Monday, April 25, 2011

El Muerto, a music video and the 914

With two trunks (even if the rear trunk had broken hinges), the space available in the Porsche 914 was pretty substantial for a single student. We could stuff a lot of groceries in those trunks, enough for me and all my friends. As a musician, it was very useful too, I could put my bass cabinet in the passenger seat, the amp and bass in the trunks and a couple of duffle bags of other musician type equipment in the spaces in between. When packed for gigs, there was no room for passengers, but that never really presented problems, I just had girlfriends drive their own cars. Overall the 914 was pretty useful.

But it had problems, besides all the rust. I tried and tried to figure out why the car would just stop on hot days and refuse to start again. It always seemed to happen in traffic when there were a lot of cars stacked up behind me. We would eventually have to push it through the intersection and out of the way, very convenient, the car seemed to know when I needed exercise. We dug deep into the engine bay, but without success. I even had “car guys” take a look at it, none of us could figure it out. It usually seemed to happen when my best friend was in the car with me. He would say as we crept up to a stop light…”Man, I hope your car does not stall again…crap! Not again!” I think that it maybe happened only once or twice when I had one of my girlfriends with me. I would have to prove my manly continence and push it all by myself. Being 6’ tall and weighing maybe 125lb, it must have pretty impressive to watch as I struggled to push it out of the way. I figure in the end, they took pity on me.

Anyway, it was always that tiny nagging worry in the back of my head. But I was not the only one with car problems. My best friend (and band mate) had a really nasty car. A 1974 AMC Matador. Don’t remember it? Probably for the best, as it was really a piece of crap. Here is a photo of this lovely automobile. I actually think that was the color of my buds car.

We decided to do a couple of music videos and shop our tunes to some of the record labels (we were deemed too political…yeah right!), so we worked with some local video producers (fellow students at UT taking a videography class) and put together our masterpieces. Anyway…back to the Matador, or as it was known El Muerto, my best friend had loaned this great car to one of his other friends to take on a date. It came back with an empty tank of gas and a huge crashed-in passenger side rear door. The friend claimed that he had no idea how the car got crashed. Maybe it was the fog of love…or booze. But the crashed door refused to open. No matter how hard you tried to push from the inside or pull from the outside, the door refused to budge.

Now…fast edit back to the video story (Michael Bay style with city buses and abandoned warehouses blowing up); we were heading back to our apartments (my best friend and I lived in the same condo complex) and were excited about the tracks we had laid down at the studio we liked to use for recording. As we drove north on Guadeloupe St, there is a left hand kink in the road and as my friend negotiated El Muerto around the bend, our guitars (which were in the back seat) must have slid to the right and hit the door just right. Remember all the pulling and pushing? Remember that the door would not open? Well two guitars in their cases must have been the perfect amount of weight because out of the corner of my eye I distinctly saw them exit the car and fly into the middle of a very busy street.

I shouted “Our guitars, they flew out the door!”, or more likely a much more colorful version of basically the same thing. My friend did not believe me, but finally saw them in his rearview mirror sliding to a stop in the middle of Guadeloupe. Now cars were slamming on their brakes to avoid the cases, swerving into other lanes to keep from hitting them. My bud slammed on the brakes as I bolted from the passenger door before the car had fully stopped. I had cars coming directly towards me, but I waved my arms, frantically motioning for them to move away from me and the guitar cases. They did…thankfully. I reached down and grabbed both of them in one sweeping motion and sprinted back to El Muerto. It took maybe 15 seconds, but it seemed to play out in ultra-slow motion. The cases laying in the middle of a busy road, the cars approaching quickly, opening my hands to grasp the handles on the cases, hoping the cases were not too damaged as I picked them up, great times…. The guitars were no worse for the wear, the cases were pretty scuffed up and I still have that case to this day, but it is looking pretty ragged at this point.

We still laugh about El Muerto and the guitar cases, when we relive that episode in our long friendship. We did use the 914 in one of the videos. One of the tunes was called “Feel the Change” a tune about someone making the journey from a small town to the big city, only the results did not work out in their favor. We found this gorgeous gal to play the “girl” coming to the big city (well Austin anyway). She was CUTE, only problem, she could not act at all (even though our big time college videographer said she could) or drive a manual transmission, part of the video was her driving off in the Porsche. Well we had to scrap that part of the video, actually we had to pretty much scrap all the scenes she was in…she was that bad.

I remember her trying to pull away in the 914; it bucked and bucked, stalling on every attempt. I finally decided that it was probably a good idea to reverse roles and have me leave in the Porsche. It no doubt saved a lot of wear and tear on the clutch. It changed the tone of the video, but clutch wear was reduced. I probably have that video buried somewhere in a pile of stuff and I will tell you that it will never see the light of day on YouTube.

The massively all-star videographer (do you get the sense that I am being somewhat facetious in my compliments here?) took all the raw material and edited the music and video footage together to create what should have been a couple of great videos. We went to the video lab at UT and sat with her and watched its premier with her class. It was in a word awful, terrible, crappy, disappointing, vulgar, sloppily edited, poorly synced, unwatchable (OK, that is a lot of words, but it was really nauseating to watch). She got an A. Figures.

However, my best friend and I were not in the college of communications and did not have access to the video lab, but we found out that the public access TV station had video bays that we could use. We spent hours and hours re-editing and remixing the music and video to get something that was watchable. They ended up being pretty bad…but not terrible.

One of our friends took the song (on cassette tape) and video with him when he went home on a trip to see his family in Sardinia Italy and gave it to the biggest radio station on the island and I am happy to say that one of our songs “Freeze” made it to the Top-20. In Sardinia Italy no less, 20-30 people on the whole island must have heard it. Wow, we hit the big time!

As for the 914, it soldiered on, sprouting more rust, it cancerous tentacles reaching ever deeper into the nooks and crannies of the underside of the car. Remember the photo posted last week, depicting how I had hoped it would look, well here is one that pretty accurately depicts how I remember it.

Until next week.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pride of ownership

Porsche ownership, it should have been a momentous occasion, but it wasn’t. I walked into the warehouse in Houston to pick up my 1972 914 and expected to see something low and red, in perfect condition, just waiting for me to twist the key and drive it home. It was low, it was red, but where did all the rust come from? That tell-tale sign of bubbly paint, pushed up from what should be smooth metal was on each lower quarter panel, along the lower edges of both doors and that was the rust I could see (even the slots for the jack were rusted over). I would later discover that it was underneath, having spread to just about everywhere else. Where was the beautiful car I looked at in Karlsruhe Germany, you know the one I saw in the last fading rays of sunlight; that shaft of light angling through the high windows, making the dust in the warehouse sparkle? Yeah, there was a shaft alright, but I was the one that got shafted, not the last rays of sunlight…

What I wished it looked like:

The place where I it picked up did me a favor and gave me a paper license plate, good for 30 days. There was a large envelope filled with the paperwork; all the importation docs, the EPA and DOT release (being a 1972, it was exempt) and the German TUV title, an old faded green piece of paper that had a lot of scribbling in German on it. I took the keys and opened the door; at least the interior was in very good shape. Twisting the key, the engine caught on the third try and fired up. Shifting into first, the transmission gave that angry grinding cough of not sync’ing gears correctly, so I let out the clutch and pressed it back in slowly, now the gears meshed. I started back towards Austin, hoping to beat Houston traffic.

It had been cloudy; looking like rain as I drove northwest towards Austin, but as I got out of town, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Pulling over to the side of the road, I wanted to take the top off and bask in the glory of a sunny day. Loosening the top, I went to the rear trunk to open it, but a sudden gust of wind caught me off guard, ripping the trunk out of my hands, it bent forwards towards the front of the car, breaking both hinges completely off. I stared at the trunk lying on top of the roof and could not believe my lousy luck, it could not get worse…it did.

A short time later, I got pulled over by the State Police; I had been doing 70 mph in a 65 mph zone. He reached for his book to write the ticket, but took pity on me when I told him my sorrow filled story and when I pointed to the speedo registering Kilometers per hour not Miles per hour he let me off with a stern warning. Made it back to Austin without further incident…thank goodness. I hated calling Germany during the day; it cost a lot of money, so I waited until the middle of the night (morning in Germany) and called the guy I had purchased the car from. I called and called and the phone just rang and rang, nobody answered.

Really I do not know what I expected, maybe for him to take it back, I don’t know. But I tried over the next week or so and nobody picked up. Finally I called the shipping company that had handled the transatlantic shipment and they answered the phone alright. I was routed through to a senior manager who wanted to know if I knew where this individual was. I did not; I was calling to complain about the vehicle I received, I had been ripped off. He said I was not alone, there had been many people that had called to complain, but at least I had a car and a title, most of the other people that called had neither.

I had to talk to the German police and told them the same thing. They thanked me for calling and that was that. I called my friend Klaus and he told me the sorry tale, at least everything he knew or guessed. It appeared that this guy was collecting a lot of money from his US customers and holding it. He made up a variety of excuses telling them that cars were delayed, shipments missed, inspections incomplete, deliveries rescheduled. He had been in this business for a long time and had a good reputation, but he had other plans. He kept all the money and skipped out with his wife to Brazil taking over $2M US. What really pissed me off was that he and his wife left their two huge Great Danes at the office, with just a bit of food and water. They were found several days later, very hungry, very thirsty, but only a little worse for it. Klaus reminded me “I told you so”, he knew this fellows true character. Too bad for me and all the rest of the people that got ripped off that we did not. I thanked Klaus, I was done buying grey market cars, the tide had turned and there was little demand, it was a fun time but in the end it withered on the vine, another victim of its own success; there were too many people trying to sell too many cars to too few people.

So I was stuck with this beat down 914. A few weeks later I still had not registered the car, but knew that I should. The paper tag had just about expired when I went to register it. I had been dreading it, as all the paperwork was in German. I went into the TX Department of Transportation and patiently waited my turn. I went to the window and placed the request for Texas title on the counter along with all the supporting information. The gal behind the counter took one look at it and hung her head shaking it back and forth, no doubt asking herself….why did she get me? She looked at me and asked what language this was in, I replied German, she informed me that she did not read German, I told her I did not either…this was going to take a while.

She told me to wait while she went to get a supervisor, both returned a short time later and I went through the same info once again. At one point they just looked at each other, having no idea what to do. Finally the supervisor said to the gal to do the best she could, turned and walked away. Wow! I pointed to each section and told her what it meant (I at least knew enough about German titles from all the cars I imported) and together we figured it all out. It took a long time, no doubt all those folks behind me in line wished I was somewhere else. But I left with a temporary title, plates and a registration sticker. The car was now US legal. A 1972 Porsche 914 with a lot of rust…

Until next week.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My first Porsche; or why you should NEVER buy a car at night…

Do you remember the 80’s? Gordon Gecko said “greed is good”, guys got to wear pastel colors and gals had bad haircuts (remember big hair?) and wore Capezio dance leggings. Oh yeah and some band called Kajagoogoo had a hit called Too Shy. And for a brief few glorious years the US Government allowed European spec cars into the US.

I had been reading Autoweek for some time and turning to those center pages with that tempting layout of classified ads, a treasure trove of exotic and sports cars waited. I lusted over them, reading all the details, calculating the prices based on current exchange rates, hoping I could buy one someday. But they seemed unattainable; after all I was in college and barely had enough to pay bills…let alone a Porsche or BMW.

But I noticed a trend. Many of these cars were so-called Grey Market cars, meaning they were European spec, but legal in the US. There was a loophole in the US Department of Transportation (DOT)/ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) code where someone could import  “a-once-in-a-lifetime” car that had to meet DOT or safety rules, but did not have to pass EPA regulations. This was a huge deal; the car could be Euro-Spec and that usually meant a more powerful car with way more HP than its American counterpart. And to make these cars DOT legal in the US meant bars in doors, the correct lights but frequently could retain Euro-bumpers, not the HUGE US federalized versions. Man…I wanted one of those Euro-versions!

So I made some calls. I got the DOT / EPA rules and talked to some of the shops that did the conversions. Now I must admit, many of these shops were…ahhh….let’s be frank here, not entirely honest in the methodology they used to make these cars “legal” and there were raids by the US government, but that is not our story here. For me I had the glimmer of hope that I could import a few of these cars and save enough money for one of my own.

I talked to a friend and we agreed to put together a business to bring over cars for our friends that wanted bad-ass Euro cars for far less money than the Americanized versions.  We presented our idea to many of them and they took us up on the offer.  Our goal was to make a few bucks on each car, enough so that we could both eventually end up buying our own. But here was the best part, I would get to go over to Germany and buy them. Sweet!

Through Autoweek ads I eventually found a guy that seemed to be a pretty good source of cars and he set up a bunch for me to look at when I went over to Germany during the Christmas break. I went with two of my college friends, we hung out in Munich for a few days to get our bearings before they went on to party in cities like Amsterdam, while I went on to test drive prospective cars to purchase.

This guy I had discovered and befriended was a major character; a crazy German I will call Klaus. He had this STUPID Mercedes 500SEC (the sexy 2-door coupe) that was deep dark blue with black tinted windows. It had a 16 speaker Kenwood stereo system and either Brabus or AMG tuning (not sure which). This thing was fast and it was loud…at least the stereo part. Because of the color and window tint, a lot of people thought it was an undercover German Polizei car and for the most part left him alone. He was fine with that as it meant that he could drive it fast…which was pretty much all the time.

The first time we headed out to look at a car, we had to drive about 100km on the Autobahn; Klaus entered the highway and floored it. Funny thing, he never let up, until we had to leave the highway a few minutes later. We hit over 165mph (270kph) and I was scared and trilled at the same time. It was an amazing feeling as the highway compressed, the sides rushing in and the cars in the distance floating up right in front of you….now! We pulled up to an auto dealership that specialized in exotic cars and we tested a few BMW 6-Series. The sales manager handed me the keys and said I needed to drive them.

AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! OMMMMMMM!!!!! I was in automotive nirvana. WOW, I had never driven anything like this before and he told me to take it out on the Autobahn to see what it would do. Smiling, Klaus said that we would! With his thickly accented English accent, he told me I had to drive the car very fast, as fast as it would go. So we headed out, and I got it up to about 155mph (250kph) before I chickened out not wanting to push the BMW any harder.

We sourced several cars through Klaus over the course of about a year and a half. But I want to tell one more story. One time over spring break, while all the other students at UT were partying away in Daytona or Padre, I was across the pond driving and buying fast cars. There was a weekend where there were no cars to be bought so Klaus suggested that we head down to the French Riviera to move his offshore boat from one port to another. We got in the Mercedes and drove non-stop, at top speed, passing slow moving Renaults, Peugeots, FIATS and everything else for the matter. We drove and drove, never below 140mph (225kph) until suddenly the cars started missing and chugging. Then the fire went out of the belly of the beast and we coasted to a stop on the Autoroute. Great…stranded by the side of the road in the middle of France. No problem said Klaus as he pulled a 10gal (40lt) gas can from the trunk and filled the tank. Wow…glad we did not get hit from behind…

We did move the boat; it was one fast mother, a huge offshore or cigarette boat with two Lamborghini motors. It was the first time I had to stand up in a boat as we hit wave after wave catching air. Klaus knew of only one way to pilot this boat – flat out. Figures. It is like the time we picked up a brand new BMW M6 for one of his other US customers in Freiburg and had to drop if off in Munich. He asked me to follow him and when I reminded him that the car was brand new and the motor would probably be tight…he said there was only one way to break it in…fast. I had that car up to 160mph (260kph) and that Mercedes 500SEC of his would just leave me. Man that huge 2-door Merc was fast.

Although we bought several more cars through Klaus, I needed to find another supplier as he only specialized in BMW’s and Mercedes (and we had a couple of Porsches that we needed to source) so I found another guy that had a lot or Porsches for sale. This guy had a bigger operation with a huge warehouse. I visited and was amazed by the size of his operation. I bought 2 or 3 and had them imported to the US, but the tide had already turned in the US and the Gray Market was already starting to slow down.

I made one last trip to Europe; problem was I only had a few thousand dollars for my own car. I called the Porsche guy, he said that I should come by, maybe he had something. I arrived late, at closing time and it was already early evening, the late sun slanting through the tiny windows in the warehouse, the rays making the dust in the air sparkle. He said to look out back; there was a very clean 914 that he could let go for $1400. It was almost pitch black as I peered through the dark to look at the car. $1400? I could afford that. I wanted to like it, no I wanted to love it and it looked great sitting there low and squat, its red paint fading in the gathering darkness. I bought it.

It arrived in the states a few weeks later and I went down to Houston to look at it. It was red, it was a 914, but man was it covered in rust. I went back to the Porsche guy to complain about it, but he was long gone. He took millions from his clients and skipped out to Brazil. At least I got the title before he disappeared. Klaus had warned me, but I did not listen. I ended up with a Porsche but it was not much of a Porsche. I wish my life with Porsches had started off to a better beginning, but I had only one direction to go…forward.

Until next time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Top 10 Ugliest Cars currently available

About a month ago I published a blog about the ugliest cars in the world, from a historical perspective. Added a poll too, as I wanted to give you a chance to voice your opinion and 65% of you agreed with me that the Pontiac Aztek was indeed the ugliest car in the world. Since then, I have looked at other lists and polls and found that the Aztek was almost always No. 1 or No. 2 at the very least… And once again, I have placed a poll for you to vote too. So get the votes going and let’s see if you agree with my choices.

So we turn our attention to the current crop of cars for sale around the world. There is a lot of really ugly, poorly styled and executed 4-wheeled crap that is just begging you to spend your hand earned money. And in this time of globalization, we cannot just buttonhole ugly cars into the European and American camps, it is indeed a global phenomenon. And another thing, you will notice something fairly common about this list; all of them are SUVs, Crossovers (whatever that is) or mini-vans. This is not to say that there not are ugly sedans, coupes, convertibles and saloons, it is just that this current crop of people haulers are hideous.

So without further ado I bring you my list of the ugliest cars that you can purchase today. PLEASE buy them, so we can point and laugh. As one drives by, we can snicker, asking ourselves “what were they thinking?” Buy one! It gives us interesting things to talk about while driving and avoiding slow moving trucks lumbering in the left lane (or the right lane for you Commonwealth readers).

Honorable Mention: Gumpart Apollo (sorry “D”), Mini-Cooper Countryman, Lexus RX450, Lincoln MKT, Chrysler Towne and Country  / VW Routan.

10. Ford Flex, the choice of Mrs. Turner, a rolling refrigerator and not even one of the new sexy stainless steel French door ones. No this bad boy hits all the lows, classic two tone paint scheme with white roof, big fake chrome strip across the back and just the faintest hint of faux woody trim-lines along the side. Please Ford, you have so many other cool cars, fire the people that designed and OK’ed this one.

9. FIAT Doblo, is that Italian for dumpy? It just looks dumpy sitting there. You just know that the only purchases were for fleets, because nobody in their right mind would be caught dead in one they actually owned.

8. Honda Crosstour / Acura ZDX, that front end, that back end, it is just all wrong no matter what angle you view it from. Word is Honda is going to change it and they had better get to it quickly, this unsightly duo is among the worst selling cars in N. America. At least people are voting with their wallets and staying away from these in droves.

7. Peugeot Bipper, oh good lord….I should probably put this car as No. 1. That snout, I think that bulldogs everywhere are really pissed off; this car is trying to steal their mojo. But fear not, it could not possibly get worse…but it does.

6. Fiat Multipla, now I admit that FIAT had recently restyled this miserable excuse for a car. But I just had to show the older version, so you can bask in all his hideousness. What really sets it apart from all the other ugliness in the auto world are the two sets of headlights (one set integrated into the base of the windshield) and the tiny wheels tucked into that massive bulbous body.  Tu sei molto brutta  (you are very ugly). Oh yeah, you know you want one.

5. Pontiac Aztek, hey how did this get in here? Once ugly, always ugly…the benchmark for hideousness. As Jezza (Jeremy Clarkson for those of you who do not watch Top Gear on BBC2) would say “my eyes are burning!”

4. Infiniti QX56, this massive SUV has always been ugly. But it seems that every two years (in time for the restyle) the designers would get together at a SEMA show and ask themselves, “Guys…how can we possibly make this thing worse?” And do you know what, they have outdone themselves, I mean it has become a caricature of itself. That bulbous nose, those side grills, curves seemingly placed at random intervals everywhere, the only thing missing are some massive 26’s (but maybe those are an option!).

3. Nissan Cube, it looks like a bug and you just want to squash it. Square and curvy at the same time, the Cube should have stayed a concept car, one that disappeared into the company archives. That funky wrap-around back window, it is wrong from so many different angles. The front, the back, the sides, I sure hope the interior is decent, because the rest of it does not work. As bad as this in two dimensions, check out one of the road, you want to drive off in the other direction…quickly!

2. Ssang Yong Rodius, the Chinese may know how to design cars, but this is not one of them.  Where do start? With the rear…it gives the Aztek a run for its money.  The longer you look at it, the uglier it gets; an amazing feat really….

1. Nisan Juke, it is supposed to be clever, hip and cutting edge. Instead it is just plain butt ugly, but amazingly not from just one angle, but every angle. It is like the designers left no panel unspoiled. An amalgamation on organic shapes it looks bad standing still or moving…hopefully away from you. I mean look at the front, there is so much going on it take a referee just to sort everything out. Nice job Nissan, you are on a roll, three of my bottom 10. Cheers to your design team, their way forward is a sure fire way to get their cars noticed, but probably not in the way they intended…

Well there you have them; no really…you can take them all…please. What I think this means is that for the most part, hot hatches, coupes, sedans, saloons, convertibles and sports cars have come a long way design wise, none of them really offended me. But it is almost like the auto designers are torturing the poor buyers that have to move people or things.  Between bulbous, organic shapes and just plain old “trying too hard”, the current crop of utility vehicles is really at the bottom.  A shame really - because there are so many cool cars available for your money; pick wisely, or we will be laughing…and pointing…
Until next time.