Friday, June 18, 2010

While I was gassed up the pickup

for the run to work, I pulled into a Sheetz, which is normal.

After gassing up, I went in for my general going-to-work-buck-and-a-half lunch consisting of a couple of hot dogs and a diet coke. There was one of those Saturn Sun roadsters sitting there. I glanced into it and saw something truly disgusting in the form of an automatic transmission.

“Hmm.” I said to myself, and a woman walking past me looked.

The woman misinterpreted me and asked me what was wrong. I looked at her and glanced at the car and said to her, “Nobody but a hooker or an interior decorator puts an automatic transmission in a sports car!”

She tittered, looked into the Sun, shook her head and walked into the store.

I grabbed my tube steaks and went back to the pump and saw a pretty little Miata in the pump next to me and glanced into the open cockpit and saw it was a 5 speed. I turned to head back to my truck and the woman I had spoken to walked up to the Miata.

I looked at her with a grin and said, “You are an honest woman.” She laughed outright, and started to get into the Miata.

“I don’t know why people put automatics into sports cars,” she said.

I do, and it really irks me.

The heart and soul of sports cars are simplicity, suspension, balance and control.

A sports car is supposed to be about maneuverability and being able to hold the road. For this, the driver needs control. The car is supposed to shift when the driver tells it to shift and not when some machine decides it wants to shift.

I built my Miata to be a pure sports car, and nothing more or less.

For safety’s sake, I put in a roll bar and a full harness, but I left the OEM seatbelts in place so I could clip it on for little hops.

The next thing I did was to remove both the air conditioning and the power steering. The A/C really didn’t work to begin with and besides, an A/C unit in a convertible is a joke anyway. All the power steering did was to sap power off of the little 1.6 liter engine in exchange for making parking a little easier.

Even at low speeds, power steering made little if any difference as far as difficulty went.

Instead of replacing the power steering box with a manual, I used an old racer’s trick and ‘looped’ the steering box. I simply cut the inlet and outlet lines and slipped a hose over both ends, allowing the leftover hydraulic fluid to pass through from one side to the other.

This ‘looped’ system allowed me to get a better steering ratio than the manual steering box would have given me. I also feel the road a lot better.

Both power steering and the A/C were probably installed in the car to make it a little more marketable to women, as were the shocks and sway bars.

The factory shocks were somewhat of a compromise, again probably for marketability to the fairer sex that made the ride a little nicer, and I figure the same to be true about the sway bars.

I swapped the shocks out with Bilstein HDs and put a much stiffer set of sway bars and new bushings into it, and then I got a somewhat lighter set of wheels and put on a set of extreme performance tires. I compromised just a tiny bit on the rubber because I wanted halfway decent wet weather traction in case I got caught out in a rain storm.

A lot of this stuff came from Craigslist, and hence cost me short money. The shocks, tires, sway bars and bushings I bought new.

True sports car drivers will understand what I did and why. I wanted to turn the little car into a vehicle that held the road like it was on steel rails, and I did a fairly passable job.

Carefully note that the only change I made to the engine was that I swapped out the thermostat with a slightly cooler one. The little 1.6 is powerful enough for a sports car of that size.

While not a brute strength machine, the old saw holds true. Straight lines are for fast cars; curves are for fast drivers.

The wannabe types will not understand this at all.

These are the people that do not understand the heart and soul of the sports car concept and either look one as a cute little thing or just want to look ‘cool’.

The former I halfway understand, the latter I loathe, as they are the types that are either too stupid to understand a sports car or are too lazy to take the time out to learn how to drive one with any skill.

Simply being cool looking it their desire, and to me, that is a part of what I call ‘pimp mentality’.

I guess the reason I wrote this is because today I rode a Jeep for three hundred long, stiff miles. The last time I drove a Jeep was a long time ago, and it was an old flat-fender government model, a 1955 if I recall.

It was slow, very stiffly sprung, somewhat lower powered with an old 4 cylinder engine. It was a somewhat frisky open little quarter ton truck, one of the beloved little vehicles that the GIs won the Second World War with, and in slightly modified form, lasted the services well past the Vietnam era.

The newer one I drove today was a different breed of cat. It had a fairly torquey in-line six cylinder engine, air conditioning, a hard fiberglass top, air conditioning, cruise control equipped far cry from its predecessor.

This particular model was actually pretty much an in-line successor and managed to stay fairly true to form. Much like the older ones it morphed out of, it was still a pretty good off-road vehicle. One more thing, the person that ordered this particular one from the factory at least had the decency to order it with a five speed manual transmission instead of copping for an automatic.

It was, like its predecessor, an uncomfortable ride on the turnpike. However, it was able to move reasonably well at turnpike speeds. The older one I drove years ago could barely manage to hit 60 mph while going down a hill and that was about it.

On a level road, anything much over 45 mph and the little four-cylinder would be screaming like blue bloody murder. On a turnpike, they generally rode in the break down lane at minimum legal speeds.

At least this particular newer model had stayed fairly true to form.

The thing that I was thinking about as I drove the Jeep today is that I was mildly surprised that the new model hadn’t morphed into something totally different.

Generally what happens is the same thing that happened to pickups over the years. They morphed from being a special use, simple Spartan rural tool into being a complex suburban daily driver, complete with all of the creature comforts, bells and whistles.

Pickups are still pickups, and the model Jeep I drove was still a Jeep and that is good.

Pickups still haul stuff around, but these days in a little more comfort and Jeeps are still pretty good off-road vehicles.

It is what is happening to sports cars that galls the hell out of me. They are morphing into complex daily drivers for a number of people that just want to look cool and make a fashion statement.

The sports cars of today are the successor of the cars made by the Brits during the period following WW2.

The British made Triumphs and MGs made in the 50s, 60s and 70s were simple, wind in the hair, bugs in the teeth rag topped machines for serious drivers. Finding one where even the heater worked was unusual, and they suffered legendary electrical problems. Still, they were fun to drive.

Then came the dark decade after British Leyland went under and there were no more of these wonderful, reasonable priced driving machines produced until Mazda started producing the Miata.

Of course, during the dark decade, there were a few sports cars available from manufacturers like Mercedes and the like, but there were both more complex and expensive.

The NA (first generation) took off in 1989 and the demand was there. They sold like hotcakes.

The hard nosed drivers were now able to get a reasonably priced, simple sports car again.

Of course, in an effort to expand markets, they started adding all sorts of options, bells and whistles to the second (NB) generation. The Miata started moving away from the original wind in hair, bugs in teeth concept.

In their 4th generation, they are still selling, but to a different breed of person.

What was once the badge of the hard nosed wind in hair, hell for leather open cockpit driver had seemed to have gotten the reputation of somewhat of a chick’s car and more than a few have gotten sold with not only the bells and whistles, but have had their very soul ripped out by the installation of an automatic transmission.

I notice that many of them have been restored to their roots by the few of us purists there are left, and most of the reconverted ones are first generation models.

There are still a few of us purists left.

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