Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Families come in all shapes and sizes – but they are still families!

At this time of year the weather is highly unpredictable. However, of late there have been some amazing sunsets that I was able to capture on film as I was standing on our main floor deck having fired up the grill for the first time. April is Colorado’s second snowiest month of the year – March is the snowiest – and we have been watching the thermometer climb and fall on a regular basis. It may very well be spring, but there are times where we just aren’t quite sure what to make of it. On the other hand, there is a growing sense that summer isn’t too far away. Around these parts there are a lot of farmers heading for the fields and there are tractors rumbling down lanes everywhere you turn. 

Grilling time is always a fun time and we have been entertaining a number of guests these past couple of weeks. Neighbors who spent the winter in Ohio have returned to Colorado while others who wintered in Arizona and Southern California are just now heading back – should see them shortly. Other friends elected to fly in from our old stomping ground, Simi Valley, and it was good to catch up with them – and share a steak or two. It looks likely that we will be welcoming even more neighbors by the look of it as no sooner than the home built to the immediate east of us has been completed the work commenced on a home to the immediate west of us. 

With the coming of spring, there is always a thought or two about rationalizing what occupies parking slots in out garage. And in case you may have missed it, in our fevered endeavor to downsize from five cars to four, we actually grew to six. We have had six cars once before, but we were scattered across three locations including Omaha, Nebraska, as well as Boulder, Colorado, and Simi Valley, California. What triggered the dramatic changes was our decision to return our beloved BMW i8, as its lease will come to an end in May. While out driving one day near Boulder, Margo caught a glimpse of an F Type Jaguar and after the appropriate ooohs and aaahs were expressed, we stopped by the local dealer. In a very short time we left with the gray F Type in the picture above and this was the subject of a previous post. 

On the other hand, while buying F Type Jag, we spotted and were intrigued by the Range Rover Evoque convertible taking center stage on the dealership floor. At the time, as much as we began to like the car, we did nothing. The F Type was taken to service over a weekend for a very minor item – syncing Margo’s iPhone to the Jaguar needed a software upgrade – and while it was being worked on Brian, our Jaguar salesman gave us another, not convertible, Evoque as a loaner that we proceeded to drive everywhere that weekend.

On returning to the dealership to pick up our new F Type, to our dismay the Evoque convertible was missing from the showroom floor. Totally disappointed to the point of being distraught, we walked to the coffee machine only for me to catch a glimpse of the Evoque returning from a test drive. Needless to say, we leapt into action and a matter of a couple of hours later we drove away in both the Jaguar and the Range Rover. These Evoque convertibles are being discontinued in 2020 and this bright orange example was one of the very last Evoques for sale.  Cool – so there you have it; we now have a two seat sports car with a roof and a four-seat SUV with a ragtop!

In many respects, Margo never quite got over the sale of her beloved Mini Cooper S Roadster ragtop. It remained a car she very much loved, I suspect. It was only a year ago that we traded the Mini for the BMW M4, but in time, Margo drew away from the M4 believing it was a little too big and worse, lacked the charm of her Mini. Welcome to the Evoque convertible – a ragtop Mini on steroids! And Margo just loves the darn car. It has a minimalistic power train based on a turbo inline four displacing just two liters but with the nine-speed auto, it seems to pull onto the freeways just fine! For us, the purchase of any vehicle is always an emotionally driven transaction and this time, it was more a Goldilocks situation where the vehicle was just right. And did I mention its bright orange?

It was only a matter of hours after returning from Germany and a couple of days after the really big winter storm hit Colorado that our good friends, Jan and Brian Kenny, arrived from Simi Valley to spend a long weekend with us in Windsor. We picked them up at the airport, still driving the Jeep SRT, brought them home and then celebrated with martinis and fine wine. With the arrival of Saturday, we made plans to drive up to Estes Park for breakfast and the cars of choice were the BMW i8 and the F-Type Jaguar. Mind you, this was just three days after that first “bomb cyclone” descended on northern Colorado so we were anticipating poor driving conditions.

Fortunately, with the lack of humidity and plenty of UV, the snow had melted and the roads were clear. The talk never moved too far from cars and Jan and Brian gave us a gentle poke as they reminded us that, with each trip to Colorado, they had had the opportunity to drive a different car. The Kenny’s are family to us indeed, whenever we receive a test message, the initial response is always, “was that from the family?” We have known the Kennys now for more than a decade and have traveled with them to Australia and Europe and I have covered the adventures that we had in previous posts to this blog. However, it remains one of those gifts of life that an accidental meeting on a Starbucks driveway could lead to such a lasting friendship. We are now looking forward to catching up with them again this summer and yes, RVs will be involved as will time spent alongside the Pacific Ocean.

One major fallout following our latest attempt with the rationalization of our cars is that we no longer have any vehicles with four doors and worse; only the RV can pull our trailer as the Evoque convertible isn’t capable of towing the trailer with a car on board. Particularly when it is our beloved Corvette! We will just have to see how that all pans out and, rubbing more salt into the wound, we cannot even flat tow the Evoque as it isn’t equipped with a transfer case where we can select neutral. Oh well …

Family: It isn’t fair to the rest of our families to suggest that we consider our cars as though they were our offspring. We each have a daughter that we truly love, but it’s true, cars are very much our family too. We are often found opening the door to the garage just to check that the cars are all right! Our kids, OK? The rock group The Who would be so proud of us – yes, the kids are alright, Pete Townsend! And yet, it’s a rationalization that is pretty shallow when you think about it and we have been seeing more of our human kids this month as our American daughter and grandchildren are celebrating their birthdays in April. Having spent three months in Australia we had the opportunity to spend some time with our Aussie daughter, Lisa, even as we welcomed to Sydney yet again, our American daughter Anna and her husband Erich. 

Cars are like family…  On the other hand, and perhaps not too unexpectedly, as soon as a vehicle becomes high maintenance then it is out of here, know what I mean?  So, not only will the i8 come off lease in May but just this past week, we sold the Jeep SRT seeing as it had recorded 125,000 trouble free miles over the course of five plus years. And the Evoque has taken up residence where once the Jeep had stood – and it’s so much smaller! Did I mention that, too?

It is also a sign of the times as the vehicle characteristics have changed too. When we had V10s and V8s all with manual transmissions parked in the garage, today it’s a mix of inline Four, an inline Six and a V6. No longer will you find 500 and 600 hp cars just wanting to be unleashed but rather, 300 and 400 hp cars. Gone too are the naturally aspirated vehicles losing out to a mixture of turbocharged and supercharged engines. Ignoring the soon to be departed i8 with it’s true hybrid powertrain, we now have AWD across half of the cars parked in the garage and ignoring too our track-focused Corvette Z06 parked offsite, it’s also a sign of the times that fuel tanks have become so much smaller even as the range has increased. We haven’t given up on performance mind you as all the cars go really well. It’s just that the garage now better reflects the changing times for choices in vehicles.  

Talk of families brings us back to the Kenny’s, whose grandson, Colton, set the record as the youngest ever Indy driver to win an Indy race – the Indycar Classic held at the Circuit of the Americas. As a rookie in only his third outing in an Indy car and on a circuit where he tested just a few weeks earlier (with much success), he took out his first win before he turned 19. Watching it all unfold on television was hard to do but as he crossed the finish line, there was much jumping up and down in the Holen-Buckle living room. The kid is alright, for sure. We have been following his career since we first saw him driving carts on the parking lot of the Rio hotel in Las Vegas and for the longest time, Colton’s only ambition was to become a professional Indy car driver. Having now watched him a couple of times, he is the real deal driving with a more mature attitude than you would normally expect from a teenager. 

Unfortunately, having worked his way up to second place in the championship just a short time ago, engine and fuel line trouble at Barber, Mississippi and then hitting the wall at Long Beach, California has seen him add little by way of padding to his points and he has dropped to tenth place overall with only a slim margin between him and second place in the Rookie Championship. But there’s a long way to go and next month it will be all about Indianapolis where he won all three events last year driving in the Indy Lights series. All we can do is wish him the very best, but all the same, who could have predicted him enjoying success this early in his career.

The Kenny family was in attendance for the event and kept us posted with updates all weekend. While we saw Colton go on track with the Indy cars for the first time when we visited Sonoma late last year, it’s clear that the union between the Herta family and that of George Steinbrenner IV and the subsequent creation of the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team has created a stable platform from which Colton will learn a lot and already, the relationship between driver and mechanics is already the talk of the paddock. There certainly was a lot of upside from Colton spending two years during his early teens racing in Europe. As a footnote, the Herta family’s tradition of heading for tacos whenever Colton had a win has led to a local taco vendor sponsoring his race this weekend – King Taco! 

The highlight of practice at Long Beach, in the lead up to the latest Indy race, however had to be a tweet from his dad! When Colton topped the practice charts Sunday morning he did so at the expense of his father’s, Bryan Herta’s, driver Marco Andretti. It is hard to imagine what the senior Herta is going through as he focuses on his own team and driver even as he faces real competition from his son racing for another team. Family dynamics are something the Holen-Buckle family is only all too familiar with, but the ups and downs we experience on a regular basis pale into insignificance when it’s all business. I am not sure whether we could handle that development all too well, but fortunately, with our daughters at this stage in their lives, it’s not a topic we need dwell on for too long.

Spring isn’t too far away and that will bring with it more road trips. We are already scheduling an RV outing that will take us to a major industry event in Las Vegas before we head further west to California. We are also anxious for a trip of exploration back up into Canada that will include spending time back in Banff and Lake Louise – the last time we took that trip, we drove the then-new 2004 Corvette convertible. So long ago, but if we were to ever point to an occasion where we first began to think about having multiple cars in the garage, it was standing at a payphone outside Banff where it all began. A chance call from our architect asking whether we would like to buy his Porsche 911 before he turned it back in to the dealer as the lease expired.

We didn’t proceed with the purchase, but what happened next is now history. All those years ago we had the red Corvette we still own to this day as well as a BMW 740 and a Yukon Denali SUV. It was the fall of 2003 and now, fifteen plus years later, we own no more sedans just sports cars and grand tourers (and track cars) together with a sort of SUV. No matter the style or the engine size, these vehicles are still very much appreciated as if they were our children and while we aren’t accumulating trophies or enjoying the accolades of cheering crowds, the opportunity to simply jump in a car and drive remains our primary form of entertainment. And with our grownup kids all doing fine, I guess it’s safe to say that it’s not just what trip we will do next, but what will be the next addition to our family … and with that, one last look at what's inside the garage today!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Yes, spring is coming so let’s get out there and see the snow one last time!

The opportunity to catch up with good friends and former business colleagues meant that Margo and I made a quick dash to Munich, Germany, where we tackled a little bit of business and we had the whole of Munich to explore. My first trip to Munich was back in early December, 1981, and as best as I can recall, it has been a place I have returned to every couple of years.

There was a time when I worked for Nixdorf Computers during the period where they manufactured their own IBM Plug Compatible Mainframes (PCMs) and this endeavor just happened to be centered in Munich. The division was called Compatible Information Systems (CIS) as I recall, although locale Nixdorf folks were often heard explaining that CIS stood for Compatible Information (to) Siemens. On arrival into Munich’s old airport, I was often greeted with snow and this was pretty much the case this time, too – snow fell a couple of times while we walked the city.  

It is hard not to be impressed with the old town of Munich. That so much exists today is a testament to the enthusiasm of the townsfolks who spent decades restoring the town to its former glory. And it is still ongoing, especially among the many cathedrals and churches that define many of the city squares. In the picture above you can see the old Town Hall – this building, so we were told, was first mentioned in dispatches back in 1310. The tall white spire adjacent to the high pitched roof of the hall was part of the very first Munich city wall and now serves as a spire that provides another element to the city’s unique vista.

The church atop this post is of the Frauenkirche that continues to serve as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. No matter the weather – and it was windy the day we headed for this church – there is always a full house and while there is many panels of the stained glass windows missing, it’s still an awe inspiring site. But then again, it’s only one of many churches to take in while strolling down the pedestrian-only plazas that penetrate the city.

Perhaps the church with the most stunning interior was the Theatine Church of St. Cajetan – a church I regularly passed when I was working for Nixdorf out of offices a little further up the road on Leopoldstraße. However, it was until a recent trip to Munich that I actually took the steps to walk inside this amazing structure. It’s overall style is hard to communicate as it is in measure part Baroque style with an amazing façade in the Rococo style even as the towers, added much later in its history, along with the yellow coloring gave it a Mediterranean appearance and a statement that was to influence a lot of Bavaria’s love of Baroque architecture. As for the result, the stucco interior is unlike anything I have ever seen and I couldn’t help but take additional photos of this church every time I entered!

For many readers Munich, and it’s naming conventions, can be a little confusing at times as the Old Town Hall looks a lot newer than the New Town Hall. Over the centuries the Old Town Hall has been updated many times with “alterations of the façade (during the Renaissance),” so we read, and the adoption of more of a Baroque style, “the building was restored in neo-gothic style 1861-1864. In 1874 the municipality moved to the New Town Hall.” Nevertheless, it’s always a great place to visit and as you can tell, on the day we spent time in and around the Old Town Hall, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

The main square of the old town of Munich where you will find the Old Town Hall is Marienplatz. A major tourist attraction, but at this time of year it was more a gathering place for one or another political party arguing local issues as an election was coming. However, it’s hard to ignore the major building running the length of the square – the New Town Hall built in the late nineteenth century – and now cleaned and restored to all its former glory. It includes hundreds of offices but most importantly, you can ride an elevator to the top and step out onto an open air walkway that provides awesome views of all of Munich.

Spring hadn’t quite made it to Bavaria and yet, on the one very sunny day we experienced, there was a sense that spring was definitely on its way. You could see an almost velvet-like touch of green appearing on trees and there were even a couple of brave yellow-festooned trees making an early splash. However, checking out the architecture was only one attraction we enjoyed during the weekend we had to explore Munich – it was the beer and pork knuckles and yes, Bavaria style pork schnitzels that were the main attraction.

In the basement of the New Town Hall and taking up nearly all of the space, is a large rabbit-warren like restaurant called Ratskeller. As Margo began to read the menu there was going to be no question about us taking the steps that led to the Ratskeller. As we had already planned an evening out with former Nixdorf colleagues where pork knuckles and schnitzel were on the menu, we only sampled the soups – real Hungarian Goulash – and it was good!

Beer halls at night, roasted pork in all its forms by afternoon… Wrapped in winter coats and heavy shoes, it was fun to just pop into anything that caught our fancy and there were so many choices. We tried four different local brewery restaurants – Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus, the Spatenhaus an der Oper, a restaurant run by yet another of Munich’s six major breweries, Spaten, as well as Löwenbräu (of course) and Augustiner which wasn’t hard to miss as it was directly opposite our hotel. Of the six breweries, Augustiner is the oldest and we dined in its onsite restaurant and enjoyed a late lunch – schnitzel again along with pork shoulder … 

We had hoped to make it out to the BMW museum but with the weather misbehaving as it was, we left this to the next time we visit Munich, but even so, there were days where we walked seven miles and in this respect, it reminded us of our most recent time spent in Sydney where walking seven miles became a normal routines. However, we sure did miss Sydney’s warmer weather. On the other hand, Sydney is no Munich and with as many memories as we have of Munich and its surrounds, it is always going to be tempting to think about returning to the city given any opportunity to do so – and of course, the next time it will have to be when the sun shines a little more brightly!

It wasn’t all beer and pork knuckles, mind you. As we strolled the city lanes and thoroughfares, there was also a little bit of Vienna coming through. Coffee shops and an abundance of places serving up chocolate treats meant every now and then stopping in to sample the wares. Well, perhaps not quite like Vienna, but there is something familiar about the cities that stretch between Munich and Vienna that we like a lot. Anyhow, there is nothing to apologize for when chocolate is involved!

It wasn’t all fun and games either as we did manage to catch up on business as we had planned, although even then it proved every bit as enjoyable as every other event we were caught up in – yes, it ended with a great dinner over beer and pork once again. The reference to Nixdorf and to Leopoldstraße reminded me of an exciting period in my business life where catching a flight from Sydney to Munich became almost routine. It was back in the fun days of the 1980s and it cemented in place my fondness for the city. As much as I try to avoid flying, now that Denver has direct flights to Frankfurt and seasonally to Munich as well, there is every chance we will be returning to Munich sometime in our future. Ah those chocolate treats in Munich – that’s enough to have us checking flight schedules once again!

It would be remiss of me not to mention how we managed the transfer between Frankfurt and Munich. On arrival in Fankfurt we checked into the relatively new airport Hilton Hotel. Its location cannot be beat as it sits atop a major rail transfer hub. Checking out of the Hilton meant taking a lift down to the lowest platforms where Germany’s Inter City Express (ICE) trains could speed you away to any destination in Germany you could think of and even further.

Purchasing tickets in first class meant we had table service and yes, free chocolates, and it was certainly a relaxing way to travel. And it was so quiet on these trains; unbelievable! Obviously the early morning departure left some of us wanting a little more time to catch up on our jet lag …  

However, once aboard and seated by the windows in an area where few other travelers were seated, allowed us to see a little more of Germany than on previous trips. We have flown to Munich many times and even driven a car to Munich but this is definitely the best way to travel if you have the time – and the time passes rather quickly on the high-speed ICE trains. A couple of stops and before we knew it, we were stepping onto the platform in Munich.

Perhaps best of all? A great way to put the flight of the previous day well and truly behind us and while the route we travelled to Munich took us through Stuttgart, the return trip pretty much paralleled Germany’s famous Romantic Highway (albeit just a little to the east of that road) as we passed IngolStadt and Nuremburg before intersecting it at Würzburg. Now traversing the Romantic Road may just do the trick and become the driving influence that sees us return to Germany. Who knows, you may very well read about it in an post in the near future, but until then, having unpacked and sorted through our collection of beer hall coasters, we have a lot to look back on – oh, we so love to travel! 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sorting out what to keep and what to trade …

When did the mighty BMW M4 become a grand tourer and when did the even more magnificent BMW i8 become a supercar? Given how the i8 stole the show in the Mission Impossible movie when Tom Cruise’s character said “wait till you see the car!” It was his only comment as he unloaded munitions and transportation from an air transport plane. On the other hand, trying to squeeze each and every car into a recognizable category these days when crossovers cover so much territory is becoming next to impossible. Do we really need cars like the BMW X6 M or the even rounder and more unsightly Mercedes Benz GLC Coupe? The world of cars has gone mad, I tell you.

With snow falling here in Windsor, Colorado, (as unexpected as it is these days given how it still is winter) it’s time, once again, to explore the topic of which five cars to keep. Well, at least for the next year or so and it is timely as once again, Margo and I find we have five cars in the garage, storage and on the driveway. Spread out as they are and with much less driveway to park them all than we had back in our former home in Niwot, Colorado, this is but just one small challenge that comes from downsizing. Whatever happened to the two bedroom townhouse with six car garages? Not to worry, since I last posted on this topic a year ago, the cars seem to be getting smaller. Not only is the M4 now a GT and the i8 an exotic but the Corvette remains a track-focused toy even as the Jeep SRT well, is still just a Jeep.

One of the primary objectives, indeed possibly the single overriding decision to make when we go out and shop for a new car is that it just has to be pretty. While we really worked hard at trying to like the new bevy of SUV / Coupe crossovers, they just don’t work for us and yet, the need for another All-Wheel Drive (AWD) car continues to be a major consideration given just how many times our roads here in Colorado receive a dusting of snow. Slushy roads just aren’t good for sports cars and track toys so having options is always good. And what isn’t as maddening as it otherwise might be is that today’s performance cars are all getting a big boost from having AWD as an option, as while it may add a little to the vehicles weight it more than makes up for getting the power down onto the road – acceleration numbers and cornering prowess are getting a major boost in vehicles with AWD.

The Jeep SRT with its big naturally-aspirated 6.4 liter hemi V8 continues to be our go-to car whenever the conditions call for it. Last year we made the decision to transfer it away from being just a company car used on business trips to where it is now our personal car. With 120,000 miles racked up in under six years we have decided to make it a “keeper” and to drive it until its wheels fall off, which as a matter of fact, comes close to the truth. We were advised only this week after we rotated the tires yet again, that we would be needing new lug nuts all around as the extremes of heat and cold the car has lived through has caused the lug nuts to swell to where regular sockets no longer fit – have a puncture out on the highway and it may be impossible to remove them now. At least the world didn’t go mad when it produced this Jeep as there is real world use-case scenarios that are best left to be handled by this SRT.

After fifteen plus years, our beloved track car – the Corvette C5 Z06 – remains with us and serves us well even if it has less than 25,000 miles showing on the odometer. Call me old fashioned or just call me old but Margo and I have a fondness for this car and while its retail value has dwindled to an insignificant amount there really isn’t any reason to consider parting ways. Our time on track is winding down and for 2019 it will mostly consist of semi-social marketing efforts where we will focus solely on our home track out at Byers – the High Plains Raceway. As much as we would like to make one return weekend trip to Willow Springs or even Buttonwillow, it is probably not going to happen. For a decision made very quickly back in 2003, this Vette has proved to be one of the wisest car purchase decisions we ever made.

There is a couple of nagging “issues” with this car that apparently every C5 Z06 owner has had to deal with and that is the problems we continue to encounter with the computer overseeing traction control, active handling and yes, anti-lock braking (ABS). The demand to have all three items serviced immediately has appeared many times and try as we might to isolate the “gremlin” involved, driving it back into storage after our last track outing at HPR resulted in these three messages appearing yet again. It will necessitate a trip to service where I am hopeful the fix this time will not be too expensive but I have to tell you, I am nervous as I have read the cure can be anything from a fuse to a wiring (around the ignition switch, no less) to replacing wheel speed sensors to swapping in a new processor. Ouch!  

The picture above is telling in its historical context. This was the very last time our good friends Brian and Jan Kenny trailered their Corvette C6 “Wide Body” to our Niwot home. Their C6 was a finely tuned track car that sounded every bit as wicked as a Corvette can sound – with a track-focused cam shaft, headers and long tubes and a tricked out exhaust system. It was fast. If it hadn’t been for an unfortunate wheels-off incident at Laguna Seca’s turn 11 that careened the car into a barrier, Brian would have set the track record for the day during an outing with Speed Ventures. Whereas Margo and I ran our C5 Z06 on street tires, Brian and Jan had mounted Hoosier slicks and the level of grip these tires provided had to be experienced to be believed.

Unfortunately, after a lengthy stay in the shop being repaired, the Kennys sold their Vette and they are no longer seen trackside. It’s unfortunate too in that we have lost our track buddies and with them sidelined, our own enthusiasm for track weekends has waned. Hence, our decision to only do social “open lapping” days at HPR. On the flip side, the Kennys did buy a plane and have already made the journey from Simi Valley, California, to Windsor, Colorado – a routine we hope that they repeat on a regular basis.

Perhaps an even bigger distraction for them may be the immediate success their grandson, Colton, has been enjoying this early in the year. His first outing in the Daytona 24 Hours saw him as part of the winning GTLM entrant – yes, a BMW M8 – taking home the winners Rolex watch, no less. Then, a matter of just a week or so later, he was back in his new Indy Car ride for testing at Austin, Texas Course of the Americas (COTA) where he topped the leaderboard for three of the four sessions (landing a P2 during the last session where only Indy champion Alexander Rossi recorded a faster time)! It’s just good to be Colton! And to think, he is the only driver in the Indy field born after 2000. And to think too that he had to visit a Rolex store to have his winning watch resized only to have to explain that yes, he did win the watch and no, it wasn't stolen!

Those with a good eye will be able to tell that there is now another coupe in the garage proper. And there is a story behind this that is worth telling – with the exotic i8 and the grand tourer M4 there was a need for a true sports car. A sports car, mind you, that just had to be pretty. I had been eyeing a new BMW M850i X Drive but it was white and it was rather big. Perhaps a good choice at some point to become the grand tourer in the manner that our former Maserati GT-S had served, but for now, with the i8 already stabled in the garage adding the new 8 series would have been overkill. On the other hand, the reports hitting the auto magazines were listing it very high in terms of looks and capabilities so who knows, maybe one day. I guess we may have to sort this all for ourselves at some point!

While we were driving to yet another BMW dealership Margo saw a sleek white sports car turn into a side street. “What was that?” she asked. A Jaguar F-Type, I responded as I continued to drive towards the intended dealership. “When we have finished talking to BMW can we make a trip down to the Jaguar dealership – you know the one that’s just opened near the Flatirons Mall?” As it turned out, the time we spent in the second BMW dealership led nowhere – you want a new i8 roadster for $175,000? Well, not really! So it was a short drive to the Jaguar dealership and what do you know. They had an F-Type on the showroom floor that they were heavily discounting. 

Back in 2003 in the months before we bought the Corvette C5 Z06 we had been looking to buy the then Jaguar sports car – the XK8 or possibly the XKR. We visited the showroom several times but on the day we took the checkbook with us, the dealer in one of the poorest time decisions that they ever made took us aside to show us their additional showroom that now featured Aston Martins. Well, the rest is history as we so liked the Aston Martins so much that we dropped all further consideration of buying the Jag even though we knew the price of the Aston Martin was out of reach. Awkward ... Or, so we thought. In the months that followed, we bought the C5 Z06 and returned a few weeks later and bought a second Corvette. This time it was a 2004 C5 Convertible and our first entry into the world of blue Corvettes. 

However, it was also around that time that Margo’s niece, Joanna, asked whether we would be interested in buying a XK8 Convertible and from the pictures she provided, it looked beautiful. Also at that time Margo was demonstrating her prowess in the stock market as a day-trader and in one day of trading, she profited to the point where she had gained enough money to buy the Jag. Unfortunately, Joanna’s friend selling the new Jag (he was waiting for his Bentley to be built-to-order) sold it to his neighbor. Little did I realize that Margo really wanted that XK8 Convertible and even though she was happy enough with the C5 Convertible well, it wasn’t a Jaguar! 

Margo now has her Jaguar sports car. This time it’s the new F-Type and yes, it’s AWD. Powered by a supercharged V6 with some 380hp, it moves along nicely and with its 8-speed ZF gearbox (the same as is in the Jeep and practically every other car these days) receiving Jaguar specific software upgrades, it performs almost as quickly as the automated manual dual-clutch transmission in the M4. Many years ago, we had been invited to an outing in the Denver Bronco’s Mile High Stadium for an autocross session inside a bevy of new Jaguars. While we didn’t perform all that well – the cars were enormous saloons – Margo did score a Jaguar baseball cap which she kept to this day. Now she has the car to go with it; who knew!

Before we get too wrapped up with the five cars we now have, the Jag is only in the garage because the lease on the i8 is almost up. We had originally wanted to wait, but when the Jaguar dealer knocked 25% off the price, “temptation stepped right in!” We will have about three months of overlap that will give us the balanced mix of exotic / supercar, grand tourer, sports car, track car and the SUV. Will we be able to live with only four cars plus the venerable RV and trailer or will we be back on the hunt for another exotic or perhaps grand tourer? For us, we have always appreciated that we should never say never, but in reality (and in time), we may be headed the other way and come up with just the three cars we absolutely must have. Suddenly that BMW M8 (when it appears) might fit the bill but then again, that’s a story for another day. For Margo, she has her sports car and it’s a Jaguar, at last, and I am not sure she will ever want to trade that car away for anything else.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Australia and New Zealand – a look back at three months down under!

Back in Colorado for just two weeks, it’s proving hard to comprehend that we just spent three months down under. Australia holds a special place in both of our hearts, but this time, Margo and I found it tough handling Colorado’s wintery welcome after so much time under the blazing Aussie sun! As we flew out of Denver, all those months ago, the view from our plane was sunny and quite breathtaking despite what we knew were the conditions on the ground: Bring on the sunshine and warmth!

Then again, this trip to sunny down under was always going to be about optimizing our time and, faced with the potential of having to make three separate trips to Australia, it was enough reason to combine potentially many flights into a single trip. As for timing, knowing full well that we would be away over the Thanksgiving Weekend, Christmas and then New Year’s Eve, it only seemed fair to squeeze in time with my family while focused on business, for the most part.

However, to respond to numerous questions we have received upon our return to Colorado then no, we have no plans whatsoever in returning to Australia on a full time basis – we will do our best to visit as often as we can but with the passage of time, the flights between continents remain a daunting exercise. Furthermore, we have no intentions either in dabbling in Sydney’s real estate market. Purchase of a vacation condo makes little sense despite our fondness for travel, so any thoughts of going down that path have been irrevocably squashed. A future where we are retired will be most definitely anchored in the US remembering that we already have a vacation home albeit on wheels; yes our RV that will at some point revert to our ownership once we step back from full time work.

Friends! Yes, we took advantage of our time in Australia and New Zealand to catch up with family, friends and business acquaintances – good people with whom we just haven’t had time in the past to talk to at length and cover topics ranging from my early days in IT to where we did some crazy things like “slalom driving” around and between the cones on Sydney’s Harbor Bridge late one night.  

After five long years away from Sydney, there was no doubting how much we had missed the place and on arrival, my brother Greg picked us up at the airport and drove us to Manly Beach. We walked along the foreshore before enjoying lunch atop the harbor’s North Head.  The sights and sounds that greeted us open our minds to a flood of memories that once activated just kept on coming – how many times had we dined at Shelly Beach’s Le Kiosk? Well, no more unfortunately as what was a good place for fine dining has succumbed to the reality that fast-food sells a whole lot better.

It would be our plan to divide our time down under into five distinct periods – time with brother Greg as his guests in their suburban condo in Beecroft followed by an extended stay with my high school mate Dave at his amazing home atop Bilgola Plateau. Thanksgiving Week would see us board the Majestic Princess for a short trip down to Tasmania followed be an opportunistic schedule of the same ship that took us over a weekend to New Zealand and then back again just a weekend later and where we were able to catch up with colleagues and clients in both Auckland and Tauranga.

On our return, another stay with Greg meant we were with family for Christmas and the New Year before finally checking into the Westin on Martin Plaza for the first couple of weeks of January at which point, it was pretty much back to business before returning to Colorado. As for that travel day back to our Windsor home it just happened to be scheduled to coincide with our twentieth wedding anniversary so the day, courtesy of the International Date Line, lasted for thirty plus hours!

Perhaps to best answer the many questions directed our way is to provide a review of where we went, where we stayed, what we ate, drove and sailed and yes, and what we heard. When it came to air travel we really enjoyed the time spent on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner that United uses for flights between continents.

Being in Economy Plus doesn’t mean a whole lot these days but the flight was quiet and the service rather good – have we already described the return flight where we were served champagne, in real glasses, along with cupcakes and other treats all “borrowed” from first class? A very nice touch that helped cement that this day was a major milestone for Margo and me. As for travel once we were down under then we pretty much sampled it all! From planes to trains to automobiles along with a variety of seagoing vessels, it was a very mixed lot with experiences to match.

When it came to boats then hands-down, the day on the harbor spent with our good friends Dieter and Chris aboard their Riviera 50’ motor yacht – along with champagne followed by chicken and chardonnay really spoilt is for all else that followed. We had our daughter Anna and son-in-law Erich along for the ride - priceless!

Many thanks to Dieter and Chris for extending to us hospitality on a scale we weren’t really expecting. And it just so happened that we were on Sydney’s harbor as the big maxi yachts were preparing for the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. What a spectacle! When it came time to leave the yacht we were somewhat reluctant to do so, but then again, that’s what makes time with friends and family out on the water so special – you have to enjoy it all in the moment as it happens!

So, in no particular order, but with some friendly clues already provided, here’s where we stood with respect to what we did and saw as we now look back at this sojourn down under.

Restaurants: (1) Bennelong (2) Fish on the Rocks (3) Tied with two Merival’s restaurants making the cut – Felix and Bert’s Bar and Restaurant. This last reference to Bert’s counts as it was the venue from which we watched the running of the Melbourne Cup with David and where, Margo’s horse naturally won! As for the Bennelong with Peter Gilmore as Executive Chef, we have to admit we were a little apprehensive as, back in 2013, we had dined at Gilmore’s other, perhaps even more famous restaurant, the Quay. On that occasion we were left somewhat disappointed (with the menu) but not this time! Gilmore excelled and the diner left us not wanting anything more and did we mention the martinis? Fabulous! As for the location, under the sails of the Sydney Opera House as the afternoon sun began to set, with views of the Harbor Bridge, what more can I say? Again, fabulous!

Vessels: (1) Dieter’s Riviera 50, (2) Majestic Princess, (3) Magistic Cruises dinner cruise on New Year’s Eve. A special mention goes out to the operators of Sydney’s Thunder Jet Boat that came as a surprise Christmas gift from brother Greg and sister-in-law, Robyn. To spend time on two vessels named Majestic - yes that is the little one passing bigger brother in the photo below - even if one of them has taken the liberty to spell Magistic, was a treat, but the Princess Cruise was a time to unwind at a time when each day was simply running into the next.

We also spent a lot of time on different vessels of the harbor ferry service including the Manly Ferry, the local Ferry cats as well as the Fast Ferry service and they took us practically everywhere we wanted to go inside the harbor. Then again, Sydney is all about its harbor so it’s no surprise then to read about just how many times we went on the water or about how many different vessels we chose to ride.

When it came to transportation then there may be a couple of surprises install: (1) Sydney Transportation (Opal Card), (2) Lap of Bathurst Mt Panorama race course in a street Lexus, (3) Run down the infamous Comenarra Parkway in a HSV prepped HSV GTO. Special mention needs to be made of Greg’s VW GTi as well as to David’s beautiful turned out Mercedes Benz A45 AMG (I think that was the AMG model with dive planes, spoiler and rear wing / diffuser). Then again, wasn't it our local Pizza Bar owner, Tony with his BMW X6M and Ferrari California T that took the cake, literally, when it comes to cars? Tony occupied a store practically underneath Greg's apartment. Did we say cake? Tony provided us with one of the best cheese cakes we have ever eaten ... anywhere! Thanks Tony! 

Have to mention in passing too that we were picked up at our hotel and then entertained for a day by our good friend Kevin who arrived at the Westin behind the wheel of a very serious off-road Mitsubishi the likes of which I just haven’t seen anywhere in the US. But if you want to spend time wandering around in the Simpson Desert or worse, then he has the transportation you must have before entertaining any such idea!

What was most unusual about this trip down under was that we went there with no intentions of renting a car and depended upon public transportation whenever we could and we really liked the integrated approach to ticketing – all you need is the Opal Card – and yes, the ease with which we could call up a Uber ride any time we needed a car ride. No discussion about cars would be complete without some references made to where we went. Greg drove us to a weekend retreat at Port Stevens and Newcastle, north of Sydney.

We saw camels strolling along the dunes by the beach, a Santa Clause dressed in northern hemisphere’s winter attire walking (and sweltering) along the seashore and yes, we even paid a visit to the Air Force fighter museum. Sister Judy drove us down the south coast to see how Wollongong, the city where I first began work in IT, had faired in the intervening fifty-odd years but no, I didn’t recognize the place. It was Greg and Robyn who drove us out west to Robyn’s family farm at Forbes with side trips to Bathurst, Parkes and Cowra and that too was a revelation as we saw firsthand the impact this latest drought was having on the farming community.

Events: Topping the list it would have to be New Year’s Eve spent aboard the Magistic (for seven plus hours), tolerating the continuous pouring of reasonably drinkable Aussie “champagne” ducking, in and out of the viewing deck as thunderstorms wreaked havoc before the fireworks began, was a pretty good way to ring in the New Year. And then there were the fireworks themselves – amazing and living up to everything we had previously seen on television. However, in second place had to be the time spent on sister-in-law, Robyn’s family farm outside Forbes.

Witnessing a mob of sheep being driven down the driveway as we entered the homestead proper was a treat. Surprisingly, in third place had to be our very quiet almost private tour of both the state of New South Wales houses of parliament – what a surprise to be able to stand at the State Premier’s lectern and to sit upon the Speaker’s Chair.

As for the third event well, it had to be the tour my sister Judy provided us of Wollongong and it’s surrounds as it was where I first began my career in IT. Agghhhh - the memories – mostly of abject poverty as I first tried living on my own on a computing cadetship paying $40 per week and of riding my motorcycle up the Illawara Highway to Robertson on a Friday evening without a working headlamp!

As far as where we stayed during out time down under then it came down to making some tough decisions: (1) A tie between The Anchorage Hotel and Spa, Port Stevens, and The Westin, Sydney, (3) David’s Bilgola Plateau. We visited Dieter and Chris in their penthouse unit in Balmoral and we thought the place was fantastic!. However, it was the multiple occasions that we called Greg’s condo home and where we set up office during our extended time in Sydney, bringing with it memories of family times long ago that have been lost in time, that we treasure the most – I was reminded, more than once, that I hadn’t spent this much time with my brother… ever! Ouch … have to rectify that situation in the coming years!

And then again, perhaps its best left to reminiscing over time spent with daughter Lisa together with Greg and our whole family over Christmas lunch. Seated as we were on his deck, enjoying a very typical feast for that time of year complete with an Aussie Pavlova and yes, a jar of Vegemite, it was hard to think about our family and friends back in Colorado where the weather was the polar opposite. Can’t recall if we were given any news about Colorado enjoying a white Christmas or not – but then again, there would be little doubt that in a matter of a few short weeks, we would be back there, chilled and somewhat stirred (by our memories). Whatever happened to those three months? All we can say, thinking once more of the memories we made, priceless!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Time back on The Mountain and checking out the Dish!

For anyone who has ever followed auto sports anywhere on the planet there is only one “The Great Race.” History will always hold a special place on the timeline of momentous occasions in car racing for that track outside Bathurst, New South Wales, known as Mount Panorama. From my earliest childhood recollections, the annual event at what was simple called The Mountain was a topic of discussion between my father and his friends. We purchased our first black and white television in 1960 and almost from the time it arrived, that long-weekend Sunday in October was always a time to watch The Great Race.

Fast forward to December, 2018, and here I am trackside. In a promotional video, voiced by Russell Crowe, that describes the track as a curiosity and the atmosphere and the tribal nature of those following the race teams, Crowe declares “you’re either red or blue; there is no beige on the mountain!” For many decades this auto race, the Bathurst 1,000 – a reference to the 1,000 kilometers, race distance – has been fought out among groups of GM Holdens and Fords. There was a time, long ago, when Mini Coopers and Ford Cortinas went on a winning streak (in the 1960s when the race was then known as the Bathurst 500, a reference to the distance being only 500 miles as it was in the days prior to metrification) but these were cars of another time. More than a decade later there were wins too by Nissan with its Skyline GT-R, a team of Jaguar XJ-S racecars, a team of Ford Sierra RS500s and yes, even a lowly BMW 320i (in 1997 – driven by brothers Geoff and David Brabham); otherwise, it has always been a battle between (Ford) Falcons and (GM) Holdens.

Australian families made car purchases of one marque or the other and rarely switched brands over their lifetime of buying cars. As for my brother and me, we grew up in a household where Holdens were the car of choice of our father and that’s the only vehicle we ever wanted to see win the great race. We were firmly in the red camp. But now, trackside for a morning run across the mountain, our vehicle of choice was going to be one that was rarely seen on the mountain – a Lexus. But what could I say other than thanks to my brother, whose generosity in letting me sit behind the wheel of a car his wife had only just purchased a matter of a few weeks ago was much appreciated.

My last and only outing on the mountain was behind the wheel of a bright yellow Holden Torana SLR5000 – a lightweight touring sedan with a thumping big block of iron up front. As on that prior occasion, all we were allowed to do was a parade lap, but even so, it remains an eye opening experience and leaves you in awe of the racers that throw their race cars up a hill and into corners at close on 150mph when at a mere 40mph it was pretty frightening.

In many ways the track is a tease, but not for no reason at all did one German racer, Maro Engel, name it the Blue Hell, a reference in passing to Germany’s famous Green Hell – the Nurburgring North Loop. Nowhere near as long as that German track, but all the same, Australian Blue Hell has elevation changes that simply take your breath away. Brock’s Skyline ( a reference to Peter Perfect, otherwise known as Holden’s all time race win record holder, Peter Brock) on down through the Esses can only be driven by the very best and brave of racers as you enter it “blind” to what follows and as much as it looks like the famous corkscrew at Laguna Seca, it continues on in a far more dramatic fashion than that Californian circuit’s most famous element. 

Fortunately, my brother had driven an opening lap to give me a better update on what the track now looks like, following numerous changes since the mid-1970s when I did my last (and only) previous lap of the mountain. All the same, having rounded Hell Corner and begun powering up Mountain Straight, I dropped two wheels off the track and into the grass. Nothing major and I was still coming to terms with driving on the left in a right-hand drive Lexus, with traffic coming towards us – yes, when not in use as a race track it is a tourist road open to traffic in both directions – but it drew a sharp breath intake by my brother all the same. No worries, Greg; trust me, driving around race tracks is my hobby!

What is surprising though is how cars have evolved in the decades since I last drove a lap of this track. Back in 1974 my “hot” Torana SLR5000 still had drum brakes on the rear wheels. It wasn’t until the more tightly focused track version of the SLR5000 appeared as the SLR5000 L34 was the vehicle given a set of disk brakes for all four wheels. And before I forget, for a production car even with an obvious track focus, the SLR5000 L34 came with a gorgeous set of headers that were the first I had ever seen on a car most drivers would use as a daily drive. Sitting behind the wheel of a Lexus IS 250 four door sedan, while for my tastes the steering was a tad vague, in all other respects the car performed very well and at no times communicated anything troubling back to the driver, even when the road disappeared and rapid changes in direction were required.

There is a well-stocked museum at the track and it houses examples of almost all the vehicles that have won events on the mountain. Of course, I quickly gravitated to the SLR 5000 L34 similar to the one I had owned all those years ago – even if it included a dash of white paint – and as for the promotional advertising, Ron Hodgson Motors almost won my business for my very first Torana; a previous generation Torana GTR in metallic lime green no less. My business transfer to the company’s head office in London meant that I had to part with the SLR 5000 before I had wanted to do so, but then again, that job transfer was the beginning of massive redirection of my career that ultimately led to my current, multiple decade, domicile in North America.

The trip Margo and I undertook at the very height of summer with my brother and his wife Robyn even as it did include a brief interlude on the mountain was just a brief couple of days excursion into the farming districts that lie to the west of the Blue Mountains. Robyn’s family resides in a farming district just outside the city of Forbes and while I had visited the place decades ago – was it really 1984? – Margo had never been out into “the bush.” It was hot to say the least, with temperatures climbing into the low 40C degrees. The traditional swarm of flies were ever present and yes, we “brought the Aeroguard!” which helped considerably. With 4,500+ acres of good farming land, we were enthralled by a tour provided by Robyn’s brother, Mal. There was a mob of sheep and a number of fields where a mixture of different crops could be seen – some in the process of being harvested.

There were two attractions we wanted to see during our time out west with the priority being a trip north into the city of Parkes to see the huge radio telescope that dominates the landscape. It’s hard to describe just how big the dish really is, but suffice to say, you could play a cricket test match on the surface of the dish and being 200+ feet across, the batsman would still have a difficulty hitting any ball the faced for six runs.

This radio telescope was the centerpiece of a 2000 movie simply called The Dish and “the giant dish stands impressively over surrounding farmlands - a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment ironically in the middle of sheep paddocks!” It’s actually a good movie as it recalls the time when man first walked on the moon and those very first transmissions from the moon’s surface were received by this dish and then relayed to the rest of the world.

Perhaps it was another discovery that caught my attention given how the dish is just to the east of a major interior road, the Newell Highway. Running across New South Wales it is a major truck route taking goods between Melbourne, Victoria, all the way up into the state of Queensland terminating west of Brisbane, but also running back to the coast near to the city of Rockhampton, Queensland. I know I just have to return to Australia someday to travel that route and am adding it to my bucket list that also includes travelling across the width of Australia on the Indian Pacific train (along with the tip up north on the equally as famous, ‘Ghan train), as well as a cruise through the Kimberleys to the far north west of Australia. Is it me or is the
True North vessel the nicest way to see that part of Australia you have ever come across?

Outside of the city of Cowra, New South Wales lay the remnants of the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp along with the Japanese War Cemetery and Garden. A unique combination of gardens and ponds spread over many acres, it is truly outstanding to know that such a place even exists in Australia. And yet, with help from Japanese donors (and even visits by Japanese school children to help with the planting) together with funding from the Australian government, it is the only such place of remembrance outside of Japan. 

My brother Greg and I spent an hour or so walking the grounds astounded at times as we came across something exceptionally beautiful, be it the placement of the ponds or a live “arrangement” of flora. Driving as we did in the time we had out west and between country towns like Bathurst, Parkes, Cowra, Forbes, Eugowra and the like, proved to be the highlight of our time down under. Surprising as this may seem, but it was so different from anything that we had previously experienced during our trips to Australia that at times, it was almost magical as we encountered something different around every bend in the road.

As for the abundant bird life well then, it too was amazing. Even as the districts surrounding Forbes are clearly in the midst of a major drought, there was no escaping the inherent beauty of the Aussie Bush! As we began the trip we lamented how little time we would be spending in the Blue Mountains as we had wanted to get to Bathurst early in the morning for breakfast but after seeing as much as we did in such a short period of time, there were no complaints to be heard from Margo and me about the quick drive through the mountains along the continental divide. 

This long weekend that fell between Christmas and the New Year gave us the chance to go driving and for that, it will always be remembered. Being on track at Mount Panorama, was only the second time I have driven any car the whole time we have been in Australia. But the memory of that one lap will stay with me for many years to come. It would be remiss of me as well to not thank Greg and Robyn for putting together this road trip and for showing us the country life that their family has enjoyed for generations – many thanks to you both!

It proved to be a nostalgic time too for Margo as she reflected on her own family and of it owning farm land back in Poland, near the town of Pniewo (some 70 miles from Warsaw) in the years before the outbreak of WWII. Her grandfather would go hunting and her mother, together with her uncle, often spent their summer vacations with the grandparents watching farm life, up close. After the war the communist regime distributed the land owned by the nobility including that farm land belonging to her grandparents to the peasants working the farms and so Margo never did get to experience life on the farm. And yet, in the short time she spent in and around Forbes, it was hard to shake off the feeling of “what if?”

Margo and I have enjoyed the time behind the wheel of many cars and our garage has often seen some pretty exotic vehicles parked within. This year, there will likely be further changes taking place, but it was only when visiting a local shopping center before we left on this trip into the country that I was reminded of just how much I miss our yellow Maserati GT-S when I saw the very convertible Margo thinks might prove up to the occasion. And it was yellow as well! With this, we both wish you all the very best for 2019 and hope to see many of you as the year progresses!