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Dear Sergio, the time is right… October 27, 2014

Posted by tobthebat in Car Guy Thoughts, Uncategorized.
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The CEO of the Fiat Group, Mr Sergio Marchionne is a rare breed in the auto industry. He is a well versed businessman who is passionate about cars, and he clearly understands how one drives the other. Italians have a long history of building uncompromising supercars, but even their more pedestrian offerings still possess that ethereal quality of driving soul.

When you sit in the big chair of the company that owns controlling interest in the likes of Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo, you had better understand how some cars are needed to fuel the desires of driving over the rationale of practicality.

With that thought in mind, I wish to make a proposal to the the savvy petrol-head holding the reigns over Chrysler Corporation.

The recent announcement regarding the realignment of Pentastar product lines makes a lot of sense, and I think it opens a few prime opportunities. With Dodge filling the role as the face of performance cars and Chrysler moving away from the notion of near-luxury in favor of a more mainstream market immediately makes the Chrysler nameplate a more high value vehicle.

I was happy to read the Durango is most likely going to transition over to become a Jeep, since it Charger-esque styling might be somewhat eye-catching, it has all the performance and handling of a small bus…with similar fuel economy. The Avenger was already DOA, the Grand Caravan was competing against the Town & Country in the same showrooms (not good business) and the 200 needed a full overhaul, which it got at the cost of losing the convertible. However, another drop-top model is rumored to be in the works and if it bears even a passing resemblance to the Maserati Gran Turismo Cabriolet, the world will be a beautiful place.

With Dodge moving away from mini-vans and SUVs, Chrysler options get more interesting. I pray they burn and bury any notion of reviving either the Aspen or Pacifica SUVs, since both were over-priced, bulbous heavy whales with horrid mpg ratings.

There are many of us who enjoy a more practical vehicle without wanting to give up the sporting feel of a car. The Charger and the 300 prove you can have room, comfort, power and real world economy in a full-size sedan, and those are great things, but one element is missing… a bit more carry space for those occasional large items.

Not everyone wants to jump to a mini-van or SUV, and there is no sense competing against your own sister brands, so why not offer something different. Bringing back a Charger-based Magnum would probably not fly with the musclecar image of Dodge (nobody will care about a Hellcat Sportwagon) but the 300 is another story entirely.


The 300 falls short of the Charger in sales virtually every month despite having similar equipment and the same engine lineup. Daimler-Benz sold an estate version of the 300 in Europe for several years, but with the drastically upgraded styling and materials used by Fiat/Chrysler, I think the time is right for the 300 Touring estate car to debut in North American showrooms. Leave the bloody fake wood in the trash where it belongs and give us the sleek 300 style we’ve come to love.

Dodge Magnums still command top prices in the used market, and the 5-door body would offer something unique for the 300 model line that Dodge couldn’t touch. The “S” variant would make a slick shooting brake while the fabulous Pentastar 3.6/8spd auto would deliver great utility with real-world, high 20s fuel economy.

The Magnum R/T was one of the coolest hot rod wagons ever built, but it suffered from Daimler-Benz lackluster interior and being the first of its kind in the country in years. A 300 S Touring on the other hand would deliver comfort, space, power, economy and true versatility.

Mr. Marchionne, I’ll have mine in black if you please! chrysler-300-wagon-03

The Sun and the Roadrunner June 20, 2014

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One of the most prominent car-guy memories from my youth was what I considered to be my first real brush with an honest-to-horsepower muscle car. I had barely gotten my driving permit when I went for a ride with some of my friends in a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner, and as I recall, I giggled and laughed like a foolish school boy (which I was) at every throttle rush, howling rear tire, and roaring exhaust note. It was a memory that stuck deep, and I’m sure was rooted in how often I watched cartoons where the Roadrunner would flip his tongue and zing away from the hapless Coyote.

SunRnnrAvtrOnce bitten by the car bug, the effect has never let go, and I fawned over the muscle cars I watched rumble by me at every turn, dreaming of the day I would feel the punch from the driver seat. By the time I graduated high school, the muscle car era was history but many examples of the proud pavement warriors still roamed the streets.
Most regard the late 1960’s as the heyday of the muscle car, and while Chrysler might have come late to the party, they made their mark with some of the most legendary cars and engines in modern automotive history.

The Roadrunner was born in 1968 as an entry-level performance car. Plymouth was Chryslers’ budget division and they already had a performance model in the GTX, but the Roadrunner aimed to be a less expensive, bare-bones tire cooker. Utilizing the base Plymouth Satellite gave them a wealth of go-fast goodies to pick from since its B-body platform shared mechanicals with not only the police units of the day but the already well-known Dodge Charger and Coronet. While options like air conditioning, plush carpet, and leather seats fell by the wayside, stout drivetrains and engines all the way up to the mighty 426 Hemi could be checked off in the options list.

One such animal proved to be my first hands-on experience when I took a job in the service department of a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer shortly before I graduated high school. I started to leave for lunch one day when the parts department manager asked if I would grab him some food while I was out. The conversation went something like this,
“Hey, dude, grab me a burger while you’re out?”
“Sure, whatcha want?”
“Get me a double, and here, take my car,” he said as he tossed his keys to me.
“Umm, okay, which one is yours?”
“Right outside the back door of Parts, it’s a maroon Roadrunner. You can drive a stick, can’t you?”
“Yeah, I can, but are you sure about this?”
“Plenty of guys here have driven it, just don’t wreck it.”
“Yes, sir!”



It was a hot summer day and the Roadrunner had no a/c, but did that matter? Not a chance. The car was slick and shiny and wore the factory Rallye Wheels wrapped in Goodyear raised white letter tires. I suppose to him this was a basic, daily driver car, especially since I had heard stories of his radical 340 ‘Cuda parked in the garage at home. A twist of the key and the 383 Magnum big block rumbled to life, and a slow release of the clutch and I was officially at the helm of a dream muscle car.

Reality rarely measures up to fantasy and in this case that held true. The black vinyl interior was cooking hot and the lack of power steering made parking lot maneuvers challenging, but once on the street things changed for the better. I admit I didn’t choose the closest burger joint just for the excuse of driving the car a bit further, and every stoplight made me fight the urge to unleash the wild bird. I managed to hold my reserve for the most part as I spared the tires by not launching the car but pulled slowly away until I shifted up to second, and then I mashed the loud pedal. The rush of sound, wind, and speed was immediate while slower traffic forced me off the throttle in short order. This was probably for the best since I already felt guilty about that little dose of jollies but the conversation when I got back was even more surprising.
“So, dude, you like it?”
“Yeah man, that’s nice”
“Did you punch it?”
“Just a little,” I admitted sheepishly.
“Don’t you love that tire chirp between gears?”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Dude, what’s wrong with you?”

It wasn’t until 1969 that Chrysler offered the Roadrunner in a convertible body style, but soft tops in those days suffered from a multitude of ills. Convertibles were also not looked on as the best candidate for a muscle car because just like today, they are heavier than their coupe counterparts. Chrysler was one of the first domestic automakers to build cars with what they called “uni-body construction,” but today, virtually every mass produced car is built this way. This means there is no frame for the body to sit on, but the strength of the body itself provided the rigidity of the vehicle. When you cut away the roof, you’re left with the equivalent of two bricks being held together by a single playing card, so a bit of increased support becomes necessary, therefore adding to the overall weight.

General Motors began offering the “T-Top” with their lift out glass panels to give that open air feeling while holding on to some of the unit body strength. My other youth dream car was the Pontiac Trans Am, which exploded in popularity in the late 70’s after being immortalized by Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

79TransAmIn 1980, I finally managed to get my grubby mitts on a gently used, black and gold Bandit Trans Am, complete with the screaming bird across the hood and T-Tops overhead. Sadly, I only got to keep the car a scant three or four months before I was forced to sell it due to a layoff on my job. In the long run, it may have turned out for the best as I soon realized the car had a back seat fit for no human over three years old. The trunk was miserably small and if you put the glass roof panels back there the space was completely filled.
As hauntingly beautiful as the car is to me to this day, I’d have to admit it’s one of those cars only good for a fun drive and little else, let alone any kind of travel that requires luggage.

I have since owned many different cars in search of one that would fill that emotional void and move me the way the Trans Am did, and it has been a unicorn hunt to say the least. I feel I’ve come very close on a couple of occasions, and the internal inspiration has led me to name most of my cars after various birds of prey. I find wild raptors in nature to be fascinating creatures and their speed and hunting techniques make them great mascots of power and awe-inspiring beauty. On the whole, a natural fit for a car that wants to be a fighter jet.

The Roadrunner on the other hand is one of nature’s great deceptions with its unassuming and non-threatening appearance. A bird that is capable of flying but chooses to run also makes for something comical, and probably what inspired the cartoon artists at Warner Brothers to begin with. But in reality I was amazed to learn the desert Roadrunner is a strictly carnivorous creature, making meals of lizards, frogs, scorpions (yikes!) and even leaping to snatch other small birds in mid-air. However its true badge of respect is watching it make short work of a rattlesnake. Yes, you read that correctly, and this isn’t a freak occurrence of luck, as the roadrunner easily matches the snake in lightning-fast reflexes, and as it taunts the snake to strike, it will jump and clamp its beak with a death-grip on the neck of the rattler. Then with blinding quickness, it will execute a rapid series of vertical slamming motions, breaking the snakes’ back in several locations, after which the bird consumes the reptile whole. Maybe Wile E. Coyote should’ve done a bit of research to consider what might actually happen if he ever caught said bird. The results might not be pretty.








From my car-guy perspective, the Trans Am was always about sleek power and beauty while the Roadrunner personified driving fun. Sadly, Chrysler Corp. ended its affiliation with Warner Bros. and the last Plymouth Volare Roadrunner was offered as a 1980 model and I have to say it was a paper tiger at best, a mere shadow of the hoot-to-drive animal it once was. To be fair, those years saw all performance cars fall prey to the quest for cleaner emissions and the crunch of the gas pump. True performance cars were rare beasts indeed.

My 1976 Volare Roadrunner was a weak bird when I bought it but a sprinkling of 340 parts onto its 318 engine along with a close-ration four speed transmission turned it into a respectable street machine. The better than average performance along with a bellowing set of Thrush sidepipes proved to be enough to make me a constant source of attention to local law enforcement. This Hemi orange cop magnet proved to be another car that provided a torrid, short-lived romance and was best sent on its way before I lost my driving permit.






Years and cars came and went, and most for the very pedestrian uses of family life, but the mid-life crisis is a well documented phenomenon and my personal hormone imbalance bypassed the desire for a motorcycle and went for the open top car. Thankfully, convertible technology had made huge strides in three decades and I dove in with a 2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible as my rite of passage.

In the last ten years, retro styles and names of cars have become all the rage as automakers reach back for a slice of their glory days. The results of some have been impressive, and the 2005-up Mustang probably reigns supreme as the most successful retro design. If there is one thing car-guys are famous for, it’s the adage of, “If you can’t find one, build one yourself.” High dollar auctions are replete with replicas masquerading as vintage iron, but the well done replica has gained a level of respect many never thought possible.

I had no desire to pass my Sebring Roadrunner off as anything valuable, but more to play into the fun aspect of “what if?” The end result got more than a few thumbs up from other enthusiasts and even a few “are they making these again?” from the less informed passer-by. All in all, the fun quotient was partially achieved but the nagging problems of an older car and the lackluster performance of the tiny 2.7 V6 engine made it expendable.








I’m on my forth convertible now, and I feel I’ve finally run across another Chrysler worthy of wearing the Roadrunner birds. My previous 2008 Sebring was a great car in a lot of ways, and I put over 50k miles under its wheels including an amazing cross-country drive, but it suffered from the same under-powered 2.7 engine and an outdated four speed auto trans. The Chrysler 200 that followed in its footsteps is a vastly improved car in many ways, most notably its impressive 3.6 engine and six-speed Auto-Stick trans. The interior is also a major upgrade and the tweaks to its exterior styling softened some edges and transformed it into an attractive cruiser.








To me, the most beautiful Roadrunner is easily the 1972 model year. I owned a 72 Satellite Sebring in classic Petty Blue with a white top that I had high hopes of turning into a Roadrunner clone but finances never made that possible. The slick aero lines of the 71-72 made it one of the favorites of King Richard Petty, and mine too. I’ve always thought this model would look amazing in a targa roof style but that will be up to a custom builder and customer with deeper pockets than I’ll ever have.









The 200 however cuts a handsome figure with its top down and its transformation in to modern feathered flyer is well underway. I may not be authorized by Chrysler or Sergio Marchionne, but I plan to attend the All Chrysler Nationals in Carlisle, PA next year and show off a prime example of what the designers passed up on. I say long live the Roadrunner, even if it’s a Do-It- Yourself retro package.


Hash Browns and Roofing Shingles April 12, 2014

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Like many others I would assume, I consider myself something of a fast food connoisseur. Having worked for several fast food chains in my youth and short stints of my adult life, I feel as though I’ve had a reasonable sampling of the various menus. If not my time spent working in such places, surely the number of times I’ve frequented the fast food businesses should give me reasonable qualifications.


The cheeseburger and the french fry are two of the most recognizable utensil-free foods in all of North America. Many feel hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries are as American and as essential to our culture as red, white, and blue. Burgers and fries easily fit into almost any lunch or dinner menu, but breakfast is quite another matter to me.


Now, let’s be clear up front, opinions are like exhaust pipes, everybody has at least one, and the nuanced difference in taste from one person to another can be narrow or vast. So, what follows is my little take on the realm of fast food, especially the ubiquitous potato in its many prepared forms. You can get them baked, mashed, roasted, and fried while the end result can range from wonderful to befuddling.


As I said before, I question the fast food breakfast as a whole. While there is the occasional burrito or biscuit that seems appealing, the final delivered product never fails to raise questions. The pre-shaped and cooked egg always forces me to wonder about its origins and level of process, and the bacon is never crispy, leaving it to look more like limp salted fat back rather than a nicely marbled slice of pork.


I’ll admit I was probably spoiled as a child by the breakfast my mother often prepared. No matter if it was scrambled eggs with cheese, crisp bacon, or pancakes, nothing was ever served on a bun or muffin. She never really cooked what you would call hash browns, but sliced potatoes pan fried with onions, and to me they were delightful. Now I’ll admit you can’t compare true home cooking with fast food, or even the likes of Cracker Barrel or IHOP, but some of the spirit should remain.


My father was never a huge fan of fast food either, but he did love a good dive or truck stop. Anything that stayed open around-the-clock seemed to draw him in, and from a young age I was indoctrinated with one of his favorite haunts, the Waffle House.


Waffle House to this day remains a thriving 24 hour breakfast machine, even to the point of comedy where their stores have been used as a gauge for the severity of natural disaster. If Waffle House is open, there is hope, and I’m sure my father would agree, especially if there is coffee being served.


I will have to admit I’ve visited a Waffle House or two that felt seedy, but hands down there is not a better waffle put on a plate anywhere for my money. Other places may doctor them up with whipped cream and other fruit toppings, but when the waffle itself is as crunchy as corn flakes, no amount of culinary decoration can save it. Over the years, I’ve come to cringe anytime I see the words “Belgian Waffle” on a breakfast menu, which to me equates to a good stiff potholder covered in syrup. If this is truly the texture and style of waffles in Belgium, I tip my hat to a hearty and sturdy people with outstanding dental health.


Another menu item that Waffle House serves is hash browns, and from my seat at the bar, they are the standard by which all others are judged, particularly in the “scattered and smothered” variety in which their signature metal ring is discarded and onions are generously mixed in on the grill. I’ve had very good home fries at other places, and Cracker Barrel’s hash brown casserole is a wonderfully tasty item, but for simple hash brown goodness, Waffle House stands alone.



Although it tells my age, I was actually working at McDonald’s when the breakfast menu was introduced, so I got firsthand knowledge in all the classic items and their preparation. Many of you may have heard of McDonald’s Hamburger University, and I can tell you with staunch conviction that it’s no joke. The Golden Arches employs a team of master chefs that research, test, prepare, and standardize every single item on the company’s menu. They and the people they train enact rigorous procedures in the effort to ensure that an Egg McMuffin purchased in California will be the exact same quality as one purchased in Maine. They seek a world-wide standard, and I have to give them credit for succeeding on a large scale. For my wife and I, McDonald’s has become the oasis outpost for our vacation travels, even on the most barren stretches of interstate highways across the country, The Golden Arches can be counted on for clean bathrooms, refreshing drinks, a decent place to sit and rest, and more recently, free wi-fi access.


Unfortunately, for all the attributes I enjoy about McDonald’s there is one fast food standard they seem to have set that is a complete dud in my world, the breakfast hash brown. I feel quite confident that the team of McDonald’s chefs researched long and hard to find the magic combination of a potato cake that could be eaten directly from its wrapper with no utensils and not fall apart in your lap. Mission accomplished, but to me a potato cake is not hash browns, and something cooked to such a rigid texture loses the goodness of the potato itself. A brown, crusty outer shell that encases precious little potato inside gets my taste buds going about as much as a slice of roofing shingle. Even worse is the fact that virtually every other fast food chain that serves breakfast has followed suit and the only variety is the shape of the shingle that falls into your bag.


I recently tried Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu, and I ordered hash browns with high hopes of different results, but sadly I was given a perfectly rectangular crunchy brown shingle with only the most scant portion of potato hidden inside. One bite was more than enough to tell me there was no point in going any further, and as I looked at the sturdy side dish in my fingers, I was forced to wonder if I could actually roof a small shed or birdhouse with a collection of these things. I have so often heard the claims that fast food items are so laden with preservatives that they will never rot, and if that’s the case then hash brown shingles should be quite durable.


I find it strange that these potato patties are so universally cooked to such a crispy consistency, especially when the very same fast food chain wouldn’t dare serve a french fry in such a crunchy state for fear of a lobby revolt spearheaded by a line of irate customers pressed against the counter ready to hurl said potatoes like angry projectiles. I have on occasion been tempted to fling one of these crispy shingles against the wall or window of the restaurant in question just to witness the bounce factor. I have no quarrel with the employees of these places since I know they are only following the procedures they have been taught, so a window might not be the best choice on the off chance the rigid potato facsimile actually broke the glass.


I sometimes wonder about the people out there who actually enjoy these semi-burnt potato shingles. Is this what years of black coffee in the morning hardens you up to? Maybe those who have been on safari to wilderness locations and have been munching on bamboo or cracking coconuts with their teeth? Possibly anyone who has been stranded in the high desert or the Australian Outback for weeks? Could it be one of the Golden Arches chef consultants is a former astronaut and thus well versed in food that comes in quasi-pellet form?


All of the aforementioned questions are pointless in the grand scheme of things since I only need look at the sheer number of people streaming around any given McDonald’s drive-thru on any morning of the week to realize my opinion of the fast food hash brown represents a tiny minority. I suppose I need to allot myself time to visit Waffle House more often, where the only shingles on the menu are purposely near-burnt toast.

Eko the EV November 30, 2013

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I have always been fascinated by science, and while some look at science as being at odds with nature, the nuts and bolts of it has mostly been about trying to emulate the things nature does so well.

Mankind has tried to fly like birds, be amphibious like a frog or pelican, run as swiftly as a gazelle, or be as strong and powerful as a bear or gorilla. In most cases man has failed to reproduce these amazing examples of nature, but he has become proficient in building machines that perform similar feats with grace and beauty. Well, most of the time.

However, when it comes to the house cat, I’m not quite sure what qualities man would want to gain. Always landing on your feet could be useful, and being able to fit your whole body through any hole your head will go in would be interesting, although I’m not sure what purpose it might serve.

In the world of modern science, anything we build that is intended to be friendly to our environment almost certainly gets the prefix, “Eco” attached to its name. Just as any electronic device that begins with a lower case “i” is surely a product made by Apple, anything that begins with “Eco” is supposed to reassure us of its planet-friendly abilities, even if it isn’t the most practical or useful thing we can choose.

This past summer, we adopted a kitten from a local animal shelter. He is mostly white with some faint, tawny brown tabby markings on his body, along with smoky feet and face similar to a Siamese breed. These markings reminded me of a baby Bengal white tiger so I named him “Toraneko,” which is Japanese for “little tiger.”

My little two year old grand daughter, Layla, comes to visit with us one or two days a week and her vocal skills are improving every time we see her. Almost from day one, everyone in the house had taken to calling our new pet “Neko” but Layla took off with “Eko” from the first time they met. Thankfully, Neko has been a very good pet, allowing Layla to pick him up and carry him without complaint. We have also found it quite entertaining that she can now say the word, “name” yet she still omits the “N” sound when she calls out or asks about the cat. “Eko,Eko,Eko,” is still what we hear despite our efforts to the contrary.

Nowhere has the cry for “Eco, Eco, Eco,” been any stronger than the automotive world. Science and technology have made huge strides in recent years to make the automobile cleaner and more efficient. Virtually every auto manufacturer produces a hybrid/electric version of one of its models. But two car companies, Nissan and Tesla, have made quantum leaps in perfecting the EV, or pure electric vehicle.

The EV, or Zero Emissions Vehicle as it’s sometimes referred to brings the promise of reliable, daily transportation that you plug into a common wall socket at night to recharge. This concept actually works very well for short daily commuting and local errands, but where the EV falls down is extended range or trip driving.

Tesla and Nissan both have managed squeeze as much as two hundred miles worth of driving from a single battery charge but the downside is it can take up to sixteen hours to fully recharge again. I don’t think any of us have spent sixteen hours at a fueling station by choice, so once the battery charge is depleted, the car becomes a two-ton paperweight.

In their defense, performance of the modern EV has become shockingly potent ( please excuse the pun.) Jeremy Clarkson tested the Tesla Roadster against the Lotus Elise on which the Tesla is based. A half-mile drag race saw the Tesla demolish the Lotus from start to finish by an embarrassing margin as Clarkson commented, “This car is biblically quick, and it seems the Volt-head has overtaken the Petrol-head. I’ve also just received a report, yes; it is now snowing in hell!”

However, Mr. Clarkson and his tame racing driver, The Stig, used their heavy right feet and hair-on-fire driving style to reduce the Tesla-projected two hundred mile range to a mere fifty-five miles. Then again, no gasoline powered car gets its best mileage at wide open throttle either, but it is much faster to refill with fuel.

Having taken note of these EV drawbacks, I began to notice striking (not shocking) similarities in the behavior of Neko, our house cat. In the evening hours, he will display an almost boundless amount of energy as he chases cat toys, dismembers helpless house plants, and tests the theory of gravity by pushing various small objects off of high shelves and watching them plummet to the floor below.

Any person who walks down the hallway with bare feet and ankles is fair game for him to perfect his pouncing and attacking skills, but this can easily be interrupted by an errant ice cube striking the floor in the kitchen. These are matters that require swift and immediate investigation. One must also remember that the term “cat toy” has a wide number of applications, up to and including pieces of tape or string, balls of trash or discarded gift bows, and any small chunk of food or pill you happen to drop from the kitchen counter. Writing utensils and electronic device charging cords are also fair game.

The motion of a human appendage under a blanket or sofa throw is a beast that must be stalked and killed. Then again, sometimes the movement of said blanket alone is cause for action, human appendage notwithstanding.

All of the above activities can consume an enormous amount of energy, so in keeping with his mostly nocturnal nature, the vast majority of daylight hours will find Neko in recharging mode. Like his kindred spirit, the EV, Neko is a paperweight during these hours of deep, revitalizing sleep. In most respects, he resembles a sack with very little bone structure as picking him up while in this mode begs the question if there is anything rigidly attached inside him. We can only assume sufficient energy is required to hold his framework in place.


I have also noted that his sleep/recharge mode is almost exclusively performed in well lighted areas. This habit prompts the thought that his tabby marking may well be a solar panel of some kind, and his occasional swapping of sides must be a required cycle to gather as much solar energy as possible. He does sometimes take short twenty-to-thirty minute naps during his evening rampages which may indicate a short regeneration period needed to transfer power from the furry panels.

The frightening thought occurs to me that EV designers may indeed be avid house cat owners, and in the scientific quest to emulate the wonders of nature around us, they have pushed automotive technology to new feline heights.

I might also add, as a footnote, that Neko is decidedly NOT a zero emissions creature, especially when he plunders our other cat’s bowl of canned food.

While I admire the engineering efforts to improve and perfect the EV, I need look no farther than the back of the living room sofa on any given day to realize that emulating the horse was a much better idea.


On the other hand, I’m actually very happy with Neko and his EV nature. If he was a hybrid house cat, capable of refueling in matter of minutes, I don’t believe any of us could stand the strain of his non-stop antics, and we would be constantly in search of his “off” switch.

So it seems that Layla was more accurate in naming our new pet than we were.

From the mouths of babes…”Eko!”

What is a Leaf? November 20, 2013

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The botanical definition of a leaf is an organ of a vascular plant, while the word foliage is a mass noun that refers to leaves as a feature of whole plants. In either case, the function of the leaf in nature is to perform photosynthesis, whereby said leaf absorbs light and carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen to our atmosphere.

Many things from Mother Nature are a double edged sword. Anyone will tell you rain is an essential need of our environment but I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow, we haven’t had a good flood in a long while, and I sure do miss that knee-deep water in my basement!”

My yard is dotted with oak trees and its one of those things when you buy a house that doesn’t come off as a downside. Farther to the north, yards get blanketed with snow, but at my place every autumn brings a full-on foliage bombing. After we’ve been pelted with acorns, dusted with pollen, and set upon by seedlings that resemble some breed of furry worm, the oaks attempt to cover all their previous sins with a thick carpet of leaves.

I have since thinned the heard, but not wanting the place to look as though I was harvesting lumber, I left three or four trees as scenic decoration, and each year I rue the day I made that decision.

To the car guy, a leaf is an annoying little piece of cast-off tree that is neither adhesive or has legs, but acts as if it has both. I never cease to be amazed how a dried, crusty leaf can float on the gentle breeze and manage to guide itself so accurately into the blades of my windshield wipers or between the window and weather strip seal.

I would dare a Vegas-like, million dollar wager that I could not stand on my deck (which is next to my driveway) on a slightly breezy day and sail a deck of playing cards, one by one, toward my car and have a single one of them lodge so firmly in either location.

I’ve often been told, “Oh, don’t let it bother you so much. When you drive the car again they will just blow off.”

Oh, will they now?

I’m curious how many other people have driven away with such notions, only to get on the highway and find a leaf clinging to a windshield wiper or hood hinge with such tenacity that you suspect it was glued there as a joke.

Seventy mile-per-hour speeds aren’t sufficient to dislodge (or even dismember) said leaf, but instead it rattles madly against the windshield creating a buzzing sound capable of inducing temporary insanity. The only thing more insane is how easily it is loosed from its location when you stop to remove it before you bite something in two. You want to be able to yank it free with a furious jerk, but if you do, you’ll only pull a muscle or wind up on your backside, almost as if it lets go on purpose knowing its been caught in the act.

I have often wondered why Mother Nature made trees so they live hundreds of years yet they manage to scatter so much trash like acres of messy toddlers. I’ve been told that some types of fruit trees can go years before they produce, so would losing leaves every five or six years really have been such a stretch?

The yearly fiasco of raking and blowing leaves, all the while being taunted by the wind gusting inevitably in the opposite direction, and the trees laughing as they hold their last reserve of leaves until you give up for the day, is a pure exercise in futility. Logic suggests even the Borg Collective would agree.

I am also astounded at how something so crunchy and sticky can “just add water” and instantly transform into a slimy lubricant capable of felling an elephant. The slippery quality of leaves on a wet surface are not to be underestimated, and any motorcycle enthusiast of the knee-dragging variety can probably tell you a story, show you a scar, or both.

Wet leaves also take their last breath of life to do a little artwork in the form of ugly, brown stains they leave behind. It might have a quality of beauty to some, but on the paint of a white or other light colored car, it’s an acid-stained mess. There is a certain wry humor when a random pattern of stains  that resemble duck feet tracks all over the hood, roof and trunk are left from wet leaves. I can almost hear the tree nearby snickering, “It wasn’t me, honestly, it was a flock of geese!”

At least the evergreen trees have the unapologetic gall to scatter their needles with no effort to disguise them in any way. They are the ultimate wise-cracker of trees, as if to say, “You said you didn’t like leaves, so you get needles, now shut up before I fall on your house.”

Now I’m sure some environmental types might feel I’m being narrow-minded or stupid. As a gear-head, I realize I fall into the category of the evil-doers who burn gasoline and enjoy it. Maybe they feel my desire for a five-year leaf cycle is ridiculous or un-natural, but to those people I ask the following questions.

Tires were originally made from rubber, which came from trees, and today we still use rubber, but we make much better tires. Things falling off of trees in massive quantity are natural, I admit, but if a set of natural tires fell off your Toyota Prius every few months, wouldn’t you get tired of replacing them? Imagine tires turning a lovely shade of yellow, orange or red, and then promptly falling off on the ground. Good for the environment? Sure. Annoying? I think so.

However, there is one great redeeming quality to leaves, and in this case, a picture speaks a thousand words.


Godspeed the Wizard and the King March 1, 2013

Posted by tobthebat in cats, Uncategorized.
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Cats are truly amazing creatures. They will bring out the most basic mothering instincts in many women, as they pamper and care for the animals’ every need or want. Men are no exception to pet feline influence as they will coddle and caress a cat as if it were an infant child, not to mention being reduced to the level of a three year old when times call for any kind of romping or play.

There is an old saying, “Dogs have owners but cats have subjects,” and having spent the bulk of my adult life in the company of a house cat, I would have to testify to the truth of that statement. Parents will turn themselves inside out, work day and night, and do whatever else might be required to provide for and make their child happy. In that same vein, adult humans will alter their homes, habits, and purchase endless varieties of food in their efforts to keep a cat content. I speak from extensive experience in these matters, but I imply no hardship because with pets and children alike, the joys of our efforts far outweigh the burden.

By the time we invited Gandolf into our home he was already a member of the senior feline generation. His previous owner (or subject) had given him the name “Dale,” in honor of NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt.

T. S. Eliot said, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and one need only set gaze on the cat in question to see he was no beer-swilling, swaggering, good ole’ boy. His previous subject may well have been a grass roots racing fan, but his pet decidedly was not. So upon entering our home, a more serious name was required that fit his outward demeanor.

In homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “Gandalf the Grey,” the wise old resourceful wizard in “Lord of the Rings,” we christened him “Gandolf,” since no feline could ever tolerate having his name spelled the same as a human, wizard or otherwise.

In time, the name proved to be a fitting choice as Gandolf began to display many wizard-like abilities, such as being exactly under your feet with out you ever noticing him arrive there. He could magically block virtually any doorway where you or any other household member needed to enter or exit from. He could silently appear behind you and brush his tail across the back of your bare legs lightly enough to tickle or spook you into almost spilling whatever hot drink you had just prepared. Then in stark contrast, if you needed to administer medicine to him, or place him in his carrier for transport, he could vanish from one room to the next in the instant you averted your attention.

There were many other personality traits he possessed that were worthy of a king moving among his subjects. First and foremost was his respect of space and distance for Queen Tatiana, our other resident feline. Gandolf quickly realized that Tatiana wielded more than just seniority around our house, but her moody and volatile temperament was nothing to be toyed with. For a short time they shared a mutual loathing of Rory the Terrible, or Rory the Marauder, or whatever moniker of mischief and cunning you wish to add to his name. But in time Rory was dispatched on a mission to a kingdom more fitting to his ambitious nature, leaving Gandolf and Tatiana in some facsimile of a medieval arranged marriage. They became housemates at best, but forever at furry tails length from each other.

This is not to say that Gandolf did not possess many endearing qualities. He would often crawl inside empty shopping bags, leaving a foot or tail exposed as a sign to let you know the space was occupied.  Whenever my wife would spread out one of her quilt projects, he would never fail to give his encouragement of her work by walking and lying down on the fabric, no matter where it was placed. He would leave large indentations in the sofa backrest as a reminder that he approved of the sun and view from the adjacent window, and as a loyal king will show compassion for his subjects, his presence was constant at our back door whenever one of us would leave or return home.

While Tatiana can be skittish about physical contact with her minions, Gandolf was happy to grace almost anyone with a measure of his company. Let’s be clear this was not to be confused with romping or other silly cat games, which he only occasionally joined in on. No, such activities are for youngsters, along with running about the house or constantly climbing on things. This veteran cat made every move count, and jumping onto things was done with careful scale, measurement, and proper warm-up preparation.

Once in your company, he would graciously accept a generous rubbing of the head, neck and shoulder area, to which he would respond with a robust purr that rattled so deeply and with such volume you might think someone was in the room trying to start a sputtering old chain saw with steady and methodical pulls of the rope. While the rubbing and scratching of his fur made him seem docile, don’t be swayed into thinking he wished to be picked up. There was to be none of that holding and cuddling nonsense, unless of course it was my wife, to whom he would respond by imitating a sack of dry beans, as illustrated in the adjoining photo.


Gandolf was not a television watcher or a reader of books, but he was quite content to lie next to you or even on you for a few hours while you amused yourself with your pastimes. His fifteen pound girth could numb one of your extremities if he stayed long enough, and when the time came for you to move he would generally ignore such motions until gravity itself demanded he take action.

The expressions of his furry face could often say so much with little more than a slow blink of his eyes. I often thought that if he had the ability to speak he would share his sage wisdom in a regal British accent. I can easily imagine him often saying, “Let us begin by taking a smallish nap or two.”

If there was one ability where Gandolf was an undisputed champion, it was taking a cat nap. My wife has posted a collection of her favorite photos on her blog, which you can view here. The pictures speak for themselves, but they also showcase his napping talent, and his affection for his bedding material of choice, a cardboard box. The fit was of little consequence since he was quite flexible when box size was challenging, but he could make even the most ragged pieces of cardboard appear as comfortable as if I were in hammock at the beach.

If we could have indeed shared conversation, I believe he would have often quoted Winnie the Pooh, since they both shared a great tendency to a slow and simple life laced with affection to those people and things which matter most. I could also hear myself often answering with a smile as did Christopher Robin, “Silly old bear,” to which he would kindly reply, “Silly large boy.”

Gandolf may well have appeared to be a cat on the outside, but a heart as strong as any bear beat within him, and like a loyal and loving king, he gave us every last ounce of strength that heart had to offer. Even until the very last, he gazed and gruffed at us, almost as though he offered both gratitude and comfort for our time together. Like a wizard, I can envision him shedding his mortal physical ailments, and taking his slow and methodical walk across the Rainbow Bridge. There is no need to hurry, he will arrive precisely when he means to.

Godspeed, Sir Gandolf the Grey, the Wizard and the King, and the bear-sized paw prints he leaves behind, both on our lives and in our hearts. You shall not be forgotten.

Seasons of Love March 29, 2012

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Occasionally I feel the need to write about things not related to the automotive world, and today is one of those days. While the realm of the automobile is filled with many trophies and titles to win, and the people who win them are often moved to tears and elation for the goals they have achieved, in the grand scheme of things such accomplishments are fleeting moments.


Record breaking titles like Richard Petty’s seven NASCAR championships, Tom Kristensen’s eight incredible victories at Le Mans stand as temporary zeniths to one day be eclipsed, while tragedies like the loss of drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Dan Wheldon were temporarily mourned but the sport continued onward.


Even a supreme gearhead such as Jay Leno has openly admitted that even with his vast collection at his daily disposal, the one constant in his life is his wife, Mavis.


Many of us invest huge amounts of time and effort into our jobs, hobbies, and interests, and while they may generate many laurels for us to wear and possibly bloated bank accounts as a result, none of them will ever be able to provide true happiness.


The title of this blog entry, as many of you may have already guessed, is an homage to the long-running Broadway musical “Rent.” While some might think this play was simply to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, to me, and many others, it was a powerful statement about the trials and tragedies of life that love has the power to overcome. No matter if it’s the love shared between friends, or the desire that draws two people to want to spend their lives together, we witness the characters face fears and challenges with new courage they never knew they had, and that courage was provided by someone else who cared.


The lyrics of this song ask how a year in someone’s life can be measured. While the verses suggest days, sunsets, and how we lived as examples, the chorus echoes,

“How about love?”


Some might say this was a topic better suited to Valentine’s Day, but as someone recently pointed out to me, if we only bother showing our emotions about those we care for on one day a year, then all the flowers, cards, and chocolate in the world wont make up for the days we let go by.


I honestly believe The Good Lord blessed each of us with certain talents, and those gifts cover a myriad of skills and abilities, but it’s amazing how many of us struggle with putting our emotions into words. We’ve seen it in countless films and read about in novels, but one film stands out in my mind, and that is Steve Martin’s creative re-telling of the story of Cyrano De Bergerac called, “Roxanne.”


This entertaining comedy embodies how some can speak, some can write, and some struggle to do either one when it comes to matters of emotion.


Its not that those who struggle don’t feel these things just as deeply as anyone else, it’s just that uttering the words or writing them down is a painful process all its own. They wish to be able to do so, but not knowing how to craft such a message for the desired result is incredibly frustrating. The fear of a negative result only adds to the anguish, but many times the look on these faces can speak volumes if we but take the time to learn the cues.


The other end of the spectrum can be just as bad, as some can not only speak or write, but do both equally well. These people suffer from not being able to turn things off as they repeatedly seek to describe the things they feel. Somehow whatever comes out never seems to be quite right and a non-stop effort can then ensue in a quest for the classic capture of a given moment or emotion.


A good analogy for these extremes would be to say you’d like to take a dip in the pool on a warm summer afternoon. You close your eyes and step forward only to find you’ve landed in the center of the Sahara Desert, or the middle of the swelling Pacific Ocean. Both options represent an extreme end of what you were expecting, one being barren and the other wildly excessive, so instead of gaining any kind of pleasure, instead you now fear for your life…neither of which are good things.


All of us probably remember our first experience of joy and loss during our teen and early adult years, and while we thought the world was ending when it happened, we soon learned life had much bigger obstacles for us to deal with.


Some of us soon found the loss of our first truly adult relationship was much more difficult, mostly because we actually began to envision our lives with this certain person as a vital part of that equation. Nothing ever hurts worse than ripping apart a dream we thought was close to reality.


Unfortunately, a growing number of us have experienced the harrowing pain of tearing apart a reality after spending many years of effort building it brick by brick. To demolish a home, a family, and a life into so many puzzle pieces is one of the most brutal learning experiences a person can ever face, but it also shows how incredibly resilient our hearts and souls can be.


For many who have walked these paths, we have come to discover that the love provided by our families and friends can be the lifeline for survival. While it can never complete us in the way intimate love can do, its support can be the medicine that heals us and reassures our self worth. Friends and family members may also be the closest we ever come to people who will love us without prejudice or condition, and that can be a huge comfort in both good times and bad.


For me, my wife stands as a clear example of how happiness can be reached even after enduring tremendous emotional hardship. I honestly have to say that she has exceeded virtually any expectation I had hoped for in a relationship, and that is not because we have so much in common. While we do have some similar interests, it has been our differences that have made our lives so much more interesting. I have learned an incredible number of things from her, and she has opened my eyes to things I never took notice of before. While we still retain some separate points of view, for the most part we have embraced those things between us, and I’d like to think it has made both of us better people overall. I see her as glowing proof that differences can be very good if we try to learn from them rather than making them points of contention.


Many people of Asian culture practice Taoism, and one of its concepts that is more widely know in the western world is called Yin-Yang. The swirling white and black symbol is probably very familiar to most, but it’s the teaching behind it that I find interesting.

There is a common misconception that Yin-Yang represents good and evil, but Taoism discounts this notion in favor of a world of balance. The two halves are not seen as opposing forces but as complementary opposites such as light and darkness, earth and air, as well as men and women. Day and night cannot exist without one another, as one advances, the other slowly retreats. When the sun is hidden it is only then we can appreciate the beauty of the stars, even though the moon borrows her light from the sun.


Sunrise and sunset stand out as glorious and beautiful examples of how these opposite elements can co-exist with amazing result. Everyone has probably felt the unspoken joy that can come from a bright, sunny day, and what better way does that day end than with the fading glow of a radiant sunset?


Like ripples across a pond that eventually become calm once again, or the flowers that bloom, wither, and return in the spring, there is balance all around us each day.


While the desires and rewards of genuine love between two people is a great source of happiness, and essential to a full life in my opinion, there is only one other kind of love that can ever compare, and that is the love of a child.


We can wait for great expanses of time for that special someone, but from the moment we hold a child we are forever changed. Here is someone we feel an instant connection to, someone we value far above ourselves, and someone who will teach us more about life, love, and emotions than anyone else ever could.


Children come with no manual of operations, no personal guidebook, because each and every one of them is different in their own ways. But one thing is certain, no words spoken harshly from anyone else will cut as deeply or painfully as those from your offspring. Yet amazing as it seems, they can deliver a bright smile and soft spoken endearments, and like Superman drawing power from the yellow sun, we rise again, healed, forgiving, and with love that grows even stronger.


In some ways, the love of our children can be the most pure form of that emotion because it is devoid of romantic entanglement. All of the other hurdles that couples must face down are pushed aside, and all that remains is the connection that a parent sees someone they love more than life itself. This is not to say the relationship is not without its challenges, since most parents want so badly to give their children better than they had for themselves, they can easily become blinded to the needs the child is trying to cry out for. The parent’s expectations and the child’s direction can become wildly divergent, and often chaos ensues with unpredictable results.


My passion for automobiles started unwillingly on my part as I was forced to help my father work on the family car. Little did I realize at that time that he was sharing his knowledge with me, sharing his experience, and he did so because I was his son, and he wanted to pass this kind of love on to me.


My knowledge for the automotive world has never stopped growing since that time, and I hope I honor my father by excelling in what I do. By the same token, my knowledge of my children has never stopped growing either, and I hope that I have imparted some of the same kinds of love my parents have given to me.


The years I have spent as husband and father have by far been the most rewarding of my lifetime. I sincerely hope my wife and children feel the same, because I know there is still much left for me to learn, and much left for me to give of myself in the process. When I think about the time, effort and attention to detail I have expended on the long list of cars I have owned, I can only try to be sure I have given a greater measure of the same kind of heart to those I love and hold so dear.


I do love my cars, but none of them have ever held me close and whispered, “I love you.”


Material things can bring you temporary joy, but they will never deliver happiness that lasts. There goes that balance thing again, but more than that, how do we measure our success or shortcoming in our lives?


What about love?

Winter and Snow December 29, 2011

Posted by tobthebat in Car Guy Thoughts.
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Now that the holidays are behind us, the majority of the gearhead community is settling in to wait for spring. There are some who have the benefit of heated facilities to continue work on a project, and there are those who are just zealous enough to get out there and brave the elements for the sake of getting the next thing done.

Those who reside, vacation, or possibly “snowbird” to the southern reaches of North America can still enjoy a temperate climate that is warm enough through the winter to enjoy the outdoors. They can ride their motorcycles and drop the tops on their convertibles, if only for a few hours on a given day.

Then there are those gearhead souls who either by birth or choice, inhabit the upper reaches of the continent. Places where the temperatures plunge and the ground gets a regular blanket of that white stuff called snow. I have noticed during my life that snow has a profound effect on humans in many different ways. Here in central Virginia, snow is generally a once a year occurrence, anything more than that is considered a harsh winter. Mind you, we are only talking about a scant few inches when it does fall, and even then it rarely lasts more than one to three days max.

The forecast of three inches of snow in my area starts a level of madness and havoc, with people scurrying about in desperation to fill the gas tanks on their generators, and buying enough milk and bread to feed a small Eskimo tribe for a month. Last year we had about a six inch snowfall that lasted over a three to four day period, part of which was a Christmas shopping weekend.
When all was said and done, the Virginia State Police reported there had been over 3000 traffic accidents attributed to the inclement weather. Long story short, no matter if you own an all wheel drive, four wheel drive, cheap or fancy SUV equipped with all the right features such as ABS, traction control or stability control systems, it will still slide on snow and ice. The lack of respect for winter elements around here is astounding sometimes.

There is another kind of madness that is brought on by the flaky white stuff, and that is winter sports. Every four years the Winter Olympics is a showcase for an army of athletes who draw a very fine line between bold and just plain crazy. I can respect the adrenaline thrill of speed and power to be sure, and I can also truly respect the kind of athletic prowess it takes to generate these thrills from human strength combined with a total absence of the fear of gravity.

Ski jumpers immediately spring to mind as the epitome of this concept. If someone offered me an all-you-can-carry shopping spree through Fort Knox in exchange for strapping on some skis, blasting down a ramp as steep as many cliffs I’ve seen, only to be vaulted skyward at the end so that I could slowly watch my own demise approach a few hundred feet father down the same slope, I would be forced to ask if skydiving was an option instead. At least jumping out of perfectly good aircraft with a parachute suggests a level of survivability.

The contestants who ride the Luge are also a bunch who strikes me as slightly askew. Watching these people run and jump onto what looks like a sled made for a small child, and then racing down this track of glare ice carved out of mountain, begs the question in my mind of what would be an automotive equivalent? The only thing I can think of that comes close is asking Danica Patrick if she would strap me to the nose of her Indy car, and then let’s take a few hot laps around Laguna Seca raceway with some special emphasis on the dreaded “corkscrew turn”.

Being more in tune with actually driving a vehicle at speed, one would think that I would relate to those who pilot the bobsleds. Yet here again is a wild departure from anything remotely car-like. The driver of the bobsled has the singular responsibility of steering, while the contestant in the rear is the one who controls the brakes. What horror story addict came up with this arrangement? Did someone realize early on that if the driver actually feared for his life that he might slow down?…so the solution became giving the brakes to the man behind so he could feel somewhat secure in the knowledge that the driver would smack the ice wall first, therefore increasing the chances of his survival?

I won’t even begin to enter into the thinking of the four-man sled, which adds two more unfortunate souls purely as ballast. Tell me, how does it feel to be a human sandbag?

One only has to visit some of these locations where prolonged winters can drive gearheads to embark into edgy competitions of motorsports to see this type of madness slowly taking hold. The most glaring in my mind is snowmobiling, which for all purposes is a motorcycle for the ice and snow. For many years, this concept looked very appealing to me, that is until I began discussing the warnings with my wife’s cousin. At the time, he owned a cabin in northern Vermont, and he purchased himself a nice used snowmobile that he carried up from his home in Connecticut for some winter weekend fun.


He related to me the stories of the fierce cold at speed, and how some snow trails went across frozen lakes and rivers. He went on to explain how these areas are taken at full throttle, and if your buddy next to you suddenly drops out of sight, then don’t dare let off the gas, since this means you die too. I realize that driving fast cars has always had its own level of risk, but running off the track doesn’t usually mean throwing off the mortal coil.

Then one day I watched in amazement on television as two snowmobilers rocketed down an icy track which ended at a pond. This water was not frozen over, and the intrepid racers continued off the snow and across the water, with their machines skipping along like flat rocks shot from a cannon. One racer made it all the way across, while the other for some reason was not able to maintain enough speed to stay above the surface (can’t imagine why). While his machine quickly sunk, a small boat came and scooped him out of the freezing water before hypothermia set in. Isn’t it humiliating enough to lose your fine racing machine, but to then add threat of death to your bruised ego might be considered extreme. How would it be if the next winner of the Indy 500 got ice cold milk to drink, while the second and third place finishers got an ice bath that may or may not induce pneumonia? It certainly might raise the level of competition…then again it may impose a distinct desire to crash rather than finish second or third.

I’ve seen snowmobile round track racing, motorcycle ice racing, where the tires on the bikes wore huge spikes in order to give them traction. Woe be it unto the poor fool who has a wipeout and gets run over by others in the pack. The list of winter motorsports goes on, but the general feeling of going fast over the ice and snow to me is just this side of dancing with the devil. I’m sure that many would see motor racing in any form as having this quality, but to me throwing in the winter aspect ups the ante more than I care to play with. I tip my racing helmet with honor to those who do, but I still wonder if the more time you spend in cold and snow, if this is the lasting effect it has on just about any gearhead.

Each Christmas season I catch myself doing image searches online for a custom sleigh, done with a hot rod kind of theme. The Beach Boys classic Christmas tune, “Lil Saint Nick” is without doubt one of my all time holiday favorites, and any picture I can find that follows that is one I like to keep on file for future use.


This year I ran across a real gem, a snow going hot rod built by a guy named Lars Eric Lindberg of Sweden. Obviously, Sweden is one of those places endowed with a long and deep winter. Lars appears to be a true hot-rodder at heart, and must have been suffering from either cruising or drag racing withdrawals. The ‘snow monster” he has created is a winter hybrid of a snowmobile and an old fashioned Model “T”, or T-Bucket as they are often called. The wide back tires have been traded for a pair of Polaris tracks, covered by some slick looking custom fenders, and what looks like a dropped axle up front has been flipped over and rigged with set of skis in lieu of front tires. The crowning jewel is a blown Chevy 454 big-block, which, I’m sure, provides more than enough horsepower for anyone at first glance to call Lars’s hot rod a “deathtrap”. Granted, I would have chosen a Hemi instead, just for its visual impact alone as well as its threatening exhaust note.

This dedicated winter hot rod gives “dashing thru the snow at frightening speed” a whole new meaning, and is proof positive that gearhead is deep in the blood, no matter how cold it gets or how long winter lasts. If I ever wind up living in some area where winter comes heavy and stays for months, I shudder to think how it may mutate my car-guy habits, but Lars Lindberg is proof the hot-rodder will find a way to survive…without jumping off mountains.

Holidays November 20, 2011

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I’m sure many of you out there have seen the old commercials for Intel entitled “Our people are not like your people”. I have sad news for the pitchmen over at Intel; we in the car community have known this probably before the personal computer was ever born.

With the holiday season now fully upon us, I cannot help but be reminded of how the car-guy’s holidays will differ greatly from mainstream America. Its not that we don’t want to participate in “everybody’s holidays”, but the fact remains that if we try and celebrate the “normal holidays” it tends to make things pretty busy when we try and include ours as well.

Most holidays find us simply taking some time out from our fervent hobby to spend time with our loved ones. This is handled in most cases with little complaint since we know our real priorities down inside. Some of us may go kicking and screaming mind you, but that can be traced to the boy that remains inside of us despite our advancing years. Those of us who have been so blessed with a significant other that willingly gives us room to play in our little world, deserves to get our time and attention when they do ask (and even when they don’t, and we just know better) At the end of the day we don’t want to spoil a good thing so we get on board.

The calendar holidays come almost once a month, and depending on your particular car-guy flavor, ours can roll around just about as often. The North American International Auto Show rolls out the red carpet in January, followed shortly thereafter by the Autorama. The Daytona 500 heralds the opening of the NASCAR season every February, and the list grows ever longer from there. The 12 hours of Sebring, Opening Day at Watkins Glen, The Drags at Raceway Park in historic Englishtown, NJ, The Indy 500, The Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise, The Hot Rod Power Tour, any Good Guys event, The brand loyal weekend of choice at Carlisle, PA, Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Hot August Nights in Reno NV, SEMA in Las Vegas, and that barely scratches the surface. There will be literally hundreds of other local and nationally sanctioned events all over the country.

Unlike the calendar holidays, where each carries a certain theme, the car-guy days have one common thread. We always like to get together and show off, be it looks or speed or cheering for our favorite car and driver, each event can be quite unique but the core of our enjoyment always remains.

Now that Thanksgiving is upon us, the car-guy faces a time of transition. The cool, crisp fall days have given way to colder temperatures in most cases, and the play-toys have been carefully sheltered away in their garages or lovingly wrapped in their covers. Some will now begin upgrades and renovations in preparation for next spring, while others are strictly in hibernation.
This time of year also brings another holiday to perplex the car-guy, easily the most daunting of all the others, Christmas Day. This is the time of year when the car-guy is constantly asked; “What do you want for Christmas?”

As we all well know, the list of things we would love to find wrapped (or unwrapped for that matter) under the tree would easily stretch around the house. However we have learned through hard experience that these are things you just don’t ask for, as it’s about the rough equivalent of requesting your very own military fighter jet. Oh you can ask mind you, but be brutally prepared to be greeted with either a head scratching facsimile of your dream part or tool, or simply the next in a long line of various shaving products.

Let’s not be too hard on the poor unsuspecting family members though, since most of them would have an easier time understanding what we were talking about if we just spoke Greek to begin with. Here is another area where I thank my lucky stars for my beloved wife. She is a photographer, and as such is as picky about her equipment as I am about my automotive items. I learned pretty early on in our relationship that I was expressly forbidden to purchase anything camera related without her prior stamp of approval. Now this may seem like an undramatic way to shop for Christmas presents, but I can tell you the itch of waiting for your gift when you know it’s exactly what you wanted can be nerve racking all the same. Any poor schmuck who has ever waited to have a custom car built can tell you all about this level of agony.

Luckily over time I have discovered a list of things that are always worth getting. Jugs of Meguiar’s car wash, bottles of Hot Shine, shop rags and wax applicator pads never go out of style. Occasionally I run across an item that I point out with giddy boyhood glee, and my wife will oblige in the same fashion as her own camera equipment, by snapping it up for me and whisking it away until Christmas morning. This must be how Santa feels when Mrs. Claus picks his gift out.

None of this is put forth as any kind of complaint, but more as an acknowledgement the car-guy orbits in a different path from most. We as a group are okay with that because we are very glad to participate in both our holidays and yours. We are thankful we have a wonderful place where we can pursue this passionate hobby, and even more thankful we have family and friends who help us do so.

For these things alone we will happily accept all the after shave you give us by default. Especially since when we get finished working on our toys, we need to clean up before we can fix yours.

God Bless America…and the wives of car-guys.

Project Bonnie November 7, 2011

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If there is one thing a gearhead can’t resist it’s a project. No matter if its an old car that needs restoring, a decent car that is a prime candidate for a custom make over, or a perfectly good running car that begs (at least in our minds) to be modified.

"In the Beginning"

Modification, upgrading, improving efficiency, enhancing
appearance, and producing more power, are all well-used terms by the gearhead both seasoned and novice alike.

All we have to do is read or hear that some part of our car might be defective, prone to failure, or in need of regular maintenance and the flywheel in our brains takes a giant kick-start. We begin to scrutinize every nut and bolt that must be removed in order to perform this “needed” task and we pile on everything else we can “while we’re in there.” All in the name of the aforementioned goals while rationalizing each part or modification with “I wont have to do it later.”

Many of these rationales can easily be justified by cost savings, downtime, or potential roadside failure. All good excuses mind you,
but they ice over the pure truth that we just want to add and change all those little toys to make the car an extension of our personal expression.

Such was the case with my 2004 Pontiac Bonneville SLE, which is equipped with GM’s rock solid 3800 Series II engine. This stout V6 has been around for decades in various forms, and has powered some of the fastest factory hot rods The General has ever produced. You can mention the Buick Grand National in almost any car-guy conversation and adjectives like “wicked” and “giant killer” are sure to surface.

GM’s Pontiac Division produced many models of Firebird and Trans Am that are the stuff of muscle car legend, but the 1989 Turbo Trans Am boasted one of the most potent performance packages ever to roll off the showroom floor, and that car was powered by the venerable 3800 six-cylinder.

Over the past couple of decades, the auto manufacturers have experimented with plastics for various engine parts in an effort to save weight and lower costs. Today many vehicles make extensive use of plastics in the engine bay, but one of GM’s ill-fated uses was for intake manifold gasket frames. My Bonneville’s 3800 was so equipped with these gaskets, and to prevent coolant from leaking into the oil and sending my otherwise staid powerplant out to a permanent lunch, I made plans to upgrade to a superior gasket set.

You see how simple this begins? Lower intake manifold gaskets, but there are many parts that must be removed in order to replace said gaskets, and so the snowballing avalanche was set in motion. I began collecting parts in preparation for my grand project, and the thought of a gleaming, shiny engine bay showing off every detail of my handiwork danced in my brain. The pile of parts grew to staggering proportions, until the task itself began to be intimidating. I kept putting off the project (you see now it’s a project instead of a task) until Mother Nature could provide me with not just one sunny afternoon, but a string of two or three clear weather days.

Even after the Heavens and the calendar cooperated, I pulled the lower radiator hose to drain the cooling system with a level of trepidation, knowing the goal I wished to achieve still lay far ahead.

I must at this point give an enormous amount of both credit and blame to the online community of car enthusiasts I am a part of. This group of car owners is a tremendous and invaluable source of information and guidance when it comes to car repair. Whatever the problem you may be facing, you can bank that at least three other owners have already tackled a similar problem and happily share the dos and don’ts of getting the issue fixed. They are also quite guilty of filling your head with all manner of suggestions about what modifications they would perform were they in your shoes. As harmless as that may sound, the old adage about the power of suggestion has never delivered more mayhem than it does in the brain of a car-guy.

After extensive reading and study of the how-to section of the website, or “techinfo” as it’s called, I moved forward with Project Bonnie armed with a level of confidence that can easily be described as dangerous, maybe not to life and limb, but definitely to my credit card and overall financial health.

If there is one thing a gearhead will do, he will find a way to move mountains in order to make a project happen, and when I consider how many shifts of overtime I’ve volunteered to work, sacrificing sleep to earn the funds to feed my automotive habit, I often wonder if there will ever be a car-guy rehab center formed someday.


The sound of a pneumatic power tool can be annoying to the unwilling ear, and I’m sure my neighbors grew tired of the howl produced by my air ratchet as the disassembly process went ever deeper. By the end of the first day there were carefully arranged piles of bolts and parts laid out on banquet tables borrowed from my wife’s art show display (covered in requisite thick brown paper to prevent stains of course)

Upon surveying what I had wrought, I was instantly reminded of two movie lines from Star Trek films. The first uttered by Captain Kirk as he watched the Enterprise burn in the atmosphere above, “My God, Bones, what have I done?”

The second delivered by Mr. Spock, “As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.”

"My God Bones..."

If you’ve ever had the feeling that you’ve bitten off more
than you could chew, this was definitely one of those times. Luckily for the car-guy, the desire to bolt on all those shiny new parts is a strong one, and it has the ability to trump any self-doubt we may encounter.

The next morning I began installing the first of those new
parts, a set of machined aluminum, high ratio, roller rocker arms. These little gemstones had been soaking in 10W30 oil overnight so their needle bearing pivots wouldn’t be dry when the engine restarts. As I bolted each piece in place there was a bittersweet moment knowing that once the valve covers were replaced, they would be completely hidden from view, and that was sad.

Now I know how every machinist feels, laboring away on parts that will do their job well but be done away from appreciating eyes.

"Ain't they purrty?"

Slowly but surely, each new part found its place under
Bonnie’s hood, and things started to look like an engine once more. Reassembly, when it involves painted and plated parts takes on a much more careful pace as air tools are eschewed in favor of wrenching the new pieces tenderly into place by hand. I use the term “tenderly” with some reserve since there will always be the stubborn part or bolt that requires more than a bit of persuasion to get into its proper place. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to installing the “modified part.”

I had purchased an aluminum airbox from ZZ Performance that
was designed originally to fit the Pontiac Grand Prix, but the website showed pictures of a finished installation on a Bonneville just like mine. The web page went on to say, “Easily installed on the Bonneville with slight modification.”

Now there isn’t a gearhead alive who doesn’t feel like he’s capable of a slight modification, so when the time arrived for this piece to go in, I looked forward to seeing it sitting in place with great delight. The first test fit revealed that some selective cutting of the box would be required, and this is where the two sides of the human brain go to war. The logical, fact-based side says that the part doesn’t fit directly, and it should be put back in its box and returned to the vendor. The artistic side counters with the foreknowledge that modification was a given, and that the other side should relax because this will be handled in professional manner.

Measurement and marking take place before the jigsaw is plugged in as the logical brain screams one last plea for sanity against cutting anything.

The first pass proves to be not enough, as does the second, until the third steps largely out of bounds as the creative brain is screaming at the logical side to shut the hell up. Finally the collective pieces are relocated to the used parts pile. You know the place, where the pack rat in each of us holds onto things with great certainty that they will be utilized someday, somehow, somewhere, the details of which are forever in limbo. In most cases, every part in this automotive misfit zone represents a lesson learned at some expense, and this one was no different.

The next major setback involved a direct replacement part, which was the fuel pump module. The fuel gauge on Bonnie had taken a mind of its own shortly after I purchased the car, and when I say a mind of its own, read that as wildly unreliable. When one witnesses a fuel gauge read full, drift down to half, and then spike back to full when no gas has been added to the tank, generally removes any confidence of accuracy.

General Motors in its infinite design wisdom chose to mount the fuel gauge sending unit directly onto the fuel pump module, which is immersed inside the fuel tank. At least someone realized that this part might have to be replaced someday, so a small, egg-shaped access panel resides under the trunk carpet. I assume this was done to make you appreciate that you don’t have to remove the entire rear suspension to get to the gas tank.

Once again, one of my fellow online owners produced a YouTube video on how to replace the fuel pump module. This goes to show that even with a small hand-held camera, the magic of editing can make anything look easy. There is a metal lock ring that holds the fuel pump in place, and after disconnecting the fuel lines (and spilling a fair amount of gas in the process) Video-man proceeded to tap the lock ring loose with a hammer and large screwdriver. The potential for a spark seemed far easier than Tom Hanks trying to create fire on a deserted beach in “Castaway,” or more to the point, it reminded me of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he tested artillery shells by thumping them with a hammer. No explosion meant the shell was marked as a dud.

Video-man also neglected to show how awkward it is to crawl into the trunk of the car. Now let’s be clear that Bonnie does indeed have a spacious cargo area, but my six-foot-three frame still found it to be rather tight quarters. Holding a plastic-coated dead-blow hammer in one hand and trying to angle an ash-hardwood dowel in the other as a striking tool proved much more difficult. The hardwood proved to be futile against the lock ring so I exited the trunk to find a better tool. I say “exited” but the process probably looked more like Bonnie was giving birth to me out of her trunk. It was not a graceful movement by any means.

Repeated attempts to budge the stubborn lock ring only added to my frustration level. This combined with nightmare images of my hair on fire while trying to exit the trunk like a newborn baby elephant finally sealed my decision that this was a job for younger and more flexible men at the local auto shop.

With the fuel lines reconnected, pump relay replaced, and battery hooked up, I braced for my moment of truth. I turned the key and the engine spun over and then sputtered to a quick stop. This was expected since the fuel system had to re-pressurize for the injectors to deliver a full fuel shot. A second twist of the key and the engine spun and growled to life, and I could not contain the smile on my face. No matter how many times you take a car apart, tinker with its inner workings, and put things back together, the moment that it starts and runs with healthy noise is a sweet reward all its own. It is a true feeling of accomplishment, and one that sings the joyful melody of horsepower.

"Finished...sans the airbox"

This feeling was quickly dispatched and replaced with one of peril as a billowing cloud of smoke rolled from the engine bay. A rapid
inspection put my fears to rest and replaced it with another moment of education. I had painted my new tubular front exhaust manifold with a special ceramic paint that claimed it would withstand 1500 degree heat. Don’t you believe it. Maybe the claim could be verified by saying ‘withstand’ meant that chips of paint remained intact as they bubbled and flaked off onto the ground below, all the while sending Indian-style smoke signals to neighboring tribes.

Then again, the Pontiac name hails from a legendary Ottawa War Chief, so maybe this was a rite of passage. Luckily, the smoldering stopped in about five minutes, and a quick test drive revealed that Bonnie the Ghosthawk was ready to spread her wings and sound her war cry once more.

"Ready to fly"

Right after I clean up the mess I’ve made in my garage.



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