Sportwagons I Have Known
Our star-crossed relationship with "Flash" the BMW 540i finally arrived at its fateful finale after 18 months. Mechanically, it was a fine car. Electronics were the problem as systems started failing more quickly than I could diagnose and fix them.
The rear hatch latch would mysteriously open (probably a short caused by frayed wires near the hatch hinges). The rear parking lights would work, then not, then work again. The external temp gauge wiring would come loose, causing the heater to turn on full blast.
The left-rear wheel speed sensor failed, disabling the speedometer and the ABS system. I replaced that sensor, only the have the right-rear sensor fail. Both sensors had corroded to the point of fossilizing into the hubs so they had to be drilled and chiseled out.
The last straw was the self-leveling suspension mysteriously going into fully extended mode for three days, then mysteriously resetting itself.
While I generally enjoy working on my cars, most of these electrical problems were impossible to diagnose without a proprietary BMW GT1 system and the closest one was hours away. I started adding up the costs of new hub carriers, removing the SLS... not to mention the 18 MPG we were getting. Not worth the trouble...
So we traded in Flash on a 2014 Jetta Sportwagon TDI. Finding a 6-speed manual proved difficult, but worth it for the Jetta (which does not have paddle shifters for the DSG transmission). Not as quiet, luxurious or rattle-free as the big BMW, but the TDI gives us nearly 40 MPG even climbing up and over Vermont mountains with snow tires and a ski box. It's at least as big inside as our old 325i wagon and I find the seats more comfortable.
After a few months, I like it enough to consider another Golf or Jetta TDI as a second car.
Country of Origin
As a "car guy," there's sometimes a feeling that I really haven't driven that many different cars. I suppose part of that is in relation to the professional automotive journalists whose opinions we read in the magazines and online. So I recently sat down and compiled a list of all the cars I had spent enough time driving to form an informed opinion of their qualities.
Excluding cars we'd owned or I'd been hauled around in before getting my driver's license, and considering the car-less decade we'd spent living in urban San Francisco and New York City, the list ended up being longer than I expected: 45 cars, all told.
Some I'd owned, some I'd borrowed, some I'd rented. Some were test drives — not the most thorough experience, but you do get a feeling for how the car handles. Hats off to the BMW Ultimate Drive to Cure Cancer program for giving me un-supervised access to most of the Bimmer lineup on a few occasions.
Not a bad tally since I've only actually owned 9 cars, total.
Who Made That?
After compiling my list of cars, another question came to mind: had I favored cars from one country over the years?
Offhand, I would have guessed that German cars would be over-represented. I do have a thing for them, after all.
Interestingly, 15 of the cars were from US manufacturers, 13 from German manufactures, 11 from Japanese manufacturers and the rest from Swedish, Korean and English marques.
If you know a bit about import car economics, however, another interesting question arises: where were these cars built?
Nationality of the manufacturer is pretty easy to figure out. Finding out where these cars were built can be a bit more work. For example, in this list of the most popular cars by state, it looks like 7 of the 11 most popular cars are Japanese. Appearances are deceiving: all of those models except the Prius are assembled in US factories, and Prius assembly lines here are in the works.
Taking those US assembly lines into account, the "country of origin" alignment of my driving history changes a bit. Since most Honda Accords, Civics, Toyota Camrys and even BMW Z4 roadsters are built in the US, the percentage of Made In USA cars I've driven jumps to 52%.
Does Made in USA Matter?
I do care where the things I buy are made. Country of origin is not the only criteria — quality, cost and sometimes style and other aspects come into play.
All thing being equal, I like to think about who benefits from my purchase. If I can put some money in a neighbor's pocket and get quality goods or services in return, I like that. It supports my neighbors and my community directly. Even if it's buying a random product from a local store, the cashier's paycheck goes back into our community.
Looking out a bit further, American-made products support the wages of people in communities across the country. A bit further out, countries like Germany treat workers with respect, with union work rules and social services that ensure a high quality of living.
I like German cars, in part because the design, engineering, construction and performance are superior, and it doesn't hurt that the folks who build them are treated with respect and can support their families in good times and bad. Likewise, every Honda I've owned or driven was built by folks right here in the US.
Which is best?
After all that hand-wringing, you're probably wondering: which did I like best?
To date, the most impressive car I've driven was then then-new 1987 Porsche 944 S. Overwhelming power, to me, is not as enjoyable as a nimble car with just enough extra HP to cause a little trouble. This was all the understated interior comfort of my '80 Scirocco, and the same general feel, but with a far better engine and suspension. But at the time it cost about the same as my entire college education (room and board included). So no dice.
Runners up include the BMW 330i and the federalized Lotus Elise. My current old Porsche is showing the potential to rival these cars, but needs some restoration work to meet its full potential.
We also owned a Honda Civic Si and Accord coupe back in the '80s that left good memories, but that was long enough ago that I wonder how they'd stack up today.
At the bottom of the list? Unfortunately, a few Chrysler products. Two of them — and Aries K-car and a first-generation Jeep Liberty — account for some of the scariest drives of my life.
Note: While there were 45 cars in my list, the stats account for only 44. The last one is a purpose-built race chassis for which I could not determine a country of origin. A first-world problem, for sure.
Bennington Classic Car Show
I Was At Woodstock
Happy Father's Day
My grandfather's ratchet, passed down through my father to me, alongside a new 1/2-inch ratchet, gift from my daughters this Father's Day.
Midgets in Manchester
Rain may have kept some away from the annual vintage car show in Manchester, VT, but the midgets showed up in force. This flathead-powered example was looking fast on the lawn.
Spring is here, but winter projects aren't quite finished yet.
Any project that takes more than an afternoon includes the potential for parts to get mixed up or lost, or for systems to be left in an inconvenient (or dangerous) state.
Ever left the battery unconnected and couldn't figure out why the engine wouldn't start? Or forgotten that the brake line was open and stepped on the brake pedal? Yeah, not a mistake you want to make twice.
Inspired by those "Remove before flight" warning streamer tags we've all seen in Top Gun and the like, I got in touch with a fellow 912 Registry member with experience maintaining airplane engines, asking for more detail. He, in turn, directed me to the FAA aviation parts tagging system, which gave me further inspiration.
What I came up with was a simple, reusable hang tag reminder system using wire labels and colored name tags.
What you'll need:
Directions: Put a label on the tag. Write your note on the label. Attach tag to part. Have a beer.
You can get cute and color code your tags — red for warning, green for parts ready to use, blue for parts that broke your heart, and so on. I used the red ones to remind me to not step on the brake pedal when the system was open. I used other tags to keep fasteners labeled by original location, size and whether they are reusable, to be restored or need replacing. That kind of thing. You could make a checklist for re-assembly steps. Things like that.
The wire makes these easy to attach, detach and reuse. Slap a new label on and you're good to go for the next project.
The bad news: the Avery tags only come in a box of 1,000, which I think is overkill for even the most OCD restoration project. The good news: my local stationer sells them for 10 cents each. Maybe yours does, too.
(Photo by Terrence Dorsey)
My Grandfather's Ratchet
This is my grandfather's Snap-On 1/2-inch ratchet. Family lore dates it to the 1920's, but it's actually a 1953 No. 71-M. It served three generations of our family faithfully. Now it's broken.
My grandfather was an old-school teamster — and I mean that in the sense that he started out leading teams of horses. He worked in a coal mine, drove buses in Yellowstone Park and eventually made a career delivering gasoline from a depot in West Sacramento.
When my grandfather passed away, his modest set of tools went to my father. Eventually, when I started on my own projects, this particular tool made its way into my toolbox.
I built my first engine with this ratchet (with a lot of help from the guys at Import Specialties in Walnut Creek). It was a mild hot-rod 1600cc VW engine for my '63 ragtop beetle. German case and heads. Scat cam... good stuff from Ralph's parts stash. Ran like a top for years.
This year, working on the Porsche, the ratchet mechanism wore out. I called Snap-On. 60 years later, they're happy to send me a new one — a modern, Dual 80 1/2-inch ratchet of my choice — to replace it. And I almost took them up on the offer. But...
This particular tool holds a few too many memories for me to give it up.