March 07, 2003
Fire and Noise

I'm a car guy. Well, actually, I'm a machine guy. Cars just happen to be the most accessible complex machine I can get my hands on easily. There's pretty much nothing about a car I haven't tinkered with or thought about tinkering with or broke when I shouldn't have been tinkering with. I'm not alone, but I'm definitely in a minority.

To most people, cars are simply convenient lumps of metal useful for, even critical to, getting around in our daily lives. Oh there's definitely style involved, and competition. It does have to be pretty, even better when it's fancier than the neighbor's next door. Few know, or even care, what makes it tick, how it moves, why it works the way it does. If it breaks, they take it to get it fixed, and if it does so too often they get rid of it and buy a new one. What makes me so different? What makes car guys (or girls) tick?

I wasn't always this way. The first fifteen years of my life weren't dominated by cars, they were dominated by spaceships and airplanes. If it flew in the air or went into space, I was all over it like an octopus on a lobster. Cars were things that took me to places I could see airplanes.

1983 was when it all changed. Reagan was president, Michael Jackson's nose was still attached (we only thought he was weird looking back then), and Duran Duran was climbing the charts. 1983 was also the year the "4th Generation" Corvette premiered, and I was never the same again.

I lived Corvettes, I breathed Corvettes. I ate Chevy small blocks for breakfast and fiberglass bodywork for supper. I drove my parents insane with constant chatter about one feature or another of this amazing automobile. To this day I can tell the difference between a 58 Corvette and a 59 from a hundred paces. At $22,000 it was cheap for what it was (just as at $55,000 it's cheap for what it is today), but it was more than I could pull at $3.35 an hour, let alone what the insurance would've been.

But a funny thing happened on the way to fiberglass dreamland. The car magazines I poured through constantly didn't just talk about Corvettes. 1983 was the dawn of the age of emissions performance, when car companies were finally coming to terms with the odious (if necessary) tailpipe and safety regulations that nearly destroyed the car culture that came before.

Every month new and interesting cars were reviewed. They talked about what things did, and where they went, how they could be improved and what might be done if they were broken. They talked about new cars I could never afford and used cars I might have a shot at. They even talked a bit about the prettiest little Italian convertible I'd ever seen, and how anyone could own one if they just knew where to look.

Most of all they talked about how cars Worked. What made them tick, what each piece did, and how it fit in the whole. Turned out cars were every bit as interesting as airplanes, damned near as complex, and unlike airplanes all I had to do was walk into the garage to see one. Eventually people started asking me for car advice. Sometimes what I gave was even right.

I learned to appreciate that cars were in many ways rolling works of art. Some came off the factory floor that way, remarkable because of the passion and precision invested in their design from the outset. Others were transformed by their owners from cookie cutter transportation with all the character of a stale saltine to something utterly unique, literally like no other, sculpted according their will and wishes.

I learned there were posers and provocateurs, people who thought if it looked fast it must therefore be fast, or that if it got you envy or lust or power bedamned with whatever soul its designers gave it. I've seen countless innocuous Hondas transformed into booming, wheezing clown cars and innumerable BMWs treated like appliances because of these people.

Less contemptible but more numerous were the mundanes, people who would look at me and shake their heads at my lack of common sense. "What is wrong with you?", they would ask.

"Just get rid of it and get another one."

"You know, one of these days you're going to have to grow up and get something reliable."

"Do you have any idea what you just did to the resale value of that?"

"You know, with what you just spent you could probably have bought [something ugly, stupid, and boring]"

And on and on and on. In spite of their irritation, I have to pity them, because they just don't get it.

They think because they sometimes feel a little warm and fuzzy about their cars that I, we, all my fellow car nuts, simply magnify that emotion and turn our vehicles into surrogate metal children. They do not understand that we know quite well these things are machines, that, no matter how full of character they are or may become, they are still just metal and plastic. That, far more than they, we know these machines are neither warm nor fuzzy and are quite capable of inflicting pain, injury, or even death if abused, ignored, or neglected.

They do not understand that what we seek is extension, to become ourselves yet more... better. What we all reach out for, either through purchase or transformation (at times even both) is something that fits us like a second skin. Something that becomes transparent in our minds, melding and melting until, in that perfect moment, we feel the road under our tires, we sense the weight balance to get us through the next curve, we know exactly what it will take to shut down the challenger in the next lane, even when, because of, family members crying out from the back seat to stop us.

We cherish these vehicles not because we have made some infantile substitution for pets or children, but because they are Tools. Our very genes are stitched with the understanding of the power of tools, and these allow us to do things our ancestors could never dream of. With feet and hands we are able to run faster than the fastest horse, span distances in minutes that once took days, turn more quickly and with more precision than the most powerful leopard ever conceived. These are our chariots, and by controlling, maintaining, improving them we do, however briefly, become like unto gods.

If all this makes you sit back and sneer because we're arrogant or stupid or unrealistic I'm still going to feel sorry for you because you still don't get it. Just like you we know there are mortgages, and bills, and kids, and families, and responsibilities enough to crush Atlas to dust. Unlike you, we know with the turn of a key, the motion of a foot, the flick of a wrist, and the tool we picked or made for ourselves we become, however briefly, so much more.

You can still sit there, but if you do you'll never know what it's like to have the canvas thump of warm summer morning air on your face, decorated with the smell of fresh cut grass and dew, dancing with hands and feet to balance yourself and your vehicle, hearing the song of cams and chains and fire and noise all under your control as you swirl clippings in your wake, disappearing over the horizon with a roar and a shriek that echos through the empty mountains.

Go on. I dare you.

Turn the key and dance...

Dedicated to K & D, for both inspiring this essay and teaching me that just because it looks like a box and acts like a video game, doesn't mean it can't have a soul.

Posted by scott at March 07, 2003 08:16 PM

eMail this entry!

I forgot to tell you I have fallen in love. I just saw a commercial for the 2004 Pontiac GTO! Chrome yellow with a black interior. It will be mine when it comes out in September. Sorry about your inhertance. lol

Posted by: Pat on March 8, 2003 01:17 AM

Hey I changed my mind. My new true love is silver with a black leather interior. I just sent you a link to a pix.

Posted by: Pat on March 9, 2003 05:17 AM

Thanks for the essay. I have the same, addiction. Except I started out with Fords. 289s, 302s, and Clevelands. That was until a few years after high school (93-94). I started messing around with imports. And soon after, I became a complete Toyota freak. If it didn't at least have OHC's I didn't bother with it.

Yes, some may say that there is no replacement for displacment, or that there is nothing like the rumble of the Gods that comes out of a well cammed V8. But they do not know the sublties of a screaming 11k redline or the rush of boost that kicks in and makes your passengers wish they were wearing a diaper when they say "I though you said this thing was fast". Different strokes, I guess. (no pun intended)

By 96 I was knocking down steroided V8's with an MR2. 1.7 liters of rice burnin, bored, stroked and supercharged Hemi gerbil. While they were putting out 400 or 450 I was putting 210 on the pavement with pumpgas.

By 99 I was up to running 3liter I-6T MK-4 Supras. 320 from the factory but neither my wife or the insurance company knew that the twins had been replaced by a single "Not suitable for street use" turbo. 9.5k redline, 14lbs boost, an intercooler you could take a bath in and a trident of Supertrapps later I had a 560hp Banshee.

Sadly, unlike yourself, I was beaten off the line by practicality (marriage). It got parked. Then, soon afterward, the word came down from onhigh that it had to go. I was able to sell it to a friend (with a right of buy-back, of course) and get enough $$ to buy an F-150 and got to keep my garage full of spare parts(6 longblocks of varying models, 8 extra heads, and other misc parts too numerous to speak of).I have, also secretly, pumped up my Ford's 4.6liter to about 330hp, but it just doesn't hunker into a turn worth a crap, no matter what I do to the 4 corners.

It has been two years since the dreadfull "date of sale" and I am already having to get my fix by tearing apart and rebuilding my longblocks for fun (I refuse to tune others vehicles, even for $$, with few exceptions). But I have a dastardly plan. I bought the wife a project car for Christmas. 62 Ford Falcon S/W. In about 2 more years it will be done and ready for paint (289, C4, 9in, etc). After that I guarantee you she will not say a word when she comes home and sees my Banshee parked next to her wagon in the garage.

P.S.- I am not meaning to slight V-8's. They are the all-American motor. Put a Pontiac OHC 400 or a Ford 427 "Cammer" in front of me and I will commence drooling. And I do "Buy American", I buy my cars lightly used and 90% of my aftermarket parts are made here. Also, Hondas, Acuras, Nissans, and Mazdas can bite me. Mitsus are OK but they built Zeros during WWII while Toyota was building tractors.

Posted by: analog kid on March 9, 2003 08:28 AM

Fortunately, or not, depending on your point of view, I've never had the raw space to work on more than one car. I had actually turned away from the whole hobby, and had seriously considered selling my spider for lack of any workspace whatever. It's just no fun when you have to work on the thing in an abandoned parking lot three blocks from your tool chests, only when it's warm and only when you can get it done in a day.

I only recently got a garage, and have already completed probably half a dozen projects on my 71 Alfa Spider. I'm actually taking a break from installing a new top on it, which I've done at the liesurely pace of two to three weeks.

Where others went American, and still others Japanese, I stayed European, with a specialty in Italian. As with you, I respect them all, when done correctly, but have my own preferences. :)

I've always been a bit skeered of turbos because, as one Italian mechanic I talked to said, "they tenda to putta de hole inna de pistons."

Posted by: Scott on March 9, 2003 10:11 AM

I wish I had the $$ for el Italiano. Japanese is aout as far as my wallet will stretch. The older Alfas are nice little cars. I don't know where you're at, but here in Seattle we have a British/Italian shop that is reasopnably priced (in as much as Brit/Ital can be. Full machine shop too.)

As turbos and S/C add-ons go, you do have to make sure you have everything bolted down tight. And I don't just mean under the hood, if its done right. But so far I've been lucky enought not to have any sponaneous disassemly problems. They generally beat up the head and gasket(I've warped so many heads, I started using them as legs for tables and shelving). I've also seen bottom ends get turned into shavings by them. Toyota tends to overbuild their stuff (and has been using full hemis and semi-hemis since the mid 70's) so I've never really had that problem. I've witnessed their old Celica and SR-5 truck engine (the 20R and 22R) put out 250 and 300 very extreme horses on a stock crank.

If you ever decide to turn your Spider into a sleeper you can't go wrong with forced air. Just like 4-6lbs of boost and a mild cam would realy help show the young-uns a thing or two. You'd just have to find/fab a CFI kit. Also, I kind of remember someone making a conversion kit of sorts for Spiders to accept the Milano's V6(2.8 & 3L).

And something I forgot earlier. My favorite Stingray is the 1970 LS-6 ragtop. 450 factory horses w/one carb and close to 500 w/duals.

Agian, thanks for the post.

Posted by: analog kid on March 10, 2003 09:47 AM

..And of course Damion and I will take the Japanese road... me due in part to his influence. I must say though, I've been a Honda girl since I got my license about 13 yrs ago. Hondas are wonderful things, the most reliable cars I've come across. I've never been a "buy American" chick, mainly cuz in me and my friends' experiences, the American vehicles have been far under par to that of Japanese. Like Scott said, to each his/her own.

In recent times, I've been able to get to know tons more about cars, and understand the inner workings of many of their parts. Hell, I even learned to change oil, something I never thought my little dainty hands would go. (Well, the filter WAS on too tight, so Damion had to help and the oil did splatter all over HIS face, but that's not the point!!)

Cars are your 2nd home, you need to trust them with your life, and nurture them like children. They're an amazing machine that has gotten us so far in life, and I think some of us do take them for granted.

Posted by: Battie on March 10, 2003 09:54 AM

Alfas aren't really very expensive to buy, and if you pay the bucks to get one in good shape they can be reasonably reliable. They are, however, fragile and high-strung. If it breaks you need to either fix it or stop driving it until it's fixed, otherwise you'll break more stuff. It helps, a LOT, if you can do at least some of the work yourself. Otherwise it's difficult to stay "ahead" of the car.

We're located in N. Va.

The spider I have right now is a museum piece. I'm going to try to keep it as original as possible simply because it's so hard to find one in good shape and still original. That said, I may yet cam it up and get some headwork done. If I ever expand my garage space I probably will pick up a sedan and hop the hell out of it.

A blower would be difficult but not completely out of the question. Probably beyond my skills. However, you can get 170 out of a 2L 4C, and 250-ish out of the V6, so there's still plenty of room for improvements! :)

Posted by: scott on March 10, 2003 10:15 AM

As usual, a brilliantly written piece!

Posted by: Jim S on March 10, 2003 03:48 PM

As usual, a brilliantly written piece!

Posted by: Jim S on March 10, 2003 03:48 PM

I figure I'll be able to take a ride in the Alfa one of these days... well, maybe Damion first. Well, maybe even Ellen first, hahaha... and then the kitties...well, my turn will come at some point. It sits very nicely in your garage though!!

Posted by: Battie on March 10, 2003 04:25 PM

Haha, Ok, I finally got off of my butt to put in my first comment. Figured this one was appropriate enough.

I was a late blooming car-guy. Hells, I didn't even have my first car until my sophmore year in college. That car turned me into a car guy whether I wanted it to happen or not. It was an '86 Mercury Lynx, hahaha, in '96. By the end of that first month of owning it, I had changed out the entire exhaust and replaced the starter, and it only went downhill from there...

-POOF!- [or something like that]

Instant car guy. So, now I'm running in my Honda Civic with one hell of a powerful mess under the hood (for a civic, at any rate).

Now the best part of having a hobby, esp cars, is to find a good friend to share it with. Scott and I have become very close friends. Haha, me and my damn plastic video game econo-box, and him and his barely held together by widgets, older than dirt Alfa. But even better than picking on each others cars, is learning and actually tinkering on the others vehicle. So, to our current projects, and many more to tear down the 1/4 mile (or auto cross, whatever you prefer).

Posted by: Damion on March 11, 2003 09:26 PM

There are three of you, counting Jeff. Heaven help your wives. Damion, Scott will never forgive you for calling his "Museum Piece" Alfa that makes him feel at times "like unto a god", "a barely held together by widgets, older than dirt" Alfa! ROTFLMAOPIMP

Toooo Funny!

Posted by: Pat on March 11, 2003 11:55 PM

I have yet to meet Jeff and his almighty collection of V8's and hand-held cannons. Haha, Scott and I play with our little wind-up cars, nothing so manly as 400+ hp and torque. Still, we are all striving for the same goal, acceleration and handling so fast and tight, we end up crapping out a lung. (Just some of us have a much smaller, but vastly more efficient use of the displacement we have available). Cheers!

Posted by: on March 12, 2003 09:31 AM

I have yet to meet Jeff and his almighty collection of V8's and hand-held cannons. Haha, Scott and I play with our little wind-up cars, nothing so manly as 400+ hp and torque. Still, we are all striving for the same goal, acceleration and handling so fast and tight, we end up crapping out a lung. (Just some of us have a much smaller, but vastly more efficient use of the displacement we have available). Cheers!

Posted by: Damion on March 12, 2003 09:31 AM

So that is the goal, and I thought all along it was to get the dam thing up and running so he won't have to take the bus to work after Olivia is born. lol

Posted by: Pat on March 12, 2003 10:34 AM

haha, I wanna see a baby seat somehow strapped, glued, nailed or velcroed to the Alfa. Personally, I would say weld the thing on (do they even have any metal parts), but Scott won't let me near his car with a torch. I feel so insulted...

Posted by: damion on March 12, 2003 10:51 AM

Okay, if you EVER crap out a lung, I'm NOT cleaning it up!! I'm the lucky significant other of Damion. I support his "addiction" ... Hells, I've even gotten into it. I'm just hoping it doesn't get him killed, in jail, broke, etc. Maybe one of these days my little Civic will be a bit zippier.

Posted by: Battie on March 12, 2003 12:01 PM

heh... B: That's where the turbine comes in.

D: It's not older than dirt! It's just got a lot of old dirt! And they're not widgets, they're doomafaccis. I've heard about what happens when you start playing with fire... no kamikaze G.I. Joes for my lil car!

Posted by: scott on March 12, 2003 12:05 PM

I wouldn't let battie get a standard issue turbo kit. If she were gonna turbo her car, bwahaha, we would do it right, tear down the motor and build it up strong, from the inside out. Whey worry about blowing a stock engine at 8-9 psi when you can build it out and withstand 16-20 psi without breaking a sweat? if you want hp and torque, Battie dearest, let me know.

Kamakazi GIJoes??? Homemade rocket launchers??? Explosive scatter bombs??? Whatever do you mean? I'm perfectly doctile and quite responsible with combustables....

and I never cleaned a tub clog with acetone and a match, no matter what you may hear otherwise.

Posted by: damion on March 12, 2003 12:11 PM

Need somemore essays like this one. A feel good essay - the last three paragraphs made my heart beat faster, brought a smile to my face and tears to my eyes. I needed that - I think we all do right now

Posted by: Pat on July 24, 2003 12:09 AM

Pontiac never made an OHC 400 engine.The 400 was a V8 OHV that started in 1967.The OHC inline 6 lasted from 1966-1969.Used in Tempest/Lemans and Firebirds.Sprint option boosted HP and usually added stripes to the body.The engine had the backing of John Z Delorean (of Delorean sports car fame)as a "european" style engine.But alas,Americans didnt want European engines in their USA heavyweights,so the regular OHV inline six returned for 1970.
Pontiac had a unique 60s history....the 1961 Tempest with 1/2 of a 389 engine,flexible driveshaft and rear transaxle,then the 326 V8 Lemans for 1963,the GTO for 64 and the OHC six in 1966.They also won the car of the year award 3 times.but,once the 70s hit Pontiac was in trouble again.The unique engines/drivetrains were dead,the GTO was almost gone,and the big boats (with Edsel style nose) were their big seller.Not until the Trans Am hit it big in the late 70s (with the lackluster Sunbird,Ventura and Astre Chevy clones in between) did Pontiac see some hope.
The 1985 Grand Am (J/N body clone of every other divisions car)became the real savior,and those heady days of the 60s were by then forgotten.
Even Oldsmobiles Toronado FWD car was soon relegated to low brow status,as by then almost every other car was FWD.And lets not forget the Corvair,the Chevy that once was the most inventive thing on the road but soon became an overpriced,highly technical disapointment.GM would never want to remind us of that car now...

Posted by: Paul on May 23, 2004 12:45 PM
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