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.         

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cadillac is not Itself

This is what a Cadillac should be: Large, stately, supremely comfortable, smooth, and powerful.  A car to serenely consume the miles, soaking up potholes and ruts without unsettling.  It's buttercream frosting on a three-tiered layer cake. 

The above 1953 Series 62 sedan highlights those qualities.  Audacious compared to some of its understated European contemporaries, it has a sense of occasion about it.  Compared to it, Cadillac has lost its way.  A Caddy should not be an all out performance car capable of storming the Nurburgring.   

To be fair, Cadillac has to build cars that satisfy the broadest swath of its target market, an arena filled with quality products from BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes.  All of these products are good.  To stand out, your brand has to match up favorably to the competition.  This is why new BMWs are less precise than their brethren of yore, why Lexus is sharper, why Mercedes brought AMG in house, and why Cadillac has shed buttercream in favor of the Paleo diet. 

But in doing so, Cadillac has lost touch of what makes a Cadillac.