Saturday, February 15, 2014

The highway’s a calling!

 Too long in the cold, and too many afternoons looking through the windows at the falling snow, and yet it’s what is expected in our village. Good friends dropping by, even as the stillness emanating from the frozen landscape, each time I open the door reminds me that yes, I was looking forward to this time of year only a few months earlier. But now, with a brief break in the weather and temperatures a little more spring like, I can’t wait for winter to end. Casting an eye around the garage only to see cars feeding from battery tenders isn’t an image that cheers me up. It’s time to explore the highways of America!

We will be making the drive back to California and the picture above of our Jeep SRT outside a Hotel California pretty much sums it up – we just have to check it out. It will be a brief trip this time but it will take me to both, southern and northern, California. Margo will share the trip with me and is just as interested to be back on the highway, as for almost a decade trips to California were an integral part of our lifestyle and while we don’t miss the downside of having to be at the office once we reached our destination, we do miss the upside of the journey itself. These highways of America often were our sole refuge in disquieting times.

For as long as I have listened to music songs have influenced me; my moods often a reflection of what I had just heard. When it comes to highways it’s been a reoccurring theme among popular songwriters during that time. It was Led Zeppelin who wrote, in Stairway to Heaven, the ethereal, and somewhat  haunting, lyrics that puzzle me still, include the lines, “And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our soul”. Of course, the Eagles made the “Hotel California” an unforgettable melody even as it began with, “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair.” More applicable perhaps are the lyrics of James Taylor who observed, in “Carolina in my Mind, “Dark and silent late last night, I think I might have heard the highway calling.”

All told, “as we wind on down the road”, as we cross “a dark desert highway” and as we “hear the highway calling”, it’s an ever present sense that the journey is everything. Margo and I often laugh about the pointlessness of the destination – it could be anywhere at all – and yet what we marvel at is the grandeur of the vistas we experience. So, it’s definitely time to check tire pressure, make sure the windscreen washer tanks have been topped up, and give the cars a thorough clean. Said Elwood, “It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark ... and we're wearing sunglasses.” To which Jake assuredly responded, “Hit it!” Perhaps the Blues Brothers had it all figured out, after all.

Having so few photos of all the cars, as noted in last month’s post, presented me with a challenge. However, the cold and afternoons spent looking out the windows at the snow kept me from the garage, and so it wasn’t getting any cleaner. Following the winds of fall, and then the deep freeze, it has taken several weeks before the temperature warmed sufficiently for me to pick up the broom and begin sweeping the garage. The state of the garage, with dried leaves everywhere, was in stark contrast to how the rest of the house was maintained and proved to be all the reason I needed to move the cars onto the driveway and begin the big sweep. Obviously, with all the cars lined up in one place, it called for a photo and what’s included below is the first snapshot of our five vehicles for 2014.

Yes, it truly was like this during the next to last week of January, with nary a sight of snow anywhere. Hard to imagine that a few days earlier the view towards the mountains was as snow-covered as the picture at the top of this posting indicated. However, the symmetry of the picture didn’t escape me and although it wasn’t intentional, either way you look at the line, it’s red, black and yellow – not exactly the sequence on the German flag, but I have to believe somewhere this color sequence holds relevance for some. On the other hand, it was only after I snapped this picture that I realized the lineup followed a sequence – the oldest car first and the newest, last. From 2003 to 2014, these cars are slotted into the right spots.

Given it’s the start of the year with none of the cars having been on track yet, it’s probably the only opportunity I will have to write an opinion post on the merits of each car. Barely a week goes by without a visitor or passerby asking me which car does Margo or I like best or, as is also often the case, which car goes the fastest! It was noted a few posts back, and it’s quite noticeable in the above image, whether we wanted to or not, we have become a FIAT family, even though we didn’t purchase a single FIAT. But the auto business today is complicated, with models heritage often lost in the shuffle, but an owner of a Bentley GT, an Audi Spyder and perhaps a Porsche SUV would be slow on the uptake if asked about the merits from supporting VW.

Furthermore, it’s become fashionable among the motoring press to write about their favorite five cars and a quick look above will confirm that yes, this lineup qualifies. In former times, admitting to owning two cars or perhaps three was an admission of over indulgence, but the bar seems to have been raised higher of late. When Motor Trend magazine evaluated “25 distinct models and 45 total cars” and revealed the finalists, it said “at least five finalists would have been worthy of the top honors”. Clearly, having five cars then seems a sensible alternative to simply trying to rationalize the selection of just one.

When it comes time for you to consider having five cars it makes sense to earmark one car for enjoying driving fast on racetracks around the country just as it’s important to have an all-purpose utility vehicle capable of towing it home, should the need arise. Similarly, a back up to the utility for use in inclement weather where all-wheel drive is necessary is a “must-have” when living in a place like Colorado, and the fact that such a vehicle can double as a supercar only adds to its merits. As for a roadster for sunny drives in the mountains, then it’s hard to argue against having a rag-top and of course, for those long-distance trips to foreign countries, a luxurious grand tourer is a necessity.

The track car – 2003 Corvette Z06

There are many more capable cars on the market today worth considering as a track car. But the weight of the C5 Z06 coupled with its less-constraining array of electronics makes it an ideal vehicle for carrying out these duties. Change a wheel / tire and there’s no electronics in the way to stop you from going back out onto the track. GM engineers designed this car for the weekend racer and its list of standard features make it inexpensive to campaign, particularly now that it’s a decade old. As for spare parts, almost every city has a stock of new and used parts to meet any situation, dire or otherwise.

Would we like the very latest iteration of the Z06? Of course we would, but the Z06 we have right now fully tests our capabilities every time we take it onto the track and that alone is satisfying enough for both of us! With each passing year, it is becoming less expensive to maintain and as anyone who spends time at the track can vouch for, that is perhaps the most important attribute of all!

The roadster – 2008 Viper SRT/10

From the moment we first set eyes on this black ragtop Viper roadster we knew it would fit the bill exactly. Like the Z06 it too wasn’t a complicated car indeed, it has even less electronic assists than the Z06. However, a word of caution: it’s no accident that this vehicle is named after a snake as it does bite and, according to urban legend (as well as more legitimate sources), 17% of new Vipers never make it home from the showroom upon purchase. Yes, they will bite, and yet in spring or fall, with vibrant explosions of color to view in the nearby mountains, there’s not a vehicle better suited to a short, leisurely weekend’s drive on Colorado’s back roads.

Leisurely? Yes, leisurely, and would we like cruise control? Would we like a little more insulation? In other words, shouldn’t we consider trading up to a new GTS with all the bells and whistles? Not a chance – the Viper is so unique in the way it goes about doing everything it does that putting it to one side for any reason at all is just unthinkable. What a car!

The grand tourer – 2010 Maserati  Gran Turismo Sport

Considering so many of our vehicles followed the mantra of form following function, there was definitely the need for something comfortable and luxurious. With so many mass-produced cars available from Germany, the luxury grand touring genre was becoming overcrowded and in doing so, lost some of the unique qualities that define a luxury Grand Tourer. The only real competitor to Maserati is Aston Martin, and since our very good friends, Brian and Jan, purchased an Aston Martin in 2012, it seemed extremely poor form to simply follow suit. However, holding out for a Maserati with the highest quality of interior trim certainly makes the purchase more than acceptable and we have enjoyed every mile we have put on this fabulous car.

Would we want to swap for a Ferrari? Something else from Italy? Perhaps not - the journey that led us to the Maserati did indeed start with the prospect of owning a Ferrari, but now, every time we step into this sculptured piece of art, it truly does exercise the sensors in much the same way as opening a fine Italian handbag. A really fast, and sure-footed handbag, that is!

The supercar (indeed, exotic) – 2013 Nissan GT-R

Not by accident is this supercar called Godzilla, a reference made by the Australian press after it destroyed the field of Aussie V8 Supercars over a two-year period. So much so, that the sporting bodies overseeing the competition banned it from future events – no, it didn’t have an Aussie V8. Seems quite logical on review, but then again, this was not the market that interested Nissan. Consider the number of car companies that have purchased the GT-R, pulled them apart and then scratched their collective heads wondering how on earth the car performs as well as it does.

How about a Porsche or an Audi – after all, it was the trip to Singapore for the launch of the Audi R8 that started this journey. The Nissan GT-R is clearly a car that is more, way more, than the sum of its parts and from the moment we first saw it, rotating on a pedestal at the LA auto show, we decided to buy one, fully aware that, in time, it’s purchase price would climb. With only two or three cars on the market that accelerate faster, it’s mind numbing when it comes time to deliver a track-like experience on the highway. It is unlike anything else. Yes, it’s the favorite car in the garage when it comes to covering a lot of distance in a short amount of time.

The utilitarian, all-purpose workhorse – the 2014 Jeep SRT/8

After eleven years and almost 200,000 miles, the Cadillac Escalade we had relied on in all-weather finally reached a point where it was time to go. What to buy became a real issue, as new cars seemed to have given up on all performance considerations with modern, multi-gear transmissions, exhibiting little to enthuse about – all in the name of economy. However, these are behemoths and those buying them do so for reasons far removed from eking out miserly fuel consumption numbers. In the months that we have had it, the Jeep served us well and as Motor Trend recently observed, “the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT delivers lateral grip of 0.88 (average) and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds – and it weighs more than 5300 pounds and sits above 69 inches tall. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.”

Would we have liked the Range Rover or perhaps the upcoming Maserati Kubang (no, I didn’t make up this name)? Again, perhaps, but the overriding decision for a car that will spend so much of its time on America’s highways, access to service anywhere we happen to be is a big consideration. Or, does it fit our lifestyle? I will leave this to another Motor Trend report, reminding us all, “Who in the world would buy this? In what world is this a rational car-buying choice? It makes no sense at all.” Of course, on this basis alone it set apart the Jeep SRT and made it the ideal choice for our fifth car, meeting all the criteria we set for our workhorse.

This post isn’t as much about indulging my passion or of the good fortune we have had to now be in a place where we have been able to hold onto cars like this. Of course, from our childhoods, Margo and I have been passionate about cars; growing up as we did in societies where access to cars was difficult. In time, however, we anticipate the number and quality of the cars to diminish, as nature takes its course. Already the signs of some rationalization are beginning to be addressed and as we enter 2014, it wouldn’t be an outrageous thought to think that at some future time, this would be as good as it gets!

Spending weekends at the track, enjoying the freedom that comes with being allowed to drive as fast as we can without fear of traffic coming towards us or there being any cross traffic (let alone wayward drivers busily texting or simply heading home from a bar after a long lunch),  but the program will be less hectic this year. Apart from an even busier work schedule, we are becoming more selective about the tracks we support. There will always be time to join our friends at Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR) in California just as any opportunity to drive at Laguna Seca or at Sonoma will be given due consideration. Our home track east of Denver, High Plains Raceway, remains the perennial favorite where Friday afternoons may see us entertaining clients who have not experienced genuine track outings and it’s fun to see how they adapt to an environment that at first shocks everyone.

Furthermore, arriving at a track alone, without our extended family of friends is quite the experience we enjoy. In the meantime, with fewer track days, there will be more time to return to the open road. No matter the season or the duration of the trip, we have great cars to choose from and it’s simply a ball to close the trunk on our baggage, dial in a favorite radio channel, make sure there’s gas in the tank and head to the highway. Will we still have the same five cars two, three years out? Will there be less or perhaps more? Who knows – but while we still have choices and the cars still run, this particular group of five would be hard to replace, and more importantly, begs the question, why would we?