Then And Now, Again

I have always thought that a sports car should resemble a woman lying on her side: the front-wheel arches resembling the shoulders, the middle of the car falling away like the midsection, and the (larger) rear-wheel arches mimicking the swell of the hips.

Hence the beauty of Ferrari’s Dino 246 GT, my love for which has been well documented on these pages, and which resembles the slender female models of its era in the early 1970s:

What then, do we make of Ferrari’s new Portofino, which replaces the superb California?

Here’s what I see: it looks block-y and more muscular — more like a model who’s been working out in the gym who should look something like this:

…except that the Portfino doesn’t look like that either.

I know, I know: so much of today’s automotive design is shaped by what works in a wind tunnel as opposed to actual, you know, beauty. But Ferrari, at least until recently, seems to have been keeping the old proportions alive — which is why their cars have typically looked better than anyone else’s. I’m just not so sure about the Portofino.

(Please note that I’m only comparing the designs — the Portofino’s top speed of 198 mph dwarfs the Dino’s 145 mph.)


Update:  Reader askeptic points out that Ferrari, or at least their ad agency, used to share my sentiments. Note the ad from a later era:

Wrong Ferrari, however: the 308 looked like Twiggy, not Veruschka.

 

Roadsters (2)

In my first post on this topic, I looked at roadsters in their original concept: simple, economical fun. Today I’m going to look at a development of the concept, which added performance — mostly, it should be said, in terms of speed, but also comfort: bigger, better suspension and so on, all at (of course) a steeper price.

It began almost at the same time as MG were bringing out their early TA model, when the SS Motor Company (later Jaguar) produced their SS Jaguar 100 model, which unlike the earlier Mercedes SSK was designed not for the track but for touring.

It had a brute of an engine (3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, compared to the TA’s 1.3-liter four-banger) and a top speed of just over 100mph. The popularity of these cars, by the way, can be seen by the fact that almost every one you see nowadays is a replica, not a rebuilt original.

Of course, these cars could be raced, and they were. Sports car racing was big at the time, so there were all sorts of cars like this: Bentley, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo (to name but some) all had a hand in the game, and in the U.S., there were Duesenbergs, Cords and Auburn (to name but some of them).

I’m not a fan of big, brute cars; I prefer the smaller touring models to the racers: modestly sized but still with decent performance. Hence I tend to prefer the SS 100’s successor, the exquisite Jaguar XK 120:

I also prefer the smaller German models like the later 190 SL:

…which is really the budget version of racing monsters like the 300 SL Gullwing.

In the U.K. again, the little MGA sports car begat the Austin-Healey with its powerful 3-liter engine (but with the same legendary unreliability of its smaller cousin):

Now on to the present, or rather, the recent present. One of the problems of car manufacturing is that it’s so damn expensive. Only large corporations can build cars profitably, because of both economies of scale and the fact that they can subsidize their more interesting (and less popular) models with mass-market versions. And sadly, performance touring cars are a niche market. Even BMW can keep their excellent 650 touring models in production only because they sell boatloads of 330s, 530s and 750s.

And with a lovely segue, we come upon Wiesmann touring sports cars. Started by the two eponymous brothers in the late 1980s, Wiesmann produced what I think are some of the most beautiful cars made in the modern era. Here’s their MF-3, which uses a BMW M3 3-liter 6-cyinder engine:

…and if you’re thinking that it looks rather like the Jaguar XK 120 above, you’d be correct. Unlike the older XK, though, which had a spartan interior, Wiesmann gave the lucky driver this cockpit to play in:

Note the manual transmission, which is the default offering (you could get an automatic gearbox, but that would be a gross betrayal).

Later versions had the monster 4.4-liter BMW engines, which didn’t add that much power, but did turn an already-expensive proposition into an exorbitant one — which limited their market.

Sadly, Wiesmann went out of business in 2014, because their cars required too much money to convert them into US roadworthiness and the high (hand-built) cost limited their European market — these are people who want to tour, not race, so you’re not going to get the Ferrari-Porsche Set to buy one.

The same can be said for Aston Martin cars, by the way:

They’re ridiculously expensive and yet (still) a little too unreliable for people who want to (say) drive from San Diego to Maine, or Free Market Towers to Naples.

But because Aston Martin is a British company, they will always have wealthy customers in the UK who don’t want to drive a European (read: German) car, and who also don’t mind a little bit of unreliability because remember: one shouldn’t have too much fun while enjoying oneself.

Roadsters (1)

The concept of “roadsters” began, bizarrely I think, in 1930s Britain. In a country not known for its copious sunshine (or perhaps because it has so little thereof), car companies began to make small two-seater open-topped cars, modestly powered with a front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive, that could take a young man and his girlfriend on exhilarating trips through the country side, on the tight, twisty and narrow roads so common on this Scepter’d Isle. Thus you had cars like the MG TA:

…which after the slight disturbances of the early 1940s, became the MG TF:

…which turned into the MGA of the late 1950s:

Now you have to understand the concept behind these cars. They were never intended to be racers, nor were they tourers (in the Grand Touring style). They were sports cars — in the literal sense, in that one drove an MG for fun, on short road trips (all road trips in the UK are short: it’s a tiny island, remember) — which meant that the drivers were not going to be stranded hundreds of miles from home by the inevitable mechanical breakdowns and electrical failures, not to mention the fact that these cars leaked like a bucket hit with buckshot; and as we all know, it can rain a bit here in Britishland.

Excuse me while I explore a branch line in my train of thought. Why is it that the Brits can come up with all these excellent concepts, and yet their engineering can suck so badly? Mr. Free Market (who has owned many British cars) once commented that a long trip in his Triumph Stag could move the share price of BP, so much oil did his car consume. For any owner of this type of car, essential items to be carried in the tiny trunk/boot were: a set of wrenches/spanners and other tools, spare hoses, a can of water to refill the radiator every few miles, a can of oil to refill the leaking sump, and a pan to catch the leaking oil while the car was at rest.  (It’s easy to see why these were known as “bird and a sponge bag” cars — there was no room for anything else.) My absolute favorite example of this silliness was in an episode of Top Gear, when Jeremy Clarkson had a meeting of a local MG club at some remote town in the country. Every single driver had oil-stained fingers and hands as a result of having had to stop and tinker with their cars on the way down. And speaking of silliness: if you look back at the pic of the 1949 TF above, you will note the huge gap between the windshield and door window — a veritable funnel for driving rain to soak the inhabitants. My only conclusion is that the British nation is a bunch of masochists who have an abiding distrust of things like comfort and reliability when it comes to roadsters. One should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all.  [end of branch line]

Of course, the Italians went for the small sports car concept in a big way, incorporating even the unreliability factor (and anyone who’s ever owned an Alfa Romeo Giulietta of that era knows what I’m talking about).

Let’s be honest, here. The concept of a sports car (roadster) is a brilliant one. Of course, it took the Japanese to make the roadster concept truly enjoyable, as Mazda proved when they made a modern copy of the MGA, called it the Miata and sold tens of thousands of them all over the world:

There it is: small underpowered front-mounted engine, stick shift, rear wheel drive, two seats — only with astounding reliability and functionality. From Clarkson again:

The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 [Miata] is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.

That’s the reason that I’m going to buy one of these sports cars, when I finally have a few pennies to spare. Unfortunately, my British heritage (from my mother’s side of the family) means that I’m going to buy not the Miata, but the Fiat 124 Spider derivation:

Because one should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all — and I’m pretty sure that Fiat will provide the appropriate levels of failure.

Bye Bye Volvo

According to a report I read in yesterday’s Dead Tree newspaper (online link), Volvo has decided to stop making gasoline-powered cars altogether; all future Volvo models will be exclusively electrically-powered.

Let’s be honest about this. Volvo has always been a niche brand in the U.S. — even the venerable 240D wagon was pretty much beloved only by academics and a few soccer moms of the period — so it appears that the Swedes (or Chinese, if you prefer their actual ownership) have decided to make the brand even more niche-ier: trading the twenty or so people who wanted to buy Volvos for the nine people who want to buy electric cars (or the two people who want to buy specifically a Volvo electric car).

That’s for the U.S. market, of course. Maybe this will work for Volvo in Europe, where they only have to travel a few miles between destinations and the electric cars there need weekly recharges (instead of hourly, in America). Who knows? stranger things have been known to happen Over Here, but I have to tell you, I just don’t see it.

I was going to end this post with “Sic transit Volvo“, except that “volvo” in Latin means “I roll” so the phrase would make no sense. But you know what I mean.

Reality

Allow me to quote an email exchange I had with my Brit friends earlier this week. While everyone in Britain was oohing and aahing over the nuptials of skinnymalink Pippa Middleton to some chinless Brit dude, I was taken by something else: the car which brought the not-so-blushing bride to the church, and I commented as such to Mr. Free Market and The Englishman in an email which basically said “Never mind the bint, it’s the car I love”. And you have to admit, the Jaguar Mk.V is quite a looker:

I was rudely brought back to Earth, firstly by Mr. Free Market:

“All very well on a bright summer’s day — all 3 of those that we get each year — but the first sign of drama & it won’t start.”

…and yet more by The Englishman:

“Agreed — the idea of a ride in one of those is lovely, but actually they are bone rattlers, noisy, expensive to run and at the slightest excuse refuse to start. Demanding attention all the time with mysterious dramas. Of course with the top off they look fantastic, though often they smell a bit of damp leather and dogs. And in the end something a bit more modern with something up top and a decent level of comfort is a better ride.
And the same goes for the car.”

Such cynicism is appalling.

Conservative Timekeeping

One of the problems of having a conservative outlook is that it permeates every part of your life. Just because something is called “new and improved” does not necessarily make it so — which is even more the case when it comes to societal conditions, of course, in that if one is aware of history, there isn’t much new, and even less is an improvement that hasn’t been tried before, mostly ending in failure.

One might think that this isn’t the case with technology, but even there I look at things with a jaundiced eye. Automotive technology is certainly better than it was a hundred years ago, but we’ve climbed that far up the quality/performance curve to where today’s model is enormously better than the Model T, but not that much better than last year’s model. (And I still prefer a stick shift to an automatic transmission, and a bolt-action rifle to a semi-auto one, to name but two of thousands of examples.)

All this came to mind when I was having a couple of welcome-home drinks with Doc Russia, and he mentioned the fact that he was looking at buying a decent “dress” wristwatch, but because his experience with watches has been limited to utility rather than appearance, he was somewhat at a loss as to what he should be looking at.

As it happens, watches and clocks are something of a passion of mine — if I ever won the lottery, I’d be in deep trouble — so I was happy to offer some words of advice. (I’ve owned several decent watches in the course of my life: Omega, Longines, Piguet and so on, which has made me keenly aware of the value of a good watch — and not just one which keeps perfect time.)

Buying a watch is about as personal a decision as one can find — hell, I’ve known men to spend more time on deciding which watch to buy than selecting a car or even a wife — so there are all sorts of combinations / permutations of features and characteristics which go into one’s final decision which are, to put it mildly, very much individualistic. I realize that in today’s world, such a discussion is akin to such old-fashioned purchase decisions as to the best buggy whip to buy, or even (gasp) the best bolt-action rifles for your needs and wallet, but nevertheless, here we go.

At the outset, I’m going to exclude from this post any discussion of being comfortable with a drugstore digital battery-powered cheapie which keeps perfect time and costs less than fifty bucks. I have absolutely no problem with this attitude — hell, I’ve owned more than one Timex or Casio in my time too — and I’m also not going to engage with people who’ve quit wearing wristwatches altogether, leaving the timekeeping function to their cell phone. It’s the modern thing, and of course it’s your choice. That’s all well and good, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Remember, we’re not talking utility as the primary driving factor in buying a new watch; we’re talking class, beauty, style and quality of workmanship. This is akin to the difference between buying a Toyota Corolla and, say, a Lexus. Both do the same job, both are of excellent quality, but each offers a different style of delivery. This is no less true of watches.

As with all things, you have to start with budget. (If you don’t, you’ll just get frustrated.) Doc’s budget is between $5,000 and $7,000, which offers a wide range of options, all good ones. (Much more than this, say $10,000 plus, and we’re looking at investment watches, which creates a set of completely different purchase criteria.)

Let’s also stipulate that we’re looking for a wristwatch and not a pocket- or “waistcoat” watch, just to keep things simpler.

We should start with what I think is the most important criterion, which is movement: automatic, or manual wind? (There are few battery-powered watches in this price range, which I think is good. My everyday watch is a cheap-ish Dooney & Burke which, while very pretty, needs a new battery every eighteen months, and it drives me scatty.) Automatic is the lazy man’s choice — it self-winds by the movement on one’s wrist but to be honest, unless you’re spending a lot of money (more than our budget), the timekeeping is not always perfect to the millisecond and the watch may need to be adjusted occasionally. A manual wind — generally more precise and therefore more expensive — is of the “eight-day” type: one full wind will last for about a week, and then the watch will need to be rewound. I have no preference, myself, although I lean towards the manual (see “stick shift” and “bolt-action rifle” above): it’s the first of many personal choices we’re going to encounter. Here are some examples of manual-wind watches in our price range:

The last, the IWC Pilot, is normally outside our price range, but I’ve seen it on sale recently, so if you love it (and I do), you may be in luck.

With automatic (a.k.a. self-wind), prices almost halve. All the above examples which have automatic variants cost less than $5,000 — and with that premium removed, we also have a few more brand options within the price range:


…and so on.

Next, we come to appearance: white face, or black/colored? Myself, I prefer a white face, but some of the grays are quite gorgeous. Ditto the hands of the watch: simple, straight, ornate? And the numbers: regular, Roman, dashes, or Art Deco (to name but some). Other functions (date, day, month, stopwatch, moon phase etc.)? Leather strap, plastic strap or metal expandable strap? Once again, all this is a matter of personal choice. If you want or need a watch that does everything except make you coffee in the mornings, go for it.

Honestly, the choices are dizzying (in almost any price bracket), and there are hardly any bad choices once one gets over a thousand dollars. (Poor taste choices, however, are another story — but one man’s bad taste is another’s gotta-have, so I stay away from value judgments of that nature.) For myself, the plainer the better, and I don’t need a date because I hardly ever write checks anymore. I prefer the look of stainless steel over gold; although a decent gold watch always looks classy, the price premium is just more than I want to spend. I prefer a leather strap; I can’t wear the expandable metal straps because I have hairy arms and wrists, and the damn things pinch.

So here’s my shortlist of watches (in addition to all the above) which are more or less in Doc’s price range.

IWC (probably my favorite brand in this price range):

Longines:

Maurice Lacroix and Glasshutte:

And finally, no piece like this would be complete without showing the watch I’d want to get as soon as the Powerball guys got their ducks in a row and finally gave me the winning ticket:

If you wanna know how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Note the Art Nouveau numbering, the faded and understated gold… yowzah.


If you want to play like I did, and see just what’s out there, go to Prestige Time and browse. I don’t think their prices are realistic, by the way: I haven’t found them to be anywhere near those quoted by reputable retail outlets. But they have a bunch of watches showcased, so enjoy.