Category Archives: Drive Me Crazy

The 1973 Plymouth Fury III: An Unappreciation

A 1973 Plymouth Fury III was my family’s only car when I was a teenager, and consequently was the first car I drove an appreciable amount. The Glasser Family’s Fury III was a four-door sedan — brown with an off-white vinyl top — that my parents purchased new off the showroom floor. It replaced a 1965 Fury III that had served our family well, which in turn had replaced another Plymouth. The nine-year-old car nut version of me accompanied my father to the Plymouth dealer in Brooklyn to check it out in person before my parents purchased it.

Our ’73 was a lemon from the day we bought it; on the evening my father drove it home from the dealership, it stalled out in the parking lot of the Fairfield Towers apartment building that was then our home. Somehow my parents kept it running for ten years and 135,000 miles, through two oil crises, my father’s daily commutes through Brooklyn and Queens, and numerous road trips to New England. Indeed, the only bumper sticker that ever adorned this car was a green and white one reading, “I L♥VERMONT.” For a family with three growing kids, it was, if nothing else, the right size car.

When I turned seventeen and started driver’s ed, this was the car I used to practice and to take my driving tests (failed the first, passed the second). The only “fury” this car ever exercised was upon its driver: Immense and heavy, with loose steering, it was a chore to drive and even more of a chore to parallel park in New York City. Starting the car when its engine was cold required a delicate dance between the ignition key and the gas pedal. The 1970’s-era design touches that I appreciate now, such as its olive-shaped taillights and the turn signal indicators mounted outside the car atop the front fenders, held little appeal for a struggling teenage driver who sole goal was to get his license.

It was also the last American-branded car my parents ever bought. In 1983, with their kids through high school and out of the house, they replaced the Fury with a first generation Toyota Camry. My father’s battles with the ’73 were enough to overcome his World War II veteran’s resistance to buying a Japanese car, and he and my mother never looked back. The Fury was dispatched to its second owner for next to nothing.

Given their massive size and notoriously poor quality, I’m not surprised that 45 years later, few running examples of the ’73 Fury still exist. It’s not the kind of car you’ll find in a museum or selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a collector auction. Purchasing one like this example now for sale on eBay would make sense only if I wanted to burn thousands of dollars and get well-acquainted with my local tow truck operators. And become — and remain — single. Still, the pull of nostalgia for one’s youth is powerful, and my mind wonders what it would be like to drive one again.

Car Ads, 2016

The latest in my continuing series of posts on television commercials for cars that catch my attention (the commercials, not the cars).

Cadillac’s marketing team must continue to believe that the effectiveness of their ads for the Escalade is directly correlated to the utter selfishness portrayed by its drivers in those ads. In their latest one, The Herd, the message seems to be, “Because I drive an Escalade, it’s OK for me to drive the wrong way down the middle of a one-way street and force every other driver to swerve to avoid me.”

Or, to put more succinctly: “I’m an Escalade driver. I don’t give a crap about anybody else.” This is indeed consistent with my personal experience with Escalade drivers.

On the positive side, I’ve discovered a car ad that I enjoy watching even after numerous viewings: Nissan’s Family Visit. It’s clever, well-choreographed, and has a great backing track. And Mariette Hartley nails the punchline.

Moving America to the Right

State Law: All Vehicles Keep Right Except To Pass

While there are many issues on which Americans are divided, there is one on which we passionately agree: Drivers who clog up the left lanes of our highways are a menace to society.

The most glaring examples of this are drivers who hang out  in the left lane without any vehicles in front of them. I have heard more than one person explain this behavior thusly: “My taxes pay for these roads, so I’ll drive wherever the hell I please.” As the people who use this justification typically have a chronological age that is followed by the phrase “years young,” they should be reminded that their taxes also pay for Medicare and that their fellow drivers are wishing upon them an occasion to use that too.

The bigger and more insidious problem, however, is drivers who drive in the left lane at speeds just barely faster than the vehicles in the lane next to them. They can claim that they are passing, but their behavior creates a line of cars stuck behind them. Each of those left-lane-clogging drivers can claim that they are going as fast as the car(s) in front of them and that they would speed up if only those drivers would just get out of their damn way. Guess what, folks? You’re all part of the problem.

I witnessed this behavior last week when I traveled round-trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, which consisted mostly of driving on I-5. Despite the repeated presence of signs reading “Keep Right Except to Pass” (Washington) and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” (Oregon), there were frequently long lines of cars moseying along in the left lane, at or just above the speed of the adjacent lane. In areas where the highway was three lanes wide, it was at times possible to drive faster in the right lane than in either the left or middle lanes. (Not that I would ever suggest doing something as reckless and illegal as passing on the right.)

This problem seems more pronounced here in the Pacific Northwest. In less passive-aggressive parts of the country, drivers will flash their high-beams or honk to get the other driver’s attention, but the typical PNW driver will just quietly tailgate the car in front of them, hoping that they’ll notice and move out of the way. A tip to those people: If the driver of the car in front of you is too clueless to realize that they’re needlessly hogging the passing lane, they’re probably not checking their rear-view mirror either.

I tried to model good Autobahn-style behavior – staying to the right, except when actively overtaking another vehicle – but due to the left-lane clogging, this frequently caused me to fall behind the flow of traffic. And it definitely involved a lot more lane changing that just hanging out in the left lane with the other cars and very gradually overtaking the semis that populated the right lane.

Mind you, it is already against the law in Washington State to “to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.” While there are occasionally efforts to enforce this, it is quite understandably not a priority for law enforcement. An attempt this year to enact more stringent penalties failed; I’m not the only one who noted the irony that the bill’s co-sponsors are small-government conservatives who would normally be opposed to this sort of superfluous regulation if their jobs didn’t involve a long commute to Olympia.

As I drove, I thought to myself, “What would Daniel Pink do?” For those of you who haven’t read his books or articles or watched the show Crowd Control, Pink studies human behavior and in particular how to motivate people. He has creatively addressed a number of situations where people behave selfishly or illegally and where relying on official law enforcement is not a scalable way to deter the offending behavior. For example, this Lawbreakers video addresses people who illegally park in disabled parking spaces.

Inspired by Pink’s work, I offer this proposal: Treat the passing lane as the limited-supply resource that it is. Install toll pass readers at regular, short intervals (say, once every half-mile) and charge people a small toll for driving in this lane. Not enough to be expensive, but enough to make people think twice about remaining in the left lane longer than necessary. We can experiment with various rates to see what is the lowest amount you can charge and keep the left lane clear; perhaps it would take five cents a mile, or perhaps it can be accomplished for as little as one or two cents a mile. We’d want to ensure that the generated revenue covers the capital and operational costs of the tolling system, but what we don’t already know from the numerous existing systems in place can be determined via experimentation. This proposal won’t eliminate people cruising along in the left lane, but it will make people think more carefully about doing it. If some of them still consciously choose to camp out in the left lane, they’re literally paying for the privilege, and we’re no worse off than we are today.

You’re probably thinking of various cases in which this toll would be unfair, but I’m confident that they could be addressed. What happens if there’s a traffic jam and people are forced into the left lane just to get around it? Charge the toll only if the vehicle is driving above a certain minimum speed; let’s say 45 MPH, though again, we can refine this through experimentation. What about left lane exits, or areas where the left lane is the only through lane? Those areas would clearly be excluded from the collection zones. In fact, I would make the stronger statement that this system would be impractical in urban areas, and if you exclude those, you probably eliminate virtually all places where there are left lane exits. What about construction zones where the left lane is temporarily the only lane available? Disable the toll readers in the construction zone while the construction is in progress. Won’t this encourage people to make unsafe lane changes out of the left lane to avoid triggering an upcoming toll reader? Theoretically it could, but if someone is willing to put their own life at risk to save one or two pennies, we probably don’t want them driving on our highways. (And before you ask your next question, the answer is, “Yes, I have driven in New York City and Boston.”)

There is also the broader issue of driver privacy. Do we really want the government tracking our location and speed as we cruise along our network of interstates? What’s to prevent the government from infringing on our privacy and freedom of movement? I agree that the government should not be in the business of collecting this information; we should leave it where it is today, in the trustworthy and capable hands of Google, State Farm, and your wireless carrier. But seriously, this issue exists today with automated toll collection systems, so whatever safeguards we develop for those can be applied here.

By encouraging our fellow drivers to be more intentional about their use of the left lane, we can keep it more freely available for its intended purpose: As an active passing lane.

Car Ads, 2015, Part II: Your Grandparents French Kissing

General Motors is at it again. Last night I saw Chevrolet’s First Impressions ad:

The second half of the ad features “real people” — thirty-somethings and older, by my estimation — using the phrases “I could totally rock this”, “this thing feels pretty boss”, “it looks kinda dope”, and “this is the jam” to describe the vehicles. I don’t know what effect GM’s marketing team is going for, but the result is like seeing your grandparents French kissing in public: They think it makes them look young and vibrant, but their intended audience thinks it’s pathetic and kind of nauseating.

Car Ads, 2015

When you watch a lot of football on TV, you see a lot of car advertisements. Most are instantly forgettable but a few stand out.

General Motors seems to think that we’re still living in the 1960’s. Perhaps it’s a temporary contact high from cheap gasoline. Exhibit One: In Theme Song, Chevrolet tells us that it’s cool to replace your small, fuel-efficient car with a midsize pickup, even if you’re a young, single guy.

In Evolution of Luxury, Cadillac reinforces the stereotype that the Escalade is for the aspiring Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. major d-bag) crowd. This is totally unsurprising to anyone who has driven or especially parked near one of these behemoths.

At least the Escalade makes a plausible claim to being a car for the privileged few. I take pity on the poor junior associates who drew the short straw to create Nissan’s ironically-named Feel Like Royalty ad, which attempts to convince us that one of the blandest-looking family sedans out there is literally turning heads. Or maybe we’re supposed to imagine that the Nissan is the photo chase car for a new Lamborghini.

[Updated 25-Jun-2015: Replaced broken YouTube link.]

My first new car

It was twenty years ago today:  When I bought my first new car, that is.  At the time I was driving a beat-up Datsun B210 that I’d purchased 2 1/2 years earlier for $650, so with some savings in the bank I was able to afford something new.

I looked at a bunch of compact four-door sedans in the $15,000 range, like the VW Jetta and the Mazda 626, before settling on the Acura Integra.  I opted for the "high-end" GS model to get anti-lock brakes.  Acuras didn’t have a lot of factory options at the time (nor do they now) and the main dealer-installed option I added was air conditioning.  I also got my first real taste of the new car purchasing experience, which predictably wasn’t fun.

One of the creature comforts that this car lacked was map lights, which were introduced in the following year’s model (along with the Acura logo).  A friend who test drove my car and ended up buying a 1991 Integra reminded me about the lack of map lights for years.  I had another friend who bought nearly the identical car a few months after I did, down to the color — the only differences were that she opted for a sunroof instead of AC and had a different color dealer-added body stripe — and was afraid I’d be upset with her for copying me.

I drove the car for seven years before replacing it, at which point I shipped it to my sister, who used it for the rest of its natural life.  (The above pictures were taken from the shipping company’s lot in 1997.) The car I replaced it with and the car I replaced that one with both arrived in March, so there must be something about me and buying new cars at the onset of spring.

What Are Those Things Sticking Out of My Car’s Front Doors?

It’s not clear to me that most drivers use their car’s side mirrors.  What is clear is that those who do often don’t have their mirrors adjusted properly.  The notion seems to be that you need to be able to see the sides of your car in your side mirrors to ensure that you can see what’s alongside it.

The point was well made last year in the New York Times in Are Blind Spots a Myth?  People are now spending over $1000 to purchase an option to accomplish something that can be just as easily achieved but adjusting their damn mirrors properly.

More recently Car and Driver covered the subject, complete with helpful illustrations (left).  Like last year’s New York Times piece, it refers to a paper published by the Society of Automotive Engineers back in 1995.  The technique is to adjust “the mirrors so far outward that the viewing angle of the side mirrors just overlaps that of the cabin’s rearview mirror.”  In other words, you get a lot more benefit from your side mirrors when they don’t show you the same thing that your rearview mirror shows.

I don’t know what they teach in driver’s ed these days but when I took it, this was not something that was taught.  We were taught that large blind spots are inevitable and the only way to avoid them is to turn your head at least 90 degrees before changing lanes.  Admittedly, this lesson may have been a throwback to the days when many cars did not come with right-side mirrors.  Oh, yes, and I did take driver’s ed in Manhattan.

Years later I learned about proper mirror adjustment on my own, though when I took advanced driver training through BMW CCA PSR, I observed it taught in practice for the first time.  As the instructor put it, “You know what the side of your car looks like, so why do you need to see it in your mirrors?”

Two Recent Examples of Why Ezra Dyer is the best young automotive writer today

From the New York Times review of the Nissan Cube, May 31, 2009:

The Cube is cheerfully bizarre, and I appreciate that. It’s not a riot to drive, but in this case, the driving experience is really beside the point. The kids don’t care about that noise, pops. They want connectivity. They want a car that’s a rolling Tweet about a new iPhone app from the Jonas Brothers.

I, however, want a car that doesn’t look like a myopic washing machine, but I’m a lame old guy of 31 who remembers listening to CDs and saying things like, “My modem is taking forever to load this order.”

From Automobile Magazine’s Dyer Consequences column “The Kings of One-Upmanship: All-Stars of A Different Breed”, July 2009:

There are actually a lot of cars on the market whose sole reason for existence is to one-up some lesser model.  Porsche is the undisputed master of the craft, offering no fewer than fourteen variations on the 911.  Basically, 911 owners can never be satisfied until they have a GT2, at which point they will finally experience a feeling of fulfillment that lasts for the few minutes before they crash backward into a tree at 204 MPH.

Crossing the 5/50,000 Threshold

As of yesterday, my family’s cars all are at least five years old and have at least 50,000 miles on them.  I’ve been paying close attention to this because until a couple of months ago, I had two cars that were in a race to hit this first:  One was approaching five years of age and had well over 50,000 miles, and the other was well over five years of age but approaching 50,000 miles.  As it turns out, time won out over distance; the younger, higher mileage car hit five years at the end of November but the older, lower mileage (and not snow-worthy) car didn’t cross 50,000 miles until last night.

This is mostly an opportunity to express self-satisfied virtue, as I feel better about having a garage of well-used cars.  I grew up in a family where we never had more than one car at a time and it was expected that you’d keep each car for at least 100,000 miles, a threshold I have yet to achieve as an adult.  I went through a period a number of years ago where we bought multiple vehicles over a relatively short span of time to address family “needs” and it’s nice to know that’s well in the past.  As much as I like car shopping and new-car smell, I’ve never enjoyed the process of stepping into a dealership and contemplating or executing an actual purchase.

At least for now I’m hopeful that this situation continues, as all of our vehicles are in relatively good condition and there are no cars on the market that I consider significantly better suited to our needs.  That said, I feel slightly unpatriotic for not going out and buying a new car just to help get the economy moving again.  If only the Escalade Hybrid had tail fins…

Driving a Three-Seater

A couple of months ago, the lever on my car’s front passenger seat that enables it to tip forward and give access to the rear seat stopped working.  After being told (incorrectly) that the seat frame was broken and that it would cost thousands of dollars to replace, I took the car to Eastside Bavarian.  They reported that a small rivet was broken and could be replaced relatively inexpensively – there’s no such thing as an inexpensive part on this car – albeit with significant labor costs due to the need to disassemble and reassemble the seat to perform the repair.

Because they had removed the seat from the car in order to work on it and we needed to wait for replacement parts to arrive in order to complete the repair, they asked if I’d be willing to drive the car with the front passenger seat removed.  I’d give up one person’s worth of seating capacity and have to ignore the airbag warning light, but I’d save the cost of reassembling and reinstalling the seat (and the cost of disassembling and removing it a second time once the parts arrived).  Sure, I said.

So for a couple of weeks I drove a three-seat automobile.  Sadly, it didn’t acquire the performance characteristics of the world’s most famous three-seat sports car (top left), though losing 80 pounds of curb weight didn’t hurt.  And the decision turned to be prescient because it was surprisingly difficult to locate the replacement part, complicated by the fact that the part does not have its own separate part number.  Twice BMW has shipped the part to Eastside Bavarian, only for them to discover that it’s the part for the driver seat, not the front passenger seat.  Eventually they concluded that the necessary part could not be located in the United States and there was no way to directly contact the people in Germany who would be able to supply it.  Their recourse was to repair the original part.

I ended up enjoying driving without the front passenger seat.  It made rear-seat access far easier and provided legroom for one passenger superior to anything smaller than a stretch limo.  I’m happy now that the seat is finally repaired but I had mixed feelings about putting it back in.

[Updated 25-June-2015: Reduced image size for improved viewing.]