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.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Platinum Perfection

Tinkering with my Mustang one day while trying out a new tool, I decided to remove a spark plug and check its condition. I was rather surprised to find them heavily worn. I removed the other five and found all of them to have extremely large gaps, indicating they were near the end of their useful life. As the car had nearly 90,000 miles on the odometer I surmised that these were likely the original plugs. I obtained replacements and installed them but did not discern any appreciable improvement in how the car ran.

Such is the wonder of modern technology. Tired plugs like the ones I had removed from the Mustang's engine would have caused erratic running and poor economy in any number of older cars I had once owned. I was reminded of my 1979 Austin Mini and its point distributor that required regular fiddling to keep it properly functioning. Minor adjustments on older cars could reap noticeable rewards.
Today, computers control the functions of fuel and spark. Wear is compensated for automatically, as are fuel quality, air temperature and a host of other variables. The computer adapts and alters that which was once done by human hands and screwdrivers.

Exotica has also become commonplace as electronic devices have removed cantankerousness from complex designs. Dual overhead camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers and higher compression pistons are all commonplace as a result. The 4.0 V6 in my Mustang produces 210 horsepower, a figure the V8 in the original Mustang barely managed.

Carburetors have been excised for fuel injection systems. Gone are the days of pulling choke knobs or pumping gas pedals to prime a cold engine into action. Accelerators in many cases no longer are physically connected to the engine. Instead, they are activated by wires and switches.

All of this has made cars much easier to live with, though at the cost of complexity and price. However, we also lose some of what used to make cars more individual. Each car had its own set of idiosyncrasies and it was part of the ownership experience to conquer and adapt to these quirks. Cars today, thanks to their vast improvements, have become less unique.

I think this explains the continued interest in old cars for many of us, but I do wonder what the generations raised on drive-by-wire and electric power steering will fondly recall from their early days of driving. Will they build those same types of connections with their vehicles as we have?