Sunday, February 27, 2011

An American Teenager driving in Europe, or why I am lucky to still be alive

What a dream. A chance to spend a whole year in Europe, checking out the scene, checking out the chicks, checking out different countries and cities and the chicks in those different countries and cities. Flying into Milano Italy in 1978, it was like a different planet. See I had just flown in from the planet Lexington KY which was light years behind the eternally hip fashion center of Milano.

My Step-dad picked my Mom and me up at Malpenza airport up in the family car; a baby shit green Fiat 127. What? Never heard of the Fiat 127? Google it. The car was not that bad if you lived in Italy, it was what it was, a small two door hatch back (or 3-door as it’s known in Europe) and offered basic no frills transportation. My Step-dad was always looking for a deal and indeed he may have outdone himself. This car had been at the dealer when a freak hail storm had damaged many cars, this was one of them. Covered in hail dents, it was appropriately dubbed Dimples by my Mom. But it had come at a bargain basement price.

The drive home was terrifying. There were seemingly no traffic rules. Lanes? We don’t need any stinking lanes. When stopped at a stop light, cars crowded into any random open spot. In the lane, in between the lane, half way up on the side walk, anywhere there was an opening that might give the driver an advantage once the light….turned green. It was the start of a Formula One race, knowing the light was about to change, the cars in front started creeping forward and then….Bang! Off like a shot, each car trying to out drag the other to get ahead. Tiny engines from Fiats, Alfas, Alfasuds, Autobianchis, Innocentis, Lancias, all revving to the breaking point to get that one fraction of a meter in front of the car besides them. Oh you have not heard of Alfasud, Autobianchi or Innocenti? The Alfasud was a ploy by the Italian government to move some manufacturing (read jobs) down to Southern Italy, the Autobianchi was Fiats second brand and Innocenti was basically a licensed Mini. The joke was to never buy an Alfasud built on Monday after the home team (Naples) lost a football (or soccer) match as the car might be built with a certain inattention to detail and a certain indifference. And don’t buy the ones built on Friday either, as the workers were already thinking of the weekend and the football match to come. That only gave the buyer three good days of auto building per week and the odds were not in the buyers favor.

I digress…as we made our way to our apartment near the Central Train Station, I vowed to never drive in Italy... of course, I was driving the Fiat that evening. How was it that an 18 year old could drive in Italy without an Italian driver’s license? Easy…the Triple A. They sold an “International” driver’s license, good for one year, allowing the licensee (in this case yours truly) to drive anywhere in the world where the US had good diplomatic relations. This excluded Communist Russia, Communist China, Communist Cuba, Communist…you get the picture. All this could be yours too, for $20. Funny thing though, it worked. I was stopped on several occasions and when I gave the Italian Police (or whatever country I happened to be in) the "International" license, they would look at it for several minutes before handing it back to me telling me to get lost. It was either a get out of jail free card...or they had no idea what it was, but it kinda looked official. No telling...

My Mom and I arrived on a Friday and since it was the beginning of the weekend, we did what a lot of Milanese did; head out of town (and the heat) for the weekend. In our case we had an apartment up in the sub-Alps. My Step-dad, a bit of an ass-buster, threw me the keys and said “Man-up!” or some other sensitive dad-to-son pep talk. So off we went. My Mom was smart; she read a book the whole trip up, every time we went anywhere. She did not want to see the antics we did on our trips. Smart woman!

He explained the rules; there were no rules. If you want to pass a car, flash your lights briefly. This lets the car you are passing and the car coming directly towards you know that you are about to do something stupid; namely make a pass, where there is a common passing lane (meaning either direction can use it). What transpires is thus; the car you are passing moves slightly to the right, the car (or large truck) coming towards you moves slightly to the left and you zoom in between. It was a bit of a pucker factor moment. My mom in the back seat serenely reading her book and me inching out into no-man’s land. “Go for it…don’t be a pussy, make the pass” soothed my Step-dad. I did it - it worked, we did not die.

Wow! That was fun. I could get used to this. I did. My Step-dad was sort of my BIF (Bad Influence Father). We constantly tried to best each other. Like timing each other to see who could drive up to the mountains fastest. Who could get back to Milano on Sunday fastest. Who could make the most passes before the common passing lane ended, etc. That tiny 900cc motor was just brutalized every time we turned the key. But it ran and ran. Fiat made good stuff, as long as it stayed in Italy. If for some reason that Fiat went to the US, it turned into CRAP.

But that is another story.

Until next time.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Turning a wrench – for the first time

Well, I was going to give everyone an update on the progress of getting the first book out. And I will, next week. But right now, I post this from the airport in Pittsburgh, PA. Old man winter has once again descended with his heavy hand and snow has closed the airport. So I scrambled to book another flight, and I got one....tomorrow 5:22 AM. Then I tried to get a hotel room. No such luck, everything miles around the airport is booked to bursting. Sooooo, I will test the new lounges in the Southwest Airlines departure area to see just how comfy they are. Whoever says business travel is glamorous has not done it....

So on to the story!

If I had the money, I would have turned my 1965 Mustang into some sort of ultimate road racer. Stuffed a huge 390 cu. in. side oiler V-8 under the hood…somehow. But the budget, the actual money I had saved, meant something else completely different. So for several weeks during the summer in between my junior and senior year of high school, I put in massive hours at the grocery store where among other things I was a sacker, cashier, dairy, produce and aisle stocker. Quick side note: the first time I restocked milk, nobody told me about rotating the newer stuff so I put the newest milk in front. I am willing to bet that we actually sold the older milk first as most everyone reaches in back for the newer stuff. Maybe I was ahead of my time, or just engaging in counterintuitive marketing…not sure which.

So taking a look at my car, I realized it needed a lot of stuff. Somebody had put a lot of rock salt in the trunk at some point in time and a bunch of it leaked out too (just like the Camaro I looked at) and both the rear quarter panels started to get Swiss-cheesy and then developed huge gaping holes. It looked real cool…literally. The passenger floorboard was getting thin and finally rusted away, giving the passenger glimpses of the rolling road if they looked at the right spots (this also caused the passenger to get wet during hard rain…hell, during any rain) and the passenger door would not shut unless it was closed with just the perfect amount of force (thank God it had seatbelts, which I made every passenger wear). Then there were cooling issues, rough idle, terrible gas mileage and on and on. Fact was; it was just getting to the point of being worn out.

I saved up $500. Real money back in 1977. So guess what I decided to spend it on? Did I decide to make it safer and fix the brakes, floor panels, squeaky shocks and passenger door latch? Nooooo, I decided to make it go faster. I had a friend help me put it up on jack stands and proceeded to take a wrench to it. Only problem, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I took off part after part, the carb and intake manifold, the heads, water pump and yes the radiator. I sent the heads and radiator to a shop my Uncle recommended. I traded the intake manifold for one that would fit a larger four barrel carburetor and with my Uncles help, also traded the puny two barrel stock carb for a Holly 750 cfm four barrel Double Pumper. Man this was the biggest carburetor I had ever seen.

I got the parts back and started putting it back together. Once I was done I had another problem; there was a whole box of parts left over. Screws, washers, bolts, nuts, fittings, it was dozens and dozens of them. “Holy shit, where did all these parts come from and where in the hell do they go? Oh well, let’s see if this thing starts.” I am sure I said and spent several days getting everything ready for the big moment. Spark plugs in? Check. Spark plug wires in and more important in on the right plug? Check…I think. Fuel line connected? Check. Battery connected? Oh yeah, it was ready to go.

It took a couple of tries, but it finally caught and settled into a very rough idle. I frantically checked to make sure all the wires were connected correctly and discovered one of the vacuum lines was loose. I connected the line and the idle smoothed out. IT LIVES! IT IS ALIVE! I jumped in to take it for a quick spin around the neighborhood. After a few blocks, I could not resist it any more. You see, that male urge; namely youth and testosterone reared their mutual ugly heads and I had to nail it to see if all the huge performance mods I had made (namely new intake and carburetor) would make this old hulk go faster. I stomped my foot to the floor….and….it died. Shit! After coasting to a stop, I started it again and it ran at idle and low revs but every time I pressed on the accelerator just a little bit, it simply chugged to a stop, with no fire in its belly.

I actually ran the car like this for several days and just got use to coasting to a stop (hopefully in a safe spot) and restarting the car. I asked one of my gearhead friends what he thought was going on. He peered under the hood and pointed to the carb asking what it was. Proudly, I told him it was a Holly 750 Double Pumper. He started laughing, then as he tried to keep his balance by resting his hand on the fender, his hand slipped off and he fell to the ground clutching his sides. What is so funny I asked? He told me that the carb I had installed was meant for a motor like a 396 or 454 Chevy motor. In my little 289, it was like running a fire engine hose through your garden sprinkler and wondering why every time you turned on the hose, the sprinkler ended up in the neighbor’s yard. The 750 was delivering way more fuel than the little Ford V-8 could ever handle. OH….

But he was there for me man…I was so lucky, he had a Chevy Chevelle SS 396 and if I would only trade him my Holly 750 Double Pumper, he would get me a suitable carb that the 289 could handle. I was out of options, so I agreed. I removed the monstrous Holly and put on a Rochester QuadraJet Four barrel carburetor my friend sourced for me. And miracle of miracles, it ran. Of course I had addressed none of the other issues that I should have, but boy it sure did seem to run faster. At least it made this huge sucking sound from under the hood. And I never did find out if any of those extra left over parts were important enough to keep the car running, it chugged its way all the way through graduation; when I left for Italy.

Funny thing, my dad sold my car and got $500 for it. He kept the money too….

Until next time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My first car

History looks 20/20 when it is fading in the rearview mirror. I should know, I have looked there occasionally and yep…if looks perfect as it fades in the distance.

In 1976 I was offered the chance to move to Milano Italy. My Mom and her third husband moved to Italy on assignment for the company he worked for and they said I should come over and finish out my high school career at the American School of Milan. Problem was, I decided to stay with my Dad in Kentucky. Turns out I had a great time in my junior and senior years in Lexington, but in that haze of 20/20 revisionist history, I think the years in Milano would have been better. Reason I stayed? I had a car, a girl friend and had a lot going on at school. Still if I could do it over again, I would have learned to speak Italian earlier.

So my dad in his massive generosity gave me $500 dollars for my first car. I looked for weeks in the Lexington Harold Tribune scanning the car ads for something cool. But $500 and something cool were an oxymoron, at least in Lexington. There were no Fiat’s, Alfa’s Healey’s, MG’s, Triumph’s, or Renault’s for $500. Hell, there was not even a decent VW Beetle for $500. I came to the slow realization that being a “fer’in” car guy in Lexington KY in the mid-70’s was not going to yield any positive results. So I had to set my sights lower in the automotive pecking order.

I looked at a ’67 Camaro, problem was both rear quarter panels were nonexistent, they had rusted away. I asked why, and the owner actually told me that they had been hauling some rock salt around in the trunk and some of it must have leaked out. Must have leaked out!? That is sort of like saying the deTomaso Pantara kind of leaked fuel. Crap, you didn’t get near one of those things with a lit match.

I looked at a ’68 Chrysler Imperial; this gargantuan four-door was owned by a little old lady that only drove it to church on sunny Sundays. Really. It had about 15,000 miles and looked brand new. Man, I wanted to buy that car. But my Step-Mom, not known for her automotive mojo, said no. I needed something sportier she said. All I know is that back seat was HUGE. You could do stuff back there, fun stuff! Hmmm…sporty car - smaller back seat, ginormous Chrysler - huge back seat…maybe she had some evil plan to keep me in the front seat. Anyway we passed on it.

Then I went to look at a ’65 Mustang, a light green coupe with a green vinyl interior. It had the 289 cu in V-8 and rare for the ’65 model, a factory 4-speed (instead of the normal 3-speed or automatic). Problem was, the owner would not take a penny less than $550. I hauled my Dad out to look at it and let him drive it. He begrudgingly let me have the extra $50. I had a car! Of course I had no job or way to pay for gas, insurance, ETC, but I had a car. And even though the back seat was small, it did hold two people…

It served me well my junior and senior years. But it had a couple of features that I discovered (and would come in very handy later). Like the hidden panel at the leading edge of the console. To the untrained eye, it was just a large metal plate that abutted the instrument console. But a push at the top, the panel tilted upwards to reveal a huge secret compartment that could hold…well, it could hold a lot….of stuff…

Still, we had a few adventures during our two years together. After school I would head out on the back-roads and take them down by the Kentucky River. And maybe if I had a little extra time, I would drive the car further away from Lexington. And as the miles piled on, we dropped back decades in time as we flowed deeper and deeper into the country; old farms hiding stills out back, barns with faded advertising on the sides pushing Marathon Ethyl gas and old cigarette brands that have thankfully long faded from view. I would push it until the Lexington AM stations started to merge into back-country stations advertising local feed stores, Bucks Bait Shop and Garage and Gran Pa’s miracle cold remedy and elixir and realized that maybe I had pushed too far. Better to turn around and beat a path back to my back door, arriving just in time for dinner and a hundred questions as to where I had been.

Yeah, history looks a perfect 20/20 in the rearview; a cloudy spring day, the highway slick with rain and the spray coming off the back of the car. Dark green shadows hiding narrow curves, blasted from the gray rock of the hills hugging the river. I learned how to drive on those narrow ribbons of roads and they are still there…calling me back. Except now I would rather take them on a perfect summer afternoon in my Cayman S, the sound of the flat-six blasting its angry engine note off those old rocks. I hope they remember me; I have been there before.

Until next time.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Finally - our cars improve…well a little anyway

After a one week break to look at some really ugly cars, it is back to the stories that I have dredged up from my foggy memory. I would like to thank everyone for participating in the poll and it looks like you agreed with me, the Pontiac Aztek is one truly hideous car. As a matter of fact I saw a burgundy one today (see my comment below regarding burgundy cars...) and it was just butt ugly. Surely as the owner walks up to it asks themselves why they own such a piece of shit. And shaking their heads as they use the key (not the remote as it is no doubt broken) wonder where it all went very wrong... In a couple of weeks, we will take a look at the worst of the current cars. Yes, crap you can actually go out and buy right now, off the showroom floor.

Now on the the story....

At one point my Mom thought we could actually afford a new car, so we went shopping. Her budget was not exactly what you would call very big so we had three choices: a Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega and an AMC Gremlin - classic cars all! These were the top of the heap, the bomb, the…running out of complementary words here. No beating around the bush - shit…they were beyond crap. In response to the Arab oil embargo and the first wave of cheap foreign cars from Japan, these cars were a rushed into production as an attempt to compete in a changing world. Not their best effort… Even today, I cringe when I see one; they do not bring back great memories, just bad ones.

We test drove the Vega first and my Mom hated it. It was clanky and rough and just felt cheap (which it was). Next was the Pinto. I remember the one we looked at was the special USA Edition, white with tiny red white and blue stripes and it had oversized USA stickers affixed to the sides. It seemed sad and desperate, an attempt to lure American buyers to buy American versus the new wave of imports. The USA theme was continued on its interior with a red, white and blue motif. And she almost bought it, but just could not get close enough on price.

That left the Gremlin. This bad boy was mustard yellow with racing stripes down each side. They were supposed to make it look like it was going fast and I think that maybe it was helping ...a little. The way I look at it, those racing stripes were just helping the car along towards a patina of rust that was sure to quickly follow. I have a fond memory of the test drive; I sat in back with the sales guy. If central casting in Hollywood put out a call for a mid-70’s car salesman, this guy nailed it. He was a fat guy with a Dunlap. Oh, you do not know what a Dunlap is? It means your belly had done lapped over your belt…a Dunlap. Brown polyester pants (several polyesters died in the making of those pants…), a pale faded yellow short-sleeve shirt, bursting out with a peak of belly fat in between the buttons and a short wide brown striped tie. He had close cropped gray hair and huge bushy mustache and he reeked of stale cigarette smoke. This guy screamed for all the world to see that he was ready to make a deal and he did not care how much he had to screw you over to get it.

The test drive itself was awful. The car was slow, rough and the interior was terrible, like the designers haphazardly placed the controls on any surface that looked remotely accessible. The back seats were hard as a board and were bolt upright. I squirmed around trying to get comfortable and I distinctly remember the salesman, arm draped over the rear seat declaring indeed how comfortable they were. He actually made a comment to my Mom telling her how safe and relaxed I would be in the back seat. I glared at him and then shook my head at my Mom as she looked at me in the rearview mirror. She did not buy it.

Things did not work out that time…thankfully. And we did not buy any of those classic iconic automobiles. A couple of months later, my Mom got a great new job at an ad agency that did product development for large national accounts. For the first time in a long time, we had money. We moved into a prestigious apartment complex and she enrolled me in the best schools in the area. And my Uncle asked to buy Old Blue back, he missed it. So it finally came to a head. We had to get new car, so we went shopping again.

Our list was longer this time; it included VW, Honda and Toyota and believe it or not FIAT. There was a dealer close to our home and it also sold Alfa Romeo and Lotus. While she test drove the FIAT and negotiated with the dealer, I spent a long time sitting in both an Alfa GTV and a Lotus Europa. The Alfa was silver and it just looked fast just sitting there. It just felt right; all the controls close to hand. I loved how the shift lever protruded from just below the main instrument panel. You had to reach up to it. I spent a long time pretending to shift gears, imaging myself driving it. It was no Lamborghini or Ferrari; those cars were long ago and far away. Well they were in St. Louis anyway…

Then I sat in the Lotus. Low slung and only inches from the ground, its tiny interior seemed to fit me like a glove. I had started my growth spurt and was maybe 5’7” so it felt like it was built for me. Thank God I was not taller… The thin form fitting seats hugged me tightly and the tiny steering wheel and stubby gear shift felt readily to hand. This was one of Mr. Chapman’s creations and like he said; all you had to do was “just add lightness”. It had just what it needed, nothing more. It felt like a race car, at least as close as I had ever been to one. I no doubt asked my Mom to consider either the Alfa or Lotus but I think the price and especially in the case of the Lotus, the practicality left them out of the new car conversation.

She ended up buying a Fiat 124, burgundy with a tan interior and you guessed it, an automatic too. I am telling you those early automatic versions of European cars were all slow. Geez, at this rate, we were never going to get back to my idea of what we should be driving, namely a sports car. And what was it with all those burgundy European cars we ended up with? I did not (and still do not like) burgundy cars. I did let her take me all the way to school in this car. Besides I was tired of walking the 6 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways. I needed a break from all that walking.

Until next time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Driving in the snow and ice….in Dallas, TX

Not sure if any of you have followed the news this past week, but we had some pretty crappy weather here in the DFW, TX area. This lovely weather hitting during Super Bowl week, I am sure that Jerry Jones (the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys Stadium and the host of this week’s activities) along with the Super Bowl committee must be crying in their beer over the bad turn of luck. Who I really feel for are the merchants that staffed up and brought in extra inventory to handle the hordes of people that were supposed to descend on the DFW area. Instead, we got ice, sleet and snow.

Bad weather and North Texas drivers do not mix well. Most of the drivers here have trouble driving in the rain, let alone ice, sleet and snow. When I talk to people around the country I tell them that two snowflakes can bring the city to its knees. So this week, we got the triple whammy.

It all started with a heavy rain storm Monday night heading into Tuesday morning. Problem was the temperature plummeted and that rain froze on the road. Then the sleet started about 1 AM. I had to fly to the East Coast for business meetings, so I dutifully got up and got ready to head out. Usually my dear wife takes me to the airport, but not that morning. Knowing that school would be cancelled, I borrowed my sons Jeep. I once drove my old Porsche 968 in a freak snow storm and almost could not get up a very slight incline; I was oh so close to parking it. Wide high performance summer tires and snow do not mix well, so I will never drive a 2WD Porsche in the snow ever again. My Cayman S? It stayed in the garage.

When I left my house at 5 AM heading to the airport, there was nobody on the roads (and for good reason). With the Jeep in 4WD-High, I had no problems. I passed a whopping 6 cars before I hit the main road that takes me to the airport. And then, there were only a handful more. Top speed? I hit 35 once or twice. As usual there is the moron who thinks that his 2WD pick-up truck can handle the conditions and plows through the ice and snow with no problems. So this guy in a Dodge Pick-up whipped by me doing about 50mph. He promptly hit an ice patch and swerved violently back and forth across the road, nearly losing it. He slowed down to 25mph and I soon passed him doing my Steady Eddie 30.

Even at this early hour cars were spinning off the road. A Miata (probably not your top pick as a snow car) spun out along with several other RWD (rear wheel drive) cars. And at 6:01AM I got the automated call from AA telling me that my flight (actually all the flights) was cancelled out of DFW. If only they had called me an hour earlier! Pulling off into a gas station to call the AA help desk to see what options were available, I also called to let my wife know I was making the return trip home. Just then a 4WD Toyota pick-up came scraping in with a white and orange road construction barrel lodged under the front end. Even the 4WD vehicles were having trouble in this crap. He jacked up his truck and I pulled the barrel out before turning around and headed back in the opposite direction. I was home by 7AM and it felt like it had been a long day already, I was worn out! I made it home by driving carefully…Steady Eddie 30.

See the thing is; that early in the morning with some sleet on top of ice, there was a little traction. But when I went out a little later to make a post office run, all that sleet had been crushed down into a 2-3 inch sheet of ice. Top speed now…20. The next day I went to the airport again and the roads were even worse. Now any rut that had been carved out of the ice and sleet had refrozen. But I did make it to the airport without incident. After my quick East Coast trip, the return trip from airport back home was intense, man it was nothing but black ice. Not good! I was worn out again when I hit the door. But I made it home safely by keeping it at a Steady Eddie 25.

Now I must shift gears….and write about my friend. I do not name names on this blog, but let’s call him Kip to protect his identity. Now I do not want to call my friend “The Kipster” an aggressive driver, but I bet if you queried the TX Department of Safety (our highway patrol) or any other law enforcement agency and entered his license plate number it would be at the top of the list of the most complained about vehicles on the road. Kippy's usual rant is that idiots going slow in the fast lane deserve such treatment and that especially goes double for people driving a Toyota Prius. Well, I maybe cannot fault him for the Prius part…It’s funny, but when I drive with him I find that people are very friendly and frequently wave to us, but for some reason they are waving with only one of their fingers. I guess it is because they are so happy to see us driving…especially after he just cut them off!

But we are in Texas and he does have a big-ass 4WD truck so he decided it was time for pay back. He put a tow strap on the back of his truck and went around pulling people out of ditches, unsticking them from the side of the road and for the most part being an all-around good guy. In the past 3 days, he has pulled out about 60 cars around the town we both live in. He is hoping this will somehow help his good mojo for all the crappy things he has done to people on the road over the years. My wife said there is not enough ice and snow on the road for that…. When he heard that he said his feeling (singular) was hurt.

So it snowed again yesterday (Friday) and the roads had a little bit of grip early, but once that got crushed down and mixed with the ice underneath it was even worse. So of course we decide to head into Dallas. We stopped to help yet another 2WD truck that had spun out and lodged a wheel into a drainage ditch. They were on a hill, so we could not pull them out, but we at least got them straightened out so they could back down the hill. Make that 61.

Over in Dallas we were amazed by all the cars that should not be out in these conditions; Vettes, Boxsters, BMW 3 and 5 series, Mustangs, Nissan 350Z’s, 2WD pick-ups without any additional weight over the rear axle. It was comical when we watched them struggle for any traction. Now I am sure most of these people did not have another option, but there is always a taxi, or God -forbid, public transportation. Oh wait, I forgot we are in Texas, land of big pick-up trucks, wide open spaces and the right to drive a car on icy roads (especially when that car should stay at home).

Until next time…