Off Topic: Things That Go Vrooooom

As a tech journalist (OK, an Android journalist), it’s not often I have a chance to write something with no feelings of anxiety, no worries of time, or questions of completeness. Blogs live and die by remaining current, correct, and quick. We live in an era where it is not necessarily the quality of information which garners the most internet fame, but the possession of it. Not to say I (and everyone at Android Police) don’t value quality, or forget that quality has gotten us where we are. I like to think attention to detail, passion, and personal candor set us apart from some of our respective, and respected, competitors.

But, when I want to write about something that isn’t related to technology outside the very broadest sense of the word, I don’t exactly have many places to go. And even my opinion pieces on AP (as increasingly rare as they are) require careful wording, a fair bit of research, and topical relevance – which means time is still a factor.

This post isn’t about technology, really. As you might have guessed, it’s about another passion of mine: cars.

If you weren’t aware automobiles were a particular interest of mine, that’s probably understandable. To most people, I’m just a name that occasionally appears next to things when they’re reading about phones on the internet. If they even read the name at all. I do try to connect with readers where I can, but let’s face it: being a blogger doesn’t really allow you to express yourself as a person to other people all that often. And that’s why I have this other blog.

I don’t really remember when I started liking cars. I do remember having a copious amount of Hot Wheels as a kid. I even had the animated series on VHS. And it’s not like I grew up in a gearhead family. Sure, my dad can fix most anything on wheels that doesn’t involve a computer, but that knowledge was never really imparted on me. We didn’t really have exciting cars when I was growing up, either. A ’94 Ford Explorer, a ’95 Town & Country, an ’00 Plymouth Grand Voyager. Kid-hauling stuff.

My mom did have an ’87 Celica, but it was stolen well before my earliest memories.

However, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid, and I think my grandfather is responsible for at least some of my love of old, quirky cars. He wasn’t really an automotive connoisseur, per se, but my grandpa had style. I’ll always remember his 1970’s-orange VW Super Beetle (here’s a comparable one). It was horrendously slow, didn’t have A/C, and sounded like a really angry lawnmower – but it was a classic, and I’ll never think he was anything but cool when we went for rides down to the ice cream parlor on the lagoon in Alameda in that thing. The long, mechanical gear throws, the old-school ignition squeal, the buzz of the exhaust, there was just something so endearing about that car. I remember when he had the engine swapped on it. He proudly proclaimed that it did 70MPH all the way back from the shop.

Then it burned down in an electrical fire after he gave it to my dipshit cousin in 1998.

By that point, I wasn’t really into cars, though it was probably an inevitability. One of my favorite Christmas presents as a kid, some time between 1999 and 2003 – I have a terrible memory – was a car encyclopedia. It was about 800 pages of big, heavy stock, glossy paper, filled with beautiful images of all sorts of automotive icons. It was pretty much a coffee table book. I wore the jacket out on that thing until it just started falling apart. It’s still in a closet at my dad’s house, as far as I know.

The most-thumbed-through pages were in the Lamborghini chapter. A company that started with tractors, built a misguided Hummer-like SUV in the 80’s, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the entire car poster industry. Supercars like the Miura, the Countach, and the Diablo were in my childhood dream garage. Which is to say, I had the same automotive aspirations of almost any kid my age.

Today, I find those cars a little too… eccentric. Not that I would ever turn down the chance to drive a Countach (if I could fit in one – doubtful), but they’re sort of like crazy furniture from the 1970’s – how could anyone ever live with something like that? It’s just too outlandish, too impractical.

By high school, I was into stuff like the Impreza STI and the Focus SVT – rally-bred hot hatches and turbocharged compacts. My first car (it wasn’t really mine – the title was in my dad’s name) ended up being a Mk IV VW GTI. I burned out the clutch within a year. But that 180BHP turbocharged 4-cylinder was a gas, even if the Mk IV is widely considered the least GTI-ish GTI ever built.

I crashed it in 2008, outside of my apartment complex in Davis, CA. I was making a[n illegal] u-turn in the middle of the street to get a parking spot, and didn’t even notice an oncoming beige Toyota Corolla (oh, the irony). The Corolla tweaked its bumper, and buckled the hood. My GTI was totaled – that poor girl absolutely t-boned my right-front wheel. I felt like an idiot, and that’s because I was. But I can’t say I miss that car. There was always something a little too… sterile about it, even if it was the fastest one I’ve been able to call “mine” in the practical sense.

I went without a car for two years, occasionally borrowing a 2005 Audi A4 that my mom no longer drove. My sister actually totaled that car last year.

The first car I ever had in my name, thanks to a little help from my dad, was a 1993 Audi S4. It cost less than $4000, and had 217,000 miles on the clock. You’re probably thinking “they made S4’s in 1993?” And the answer to that is “yes” – sort of. The original S4 was actually based on the Audi 100, the predecessor to the Audi A6. So, it was the first S6, in terms of lineage. In fact, they actually renamed it the S6 in 1994.

That car was absolutely amazing. It had a 225BHP turbocharged inline 5-cylinder – iron block. That engine, the “034,” is widely considered to be basically bulletproof up to and beyond 400BHP. Mine wasn’t modified, but it was still a kick in the pants. That 4000lbs beast got to 60MPH in about 6 seconds, which was absolutely nuts by the standards of 1993. The interior was beautiful – classic Audi, before they went all carbon fiber and aluminum with everything. It was like riding in an old Gulfstream jet. The 5-speed transmission shifted beautifully – but demanded finesse with each throw to ensure smoothness.

That car also gave me the scare of my life about 2 months after I bought it, when a control arm bushing basically exploded going down the 405 freeway at 70MPH in traffic. But, it got fixed, and I kept driving it. The blower motor for the A/C warbled incessantly. The rear shock mounts needed to be replaced. The clutch (original – at 217,000 miles) was heavier than Rosie O’Donnell after a night at Hometown Buffet. The paint was peeling off the drivers’ side C-pillar, and the rear bumper valance. But I loved that car. It had undeniable character, and it was tough as nails. Pretty good-looking, too. Evergreen with a beige leather interior and carbon fiber inserts. I still miss it – but I know it found a good home.

Eventually, the clutch started slipping once in a while, and the rear shock mounts got annoying, and the engine developed a slight clattering. I sold it, and bought the car I drive now – a ’92 Mercedes 190E 2.6. It’s not fast, it’s not sporty, and it’s not particularly pretty. But it’s a classy, pre-build quality catastrophe Mercedes, and I love it to death. It rides smooth, the straight six glides gracefully forward, and the interior is pure elegance. It was also a total steal, which in Mercedes speak means I’ve put twice into fixing it what I paid for it. It’s pretty cherry for a ’92, and I plan on keeping it that way as long as possible.

It’s hard to describe the connection I feel with the car I drive. I like that older cars have a temperament. My Merc sometimes takes 3 or 4 seconds to crank. Sometimes it turns over instantly. The A/C doesn’t work, and the door lock mechanism on the driver’s side is near failure. The transmission is an absolute slammer before it’s warmed up, and the engine will probably need a top-end rebuild well before I sell it – after all, it’s approaching 200,000 miles.

But it’s so… organic. I hate that word, but it perfectly describes the feeling I get when I hop in my 190. I can feel the road coming through the wheel in my hands. The engine’s direct fuel injection is slow to respond, but purely mechanical in its relation to my depression of the ridiculously heavy accelerator. The 4-speed slushbox shifts slowly, but is more predictable than a Jeff Foxworthy routine. The brakes overheat (I admit, I put Hawk HPS pads on them – the stock ones are softer than French cheese), the engine needs auxiliary fan cooling most of the time, and it really could do with a new windshield, but I don’t care in the slightest.

When I cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu with the windows down, it just doesn’t matter that a new Ford Fiesta would probably have a lower cost of ownership, or be faster through the canyons. This is better. This is… real. I don’t know how else to say it. If I could spend every night driving down the coast in an old German car, I’d be happy as a clam.

Better start saving for that old 911.

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