Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Random Idea, Free To A Good Home

The 1957 Thunderbird: best-looking 'Bird of them all, and one of the best-looking cars of the 1950's.

A mildly "resto-modded" '57 Thunderbird crossed the block at a Mecum auction.  It looked original at first glance (or even second), but had a Boss 302 under the hood.  I thought it was a clever idea.  The old "Y-block" V-8 from the '50's was a boat anchor.

Here's a better one: a "pro-touring" '57 'Bird.  With the modern aluminum 4-cam under the hood and its companion Tremec right behind.  Big disc brakes, lowered suspension with upgrades including a Watts-link rear axle or XK-E i.r.s.  A performance-oriented interior.  If you're gonna update/upgrade a '57 Bird, turn it up to 11.  And it might be one of one.  Pro-touring Chevelles, Camaros, and Mustangs are fairly common, but I've never seen an early Bird restored that way.

This owner has the right idea, but the shape of the rear wheel arches needs to echo the fronts, and it needs real
performance-oriented wheels and tires.

Monday, July 28, 2014

WHAT A Season! (Formula 1)

I can't recall being this absorbed in a Formula 1 season since my days of rooting for Nigel Mansell 20-odd years ago.  Even last weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix was an edge-of-your-seater.  Hungary!  And my beloved Spa-Francorchamps, steeped in history, is next.  I'm already doing my rain dance.

It's true enough in 2014 that a Mercedes will likely win the Championship--but which--Rosberg or Hamilton?  Hamilton appears to have more outright pace, but he makes more mistakes.  And, with the banning of interactive suspension, Mercedes appears to be having even more trouble with their KERS and brakes.  Nobody else can compete on pace, but Mercedes's reliability remains a question.

Red Bull's Ricciardo has two wins while his 4-time World Champion teammate Vettel still hasn't found a handle on the new-spec car, or race strategy for that matter.  It's true enough that Red Bull is the only team other than Mercedes to win.  But, on consistent pace from race to race, the Williams and both of its drivers (Bottas and Massa) are faster.  I love rooting for underdogs, and keep hoping that Williams's race strategy will come up to the level of their car.  As it is, they are giving Ferrari--Ferrari!--a run for its money in the Manufacturer's Championship.

Speaking of Ferrari, Fernando Alonso remains the driver I love to watch on race day.  He turned in another staggering performance on worn tires at Hungary.  As I've posted several times before, nobody gets more out of a car on race day than Alonso.

Given the topsy-turvey world of manufacturers coming to grips with the new regulations and cars, and the "last shall be first" inversions of driver performances, it will not be a surprise if we see a lot of drivers changing teams for 2015.

Fernando Alonso: in my book, the best driver of the post-Schumacher era,
although he will never have the World Championships to show for it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blower Bentley LeMans Demo (Video)

Not the same car the video was shot from, but a Blower Bentley at LeMans: close enough

Here's a fun video invoking the days when tires were skinny and drivers were fat.  The Bentley 4.5 liter lacked synchromesh on all gears:

I dimly recalled that the most iconic Bentley of them all didn't win LeMans--the race it was built for.  (It has often seemed to me that the British fascination with LeMans in the '30's, '40's, and '50's stemmed from Bentley's wins there in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930.  And also because the U.K. couldn't field a competitive Formula 1 car in those decades.)  So off I went to Wikipedia for the story of the Blower Bentley.  Here's the link for those who want more:½_Litre

It turns out that W.O. Bentley didn't approve of supercharging, which, by 1930, was commonly used by Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, and Mercedes-Benz for racing.  W.O. wanted torque, which required cubic inches. He believed in big engines in big cars: 3, 4.5, and 6.5 liter fours and sixes.  The standard 4.5 liter weighed 3600 lbs.  This was the antithesis of the Alfas and Bugattis of the day and led to a notable passive-aggressive put-down by Ettore Bugatti: "Monsieur Bentley builds excellent trucks."  (Bentley was not opposed to high-tech, though: the 4.5 liter had 4 valves per cylinder driven by an overhead cam.)

One of the Bentley Boys, Tim Birkin, wanted more power for LeMans.  Another, Woolf Barnato, had bought a considerable stake in Bentley, and was a Director.  He agreed with Birkin, so W.O. couldn't prevent the project from going forward.  They hired Villiers to design and build 5 Roots-type blower editions of the 4.5 for racing generally and LeMans in particular.  But W.O. didn't have to cooperate, and he didn't.  He refused to redesign the 4.5 to use a gear train to drive the supercharger.  This resulted in the Blower Bentley's iconic look: the supercharger was visible without raising the hood, hung off the front of the engine between the frame rails.

Iconic looks can come from pure chance: the Blower Bentley's large Roots-type blower was run from the front of the
crankshaft because W.O. Bentley refused to redesign the engine to accommodate power take-off under the hood.
W.O. wanted nothing to do with the Bentley that became the most famous of all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where To See Supercars

Why would you do a track day when you can cruise Michigan Ave. with your sweetie and her Poodle?

In my neck of the woods, on the road, we see mostly monster truck wannabes and tuner cars.  I once saw a Ferrari 458 Italia carefully parked at Blackhawk Farms to discourage passers-by from anointing it with sticky fingers.  And a Nissan GT-R doing HSAX at Autobahn Country Club.  Killboy puts up pictures of supercars in his Highlights, but I've not personally seen one on the Dragon.

Last Saturday evening my son and I ate some very good (and expensive) Spanish food, al fresco, at the corner of Michigan and Balbo Avenues, across from Grant Park, in downtown Chicago.  In an hour, we saw a Ferrari 599, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a couple of notables I don't recall, and countless Porsche 911's.  (No "real" air-cooled ones.  ;-) )

The 599 finished second in the Being Seen Contest.  It was a red Spider, top down, with beige leather. Swimming in a sea of traffic, the driver had no opportunity to show off.  But I admired his sangfroid: the essence of cool with all those honking cabs and SUV's inches from his sheet metal.

The clear winner was the black Gallardo.  It too was a Spider, top down, the better to display the driver's cute girlfriend holding her white Miniature Poodle.  Ohio plates.  They had an animated conversation with the fare in a cab in the next lane.  When the light turned green, the Gallardo driver nailed his V-12 for the benefit of the fare and us bystanding campesinos.  Glorious.

I've been looking for supercars in the wrong places.  Seek them not at club circuits or on the Dragon. Seek them Being Seen in major cities on summer Saturday evenings.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ride 'im, Cowboy!

Hoo-wee!  Racing a stick-axle Corvette with cross-ply tires in the rain!  This is Don Yenko at Virginia International Raceway in 1961.  Image from the VIR History Pages website; for other devotees of old- timey stuff, here's the link:

Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Tour de France

Crashes, rain, more crashes, more rain, cobblestones, more crashes, more rain, and more crashes.  The 2014 Tour de
France reminds me of LeMans in the days when the favorites to win were just guesses.

I'm watching the Tour this year for the first time since the doping scandals.  It's the helicopter shots of the lovely French countryside that have always appealed to me.  (And when the weather permitted this year, they have again been gorgeous.)  While the athleticism and skill of the riders is admirable, I don't understand bike racing.

The Tour has always reminded me, vaguely, of LeMans.  Even in the modern era of 24-hour sprint races by major manufacturers with mega-budgets and nearly bullet-proof race cars, LeMans involves surprise, disappointment, and persistence in the face of adversity.  In that way, the flavor of both races is similar.

But the first week+ of this year's Tour reminds me of The Good Old Days at LeMans.  Appalling weather.  Many of the favorites crashed early or were otherwise surprisingly eliminated.  Teams imploded.  Strategy and tactics were revised--several times--on the fly.  More than most Tours, 2014 appears to be a case of "the last man standing."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Resurrection Can Be Fun

Bradley Price in his Alfa Giulietta Veloce Spider at "New Thompson."

I don't need much of an excuse to do another post about the Alfa Giulietta.  One of the blogs I follow is Bradley Price's Automobiliac, especially since he began vintage racing his lovely Alfa.  Here's a link to his high-quality video and his account of the race at Thompson:

The Greater New York City area has less than its fair share of road courses since mid-century, so it's great to see Thompson resurrected as a club circuit with some challenging, technical, corners.

Monday, July 14, 2014

LeMans 1953 (And Disc Brakes)

The Peter Whitehead/Ian Stewart Jaguar C-Type finished 4th at LeMans in 1953.

This is a 13-minute BBC color print of LeMans in 1953.  While it features British marques, particularly Jaguar (which won), it also has some fine footage of the American Cunninghams, Ferraris, and others--even a fleeting view of the rare Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.

It was clear even in 1953 that Jaguar's winning edge was fade-resistant disc brakes--the first application in a racing car.  But the next generation of Formula 1 cars, then on the drawing boards, used drum brakes.  With benefit of hindsight, it's surprising that disc brakes were not more quickly adopted for racing.  1959 was the first year they were on all the cars in the fields of major sports car and Formula 1 races.

One possible explanation is that LeMans was seen as "different" because it was an endurance race.  The advantage of discs in a sprint race was not seen as clear-cut.  But the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, and 1000 km sports car races were long too.

Another explanation is that Dunlop held patents for reliable caliper-type disc brakes--the ones used on the Jaguar C-Type.  Girling (another British firm) held patents on a different type of caliper.  So it is not surprising that disc brakes found their way onto British racing and production cars first.  The first non-British production car to use (front) disc brakes was the 1961 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE.  They were--unusually for Mercedes--made by Girling, not in-house.  Around the same time, Porsche tried to develop its own disc brake, used for about a year, before concluding that it was simpler, cheaper, and easier to just pay the licensing fees.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Margaret Calvert / James May Interview

This is the best Top Gear segment I've seen: informative and funny.  Captain Slow is the go-to guy for all serious Top Gear presentations.  James on the Vauxhall he's testing: "When you select the 'max performance' mode, the instruments turn red!!!"  Margaret Calvert on James May: "I suppose my work is why I wind up being interviewed by people like you."  Irony and sarcasm: right up Pilote's alley.

Elsewhere Calvert has said that she was a graphic designer before the field existed as a self-conscious profession.  And she points out that there are two sides to graphic design: playful, creative and inventive, and the need to make your message clear.  At one extreme are clever, instantly recognizable, logos.  At the other are road signs that contain much more information, that your mind can digest in a couple of seconds without thinking much about it:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Passing The Smoky Torch

Drag racing in 2014: the same as drag racing in 1984, or 1964...

A friend took his about-to-get-her-license daughter to the drag races.  She loved it.  Jet-powered  cars, squirrely Fuel Altereds, waves of sound that assault not only your ears but your torso. He himself hasn't been to the drags since he was a teenager.  He reports that the only change is that spectators are endlessly "connected" on their smart phones and tablets.  I wonder if those AM radio ads still run like they did 50 years ago: "Sunday... Sunday... SUNDAY!!!"

When I was about my friend's daughter's age, my Mother talked my Dad into taking me to the drags. She had noticed  my gearhead disease, and thought it would be a good father-son outing.  This wasn't an easy sell.  My Dad's favorite sport was home and yard maintenance.  His favorite spectator sport was NFL football.  He was a terrible, bored-stiff, golfer; a piece of his sports universe that I did inherit.  He didn't say so, but I knew what he was thinking: "Watching drag races is like watching paint dry, and the noise give me a headache."

Kris Karamesines, "The Crazy Greek," did demonstration runs in his AA/Fuel dragster.  He made a half-dozen passes in the mid-7 second E.T. / 170+ m.p.h. range.  Top-of-the-tree pace for the top class in those days.  I was hooked and spent the rest of my high school summers at the drag strip.

The high point of my drag racing spectating: Kris Karamesines's "Top Fuel" dragster.

As a 20-something, I drag raced my Datsun 510 twice.  The futility of drag racing a 1.6 liter car is exceeded only by the hilarity it provides for the fans in the stands and its insanity (the car was my daily driver).  This was the end of competitive motorsports for me until I was able to do high-speed autocross on road courses 30 years later.

The low point of my drag racing participation: time slips for my Datsun 510.  Notes I made on the back of the slips
say the fast pass was made with the air cleaner and exhaust pipe disconnected, dropping the clutch at 4000 r.p.m.
On the slow pass the car was in normal trim, I was asleep at the Christmas Tree, and "drove it out of the hole" like
a sensible person.  An official's note on the red light pass says "OK for trophy."  I didn't pick it up.  How do you
explain a trophy on your shelf, even though you red-lighted, being awarded because you were the only car in
your class?  You don't: you leave the trophy at the track.

These were the alpha and omega of my drag racing days, although I have fond memories of watching Super Stocks and Gassers.  I switched to hanging on the fence at sports car races.  Then I was transferred by my employer to Minnesota, a.k.a. The Great Car Racing Desert.  My involvement in motorsports didn't resume until I was again transferred to Chicagoland, a.k.a. Amateur Road Racing Heaven.

So I pass the smoky burnout torch to my friend's teenaged daughter, with fond memories of my quarter mile days.  May she spend many happy hours in the stands and prowling the paddock.  Or, if the bug bites her really hard, dropping the hammer just before the green light comes on.  The drags could provide her with a lifetime of fun, 1/4 mile at a time.  Or her Dad could let her make a couple of Tail of the Dragon passes, and ruin drag racing for her.  ;-)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dat Sound!

Regular readers know I'm in the tank for the sound of the Porsche flat six.  The air-cooled version, anyway.  Here's a Jaguar six that rivals it for glorious noises.  An unmuffled six with aggressive cams
has a rasp unmatched by other configurations.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

British GP: Superb!

Fernando Alonso: as good or better than any other driver in Formula 1 since he held Michael Schumacher at bay at
San Marino in 2005.  But he has only two World Championships to show for it.  Class of the field at Silverstone.

Silverstone is not a great venue, from a spectator viewpoint, in my opinion, but it produced a superb race.  As the NBCSN broadcast team put it, "It's on between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and it's on between four other teams for 'best of the rest.'"  2014 has the potential to be a legendary season, the stuff of highlight reels for years to come.

As for the championship itself, can Mercedes prevent the team from imploding under the pressure of the Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry?  Will luck now swing Hamilton's way?  Will Hamilton shoot himself in the foot with his own head games (to mix metaphors)?  Equally talented drivers, equal cars, no Designated Number One.  I doubt that Mercedes will designate a Number One unless the other driver is mathematically eliminated.  Even if the team did, would the then Number Two driver accept it?

Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish Find Of The Season, drove his Williams to 2nd place at Silverstone, following a previous 3rd place.  Williams appears to be the only chassis that has anything for Mercedes, even if not consistently.  Daniel Ricciardo wrestled his Red Bull into third, and continues to outperform Sebastian Vettel.  It's something to see a 4-time World Champion turn into a whiner.  Jenson Button's McLaren continues to lurk (he finished a hanging-on-by-fingernails 4th).

But, as usual, the drive of the race was Fernando Alonso's.  The Ferrari is by now clearly inferior to Williams, McLaren, and Red Bull.  Alonso drove the hot mess he had at Silverstone from 16th to 6th, including a penalty that dropped him back through the field.  In the closing laps he had to cede 5th to Vettel, but only after fighting like hell for several laps.  (This was the occasion of Vettel's whining.)  For years now, Alonso has gotten more out of his car than anyone else can once the flag drops.  It's not just his "racecraft" and optimal strategies from the team.  It's his pace on race day.  He's a joy to watch.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Grandpa's Toronado

Grampa's 1967 Olds Toronado looked exactly like this one, except that its wheels were painted silver.

I can't share Jay Leno's enthusiasm for the Oldsmobile Toronado, and I drove one for six years.  Here's Leno's short video interview of the car's stylist.  He makes the mistake that drove me nuts back then as a driving enthusiast: confusing "styling" with "design".

My mother's father loved cars: big cars and luxury cars, which amounted to the same thing in the 1950's and 1960's.  Grandpa didn't make a lot of money, so he bought late-model trade-ins or demos.  Before and during World War Two he drove a Packard.  His first car after the war was a "step down" Hudson Hornet.  When Hudson went belly-up, he switched to Oldsmobile: a '55, two '57's, including a snappy gold 4-door hardtop, an early '60's model I don't clearly recall, and his last and favorite: a '67 Toronado.  It was so long that he couldn't close the door of his small detached garage over it.

Grandpa's cars were always "full boat": electric windows, power seats, two-speaker radios, automatic headlight dimmers, and of course air-conditioning.  If it came with the larger V-8, that was fine with him.  If there was a comfort and convenience feature not on the Toronado, I don't remember it.  This was at a time when my Dad was driving entry-level Chrysler products with 6-cylinder engines, stick shifts, and windup windows--to save on transportation costs.

When he died, Grandpa's Toronado went to my Mom.  It was her first big car, and it must have made an impression on her: she replaced it with a Volkswagen Fox station wagon.  She gave the Toronado to my growing family.  Its lousy gas milage and large size made it unsuitable for the cut-and-thrust of freeway commuting, so I drove my Datsun 510 to work.  My ex used the Toro around town.  I have fond memories of family vacations in it.  We put pillows on the flat rear floor to give our toddlers room to lie down on long road trips.  Child safety seats were still in the future.  The miles rolled past placidly, if not quickly.

This brings me to my brief against the Toronado.  Grandpa's had the 455 cubic inch engine.  It got 13 miles per gallon: in town, on the highway--no difference.   You would think that 385 (claimed) h.p. and 475 lb./ft. of torque would move it along quickly.  Not so: it weighed 5000 lbs.  It handled like you'd expect a 5000 lb. car with 60% of the weight over the front wheels would.  Feeding in steering lock was a visual proposition: "That looks about bit more."  There was no feedback through the over-boosted power steering.  As for stopping: it is hilarious that Olds would hire the Unsers to run a Toronado uphill in the Pike's Peak hillclimb, to prove that the car's brakes were adequate (see video). The Toro was a fine car in winter snow.  With huge mass and front wheel drive, it just bulled through drifts.  The risk of getting stuck was low.  But if you did get stuck, an industrial grade tow truck would be needed to unstick you.

Styling is in the eye of the beholder.  The Toronado doesn't push my buttons like it does Leno's, especially compared with some of the other cars G.M. was doing at the time.  The stylist makes the point that the flared wheel arches chopped into a flat surface parallel to the plane of the tire have become a cliche.  Both my 2009 Honda Civic and 2008 Mustang have them.  I could live happily with a different wheel arch treatment, especially on the rear of my Mustang (they look good up front).

The Toronado had the worst size to weight to interior volume ratio of any car I've owned.  A large gas tank gave it adequate range but decreased trunk space.  The front seat was amazingly spacious.  The back seat was barely adequate for adults, and hard to get into.  The doors weighed a lot and required a basketball player's reach to open fully.

Hands down, no contest, the Toro was the most inefficient, hardest to park, least fun to drive car I've owned.  But Grandpa loved it...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Purdy Car

This is the classiest iteration of the classiest sponsorship colors in Grand Prix racing.  I don't know the circumstances--maybe cigarette advertising was banned at a particular circuit?  For whatever reason, the John Player Special appears only with Valvoline and Olympus logos, and those fine gold pinstripes (in both senses of the word).

And five laurel wreaths on the rear wing, signifying Lotus's manufacturer's championships, located to signify Colin Chapman's hunger for more.  In the Lotus 79, Mario Andretti gave him his sixth and last. In their John Player Special years, Lotus cars were raced only in this bi-chromatic color scheme: black with gold pinstripes, race numbers, and sponsor logos.  Simple elegance.

These are the Formula 1 Championships won by Lotus when Colin Chapman was running it:

1963     Lotus 25     Jim Clark
1965     Lotus 33     Jim Clark
1968     Lotus 49     Graham Hill
1970     Lotus 72     Jochen Rindt
1972     Lotus 72     Emerson Fittipaldi
1978     Lotus 79     Mario Andretti