The Good Old Days

I got to talking about cars with my brother a few weeks ago.  He’s an old-school car guy.  In high school he bought and built-up a series of rear-wheel drive, V-8 powered cars that he remembers fondly to this day.  His assertion was that those cars and those times in automotive history were the waning years of the muscle car.  The fading sunset of the glory days of horsepower and hot rods.

 

While I have a lot of affection and respect for my brother, and the cars that we pined for in our youth, I don’t quite agree that we’re doomed to long for the Good Old Days.  In fact, I would submit that if you are looking for a go-faster car that you can live with (or an extreme beast that wants to eat you alive), it may be your finest hour.  Granted, the 60s and 70s were a great time to be a gear-head.  The problem was, I wasn’t old enough drive until the 1980s.  By then, even the ‘fast’ cars had been neutuered by emissions regulations and fuel economy standards.  And the technology to make it fun hadn’t caught up yet.

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Yenko Super Camaro circa 1968 — Photo by Dana Hurt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46095044

But times have changed.  The Camaro IROC-Z from 1987 (a car I lusted after, mightily, but could not afford), made 220 HP.  Granted it made 330 Ft-Lb of torque, and it would burn it’s rear tires with enthusiasm, but that performance is underwhelming at best, in the face of today’s automotive technology.  Going 0-60MPH in 6.8 seconds, the IROC was a bit faster than the 1967 Camaro SS at 8.0.  But that’s still practically anchored to the road compared to a current generation Camaro V6 2LT that makes 335HP and does 0-60 in around 5.3 seconds.  And that’s not the fastest modern Camaro, by an stretch.  My brother would remind me that there were horsepower monsters in the days of yore (like the Yenko Super Camaro), but today we have our own dragons, and they breath fire, straight from the factory.

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Dodge Challenger Hellcat SRT – Photo from Dodge ‘Build Your Own’ page, http://www.dodge.com.

The acceleration and horsepower figures in this comparison also belie the massive improvements made in handling, braking, ride comfort, safety, and drivability.  Advanced ECUs, independent suspension, stability control and ABS all add up to a far more enjoyable and survivable high-performance driving experience.  Granted, we don’t get the white-knuckled terror we once experienced, or the visceral feel of the some of the old gearboxes and steering, but my heart still speeds up when I throw a Subaru WRX into a corner, or pull hard away from a stop light.  If I get a bit too enthusiastic and the car breaks loose, the stability control nanny will invariably step in and help me get it back in line.  It’s not an excuse for poor driving skill or a license to throw good judgement out the window, but it’s nice to have a margin of error so a little mischief behind the wheel doesn’t automatically lead to a horrible accident.

We get all these benefits in addition to better fuel economy and lower emissions than ever.  I know my brother would say that all of the sensors and computers that make new cars so good also make them harder to work on, since everything is buried under a layer of software and wiring.  But even that appeals to the nerd in me.  If something burps, I can plug in the scanner and make the car tell me what it thinks is wrong.  Armed with that information I can take my car (still under warranty) to the dealer or shop and they can’t tell me a story about something that doesn’t make any sense.  The tech isn’t a panacea, but it’s a tool we simply didn’t have before.

Is today a golden age for those who want to go fast or at least have a little fun?  Maybe.  While the genuinely superlative super car is out of reach for most of us, every car brand has a performance-oriented model within the reach of those who still have to put food on the table, pay a mortgage and balance a checkbook.  There are performance driving schools popping up everywhere (please get training).  And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that even a run-of-the-mill car today can outperform some of the beloved performance models of days gone by.  After all you can buy a Chevy Malibu or Toyota Camry right now that makes more than 250HP and will run 0-60 in six seconds.

 

Lemonade, an Impala, and Paradise Found

I’m writing this, sitting in the front seat of a 2016 Chevy Impala.  My rental car.  This isn’t usually where I like to do most of my work.  However, the car is my office and my hangout for the day.  At least the waves crashing on the beach, the sound of seagulls, and the view of the Pacific make it more than palatable.  Besides, the alternative was a hotel lobby or airport terminal.  Life is about choices.

The nice folks at the airline delivered me, after much delay, on the first leg of my journey home (San Francisco to Detroit, via LAX), but cancelled my connecting flight.  And thus, I was left in the terminal at LAX with either a long line or an interminable wait on hold.  I stood in line until 1:30am and stayed on hold for more than two hours.  No help was forthcoming.  So, I booked a hotel room and set off to get some rest.  The next morning, I awoke and called the company travel office.  There were no flights until late evening, and that would only get me as far as Chicago.

So, I booked a rental car and took the hotel shuttle to the airport.  They delivered me to the rental car lot where I found the Impala.  I’ve always liked the look of this car, and having test-driven it’s smaller stable-mate, the ironically-named Malibu, I figured it would be good.  As I picked my way (badly) through the city to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), I considered its merits.  The car responded ably.  The seats were comfortable and easily adjusted, and the ride was compliant without wallowing too much when the road was uneven.  Smiling, I kept heading North and West, away from the concrete jungle.  Winding along the highway, past Pepperdine University and up through Malibu, I felt the aggravation of missing most of a weekend with my family, and stress of yesterday’s delays, melt away.  I was by far not the only person affected by the travel issues.  Why let it get me down?  It was a sunny day; I wasn’t hostage in an airport.

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2016 Chevrolet Impala – Photo by author, Decker Canyon Rd, Malibu, CA

After driving a bit, I came upon Deckard Canyon Rd.  Though I was pretty hungry by now, I wanted to drive just a bit more before I ate.  I’ve driven a couple of these canyon roads before, so I figured it would be fun to drive the twisties again, even in a big car.  I headed up the first winding hill with a sense of relish.  It went away quickly.  The throttle response, in normal driving, is more than acceptable.  There’s enough torque to make it feel like the car is rolling off the ball of your foot.  But not on a steep canyon road.  The engine response was mushy and labored, and the transmission shifted awkwardly.  The steering, which feels fine in everyday traffic is simply too slow for the switchbacks and the car’s long wheel base.  It wasn’t fun, especially when the road becomes very narrow and very crowded with maniacal cyclists and guys shooting videos of themselves skateboarding down the middle of the road.  My choice was redeemed, however, when I turned around and headed back to the PCH.  The view of the ocean through the canyon was rewarding.

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View of the Pacific from Deckard Canyon Rd — Photo by author

I headed back towards the city, trying to remember where I’d seen signs for restaurants.  The car show here is pleasantly distracting.  Exotics I made note of were a yellow Murcielago, a black Aventedor and his buddy in an equally black Maserati Quattroporte.  There were also endless 911s, a host of Cayennes and G-Wagons, and the first Levante I’ve seen outside of an auto show.

In my search for a pleasant place to eat, I was fortuitously stopped at a red light with a sign above it for the Paradise Cove Beach Club and Cafe.  I had no idea if it would be good, but I was hungry enough to give it a try.  Turning down the winding, narrow drive, I saw signs that repeatedly advised the parking fees for the club and the café.  I figured in this ZIP code eight bucks was a bargain and parked in a lot next to the café, by a pier.  My wait for a table was mercifully brief, given how busy the place looked.  The waiting area, and much of the dining room, is covered with black-and-white photos of celebrities who frequented Malibu when black-and-white pictures were common.  Most of these folks were in their prime when I was drawing pictures with crayons, but it still felt a touch nostalgic.  My mother always said I was an old soul.  A Rock-ola was spinning actual CDs instead of playing music off a hard drive or streaming from the Internet.  No vinyl though.

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Beach Cafe at Paradise Cove — Photo by author

My meal was a feast.  A loaf of sourdough bread half the size of my head (which is something I assure you), and cold draft beer.  That was followed (closely) by a generous filet of blackened swordfish and fries.  They would have gladly given me vegetables, but fries seemed about right for this day.  Everything was excellent, the service was great and the location was, of course, paradise.  If you find yourself wandering the PCH and are hungry (and fancy a walk on a pier), this might be your huckleberry.  The only downside was that the bill may make your eyes water as much as the food does your mouth.  Not the place to eat every weekend, but then again, I don’t live around here.

I’ll head back to the city shortly.  And I’ll try to savor each mile of the coast road on the way back.  It will be many hours before I’m home, but I’m looking forward to seeing my family and spending at least a bit of quiet time before I’m back on the road next week.  I love my job most days, and even when it tries to get me down, I do my best to make lemonade out of the lemons.

Boring Car Review Stuff

If you fancy a Chevrolet Impala, I would rate it rather a bargain for such a large, well-equipped car.  There are however two cautions to keep in mind.

First, this is a big front-wheel drive car, and that makes the handling dynamics something to get used to.  I went to pull away quickly from a stop and ended up lighting up the front tires in an awkward burn-out.  Why the traction control didn’t intervene, I’ll never know (I didn’t disable it).  But when you have a bunch of horsepower driving the front wheels, while the the CG is shifting aft, the results are less than stellar.

The rear visibility leaves a bit to be desired.  The slope from the roof to the trunk lid is shallow (looking a bit like a fastback) and that makes the rear window seem very small from the driver’s position.  The included back-up camera is a welcome help.

As nearly as I can tell the MSRP for a car outfitted like this one (leather seats and V6 engine) is about $34,000.