Friday, October 30, 2009

Scary Halloween Cars

In the spirit of Halloween, here are some thoughts on scary cars.

Cars can be scary looking. Some of the chrome laden grills from the 1950s look frightening, like the era's Packards, Buick, and thanks to Stephen King's Christine, the 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Cars can also have scary names, like Fury, Demon, or Tempest. Or they can be scary to drive because they are extremely fast, tempermental or unsafe like the early Porsche 930 turbos or 1960s muscle cars.

But if I had to pick a car most suited for Halloween, it would be the AMC Gremlin.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top Gear Withdrawl

I'm going through "Top Gear" withdrawl and it's worse than the Swine Flu. "Top Gear" is a show produced by the BBC about cars, with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May as presenters. But it's more than a car show. Imagine the dry "Motorweek" combined with equal parts of "Monty Python" and "Jackass" and you get the picture.

The show also features epic journeys, like driving across salt plains in Africa or riding motorbikes through Vietnam. The cinematography and production values are astonishing and the humor, sidesplitting. I spend half the show with my mouth agape and the scenery and the other half on the floor rolling in hysterics.

My only complaint is the access to this show. It's on BBC America and they show reruns, six months to a year after the original air date. A few weeks ago, my DVR recorded a "new" show, but it was from 2006.

BBC has been shopping a "Top Gear America" show featuring Adam Carolla and I hope it finds a home. I realize an American version wouldn't be the same, but as Clarkson would say, "How bad can it be?" It would certainly be better than Jay Leno's new show.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I Miss Pop-Up Lights

Although the 1980s are not considered a high watermark of automotive design there was one element from that era that is missing today. Pop-up headlights.

Pop-up and hidden lights originated in the 1930s with cars like the Cord 810 and the Buick Y-Job concept car. They reappeared in the 1960s on the Corvette, Buick Rivera, Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger. Before long they spread to Italian makes like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. But they were the most prevalent in the 1980s, appearing on everything from exotic cars to Hondas and Toyotas. They came in all styles and shapes, from ones that flipped up, like on the Honda Prelude, to ones that rotated 180 degrees like on the Corvette C4. There were also exposed pop-up lights like the ones on the Porsche 928 and the 1982 Toyota Celica that I owned in college.

Fifteen years later, pop-up lights have all but vanished. The last new car with pop-ups was either the 1997-2004 Corvette or Lotus Esprit. I know a big reason they went away is cost. Fixed lights are cheaper to produce and less expensive to repair. They also weigh less and take up less space. And like most styling trends, they were a bit of a fad as well, like tail fins, digital instruments and talking cars. But like most fads, it's only a matter of time before they reappear. If the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, and Dodge Challenger are any indicator, I suspect we'll see pop-up lights again in the near future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Green Mileage Myth

I like the concept of hybrid vehicles and realize driving a hybrid can be fun. Not like autocrossing or flogging a sports car along a winding road, but it does have entertainment value. Hybrid technology is also interesting to me, even if it's not new. The Germans started using hybrids almost a century ago. They called them U-boats.

Where I have a problem with hybrids, is when they are labeled a “green” technology. There is nothing green about manufacturing batteries, a process which requires mining metals and the use of toxic chemicals, all of which give off the same greenhouse gasses you’re trying to reduce by getting better gas mileage. Disposing of the batteries presents another problem. You can’t throw them in the trash or dump them. They’ll leak toxic chemicals and contaminate groundwater. You can’t put them in your recycling bin either. I doubt battery disposal is something a hybrid owner would attempt on their own, but you see my point. Whatever environmental gains made by driving a hybrid are at least party negated by the manufacturing and disposal of the technology that makes them possible.

It is also a myth that hybrids get better gas mileage than normal cars. That point was conclusively driven home in a recent issue of Car & Driver, where the editors tested the Honda Insight against the Toyota Prius and a ten year old Geo Metro. I won’t keep you in suspense, the Metro lost. It wasn’t as fast or as comfortable as the Insight or the Prius. Certainly it wasn’t as safe and if Car & Driver had rated the exhaust emissions from all three vehicles they probably would have found the Metro pollutes more than the other two cars combined. But the one place the Prius and the Insight could not beat the Metro is the one place they had to—fuel economy. Yes, the Metro beat the Insight, which got 38 m.p.g. in the test and tied the Prius at 42 m.p.g. The fuel economy numbers are based on Car & Driver’s real world driving and if you think the numbers are biased, the EPA’s mileage ratings put the Metro in striking distance of the Prius as well.

I think people by hybrids as a status symbol. In this way Prius owners are no different than Porsche or Hummer owners. But if you're on a crusade to save the environment, buy a Metro or another cheap, highly efficient car or use public transportation. The money you save would cover the cost of adding solar panels to your roof or installing a geothermal heat pump, and you'd have enough change left over to buy florescent lights. These things would easily double your green factor over driving a mere hybrid.

Friday, October 16, 2009

24 Hours of Lemons

A new budget racing event is taking the auto world by storm. Known as the 24 Hours of Lemons, it is a two day race held in events around the country. To enter, all you need is a $500 jalopy and a sense of humor.

For more information, and to check and see if there is an event near you, check out

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

White Sands and Blue Corvettes

In the early 1990s, a movie came out that left an indelible footprint on my brain. It was called "White Sands" and starred Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, with a then unknown Samuel L. Jackson.

The movie was forgettable, except for about five minutes when Willem Dafoe's character blasted along a desert highway in a vintage Corvette Sting Ray. The Nassau blue Vette, set against the barren, rust colored desert at sunset, with lightning flashes and clouds from a thunderstorm, stood out like a turquoise jewel set in adobe. The rumbling echo of exhaust harmonized with distant thunder and Patrick O'Hearn's haunting movie soundtrack.

I have dreamed of taking a drive across New Mexico in a Corvette since that movie came out. Just about any Vette would do, except for the Sunkist orange Dirk Diggler edition with gold rims. But since I am dreaming, I would want to drive a 1965 Nassau blue roadster, with a 327 small-block V8 and four-speed transmission.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

R.I.P. Saturn

Saturn is dead, but in truth the lineup has been in God's waiting room for quite some time because of its lousy lineup of warmed over Opels and other GM vehicles.

The concept was good, just poorly executed. Saturn sold cars at a fixed price and provided a superior ownership experience. The company was constantly rated at the top in consumer satisfaction and brand loyalty. But loyalty will only get you so far if you're not profitable or can't offer a consistently good product. Just ask Saab.

When Roger Penske stepped in, I hoped he would find a way to turn the company around. But it was not to be. In what was perhaps his most savvy display of business acumen, Penske pulled the plug on the deal this week. Both on and off the racetrack, Penske has proven to be a shrewd business operator. Knowing a deal is sour and walking away takes more guts than standing pat or pushing a bad position.

Sadly this lack of guts sealed the fate of Saturn. GM could never seem to find a way to consistently position the brand. Or follow through on the execution. Saturn started out a niche brand but GM wanted to morph it into a replacement for Oldsmobile. I never understood why Saturn didn't offer the Vibe instead of Pontiac, or even the Geo lineup before it was killed off a few years back. Both the Vibe and the Prizm were made in a joint venture between Toyota and GM at their NUMMI plant in California and were good cars.

Like everything else, GM pushed volume over profitability. Saturn was treated as an afterthought, a factory outlet store built outside city limits to peddle imperfect merchandise or last year's fashions. Rumor has it the late Roger Smith championed Saturn to "get even" with the UAW, Japan and just about everyone else. The rumor is plausible. Smith was vindictive on a level that makes Richard Nixon look like Will Smith.