Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Pitfall Of Refinement

I recently had the opportunity to ride a vintage 1970 Triumph Bonneville. I had been contemplating the purchase of a vintage motorcycle to give me something simple to tinker with. Old cars are easy to work on compared to modern ones but they also involve far more components than bikes. Cars have interiors, lots of painted surfaces, hundreds more parts and take up a whole lot of space. My desire to have and preserve something nearly as old as myself could easily be satisfied by a vintage motorcycle. The Bonneville was a logical choice:  I already owned a 2008 version, they are plentiful and staying within a brand that I owned several t-shirts for would keep wardrobe costs down.

I'd already spent time on a BSA Lightning and Norton Commando so my first ride on the vintage Bonneville wasn't as shocking as it otherwise may have been. The most notable difference between vintage and modern is the level of Noise, Vibration and Harshness, or NVH. The vintage bike has a lot of vibration compared to the modern machines. Vibration on a motorcycle can be terribly fatiguing as it will travel through the handlebars, seat and foot pegs into your body. Some vibration can actually be pleasant; I found the staccato beats through the seat had an almost massage-like quality. Generally, however, less is better. Beyond NVH concerns I found the old drum brakes better than expected, shift feel competent and handling near equal to my 'modern' 2008 model. The bike had a heavy, solid feel to it that didn't suggest it was portly (it actually weighs much less than my '08) but rather that it was put together with stout materials. Overall it was better than I expected in some ways...yet a disappointment in others. I spent an entire weekend astride the old Brit and contemplated many times whether it was a bike I was passionate enough about to undertake ownership. I had to reluctantly admit that, while it was a fun experience, the vintage Triumph didn't fill me with a feeling of "Yes, I have to get one of these". Oddly, I did get that feeling from the similar vintage Norton Commando I rode previously. Though a more difficult machine to keep running properly, the Norton remains on that list of Things To Consider. Perhaps a topic for a later entry, I'll just say now that the Norton has all of the NVH shortcomings of the Triumph but brings with it other sounds, sensations and a level of interaction that pushes you to think of the 'negatives' as more of an experience than something to be tolerated. The Triumph has some of that but not enough to drive it over the hump from 'tolerable' to 'charming character'. This 'feeling' is very personal and infinitely variable between individuals and should not be taken as a 'slam' against the Triumph.

The simple fact is that I vastly prefer riding my 2008 Bonneville over the 1970 version. Though it shares a very similar appearance the bikes are completely different. Modern engineering, machining and materials come together to make a motorcycle that is smoother, more powerful and more reliable than its predecessor. Has it lost much of the 'charm' of the original? Purists will think so. I would have argued that it is simply a better machine and welcomed the modern take on a classic design. However, there is now a new generation of the venerable Bonneville. With the addition of water cooling it represents another chapter in the evolution of a classic model. My air cooled Hinckley version represents leaps and bounds over the Meriden model I recently rode. How much further advanced could the water cooled model be?

I took a test ride on one at a dealer demonstration day. The new version is advanced as one would expect, with much improved suspension, better handling and brakes, smoother power delivery and other refinements. By any technical measure the new bike is an improvement over the one I have. In fact, I was reluctant to ride the new one for fear that I may feel compelled to trade mine in. Instead, I came away truly conflicted. While the new bike is 'better' the riding experience felt less involved. The machine was almost too smooth. While it was certainly the equal of many modern bikes that don't attempt to adhere to a classic look, in its pursuit of a broader market the new Bonneville has lost some of its character. It felt more homogenized. I rode my '08 home from the event completely baffled as to which I would choose should something happen to my current motorcycle. The very things that make the new bike better are also the things that make it less appealing.

I suppose each generation regards its version of a particular bike or car as the gold standard for all that preceded or follows. There may be no right answer for everyone as to what constitutes the correct mix of technical perfection and indefinable passion. As we stumble towards autonomous cars I wonder if we have lost so much character in our vehicles that we no longer care to drive them?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Clinging To Life

Prior to buying S197 I was driving the car pictured above, a Ford Focus I cared so little about I've forgotten the model year. For several decades I had been blessed/cursed with a company car for everyday use. When I was downsized I lost the free car. My interim employment required that I find something to drive very quickly. I already had inklings that a Mustang may be in my future but in the dead of a Pennsylvania winter with all of its salt and brine treatments I felt something sacrificial and temporary would be a better idea. Hence, the Focus.

The requirement were mostly a car that would be dependable, economical and have legal road inspection for about a year. If it exploded into a ball of fire at the onset of spring I likely wouldn't care. After a disappointing offer of what turned out to be a horribly rusted BMW E30 I began looking for something 'newer'. I found this Zetec powered, manual transmission Sony Edition Focus for sale for a whopping $1500. Second gear was extremely crunchy and it had over 200,000 miles on it but aside from some paint peeling off the front was in decent shape. I talked the seller down to $1100 and took it home.

The first generation Focus does not have a stellar reputation and I can kind of see why. It is truly a car built to a price. The interior is cheap, the window regulators regularly break (I replaced two), the electrical system  for the engine fans can have meltdowns (had to fix mine) and the cooling system is leak-prone (more later). However, the Zetec engine provided spunky power, fuel economy was stellar and overall the car served its purpose as an appliance. I did have to break out the tools several times, however, and my $1100 car quickly cost me a few hundred in the roughly year-long ownership period. The battery went kaput. A rear wheel bearing failed, which is part of the brake drum (cheap) but I was unable to get it apart myself so off to a shop it went. The cheap plastic cooling pipe across the front burst spectacularly (see prior blog entry about cheap plastic thermostat housings on 4.0 Mustangs; come on Ford!!). The radiator fans failed to work due to melted wire connectors which I lopped off and repaired. The aforementioned window regulators which die after generating some cringe-worthy crackling sounds. Oh, and the fuel gauge that decided one dark, cold night to stick on a quarter tank, causing me to run out of gas an hour from home.

Despite all of this, I came to respect the little brown turd. Here was a car that had been pretty much used up (roughly 260,000 miles, if memory serves). It was on the downward slide toward junkyard residency. With all of its foibles many owners would have set it afire and pushed it into a lake. I took several trips to local salvage yards and pieced it back together as inexpensively but effectively as possible. Aside from the wonky battery that gave ample warning in the coldest week of winter, the car always started and went. It did provide transportation, only failing when some ancient piece simply could no longer tolerate the stresses placed upon it. Though I got mad at it a few times I never came to loathe it. To the contrary, it actually earned my respect to some degree. It was as if it knew it were perched on the abyss of obsolescence but fought valiantly not to fall over the edge.

The now-fixed-up little Focus was replaced by the Mustang after about a year. I sold it privately with only a little difficulty (manual transmissions being a heavy deterrent in the marketplace, I've come to discover) for the same $1100 I paid for it. The buyer had some automotive knowledge and seemed sympathetic to the non-existent second gear syncro. I wouldn't be surprised if the little rat was still running somewhere today.

I've often pondered just how long I could get a car to last if I purchased it new and performed my usual diligent maintenance throughout the years. Unless rust takes hold or there is a serious design flaw in the mechanics, I believe most cars can continue to function reliably north of even 300,000 miles. The unfortunate fact is age, style, owner disinterest and dropping resale value conspire to push still-serviceable cars out to pasture. Even crappy little cars get tossed aside for 'new and improved' crappy little cars for often preventable reasons.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Of Cars And Bikes

When I started this blog I had not intended it to become solely about the Mustang. The concept of Motorosophy was to examine transportation devices with a philosophical bent. The Tungsten Gray pony provided a wonderful foundation upon which to examine a number of things but I do have other interests. While I have always been a rabid car enthusiast, in recent years I have become enamored with motorcycles.

On the surface they are both transportation devices but things quickly diverge. A motorcycle exposes you to the world while a car provides a cocoon for you to pass through it. There is little I enjoy more than the feeling of a tight car suspension generating g forces through a turn. You might expect that a two-wheeled bike would be even more thrilling. I suppose for some people it can be but in my sphere of observation they are actually two very different experiences.

Though I began my vehicular piloting at an early age with a mini bike and later a Honda Z-50 I was never particularly fascinated by motorbikes. The entire time I had the little machines I really wanted a go-kart with four wheels. Once I finally reached driving age cars took over and I paid little or no attention to anything with two wheels. The problem I had was that I didn't ever really understand motorcycles or what they offered. Decades later I inexplicably turned the corner in my thinking, purchased one to 'try' as an experiment, and never looked back. With quite a few miles under my tires it is still difficult to put into words just what it is about bikes that is so compelling. Riders will, however, nod in silent agreement as I attempt to relay the open feeling of being a part of the landscape I pass through. It is a unique feeling of freedom, combining the natural world with the sensation of speed. Operating a motorcycle is even more of a dance with the controls than in a manual transmission car, and thus more engaging. The brain needs to 'run in the background' more with a bike than with a car and because of this many of us find riding therapeutic. There is more to attend to and concentrate on while riding, yet most of it takes place in the background of the brain. It is an oddly cleansing experience mentally. I may return from a ride physically tired but mentally it is as if the cobwebs have been vacuumed from the corners. I'm not sure what other tasks in life offer the same cleansing feeling.

Choosing the right machine is a difficult task. The thing about bikes is they come in a variety of formats, each with capabilities and restrictions. Couple to this a frequent limited adjustability, and what I mean by this is that a bike needs to fit your physical self. You cannot typically move the seat, handlebars and pegs to suit your physique. There are aftermarket options of handlebars, seats, lowering kits and so on but they can be a frustrating hit-or-miss solution. The best route to happiness is to find a machine that fits you as it sits as well as one best suited to the tasks you intend to ask of it. Long distance touring will require different bikes than outright speed or dirt road capability. There is no single machine that will do it all well, though there are some that can do several things with a level of competence. The expensive truth is that with bikes you will need more than one to fully enjoy multiple styles of riding.

Much as I did with S197 I eventually settled on a motorcycle that has classic good looks coupled with modern reliability. Everything that drove me to a modern Mustang applied to my eventual purchase of a 2008 Triumph Bonneville. To my eye no other bike exhibits the look of what a motorcycle should look like as does a late 1960s Bonneville. It is the perfect machine just as a 1968 Mustang fastback is the quintessential muscle car. My 'modern' Triumph shares nothing with the original other than the silhouette but it also works flawlessly. With a few changes (exhaust, fork gaiters, tail lamp) I never tire of looking at it; it looks 'right'. Also like S197 I find it an absolute joy to ride. It handles decently, has adequate power and is surprisingly comfortable. If I were to have only one bike it would be this one, just as if I were limited to just one car it would be the Mustang. Both conveyances fit me perfectly, do what I need to do without being boring and continue to draw my eye. Another brilliant blending of the past with the best of the present day.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sum Of Its Parts

As I've mentioned in earlier blogs, S197 was purchased to be my car. It needed to perform the job of basic transportation while leaving high-performance entertainment to other vehicles in my stable. My background in racing includes autocross, hill climbs, TSD rallying, track days and finally true wheel-to-wheel racing on dedicated tracks. My vehicle of choice for the latter is a 1987 BMW 325i with a stripped interior, full roll cage and sticky tires. While immense fun it is also painfully expensive to compete in an amateur series devoid of sponsorship or prize money. After a few years of wallet draining joy I've begun to contemplate the future of my motorsport endeavors. In the meantime, I've taken up high performance driving instruction and helping those new to the sport safely learn to drive faster. I enjoy it immensely and it comes with the bonus of free track time at each event I instruct.

Mulling over the future of all things motorsports, I was curious about the Mustang. Would it be worth considering as a replacement if I decided to no longer campaign the BMW? I didn't expect much from the 4.0 V6, the street grade chassis or the reportedly unfit brakes. Due to a job change I once again had a company car; S197 was now relegated to backup status and was no longer a necessity for daily transport. With the last event of the year coming up in a typically cold month the idea of having a car with a functioning heater had some appeal. Curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered a set of Hawk brake pads, checked the tire pressures and drove to the track with very low expectations.

I went out in the morning for the first session on a very cold track simply concentrating on hitting my marks and paying particular attention to the much-maligned brakes. The stock exhaust on the Mustang was so quiet I had no idea what revs it was turning without furtive glances at the tachometer. After a few laps I was chuckling in my helmet; S197 was a surprisingly capable chariot. The stock suspension is of course quite floppy but once the weight takes a 'set' the car cornered admirably. The engine was surprisingly willing and propelled me down the front straight at Summit Point at its computer limited speed of 117 mph. The brakes with the decidedly non-stock pads hauled the car down respectably and with surprising confidence. The Pony liked to gallop. A suitable thumbs-up was given and photographed as seen above.

In the next session I took my student along to better help him learn some of the tricks of navigating the track. Going a bit quicker (but still being passed by nearly every other car save a few Miatas) I did find the T-5 transmission to be a recalcitrant beast preferring slower, smoother shifts to race level gear-grabbing. Other than that much fun was had...until things went wrong.

Entering turn 3 (a left-hander) I drove the same way I had driven all the previous laps, but right after entering the corner the rear end suddenly stepped out violently. I caught the slide, straightened but still needed to complete the turn so began again. Again the back end tried to swap places with the front. I caught it once more, reduced our speed significantly and both the student and I wondered aloud what had happened. It acted as if something had broken, yet the car drove perfectly fine. I elected to pit the car and terminate the session and as we coasted to the paddock steam began to erupt from around the edges of the hood.

"Well, that could be a problem," I uttered.

After investigation it was determined that ten years and 90,000 miles was the limit to what the plastic thermostat housing was willing to tolerate. The high RPMs the engine was turning on the track probably pushed a minor problem into a major leak, spraying slippery antifreeze under the hood and also the underside of the car. The slimy coolant then wound up on the rear tires and instant drama ensued. Research online confirms this is a failure prone part on the 4.0 and I'm presently awaiting the parts to perform the repair.

Unfortunate failure of a poorly engineered part aside, S197 nevertheless managed to impress me with its on-track capabilities. With proper preparation I could see this generation of Mustang being a real treat to drive on the track. My opinion was obviously shared by several others, as I saw over a half-dozen being used in that fashion the same weekend. My impression was not sullied by my student having a S550 Ecoboost model. A very impressive car in every way, it was certainly superior to the S197--as it should be. Yet the chasm was not nearly as great between the two as it was comparing my lowly V6 Pony to its predecessor, the Fox chassis Mustang. That chasm is truly vast. Once again I am awed and impressed by what the engineers achieved with America's favorite affordable pony car--sans the team who decided a heat welded two piece plastic thermostat housing was a good idea.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Faster Horse

Last night I watched the documentary "A Faster Horse", a film about the development of the S550 Mustang. It was very well done and did an excellent job of showing the human side of engineering a new car while also delving into the history of previous generations and the people involved. Of particular interest were several interviews with designers and corporate decision makers of the past coupled with S550 project manager Dave Pericak. What was particularly gratifying was that each and every one of them understood and were protective of the brand that is Mustang. They get it. They understand what it means to those of us who part with our money to be a part of what has become an automotive legend. Hau Thai-Tang, the Vietnamese immigrant who became the chief engineer of S197 recalled his first encounter with a Mustang in his native country when he was a boy. That car left such a deep impression on him that when he was tasked with S197 his goal was to create a car that generated that same reaction he had experienced.

He was successful, because I still automatically swivel my head to look at every single S197 Mustang I see. Every time, without fail. I can't help it.

Mustang has been close to death several times:  The aircraft carrier sized 71-73 models championed by Bunkie Knudsen. The lackluster monetarily successful Mustang II. The Fox Mustang that Ford clung to for too long nearly being replaced by the front wheel drive Probe (and only after tremendous public outcry when that plan leaked out). Still, Mustang has endured...for over fifty years. Mustang is to Ford what Corvette is to General Motors. It is a flagship brand that people aspire to, dream about and purchase with no regard to practicality. It is an emotional purchase, and those emotions are what makes them sell.

Pericak is the most recent in a line of chief engineers tasked with replacing an icon with a newer version. Billions of dollars are at stake on any new vehicle but with Mustang the pressure is multiple times worse. It is a product you can't afford to screw up; if you do, your career will be over and pitchfork and torch wielding Mustang loyalists will hunt you for eternity. "A Faster Horse" was a rare and fascinating look inside this tenuous job and gave me tremendous appreciation for the people who are tasked with continuing a legacy.

Many people have asked me what I think of the S550 Mustang. The general public seems to find the car pretty polarizing. Some complain that it looks too Asian...or European. Others greet its departure from the 'retro' styling trend with joy. For myself, I find it to be a worthy successor. It hits all the proper marks while introducing a few new ideas to bring it into the modern world. I don't think you can mistake it for anything but a Mustang, and that is ultimately the idea. Do I think it looks better than S197? Well, no...but then I'm 52 as I write this and my ideas of Mustang perfection are probably far different than someone who grew up in the time of Fox-body Mustangs or who are just now entering driving age. The old adage "You'll never please all of the people all of the time" certainly applies to car design. S197 or S550? Too hard to choose. I'll have one of each, thanks.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

One Year Later

It has been roughly a year and a week since S197 entered my driveway. The anniversary of our meeting sneaked past while I wasn't paying attention. I had hoped to write about the passing of the one year milestone of the day of, but alas...

The Mustang soldiers on with little drama. I've bought it new tires (much needed), survived a hail storm with only a few dents (since rectified), attempted multiple fixes for the peeling leather on the door panels (with partial success) and changed the oil a few times. The car remains quiet, spunky and as much fun to drive as the day I pried it from the previous owner. Though I occasionally daydream of the newer S550 as a distant future possibility, the fact is I have very little interest in any other new or newer vehicle. This car suits my tastes so well for everyday transport I see no reason for replacing it.

The car is not perfect, of course. It would be disingenuous for me to only praise its joys and not address any shortcomings. So, in the interest of fairness I will mention some things that do occasionally irritate our generally flowery relationship. One:  the steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. I find the distance arrangement for my legs versus my arms to be less than stellar. Two:  there is no inside trunk release. It is either the key (never in my hand when it needs to be) or the button on the keyless remote (see previous note on key). A simple button or cable pull would easily solve this. Three:  the single rear exhaust. It just looks wrong. A Mustang needs dual exhaust outlets, even if it is a V6. The lack of symmetry is just wrong. Four:  the seat brackets where they mount to the floor are rusty. I plan on pulling the seats out and repainting them but why does every S197 seem to suffer from this? And of course, Five:  the recalcitrant door trim panels that seem impervious to adhesion to any kind of commercial glue product. They are my nemesis. I remain determined to prevail.

The 4.0 engine delivers the necessary propulsion to keep the car from being less than competent. I actually quite like the engine and its every day characteristics. Yes, on occasion I do pine for the V8 but I find it is mostly for two reasons:  the aural stimulation that only a V8 can provide and the additional street cred/resale value associated with it. Part of the problem is that the subsequent V6 makes as much power as the 4.6 V8 I could have had in my S197. The 210 hp of the 4.0 is not regretful but when you consider that only a few short years later a hundred more were on tap in the "pedestrian" V6 you sort of feel like you missed the boat. A Coyote 5.0 V8? Fuggeddaboutit!

Regrets? No. As stated, I am quite happy with my S197. Probably because my last year has been so pleasing is the only reason I consider what a faster, more powerful version might be like. But where does it stop? 300 hp V6? Coyote 5.0? Shelby GT500? That is a slippery slope to begin traveling down. 

Sigh. If only I could have one of each.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


I'm obsessive about hand-washing my cars. I don't mean that my cars must be antiseptically dirt-free at all times (they certainly aren't) but that anything automated doesn't do as good of a job. I've tried any number of mechanized, pressurized dirt removal solutions over the years and have never come away particularly impressed. Thus the task befalls myself, a hose and a bucket of suds.

Caressing the car with a soapy sponge brings with it a closeness. Certainly we could agree that diving into the internals of an engine would be somewhat intimate. I also find that the act of washing by hand allows me a perspective on the car's design elements that might otherwise be overlooked. As enamored as I am by the styling of S197 there are many subtleties that I had not noticed. I know the 'hockey stick' side scallop is there but until I clean the accumulated dirt from it I don't really notice it. The arc of the door glass that so closely mimics the original Mustang never was obvious until I swiped my hand along it. The honeycomb mesh and the rounded corners of the grille and the detail of the running pony are additional things my touch revealed to my eye. Driving S197 through an automated spray of soap and water would never have revealed these things to me. I may possibly have driven the car for years and never appreciated many of the individual styling cues that add up to the sum of its greatness.

This is yet another way in which the true car guys and gals are separated from the general populace. The bulk of car owners will use their vehicles, most happy enough that the styling as a whole is inoffensive. A small portion will see their choice of vehicle as attractive. A very limited portion will view their ride as a thing of beauty, pleased that in a sea of mediocrity they were able to find something that grabbed their attention with a passionate stranglehold.