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?