Saturday, March 28, 2015

Firing Clarkson and Why Top Gear Needs a Reboot

This week the end of Jeremy Clarkson's involvement with Top Gear made world news.  Call it a firing, sacking, mutual agreement to part ways, conscious uncoupling, whatever; the event likely signaled the demise of the most popular car show… in the WORLD. 

I for one, am glad.

Not that I won't miss the show.  I have rarely missed an episode on BBC America, going back as far as 2007, and even watch past episodes on Netflix.  Originally a staid show similar to Motorweek, the current iteration elevated automotive journalism to an art, combining memorable cars and adventures with epic cinematography and a soundtrack of music, tire squeal, and operatic burst of exhaust noise. 

But a large part of the appeal was the stars of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond.  They made the show engaging and fun with their banter, opinions on cars, and their adventures.  They came across as three, average middle age, slightly buffoonish guys who love cars and their chemistry together made the show work… until it didn't. 

I'm not sure when it happened, but over the last several seasons Top Gear became stale.  It was like The Three Stooges.  The settings were different, the cars changed, but you knew basically what was going to happen.  I wonder if the stars knew this.  They did more adventures, the next seeming designed to top the last, and their personalities became more extreme.  But while James May and Richard Hammond became more of their Captain Slow and the Hamster personas, it was Jeremy Clarkson's behavior that became increasingly belligerent. 

It's not that Clarkson wasn't controversial to begin with.  His persona is loud, boisterous, given to absolutes, with the sense of humor of a 12 year old boy.  He's made a career out of offending just about everyone from Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Belgians, the French, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc.  But somewhere he crossed the line from controversial to offensive.  Not just in a manner that raises the hackles on our sometimes overly politically-correct sensitivities, but by using racial slurs that are not uttered in society unless you are wearing a white sheet and burning crosses.  It was almost like he was challenging the BBC to fire him.  After several incidents that led to gentle hand-slapping, he took his behavior a step too far by striking a Top Gear producer in what has been labeled "the fracas". 

Was it the cold cuts, issues in his personal life, or a desire to get out of his contract?  No one outside the people who were there can truly know what happened between Clarkson and the producer, Oisin Tymon.  Backed in a corner, the BBC did the responsible thing--they canceled the three remaining episodes, launched an investigation of the incident, and let Clarkson go.  This move was met with outrage.  Fans from around the world have petitioned to get Clarkson reinstated and many people, including Prime Minister David Cameron have called on the BBC to reinstate him.   

While unpopular, firing Clarkson was the right decision.  It also may have been the best decision because it saved us from having to watch Top Gear circle the drain.  Time will tell what happens to the show.  We will soon learn if James May and Richard Hammond return with a new host.  But if they return, it won't be the same.  Inserting a new person to replace Clarkson would be like The Who continuing on without Keith Moon.  Top Gear needs to be reinvented, either with a new format or a fresh take.  Other icons of British culture like James Bond and Doctor Who have thrived after a reboot.  Top Gear can too.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Car Affliction: The Jaguar XJR and Mercedes W108 280SE

Being obsessed with cars is an affliction.  At best it's a lifetime of serial monogamy, moving from one car to the next with frightening regularity.  At worst it's like a gambling addition or being a high functioning heroin addict.  You just "know" the next one will be it, the one car you keep.  This time it will be different.  You can stop after this one.  

And you do stop.  Until you find the next car.  And you know that will be the one... Maybe.    


I recently came across two vehicles that caught my eye and now have the car fever again.  There's no rational reason for it.  My 2013 Ford Fusion is a great car.  I've owned it for more than a year and have had no problems with it.  The Fusion looks like a cross between a cut rate Audi A7 and an Aston Martin.  It's everything I want in a car--fun to drive, good looking, practical, and reliable.   


Then I stumbled across a pristine 1997 Jaguar XJR.  It was advertised at a local dealer for $6,500 and had less than 70K miles on it.  It was pristine.  I always get weak knees at the sight of an old Jag and the 1995-97 Jaguar XJ6 and XJR strikes me as the ideal blend of old English charm and modern performance.  The straight 6 supercharged engine traces its heritage back to the 1948 XK 120 as does the styling with the fluted lights.

I've had several opportunities to buy a Jag but never pulled the trigger because I fear it will be an unreliable nightmare that soaks me for thousands of dollars in repairs.  It would be cheaper to turn Keith Moon loose in a Holiday Inn with a bottle of scotch and a bag of dynamite.  

"But this one could be different!" I thought.  "It's a one owner and looks brand new!"   

Mercedes Benz Memphis TN 2013-01-13032.jpg

Fortunately I never got the chance to look at the Jag.  But a few days later, I saw a 1972 Mercedes 280SE and the fever spiked again.

The Mercedes W108 series is one of the most timeless and durable cars on the road.  The styling was done by Paul Bracq who also penned the Mercedes SL roadsters of that era.  It is what I think of when I picture a Mercedes--stacked headlights, upright grill with the three-pointed star, and clean lines. This car had one owner with a full history and some rust issues for $4,500.  Everything works on the car, including the air conditioning.  I started rationalizing that I could use it as a daily driver, despite its age, and take my time restoring it.

But the practicality of driving a 43 year old car every day, putting 12k miles a year on it, is iffy at best.  The Fusion is used to run errands, commute to work, haul kids to karate and ice skating, date nights, and the occasional short road trip.  It handles all those chores like a breeze.  The Mercedes lacks that ease of use, that "set it and forget it" level of involvement we've grown accustomed to.  It predates the joke about setting the clock on your VCR and is from a time before computers, when tune-ups were performed annually along with lube jobs and packing wheel bearings.  Nothing is automated, with the exception of the transmission.  There is no ABS, no air-bags or traction control, cruise control, Bluetooth, or navigation.

If you're afflicted with the car disease, those things are exactly what make Jag and the Mercedes so appealing.  They require involvement, hands on care and feeding.  They are more pet or heirloom and require you to be engaged and do things like take an active role in driving and maintenance.  For most people, the idea of active involvement in driving and maintaining an automobile is a chore.  This is why self-driving cars are on the horizon and why the Toyota Camry is the top selling car.

But if you crave involvement, feeling and hearing the whirring of mechanical bits, smelling the grease and engine oil, seeing the car respond to your touch, an old car is a feast for the senses.
      

Friday, October 17, 2014

The $15,000 Question: Land Rover Series III


I've always had a soft spot for the old Land Rover, but thought I had gotten it out of my system until a friend from San Antonio texted me a picture of one recently.  Rough, crude, and basic to a fault, the original Land Rovers had more in common with a Farmall tractor than today's Range Rover.  The first Land Rover appeared in 1947 and was Great Britain's answer to the World War II Army Jeep.  It was rugged and designed to be simple enough to repair in the most remote locations.


Part of my fascination for the original Land Rover stems from "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."  The Marlin Perkins hosted show featured a animals in their natural habitat.  Each week Marlin, and his co-host Jim, would be on location in the African Serengeti or in the Amazon.  They would use Land Rovers to get to remote locations, chase down animals to be tagged and released, and occasionally get out of harm's way. 

The original Land Rover evolved gradually, adding power, creature comforts, and  weight, but the basic formula remained it production for over 60 years.  It's direct ancestor, the Defender, looks relatively identical to the original model and is still in production today.  Ultimately though, the Land Rover's days are numbered.  It was eclipsed long ago by more comfortable utility vehicles, commonly known as SUVs, including it's kid brothers, the Range Rover and Discovery.  Sales have dwindled since the early 1970s, partly due to the demand for more comfort, but also because of safely regulations.  It hasn't been imported to the US since the late 1990s and will finally be phased out in 2015 because of legislative reasons.      

 

Today you can buy an original Series II or Series III Land Rover for under $15,000.  The vehicle is slow and crude, even compared to a basic Jeep Wrangler, but is easy to work on.  It can be used as a daily driver, with the only serious drawback being a dearth of parts in the US. 

Think of it as a four wheeled version of the late Steve Erwin, a rough and tumble vehicle that is up for adventure and will do just about anything.