Saturday, May 30, 2015

Volkswagen New "New" Beetle - Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Let's file this one under the header of cars I'd prefer not to write about. As much a fan of the iconic "original" as I am,  especially ones from after 1967, I've never warmed up to these "new" Beetles. Or, in this case not one but two of the new "new" Beetles. To each his own. Give me the car these are based on, the splendid Golf ten fold before one of these silly clown suits.

Formulated by Adolph Hitler and designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the original Volkswagen Beetle or Volkswagen Type 1, was manufactured from 1938 until, incredibly, 2003.   "The Volkswagen", or "People's Car" was an inexpensive and simple car mass-produced for Germany's new road network which eventually became known as the mythic, "Autobahn". With over 21 million manufactured the original Beetle was the longest-running and most manufactured car of a single design platform in history. In the 1999 Car of the Century competition, to determine the world's most influential car in the 20th century, the Type 1 placed fourth, after the Ford Model T, the Mini and the Citroen DS. The VW Bug was a big deal.

Many associate the original Beetle with Hippies and there's a good reason for that. The Beetle's affordability and rugged simplicity being the mechanical embodiment of the hippie philosophy of primitive subsistence. While that's counter intuitive given that if you were to truly "turn on, tune in, drop out" you'd forgo any mechanical convenience, you can't be of a certain vintage and not think these cars cool; Hippy culture be darned. My affection for these cars is probably more nostalgic than anything; growing up in the waning years of the Hippy movement, Beetles were everywhere when I was kid. Their simple lines do have a certain elan and back in the day you saw as many of these driven by families needing a cheap second car  as those who were followers of Timothy Leary.

The last VW Beetle sold in the U.S. was in 1977. Beetle failed to meet U.S. emissions and safety regulations for 1978 new cars. VW continued to build original Beetles in Mexico and Brazil through 2003.

In the everything old is new again 1990's, for 1998, VW dropped this cutsey body on a Golf and created a car that was part homage to 1960's pop culture icon, right down to the built-in bud vase in the dashboard, and a modern sales wunderkid. The car was a hit and for more reasons than it being retro for there were certainly more buyers of what is known as the New Beetle who thought the car adorable than those who thought it a throwback. New Beetle was  solid, modern automobile that set the standard among small cars for how well it protected its occupants in serious crashes, as measured in a frontal offset crash test at 40 mph conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The original Beetle didn't earn any safety kudos. In 1966, Ralph Nader told a Senate Public Works subcommittee that "it is hard to find a more dangerous car." New Beetle sold almost without change through 2011. Cute-as-a-button styling and all. All that said, I wouldn't be caught dead in one of these.

Like the 1998 Beetle, the new New Beetle, which is known as just "Beetle", shares its underpinnings with the VW Golf. Longer, wider, and having more of the original Beetles "paunch" than the '98 Beetle ever did, I have to wonder how I'd feel about "New Beetles" had VW came out with this car in 1998 instead. Too bad for I wouldn't be caught dead in one of these either by reason of association. I don't like '98 Beetles therefore I don't like these. These also have a flower vase in the dashboard if you're wondering. Like old TV shows like Happy Days that were retro to begin with, it's funny how what was a nostalgic conveyance becomes more famous than what it was based on in the first place. Show me someone who even knows the heritage of this car and I bet they'll point to a 1998 New Beetle and not an original.

If a hippy movement were to happen today, as hard as that would be to imagine, is there a 't a vehicle available today that would be the mechanical embodiment of what the original Hippies' ride allegedly stood for. The Toyota Prius might be the closest thing we have to that today but its complicated power train, the mantra of simplicity goes out the window. What's more, government mandated safety and emissions standards require even the most humble of automobiles today to be the equivalent of a NASA rocket compared to the original Beetle. Even cars that are twenty, twenty five years old are amazingly complicated. And trust me, those old complicated cars are something you don't want any part of, maaaaan. Makes me believe that if a Hippy movement were to happen today Hippies would be more in line with Timothy Leary's famous edict than the original Hippies ever were.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

1983 Buick Regal - The Wallflower

This handsome little gem, which had a bid of a mere $3050 with three days left to go on ebay as I wrote this, reminds me of a gorgeous girl I dated years ago before I met the woman who would become my wife. Let's call her "Cindy". Cindy was everything a young man of 21 or 22 was looking for; smokin' hot, friendly and most importantly albeit self centeredly, absolutely in love with me. However, much like this Regal, she lacked the one thing that has always been most important to me; she had no personality what-so-ever. Shame too considering how attractive she was much like this little Buick.
The early 1980's were dark ages for American automobile performance and this car was atypical of that lack of oomph. That lack of real beans all in the interest of better gas mileage. Here's the culprit for that lack of scoot in the interest of mpg, Buick's 110 horsepower, 231 cubic inch V-6. Coupled with a 2.29:1 rear axle, this car's acceleration good be best described as best leisurely. A sudden jolt of torque off the line gave the impression that there was something more underfoot but that was all that it was; a momentary impression of something greater that just wasn't there. Floor the gas pedal on this car and it just doesn't want to play along. Cindy was the same way; a flash of moxy or sass to go along with dangerously good looks. But that flash was all she had, she had nothing more to give.
The rest of this car's driving dynamics were again atypical of what was offered at the time; mushy, slow, uninspiring. Dull. If ever there was a wallflower of a car, this was it. Cindy was hardly mushy or slow but I found her lack of real chutzpah boring. It didn't take long for me to realize that no matter how hard Cindy worked at attempting to make me happy, it, or "we" was just not going to happen. She was a wallflower. Nothing wrong in that but like this Regal, not for me despite being everything on the surface I could ask for. Great looks and it's a two door? Fabulous looks and oh, did I mention she was a blonde? What's not to love? Right.
So, what happens to a wallflower like this old boring but pretty Buick? At $3,000 it would seem that there are quite a few people out there who feel the same way. For certain, if this was a turbo engine '83 Grand National instead, its selling price would be at least twice if not three times more; especially if it was in mint, original condition like this. I'd grab it and swap a real engine into but that drives the overall cost up significantly. Someone is going to get a very nice looking but wholly uninspiring automobile at a fair price. And they will probably be very happy with it. There are people out there who love wallflowers.
So, what happened to Cindy? A couple of years ago I accepted her Facebook friend request if for no other reason than morbid curiosity. Had she holed herself up in an apartment in her parent's basement and worked as a librarian? Hardly. Refreshingly enough, she had gotten married to a handsome man who, from the pictures she has on Facebook, was very devoted to her and loved her. They even had two kids that she appeared to adore. Good for her that some guys love wallflowers.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

With An Old Car It's Always Something

Like our beloved Jax, our Corvette is happiest sitting around doing nothing.
I read an interesting column recently about how one of the things that makes for a great automobile mechanic is their ability to diagnose what's wrong with an automobile. An overstatement of the obvious? Not if you've ever spent any time attempting to figure what's causing a problem with a car; antique, new or otherwise. On today's cars, diagnostics is a fairly straight process since, in theory at least, all "they" have to do is plug a car into a computer and the "read out" tells them almost exactly what's wrong. Sometimes it only gives you what's wrong but not what's causing something to go wrong. That aside, most of the time with the root of the problem in hand the only thing left to do is the work to fix it.
Last year at prom time before I realized the rear brake lines were shot and the steering rack needed an overhaul.
This past weekend I spent most of Saturday attempting to diagnose why the passenger side window wouldn't go down in our 1977 Corvette. I deduced it was a bad motor and removed the motor with the idea that I would replace it this winter; we can pull the window up and down on the regulator manually until then. After spending Sunday morning putting the car back together I went to take the car for for a T-tops out power drive in lovely and rarely sunny Cleveland only to find the car had no power. At first I thought I had run the battery down but I was wrong; after testing it, I found the battery had a full charge. Sometimes a good battery is not good news.
Despite its many flaws, our car is absolutely gorgeous at any angle.

When you come to know a car as intimately as I've come to know this car, you know when there's a larger problem at hand and this problem, whatever it was, appeared to be seismic and I was greatly concerned. Thing was I hadn't a clue what was wrong. I knew the symptom but for what was causing it? No idea. I first thought that I must have blown out the fusible links, but again, just like the "good" battery, no such luck. I found it to be fine after having it tested at Autozone and Advanced Auto Parts. Second opinions and all. Good battery and a good fuses? What could possibly be wrong? 
I caution anyone who's not mechanically inclined or wealthy to stay away from buying any antique car.
Freaking out about how much this was going to cost me to have it fixed professionally and damning the day we bought this car, I'm embarrased to say I got pretty creative with my combination of curse words and my wife, bless her heart, heard a soliloquy, or should I say  a symphony of cussing out of my mouth the likes of which she's never heard before. Good thing she heard me since it did get me to stop shoving obscenities into the atmosphere and get to the task at hand.
Although they actually don't like driving it, our boys are quite fond of this car.
Heartbroken and infuriated, I reinstalled the battery and the fusible links. And wouldn't you know it, the car started right up. Laughing hysterically at the absurdity of the car turning over after it seemed all was lost, I grew instantly concerned that there was something intermittently wrong. However, I've come to grips with the fact that what was most likely happening was that the battery was not connected properly; what with all the work it gets being turned on and off with the cut off switch I have on it. At least I think that's what happened.

Something that happens all too infrequently; the car is running and out on the road. Eastbound 90 about 15 minutes west of downtown Cleveland.
Relieved, that night my wife and I went out on that T-tops out power drive and I found out that brakes to be quite spongy. With an old car it's always something.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

1974 Chevrolet Nova - History Repeats Itself

When I was a wee little nipper growing up the vast asphalt and concrete jungle of suburban New York City in the 1970's, Chevy Nova's were everywhere. I say that with the understanding that where I grew up, adjacent to the epicenter of the known universe and beyond, many believe that no one drove sensible, fairly ordinary cars like this. Ever. How Midwestern. Perhaps in the tonier areas near where I grew up BMW's and Mercedes Benz' were de riguer but down on the South Shore where I came from these things ruled the roost. And with good reason too; they were sized and priced right and were good cars. Arguably the best thing GM built before the great downsizing epoch that began in 1977.

My wheel time spent with a 1974 "Turbo-Fire" 350 powered coupe, similar to the car pictured here sans the SS badging and stripe job was quite pleasant. It handled vastly better than my father's massive 1972 Cadillac. It was an all around better car as well with not that much less interior room than Daddy's overwrought Caddy. The Nova's 350 V-8, despite only being a two barrel and making an alleged 145 horsepower, provided spirited poke that didn't have me missing Dad's Cadillac. According to, that 350 could move the 3200 pound Nova from 0-60 in 9.8 seconds. Not bad all things considered and it felt incredibly fast which at the end of the day is all that matters. It sounded absolutely fabulous too. 
What that Nova did have against it though, in my eyes, was that it was a "small car". Everything's relative. Again, according to, that '74 Nova was 196 inches long; that would make it almost as big as a modern Chevrolet Impala. Yes, that is counting the huge chrome battering rams fore and aft that were federally mandated on all cars built after 1974. Still, this is a pretty big car. The lines of it are such that it appears smaller than it actually is. Being the son of a World War II veteran and children of the Great Depression, I was taught that the bigger the car you drove the better off in life you were.  I don't know how my late father would feel about the present day Impala but there was no way I could drive anything as small as a Nova no matter how much I liked it. Which I most hole heartedly did.  
Chevrolet soldiered on with the big little Nova changing little on it through 1979 with Chevrolet, for arguments sake, producing the same car from 1968 through 1979. And you think that GM keeps pushing out he same car for an eternity now. All good things do come to an end, though and GM replaced the Nova in 1980 with the Citation, one of the worst cars in their history. Come to think of it, the Nova was produced on the heels of another one of GM's worst cars, the rear engine, swing axle Corvair. With the Nova being bookended by terrible automobiles, whoever said that history repeats itself really knew what they were talking about.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Little Red Corvette - So, What Do I Do Now?

My wife and I bought this 1977 Corvette three years ago as an anniversary present to ourselves. We bought the 1996 Camaro about a year and half ago for our sons to use.
I am happy to announce that I have completed the power steering cylinder and rear brake system rebuild projects. Not only does that car now not leave puddles of hydraulic fluid on my garage floor, on my driveway and in the street, it actually handles better and performs, to a great degree, like a normal car. While hardly as sporty as it would portend to appear, but at least in such a way that I don't feel as though I'm putting my life and my passenger's life, usually my wife's, at risk.  
The Corvette is very original and is seemingly in a constant state of repair. Good thing I'm handy. These cars can be very expensive to repair.
The brakes and the steering projects were pretty challenging for me since I had no idea what I was doing when I first started the work. That's never stopped me from doing anything in my life in the past and my wife is always amazed at how excited I get when I accomplish something I had no idea I could do. That exhilaration never gets old.
A bad day under the Corvette is still a very good day
It's left me wanting to do more on the car, right now, but that's not the point of having it in the first place. I didn't store it last year because it needed very costly repairs that I wasn't willing to farm out; I worked on it all winter and it became almost the only thing I did all winter in the my free time. Now that everything I wanted to get done on it is done on, it's finally available for my wife and I to use as we please. Which is why we got it in the first place three years ago as an anniversary present to ourselves.
Remarkably, I've been able to rebuild the entire rear brake system and most recently, the power steering system. Now, finally, we drive.
The only thing to do now is fix the passenger side power window; the window is stuck in the up position. Stuck up is better on most cars than down but not on a weekend car that runs hot and has terrible ventilation. Judging by the way projects on this car have gone for so far, I think I will have my hands full. Don't tell my wife but I can't wait to get at it. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

NY Islanders - Anyone Really Think This Through?

This is a companion piece to what I wrote in October. While the 2014-15 season started out very well for the Islanders last on Long Island, it was, ultimately as disappointing as any since Denis Potvin retired.

The only thing more ridiculous than the Islanders move to Brooklyn is that they even exist in the first place.

I've always had mixed feelings about the New York "Islanders" despite my always thinking of myself a "Long Islander" first and "New Yorker" second. Part of my sentiment stems from my Ranger loving father and how Manhattan-centric in general my parents were. Also, the team was housed not twenty five miles from Madison Square Garden and I always had difficulty understanding why if Long Island was to have its own sports team, why it would be in an area of the Island that had a brick-a-brack, "are we Long Island or are we part of New York [City] identity crisis". Add to that the reason for the teams existence in the first place, as a tool to block the WHA from putting a franchise at the why-the-hell was it built in the first place Nassau Coliseum and the New York Islanders made as much sense as the Russians putting missiles in Cuba; did anyone really think this all the way through?

The Atlanta Flames made the playoffs six of the eight years they played in Atlanta but never won a playoff series.

Let's suppose for a for a moment that the Islanders never had the success they had and instead, were as mediocre as the other team that joined the NHL the same year they did, the Atlanta Flames. The Flames lasted just 8 seasons in a city that was indifferent towards hockey and the organization packed their duffle bags for Calgary after the 1979-80 season. Would the Islanders, again, nothing more than a political pawn of the provincial NHL, still even be in the New York area had they not had the success they had early on? Bill Torrey, the General Manager of that great Islanders team that won four Stanley Cups consecutively between 1980 and 1983 wondered if the fans would continue to come out to the Coliseum if and when the team stopped winning. The answer to Mr. Torrey's question was a resolute, "no".

The Islanders of the late 1970's and early 1980's were one of the greatest sports teams ever.  

Sadly, the retooling of the team after it's inevitable decline came at a time when new collective bargaining agreements broke up the way the old NHL did business making it all but impossible to build a competitive team the way that Torrey built the Islanders; that being almost exclusively through the amateur draft. The teams that would prosper in the long term in the "new" NHL would be teams with significant cash flow. The Islanders, despite playing in very affluent Nassau County, always struggled with cash flow; even during the "glory years" of Potvin and company. In the new NHL, with no cash to sign free agents and some of the great talent the Islanders drafted leaving the team when they could for greener pastures, the team floundered. You can't blame fans for staying away from an organization that either refused to spend money most assumed it had or just couldn't figure "it" out. In fairness, though, if the NHL had free agency when the Islanders were just starting out, there's no way they would have been able to keep the team they had together. 5 Hall of Fame players on one team, all around the same age, at the peak of the careers and the core of the team staying together for over a decade? You'd never see that today and we will never see that again in any of the major league sports.

If you notice, the Islanders logo does not include Brooklyn and Queens which are actually part of Long Island. Only New Yorkers understand that despite that, Brooklyn and Queens are "not part of Long Island".

Now they're off to Brooklyn which is, ironically, on the same land mass as Nassau County but in many ways is as different from "The Island" as Cuba is from Manhattan. How the new owners of the Islanders believes the team will do any better being housed even closer to Manhattan than before is beyond me. One thing for certain, if the Islanders don't win and win quickly, despite a 25 year lease with the posh and modern Barclays Center, they'll find their way out of dodge much like the Atlanta Flames did. Perhaps, optimistically,  history will repeat itself and the Islanders will return to their glory days but don't bet on it.

While the Islanders do have very small albeit loyal fan base, the fair weather band wagonneers who chided Ranger faithful for years certainly got what they had coming to them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

1977 Corvette - Dreams Do Come True

Something funny happened on our way to owning a Chevrolet Corvette; since we bought this car three years ago I've realized my childhood dream of becoming an auto mechanic.
When I was a kid this is what I really wanted to do but my mother, God bless her salty, drug addicted heart, would have none of that. No, sir she wanted me to reach for the stars and be a postal worker. I showed us both up and have enjoyed a 30+ year career in broadcasting instead. Lick that stamp, mom.
Now, in terms of being a mechanic, with this car, I've really had no choice; if I didn't, I think we'd be broke. I wince at what it would have cost us to replace the alternator, fusible link wiring harness, starter, battery, the entire rear brake system save for the left rear caliper and rotors, and all of the accessory belts. That's not to mention what we elected to have done; the reupholstering of the interior and replacement the steering wheel.
The latest and greatest problem with what we lovingly refer to as "Rockn77" is this Rorschach test the old beast leaves on our driveway whenever we take it out. This is power steering fluid not a study of your personality characteristics and emotional functioning. She's always leaked a little something or other but late last summer she started getting really spritzy with the power steering fluid. The spritzing got so bad that it had me buying power steering fluid by the case. Alright, exaggeration...but not by much.
One of the biggest challenges with old cars is pin pointing the exact cause of a problem. Today, with on board diagnostics (OBD), you just plug the car into a computer and a read out tells you exactly what the problem is. The main culprit here, I believe, is this power steering cylinder which are, apparently, notorious for leaking. Do I have any idea how to replace this major component on our car's steering system? Did I know what I was doing when I replaced all the brake lines or anything else that I've done on this car for that matter? Do I have any idea what I'm doing in radio now that I think about it? Once again, not knowing what I was doing was not going to stop me from diving head on into a massive car project.
Hopefully it is this cylinder and not the control valve and or the pump itself. This was, for what its worth, an unconscionable pain in the ass to get out but I did it.
I'm replacing all the hoses too so that should take care of that possibility. Wish me luck.
I've gotten so used to weekends being burned up by working on "Rockn77" that I have to wonder what I will do when I finally have nothing to do on it. Oh, that's right; I'll try and enjoy it for what it is and not curse it for what it's not or for what it needs. Wish me luck with that too.