Sep 21, 2010

How Fast is Fast Enough?

The last two land speed record holders for production cars were the Bugatti Veyron and the SSC Ultimate Aero TT.  Both provide the wealthy owner with over 1000hp and both can exceed 250 mph. Very impressive machines. Would they really be that fun to drive every single Sunday? I guess that depends on where you live and how honest you are about how you drive.  Are either of these the kind of car you want for your last sports car? I know, I shouted “hell yes” initially too, but I hear they are both a bitch to parallel park.

No Bugatti pictured here.  Sorry.  Jerod Shelby is an acquaintance of mine.

The Ultimate Aero is clearly an American icon that will come to be worshiped. It takes an “old school” approach to electronic intervention. Without ABS or traction control, I’m told this car can spin the tires at 200mph if you're not careful. That translates into a raw experience of power and responsibility that could certainly be fun. This is SSC’s intention, since some drivers feel electronic assistance is invasive. It's also a good way to keep costs and weight down on a limited production car that already fetches 6 figures.

Bugatti takes a different approach. The car’s technology is present in every way. They believe if you can afford the car then you have the right to haul ass. Can't argue that one.  So a host of active systems manage most of the cars powers. As a result, it's much heavier and far more expensive than the Ultimate Aero... basically, you're into 7 figures at the cash register.

I know, we're not shopping for cars in this price range, but lets think about this concept for a moment.  If you can smoke tires at 200mph you might have too much power.  Also, if you need a computer to turn off most of your power most of the time it’s possible you have too much power as well.  Now, I understand, both of these cars are tributes to speed and I’m not disparaging them. I’m just using these extreme examples to help find clarity in our car search.  How much potential do you need to be truly happy with a car long term?

Remember the days when you could hit an on ramp, go through the gears and not emerge at 150mph?  It was pretty fun.

I recall my 80's model Carrera that offered a scant 214hp... much less than the Lexus ES 350 I test drove yesterday with my in-laws.  Before you dismiss the comparison, keep in mind that the Lexus outperforms my Porsche in every measurable performance category. Still, that Carrera was clearly a better driving experience for me.  Let's face it, a new Accord can also smoke your dad's Chevelle but you aren't going to feel as cool taking that Accord to the drive-in.  Why?  Because there is more to sports cars than then numbers.

Maybe I'm just getting old, but I don't think that's it. Look at the popularity of the Lotus Elise, which is not a superfast car.  Also, the whole Pontiac Solstice racing phenomenon is interesting.  Spec Miata, again, is noteworthy.

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3 fast enough cars, each a different experience.  Turbo Sylvia transplanted 240Z,  Viper and M3.  
Mine's the one with the heated mirrors and cupholders. 

The point is simple, even if performance numbers are super important to you, don't let them alone decide what car you get.  Invariably, in 10 years they will be unimpressive.  Performance is more about a balance of characteristics that you prefer than any extremes a car can achieve.  Don't discount anything just by merely bench racing it.   Your car has to offer you more than just good stats in Motor Trend magazine, because it's going to be a keeper this time.

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Buy in California and you can spend some time on Route One.  You won't need to go 200mph to have the time of your life I assure you.  But avoid RV season.




As a side note:  I just watched an episode of Supercars Exposed.  I've included a link:  http://www.hulu.com/watch/109394/supercars-exposed-the-american-supercar
The comparison of the ZR1 and Porsche 911 Turbo is an interesting commentary on the different experience two cars can give drivers.   These cars couldn't be more different.  Front engine vs rear engine. AWD vs rear wheel drive. American vs German.   Both achieve similar performance numbers, but anyone would agree that the experience is quite different.  Nice driving too!  I could live with either, and my birthday is in 3 weeks if anyone's listening.

Sep 12, 2010

Cars as Investments?

I think it was some time in 2004 or 5, I don’t really recall. Some relatives of mine came into some money.  Afraid of  the housing market, they came to me with a partially serious question. Should they invest in a Ford GT? I say partially serious because they really were looking for me to convince them. They liked the idea, but wanted a passionate push. I certainly was a fan of the Ford GT. It was Fords hi-tech tribute to the 60’s era GT40. I’m too young to remember, but history tells us it was used to decimate Ferrari at Lemans . This avenged Ford after the disgrace of Enzo Ferrari’s decision not sell his company to them. Sorry, I digress. You can look it up on Wikipedia.

I’d long hoped that I could achieve financial independence swapping cars over time. So, have spent a good number of hours working on the probability of success in auto investing. Sadly, have never really come up with a plan that paid off for the modest investor like myself. The conclusion was once you consider the myriad costs of ownership, the appreciation is more likely not to pay off. Well, at least not pay off any better than traditional investments. Take a GT350 long considered a perfect payoff. New they were under $6,000 you could sell a rust bucket for maybe $150K today. I know it sounds great, keep in mind that would be a 55 year investment. Conservatively considering a 10 year doubling cycle for any host of other stable investments you could yield about $200K. So not too impressive.  Then consider the risks and costs: theft, storage, insurance, repairs, even crashing. Also you’ve got to weed out the amazing stories of lost race cars and special one-off situations that are truly not applicable. Ask any rich collector and they’ll agree. Car “investing” is really a rationalization for people like me and not a real investment.

I wisely explained to my family that while a barn find might make someone rich occasionally, cars as investments are not wise. It would be best to leave 6 figure car purchases to the people who love the cars more than the investment potential. So, without any enthusiastic endorsement from me, they passed on the Ford GT for sale in Bellevue for $90,000 and sunk the money into the stock market. As I write this, the current selling price of a GT is now over $150,000.

You’re welcome Kathleen.

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In my defense, Ford raised the MSRP on the Ford GT from about $90 to about $150K during the first year of  production.   It’s hard to anticipate a manufacturer raising the cost of a car by $60K during a recession. So cut me some slack.


How to buy your car well

Buying used is a good start. Buying a 6 month old car will save you a lot of dealer markup that’s true. Even better, wait till that model’s run is clearly over. You never know what the manufacturer has planned till the run is over.  Many manufacturers make some sweet models at the tail end of a body style.  They need to pull out all the stops for sales at that point. Buying the last of a series will give to time to evaluate it's replacement too.  If the next model makes Car and Driver write about how slow your car was, you're screwed. If they write about how much a disappointment the new model is, you just won the lotto (Porsche 993 vs 996).   Keep that cost of ownership down if you are trying to call your car an 'investment', or you won’t be able to brag with truthfulness. Besides expensive changes to a car can often actually devalue it. Normal wear and tear items will always need attention by an enthusiast.  But, many fancy collectible cars can make these pieces a disproportionately bigger expense.  Examples like exclusive color shifting dyed leather, represent a bucket of money when the driver seat needs refurbishing. Be smart, not every special car is made with all special parts.  Which parts make your car special? The motor? The body panels? Maybe it’s simply the combination of common components in a desirable combination. A collectible car does not need to be built of exclusive components (that you can't afford to maintain) to be potentially special.

My personal preference is limited runs of common sports cars. With these cars you get a large supply of both knowledge and parts, keeping costs down. The Porsche 911 Clubsport is a good example. Built specifically for the club racing buyer, it is currently worth way more than a standard Carrera. One magazine explained the car: “Pay more, get less, go faster.” The Clubsport was a Carrera with improved suspension, modest motor improvements and then stripped of lots of stuff like undercoating, air-conditioning, sunroof, etc. All these deletions saved weight and save you  money in things you don't need to maintain over the years.  The Clubsport is clearly already realized its potential, but think along those lines. The Porsche RS America might be a modern example of another opportunity. Coming of age in the shadow of the Porsche water cooling issues, which has also driven interest to the final air cooled 993 Carrera’s. The value of the RS America has not dramatically risen yet. They can be seen and explained at http://www.rsamerica.net/ .   I personally searched for one of these recently,   but passed in the end due to the lack of luxury components.  Endure those hardships like cloth seats and reap rewards later.  

Another interesting place to find collectability is with a “parts bin car.” That’s my own personal term. Example, dig through all the parts your company offers from all the different cars, and make one car cooler that the others. The SVO Mustang of the mid 80’s was less than a super success story. Ford (with some German help) took the Mustang, swapped in the suspension from a Lincoln, added the Pinto 4 cylinder and then Merkur XR4Ti’s turbo. They threw in some Koni shocks and a unique intercooler for that turbo and instant collector car. Magazines at the time tried to remind everyone that this was more than a 4 cylinder stang with a hood scoop but interest was low since the V8 Mustang GT was quite a success. Now they did have some parts issues, trying to replace the wheels, seats, bumper facia and some other small bits can get tricky. So the rarity of some of these parts is getting to be an issue now. For the most part it’s a still Mustang and club support is out there (http://www.mustangsvo.org/). I sold my brother’s 13 year old barn find (yes they can happen)  ’86 SVO in 6 hours on that website 10 years ago.

The E36 BMW M3 had a slew of elite versions. At the time heralded as the “best handling car in the world at any price” all exceptional cars even by today’s performance standards. The special versions of the E36 are realizing their potential. . If the newer E46 M3 is your candidate then I’d vote for the BMW E46 M3 ZCP w/ the competition package. This one might be a stretch, but it’s too soon to tell till it’s too late to act. Based on the common, but exceptional E46 M3 it offered a small list of improvements that paid tribute to the magazine queen M3 CSL . Big brakes, suspension enhancements, quick ratio steering and really light wheels you can scratch up like me. The ZCP was far from the lightweight superstar CSL sold in Europe, it sure captures the enthusiasm the CSL created. Also it was the end of the E46 model run, so it’s clearly the final, coolest E46 to hit the road. BMW has not released the production numbers so rarity is still to be determined.

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Interlagos blue 2006 BMW E46 M3 ZCP. 

Invstigate car’s with over the top chassis, styling or whatever, but with reliable and affordable powertrains. They can be a good place to find value. Jensen's Interceptor, Sunbeam Tiger, Shelby Cobra come to mind. All had common, easy to service motors for the time. How about a Panoz roadster or Experante? Some consider them ugly, but they have racing heritage, and manageable Ford engines. I’m sure there are plenty of Japanese examples I’m missing too, like the Lotus Elise?


Expecting to actually make money might be a bit naïve, but this still is good way to shop. Nobody wants to see a purchase lose value too fast.
Look for cars that sacrifice for performance instead of indulge for it. Car’s that evoke passion need not do everything. Look for aluminum doors, radio or a/c delete options. Seats with manual adjustment. Sunroofs might not exist or cloth may have replaced the heated leather. The lack of these creature comforts for the purpose of performance will only appeal to a small group of passionate buyers, us. Leave the fully loaded super cars to the rich fools who can afford a $50,000 value drop, find that special esoteric niche that says you know your model and have mastered it’s potential with your choice.

You can’t sell, it’s your last sports car. But you can brag about how smart you were when you bought it.

Sep 4, 2010

What’s Your Technology Cutoff?




My M3's backup sensor is really cool. Or, at least it was, until last month when a droning beep showed up where the back-up sensing once was. Also cool were the tire pressure sensors. Pretty cool, until the constant flashing began, which is their way of telling me that they need service too. I'm too cheap to fix these optional features, but I cannot turn them off to ignore them either. Beep, beep, beep!  These inconvenient conveniences quickly loose there luster after that manufacturer's warranty expires. I personally think that these "nannies" will be the death of restoring vehicles, since not unlike your cell phone, they are upgraded and redesigned way too frequently. This recent frenzy of techno goodies leaves no time or interest to perfect or even repair them.

We've all got a target timeframe for when cars were truly ideal, before they got too complicated. Your father might say fuel injection marked the end of automotive simplicity. It's true, you could buy an old sports car and it would be a much "simpler" machine. But manual chokes, magneto ignitions and drum brakes are all dead and gone for a good reason. Let's be honest… hand starting a car is a bit much, but a self-parking Lexus LS460 is a tad excessive as well. Extremes are rarely the answer, but considering them can help us find clarity in our deep meditation over "the last sports car." Frankly, finding someone to tune your carbs is getting hard these days too. Sorry dad.
So, now you're thinking a new car is the answer… 500hp, shiny metallic blue with that voice-activated navigation hands-free thingy. But, even a brand new car will someday be old, so don't dismiss the issue just because you're buying a new Shelby GT500 with SYNC. You can't extend that warranty forever.

 Take every inch of wire in your car and mentally measure its length. Whose wire is it? Is it your wire, or wire from the original manufacturer, Car Toys, or Lucas? For every inch of that wire, you have the potential for hours of headache. Technology makes it easier for us to enjoy our cars out on the road, but it can really make life difficult when you're stranded on the side of that road. There is a progression of complexity associated with each new model year released and it's important to be honest about which technologies truly enhance your experience versus have the potential to greatly detract from it. Have you ever tried to change an O2 sensor on the side of the road? That's what I thought.

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Jensen's Interceptor was offered with ABS, AWD & traction control over 30 years ago. European character powered by American muscle, often a winning package. The AWD models can be spotted by the 2nd set of side vents.

Let's discuss the current major players in the technological new frontier:
ABS  (automatic breaking system) I love ABS since it's so rainy where I live.  Modern ABS can ensure that you brake as effectively as most serious racing professionals.  These systems vary in complexity and have been around longer than you'd think. But, even modern ABS can be limiting, such as when you intentionally want to slide or more importantly, when rolling backwards. Remember Porsche C4 guy? In his crash (discussed in a previous blog) his rear-engine car had a predisposition for spinning out backwards during high speed cornering. On the other hand, Corvair enthusiasts are in luck… no ABS to worry about.

If ABS proves to be an issue, there are several options. You can, of course, buy an older version of the car, or simply turn it off permanently or temporarily. Some Porsche drivers rewire the ABS with an emergency override toggle for use in a tailspin.   Check out the blogs… it's all been done. As newer systems get more interdependent, you'll find making modifications like that more difficult.   If it sounds dangerous to you, that means it probably is. Just a little disclaimer.

OBD-II This one represents my personal technology cutoff.  OBD-II, which stands for On Board Diagnostics II, was introduced in the mid '90s. Basically, it means your car monitors its own emissions by evaluating the performance of a multitude of systems from your catalytic converters to your gas cap. OBD-II can be problematic if you intend to modify your car since, for instance, your local emissions tester talks with OBD-II when you pull in for scheduled emission checks. My personal issue is that it offers little in performance enhancement yet offers a huge increase in a complex mix of hoses and sensors.

If OBD-II is a deal-breaker for you, stay away from late 90's era cars. Getting around OBD-II isn't easy, and technically it's illegal since it was mandated by the government.  Depending on the manufacturer of your car, a custom chip can be burned to override all or some components of OBD-II.  Don't expect it from Superchips or some other mass marketer… I'm using the word custom here.

Traction Control
Traction Control usually cuts throttle or spark when your wheels spin.  Older versions do this in a very abrupt manor (you will notice it happening, it might even be embarrasing).  Newer systems are a bit more seamless, giving you the impression you have traction even when you don't.  Even more significant systems redirect power to tires that are getting more traction (think fancier AWD systems).  Traction control could make burnouts obsolete. Now, a moment of silence please.

Many cars still offer a manual override for traction control.  It seems burn-outs are still the American way… yahoo! Prepare yourself to hit that override button EVERY time you start up, because it will reset automatically with each start-up. That can kind of ruin the spontaneity a bit. I've seen a few people rewire their dash warning lights so the "ABS OFF" light doesn't pester them.

Stability Control Some systems try to do it all. They mix ABS and traction control with a dash of suspension manipulation . They can be called various things like "Active handling" or "Dynamic Stability Control." Stability control can be so invasive and you may never know who's really driving so well, you or the car. These systems can work wonders for your ego, so try not to get too cocky. 

Dynamic stability control (or whatever catchy name they've given it) is often an option on new cars, so you could order your car without it. If a car evolved from a performance heritage, you'd hope handling assistance would not be essential anyway.  Turning them off often depends on the car… all aspects of the system may not really "shut down" when you throw that switch. So study up. 

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Mom's Thunderbird has been converted to a 12 volt electrical system.  Clearly an improvement over the now oddball 6 volt system that was original to these Fords.  Nobody thinks much about how many volts or what color your ground wire is anymore. But 6 volt electrics was a deal breaker for the builder of this car.

The Rest
Just kidding, we couldn't possible list them all. The big ones of the past 10 years are above so start there. If you're still stressing over fuel injection's reliability I'm afraid I can't help you. Get a noid light and get over it.

Know the nannies of your dream car and decide if you fully understand the risk/reward ratio of them. Imagining the convenience is easy, determining the liability is not. What you want or don't want is based on personal preference.  That wire we talked about might just stretch to the moon in your 2009 Audi S6 and be worth it to you. When my windows roll down for no reason, I sometimes wish for simpler wiring. So, decide how you feel about technology now and you can continue to fantasize with new found clarity.