend most of their nights on “foodie adventures” anyway, spending massive amounts of money to avoid being trapped in their homes with only Netflix to fill the gaps in their meaningless conversations. And it’s only the two of them anyway, plus one designer baby after the wife turns 38 and panics.
I feel very virtuous, almost Spartan, because I only have a single-width Sub-Z from about 15 years ago. And my fridge is relatively full. But still there’s empty space. Sometimes Danger Girl goes through and tosses a half-ton of expired food. Still more fridge than we need. Compare that to the fridge at my grandmother’s house. She had four boys living in the house. Six people to my three. And her fridge was under six feet tall. With two cramped compartments. How did she do it, particularly given the fact that she cooked a real dinner, a real lunch, and a real breakfast every night? How did she survive on one-fifth the frosted space available to my DINK foodie friends?
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- Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
- Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
- El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
- El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
- El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.