Monday, October 25, 2010

Road Test: 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle

At last, a drive in a Bug that isn’t a rolling piece of Scheiße.

According to owner, and, judging by the way it looked/drove, this is probably the closest thing to a brand new 1971 Super Beetle available in the entire state at this point, if not the entire country. Bone stock in every way, right down the non-retractable seatbelts. My expectations were very high.

Which is why I was so disappointed. I had always assumed that my late mother’s 72 Bug (which, by the way, I have seen driving around every so often with its new owner) was so crappy feeling because it was old, worn out, and hadn’t been taken care of. Well, it turns out they felt like that when they were new, too. The closest thing I can liken it to is a 1940s farm tractor, which, if you think about it, is what the Type 1 really is. A Chevrolet Aveo is a Mercedes S-Class in comparison, and, amazingly, that is not even the slightest bit of an exaggeration.

It seems almost useless to make objective measurements in comparison to anything even vaguely modern, as the levels of unrefinement are so wildly off the charts. What bothered me the most was that, at any given time, it sounded and felt like the thrashy little engine was sitting right next to you. In the past, I’ve made snarky comments in my reviews of modern economy cars about how it seemed like there was no insulation anywhere on the body at all. With the Bug, there literally isn’t any insulation on the body at all. In all but steady cruising in 3rd or 4th gear, it is difficult to hold a conversation with the passenger sitting right next to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was any road or wind noise, the damn engine was so ear-splittingly loud.

On the other hand, it did ride better than I expect, thanks to generously sized tires and a softly sprung suspension. The steering wasn’t half bad either, and despite being manual the effort was almost equivalent to an overboosted power unit you would find an old Lincoln. I can only assume this is due to there being almost zero weight over the front wheels, with both the engine and driveline being placed out back. The brakes… yikes. Manual, no-antilocks, coming to a stop was an event every time.

As a whole, driving just a couple blocks took an intense amount of effort. Rather than the car being an entire unit that effortlessly worked in harmony, each part of the driving experience – steering, brakes, clutch, throttle, shifter – had to be closely monitored and kept in check at all times. This is in contrast to most modern cars, where two of those variables are removed altogether and the other three are largely taken care of by the car itself, with only slight inputs from the driver. It really is a whole different world.

I can’t see how a car like this would make a plausible daily driver. If it took that much effort (and fear), to a go a mile or two, I can’t imagine what it must be like for thousands. At least it helped renew my appreciation for the technology we have now. I think I’ll leave this one to someone else, and admire it on the road and in parking lots rather than in my own driveway.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Memory Lane: The Big Brown Cadillac

When I was around four or five years old, my best friend Sonya’s grandma owned a brown 1980s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I can still picture it there, sitting in her parents’ driveway when she would come to visit every month or two. This was in the mid-90s, and back then, every old person in Michigan – and I mean every old person - drove a big, rectangular, excessively ornamented 1980s Detroit land barge. Nowadays we call them pimpmobiles, but to my young eyes, it was the ultimate grandma car. So huge, so square, so formal and old fashioned from the chrome tailfins to the proud, shiny hood ornament. No one under the age of 70 could possibly have one. Certainly not either of my frugal, Toyota Corolla-driving parents, not a chance.

One day, Sonya and I were playing hide-and-seek outside her house. I needed a place to hide, and fast. Her grandma happened to be visiting at the time… see where this is going? It was right there, sitting in the driveway, like the Titanic next to the green Ford Escort that Sonya’s dad owned at the time. I quickly swung open the heavy driver’s door and stealthily climbed inside. It slammed behind me, and there I lay, sprawled across the leather bench seat, body pressed flat against the upholstery as to be completely hidden from sight. In retrospect, fooling around in an adult’s car without their knowledge or permission was probably not to most polite thing to do, but I was too young to realize it at the time. Or maybe I was just an inconsiderate brat. Yeah, that's probably it.

I laid there for quite a while, feeling so proud of my clever hiding spot. But no one came. You see, that is the fundamental flaw with the hide-and-seek. It is a lose-lose proposition. If you are found, your hiding spot was mediocre. If you’re not found after a sufficient amount of time, your hiding spot was excellent, and you want to show it off. But no one will ever know about it, because they never found you.

So, my smug satisfaction having turned to frustration with Sonya’s sub-par seeking ability, I decided to climb out of the super-sized chamber of unapologetic luxury. As a sat up to open the door, I got a quick glimpse of the dashboard out of my peripheral vision. Whoa! Hold on a minute! The interior of this car was almost as wild as the exterior! It was all so foreign to me, having been born and bred on Japanese econoboxes. I distinctly remember being absolutely entranced by the horizontal strip speedometer. It was completely flat; straight across the dashboard! And the digits were all so thin and stylized, or, to quote it more in line with my four-year-old vocabulary; “fancy looking”. How I desperately longed to see it in action. But wait… it stopped at 85 miles per hour. What happened if you went above 85? Did the car explode? Oh, the mysteries of youth. So many questions, no answers.

Sonya never did find me that day. As the years went by, the Cadillac graced the driveway less and less frequently until, eventually, grandma passed away and I never saw it again. Oh well, it was back to mom’s silver Corolla. *Sigh*. Why couldn’t my parents be old and have a cool car with shiny tailfins and a fancy looking speedometer that spread straight across the dash?