Monday, August 14, 2017

Uncompetence


I've spent the bulk of my working life in the automotive industry. Though I mostly push paper at work I do have a practical ability at auto mechanics. This acquired skill allows me to work on my own vehicles to save money but also as a means of pleasure. Well, most of the time. Generally I do like working on machines and find the completion of a job well done very rewarding.

I had noted in a prior entry that the Mustang was once involved in a rear end collision. The longer I have owned it the more little things I have found that indicate the repairs were not done with much sense of care. The most blatant example is illustrated above. Neither rear side marker lamp functioned when I bought the car. A pair of burned out bulbs, perhaps? Ford didn't perform their usual brilliance with the design of these lights as you have to remove two screws on each end of the bumper (nearly impossible with the rear wheels on) and then unclip the bumper from the sides of the body. Only then can you access the sockets and bulbs. Except in my case there were none. Well, they were there...dangling down between the bodywork and the bumper because whoever installed the bumper never bothered to plug in the lights. Not only did the technician fail to do his job properly but the wash bay nor (apparently) the person in charge of quality control bothered to check the lights and make sure they functioned. I've worked in the auto body repair business and checking the lights before delivery is Auto Body 101. This isn't just incompetence -- the inability to do something properly -- this I term 'uncompentence'. Uncompetence is the unwillingness to be bothered to even try to do your job correctly. Coupled with the clearly improper rear trunk panel fasteners and the marred clear coat on the right side, the lamp issue is just the cherry on top. The work was performed by a Ford dealership shop which one would think would be holding itself to a higher standard.

Except I find that usually they do not. Having worked for both new car franchises and independent auto body facilities I can tell you there is often a big difference between the two. The big dealer shop is populated by employees in every capacity, all just there to collect a paycheck and go home at the end of the day. The independent shop, particularly if it has an individual's name on the building, will more often  have its daily operations run by the person whose name appears on the marquee. It is not only their means of making a living but their reputation at stake. Because of this, I believe they are more engaged in the business, demand more from their people and ultimately provide superior service to their clientele. Jeff's Mustang at a dealer shop is merely another addition to the bottom line of a large organization. Had Jeff taken his Mustang to a small independent operation his insurance check would have been an important part of that owner's weekly income.

I won't be so arrogant as to lump all dealer shops or independents into simplistic 'good' or 'bad' categories but I do believe that one type of establishment is far more likely to catch the unplugged light socket than the other.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Pony Car or Muscle Car? aka: Staying True to One's Roots


I recently became a member of the Mustang 6 Association. My love of all things Mustang was frequently tempered by the derision many Mustang 'enthusiasts' express toward the non-V8 models. Owning a six cylinder Mustang and regarding it as something more than just transportation makes me a bit of a freak...or so I thought. Imagine my delight in finding a group of people who are pleasantly fanatical about their cars despite a limited ability to lay long patches of burnt rubber. The Mustang 6 people get the idea that a fun, attractive and capable car need not be some internal combustion powered testosterone replacement. They see -- as I do -- the practical merits of the everyday, entry-level pony car.

As I have frequently contemplated the disconnect between the V8 crowd and the others I have tried to put my finger on just why there is such a chasm. I think a great deal of it has to do with few people remembering the origins and purpose of the original Mustang. When the model debuted in mid-1964 the Mustang was an affordable four-seat car that just happened to have tremendously exciting styling. It was designed to look exotic, fast and sporty but certainly fooled no one into believing it was some sort of sports car. Chevrolet's Corvair was arguably superior in that regard. What Mustang did was bring a crossover of sorts to mainstream automobiles. It combined European sporty looks with American practicality. An average car buyer who loved the look of a Ferrari but could never afford one was now able to partake of something similar instead of resigning himself to a dowdy sedan. 1.3 million sales in the first three years prove that it was a winning formula and generated several copycats (Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda, Javelin) as well as a new automotive term:  Pony Cars.

What far too many enthusiasts fail to grasp is that the Mustang did not start out as a 'muscle car'. That is more accurately ascribed to the Pontiac GTO, the first real example of putting a high horsepower engine in a fairly lightweight car. Mustang had the look but the stodgy, sharp-edged Pontiac had the punch. The success of the GTO coupled with a general horsepower race throughout the 1960s turned Pony Cars into Muscle Cars. As the ponies received ever-larger muscles the association of Mustang with performance became synonymous. Today, it is simply assumed a Mustang is a performance car and that the entry-level V6 (or Ecoboost four) is a necessary evil to generate additional sales and CAFE mileage numbers. While these impressions do carry some truth, the fact is that the less-than-V8 Mustangs are true to the roots of the brand. Ford sold a whole lot of 120hp six cylinder Mustangs in the mid-sixties...and buyers were perfectly happy with them. I'm perfectly happy with my 2006 six cylinder Mustang. Even the 'new edge' V6 I had on loan for a few days wasn't horrible; in fact, I was surprised at how much better it was than I expected.

As a car enthusiast I would never argue that more power is a bad thing, but I also know that sometimes enough is, well, enough.

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.