Tag Archives: cars

Wheels

28 Mar

Well, last weekend, I finally got to do what I’ve been wanting to do for ages, and that is buy my oldest son, Joel, a car. Which is only the ending part of the story. As I mentioned in my story from last spring, when we bought our twin sons a car to share, we’ve always been in the camp that kids don’t need their own cars. Neither my wife nor I had our own cars until deep in college, and so we never bought the kids cars when they turned 16. Is it more convenient for them to have their own at that age? I’m sure it is – but it just wasn’t how either of us were raised, and therefore, it wasn’t how we were going to proceed. But at some point, necessity wins. For the car we bought for Alex and Brian, it was Brian heading off to community college every day this year that forced the hand. And for Joel, well, it was landing the coolest summer internship we and he could possibly imagine.

In case you’re living somewhere under a rock, Tesla Motors is the “it” car company right now.  It has been compared to Apple computer in the mid-80s – it is inventing the future as we speak, and that future is electric cars with rapid charging ability, high performance (rather than the whiny little golf-cart-esque things that other car companies are putting out), extreme luxury, unimaginable features, best-in-class-safety and incredible beauty all in one.   They are inventing a nationwide rapid charging network just for Tesla owners, they are building a battery plant that is 10X the size of anything around today to serve the industry, and again, they are inventing this category.

2013-Tesla-Model-S-rear-three-quarter-1

And they hired my son, Joel, as an intern this summer in their paint engineering department at their production plant in Fremont, CA, in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area.  Wow. So suddenly, the necessity requirement for the car purchase is being met.

This story wouldn’t make sense without getting to know my son a bit. This little boy has loved cars and everything to do with cars since he was old enough to make the Pbbbbbbbbbbbb sound with his mouth – and would push around non-car objects like they were cars – that at 7 months old. His favorite toys were all cars. At the ripe age of 3, he had the starting lineup of the NASCAR Winston Cup series committed to memory, and I’m not talking about just drivers names, but their sponsors, their numbers, their engine builder, their owner, the whole shebang.  I could have won bar bets with him, and when I took him to his first NASCAR race (a Busch Series race at the Milwaukee Mile) just after his third birthday, he demonstrated that prowess and got people to buy me beers (“Buddy, you’re raisin’ that boy right, lemme buy ya a beer.”).

He would watch NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, World Rally Car (WRC), Super Bikes, etc. etc. non-stop on Speed Channel (RIP!), ESPN, national TV, etc.  He cried his eyes out when Dale Earnhardt was killed.  I bought him a pedal-powered Indy Car and a little play helmet and he’d strap that helmet on and race around the driveway, and then declare himself the winner, stand up in the car and conduct a winner’s interview with himself, perfectly mimicking the winner’s speech of “Well, the DuPont Pepsi Hendricks Chevrolet was just awesome today, and the work of the crew is what got me here.”

He would hold races of his 1/64th scale Indy and NASCAR toy cars on our dining room table, carefully logging the starting positions, the ending positions, the series points and more in notebooks. As he got older and got into video games, he would consistently completely ace the latest computer or console racing games. Right now he’s in the top percentiles of all registered players on some of the best/hardest racing games like Forza and others.

Most kids, when they get their licenses, do stupid things, get tickets, wreck cars, etc. Not Joel. Not at all Joel. He guards his driving privilege closer than anyone I know. Other than one unfortunate encounter with the corner of our garage and our minivan’s bumper a week after getting his license and one scrape of a mailbox a couple of months after that, he’s not had any accidents driving. He went five years with his license before he got his first ticket and that was driving back and forth from his internship with Nissan in Detroit last year.

He went to school to get a job with a car company. He started out as a mechanical engineering major and during his junior year, he realized that wasn’t for him and changed majors to his current one, Technology Systems Management, which, is really the applied side of engineering. Everything he’s done at school has pointed to that – the biggest of which is Formula SAE.  FSAE is a racing program sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. FSAE teams design and build from scratch a “formula-style” race car (picture below) every year.  They then compete in FSAE competitions where they have a business proposal competition (how much does it cost to build it and what are the projected production costs in a volume run), a design competition and competitions in a variety of tests of the car itself – static tests where the car is still, and dynamic tests like acceleration, braking, skidpad, and then autocross and endurance racing. He started as a freshman apprentice, being a general go-fer, and has worked his way into the team leadership this year.

Here is Joel at the wheel of the 2013 Illini Motorsports FSAE car in a testing session last summer:

joel_fsae

So, I guess I’ve set the stage for “Joel is a car guy”. As part of his run up to a career in the automaker business, the next stage is interning – and last summer, he hit a great one.  He interned at Nissan in their technology center in Farmington Hills, MI. Nissan paid well, provided him a company car to drive (and damn nice ones too) and he spent the summer kart racing with an old friend of mine from high school who works there too (and helped foam the runway).  Unfortunately, Nissan wasn’t able to pick him up for this summer – with his change from Mechanical Engineering to Tech Systems Management that took him out of contention. He had fairly well planned on going back to his old summer job of being a camp counselor at a local day camp (which is a great job, so don’t take that the wrong way), when out of the blue, the dream internship happened. He got a call from Tesla Motors where someone that knew him from FSAE had recommended him. After a very short interview period, he got the job and he’s headed to California for the summer.

As a car guy myself (the Brits call it being a “petrol head”), it has pained me that I haven’t been able to buy my petrol head son a car, but it just hasn’t been a necessary expense. And when you’re dealing with five-figure expenses, it needs to be necessary.  But with the internship in California and all, it became time. So he and I started doing research – I should say he started doing research, with me sort of following. My wife was still pretty soft on the idea – she recognized the need but the expense scared her – and it does me.  But, we’ll manage. On Saturday, he came home for the weekend, and we set out to look at two cars, with no intent on buying either. But the second one we looked at, a pristine 2007 VW GTI just spoke to me.  Joel was meant to drive that car. The car looks and drives like new and had a perfect record on CARFAX with all service details documented.  Doesn’t get better than that. After much “gut wrenching” thought, and a quick phone call to Robin, much to Joel’s surprise, I said to the dealer “Ok, if we take it today, what can you do on the price?” I thought Joel’s head was going to pop. The look on his face was completely priceless. We did the deal and I thought the kid was going to do cart wheels on his way to the car.

One HAPPY kid:

IMG_1010

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I also have a VW GTI – a 2011.  It is the perfect blend of a performance car and practicality. Tons of room inside to haul people and stuff. And when it’s just you, a curvy road and the gas and brake pedals, it flat hauls ass.  So Joel and I have “dad and son VW GTIs.”  And while he’s over the moon happy that he finally has a ride of his own, I’d stack my happy against his and probably win that I was able to do this for him.

The boys with their toys:

 

IMG_1011

To him, I’ve said – “Have fun with it but drive it safely everywhere that’s not a race track.”  But I also said, “and when you do hit the track, look out for the guy in the midnight black GTI, because it’s going to be dear old dad who is not going to give an inch to you.”

As you were,

Stew

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It’s a POLAR VORTEX ladies and gentlemen!

6 Jan

Polar vortex.  Historic cold wave. Subzero. Dangerous wind chills.  Coldest in 20 years! Flesh will freeze!  Auuughhhh!

Ok, yeah it is f’ing cold out there.  Yup, it really hasn’t been this cold in 20 years, I guess.  (Hello all you global warming naysayers, there’s a data point for you …)  That said, I really don’t like to play the “well when I was a kid” card, but hell … when I was a kid …

… I remember it routinely got to -20 in Central Iowa during January.  We were sort of proud of it!  “Booyeah!  20 Below!”  If it was promised to hit -20 and it “only” got to -19 or so, we were disappointed.

… We weren’t horrified of the cold, we were fascinated by it.  Different things happen when it’s that cold.  One of my friends always liked to say he could feel the boogers freezing in his nose.  If you wore a scarf over your mouth, you’d get a “frost beard” on your scarf by the time you got done walking to school (yes, we WALKED to school!).  You’d do things just to see how cold it was – spit on the sidewalk, pee in the snow (“Really, I swear it froze into an icicle on the way down!”), and of course the continual dares to lick the flagpole, although I don’t ever recall enacting that famous scene from A Christmas Story.

flick-flagpole

… Never, EVER burned a snow day on cold weather that I remember.  Didn’t happen.

… I can remember heading out to ski and sled in the back yard of our second house when the temps were below zero.  You just wore extra clothes and came in a bit sooner.  And the hot chocolate tasted that much better.

… Growing up, in our first house, we had an ice rink in our back yard – so much fun skating around back there.  Every night my mom would go outside with a bucket of water to groom the ice – no Zamboni – just pour fresh water on the ice.  On below zero days though (which were common …), sometimes the water would roll out across the ice and stop – creating a bumpy surface that sucked for hockey … but it’s just what happened.  No one thought much about it.

… Remember cars had carburetors back then?  That’s when you really had to worry about the car starting.  Carbs don’t like cold – the engine running right depends on fuel atomization into a mist, and that little process doesn’t work well in below-zero temps.  Nowadays?  Fuel injection and computers – turn the key, start cranking and when the computer senses things are at the right conditions, it squirts the fuel in and bang – no problem.  Biggest thing you need to worry about is keeping a full tank and a good battery.

… I remember my dad’s cold weather routine with the cars – both cars had engine block heaters that you’d plug in at night, so we had cords running all over the driveway – both were plugged into an outlet that was controlled by a switch in the kitchen.  For some reason, my dad thought it wasn’t smart to leave them plugged in overnight or he was just too frugal for that, so he’d wake up super early – 5:00 AM or so, and go down and “flip the switch” to turn on the engine heaters.  The mantra was if you had to wake up to pee in the middle of the night, then you needed to go flip the switch in the kitchen.  If it was going to be colder than 20-below, then the routine was modified to go outside and start both cars about 10 PM and let them both run for 20 minutes to come to operating temp (ah, cheap gas …) before going to bed.

… the other big, important thing was to go get the milk from the milk box (remember those?) before it froze.  The milk man from Anderson-Erickson dairy would deliver our order every other day (1 half-gallon “homo” – I don’t think they use THAT term any more for whole milk – 1 half gallon “skim”, 1 quart Tropicana OJ) at about 5:00 AM and on 20-below zero days, the milk would start to freeze pretty quickly, so immediately after “flipping the switch” you needed to get to the milk box by the door to bring it in.

milk-box

… on super cold days like this, we’d have school, but we’d have indoor recess, and that was always fun – you’d head to the gym and basically have a free-for-all – it was like disorganized gym class.  Occasionally, they’d organize something for recess like a show, or music, or something and you’d have to go sit in the gym, which sucked, because the point of recess was that we had been sitting too long and were needing to jump around.

So, as I sit on this empty train, and it’s a chilly -10 outside with a -35 wind chill, I think, would this train have been empty 40 years ago?  Nope.  We didn’t have 24×7 news cycles, The Weather Channel, social media, You Tube videos, etc. all telling us that hell is officially freezing over.  So we just soldiered on.

Maybe we need more soldiering on in this world.

As you were,

Stew

That first car

12 Apr

We reached a fun milestone at the Campbell house last night. I came home with a car for my sons. We staved off this decision for as long as we could for a combination of both money and principle but with Alex and Brian graduating this spring, and Brian staying local for college and living at home next year, it was time. Which of course, brought me around to thinking about first cars, my first car, other people’s first cars, etc. etc.

I think getting your first car must be a uniquely American rite of passage (and I’d love it if my pals in the UK could weigh in on the concept). And I think it’s probably a bigger deal for males than females, although I do know a lot of girls that love their cars and were so excited with their first cars. The timing of a first car is also an interesting thing – I do know many people that got their first cars on or around their 16th birthday – and it was truly a car for them. The really lucky ones (and some might say spoiled) got NEW cars for that occasion. Then, there were those of us that got cars at a later age. I got my first car the summer before my junior year in college. My sister got her first the fall of her junior year in college. My folks were of the opinion that high school kids didn’t need cars of their own, and the family ride was perfectly fine. Considering that my dad liked to have a fairly new car as the family car, and we liked a bit of luxury, though in a Midwestern, conservative vein (think Oldsmobile, versus Cadillac), I always had a nice car to take on dates. Whereas I think if the folks had gotten me a car of my own, it would have have been a smaller, not as nice car.

I’ve always been “a car guy” though – I love the damn things, much to the disdain of my finances. I’m sure my net worth would be a six-figure number higher if I’d driven tired rides to their graves versus buying or leasing new cars every 3 or 4 years through most of my adult life. But, I wouldn’t have had as much fun and at the end of the day, life is worth living. And since cars are a part of my life, it’s been a worthwhile and necessary expense. My first car therefore, was a great “car guy” car – high performance, super fun to drive, etc. A 1979 VW Scirocco.  (while the picture at left isn’t mine, mine looked exactly like this)  1974-volkswagen-scirocco--2_460x0wIt was just at 4 years old when we bought it, had about 60,000 miles on it, and ran like a rocket. In a day where 5.7 liter V8 engines in Corvettes and Camaros and Mustangs were smog-controlled back to about 165 HP, my little Scirocco cranked 115 hp from it’s 1.8 liter 4 cylinder in it.  And because the car weighed all of 1950 lbs, it’s power to weight ratio was better than that in a Firebird Trans Am. And that made it just as fast.  The best/funniest thing about it was my Dad – any time I pulled my car into the driveway behind his, it would be gone the next morning – he loved that little thing and it’s 5-speed manual transmission and thundering stereo. He would pull off the sunroof panel (remember those?), pop in a cassette of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, slap it into gear and blaze off, redlining the engine on every shift.

I remember the day we went to buy it like yesterday. My Dad had given me a car shopping budget and basically no parameters beyond mileage – not more than 70,000 miles, and not more than $4000. Beyond that, have fun. I knew about Sciroccos and VW Rabbit GTIs (not coincidentally my current car is a 2011 VW GTI), and so I looked at those as well as other sporty import cars and few others. I knew I wanted small and light, with great handling. I didn’t want a Camaro or Firebird, and Mustangs were just awful at that point. I found this at a dealer about 30 miles away. I came back, told my Dad about it, and the following Saturday, we went to look at it. He had done some research on it and had called the previous owner. It was a solid car. Unbeknownst to me, he had already called the dealer and negotiated a final price, so when we showed up, we went for a fast test drive, which my Dad drove of course, and when we came back, the salesman (and through a fit of “why is information like this still in my brain”, I still remember his name – Dennis Matney) was standing there with a file folder in hand. We hopped out and my Dad turned to me and said “So?” and I said to him “Umm, So?” and he said “Is this the car you want?” I smiled and said “Yup, that’s the car”. He turned to the salesman and said “Ok, let’s do this.” He pulled out his check book, wrote a check for $3600, and the salesman handed us the paperwork. We were done in less than 5 minutes. I was in heaven when he dropped that key into my hand!

As a dad, I’ve been looking forward to yesterday for forever. After looking for a bit and trying out a bunch of cars ranging from a very tired old Blazer all the way to a perfect condition 2000 Mercedes Benz CLK320 convertible (that would have been Robin’s and they would have gotten one of our current cars to drive), we settled on a Honda Civic – it was owned by a work colleague of a good friend. 2008 model year, only 40,000 miles. Looks and runs like a brand new car. And only $10,000. While at the top of the budget we set, considering its age and mileage, it is worth the investment.

We also were of the opinion that 16 year olds do not need cars – they can bum rides, take our cars, etc. And we’ve always had a fun ride in the house. To wit: Poor Joel, our oldest son, when he first got his license had to choose between a 2004 screaming yellow, 240 HP, rear drive, 6 speed manual, Mazda RX-8 sports car, or an electric red, convertible, every-option 2002 BMW 330 Ci. Poor kid. That said, Alex and Brian, as much as Joel IS a car guy and a driving addict, are not even licensed yet. At nearly 18 years old. It just hasn’t been something that’s been a priority for them, and well, if it’s not their priority, why should I push them? While I’ve saved a ton of money on car insurance, it’s now time to get licenses. So on Sunday when we called them after buying it and said “Guess what? We bought you a car!” we were met with, “Oh, Ok. Thanks. Umm. Yeah.” Not exactly the fist-pumping excitement I had hoped for. But, I got the reaction I wanted last evening when I brought the car home. Suddenly it became tangible – they have a car. And so, the excitement came through. While not fist pumps, I sure got high fives and hugs. I’m sure they’d have been more excited if they were licensed and could go motor off in it but, they are not. So the game plan is to have them drive nothing but their new Civic for the next few weeks, and then they will get their licenses in time for graduation. And then the true reality and freedom of the road will be upon them. God help me and them and my insurance rates!

As you were,

Stew

Here’s the ride:

There’s NO people like SNOW people …

28 Feb

Ever since writing my two editions of “Railroaded”, people keep asking me “Do other people you see, what about people on airplanes, what about people on vacation, what about …”, etc. Glad to hear that a) my writing makes you laugh; and b) that you think I’m a good observer of people. Today’s attempt at humorous observation looks at people’s reactions to snow – drivers, walkers, commuters, etc. Let’s see if this works.

What first inspired this post was driving around this past Tuesday, as Chicago got its heaviest/fastest-accumulating snowstorm of the season. This slow-moving, wind-driven, fast-accumulating snowstorm left about 8-10″ of heavy, wet, “heart attack” snow in the northern suburbs, where I live, and made a mess out of driving for a solid day. It also was a great opportunity to observe folks and their reactions to the snow. Here goes – this will be part 1 of several:

Part 1: Drivers:

Oh, drivers, oh drivers, in snow, how your true colors come out.

The Panicker: In my observation, The Panicker is not someone that likes to drive in the first place. In snow, they freak the hell out. They start driving so scared and so carefully as to create safety hazards for themselves and those around them as they artificially try to control the world around them to their state of panic. They tend to drive larger, conservative cars in colors like beige, white and silver (and either mainstream US brands like Ford, Chevy, Buick or Chrysler or mainstream foreign brands like Toyota or Honda). They clearly are not relaxed at the wheel. Add a few snowflakes in and, “OH SHIT!” – they completely wig out. And, they often do a terrible job clearing the snow off their car, making them also “Mailslotters”.

For example, as I was driving home from my suburban meeting Tuesday AM in the heavy snow (which was great as I didn’t have to commute at rush hour), I got behind a panicker. She pulled out of a parking lot in front of me (cutting me off of course), and then proceeded to drive down the middle of a four lane road! with her left wheels in the right wheel track of the right lane and her right wheels in the left wheel track of the left lane – on a snowy/slushy road where the normal speed limit is 45. She was going about 12 mph with no intention to go faster. Mind you, at this point in the snow storm, it had snowed about an inch. That was it. The road was very lightly snow covered with two bare tracks in each lane. I tooted my horn once and she spun around in her seat to see me behind her and to the right, and in that act, her car started to drift to the right lane. She then realized she was doing that and overcorrected BACK to middle, fishtailing in the process. How you just managed to fishtail a front-wheel drive car on a road that isn’t all that slick in the first place is forever a mystery to me, oh Panicker. I would have had to do a Scandinavian Flick to get my car to do that (see below). After she did that, then she realized that really should get out of my way, so at this point, she puts on her 4-way flashers and stabs her brakes, of course not thinking that perhaps by doing so she might come close to invoking a collision with me. She slides over to the right and slows down to, I kid you not, 5 mph (in a 45 zone of course). I make an evasive maneuver around her and motor on, shaking my head. She probably still isn’t home. Stay home, Panicker!

SuperSUVman: In a way, SuperSUVman is the opposite of the Panicker. Where the Panicker is paralyzed by a lack of confidence in the snow, the SuperSUVman has a case of over-confidence that is ridiculous, and it is borne out of the fact that they believe that by spending $40-$50,000 on a loaded up, 4WD SUV or pickup, that they have somehow also bought the “repeal the laws of physics” package. Ironically, on dry pavement, they drive pretty conservatively. That’s because they know that with their oversize off-road tires (that never see a speck of dirt) and their very heavy, very high center of gravity, that grocery carts generally handle better than SUVs. But put them in the snow, and by God, now they are on the Yukon trail and nothing, but nothing will get in their way. You are most likely to see these folks in ditches, in front yards, at close range with their bumper buried into your side doors, etc. as they discover (but do not learn from it) that even though they can attain prodigious amounts of forward momentum with their 4WD and V8 engines, turning and stopping (and generally staying in control) are entirely different things. Whenever I see one of these guys buried axle deep in the snow next to a rural highway, scratching their heads and dumbfounded that they are off the road, I just smile to myself and think “Karma, you are one cruel bitch.”

SportsCarSchmortsCar: The SCSC combines some of SuperSUVman’s seasonal disregard for physics with The Panicker’s ability to block traffic. The SCSC is someone who drives a small, lightweight, over-powered, performance-tire-clad, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Their attitude with snow is “I’m doing the best I can! Yeah it’s a sports car, but it’s how I roll.” Think Camaros, Mustangs, Z-cars, Mazda RX or Miatas, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. They can most often be found stuck in their own driveways, stuck on a level street or parking lot, spun out on a residential corner, turning 360s on expressways, taking an entire cycle of a stoplight to wheelspin themselves across an intersection and more. As they delay the rest of us, they give us that shrug and hands up in the air look of “well, whatcha gonna do?” Here’s what you should do: Buy a $500 beater for winter and park that stupid thing when it snows! That said, I fully and openly admit to being one of these people having had over the last 8 years a Mazda RX-8 followed by a BMW 330Ci convertible. Both of which were utter nightmares in snow. That said, add front or all wheel drive and proper winter tires to a sports car – like Audis, BMW X-drive cars and suddenly these cars and their drivers become …

WRCWannabe: First an explanation: WRC is World Rally Championship – this is the racing series where guys in overpowered little two-seat racing cars go racing over dirt roads through the woods in foreign countries. Here’s a link to some video of this in action: http://www.wrc.com/video/. So … in the winter, WRCW’s are generally people that own performance cars that are very capable in snow, and therefore, turn into capable boy-racers when the roads get slick. And I admit to being this guy now. You can see them launching hard out of stoplights, doing the “Scandinavian Flick” to rocket their cars around corners, using handbrake turns, and generally having a ball in the snow. This is how driving in the snow ought to be! After getting rid of our BMW, we bought a front-wheel-drive VW GTI and put Pirelli Sottozero 210 winter tires on it for snow season – and OMG – now a drive to a friend’s house in the snow becomes an exercise in “how much fun can I have” versus a white-knuckled “holy crap I’m gonna die” experience.I’ve see guys in everything from Subaru Imprezas and Outbacks, to Audi A3 and A4 Quattros, BMW X-drive 3 Series cars, and of course, my own beloved VW GTI, out blasting around in the snow and having so much fun. Cars equipped in this way truly do repeal the laws of physics in the way that the SuperSUVman can only dream about. But, when other cars are around, we just motor on, knowing that when you all are safe at home nursing a scotch after that harrowing ride, we have the snow-covered streets all to ourselves to go have fun on!

The Mailslotter: We all know who this is, right? These are the people who can’t be bothered to brush the snow off their car – so they clean a little slot on the windshield to see through, leaving a foot or more of snow on the hood, on the roof, the side windows covered, etc. Doesn’t need much explanation other than “stay the hell away from me please” – so when you see one of these guys, just know that they cannot see you.

So that wraps up this edition of “Snow People” – look for the “on foot” edition, coming soon!

As you were,

Stew

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