Car stuff for November, 2016

The soul in the machine

Everyone is a “car guy” of some variety. It’s just a matter of taste, or lack thereof.  Some care so little about style or substance that they purchase the rock bottom minimum that will get them from point A to point B. That’s a choice. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Jay Leno who cares nothing about anything but cars and motorcycles. He has no other interests or hobbies, no kids, a ton of money and owns probably one of every car or motorcycle ever built stashed in warehouses around LA. He works on them and drives them all. Somewhere in the middling are guys (and less frequently women) that have a preference for style and substance, and that preference usually matches their basic personality. Mercedes, Audi, BMW and all the rest of the “high end” automobiles as a show of their taste and frequently their economic status. Fords, Chevys, Kias, Hyundais dressed up to appear more exotic than they are.

One of my colleagues heavily lusts after a Bentley. Another of my colleagues has a “Volt”, the electric car and he’s more of the “I’m interested in technology” type.  Another has a red 1979 Porsche 911 he continually restores.  Others drive plain vanilla SUVs with kid seats in the back.  Myself, I’m the kind of guy that likes the driving experience, and I also like to go back to find things that bring me back to my youth, and I have a short span of attention, so I rarely keep anything for more than two or three years.  I especially like motorcycling because of the pure driving (riding) experience (said to be close to that of flying) and because I can obtain machines exactly like those I loved in my youth. I’m exceptionally lucky to have the resources to possess some of these things (within reason). I’ll never be Leno but if I had unlimited resources, I would buy “classic” cars and motorcycles, warehouse them and drive/ride them every day. I would attend the Barrett-Jackson auctions and buy on impulse, like the rest of the car nut-cases there.

sideNow, speaking of Barrett-Jackson auctions (Vegas, this year), I mentioned before that I nearly jumped over the fence and demanded to bid (I wasn’t an authorized bidder) on a magnificent 1967 Pontiac GTO (photo) with three carburetors and a four speed on the floor. It was monumentally perfect condition, completely original. That car went for $32,000 and if I had been in place, I would have written a check for it on the spot.  However, in retrospect, that might not have been a good thing to do as a practical matter. That’s a big car, almost 5000 pounds. The chance of that car fitting in my garage alongside my wife’s car would be pretty slim, and you can be sure my wife’s car goes in there first. Also remembered is the “premium”, 10% of the hammer price to Barrett-Jackson for their trouble, so the price of the car is actually $32k plus another $3,200.  Then another thousand, fifteen hundred or so, probably more to get the car from Vegas or Scottsdale to Pittsburgh.  THEN a mechanic going over the car to find out what’s wrong with it that didn’t show up in my auction-fueled fantasy. Of course, B-J takes no responsibility for any of that. It’s cash and carry.

If you watch an interesting car show on the cable Velocity Channel, “Fantomworks”, you’ll see that Dan Short takes in cars that look great to restore them to former greatness for their owners. I recall one 1967 GTO that looked great on casual observation. Then his mechanics got to work tearing things down and of course found all kinds of very expensive things to fix. The crankshaft was cracked and it took months to find another serviceable one. The parts for these old cars are getting harder to find and are more expensive when you find them.  So as a purely practical matter, if you really lust after the dream car of your youth, you must have a pretty much unlimited bank account.  And the dream cars of my youth are getting exponentially more expensive with every year that goes by.  If you watch “What’s my car worth”, again on the Velocity channel, each car has a little graph under it showing what it sold for five years ago. Every one shows a big increase every year. Most are now pretty unaffordable and difficult to find competent service or parts for. They will remain the dreams of my youth.

I had a Ferrari in the 90s. It was an old 1980’s 308 and it was an “entry” car, sticks and bones to what’s out there now.  It had a lot of engine problems. I kept it a couple of years and sold it. I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. Now comes the later iterations of Ferraris that I just happened to be reading about as I’ve become a big Formula 1 fan, an event that Ferrari figure prominently in. To make a long story short, I happened upon a doctor in North Carolina that had several Ferraris and had just purchased a new one. He was looking to sell one of his others for a quick influx of cash. He had, unfortunately for him, put a lot of money into this car before he had decided to sell it. New stainless steel exhaust, new black wheels to set off the yellow paint, new tires, a full (and expensive) service with changing out of the timing belt (every 15,000 miles). So after talking to everyone involved with this car, including the Ferrari mechanic that went over the car 500 miles ago, I got the car for a price about 20% less than most are going for right now.

ferrari-1This car is the 360 model, a 2001. This car is said by Ferrari to be a much more reliable and drive-able car than it’s previous model, the F355. Many of those previous issues were solved, especially the fact that the engine doesn’t have to come out for major service. The mechanic said he has one client with 80,000 miles on his 360. Many drive them every day.

Once started the car emits a classic Ferrari exhaust note, even better than stock since the previous owner recently installed a popular aftermarket free flow muffler system ($2,000) that’s all stainless steel, will last forever. For that matter, the entire car is aluminum including parts of the frame so it’s pretty light for it’s size. 400 horsepower is VERY potent for a 3000-pound car.  It is totally the most comfortable car I’ve ever sat in. I can get in without dipping my head. Once in place, the seats are electric and fully adjustable for lots of lateral support and thigh support. Power steering makes it a lot easier to maneuver. Vision is good all around. It’s very, very comfortable.


ferrari-7The exhaust note is actually pretty loud and must be gotten used to. The engine sits actually inside cockpit about two feet back from my head. Yes, that’s the muffler back there too.




ferrari-4The F1 shifter is a paddle on either side of the steering wheel; pull one to upshift and the other to downshift. It isn’t an “automatic” transmission. It has a clutch but a computer driven hydraulic to engage and disengage. Just like a Formula 1 car. Shifting is instantaneous and a little clunky at slow speeds since it’s really made to shift at full throttle, something not advisable to do anywhere in town since that high revving 400 horsepower engine doesn’t have any good sense. When asked, it goes to the rev-limiter at 8500 RPM in an incredibly short period of time and the acceleration of this car is startling. It is said to be capable of 180 mph.

Now, as I go down the road, so to speak, with this car, I’m learning a lot of new things. It’s taken me a few days to actually learn how to drive it. It’s not like driving anything else. I got stuck at a stoplight because it wouldn’t shift from neutral to first. I didn’t know I had to have my foot on the brake to do that. I’m also learning that Ferrari isn’t a car company, it’s a culture and an institution, like Harley-Davidson. You become embroiled in the culture quickly. The car stands out like a sore thumb and turns every head in its vicinity.

I also quickly figured out that not just anyone can work on this car. Much of what happens inside this car is computerized and the only guys with the Ferrari computers to access the stuff that work the car (cost a bundle) are factory trained and experienced Ferrari “technicians”.  The computer inside the car talks to the technician’s computer and literally tells it what’s going on inside the car. To make a long story short, after much research, I settled on a Ferrari shop just outside Philadelphia, a four-hour drive for me. Their shop is bright and spotless (photo). Beautiful Ferraris hanging around the parking lot. (Photo) They went over the car completely, changed from fluids and pronounced the car in excellent condition. So I dumb lucked out purchasing a “used car”.

Driving to Philly on the tollway was an interesting experience. At 80 mph, the engine hums like a hummingbird at around 3500 rpm. The engine is inside the car, just behind the driver, under glass. It’s loud enough that most drivers wouldn’t like it much, but the driving experience so greatly exceeds the hum that you get used to it quickly. The driver becomes part of the driving experience, becomes part of the car, feeling everything that occurs. It’s difficult to explain. The car and the driver become whole. You don’t drive the car; you become part of the car. At 80 mph, giving the car gas results in an instant acceleration. The brakes are phenomenal. To my mind, 80 mph is the perfect highway speed, not enough to tempt most cops.

Interestingly, he Pennsylvania Turnpike, west-east (Route 76) has become the American Autobahn. The speed limit is technically 70 mph. But at 80 mph, everything on the road was consistently passing me: jeeps, SUVs, family sedans, small economy cars, all going at least 90 and most probably around 100. So, for a short while I kicked the Ferrari up to 100 mph, (in about three seconds). The hummingbird increased it’s wing flapping and I was STILL getting passed.  Now, 100 mph on any highway is comfortable in this car but is a very bad thing as if you are busted for that speed. It isn’t speeding, it’s reckless driving and it comes with a huge fine and standing before a judge who has the power to put you in a jail cell for a while.

Many drivers (including me) are using an iPhone app called “Waze” (made in Israel) that allows drivers to signal things going on in their path: accidents, junk on the highway, traffic jams and the like, including police that are noticed.  So for the entire trip from Philly, five cops location popped up. Two of those popups were actually police doing radar. So the police avoidance industry previously confined to radar detectors has evolved to real-time police location, and speeds on these highways are heading up toward Autobahn-land.

But it CAN (and will) be driven sedately by me. The 360 was really the first of that series that was specifically crafted as a car that can be driven like a normal car, even daily, and maintenance on the engine is easier and cheaper than the previous F355. It isn’t a “car”, it’s a machine with a soul that integrates itself into the driver. Not everyone would want one, certainly not many would want to pay the dues, but for the few, it’s a joy to drive, amazing handling and performance. Not so much a joy to maintain but that’s the price to be paid (in a manner of speaking) for being a Ferrari owner.

To the real nut-cases, there really is Ferrari and there’s everything else.

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