Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Meeting Your Heroes


At fifty-three years of age few things make me 'giddy'. Yet here I was riding the Metro into Washington, D.C. to come face to face with an inanimate object that I regarded as a celebrity. My wife and I had driven S197 down from Pennsylvania then boarded the Metro train into the city itself, not wanting to deal with the generally horrid parking situation of the nation's capital. We got off at the National Mall where Bullitt was reportedly on display in a glass case. After climbing the stairs I looked around, not at all sure where exactly Bullitt might be. I had not felt this sort of excitement and anticipation for years.
After some confused wandering I finally caught sight of the display hosted by The Historic Vehicle Association. The exhibit itself was simple but impressive:  a lovely glass display case with the story of the car on placards around the base plus a few kiosk towers with additional information. The arrangement was honestly superior to seeing the car in a museum setting as you could completely circle it and even peer underneath. I later saw photos of the display case lit up at night and it was truly a beautiful sight. Only the reflective nature of the glass detrimentally affecting photography was a negative.
I was a single foot away from the exact same car I had watched countless times on television and computer screens. A car once driven by a man who loved cars, motorcycles and racing as much as I did. Before me was a time capsule you could drive that would take you back to San Francisco in 1968. I was glad we had arrived fairly early in the day and few people surrounded the exhibit so I was able to get a good look.
Bullitt was no spring chicken. The paint patina showed the harsh reality of time a bit more than perhaps photos depict. There were far more dents than I expected and a few rust holes. The headliner was missing. The replaced front bumper, valance and fuel tank looked notably out of place. Bullitt exhibited the wear of several decades but still remained muscular and imposing. The gaping mouth of the grille still looked determined. "Give me another Charger to chase," it seemed to say.
Old Mustangs generally do not age well. They are made of rust-prone metal and economy car parts that were never meant to last more than ten or fifteen years at best. Bullitt did not escape the predictable effects of FoMoCo's cost controls. Despite this the car still retains it's presence. You can almost feel McQueen nearby, watching over it.
I circled the car many times that morning. We spent the day visiting some sights in the capital and then returned for a final look at Bullitt before heading home. I wanted to savor it as much in person as I could for there is no assurance we may ever meet again. Dozens of people wandered past as I stared. Many did not know Bullitt the movie but nodded half-knowingly when they saw it was in a Steve McQueen film. A few onlookers I overheard spouting nonsensical 'facts' about the car to impress those they were with. I also had conversations with two other men who were probably my age or slightly older. We all knew the car, the movie and what it meant. We shared our knowledge and admiration in reverent tones and nodded solemnly while staring at the object on the other side of the glass. For a handful of us we had finally met a childhood hero.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Bullitt Mustang and Why It Matters


Growing up car obsessed I made it a point to watch every car movie I found out about. This was not so easy back in the 1970s before streaming video, cable channels, DVDs or even VHS tapes. The only way to see films during that period was in the theater when they were released or on late night television. During a discussion with some adult friends about movies with cars I was told I had to see Bullitt. I'd never heard of it, probably because it was released when I was all of four years old. Luckily, not long after being told about it I found it playing on television. I sat through quite a bit of a detective story featuring an actor I'd heard of but knew little about: Steve McQueen. Finally, McQueen gets into his 1968 Mustang fastback and is followed by two thugs in a Dodge Charger. The next ten minutes changed my life.

Much has been written about the chase through San Francisco and how it set the standard for nearly every car chase that followed. I won't elaborate on it here. The most important thing to me was that from that point onward there would only ever be one pinnacle Mustang, a 1968 Highland Green fastback. Over the years I became a bit of an aficionado of car chase movies. I watched and re-watched them, studying the camera angles, the driving prowess and the mistakes. I read everything I could about the cars used and the stunt men who drove them. Naturally, I also had a curiosity to what happened to the original vehicles used in the production. Most often the cars were completely used up and scrapped or sometimes returned to the manufacturer who provided them. The Bullitt Mustangs (there were two), however, were something of a mystery. Nobody seemed to know for certain what their fate was, although somewhere I read a rumor that one existed in a barn in New Jersey. Oh, to be the guy who found that car!

In 2017 the carcass of the Bullitt stunt car was found in a Mexican junkyard. It returned to the U.S. where it was restored but having seen photos of the remains I oddly remained unexcited about it. The 'jump' car had been pretty badly damaged during filming and what remained was mostly a shell with a serial number. I was glad it had surfaced but was never particularly excited about it.

In January of this year I had a completely different reaction when the Bullitt 'hero' Mustang that had been in most of the beauty shots and driven by McQueen was brought into public view after remaining hidden for fifty years. The most incredible thing about the hero car was it had never been restored nor modified. After being exhaustively verified by multiple sources that proved it was THE Bullitt Mustang the car was shown to the world at the Detroit Auto Show. The incredible story of this car can be read here. The intoxicating blend of history, car movie icon and my love of unrestored original vehicles affected me like nothing else I can remember.

The Bullitt Mustang is more than just a car or a movie prop. I have unapologetically referred to it as The Most Famous Car In The World. No other single car in popular culture comes close. I don't count the 'Bandit' Trans Am or 'General Lee' Charger because they were not single cars (somewhere around 300 Chargers were used over the span of the Dukes Of Hazzard television show). There were only ever two Bullitt Mustangs, one of which barely existed before a massive restoration. The hero car was and is an icon. Anyone who knew anything about cars and car movies knew:  1968 Mustang Fastback, Highland Green, GT390, Torq Thrust wheels.

That this car had survived intact was both incredible and inspiring. It was almost as if here was a car that had proven you could cheat death in some way. I'm not sure how else to explain it. The tired patina of dull paint and oxidation is a direct timeline to the days of McQueen smoking the tires in front of the cameras. Bullitt the car is a time machine that takes us back to a different era with different heroes, a time when very daring men drove ill-handling cars at high speeds for no purpose other than to thrill a theater audience. The Historic Vehicle Association who authenticated Bullitt has the motto 'This Car Matters'. All of the cars they authenticate matter...but Bullitt matters to so many of us because it was a pop culture phenomenon.

The story I link to above is a fascinating one. Why it remained hidden for so long may be explained in the upcoming documentary film being done about the car. Many people have criticized the Kiernans for keeping the car secret for so many decades. Having read as much as I could about the car and the family that owned it I have become more understanding. Bob Kiernan--and now his son Sean--have been stewards of a colossal piece of American popular culture. They may not have done as we would have preferred but in the end I think they 'done good'. Sean Kiernan has promised to share the car with the world. That task comes with incredible responsibility. A lesser man would have taken the easy way out and put it on the block at Barrett-Jackson. The value of Bullitt? Certainly in the millions, and that can be a pretty terrifying thing for an average guy from Tennessee to cope with.

Bullitt is to be displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. next month. I will be there to see it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Poseur, or Righting a Wrong?


One of the things that always bothered me about my V6 Mustang was the single outlet exhaust. While the original six cylinder Mustangs had a solo exit it was partly due to the engine being an inline six instead of the common 'vee' configuration of today. Running duals with a straight six is possible but not terribly common. Making a set of twin outlets for a V6 is generally easier. For the S197 there are several companies that actually make conversions that bolt on with relative ease.

My desire for dual pipes was based solely on the aesthetic; I thought the single muffler and tailpipe simply made the car look unbalanced from the rear. Six cylinders or not, the car--a Mustang--simply should have twin pipes at the back. I had no delusions of a dual system increasing power by itself nor was I particularly interested in making it louder. The rather large displacement 4.0 does make a nice almost-but-not-quite V8 burble through much of the rev range. My worry was that a different system may make it sound less like an American small block and more like an Asian sports car.

Much like the pedestal spoiler I disliked so much the single muffler gnawed at me. Unlike the wing, I couldn't see it while I was in the car but I knew it was still back there looking wrong. The spoiler was an inexpensive fix; the pure vanity exhaust would set me back north of $650. The longer I had the car, the more I wanted to change it. Just as I was about to pull the trigger something unexpected happened.

I received an email from the parent company of American Muscle. They were seeking a 4.0 Mustang for an upcoming video that would compare three different exhausts. The lucky car owner would be able to pick one of the three to keep upon completion of the filming. With zero hope of being picked I filled out the application and emailed it back. I never, ever win anything.

The folks at American Muscle had apparently not been advised I was on some sort of eternal banned-from-winning list and chose my car to use. I was stunned, then ever-so-pleased. I spent hours scouring YouTube for sound clips of the various choices as I tried to make a selection. Arrangements were made, dates were set, changed, then finalized at last. I dropped off my car for three days that turned into a week and a half, though no fault of AM; the weather conspired to make filming outdoors difficult. I didn't mind as S197 is no longer used for anything but weekend fun. I wound up with a free Flowmaster system nicely installed on my car. Additionally, at some point it will be 'internet famous' when the video goes live on their channel. A win for everyone.

Sharing my good fortune with others on social media quickly resulted in the typical mild teasing to the expected 'shoulda just got a V8' commentary, some of the latter who seemed to think it was somewhat dishonest to put duals on a non-V8 Mustang. Sort of 'false advertising' was the likely rationale, or I was simply trying to make it something it is not.

At the risk of sounding defensive--or perhaps I actually am--my Mustang is hardly the only non-pony V6 car out there with dual outlet exhaust. It is commonplace for pedestrian sedans from Ford, Hyundai, Honda and many others to have twin exits protruding from beneath the rear bumper. Nobody questions it; in fact, I doubt most people even take notice. Though once a performance necessity the dual exit exhaust system has morphed into a styling cue available on numerous cars with no sporting pretensions. But, install duals on the 'lesser' pony car and its like those Joker memes from Batman--"Everyone loses their minds".

One must remind themselves on occasion that it is your car and the only person you need please is yourself, though I do take some pleasure in knowing the obsessive-compulsives that may follow me will no longer be bothered by the lopsided appearance of my Mustang's posterior.

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.