Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

REDIRECT ALERT! (Scroll down past this mess if you're trying to read an archived post. Thanks. No, really, thanks.)

Due to my inability to control my temper and complacently accept continued silliness with not-quite-as-reliable-as-it-ought-to-be Blogger/Blogspot, your beloved Possumblog will now waddle across the Information Dirt Road and park its prehensile tail at http://possumblog.mu.nu.

This site will remain in place as a backup in case Munuvia gets hit by a bus or something, but I don't think they have as much trouble with this as some places do. ::cough::blogspot::cough:: So click here and adjust your links. I apologize for the inconvenience, but it's one of those things.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Slow Cars, Driven Fast

Going back to the OXA post yesterday, I got to thinking of a couple of car-magazine-writer articles I have read in the dim past (usually, this means any time over ten minutes ago, but in this case it’s probably been at least a couple of years) noting the odd idea that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast, than it is to drive a fast car slow. Obviously, the ideal is to be able to drive a fast car fast, but there is something to the frustration inherent in having to drive one slowly--especially those older ones with carburetors and anvil clutches, and without computer-controlled engine management to keep the plugs from cooking or fouling or boiling away all the coolant. Cars are a lot better now, but it still has to be something of a drag to sit in 30mph bumper to bumper traffic in a Viper.

ON THE OTHER HAND, when 30 represents half of the available speed, it tends to change your priorities. The ability to see if you can get that bad boy up a hill faster than getting out and walking has a certain charm. It’s a bit like driving one of those tiny remote control cars, I guess. Maybe it’s just the thrill of taking a machine to its absolute mechanical limits.

In any event, I sat down just now and tried to figure out all the slow cars I have ever had the pleasure to push to their low heights of mechanical fury.

The first one I can think of was early ‘70s VW Beetle owned by one of my neighbors. Its astounding lack of power was further sapped by Volkswagen’s tricky manual shift automatic. My neighbor, a fine, upstanding fire fighter, allowed my best friend and me to experiment with driving it before we were statutorily able to do so, which seems rather shocking now, but one of those things like riding in the back of a pickup that people used to not worry so much about. Anyway, it was nifty, for no other reason than the automanual meant not having to know about the use of a clutch pedal.

Sadly, the fire fighter would not let us drive one of his other toys--a tube-framed dune buggy with a turbocharged Corvair engine that could pop the fronts off the pavement by just thinking of the accelerator pedal.

I had a friend in school who was much older than me, even though were in the same grade--he had his license in the eighth grade--and besides being a terrible moral influence he had a clapped-out 1971 Ford Mustang with a 250 cubic inch straight six and three on the floor. It looked something like this--not the sexy fastback, nor the sexy convertible, nor the somewhat recognizable notchback, but the one with the ungainly, saggy, swoopy rear C-pillars.

Such a pile of junk--full of candy wrappers and cigarettes and garbage and a sawed-off BB gun and stolen porno magazines--it was bog-slow, but deafeningly loud. It looked like it was ready for the crusher, but then again, when any vehicle is used regularly on logging roads and in strip mines, it does tend to take its toll. I did learn to use a clutch in this one, however. Sorta. This is the vehicle we were in when stopped by a deputy sheriff for acting suspicious in the vicinity of a mailbox. The sawed-off BB gun got confiscated, but thankfully we were allowed to leave.

A few years later, another friend in school became the proud owner of a mid-‘70s Ford Fiesta. It looked a bit like this one, except it was the color of bile. (Thanks for the photo to those wacky guys at Mongrel Motorsports, by the way.) Actually a fun car to fling around, believe it or not, even though the idea of “fit and finish” was as alien a concept as would have been an automatic herring dispenser. Whenever I was allowed to drive it, I did so with much gusto, and it never rolled over. It did take on some remarkable handling characteristics when it was fully packed with mouth-breathing teenaged classmates and I would sit in the back and slam myself from side to side. That was sorta scary.

And this would not be my only brush with a Fiesta. When I did my three-month study abroad program in college in 1986, I rented one to drive from Heidelberg to Munich. If you have never driven in Germany, rest assured that it is everything you could dream of. Unless you’re driving a car that will only do 160.

As in 160 kilometers per hour.

Which works out in round terms as 100 miles per hour.

It wasn’t really so bad--I left the pedal all the way to the floor the entire distance, but there were several moments of warp-factor 8 butt puckering when I would be passing a big truck that was only going 99 miles an hour, and there would be a big BMW or Benz in the rear view mirror closing at 170. Couldn’t back off, couldn’t go forward any faster. Yikes.

Equally ignoble was when I was being passed by VW Golfs--even Cabriolets with their roofs bulging upwards from the air pressure would zip past me like I was standing still.

Probably the most embarrassing thing was before I even left, when I drove from the rental office back to the hotel our group was staying at in Heidelberg. I kept smelling funny burnt clutch odor. And then, some insane German guy pulled up next to me screaming and pointing at the car and yelling something. About the only German I know is, “haben Sie einen zimmer mit Bad?”, so all I could do was shrug. And wonder about that horrible smell. Finally got back to the hotel and parked, and reached down to pull up the parking brake, only to discover it had never been let down in the first place. I had been driving with it on, and I imagine that I was trailing a plume of blue brake smoke the entire way there. Which really seemed to get everyone agitated.

Also, there is no right-turn-on-red in Germany.

Anyway, back to the chronology of slowness--the next one on the list was the car I took my driving test in, my sister’s 1978 Toyota Corona. As with most of the cars on this list, I couldn’t find a contemporaneous photo of such a beast, but it looked somewhat like this one, except it was silver, and was the ultraluxurious Lucaya edition. I think it had vinyl over the usually bare metal upper window sills, as well as a fat, pseudoleather-wrapped steering wheel. Not a bad car, from that time when it was still possible to find a small, rear-drive sedan without it having a high-dollar German nameplate. Slow, and despite having a fat, pseudoleather-wrapped steering wheel was resistant to any sort of truly spirited driving. The (power assisted) steering was annoyingly logarithmic like the decibel scale--turn the wheel a little, the tires would steer a little; turn the wheel just one more degree in the same direction, and the wheels would heel over into the next county. Brakes were the same way. BUT, it was the first car I ever got to drive in all by myself.

An unfortunate time in my life was after my beloved (and not slow) 1972 Monte Carlo was slid into a ditch and totaled by yours truly, that I decided that I needed something frugal--we were, after all, in the throes of Oil Shortage Panic II, version 1979. So, with the insurance money, a beige and gold 1976 Vega wagon was purchased. It looked nothing at all like this, and only barely like this.

What can I say about the Vega that has not been said before? Precious little, although I will aver that when you are driving down Highway 78 in the rain, and you are just before the intersection with Finley Boulevard, and you see someone up ahead pulling out of the shopping center into your lane, and you decide to move over to the next lane, and then that person pulls over in THAT lane just as you are within spitting distance, that the combined effects of tiny bias-ply tires, drum brakes all around, and manual steering can cause a 1976 Vega station wagon to slew violently to and fro across several lanes of traffic; further, it is not outside the realm of possibility that a 1976 Vega station wagon might cross over into ONCOMING TRAFFIC, and avoid missing the front end of a 1975 Ford LTD Yellow Cab by only the merest sliver of inches before it miraculously sluds back into its own lane, having caused the driver to see the entirety of his short life replayed in vivid and heart-touching clarity.

Onward then, to another junky Ford product, my best friend’s graduation present of a 1979 Mercury Capri. (This picture is of an ’84, but it looks the same.) Four cylinders. Four speeds, not a single one of them fast. He was very enamored of this thing’s “handling”--honest to goodness exchange:

Him, sawing steering wheel from side to side: “See how good it handles!”
Me: “What?”
Him: “How good it handles. See, you can just turn it, and it goes just like this!”
Me, laughing in his face and calling him a very rude name related to the part of his body he was sitting on at the time: “You moron, that only proves the steering wheel is connected to the front end!”

He never mentioned that anymore. It was actually somewhat fun to drive, and it looked almost cool. He wound up burning up the clutch in it because of his insistence on riding it. “I’m not riding it! I just have my toe on the pedal!” Mo-ron.

Of all the slow cars I’ve driven, there is only one that I absolutely hated, and that was my mother’s ill-advised purchase of a 1986 Buick Riviera. 140 rated horses hauling around 3300 pounds of crap. What an execrable jumble of idiocy. If anyone wants to know where my antipathy for computer screens in cars comes from, it’s this thing. A lemon and a junker from day one. Destroyed my mother’s brand loyalty to Rivieras going back to her and my dad’s robust 1969 Riv with its great honking 455 Wildcat engine.

The good thing was it made Mom so mad that she traded it for a 1988 Lincoln Mark VII LSC, which Miss Reba and I later drove on our honeymoon up to Asheville, North Carolina. Now THAT was a car--and quite a nice trip, too. Driving fast is one thing, but fast driving with a fast woman is an entirely different game!

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