AutoBiography - Cars In My Life: Sports Cars
Earlier, I wrote about some of the vehicles I dreamed of owning when I was growing up. As a 12 year-old, I spent my days pouring over various car publications, becoming an expert on which vehicle was best suited to fulfill my dreams. And getting ammunition to win debates with my fellow pre-teen car buddies.
As an adolescent, most of the cars I lusted after were sports cars. As an income-earning adult, one of my goals was to satisfy that long-delayed desire.
1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray: After I graduated from college and had worked for a few months, I sold my college car - a red '63 VW - and bought a two year-old Corvette. It was a used 1963 model but appeared to be in good shape. I purchased it from a private party for $2,700. New Corvettes were selling for over $4,000.
Mine was a convertible but only had the hardtop - not the soft top. I soon located a white canvas soft top assembly and installed it. The car was Silver Blue with a dark blue interior. There was nothing better than cruising down the road on a summer day with the top down and enjoying the faint V-8 burble as background audio.
It was equipped with the base engine (327 cubic-inch 250-hp V-8 with 10.5:1 compression ratio and four-barrel carburetor) and four-speed manual transmission. The relatively wide ratios on the transmission made for good acceleration. While my car couldn't keep up with the more powerful Corvettes, it could jump from 0-60 mph in about 6 seconds.
Which reminds me of a story. My dad's car was in the shop and he needed a ride home from work. I picked him up at Frankford Junction. As we were heading home, I stopped at a traffic light on a typically Philadelphia narrow street. Some bozo in a '57 Ford convertible pulled over as if to park at the corner. Then he jumped the light. My dad said, "He's gonna cut you off." As I floored the Corvette, I replied, "Not in this car." I ran it up to 60 in first gear. The tires chirped as I hit second. The Ford was left far behind. My dad exhaled an expletive and said, "I've never seen a car accelerate like this one." It gave me just one more reason to love this Vette.
Carol on our honeymoon - Lake George NY
Acceleration was not the car's only virtue. Car & Driver magazine wrote that "the key to the personality of the Corvette Sting Ray lies neither in the power available nor in the revised styling, but in the chassis. Up to now the Corvette has been struggling to rise above a large number of stock components, notably in the suspension, where their presence created all kinds of problems that required extensive modifications for any competition use beyond normal road rallies. The new all-independent suspension has completely transformed the Corvette in terms of traction and cornering power ... cornering stability under conditions permitting minimal wheel deflections is remarkable, and an initial feeling of pleasant surprise rises to sheer astonishment when one discovers that the car can be taken off the predetermined line with ease and still complete the turn in perfect balance.
There is some understeer but the car has such a tremendous power surplus, even with the next-to-bottom engine option, that the tail can be slung out almost any old time, and after a while throttle steering seems the natural way of aiding the car around a curve. This is so easy to do that a newcomer to the car can master it in half an hour of fast driving."
The previous owner had fitted ridiculously fat 8:10 x15 tires on the rear. I soon replaced them with Uniroyal performance tires: 7:15 x 15 front, 7:35 x 15 rear.
All the performance in the world wouldn't have made me buy an ugly car. But, to my eyes, the Corvette was gorgeous - one of the ten best-looking American production cars ever manufactured. This second generation Corvette was designed by Larry Shinoda under the styling direction of Bill Mitchell. The design was inspired by Mitchell's 1959 one-off Sting Ray race car.
The '63 Corvette featured hidden headlights. This added to the aerodynamics of the car when the headlamps were not in use. The headlights were rotated into position by a dash-mounted switch (a stock GM chrome up-down power window switch) and the lights could be positioned anywhere between full-open and closed. I found that, pointed slightly downward, they made fantastic fog lights.
I owned my silver blue beauty for 18 months. I had lots of good times with it - too numerous to mention - and it sure impressed my car buddies. But in the end, its problems drove me nuts and made me get rid of it. I had trouble with the shift forks jamming and locking, so I replaced the stock shift mechanism with a Hurst shifter. All of the low-cost Chevy components performed well, but the expensive, exclusive-to-Corvette parts would always break it seemed. The aluminum radiator sprung a leak and I couldn't find anyone who would weld it. I had to buy a new one for $400 - a lot of money in 1966.
The following year, Chevrolet changed over to a copper unit but it was too late for me.
Then the rear axle blew out - not a cheap make-a-million-of-'em Chevrolet part but a Corvette-exclusive, empty-yer-wallet component. The Vette's seats were uncomfortable and caused me lots of back problems - something I've never experienced in any other car - before or after. The Corvette became an uncontrollable beast with the tiniest amount of snow or ice on the pavement.
Headed to the laundromat in the snow - note strap chains on rear tire. After I sold the Corvette, we soon bought a washer and dryer.
Finally, I noticed that anytime I wound it over with 3,000 rpm, the oil pressure would drop to zero. And the shifter began randomly popping out of second gear under acceleration. These disturbing new symptioms, a pregnant wife and a need to save up for a house caused me to trade-in the Corvette in on a new, economical, reliable 1967 VW Beetle. I hate to admit this, but I had to give the Volkswagen dealer the Corvette plus $310 to buy the new Bug.
|My full-size Corvette is gone but I do have a 1:18 scale Auto Art model as a reminder of some of the good times.
Oh well. It was fun while it lasted. (permalink, 1963 Corvette)
1992 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo: When I sold my manufacturing business in 1989, a personal monetary windfall occurred. Wheeeee! While I am a car guy and was tempted to immediately run out and buy something new and shiny to 'reward myself', I am also something of a cheapskate. So, when I was given the opportunity to purchase our two well-cared-for 'company cars' at wholesale prices, I jumped at the chance. But, by 1992, I was ready for a new car to replace my aging, eight year-old Lincoln. I wanted something sportier and peppier than my 1984 Lincoln Mark VII. Lincoln had been making noises about a new Mark VIII model for years but there was nothing in showrooms yet. And I didn't think a new Lincoln would satisfy my Middle Age Crazy automotive needs.
Soooo ... in January 1992, I hit the Portland Auto Show with the intent of finding a new automotive true love. I considered several vehicles. Although the car had possibilities, the lines of the Lexus SC400 just didn't appeal to me. The Mazda Miata was cute but too small and underpowered. The Mitsubishi 3000GT/Dodge Stealth twins looked good on paper but seemed poorly-assembled and had too many kit-car-like tacked-on trim pieces. The Acura NSX was really nice but it cost more money than I wanted to spend. The Dodge Viper was too insane. The Jaguar XJS didn't look like a Jaguar to me and had unbecoming 1976 carryover styling. Corvettes, Porsches and Mercedes SLs seemed overpriced for what you got. But the Nissan stand had something that looked just right for me.
I purchased a new Sapphire Blue 1992 Nissan 300ZX Twin-Turbo in February. This two-seater sports car had all the luxury touches - power windows, automatic transmission, Charcoal leather interior with matching ultrasuede door panels. But it was frighteningly fast, too, both on a straight line and in the corners. The little 180 cubic-inch V-6 engine put out a whopping 285 (for the time) horsepower with the automatic transmission. It would do 0-60 in 6 seconds and the quarter mile 13 seconds or so. Top speed was governed at 155 mph. Not that I ever went that fast.
My 300ZX was ordered through a new car broker following a frustrating tour of indifferent and often rude Nissan dealers in the Portland/Vancouver area. And now I must take off on a tangent or, as Adam Corolla calls it, a Tan Gent.
I've never understood why new car salesmen, who are supposedly in the business of selling things, make it so difficult to buy a car. To the best of my knowledge, Jerry Seinfeld never asked this question but he should have: "So, what is the deal with car salespeople? I mean - hey - I have bought lots of things in my life: clothes, appliances, even houses - and I've never had to put up with the nonsense I've encountered at car dealerships."
It ought to be pretty easy to buy a car, right? Especially for me. I almost never set foot in a dealer showroom unless I'm planning to buy something. (On those few occasions where I'm just looking, I make it clear that I'm not a buyer. As someone who used to sell, I'm sensitive about wasting any salesperson's time.) I don't ask trick questions or try to play product knowledge one-upmanship games with the salesperson.
Nevertheless, I often encounter trouble when buying a car. I don't think it's me. Like my Hypothetical Seinfeld, I buy other things - major appliances, tools, homes, etc. and salespeople seem to pick up on my buy signals pretty well. But car showrooms seem to operate in an entirely different universe.
It's not just Nissan where I've encountered difficulties. I've experienced bad attitudes at Cadillac, Lincoln, Corvette, BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda and even Lexus dealerships. But, you know what? It always works out for me. I eventually end up buying a car from someone who truly wants to sell me one. Either a dealer salesman. Or an auto broker.
Back to the car - I paid $33,310 for my new Z, equipped with the optional four-speed Infiniti-based automatic transmission and the leather seating package. I also had to pay a 10% Federal Luxury Tax ($331) since the car cost more than $30,000. Thank you, George 'Read My Lips - No New Taxes' Bush.
The Z was a really fun car. Wheeeee! It was faster than Superman on crack. It cornered like it was on rails and had Lionel Magna-Traction. This Made-In-Hiratsuka-Japan beastie was undoubtedly the best cornering car I've ever owned. It was compact (shorter than a VW Beetle) and was easy to park. My two-seater sports car had all the luxury touches - including a titanium ignition key - and a good-looking, understated and functional interior:
The little 180 cubic-inch V-6 engine with twin Garrett turbochargers, state-of-the-art dual cams and variable-valve timing put out 285 horses. How they stuffed them all in there I don't know. The sleek little Z would go like a bat-outta-hell especially when those twin-turbos kicked in.
To each cylinder bank the turbo added an oil-cooled turbocharger and an intercooler for lag-free thrust right to the 7000-rpm rev limiter. It also had Nissan's Super HICAS (High Capacity Actively controlled Steering), which turned the rear wheels to provide remarkable transitional stability and surgical steering response. Steering assist was vehicle-speed-dependent, and the driver could adjust the all-independent suspension between touring and sport damping. Balancing this gadgetry was a cockpit of disarming simplicity and comfort.
The car buff press raved about this sports car. "A near flawless mix of form, function, and class," raved Car and Driver. The magazine put it on its '10 Best' list for seven straight years. A one-year evaluation led David E. Davis Jr. of Automobile to call the Turbo Z "as good a high-performance coupe as any company has ever built in any country at any price."
If you ever wanted to time-travel, this was the machine to take with you. James Lileks once wrote about taking a laptop computer back to the Fifties. Not me. No internet for one thing. In 2005, I wrote that if I ever time-traveled back to 1950, "I'd take a car with me. A Nissan 300ZX Turbo. You could run it on '50s Amoco Hi Test white gas (no lead) and it would generate some interesting conversations."
I really liked the lines of the 300Z, although the mandatory rear spoiler in the ZX turbo models looked like an afterthought and kinda spoiled the look. Nevertheless, it was a handsome, purposeful machine, from its glass-covered projector beam headlamps up front to the well-fitted glass T-tops on the roof to the cool, chrome-tipped quad exhausts out back. Certainly, it was the best-looking Z-car since the original 1970 Datsun 240Z. Automobile listed the 300ZX as both the '20 Greatest Cars of the Past 20 Years' and the '25 Most Beautiful Cars in History'. GQ Magazine named it as one of the most stylish cars of the past 50 years.
The ZX also passed the valet parking test. In the early 1990s, we often dined at the Couch Street Fish House (it closed in 2000) in the questionable neighborhood (aka - seedy, filled with drunks and drifters) of Old Town Portland. The establishment had a small valet lot and, whenever we arrived in my freshly-washed Lincoln Mark VII, the car was always buried in obscurity amongst the other vehicular iron. When I purchased my new '92 Twin Turbo Nissan 300ZX and fitted it with chrome wheels, the valets parked it right next to the door, like a piece of automotive jewelry. Sweet.
All that said, it was not a perfect car. The Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo rode like a truck. And it shouldn't have. The benchmark-crazy Nissan engineers picked the Corvette as the bogey for the American version of the Z. And matched the harsh ride of the Vette, figuring that's what stupid, round-eye Americans wanted. In Europe, the 300ZX was matched with European sports cars and the ride was made softer without handling compromises. The ZX was hell on tires too, needing four new ones every 15,000 miles or so. The factory-fitted Michelins were just awful. I soon switched them for Pirellis, which offered a much better ride and longer tire life.
After a year or so, the urethane rear spoiler developed unsightly surface pockmarks and had to be replaced. At 30,000 miles or so, the automatic transmission failed and required a replacement - done under warranty, of course.
There was a small leak at the driver's side front window that neither I nor the dealer could keep fixed and at speed it would drip every 30 seconds or so on the leg of my pants. Sometimes, like Chinese water torture, the anticipation of the wet drop was worse than the drop itself. I tried to wear dark colors when the weather was wet. I also had to use much caution behind the wheel if H2O was around. Lacking traction or stability controls, the 300ZX could be a handful in rain, sleet or snow. Although it did have multi-speed front wipers, a very good defroster system and a rear wiper, so you could easily see what object you were almost skidding into. I only drove my ZX once in snow. Less than one inch of it. The Z's traction was so bad, I got stuck on the gentle lip of my own driveway.
Speaking of rain, in the quest for aerodynamics and cool styling, the car had a concept-car-like side tumblehome and no drip rails, so every time I opened the door, I'd get quite wet, unless I exited with gazelle-like speed.
I was also fearful that the turbos would fail prematurely - an expensive fix. I had been instructed to run the engine for 30 seconds at idle before shutting it off. I did so religiously for the first two weeks. Then, in the manner of lapsed faithful everywhere, I started rationalizing: "Well, I've been driving slow for the last couple of blocks, so it's almost like the engine was at idle. It's not like I was coming in hot for a pit stop at Le Mans. So, screw it."
As I became older, fatter and less athletic, it became less fun getting in and out of the car. When attempting to exit the low-slung ZX, I often felt like I was trying to winch a '58 Buick Roadmaster Limited out of a tar pit. I really enjoyed owning the Twin Turbo Z but, after more than six years and 54,000 miles, I was ready for something that had a softer ride.
So, in June 1998, I traded the Z for a luxurious Jaguar sedan. (permalink, 1992 Nissan 300ZX) (posted 9/28/12)
Next AutoBiography Chapter: 'Company Iron' is posted here.
A chronological list of AutoBiography chapters can be found here.
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copyright 2012-21 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved
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If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.
If I have slandered any people or corporations, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.
Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.