A SHORT HISTORY OF (MY) CARS
We humans have been on this planet for some 200,000+ years and only recently rose out of ignorance or superstition (some of us anyway) to allow technology to improve our quality-of-life immeasurably over the estimated ONE HUNDRED BILLION humans that have preceded us.
How lucky is it to have been born in the Mid-Century America? From a historical perspective, we all won the lottery.
One of the luxuries of the early 20th century was the development of the automobile. Any time before that, people had to rely on some poor hapless animal or, if you were rich enough, slaves would carry you around in a Sedan Chair.
I wanted to document the amazing journey I've experienced with cars within a 60 year timeframe. This blog chronicles all the cars I have owned even before I had a driver's license. One thing that surprised me was how many cars I have owned and how each one has some kind of a story.
1954: Growing up in Kansas City, my first car was a 1931 Model A Ford I bought from my Lawn Mowing service revenue, something like 45 bucks. It was nothing if not a Death Wish Suicide Machine with its woefully inadequate mechanical brakes and the gravity-fed gasoline tank perched right above my knees. The dashboard Gas Gauge was some kind of a Rotary Float indicator plugged directly INTO the Gas Tank...yeah, the same one that was right above my knees.
The parking brake was a right-hand pull lever. But there was a reason they called it the “emergency brake” because that was the only way to lock up the rear wheels…which, I must say, saved my BUTT more than once. It's only by luck that I didn't get seriously fuck myself up, or worse. But I loved tinkering with it. I even hacksawed off the muffler because...NOISE! The theory is: if you can't go fast, at least you can make a big racket. Why the neighbors didn't complain is a total mystery to this day.
One time I was just clattering along a side street close to home when something in the engine went horribly wrong. No need for a Check Engine light…because it was goddamn obvious I needed to check the engine. Which was literally broken! Good thing I had Roadside Assistance...that is, my friend Dick Patterson, who came over to help me push it home.
We found out that a piston had shattered and jammed the entire engine! Damn, did I forget the Extended Warranty? Hell, I didn't even have a fucking Driver's License! Anyway, Dick and I went to the local Junk Yard to get a piston (do you want rings with that? said the dickwad behind the counter) We dropped the oil pan, and R&R'd the whole thing in an afternoon. Everything went swimmingly. Back together with no parts left over…and IT FUCKING RAN! Praise Jesus! After that I got the head milled .040" (higher compression!) and ordered a Bolt-On Ford V8 "dual downdraft carburetors" from a JC Whitney catalogue. I don't think it made it any faster (thank god) but when I would down shift, it would shoot actual fire out of the hood louvers, which I thought was pretty BAD ASS.
1955: I sold the Model A for a PROFIT and upgraded to a ‘46 Ford Super Deluxe Business Coupe, a style also known as the "Turtleback" that managed to reliably get me to high school and back when I couldn't ride my bike. It was owned little old lady who had problems negotiating her garage's narrow side clearances and the side fenders were beat to shit. But I didn't care. It had a flathead V8, velour seating surfaces, and a trick radio with a foot-operated pre-set tuner. A year later, with no money in it, I sold it for a 300% return on my investment! (so...full disclosure: $50 to $150)
1958: The '46 Ford wasn't cutting it with the high school social scene for a geek like me, so I managed to score a black 1957 Chevy Bel-Air Convertible, my first Future Classic car. The first thing I did, of course, was to replace the lame stock exhaust with dual pipes and steel-pack mufflers. which everybody knew were better than Glass-Packs. And since it only had an AM radio I MacGyvered a Custom Sound System using an inverter running an Ampex Reel-to-Reel tape player in the trunk with speakers somewhere in the back. The only thing I didn’t like was the Power-Sucking Powerglide transmission. But at least the V8 engine sounded good and the car looked cool cruising Kansas City Drive-In scene. At some point I had it repainted by the World Famous Earl "Paint any car for $29.95" Scheib Paint & Body. It was a shit job, of course, looked like they painted it with a fucking whisk broom. But one of these in restored condition can go for $100k..but probably not if Scheib P&B had anything to do it.
1962: I enrolled in the Kansas University School of Engineering and managed to get accepted into all accelerated classes...but I wasn't sure engineering was a good fit for me long term. This was the slide rule/pocket protector generation. I was working part time and managed to talk my father into co-signing for a used 1959 Austin Healey 100-6 BN4 which didn't have the cool raked windscreen of the 100-4M but had one of the greatest engine sounds of any car. My roommate described it as sounding like a Precision Swiss Watch. It was totally impracticable of course and expensive to maintain There was a reason Lucas (Electric) was called Lucas Prince of Darkness! But all this suffering was In Service to the Knowledge that I was driving a REAL sports car, not one of those lame Thunderbirds with their ROLL UP windows! Everyone knew Real Sports Cars were hot in the summer, cold in the winter and a bitch to maintain. The freezing Kansas winters limited the starter motor to about two cranks before giving up. As a work-around, I kept a parking space where I could just roll down the hill and bump start it! Usually.
Once while driving along a nice straight road on a perfect spring day...one of the wire wheels just suddenly collapsed! with a sickening crunching sound! Had to be towed to a goddamn WheelSmith. No one had ever told me the spokes had to be "maintained and tuned” WTF?
Another indispensable tool to carry in the back seat was a copper head Wire Wheel hammer. NOT to tighten the wheels, although that might have been a wise thing to do periodically, now that I think about it. No, it was to REBOOT the electric fuel pump. Whenever the contact points would stick, the pump would go into fibrillation and the engine would start to sputter. I could lift up the rear seat access panel, while still in motion, give it a sharp RAP and...I would hear rapid clicking, then it would go back to a nice metronomic Sinus Rhythm.
But those aggravations were nothing compared to the FUN of driving with the wind in my hair and the sun at my back...like the time I was on the Kansas Turnpike early one morning and passed a Highway Patrol car, not speeding of course...at least until I put the first hill between us. What I DIDN"T know was that Smokey started his stopwatch as soon as I passed him. Thirteen miles later I was detained at the toll gate and cited for averaging 95 mph! I had to follow the KHP to a Justice of the Peace's HOME, which seemed a little weird. The Justice came to the door in his bathrobe. the whole thing was surreal...
1964: Honestly I was just plain lucky to have survived the Healey Experience in one piece. A friend of mine at KU had a Triumph TR2 and got hit HEAD-ON by a Big Rig late at night, in the rain. His body ripped the seat belt off and he was ejected through the canvas top. He was later found up in a tree 50 feet away but somehow survived. I saw him months later with lots of scars and a hell of a story. He said he saw the wrecked car afterwards. It had zero clearance between the floorboard and the dash, you know, where his legs would have been. That was a wakeup call that I needed to Get a Bigger Boat. Besides, I was graduating and planning to get married and needed a vehicle that would carry something more than a spare tire. I got a black-over-red '62 Chevy convertible with the standard-issue anemic V8. I think it was someone's lease return. It was an ok car, but cheaply made and had none of the '57's Charm and Charisma.
1965: Suzi and I were living in a garage apartment surrounded by perfumed Lilac bushes on a big estate in the Lake Forest where I had my first design job. It was a beautiful and wealthy suburb along Chicago's North Shore. Although we were both working, times were pretty tight. The Chevy's differential bearings were starting to howl and we thought we needed something more to fit our plebian lifestyle. Vee-Dubs, as they were affectionately known, were all the rage, with their German fit and finish and seemed to make sense in a left-brain kind of way. So I got my first NEW CAR, a 1965 Blue Beetle! You could tell it was a '65 because the rear license plate light had a BEVEL! But...not the best choice for the North Shore's brutal winters, as we were rudely about to find out. Because the heater output was directly proportional to the engine speed, (don't ask why) the only way to get enough heater action was to keep the RPMs absurdly high, defeating the whole economy thing. Besides that, it was dangerously slow, annoyingly noisy and boringly boring. Suzi said it was "like driving a lawn mower". Done. Lesson learned.
Six months later it was gone.
1966: We traded in the Lawn Mower in for a slightly used 1965 White Mustang Convertible, 3-speed stick V8 and a Rally-Pack. This was more like it. The next Future Classic. It looked good, was pretty fast, fun to drive, even though it was just a different sheet Metal bolted to a Falcon Chassis. Although it was almost new, it was not without its problems. First the throw-out bearing went bad, and then lots of other little shit started happening.
But the KICKER happened one freezing winter morning in Lake Forest, when I got in the car to go to work: I turned the ignition key...first there was a crackling sound…then acrid smoke started billowing up from underneath the dash. I turned the key off but the engine kept running! The ignition switch had shorted and welded itself in the ON position! So it would still GO...IT WAS JUST ON FIRE! Luckily the Ford Dealer was close by in what seemed like the longest mile ever driven. Adrenalin pumping, I came screeching into the Service Ramp HAIR-ON-FIRE!
I think they knew something was wrong. That and all the smoke. I popped the hood and a mechanic quickly ripped the battery cable off but…it was TOO LATE: the entire goddamn wiring loom was fried! This type of loom had a dedicated wire going to each function and there were hundreds of them. They should have totaled the whole fucking car. But...lucky for me I had ONE MONTH left on the Factory Warranty. It took them TWO weeks to fix it. I finally picked it up but before I got the car home it was obvious that some things were messed up. For example, when I would shift into reverse, the radio would turn off. Things like that. I would take it back, and then something else wouldn’t work. It took four return visits to the dealer to get everything working. By then, the Service Manager hated my guts, and he definitely knew my name. He would snarl...YOU again Wilson? So much for Friendly Customer Service.
A short time after that, we were at a neighborhood party and I let a friend use the Mustang to get some more...adult beverages? It did not go well. I saw the car later in the wreckage yard and there was hardly a salvageable piece on it. Maybe this car was not meant to be. It was obviously Cursed from Day One. RIP.
1967: It turns out there was a another Ford in my Future...a new '67 Mustang fastback GT just like the one Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullet, OK, not Exactly like it. It was silver, not green, and...it was Ford-O-Matic, a concession to city driving. One of the factory options I got was a ribbed die-cast rear trim panel that covered over the chrome tail light bezels. It was a cool detail. I have yet to see another Mustang with this option. It also had a Lear 8-Track tape player that sounded great except when it was cold...and then it sounded like someone pulling the tape thru a jar of molasses. The car had these great-looking Wide Tires but no power steering. I guess I forgot that option. It was a beast to parallel park, which was every day with our Evanston apartment street-only parking.
PRO TIP: Next time get power steering.
Bottom Line: Classic looks. A clunker to drive.
1971: About this time, I became interested in Volvo sedans. People were really talking them up. My sister had one. A co-worker had the wagon. They were made in Sweden for Christ's sake. If they can survive there, surviving in Chicago should be a Piece of Baklava, right? So we got this NEW dark blue '71 142E. When we went into the bank to get a loan, I distinctively remember the bank officer saying:
“I don’t know why so many people are buying these things. They aren’t made of gold” I should have cut my losses right there. But no. We had a road trip planned to San Francisco and one of our neighbors had a similar trip planned so we decided to caravan out together, right? Vito was an Art Director for Playboy Magazine and had a gorgeous new Pontiac Firebird V8. His girlfriend wasn't bad either. On the way out, I remember looking down at him with his sleek yellow sports car from my Tall Volvo 4-banger...and feeling like I had just aged 40 years. The road trip occurrences just added to the confirmation bias. Like I'm driving across the Nevada desert with no speed limit, right? Pegged out at 94 mph. Of course, the Vito and the Firebird and leggy girlfriend were long gone. Then...I heard a LOUD NOISE...and the goddamn muffler actually FELL OFF and could be seen spinning off road into the desert. WTF? After that was fixed...in Sparks Fucking Nevada, there was a problem with the radiator and then was something else...So yeah, these things were NOT made out of gold. Five thousand miles into it, I was out of it and done with the Volvo Myth. Maybe there's something about cars that start with a V?
1972: Enough with apartments and on-street parking and Tall Volvos. We just bought out first house in Glenview, Illinois after my employer, Mel Boldt and Associates, moved from the Playboy Building in downtown Chicago to the western suburb of Mount Prospect. Time to shift gears. I had always wanted a '67 Pontiac GTO and I spotted a forest green beauty at a car lot in Evanston. I told the sales person to hold it for a week until could sell my Mustang. He said, "sure kid" Doh! Now, scrambling to find ANY car, I ended up with a '68 Oldsmobile 442, the closest thing to a GTO I could find on short notice. It was smooth and fast and guzzled gas like there was no tomorrow. All the controls were vacuum actuated so, when any button was pushed you would get this "ppsssst" cool vacuum sound, at least until the vacuum hose broke.
Since we were now living in the sticks away from public transportation, we needed TWO cars. I ended up getting a 69 BRG 1968 MGB-GT. It was a fun car until one day, at a stop light in Glenview, a giant Semi pulled up just behind me. I guess I was a little slow getting off the line because…when the light turned green, the Big Rig plowed into the back of me, and then rammed me again on the rebound! The hapless driver jumped out and said..."I didn't even SEE that little shit car" Apparently, he couldn't see me over his giant Peterbilt Hood and had simply forgotten I was there...but the MG and the Olds were destined for better climes...
1972: I landed my dream job working for Ampex Consumer Products in Elk Grove, Ill. Six months later the entire division was shut down and I was shit-out-of-a-job. Luckily I landed another job at Motorola New Ventures, a kind of elite 20-person entrepreneurial think tank. BUT, a year later, the whole experiment cratered when the Division VP quit and took all of the key staff to Ohio. I was invited, but no freaking way was I going to Ohio but, just when I had to make a decision, I got an offer from Ampex Corporation headquarters in Redwood City, California 😊
Getting out of the Midwest had been a lifelong goal of mine and Northern California was at the top of the list. We sold our Glenview house by ourselves for asking price to the first person on the first day! Yes, those were definitely simpler times. As a nod to symmetry, we bought our first California House in Portola Valley on the first day for asking price. The offer was signed on the hood of the broker’s car in 1973.
One of my rewards I had set up for myself for the California move was to get another Austin Healey. After all, it would be a lot more fun with California’s year-round climate, right? I found a fairly rare 2-seater silver-blue ’61 3000 Mark I from some dude in Marin County. It looked and sounded great, just like I had remembered the 100-6 I had in college...at least until the first time I changed the oil. Then, it didn’t sound so great. The dude must have put bananas in the crankcase because it sounded like a a bunch of bolts rattling around in a metal bucket. But this was no model A. Oh well, I wanted a project car anyway, right? It took over a year but, with help, I rebuilt the entire engine to Mark III specs @ 150 HP and did a "driver" restoration on the rest of it. It was fun for a while but, after the experience of actually doing it, honestly, I never wanted to open a goddamn hood again.
After driving it for six months, I put an ad in Road and Track's national magazine. Some guy from Oklahoma contacted me, said he was out here on a business trip and could he come look at the car? It was a idyllic spring day, top down, and we were driving around the hills of Portola Valley. Everything was going swimmingly until he said, ok let’s put the top up and do it again.
He was...tall, 6’-4” tall. I thought, OK, let's just forget it. Austin-Healeys have a lot of leg room but not much head room with the top up. But...by that time he was totally hooked and, frankly, it didn’t matter. He bought it for my $5k asking price, bungy-corded his suitcase under the boot and took off cross-country for...Tulsa, OK! Caveat Emptor Dude! It's British You Twit! That night I lay awake anticipating a call from somewhere like Sparks, Nevada telling me to come get this Limey POS. But he MADE IT! And, unlike MY experience in buying the car, several weeks later I got a letter from him describing just how much he was enjoying it. Carpe Diem Dude!
1975. The gas crisis had just hit and it was time to unload the Gas-Guzzling Beast. Although in hindsight it would have been cheaper just to keep it. We didn’t drive it that much. Anyway, decided on a new ’76 VW Rabbit, Giorgetto Guigaro’s design and VW's response to the Global Energy Crisis which offered a lightweight, practical hatchback. It was pretty quick, economical and fun to drive. Over time, however, all those new thin lightweight materials didn’t fare so well in the California sun. Most of the exterior and interior trim parts just discolored and warped.
But the interior was about to encounter other problems. Our dog Woodie was deathly afraid of any loud noises like firecrakers or the starting gun used at swim meets at nearby Ladera Oaks Swim & Tennis. On one 4th of July we decided to take Woodie with us to Stanford Shopping Center, so we could leave him in the car where he would feel safe. Don’t get ahead of me here. When we were finished and walking back to the car...my heart sank. All the windows were fogged up! Ruh Roh. Woodie had panicked over some noise, or who knows what, and trashed the whole fucking interior, chewing up the seats and even gnawed the dashboard! A little too late for No No Bad Dog.
1978 About this time I sold the MGBGT and got a used silver ’76 Datsun 280Z, the successor to the 240Z. This is before Datsun would use their Japanese name, Nissan. In case they failed in the US, it would not sully the Nissan name and they would not have to fall on their swords.
It was a straight six, 150 hp, the same as my rebuilt Austin Healey had. It was a solid car but, once again, no power steering. Will I NEVER learn? But at least I didn’t need to parallel park every day so maybe not such a big deal. It was a good car and set up Nissan for the Next Big Thing.
1985. After six years of awesomeness, I put the Z-Car up for sale at $6,000. An interested couple came to the Balsamina house and made a less than full price offer. I told them no. Two days later they called back and said they had reconsidered and wanted to give me the full asking price. Then I said Fuck No.
I decided to keep the car indefinitely. I had spent so much time cleaning it up, it looked pretty good! In the meantime, we got rid of the Rabbit, which was NOT looking so good, even the paint had sun damage and we got a new ‘85 Madza 626LX. One of our friends called it a Starship Cruiser, and it was, at least compared the Spartan Rabbit. It was about $11,000. It had power everything (including steering!) four doors, comfortable seats and a big hatchback. It had a well-finished interior and a great sound system. And what did it have to power all this? A 2.0 liter 84 HP 4-banger. To be fair, though, the US was still in the Oil Crisis so…just doing our part :-)
In 1987 we took it up to Tahoe to go skiing and, going up the mountains at altitude with four people, it was doing good to break 30 MPH. But it was a good way to better enjoy the scenery if you didn't mind how many cars were passing on the left...or flashing their brights from behind.
I needed a "I've only got 84 hp but I'm ahead of you" bumper sticker. At least it was faster than the ’65 VW BUG.
Now here comes the disturbing part. Suzi came home from work one summer day and temporarily parked in the street because the Z was blocking the garage. Our house was at the end of a cul-de-sac that had an island turn-around with about a six-foot elevation change (seen here). She parked at the upper level. OK, now you’re getting ahead of me…an hour or so later I came out to move it and the car was at the lower level! I remember thinking WTF, that’s not a place to park. On closer inspection, the car looked...a bit disheveled. Then the scenario became obvious…she had forgotten to put it in PARK, or even put the parking brake on, and it had slowly rolled backwards and then plopped over the six-foot ledge, ass end first. The whole monocoque frame was tweaked so that almost every body part was just a little bit OFF. The doors, the rear hatch, the sunroof, the hood…everything was noticeably kinked. When we took it around to body shops, the first question was “whoa…what the fuck happened here” The second question…you know this is not worth fixing, right?”
1983 it was finally time to sell the Z for good. I bit the bullet and got a 1982 Porsche 911 SC, yet another Future Classic. I bought it off the lot at Carlson Porsche-Audi in Palo Alto, very close to where I was working. It had 25,000 miles on it and looked and felt totally solid. But just to be sure, I got a 3rd party Extended Warranty through the dealer.
But it didn't even take a week before things started to go all pear-shaped.
I was driving through the backroads of Woodside, going through the gears and listening to all the cool mechanical sounds when…WHAM!. I heard a noise that was NOT so cool…and suddenly I was locked into second gear. The stick shifter was stuck. WTF? So I limped it home in 2nd gear having to endure onlookers giving me the stink eye...like, just another one of those Porsche Pricks. The next day the indignity was even greater, as it was summarily TOWED AWAY witnessed by all my neighbors...
I went back to Carlson the next day to hear what they had to say and...I am not making this up; the mechanic came out with a puzzled look. I noted his name Dieter embroidered on his pressed White Lab coat. He got right to it; obviously it was my fault... “Vell, ver you over-revving za cah? No Dieter, I wasn’t over-revving ZA CAH. So he went on like it was a Complete Mystery how the clutch just EXPLODED jamming the whole transmission. Just a total fucking mystery. I did a little research and IT WAS WIDELY KNOWN AUTOMOTIVE FACT that ALL 911 SCs since 1978 had clutches that would predictably and catastrophically fail at around 25,000 miles…because the rubber over-molding would fatigue, FLY APART, and jam the gears with chunks of hard rubber, a design defect that the factory had yet to owned up to.
But…no worries, extended warranty, right?
I called the insurance company to make a claim. This was before YELP or the internet so you could get away with murder. They were stonewalling the whole thing. Didn't you READ the contract? My fault again. This went on for a while until we finally settled by having the Porsche Factory pay for the parts (yet another rubber clutch) and I would pay for the labor which was…guess what? expensive! Hey, it’s a Porsche, right? It's a high maintenance mistress, didn't anyone tell you that? My bad. This was only the beginning of a series of malfunctions and things that should not have happened on a car this expensive, or ANY car for that matter. The horror stories are endless but, here's one example: During the purchasing process, I negotiated with Carlson to swap out the factory wheels for a set of aftermarket wheels on the car next to it. After driving for a while with the new wheels, I noticed that when combining a fast left turn with hard braking, the right tire would rub against the wheel well rim, damaging the tire. I went back to Carlson and asked my favorite mechanic, Dieter, Hey man, what’s going on? His answer was as predictable as his fake German accent:
"Ziss caah eze not like yur avridge Americahn caah, Eets hawned-bilt, yah?"
And I said: Does hand-built mean Porsche cannot HOLD TOLERANCES…you Nazi Scum?
So yes I had problems, and it was expensive, but...every time I drove it was like an E-Ticket Ride. I kept the it for eight years and have very fond memories of it.
1992: To offset the high-maintenance Porsche we bought 1992 Honda Accord LX from Anderson Honda in Palo Alto to replace the Mazda 626. What can I say? It was a solid car for the money. Quiet, smooth and boringly reliable. But I guess it wasn’t good enough to photograph. I took this picture recently of an identical car that was in the neighborhood as a reference image.
We always kept the car in the garage and Suzi used it every day for work. So it was a mystery one day when I took it in for its prescribed oil change. While I was waiting in the lobby, the oil-changer guy came out and said…”You’re not going to fucking believe this” And then he showed me THE EVIDENCE. A mouse had been living in the air box and had built a large nest choking the air intake…in a car that was driven every day. WTF?
1992: In 1991 We bought a new house in the hills of Portola Valley. It was 1.5 acres and everything needed a lot of work. The Porsche wasn’t going to cut it so time to get something that could haul 4x8 sheets of plywood and a yard of #2 rocks. I found a 1984 Toyota pickup for $4000. It was a BASE model and had no comfort amenities whatsoever. It was a 2-wheel drive, 3-speed stick, no power anything, no air conditioning with 50,000 miles. I guess you could say it had heated seats if you count how hot they were after parking in the sun on a 90 degree day. But it was an indestructible workhorse. I would drive it down to Lyngso Garden Materials and get a cubic yard of whatever loaded into the bed...which usually bottomed out the springs. Then I would hammer it up the hill in second gear. It never let me down.
Whenever I needed to get the annual smog certificate, I would take it to the neighborhood Shell Station. One time though, the test came back Positive for *GROSS POLLUTION* and the data was automatically faxed to The State. Too late to tweak and resubmit. I had no option but to get it fixed and then go to some state-run CARB emissions facility out on the Baylands. The next day I took it to the Palo Alto Toyota to have it checked out. “Your emissions check out just fine...the testing facility must have been faulty” fuck fuck fuck!
So I spent a LOT of time scheduling a compliance test at the state facility. This was a Nazi-Like operation that took no prisoners. They scheduled each test at 10-minute intervals. If you were late, at all, you had to go home and reschedule. If any of your fluid levels were low, at all, you had to go home and reschedule. I had already spent an enormous amount of time in paperwork and dicking around just to reconcile this testing error. But it did pass...and the Nazi Landesinspekteur said I was free to go. Jawohl mein Herr! From then on, I always requested that any testing be done OFF-Line first. Because DUH!
In 1990 I went to the annual Automobile Show at Moscone Exhibition Center in San Francisco. Cars were getting better now, after the depressing slump of the 70s and 80s cars that were slammed by the energy crisis and increasing safety regulations and just plain bad design. I had seen the commercials for the new Z-Car's “clean sheet of paper” design and couldn’t wait to see it in person…the 1990 Nissan 300zx twin turbo. I had read about the design competition between the factory design team in Japan and Gerald Hirschberg’s Nissan new studio team in La Jolla. This was a breakthrough marriage uniting Technology AND Design. The exterior was stunning, but when I got inside the car…I felt like I was in the Presence of Greatness. I had never seen such a unique and refined interior. Motor Trend gave it Import Car of the Year and Car and Driver awarded it one of its Ten Best Cars for seven years in a row. The bad news was the price was north of $45k+ so it fell into the “nice-to-have-but-can’t-afford” box. But by 1994, there were some used ones coming online. I had to have one...
One day I saw an ad in Mountain View for a 1992 and went to take a look. The guy hadn’t even bothered to wash it and it was obvious why. His designated underground parking space was next to someone who, apparently, banged his door every time she got in or out of her car. WTF? I used that to negotiate and we had a deal. Afterwards, I had Dent Pros come out to my place of work and, like Fucking Magic, perfectly pound out the dents from the inside! No paint required. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it was possible.
The stock Twin-Turbo V6 was rated at 300 HP and is basically a very robust de-tuned race engine but with some bolt-on parts it can be upgraded to Stage Three Tune and 400 HP! It also had a six-speed, removable glass t-tops and an innovative four-wheel steering system. After I had this for a while, five of my friends each got one and some still have them. Da Zee Club. My only issue was the black color and what it took to keep it looking good. Life is hell.
2001: Time for the Honda to leave. The dealer-installed leather seating surfaces were rapidly cracking and deteriorating. I'm not so sure they were even leather. Anyway, I surprised Suzi by getting her a leased 2001 Chrysler Sebring coupe. This was part of the Chrysler’s design and brand resurgence by Tom Gale and Bob Lutz. It looked good but I can’t remember seeing many of them on the road. I thought it looked like it had some Ferrari DNA. Of course, later on they screwed it up.
In 2003 I joined Plantronics as Senior Director of Design, saving my butt after 911 cratered most of my JWD business. It became increasingly apparent that my boss, the Sr. VP of Marketing and Engineering, and I were not getting along. My life was miserable, so I set up an “exit strategy” to take equity from the house and move to Ashland, Oregon. We bought a piece of property and I started to design a house, something I had always wanted to do anyway. Side note: as it turned out, my PLT boss was later given the boot, went back to his 160 acre Texas ranch, and I started actually enjoying my job.
But BEFORE that happened...anticipating this move would mean we would need a four-wheel drive vehicle to manage the winters in Ashland. We got a used 2004 Ford Escape from a lot in Palo Alto as our Exit Vehicle. No complaints, decent workmanlike tough SUV. One day Suzi was going “over-the-hill” from Santa Cruz to visit a friend in Los Gatos. For some reason, she opened the hood and checked the coolant before her trip. Why, I'm not sure. What she had forgotten to do was to put the cap back on tightly . By the time she was half-way there multiple alarms were going off. Somehow she made it to a service station and luckily the engine had not totally fried. Which was all good.
2004: I had started commuting to Plantronics in my 300ZX from Portola Valley, over highway 17 to Santa Cruz. I was thinking that I needed a better commute car because I was just wearing this one out. Looking back, I have to say, that was a mistake. I had spent a lot of money bringing this car into pristine condition and updating it, including 19” wheels. I sold it for 150% over BlueBook but this classic continues to increase in value. So...a mistake. But, as I would soon find out, I was caught up in some kind of engineered mass hysteria...
About this time, BMW acquired Mini Cooper and introduced an updated design with a supercharged four-cylinder engine. The branding roll-out was very creative and engaging and reminded me of the 1964 Mustang pre-release promotion. People were trading in their goddamn 5-Series for these things. The first time I rode in one was at a BMW Open Track Day at Sears Point Raceway. Drivers were allowed to take passengers and I got a ride in a Mini in a track filled with M5s, Porsches, and Corvettes. As we were easing onto the raceway, the driver said “this thing will take anything on the track” and he wasn’t kidding. It was a 20 minute ear-to-ear grin. Of course, it didn't hurt that he was a very good driver and had racing tires. Subsequently, one of my colleagues at Plantronics who Raced Ferraris in his spare time, got a Mini Cooper S and said he preferred racing the Mini to his Ferarri 360! My neighbor, who raced a vintage 1964 389 Cobra also got a Mini Cooper S. So, yeah, I guess I’ll have one too. I found one online at Mini of the Hamptons for Only LIST PRICE and had it shipped out by rail, which was still cheaper than buying thru Mountain View BMW.
One of the cool things about Minis was all the after-market shit you could add on. I have to say I went a little nuts. I had the engine modified up to JCW specs or above, added high-performance Brembo brakes, Borla stainless exhaust, magnesium wheels and, as a homage to the classic Mini One, a set of QUAD rally lights.
I went to my first track event, Big Mini Day sponsored by Mountain View BMW, at Thunder Hill Speedway in Northern California. There were some 80 Glorious Minis there in a wide assortment of plumage. I went with my Ferrari friend and his Red Cooper S. The experience was a little intimidating at first, but the instructors eased everybody into it. By the afternoon I could feel my body relax and my field-of-vision expand.
For my birthday, my whacky bro-in-law treated me to a Track Day at Laguna Seca Raceway, near Monterey. He brought his John Cooper Works edition and we spent the day on the track with a variety of other cars. There we were, Mini-a-Mini and having about as much fun as fun can be on a tankful of gas...
2008: We sold our house in Portola Valley (long story, see My Story blog) and moved to Santa Cruz where I shortened my commute to about three minutes, not even enough to warm up the Mini's engine. Since we weren't moving to Oregon, the 4-wheel drive Escape was just excess baggage. I sold the Ford and got a new 2010 Prius hatchback and it didn't take long for the hammerblows to start: "Hey nice Prius" said no one ever. My very own sister asked: "did you ever think you would get a car LIKE THIS?" Another friend just looked at me and said..."WHY?" First of all, it was Suzi's, it was easy to drive and a great getting around kind of car. The best part was the keyless access for doors and starting. And, for a cheap car, it had a certain amount of eco-panache. On the other hand, the engine sounded like a vacuum cleaner.
Six months after we moved to Santa Cruz, I got a letter notification that we were being SUED for MORE THAN OUR FUCKING NET WORTH by the New Jersey lawyer buyer of our Portola Valley house. (see My Story blog). I retained a Palo Alto law firm for the defense, at $530 per fucking hour, then LOST my job at Plantronics in the 2008 financial clusterfuck, then I found out that my CANCER had returned and I had to schedule six weeks of "salvage" radiation at Stanford in Palo Alto. So cars were not top of mind.
We settled out of court with the asshole after I finally realized that no one wins a lawsuit against an evil person with money. Then things got even worse. Suzi was volunteering at the Santa Cruz SPCA just a few miles from the house. One day, apparently...she went Off Road, in a car that was definitely not designated for Off-Road, and disemboweled five thousand dollars worth of the car's undercarriage. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment which meant no more driving, and therefore no need for two cars. The Mini had been great at Flying low over Highway 17 in a reverse commute, but slogging it around town in Stop and Go traffic was not what the car was designed for.
I posted the Mini on Craigslist and an engineer from Silicon Valley to come look at it. He liked it but wanted his mechanic in Campbell to check it out first. So I set up a time with the mechanic and drove it...Over The Hill...and eventually found my way to the small shop down some alleyway. I went into the office, told them I was here and...waited. After a while, Tony the came out, did a perfunctory walk around, didn't say anything and walked away. Like WTF? After a while I walked back into the office and found him sitting there: "We done?" Yeah, we were done.
I guess Tony gave the buyer a positive report because he called me and set a time on Monday to pick up the car. So on Sunday I went to fill up the gas tank because...I'm a nice guy and I thought it would be a nice gesture. What did I get for this nice gesture? Suddenly he engine starting missing and backfiring badly. Then the CHECK ENGINE light came on and like WTF? Nothing was open on Sunday so I decided I would just disclose what happened and see what happens.
It turns out that the Campbell mechanic was a friend of the buyer and drove him to get the Mini. When I saw Tony I said: "You're just the guy I need" Tony said the backfiring could only be a plug or the coil so no problemo and the Deal was Done. I was happy that the Mini was going to a good home.
From Model A to Model 3 in 60 years
.When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, each year I would eagerly anticipate the annual rollout of Detroit’s new lineup of cars. While VW’s changes were limited to minutia perceivable only by the VW cognoscenti, Detroit’s BIG 3 were literally exploding with dramatic changes in styling and technology. If you look at a ‘56 , ’57 , ’58, or ‘59 Chevy you would think they all came from entirely different companies. During those times, I could only imagine what cars would be like in 2020, 60 years in the future! Certainly, we would not still be using internal combustion, right? If I were to be transported from back then to the present, I think I would have been both horrified and amazed; horrified by the sheer numbers of Giant Monster Trucks clogging up the roadways and also by the ubiquity of just plain Bad Design. I’m looking at you, Japan.
On the other hand, interspersed among the Big, the Bad, and the Ugly, lie a few gems notably from Germany, Italy, maybe some from the US. The last successful automotive startup in the US was Chrysler Motors in 1925 and the road is literally littered with entrepreneurs who were able to make some cool prototypes but couldn’t execute the heavy lift into mass production.
Fast forward to the present. I have been following Tesla for ten years or so. Musk has been called a real world Tony Stark. He was born in South Africa, emigrated to America with literally nothing, went on to found and run Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, Neuralink, the Boring Company, and even some stuff with Hyperloop. His goals were never specifically about money, but about producing amazing products and delivering amazing experiences. Musk is the quintessential overachiever, even more so than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Tesla was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in 2008, like most of Detroit, but Tesla managed to pull it out and go on to have a Market Cap worth more than all the Big Car companies in the world…combined! (CNBC Dec 14, 2020)
In 2012 one of our neighbors ordered a Tesla S from the factory in Fremont and asked if we wanted to come with her to pick it up which came with a factory tour? YES WE DID. She got Serial #400 and we got the factory tour as promised. Tesla had acquired the GM-Toyota Nummi factory for pennies on the dollar. It had 5 Million square feet along with some two-story sheet metal presses and other tooling fixtures thrown in. The space was one big open area mixing manufacturing and engineering and design. During the tour, we walked by a six-person conference meeting and there was...Musk himself just three feet away. Not sure what to do...should I genuflect?
Some Backstory: In 1994, while I was VP of Design at GVO, we had a RFQ come in from EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. They had conducted a nation-wide search for design firms to compete in providing a Vision for Future of Public Access EV Chargers. They had selected three companies, and GVO was one of them. EPRI gave each firm the design requirements, a six-month schedule, and a $120k budget. This was even before the internet, and the only electric vehicle on the market was GM’s EV-1, which could only be leased. Ultimately all of the EV-1s were recalled by GM and crushed, or donated to museums, because GM did not believe EVs would ever be profitable.
Since the design staff was all booked at the time, I took on the project personally. And by personally, I mean I did 90% of the design and strategy with some advice and guideance from peer reviews. After the design was finalized on paper, I had the model shop, ONE guy named Mark, start building the physical model using CNC machining of RenShape. We had the local Porsche dealer’s body shop (Yah, Carlson!) paint the model a Metallic Titanium color that looked like this. The design had a motorized retracting cable which Mark said he could simulate. TWO DAYS before the presentation, I checked in with Mark to see how the retracting mechanism was working. It wasn’t. And it wasn’t going to. So I would have to wing it…
The presentation was a 2-day affair at EPRI’s headquarters in Palo Alto with all three firms presenting before a ‘jury” of some 30 multidisciplinary stakeholders from automobile manufactures to infrastructure people. It was a Big Deal. I drew the Short Straw, so I was to go last. The first firm to present was from Seattle and said that 30 PEOPLE had worked on the project. WTF? The second firm to present was from Detroit and had a lot of automotive clients. JESUS. So, at the end a long the first day, it was MY turn. I started by presenting the concept first; the aesthetics, the strategy, and interface design, then I explained the rationale behind the design. It was over in 30 minutes. But I guess it worked because at the end of the second day the jury awarded GVO first place!
Of course, we now know that, in 1994, it was still too early for the technology to become practical and we would have to wait almost 20 years for Tesla to make it viable. Still, I always thought electric vehicles would eventually dominate the future, where almost everything is electric. Tesla, as of 2020, has a higher market cap than ALL of the next BIG FIVE manufacturers combined...so that’s what analysts think about EVs.
I’ve been intrigued by the Tesla 3 since its introduction three years ago. It’s not as big as the Model S or the Model X, and not as expensive. Musk did achieve the promised base of $35k. Tesla does not advertise so it’s all word-of-mouth…the blogs, YouTube reviews, and the forums. I just decided to go for it. I went on the Tesla website and it looked like I could just order a car in less than a minute! That seemed a little unnerving, so I drove to the Tesla Showroom in Santana Row, asked a few questions and got the ordering process started. The showroom is modeled after the Apple Stores where the salespeople do not get commissions.
I came back home, finished the order and…hit SEND. I then applied for a Tesla loan, and a few clicks later the that was approved. It was a DONE DEAL. Two weeks later I got a “touchless delivery” right to my driveway. A model 3 just appeared as if by magic. I followed the email instructions to “accept delivery” and the phone app unlocked the car.
I WAS IN!
My first impressions are that this is as close to the future as I had might have envisioned years ago. Yeah it doesn’t levitate but, who knows, maybe that’s just a firmware upgrade away, right? So, after 60 years of automotive experience, was I any wiser at making decisions? Maybe, but the technology has come a long way since my Model A Ford...
In setting it up, it asked me for a name, so I named it JULES
It has Dual Motors with all-wheel drive
It does 0-60 in 3.1 seconds without the Sturm and Drang of noise, smoke, and lots of moving parts
It’s one of the safest cars – NHTSA gave it their highest safety rating in all categories
It’s one of the most efficient cars - 120 MPG equivalent with over 300 miles range
It has Instant Torque at any speed and never any wheelspin
Your phone is the key. The Tesla APP controls a number of the car's functions remotely
It has 8 cameras for navigating and security. A honk will record the dash cam video.
It has an all glass tinted roof
No more trips to the gas station. Charge at home overnight when rates are lowest.
90% of the driving is done just with the accelerator (using regen braking).
Tesla has a nationwide network of Solar-Powered Superchargers~200 miles in 15 minutes
It has a minimalist interior with a 15” touchscreen with internet and Vegan Leather seats
It has one of the highest resale values of any car
And Highest owner satisfaction, according to Consumer Reports (CR) Owner Satisfaction Survey
It’s designed and manufactured in California
It has autopilot which can be software updated in the future to full self-driving
There is no scheduled maintenance other than rotating the tires
Tesla provides continuous improvements with over-the-air software updates
The sound system Volume goes to 11...as an homage to Spinal Tap
Has “Dog Mode AC” when parked with your dog inside-the screen says "I'm fine, My Owner will be back soon"
It has Track Mode…you can turn it into a 2-wheel drive drifting machine
It has Emissions Testing Mode...which makes farting noises...a dig at VW's cheating scandal
And lots of other modes, because it’s basically a computer on wheels
So anyway...Even though it doesn't make a lot of noise I think I'll keep it