Monday, June 30, 2008

First Gear

So now I've had the Elise for two Months. I have to admit, the car is every bit as fun as it looks. This post is about some simple ways to have fun with a lotus. I'll start with the obvious ones

  1. Look at it. Once you have one, there is a serious temptation to seek out restaurant seating that affords a view of your car. Reading the owner's manual is also a great excuse to sit on the front stoop where you can see it.

  2. Drive it. This one applies only to well maintained roads. The car does a fabulous job of giving the driver feedback about the road. If you are driving on crappy surfaces the car will tell you all about it. It's not bone jarring, and one *does* get used to it after a couple weeks but I'd like to require certain road crews to drive a lotus on the roads they maintain. That said, given a half decent road, the mere act of driving is transformed into pure pleasure.

  3. People Watch. It's such a hot car that people stop and stare. I had one 16 year old kid nearly fall off his bike trying to watch me and cycle down the sidewalk. Parking it somewhere obvious and then sitting in a cafe across the street provides quite a bit of entertainment... And you get to do #1 at the same time :)

  4. Give people rides. This of course is a mixture of 2 and 3 through the lens of 60+mph exit ramps, and is even more excellent if the passenger is an attractive member of the opposite sex... Even if they are married, or just a friend, the rest of the world doesn't know that! Really, most people look at you like you've got it all... and if the attractive person is your girlfriend then they're right :) (at least within the visible parameters).

  5. Wash it. Yup, that's right, the once mundane and tedious task becomes a joy and a challenge. (Believe me the break dust IS a challenge). Once you get it clean... you really feel like the effort was worth it.
Those are the mundane everyday things at least. I've been so busy doing them that I've basically had most of this post sitting in draft for a month :) The car is obviously capable of competing in a variety of automotive sport events...

Next: Solo Bro

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The 111 Shift

The preceding posts form sort of an automotive memoir. Today begins the next chapter. Since the the point I left off in the last post I was promoted, switched jobs, got promoted and then promoted again. The income has doubled again, and I can finally afford to do that which I had only previously day-dreamed about. Today, I screwed the license plate on a real sports car. It looks awesome, and it is as fast as it looks. It is a type 111R Lotus... an Elise.

I put over 100 miles on it today and I have to admit I can't stop smiling. It is every bit as good as I imagined. It is convertible and although it does nothing to hide bumps on the road, you get the distinct impression that the car is saying "give me the road back" every time it rattles over a bump. There is never a second where the car feels like it isn't fully in control. I'm 100% sure I didn't take it anywhere near it's limit today, but I went faster and had more fun than I've ever had in an automobile. For my mother's sake I won't admit how fast.

Driving will never be the same. The car has a Blaupunkt radio. I'm not sure I'll ever use it. The sound of the motor is far more entertaining than some silly DJ. The dealer's stats on the car say it can do 0-60 in 4.9 seconds. I did a standing start full tilt to 50mph today (the speed limit on the road was 50, I topped out at 65 and then slowed back down), and I don't know how long it was, but holy crap It sure felt like no time at all. They say time flies when your're having fun. That may or may not be true, but I can say for sure.... A Lotus flies and it is definitely fun.

In any case I'll tell the story of how I found this particular vehicle and answer questions like why a lotus, why not xxxx car in future posts. For now I'll just cut to the pictures (My sister is already IM'ing me that she wants them)

Voluntary Zoom Zoom

The Protege was the first new car I had ever owned. The odometer was mostly zeros... I had seen that before, but the non-zero digit was on the other side. However within a week I had a problem. The engine began to randomly go into sag/surge cycles. When this started to happen the vehicle was almost unmanageable. I took it back to the dealer. They looked at it but couldn't reproduce the problem. I drove it away. A couple days later it came back. Again to the dealer again, no idea what caused it... I started talking about yellow fruit. The computer got replaced. It happened again I took it to a different dealer. They drove it and said that they didn't see any problems... It never happened again. I highly suspect that it was something simple that someone overlooked and they fixed it but didn't want to admit the problem. It was under warranty so it cost no money but was very annoying.

Along with that rocky start was another annoyance. About a week after I bought the vehicle, it was a windy day. The wind took the door in a parking lot. I was parked next to an old beat up suburban. WHACK! the door slammed into the wheel well of the suburban. Just a tiny mark on the already bespeckled suburban, but the edge of my door was bent. My nice new car had a big obvious dent. I was so annoyed and frustrated, but there was nothing to be done about it. The paint had not quite broken, and any attempt to fix it would almost certainly inflict further damage.

A week after that I came out from work to find a good sized ding with a smidge of red paint in it in the middle of my door. The area had plenty of parking spaces and they weren't even all that tight. But some bozo had simply been careless (perhaps as I had with the suburban) and now my car had 2 very noticeable dings in 2 weeks of ownership. My Firebird hadn't had any defects as large as either of those that weren't caused by rust.

The Protoge served me well for almost 6 years. It started to get old and require repairs. In the meantime my life had changed quite a bit. I had given up on finding a job in Ecology/Ornithology because none of them paid enough for me to live on. The ones that did pay well required a PhD rather than a masters, and generally had dozens of fully qualified applicants. The sign shop had gone out of business. The .com bubble had burst, but I had found a job as a Curricular Software Developer at F. W. Olin College of Engineering despite the programmer glut. I was cheap and the out of work programmers were used to 6 digit salaries. The grant that paid for that job ran out 2.5 years later. I got hired at a into a commercial setting. I began to appreciate Dilbert in new ways. I got promoted, I was now making twice what I did in the sign shop.

My Protege was not a very cool car. It was economical, but I no longer really needed to drive the cheapest car I could find. It was time for an upgrade. Finally, I was going to get to pick a car from a position of power, rather than a position of need. So I shopped around the internet and decided that given my rock climbing hobby, I needed to still retain some level of practicality. A sporty hatchback seemed like a good option. I decided that 3 cars looked interesting... The Volkswagon GTI, The Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, and the Mazda 3. I was skittish about VW's because I had known people who had repair problems with them. I drove the 3. It was substantially peppier than my Protege. It also cornered better. It had 6 disc CD, moon-roof and it was blue. I wanted a car with color. I had had grey white and fancy beige so far. It had a 2.3L 4 banger with variable vale timing and weighs 3300 lbs.

The Subaru I drove was also blue. It was a turbo charged with a bunch more max horsepower, but it had a 1.8L engine and weighed 3800 lbs. The low end torque was quite insufficient. One had to rev the engine to get the car to move. Once the turbo kicked in, it moved real good, but aside from getting on the highway, the power was not going to be very useful. The car was simply too heavy. Then there was the shifter. I swear, to date it's the only shifter in which I consistently couldn't find 3rd gear. The shifts were stiff and clunky and required a lot of force compared to both my current Protege and the 3. The third time I found myself skipping 3rd gear and going directly to 4th, I knew the sale was off.

I never bothered with the GTI. I liked the 3, and they were offering me 2.89% leasing on it so I bought it. I still own it today, and have been very pleased with it except for one thing. Mazda made a very bad choice with the oil filter. For the first 2 years it was impossible to find an oil filter anywhere but the dealer, and it cost $15 from the dealer. What ever possessed them to make the oil filter a dealer part! Talk about annoying. Obviously they were trying to force me to bring the car back to the dealership. I hate being pushed around like that. I have yet to take the car back to the dealer for service even once, and don't plan to do so if it can be avoided.

Finally, I had a car I really wanted. It wasn't a sports car, but it was a very good driver for a non-sports car. I still remembered driving my dad's Miata. That was fun, but I had moved into a new apartment and my new income was being fully utilized again...

Next... Incoming type 111

Friday, June 13, 2008

Totally Shifting to Practical

All in all the Firebird was a good car, but all good things must come to an end. In the winter of 1998/1999 my water pump went. The parking arrangements were not near a building, and one of the bolts was corroded into the block permanently. I had to buy a battery operated dremmel and cut the head off the bolt. The car was out of commission for 3 weeks. During the debacle it sat still and probably appeared unattended. Someone broke in and stole the spoiler off the back. Some of my rust repairs were incomplete through the winter. It was neither pretty nor powerful.

The following spring I was driving home from work and I thought I saw a kestrel in a tree to the left of the road. Having done my masters research on that species of bird, I was distracted for a few seconds. Unfortunately, in the intervening seconds the gray Ford Taurus in front of me decided to stop for a left hand turn. I did my best to stop. I would have swerved but by a freak chance there was a man pouring gas into his truck to the right, and oncoming traffic to the left. I had nowhere to go.

The impact was probably around 10 mph or maybe a little more. I was stunned by my own stupidity, but otherwise no one was hurt. No glass was broken. The Taurus had just a tiny scratch on the bumper... Not so with the Firebird. The bumper was crooked, and pushed back. The left fender was slightly bent. The hood was untouched and the car still drove fine, but the left headlamp no longer poped up. Repair would be mandatory to pass inspection. Then the insurance numbers came back. The front of the engine compartment was slightly bent. The cost of repair was over the value of the vehicle. It was a total.

After deductible, I had 2 grand. I was working in a sign shop making $12 an hour. I had to keep the payments down. I was paying off school loans and credit cards. My financial situation didn't leave room for lots of savings or tolerance for unpredictable large repairs. A low milage or new car seemed like a good idea if I could keep the payments under $200. I test drove a Hyundai Accent. It was an automatic, and I think my Schwinn Tornado had a bigger motor. The thought of drivng that car made me want to puke. I also specifically wanted a manual. I had learned to drive stick on the GMC 3500 utility truck at the shop, and in my dad's 1990 Miata. Though I could drive a stick, I knew I'd never really get good at it unless I owned one.

Why drive a manual? Why get really good? I of course rationalized it with "better gas milage," "Better able to take the keys from a friend if they are drunk," and "better able to handle any vehicle that I might need to use when I finally got a job doing biological field work." But inside, I also knew that I felt slightly inadequate around people who did know how to drive a stick. Also, I remembered the experience of being unable to test drive the Capri myself. If I ever was going to have a sports car later in life, driving a stick was obviously mandatory.

Luckily, I found a good deal. I found a new manual Mazda Protege that was a left over from the previous model year. Furthermore, it was an ES model which meant it had a CD player, moon roof and the 1.8L engine not the 1.6L. It also had a shifter that felt a lot like a long version of my dad's Miata. If there is one thing I've decided I like, it's the Mazda shifters. As of today, I've driven or test driven manual transmissions on a GMC 3500, Toyota Tacoma, Toyota Corrola, Mazda Miata, Mazda Protege, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and a Lotus Elise. The best shifter was the short throw in the Miata, the Protege and the Lotus tie for second, followed closely by the 3. The trucks follow on as passable. The Corrola was clunky but usable, but the (brand new!) Impreza was just down right annoying and difficult.

The Protege was "sand" colored (fancy beige) and totally boring for looks, but it weighed in at a just over 3000 pounds. It actually had similar power to weight and acceleration to the heavier V6 automatic Firebird. Of course the cornering wasn't as good, but with the manual, it was at least as fun to drive...

Next, A Voluntary Vehicle...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fire Duck Redemption

Although the v6 2.8L Firebird was not a performance vehicle, it was an improvement. It sat lower and cornered substantially better than a station wagon. Exit ramps came alive as a source of entertainment. It also had a little more horse power than the LTD wagon. I don't know the weight of the LTD, but I suspect it was heavier than the Firebird. It was more fun to drive. My best friend got a Honda Civic around the same time. My car was cooler than that.

The Firebird V6 engine did have one tangible benefit over a V8. There was lots of room in the engine compartment. It was easy to work on. Since I was in college and had no real income self repair was a key benefit. During it's tenure, I replaced lots of stuff including the alternator, the radiator hose, an annoying radiator pipe that ran down beside the engine, the sparkplugs, the entire radiator, the starter and the bushings on the sway bars. I learned about torque wrenches and started to accumulate metric tools. And of course there was body work... endless body work fighting off the rust caused by the salt of New England roads in the winter.

I graduated college, and went on to Graduate school in Buffalo. For my research project I studied a bird called the American Kestrel. Each pair requires several square miles of territory. Among other things I was checking nest boxes for occupation, clutch sizes and fledgling counts and most nest boxes were a mile or more apart. The research was conducted south of Buffalo near Springville NY. I drove all over the nearby villages of East Otto, East Concord, Morton's Corners Riceville and others. This was farmland. The roads were undivided 2 lane, hilly and mostly 55 mph. Even in a V6 Firebird there were thrills to be had driving between nest boxes except when the roads turned to dirt.

During the winter, in Buffalo, a Firebird can only be described as less than ideal. Rear wheel drive and light in the back, I learned a lot about skid control. I discovered that sometimes the easiest way to make a turn in the snow was to intentionally pop the back free and let it swing the car until it faced the new direction. That was a fun trick especially if someone was in the car to gasp and curse about it.

Even though it was not high performance in any way, I did enjoy driving the Firebird. No peel outs, no drag racing, but more turning than a station wagon, and I had never driven a real performance vehicle, so I didn't have a clue what I was missing.

Next... Totally Mazda and a stick.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Flameless Bird

The LTD served me through the end of high school, and into college. It was the summer after my sophomore year and I was driving by the local ice cream stand when I realized that the slight squishiness in the accelerator that had been creeping up on me suddenly was getting much worse. Stepping on the gas was actually cutting power initially. The fuel pump had gone. The fuel pump was unfortunately located above the gas tank. The repair promised to exceed the value of the car by a significant margin and my parents weren't up for that. The old gray whale was finally beached.

I had no real money at the time. I had just embarked on a summer job selling knives. I had manged a few small sales and one big one. My commission rate had just been bumped up. It looked like I might possibly start making money soon, but without a car I'd be out of a job. My parents decided to support my new job and fund a replacement vehicle. I wanted a sportier car, preferably a V8, but the price range left only 5+ year 90k+ Mustangs, and F bodies in play, and those were not so easy to find at dealerships. My parents strongly preferred dealerships. I found a Capri with a V8 (the Mercury version of a Mustang). The big problem was I didn't know how to drive a stick. I basically had to rely on my dad to test drive it for me to see if it was in good working order. We did that, but the sales tactics at the Boch Used Car dealership on Route 1 where I found it were a deal breaker. They used high pressure to the max, and really stupid tactics like holding my dad's credit card hostage during the negotiations. After 30 minutes of that, I wouldn't have let my dad buy the car for me. I was that pissed at the salesman. Any hope of getting the Capri was caput.

Then my mom got involved. It became clear that a V8 was not acceptable. I wasn't paying, so it was kinda hard to complain much. It wasn't a birthday or graduation gift, it was a car to keep me employed. I came dangerously close to having a white K car station wagon. I really wanted a sportier car than the LTD, so a compromise was struck when we found a white 1989 Firebird. At least it had some style, and a lower center of gravity. It wasn't a V8, nor was it the turbo V6, nor was it a manual transmission, and it didn't have the big decal on the front. It was essentially hollow with respect to performance but it did look a little like a negative of KITT from Nightrider.

It was a piece of pretty, white fluff. It did attract attention which was fun the first few times it happened. But I soon discovered that after praise such as "Cool car" or "Nice ride" came the standard inquisition from people who knew anything about cars:

Them:"What year?"
Them:"Nice, is it the 3.8 Turbo 6?"
Them:"Ah well the 5.0 liter V8 is good too"
Me:"actually it's a v6"
Them:".... mmm .... well the 2.8 is a good reliable engine. You do have the 5 speed don't you?"

Usually the person didn't know what to say after that and neither did I, so the conversation generally ended there. Half the time they asked about the V8 before the turbo, not that it mattered in the end.

Next... Fond memories of my lame fire duck.

In the beginning...

In high school, I was not terribly into cars. My first car was a 1984 Ford LTD. It was a mid-sized station wagon... yes you guessed it, the old family car. Technically, it wasn't even mine. In some ways getting a Schwinn Tornado bike with knobby tires that made it an actual "dirt" bike when I was 11 was cooler than when I received the small gray boat I drove in high school. Of course all the freedom and independence of a car was cooler than any bike, but when I got the bike I wanted to show it to my friends. Not so much with the LTD. Although I never did any off road bike racing, I had a bike that could do that sort of thing and that was cool. This probably also explains the indifference to maintenance that led me to learn the hard way why it is you want to check the oil regularly. Honestly, I thought my dad was checking the oil, but he was quite reasonably expecting me to do it. Yes, that's right, I blew the head gasket, billowing white smoke out the tail and all. The car survived. One hell of an expensive repair later, I was on the road again. This my parents paid for bless their souls. I was not employed at the time, with the idea of focusing on my school work. I did eventually obtain scholarships in excess of the repair amount, so I guess that makes up for it somewhat.

I'm sure that those looking in from the outside, wouldn't have thought I'd be getting a sports car later on in life. Looking back I remember a few things that were only visible from inside my head that do foreshadow the adventure I am embarking on. I distinctly remember doing 45-50mph down the road by the lake, which was totally unsafe, but the curves were fun. Thankfully, I only did that a few times. There was a tiny rotary at the top of the lake. If I came into it in the far right of my lane, flirted with scraping the left side of my car on the rotary's curbstone at the midpoint and narrowly missed the curb with my right wheel as I came out of it I didn't have to slow down at all. I did this every chance I got. Finally there was the time I laid down a good 2-3 car length skid mark on the road that lead to the shopping area. I had left a mark on the road... That was neat. Of course in a mid-sized grocery-getter, the only way to leave a mark is with a good long panic stop. Today, I would consider laying down such a skid to be the result of very poor defensive driving on my part. Luckily, I did manage to avoid having an accident with the cretin that pulled out without so much as a glance in my direction.

So I wasn't so much into cars, but I would say I was somewhat into driving. At least I was into driving as much as one could be with a station wagon...

Next... birds with no flames.