Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Evolution of the Maserati Quattroporte

Since 1963, the Quattroporte has gone through five iterations. Its evolution has not been linear. Some were disasters while others have become coveted icons of Italian style. Here is a brief overview of the five versions.

(A really good resource is , which is run by a proud Quattroporte IV owner.)

Quattroporte I (1963-69): The Rat Packer

If I were a betting man, I would wager that at least one or two Rat Packers had one of these puppies. A detuned racing engine was stuffed under the bonnet. The 4.1 liter V8 used all 256 horses to achieve an incredible 143 mile per hour top speed. Moreover, the styling equalled the awe-inspiring performance.

Quattroporte II (1974-78): The Flop

Only 13 of these were ever made. It shared many components with the Citroen SM, including the chassis, the hydropneumatic suspension, FWD set-up, and swivelling headlights. An asthmatic Merak V6 producing less than 200 horsepower was used. To put it simply: It just ain't right.

Quattroporte III (1976-90): The Icon

For most, this is the Quattroporte that comes to mind. It was meant to compete with the Benz 450SEL 6.9 (of recent Ronin fame). The controversial styling was a favorite among Italian magnates. If anything, it definitely stood out in the crowd.

Quattroporte IV (1994-2000): The Unremarkable

Though I am a pretty big car nut, this version of the fourdoor flew completely under the radar. I did not learn of it until very recently. Though it performed well on the road (it has a 158 mph top speed when coupled with the 330 hp V8), it looks like an anonymous Japanese sedan. Too much emphasis was placed on aerodynamics. No effort was made to connect it with its northern Italian roots.

Quattroporte V (2004-present): Turtle Chic

Aside from the jerky transmission, this sedan is perfect. When I saw Vincent Chase's Entourage ride in one, it was perfect. With a 400 horsepower Ferrari engine capable of reaching 60 in 5 seconds flat, this car not only looks fast. It is fast.


The Bentley Turbo R: The Big Fast Saloon

Before the AMG S55 and the Audi S8, there was another large, powerful, luxury sedan-- the Bentley Turbo R.

The R was ahead of its time. Introduced at the Geneva Auto Show in 1985, it stood atop the luxury sports sedan pinnacle for a decade. The stats are mind-boggling: a 6.75 liter engine with a Garrett turbocharger (intercooled), almost 400 hp, about 560 pound-feet of torque, weighs 5,300 pounds, a wheelbase of 120.5 inches (124.5 for the longer wheelbase version). Mileage of 5 to 10 miles per gallon was the norm. Zero to sixty in about five and half Mississippis.

When new, this car was strictly for the Pacific Northwest lumber magnate (Less than Zero) and industrialist (Rushmore). But now, for around $40,000, a driveable (though not Concours-grade) used example can be easily had.

As with any exotic that can be had for very little now, like the Merak, Urraco, and 308GT4 in a 2005 Top Gear comparo, the true cost is in repairing and maintaining the car. Shock absorbers, electrical gremlins, fragile rubber hoses and steering racks all hemorrhage the owner's checking account at a rate greater than the R's acceleration from 60 to 100 miles per hour.

But in the end, 9 out of 10 R owners will tell you it's all worth it. Despite its gargantuan size, it fits like a snug yet comfortable glove with the driver. It is nimble, fast, and stops on a dime. The sedan accelerates like a dragster but carries its occupants in stately, smooth, Lexus-silent, opulence.

The S55 and S8 may have more technology and may be more reliable, but they will never possess the cachet of the R.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Why the Merkur XR4Ti failed in America

From 1985 to 1989, Lincoln-Mercury dealers across the United States sold the Merkur XR4Ti. It was the hatchback version of the popular European Ford Sierra line. Despite rave reviews by automotive journalists (including one of Car & Driver's Top 10 cars of 1985) and enthusiasts, it was a commercial flop. Over the years, as I saw the lone XR4Ti on the road, I asked myself the same question, why was it unsuccessful here? I have finally had a chance to sit down, do some research, and figure out why.

1. Cost. Because the XR4Tis were assembled in West Germany, manufacturing costs relied on the dollar-mark exchange rate. The rate fluctuated wildly, and for the most part, against the U.S. dollar. On January 1, 1985, $3.15 bought a German mark. By January 1, 1990, it took $1.68 to buy the same mark. The decreasing value of the dollar made the XR4Ti just too expensive for the typical consumer, and Ford Motor Company.

2. Marketing. Ford messed up the marketing big time. In a period when turbocharged, import hatchbacks with great handling were all the rage-- 944 Turbo, RX-7 turbo, Starion turbo, et al.-- the XR4Ti was a perfect competitor. It had a 2.3 liter turbocharged engine which produced 175 horsepower, 200 pound-feet of torque, and did the 1/4 mile in 15.5 seconds. But alas, Ford decided to start a new brand, Merkur (German for "Mercury"). Americans could not pronounce it. And when Americans cannot pronounce something, they naturally tend to distrust it and run away from it.

3. Styling. Though a few, like myself, loved the car's styling, most did not. The most controversial cue was the "bi-plane" rear spoiler. Though it was eventually scrubbed and replaced with a normal spoiler, the car's fate in America was already doomed.

4. Passive restraint/airbag requirement. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. In the late 80s, the feds promulgated regulations requiring all new cars to come equipped with passive restraints (those oh-so-useful motorized shoulder belts) or airbags. Because of the R&D costs, Ford decided to just pull the car from the American market. And thus, the end of an underrated, cult favorite, pocket rocket.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Trust Me, I Know What I'm Doing

Ah, the '80s. Joe Isuzu. The Where's the Beef lady. Robin Leach. I have been wearing glasses since 2nd grade because I sat three feet away from the TV screen, eight plus hours every day, during that entire decade of my childhood. And although many sights and sounds from the boob tube bring back fond, warm, and fuzzy feelings, nothing touches my heart, and funny bone, like Sledge Hammer!

Aside from the wardrobe and hair, the show is timeless. If it were aired today, it would be up there among the ranks of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development.

I will not be providing an astute and analytical review of the characters, plots, and their reflection on a post-modern, Cold War era society. Rather, I have compiled a few key facts (and images) from the show to refresh the memories of my fellow Hammerheads (fans of Sledge Hammer!). Hopefully, something will bring out a happy and funny moment from the show that had been stored and abandoned in a dark recess of your memory bank. I know it has for me.

(For those who are too young to remember the show (or who had strict parents who discouraged watching sophomoric and violent TV shows), I encourage you to rent Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, post-haste.)

Sledge's wardrobe: Cheap, ill fitting sports jacket, loud ties, sunglasses.
Motto: Trust me, I know what I'm doing.
Boss: Captain Trunk ("Hammer!!!")
Partner: Dori Doreau (What a lady...)
View on feminism: Doreau-- "What, you think all women should be barefoot and pregnant?" Hammer-- "No, I encourage women to wear shoes."
Favorite book: War and Peace (the first half)
View on liberals: Calls them yogurt-sucking creeps
Theme composer: Danny Elfman

Sign the petition for a Sledge Hammer! movie here:

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Forgettable Lamborghinis

From the late 1960s to the mid 80s, Lamborghini gave the public more than just the Countach and Miura. No. Sant’Agata gave us these six ugly bastards. To say that it takes an acquired taste to appreciate these automobiles is an understatement. I rank these cars from ugly to ugliest, as follows:

1. Islero. This one borders on halfway decent. It is essentially a re-skinned 400GT. Although it is bland, it does have a hint of elegance. Don’t worry, folks, it gets much worse than this.

2. (Tied) Jalpa. An updated version of the Silhouette (see #4, infra), the Jalpa looks like an uninspired drawing of an anonymous mid-engined sports car created by a kid serving detention. It has absolutely no visual cues to distinguish it from an overused chalkboard eraser.

2. (Tied) Urraco. "Entry-level exotic" is an oxymoron. The Urraco was meant to compete with the Maserati Merak, another member of the Italian exotica Hall of Shame. To make matters worse, the suffocated version of the Urraco bound for Stateside only had 180 horses.

4. Silhouette. This car has more excessive body cladding than a mid-90s Pontiac sales lot. It no doubt inspired a generation of young, underemployed men in Daly City, California, and Staines, England, to add ludicrous body kits to their Honda Civics and Vauxhall Novas.

5. Jarama. Bertone, the Jarama’s stylist, admitted that the car’s design was deliberately unspectacular, even mediocre. Admitting the problem is the first step to recovery. This car needs serious help.

6. Espada. Oh, the humanity. This turd on wheels looks hideous from every conceivable angle. That it was Lamborghini’s best seller for many years is incredible. What a mess!


Special thanks to for the photos.

The 350GT: The Original Lamborghini

The 350GT is an anomaly. To those unfamiliar with classic Italian cars, they would be hard pressed to identify it as a Lamborghini. For those under the age of 40, the prototypical Lambo is either the Countach or the Diablo-- both mid-engined supercars with scissor doors. For many, it is difficult to imagine a front-engined grand tourer as a Lamborghini.

The 350GT was the first Lambo. When tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to build a better Ferrari than Ferrari, he created the 350GT. It was very light-- aluminum panels were attached to the frame, which was made of small tubes. The 3 1/2 liter V12 delivered 270 horsepower and 239 pound feet of torque. This power was transmitted via a ZF 5 speed trasmission. It can reach 150 mph on empty stretches of the Autostrada.

Between 1964 and 1967, less than a gross of them were made. Even at $13,000, Lamborghini lost $1,000 on each vehicle.

In 1965 and 1966, the well heeled could opt for the 400GT package. This upped the ante by shoehorning a 4 liter engine (producing 320hp and 276 lb-ft of torque) in the nose. Only 23 400GTs were made, 20 with steel body panels, and three with aluminum. Obviously, the three aluminum paneled 400GTs were the fastest of the bunch.

What makes this one of my favorite Lambos is its utter un-Lambo-ness. It is somewhat akin to the other GTs of the era: the Maserati 5000GT, the Aston Martin DB4, and the Ferrari 330. But it is much more beautiful and exotic looking. From the bugeyed headlights to the large, bubble-like rear window, every detail discretely informs the audience that this is a work of art and not just another fast Italian sports car. This is in marked contrasts to the later Miuras, Countachs, and Diablos, which shriek for attention.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why Honda will win the 2007 F1 Constructor Title

The FIA just released the 2007 line-up. Here is my take on the competitive teams. Honda will win not necessarily because it has the best team, but because it has the least weaknesses.

McLaren Mercedes
1 Fernando Alonso (E)
2 Lewis Hamilton (GB)
One season is not going to make that much of a difference with respect to the McLarens' reliability. Remember, it took Hyundai over a decade to turn their shitboxes into respectable, reliable, automobiles. Look for "DNFs" to be sprinkled through McLarens' final results next season.

Though Alonso will do his best, his unfamiliarity with a new team and new car will hurt him. A big reason Alonso won so often and consistently was because his Renault was nearly bullet-proof.

Hamilton has potential, but as a rookie, he's not going to score too many points. Less than a dozen, probably.

3 Giancarlo Fisichella (I)
4 Heikki Kovalained (FIN)
This is going to be the season for Fisichella to shine. He was a good driver, forever eclipsed by his Spanish teammate. He'll stand on the podium a few times in 2007, but that's about it.

Kovalained is a non-factor.

5 Felipe Massa (BR)
6 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN)

Raikkonen will be in the hunt for the driver's championship to the end of the season. However, he will be inconsistent in performance over the course of the season. Not because he's slow. Not because his Ferrari is slow. It's because of chemistry. His aloofness will definitely cause morale problems with his engineers, crew, and bosses. This is, ultimately, a team sport. And no matter how much I admire Kimi as a driver, he is not a team player, in the Ferrari sense. Just as a team with Shaq and Kobe does not necessarily equal championship, the same is true for the Kimi-Ferrari duo.

Massa will continue playing second fiddle, consistently scoring a few points here and there. Ferrari will come second in the constructor title, just a few points behind Honda.

7 Jenson Button (GB)
8 Rubens Barrichello (BR)
As a disclaimer, I think Button is a pompous twit and Barrichello as the loveable loser. Arguably, they both have the potential of being champion. I do not think this will happen in 2007, but I do believe they will finish in the top 4. This will be enough to win the constructor championship. I predict Button and Barrichello will finish 2-3 for the season (respectively).

9 Nick Heidfeld (D)
10 Robert Kubica (PL)
Kubica the boy wonder will continue with his successful ways in 2007. However, he and Heidfeld are still a few years away from being truly competitive. They'll be fun to watch.

11 Ralf Schumacher (D)
12 Jarno Trulli (I)
This is the only aspect of Toyota's worldwide powerhouse that is burning down, slowly. Don't hold your breath for any kind of win, fellas.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Molokai, My Favorite Isle (Part 2)

I wake up an hour before sunrise. This is quite an unusual wake-up time for someone on vacation. But I booked a mule ride down to the leper colony on the north side of Molokai. And the mules leave early.

I stop by a coffee shop/gallery in Kaunakakai. It is the only business open at this early hour. Its interior is quite modern (more so than 99% of the retail establishments on the island). It feels out of place. For some reason unknown to me, it is almost completely full of customers. I grab my obligatory double espresso and plop down on the computer to check my email. It is still dark outside.

After sipping my dose of caffeine, I head out to the stables. Of course, the paniolo behind the counter tells me he does not see my name on the reservation roster. All the mules have been spoken for. I'm SOL.

The leper colony is situated on a flat, low lying peninsula. On a map, it juts out of northern Molokai like a tiny, sharp, speed bump. There are three ways of getting there: by sea (this only happens twice a year, when a supply ship delivers LARGE items like generators and motor vehicles), by air, and by land via a mule trail. Though the colony is connected to Molokai, it is separated by a 3300 foot tall, 60 degree steep cliff.

The three mile trail down is steep, slippery, and contains 26 switchbacks. If I start too late, I will have to follow a trail of mule poop. I am committed to seeing the colony so I switch my mindset from being a mule rider to a hiker. I start walking down.

For the entire way down, I can see the colony in front of me. The mist smears my glasses. My increased body heat fogs up my glasses. The tall cliff is an excellent barrier between the well and the ill. Between life and death. Psychologically, the infirmed who lived there must have assumed that they have been banished to a no-man's land for the rest of their tortured lives.
After about two hours, I finally reach the bottom. The ocean is rough and unrelenting. The semi-annual ships that bring supplies oftentimes have to turn back due to the violent waves. Because I did not come with an official tour, I am not allowed to visit the compound. Rather, I find a bleacher on the outskirts of the colony and rest up before I head back up the cliff.

I am joined by random people who have also wandered down the cliff. One is an agriculture student from Iowa. The soil of Molokai is so fertile, researchers grow corn year round. Another is a Japanese tourist who has an admirable obsession for Father Damien, the Belgian priest who oversaw the leper colony. We all came here for our own reasons.

Patients still live here, voluntarily. I never got to meet them. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. For my sake and for their sake.

I climb back up the cliff in record time. For the next week, my legs and back are sore. I have no idea how lucky I am.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Verdict on Daniel Craig

Readers of this humble blog may remember that I recently ranked all the James Bond actors (with the exception of Lazenby because I thought it unfair to judge a man by one work alone). Ignoring my own rule, I ranked Daniel Craig fifth even before I saw Casino Royale. I am sorry and I was wrong.

Daniel Craig pulled off the impossible task of reviving the Bond franchise. Even though Brosnan's flicks were regularly pulling in gobs of money, the plots/gadgets/soul of the films were getting tired. Craig injected soul and humanity back into a series that was overly reliant on cheap puns ("cunning linguist"), expensive wardrobes/watches/cars, and formulaic storylines.

Craig and CR are incredibly enlightening and eye-opening in that I did not realize the sorry state of the franchise, as described in the last paragraph, until I watched the movie. It's like having Oreida frozen tater tots everyday and liking it, until one day you go to a nice French bistro and have the pommes frites. Yowsers! That's great shit! Alas, I can't believe I just compared Brosnan to frozen potatoes.

Three things about CR set it apart from all other Bond films, in a good way:
1. The lack of gadgets
2. Craig's rugged strongarm tactics
3. His below average looks

In Dr. No, we were introduced to Q and Q branch. Because CR preceded Dr. No chronologically, there were no gadgets. Rather than a liability, the lack of Q branch offerings added strength to the Bond character and the movie. No more relying on ridiculous props like Crocodile subs (Octopussy) or a beeping keychain (Living Daylights) to get out of jams. Craig had to use his wits, agility, and muscle instead. This added realism made fans admire the character more.

Along the same line, Craig is much more violent and uses his fists a lot more than his predecessors. Watching pretty boys like Moore and Brosnan punch evil henchmen elicited more chuckles than excitement. But in CR, Craig kicks the crap out of (and in turn has his ass kicked by) a number of men. Craig bleeds enough to keep a local blood bank in business for the next fiscal year. This realism sets it apart from the antiseptic world of Bond films past.

Though female fans may object, I think that Craig is not as handsome as prior Bonds (he is at least tied with the goofy looking Lazenby and the strange looking Dalton). However, I believe too much of Moore and Brosnan's character depended on the fact that they were good looking. That Craig can carry himself in a high falootin' casino with below average looks and an incompete knowledge of wines and spirits tells the audience that his character, self-confidence, and intelligence are strong enough to overcome his weaknesses.

I used the word "realism" in two of the three preceding paragraphs. Does that mean CR is a realistic film? Of course not. It is as steeped in fantasy as Moonraker. However, there are certainly enough realistic elements to make this a serious, deep, dark action film.

As I walked out of the movie, I panicked. Has someone finally replaced Roger Moore as my all-time favorite Bond actor? After much pondering, I've come to the conclusion that ranking actors is counterproductive and an impossible task. Each actor was perfect for his time. Connery exuded the confidence and cockiness of a sexist 1950s/early 60s world. Moore symbolized the frivolous, cheeky, don't-take-it-so-seriously attitude of the 70s and early 80s. Dalton represented a darker, confused era of AIDS and the drug epidemic. Finally, Brosnan personafied the iPod wielding, foodie metrosexual of the 90s and early 21st century.

In the end, the verdict on Craig is: The perfect Bond for the present.


Molokai, My Favorite Isle (Part 1)

As soon as I arrive at the airport, I know I'm in a Hawaii set in a time warp. In this paranoid, post-9/11 world, the airport has no security at all. No metal detectors or x-ray machines exist. An outdated, faded, and dog-eared cardboard sign ubsequiously reminds passengers to advise the crew if they are carrying firearms. The genial check-in staff behind the airline counter consist of the pilot and his rookie co-pilot. Family members walk with their loved ones to the tarmac to say good-bye.

I grab my backpack and head to the curb. Being the pennypincher, I opted for a local outfit to rent a car. A kind, tanned, portly, barefoot gentleman steps out of a non-descript minivan and heads straight for me. As a single, pale-skinned traveler with very "casual" attire (read: dressed like a bum), he must have known I was the guy who made a reservation with his rental car company.

I ride shotgun and we head for Kaunakakai. The entire island is devoid of traffic lights. In a residential neighborhood a few blocks from "downtown" is a single family home with about half a dozen late model compacts outside being washed by a couple of kids. This must be the rental car lot.

I step into the living room. A make shift office, complete with credit card machine, computer, black leather office chair, and an ashtray full of Marlboro Reds, welcomes me. After the transaction, I step into my five year old Escort with more dents than I cared to count. It ran like a top for my entire stay.

I check into Hotel Molokai. It is a collection of two-story tiki huts. A hotel designed (and never renovated) in the 1940s/50s. My room is dark and dingy. It would take a team of feng shui experts over a year to re-do the whole complex. The staff was kind enough to leave a Costco-sized can of bug spray in my bathroom.

After dropping off my bag in my room, I head out to Halawa Valley on the eastern edge of the island. Along the way, I am mesmerized by Maui to my right. I climb out of my Escort and climb onto a rock wall on the edge of the channel to snap some pictures. A man is there fishing with a net.
He tells me that the rock wall I am standing on is actually part of a fish pond built by the Hawaiians centuries ago. Dozens of these ponds dotted the southeastern quadrant of the island. He is slowly repairing them, one by one, and restoring them into working ponds. The one I am standing on is done. I focus my eyes on the milky water and see little fish everywhere. I am handed the net and urged to give it a try. I fail miserably. It's like watching an 80 year old trying to download music onto an iPod. We talk at length about the state of Hawaiian people and overdevelopment. He invites me back later to "talk story" with his friends and family.

I spend the rest of the day exploring the road between Kaunakakai and Halawa Valley. Rather than describing what I saw and experienced, I will remain silent. It's best to go there as I did, without a clue as to what to expect. You'll thank me for it.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Maui's Piilani Highway-- The other Highway to Hana

The Piilani is less traveled than even the Kahekili. It connects the Upcountry region to Hana in a counterclockwise direction. Because of horror stories about unpaved and washed out roads, I rented a little red Geo/Suzuki/Chevy four door SUV for the higher ground clearance. In good weather, this is completely unnecessary. On my last visit to Maui, I met a young couple who did the route unscathed in a Ford Focus.

To get to the Piilani, start off on Highway 37 east of Kahului. At first, it is the Haleakala Highway. The more upcountry you go, it becomes the Kula Highway. Don't forget to gas up at the Chevron in Kula next to Ching's store. The further you go, the less populated it gets. In Keokea, I always make sure to grab a cup of coffee from Grandma's Coffee House. The coffee, patrons, and staff all, without being cheesy, have the spirit of aloha. It's a good idea to grab some snacks for the long ride as well.

One of the last signs of civilization is Tedeschi Vineyards at Ulupalakua Ranch. It's more of a novelty than a real winery. The pineapple wine is interesting, to say the least. But hey, who am I to turn down a free tasting? From the winery, you are about 23 miles from Hana.

As you continue south, the road meanders and narrows. Along your right, you'll get great glimpses of the crescent shaped divers' magnet that is Molokini crater and the uninhabited (thanks to our U.S. Navy) isle of Kahoolawe. The local boys in their lifted import pick-up trucks are always in a hurry so let them pass.

Suddenly, you enter the Piilani Highway. The verdant green pastures turn into a dry, desolate, no man's land. Lava flowed here in 1790. The two lane road is freshly paved but squiggly as hell. The sudden changes in elevation make it a true roller coaster ride.

Eventually, the nice pavement peters out. The gravel road is not that bad. You'll get a kick out of the scenery and isolation. Just an hour or two away, hoardes of tourists are packed like sardines in whale watching boats, buying bottled water at ABC stores, or elbowing for a spot at Oheo Gulch.

Just as you are about to forget the hustle and bustle of overdeveloped Maui, you'll hit Kaupo, the only population center of note along the route. There's a smattering of people who live here. My guess is less than a dozen, but I'm no census worker. The Kaupo General Store has some pretty random hours so consider yourself lucky if it's open when you pass by.

Once past Kaupo, you are almost at the end of your journey. However, this is where the road condition gets interesting. A five mile stretch between Kaupo and Kipahulu may jar loose a few of your fillings. But hey, you're on an adventure.

As a person who enjoys driving for the sheer joy of driving, this is a perfect drive. I really didn't get out of my ute much. Instead, my mother rode shotgun with me and we got to enjoy the scenery and talk about life. It was a really great little trip.

We capped off the day (although we had to spend the rest of the day taking the Hana Highway from Hana back to West Maui) with lunch at Hotel Hana-Maui. After the rural, gravelly trek, it was nice to kick back at a posh hotel, chill on the lanai, and sip iced tea. The seared ahi tuna, with its complex flavors and textures, was a marked contrast to the simple, unadulterated journey on an almost anonymous road named after a 14th century chieftain from Hana.