Thursday, March 31, 2011

David E. Davis

David E. Davis died last Sunday at the age of 80. Known as the "Dean of Automotive Journalists," he had at various points of his life been a writer, editor, and publisher for Road and Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Automobile.

Davis was one of the first writers to blend facts and statistics about cars with prose. For him, an article was not just about acceleration times and braking distances, but a story about how the car felt to drive. A car story should be an adventure with a spectacular setting like the one below:

One of the great roads in New York State is Route 97 from Port Jervis to Hancock, where it joins Route 17. It is a fast, winding asphalt two-lane that clings to the eastern bank of the Delaware River. We always used it when driving from New York City to Watkins Glen for the U.S. Grand Prix. Watkins Glen was--and is--the only suitable venue for a Formula 1 race in this country. Not Long Beach. Not Detroit, Not Las Vegas, Not Phoenix. Watkins Glen, hard by Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes district, is the place. A racing car looks comfortable at Watkins Glen in a way that it will never look when running in a moat in downtown Phoenix.

Davis not only wrote car adventures, he lived them. He was friends with countless racing drivers, attended and threw lavish parties, hunted avidly, and loved dogs. Larger than life, he seemed almost boastful. At first his writing annoyed me. I wasn't sure if he was compensating for something or just full of himself. Perhaps both. In 1955 he flipped an MG at a race just outside Sacramento and went through 18 months of rehabilitation hell. Instead cowering from the near death experience, Davis found it liberating. As he said later,“I suddenly understood with great clarity that nothing in life — except death itself — was ever going to kill me. No meeting could ever go that badly. No client would ever be that angry. No business error would ever bring me as close to the brink as I had already been.

It was then I realized Davis was simply grabbing life by both horns in a way most of us only dream of. Like Hemingway or Twain he was vividly weaving his life experiences into prose. And like Twain, he could be self effacing as well. In 1989 a subscriber to Automobile wrote a letter informing Davis that people were laughing at him behind his back. Davis responded in typical fashion by writing an editorial piece, making light of his disfigurement, and ending with:

It should be apparent, by now, that people laughing behind one’s back are the child’s play compared with the behavior of one’s friends. But nonetheless, Mr. Walker, your thoughtfulness in bringing this to my attention is sincerely appreciated. I’m just not sure that I can do anything about it. I’m not even sure that I want to.

To thine own self be true. In a world of vanilla, Davis was hot fudge. He will be missed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Jaguar XJ6

I've got Jaguars on the brain again. Specifically the 1995-1997 Jaguar XJ6 and XJR, the last cars imported to the US with the inline-6 engine.

Besides the usual charms, this version of the XJ6 has something rare for a Jaguar--reliability. The drivetrains are bulletproof and the electrical systems were exorcised of all the typical British electric demons.

What's more, these cars are going on 16 years old and are relatively cheap to own--you can pick up a good example for around $7,500. Additionally, they are starting to develop some collector interest. They are the last of the XJ series made before Jaguar introduced its V8 engine and also the last cars that were partially influenced by the company's founder, Sir William Lyons.

I've always had a soft spot for Jaguar sedans, particularly the XJ6. If I ever stumble across one of these in good condition, I'd be hard pressed to pass it up.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beater Update

The Cutlass continues to trudge along reliably. It has cost me nothing more than gas and two oil changes, which is remarkable for a fourteen year old car. And all the while it has saved me $2400 in car payments.

$2400 will buy a lot. A cruise or trip to Disney World. A really nice home theater system. Season tickets for your favorite sports team. A new fridge or washer/dryer tandem. It's also almost twice what I paid for the car originally.

While I'd much rather drive something else, it's hard not to like a car that saves you money.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Auto Show Musings

I went to the KC Auto Show yesterday. Here are some random thoughts & musings:

Chrysler, Ford and GM have come a long way in a short time. The quality of the look and feel of their new cars is amazing. Chrysler's new interiors are stunning as are Ford's. GM is finally building cars I'm interested in, including the new Chevrolet Cruze and Buick Regal.

When it comes to imports, Hyundai and Kia are lapping the field on Toyota and Honda. The Korean automakers have always provide a good value at a low price. Now they're turning out stunning designs and workmanship. The new Kia Optima looks better than a Jaguar XF--and I never thought I'd say that. And the Hyundai Elantra looks like it came from the future. I sat in a Mercedes C300 and then the Elantra. Both cars are about the same size, and line up nicely on paper, but you can buy two loaded Elantras for the price of one C300. What's more, the Elantra actually had a nicer interior with its mix of materials, design and colors. Even if they were the same price, I'd still pick the Elantra.

My latest obsession is a Mini Countryman. It's the first Mini you can get four normal sized people in without a shoehorn and some butter. At $27-30K, I thought it was price, but it's everything I want in a car. Unique styling, room for four, all wheel drive, good gas mileage, and loads of fun. I'm sure this obsession will pass eventually--people who genuinely obsess about cars are like serial monogamists or high functioning addicts. And if they have means, they will collect cars like Charlie Sheen collects women and grams of coke. But for those of us with limited means, who have to make due with one car in the garage, the Countryman would be hard to beat.