Friday, May 31, 2013

Dodge Dart: What's in a Name?

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I like the Dodge Dart.  It is essentially a stretched version of the Giulietta and therefore the closest thing you can get to a new Alfa Romeo in the US.  The problem is its name. 

The dictionary defines dart as a small pointed missile that can be thrown or fired or as a verb meaning to move or run somewhere suddenly or rapidly.  I suppose a car that moves rapidly is good.  But the 5th grade boy in me knows that I can rhyme Dart with fart and shart.  Given the quality of Chrysler's small cars over the past decade, either rhyming word is appropriate. 

The problem is Chrysler doesn't have many historical names to draw on for small cars.  Valiant, Duster, and Volare were used for small Plymouths of the 1960s and 1970s.  Dodge had the Dart, Demon, and Aspen.  Incidentally the Demon was supposed to have been named the Beaver, which would have caused even more problems.  More recently Chrysler has used Omni, Aries, Reliant, Shadow, Sundance, and Neon for small cars.  Not much to work with there either. 

Chrysler bought AMC in the 1980's, which gave them the Eagle and Alliance.   Going to larger Dodge cars, there's the Monaco, Lancer, Coronet, Polara and Stratus.  On the Plymouth side there's the Belvedere, Satellite, and Fury to name a few.

My favorite Dodge name is the Intrepid, which was used on their large car made from 1992 to 2004.  Dodge must have decided to skip Intrepid and go with a classic name to invoke nostalgia.  Dart is better than naming a car the XR4Ti or some other seemingly random combination of letters and numbers.  But what does a Dodge Dart mean to people today?  How does the name rate against nameplates like Civic, Corolla, Focus, Cruze, and Elantra? 

Then again, those other nameplates don't do much for me either.  However, I've owned both a Civic and Corolla and think of them as loyal, dependable, small cars which could dart through traffic. 

Maybe Dart isn't so bad after all… just as long as they don't make a Swinger edition...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jaguar F-Type and Corvette C2 Stingray

Looking at the new Jaguar F-Type give me an uncanny feeling of deja vu.  

Now I know why...

The mid-sixties Corvette Stingray is one of my all time favorite cars.  It's just a stunning, timeless design.  The  new Jaguar F-Type has a lot of similarities, even though the cars were built 50 years apart, by different companies, on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

The Corvette Stingray and Jaguar E-Type were major rivals in the 1960s.  Songs were written about both cars, most notably "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean is about a race between the two.  On paper, the new Corvette and Jaguar look like natural rivals as well.  Both car have similar dimensions and performance numbers.  But from a styling standpoint, the cars couldn't be more different.

Based on looks alone, I'd take the Jaguar F-Type over the new Corvette.  However, if I could pick the mid-sixties Stingray, I would take it over the Jag every time.              

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Ambiguous Service Engine Soon Light

This week saw the appearance of the "Service Engine Soon" light on my Pathfinder.  Ambiguous at best, the warning light indicates that some kind of work is recommended to keep the engine running smoothly.  It does not mean the car is on fire, about to shed its transmission or melt down its engine.

Back in the dark ages, commonly known as the Malaise Era of automotive history, when cars like Ford LTD station wagons and Plymouth Satellites roamed the earth in metallic brown paint, wheezing through emissions choked carburetors and flatulating through primitive catalytic converters, people referred to these lights as idiot lights.  At that time, a red glowing light only came on after your car either belched steam, threw a rod and dumped its oil, or caught fire.  Cars used vacuum hoses instead of electronics to manage primitive systems and mechanics everywhere were befuddled.  Fixing a poorly running engine was more dark art than science.

Today everything is electronic or computerized.  People complain about how everything is too complicated for the home mechanic, but I'll bet they never looked under the hood of a 1980 Chevrolet Caprice.  Electronic engine management ranks up there with microwave ovens and smart phones in the pantheon of human achievement.  It's the reason why cars last longer today and require less maintenance.

I think of the cryptic "Service Engine Soon" light as a reminder, like a post-it note.  It's there to remind me to have my mechanic check it out the next time I'm in for an oil change.  It probably means one of the many sensors responsible for engine timing, fuel mixture, or exhaust emissions has malfunctioned.  Nissans of this era, with the 3.0 and 3.3 VQ series V6 engines are especially prone to these kinds of problems.  And I wouldn't be surprised if more than one sensor went bad.  Chances are, it will cost me a diagnostic scan and a couple of hundred dollars in parts and labor to make the little orange light go back to sleep.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unloved, The Porsche 924

Almost gone and mostly forgotten is the 924, the unloved bastard child of Porsche and VW.  If it were human it would have serious mommy issues and require years of Jungian psychotherapy to sort out all its feelings of abandonment and neglect.

The Porsche aficionados, those that turn up their collective noses if you do not pronounce the marque as "Porsch-ah," would prefer the car to just go away.  They argue that it has too many VW parts, the engine was used in the AMC Gremlin, and the transmission was from a VW Bus.  All true, but what they won't admit, ye, what they cannot admit, even in the darkest places of their cold beating Teutonic hearts, is that the 924 is a better car than the 912, 914, and the VW Beetle derived 356. 

The 924 was originally developed by Porsche as a flagship sports car for VW.  To cut costs, it used a number of off the shelf parts from the VW stockpile.  This included the 2.0 liter engine used in the VW Dasher, various Audis, and the AMC Gremlin.  The transmission was from a VW bus, which gave it two advantages--it was strong and reliable, and it could be mounted in the rear, giving the car a perfect 50/50 weight distribution.  

Think about that for a moment...  In the 1970s, the only other front engine cars with rear mounted transmissions were the Ferrari 365 GTB Daytona and Porsche's own 928--both good company.  The Chevrolet Corvette wouldn't utilize this configuration for another 20 years. 

The design was so good, that when VW dropped production in favor of the Rabbit based Scirocco, Porsche picked it up and marketed it as their entry level sports car.  It sold very well, becoming Porsche's highest volume production car until the Porsche Cayenne.  The basic design morphed into the 924 Turbo, 944, and eventually the 968, which was built into the mid-1990s.  It got a proper Porsche built engine and serious power upgrades, more creature comforts, but underneath, it was still the same tenacious handling bastard.  

Not convinced?  Just ask the man who owns one, as the old Packard add says. 

For a period of two and a half years, I owned a copper colored 1978 Porsche 924 that my wife affectionately referred to as "the turd".  It was ugly, beat up, but gleefully fun to carve up the back roads that snake along the Missouri River.  Unlike British cars or other products of the 1970s, it was also dead reliable.  It always started, never left me stranded, and on warm, sunny days, with the Foo Fighters blasting, it was everything I love about cars.    

I won't argue with the Porscheophiles, because they are missing the point.  Yes, it can be argued the 924 is not a true blood.  Yes, it doesn't have the power of a 911.  And yes, you won't see one parked on the green at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island.  

The Porsche 924 is a mutt terrier, a pound puppy.  It is a unique hybrid creation that has loads of personality and is always ready to play.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Music, Moment, Machine

There used to be a show called "Man, Moment, Machine" on the History Channel.  This is "Music, Moment, Machine" around cars.  It's funny how a song and a car get linked, whether through a car commercial, TV, or just driving around listening to the radio.  

My first recollection of Music, Moment, Machine is the use of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" in the pilot for the "Miami Vice" TV show in 1984.  Crockett and Tubbs driving through the streets of Miami on the way to a drug bust, the night time shots of the Ferrari Daytona, and the neon Art Deco backdrop, left an indelible mark on my young psyche.  The use of music and cinematography to tell a story was groundbreaking and has been copied many time since.    

For those of you too young to remember when "Miami Vice" was the coolest show on the planet, you missed out.  I won't explain it, nor will I attempt to justify the pastel wardrobe.  There's nothing today I can compare it to.  You just had to be there.  

After college I bought a LeBaron convertible and looked for any excuse to make a top down run from Columbia, MO into Kansas City or St. Louis.  Cardinals playing the Cubs tonight?  Let's go!  Late night White Castle gut bombs?  No problem!  

At the time, the Allman Brother's "No One Left to Run With" constantly played on the radio.  It was an appropriate song since one by one, all my friends left Columbia.  Then I left too, leaving the LeBaron behind.  Even with its clean looks and ragtop, there was nothing special about the LeBaron.  But there was something special about the memories made in that car.  It was easy to jump in it with three friends and head somewhere for a night of adventure.  

The new Jaguar F Type coupled with Lana Del Rey's "Burning Desire" and set in Chile's Atacama desert is another such moment.  All three are featured in the short film/Jaguar advertisement "Desire", staring Damien Lewis.  I have weak knees for Jags and I'm a fan of Damien Lewis because of his work on "Band of Brothers", "Life", and "Homeland".  The short film is not "The Godfather" but it is a fun diversion with a solid plot, good acting, and beautiful scenery.