My friend Gabi put it best: "You like go-carty cars," she once told me. (That's this post in a nutshell, so now you don't have to read any further unless you want to.)
My "philosophy" (I use the word in its vulgar sense) of cars was formed when I was very young, still a new driver. I got to drive a Maserati Bora and a Lotus Seven within a relatively short span of time.
Well, I didn't drive the Maserati; I drove in it—it was being driven by its owner, a friend's parent's friend. I was a passenger. The 1971–78 Bora, a supercar of the day, was a mid-engined coupe with a V8.
I grew up in Milwaukee. On the north side there's a road that runs by Lake Michigan called Lake Drive (not to be confused with Lake Shore Drive in Chicago). In the Village of Whitefish Bay, Lake Drive takes a nice series of tight curves one after the other. I can't speak for what it's like now, but when I was in high school, you could drive these curves as fast as you wanted to as long as it was three or four in the morning—nobody was out except for the occasional motorized law enforcement official. So I was very familiar with these curves.
In the Maserati, we navigated this series of curves at nearly twice the speed limit, which at that time was 35 mph. The number was impressive, but the Maserati was loafing at that speed—it went around the curves like it was on rails, with a minimum of drama. Apart from the feeling of centrifugal force, it didn't impart much excitement.
The 1957–70 Lotus Seven, by contrast, was essentially a big go-cart. Sitting with my butt planted on the seat I could lean out and put my palm flat on the ground (being careful of the hot exhaust pipe, which was right there). The Seven was the most exciting car at 35mph I ever drove—the rear-view mirror vibrated so badly you almost couldn't see anything in it, and the ground was so close it rushed past in a blur like you were doing 100. Ordinary corners were a thrill without even breaking the speed limit.
That was my epiphany. The Lotus Seven was a lot more exciting to drive than the mid-engined Maserati—at half the speed. It wasn't as fast, of course, but it felt faster. Speed, of course, is important if you're racing, or if you're being timed. But if you're not racing or being timed, speed is no longer an absolute—it's a sensation.
And of course the sensation is better in a car like the Bora if (another if) you can push it hard. I don't doubt that Jeremy Clarkson has fun with his Lambos—but then, he has a private airfield with a track set up by Lotus engineers and a dragstrip where it's both safe and legal to drive 200 mph.
I don't. Too bad.
All I get to drive on are public roads, and I'm constrained to something within shouting distance of the posted speed limits, or at least the "customary" speeds (there are roads in my town where I doubt the posted speed limits have budged since 1935, and 99% of drivers use "customary" speeds rather than the posted limits, the occasional dotard or thoroughly baked teen being the only exceptions. Even the cops use the customary speeds). To this day, I don't get all the fuss in the car rags about the endless parade of supercars. Who wants them? Not me. Maybe if you have autobahnen in your country.
My idea of the ideal car: a four-cylinder engine (but a good one), one-ton curb weight or as close as you can get to it, a five speed stick shift, and rear-wheel drive. Of course, within those limits, the sportier the better. Small cars are fun on real roads—and manage to provide their entertainment without requiring that you risk your license on a regular basis or endanger small living things, human or furred.
A glove box that accommodates the camera (and locks) is a nice feature too.
The chief downside of my kind of car? They have a tendency to be known as chick cars. ("Tart cars" in English.)
I'm happy for people who like Ferraris. I'm not even really interested—at least until such time as I move to Germany or am able to afford my own private airfield. My idea of a supercar extends to a Golf R or a Boxster S, and not much further. If someone gave me a Veyron or a Gallardo, I wouldn't know what to do with it—apart from sell it, and spend the money on nine to twenty-two of the kind of cars that I actually like.
Your mileage, as they say, may vary. Hope you have a fine Sunday—
Open Mike is a series of off-topic posts that appears usually, but not always, on Sundays.
UPDATE: Full circle: I did know, as several commenters have mentioned, that the old Lotus Seven is still being manufactured, in kit and turnkey form, in England, by an independent maker called Caterham. What I did not know is that that Caterham was recently purchased by none other than Team Lotus Enterprises...the announcement is dated just days ago, April 27th.
Closing the circle further, I also did not know that Team Lotus's colors seem to be remarkably suited to Wisconsin....
Hmm. I'm going to have to work harder!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Julian: "As anyone who has tried go-karting will tell you, your post is absolutely on the money.
"One other thing. Having driven extensively on German 'Autobahnen' I can tell you that, with a few limited exceptions (like the four-lane stretch between Darmstadt and Frankfurt-am-Main) they aren't what they're cracked up to be. Most have just two lanes in each direction and are very crowded—mostly with trucks.
"Even if you do find a relatively clear stretch and manage to wind the car up to crazy speeds, one (or both) of two things will inevitably occur. 1) A slower driver will pull out of the inside lane and you have to brake sharply to avoid a collision or 2) a Porsche, BMW or Mercedes (usually—possibly an Audi, too) will zoom up and attach itself, limpet-like, to your tailpipe—no matter how fast you are traveling. Being tailgated at legal speeds is bad enough but having another car barely a couple of feet behind you at 200kph+ is deeply unnerving.
"Trust me, Autobahnen are not as much fun as you might think."
Featured Comment by CK Dexter Haven: "My personal interest in cars of the supercar ilk is not in the speed they can possibly attain. It's more about the beauty of the design and engineering. A Ferrari is just a gorgeous thing. Aston Martin, same. I don't really care if they could only go as fast as a Lumina. It's sorta like when I had a Nikon F6. The only lens I had for it was a 50mm 1.8 Series E. Manual focus. I have no idea how fast the motor advance is, as I only shoot in 'single' mode. But, the camera was a joy to have, look at, hold, and use.
"The fastest i ever drove was during a vacation in Italy, when I rented a Fiat Punto. I think I averaged about 130 from Rome to Vicenza and the only car that passed me was a Ferrari F40. That was 15+ years ago. I don't need to do that again. Once was enough. Even though I could do that speed in the Punto, I'd rather have been doing 65 in the Ferrari. For that matter, I'd rather be parked in the Ferrari."
Featured Comment by John Brewton: "Well, Mike, I raced enduro karts for twelve years in the '60s and '70s. I have also owned numerous Ferraris and Maseratis. I published the Lamborghini-Maserati Newsletter from 1984–1990. I even raced a Ferrari Testa Rossa in vintage racing once (it was worth way too much to continue doing so with panache). Anyway I was once a gearhead, but I did all my own maintenance (!) and was an Alfa mechanic for a while.
"But today I drive a Prius. 'Nuf said."
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "Spot-on post. There was a great article in one of the mainstream auto mags a few years back articulating the same point. The author agreed that high-end supercars produced great numbers, while generating surprisingly little excitement. He waxed lyrical about the joys of driving something like the original tiny Honda Civic, ideally with bald tires. Sure, its 0 to 60 time and its braking distance were nothing special. But the manual transmission required expert clutchwork and impeccably timed shifts to get the most out of the tiny 4-banger. The mediocre brakes and limited grip made tight curves thrilling even at modest speeds. The overall harmony of its limitations was the key: it took real skill to drive it at 9/10ths—and you were still close to the speed limit, if not below it!
"The most fun I've ever had controlling a wheeled vehicle was riding a mid-range motorcycle 'real fast' on a twisting country road. Mind-blowing thrills, until you come to viscerally comprehend what can happen to you. I sold my motorcycle while attending medical school, after the first few experiences treating badly injured "donorcycle" victims in the ER. (Represses shudder)."
Featured [partial] Comment by Mike Plews: "I wish I had said the but have to be content to quote it: 'It's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.'" [See the rest of Mike's comment in the Comment section. —Ed.]
Featured Comment by Chuck Albertson: "The bus stop nearest to my darkroom is located outside the local Ferrari dealer. If people ask me what I was doing Saturday afternoon, I tell them I was looking at Ferraris."
Featured Comment by Jim McDermott: "On a topical note, wasn't Osama bin Laden reported to be living in a Maserati Bora for a few months early in 2002? Or did I misread?"
Featured Comment by Jim Hayes: "Nobody into Alfas? I owned about 30 of them from the early '60s to 2002, most pre-1967, never more than three at a time, raced four of them. Nothing beats a Giulietta Spider!
"Also had two Miatas and two new Minis—both more fun than the C4 Corvette or M3. Little, good-handling cars are more satisfying than Ferraris (My brother was a dealer for them in the '60s. How about 310 km/hr in a 275LM on the street?)—'More fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow!'"
Mike replies: I had the merest taste of an Alfa once—what was the one with the gearshift seemingly sticking out of the dash? I liked it very much, but I recall the owner (who was not mechanically inclined) had continual headaches with maintenance.
P.S. The Giulietta Spider is to the manner born....