Archive for March, 2007

First Latina to Run the Indy 500

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

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Recently I wrote a story about women in motorsports; more specifically it was about attractive women in motorsports. Today, it was announced that one of those women is heading to the Indy 500 for the first time. Milka Duno, the first woman in history to win a major international sportscar race in North America, announced that she will be competing in the 2007 IndyCar Series with SAMAX Motorsport and Citgo Racing. This means she will become the first Latina to compete in the famed Indianapolis 500, which is part of the ‘07 schedule.

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Duno, who is a Florida native, has been extremely successful on the track running in the Rolex Grand Am series where she scored three wins, seven podium appearances, 10 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 finishes since her 2004 rookie season. Just this year she finished second at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona giving her the record for the highest finish ever by a female driver in the 45-year history of the race.

While the jump to open wheel racing won’t be simple, Duno has high hopes that her new team’s experience will help to smooth the transition. SAMAX Motorsport’s IndyCar crew members have a fair amount of first hand IndyCar know-how. Team manager John Cummiskey has three Indy 500 wins under his belt and was involved in a second place effort with lead engineer Steve Challis in 2002.

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It will be interesting to see how she progresses in the series, especially competing against so many other budding stars.

-Bill Mertz

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ZAP Reveals Sketches For Its Electric Crossover SUV

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

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Usually when I read the words “crossover” or “SUV” in a press release there is a good chance that I won’t be reading to the end. But something has me excited about ZAP’s new electric crossover SUV concept, the ZAP-X. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they partnered up with Lotus on the design or if it’s the fact that the sketches make the ZAP-X look much more like a wagon than an SUV. Either way, the new concept is undeniably cool and extremely forward thinking.

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ZAP’s electric Xebra sedan

ZAP is perhaps best known for making tiny electric “city cars” such as the Zebra that are efficient, easy to park and maneuver and just fast enough to get around the city in. Fairly recently they announced that they were working on a high-performance crossover SUV electric car concept called ZAP-X in conjunction with Lotus Engineering. The small wagon/SUV design will contain in hub electric motors that give the car all wheel drive and can provide up to 644 horsepower with a top speed in the area of 155 mph. The performance advantage of electric motors over internal combustion is that they can develop full torque at 0 rpm, meaning the ZAP-X should also be a rocket off the line. Using a lightweight aluminum chassis and components matched with a highly advanced battery system, engineers hope that the ZAP-X will be able to attain a range of 350 miles with a recharging time of only 10 minutes.

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CEO Steve Schneider is extremely enthusiastic about the project, “we believe that the ZAP-X will become the most advanced, most practical and most appealing flagship electric vehicle to date and will revolutionize the industry providing the driver with the enjoyment of a sports car and the practicality of an SUV.” If the sketches and on paper stats are any indication, I would say Steve has a good point.

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No word as to when this vehicle will be a running prototype but it’s good to know that people are still designing and building cool vehicles that can be fast, efficient and environmentally friendly.

For more info on ZAP check out their website: http://www.zapworld.com

Also check out this interview with Steve Schneider in Popular Science: Interview

-Bill Mertz

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A Practical Flying Car: Can It Be Done?

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

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The idea of building a car that can fly is not a new one (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). In fact it has been done many times before. However the out come is usually some bulky inefficient creation that is equally horrible at flying and driving. The flying Pinto, which crashed on its maiden voyage, comes to mind. However, if you could make a flying car that flies well, drives well, doesn’t slurp fuel at an alarming rate and is affordable, then you would have something amazing on your hands.

John Bakker, a Dutch visionary and entrepreneur thinks he has created that perfect flying vehicle. Working in conjunction with groups like the Dutch Aerospace Laboratory, Bakker has spent years developing his flying car concept which he calls the PAL-V (Personal Air Land Vehicle). Realistically the PAL-V is years from coming to market, but Bakker has high hopes that when it does it will revolutionize transportation, providing safe and fast transit through countries with underdeveloped infrastructure and helping with problems like traffic congestion in overly developed countries.

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Utilizing the space between the ground and the 4000 foot floor for commercial air space the PAL-V will be able to fly at low altitude, which according to Bakker is the last unclaimed space. When on the ground the sleek three wheeled vehicle is said to be as comfortable as a luxury car and as nimble as a motorcycle, thanks in part to a unique system which allows the PAL-V to lean over as it turns. With the propeller neatly folded and hidden away it isn’t bulky like flying cars of the past. And with power coming from a highly efficient environmentally certified car engine the PAL-V has the potential to be both economic and green friendly. The motor can uses multiple fuels including standard petrol, bio-diesel and bio-ethanol.

Bakker is currently in the process of building the first working prototype to demonstrate that the technology is safe, affordable, and just feasible. He is looking for additional investors to speed the PAL-V’s march to production. Any takers?

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I really like this concept, except that when I imagine a world full of affordable flying cars I can’t help but think of how many people are terrible drivers and still take to the roads. Imagine the damage that those same people could do in flying cars. What a nightmare. No doubt there will be numerous government regulations and a strict licensing process before you could legally own and fly one of these things, which would help calm some of my fears. But it seems like road rage and stupid driving would be much worse in the skies.

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In America it’s Chitty Chitty Bling Bling, out here it’s Chitty Chitty Bling Bang!

-Bill Mertz

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Pontiac Solstice GXP: Can Turbo Boost Make the Solstice a Winner?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

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This weekend I had the opportunity to drive Pontiac’s beefed up Solstice, the GXP. To give a little background, I’ve previously drove the regular Solstice when it first came out as well as the Saturn Sky, which shares a platform and drive train with the Solstice. The normal Solstice was a pretty terrible car for numerous reasons. The Sky, while a drastic improvement over the Solstice, still didn’t ignite a fire inside me. So when I buckled into the new turbo charged Solstice GXP I had pretty low expectations, which turned out to be a good thing.

As the old saying goes, I’ve got some good news and some bad news, so let me start out with the good. One of the major flaws with the naturally aspirated Solstice is under the hood. While the jumbo 2.4 liter Ecotec four cylinder puts out over 170 horsepower, it is buzzy, unpleasant to rev and at times feels like a truck motor. The GXP is a vast improvement in this area. The 2.0 liter turbocharged four banger puts out an impressive 260 horsepower and delivers in a smooth, flexible and most importantly fun manner. It has a broad power band with turbo boost kicking in pretty high in the rev range for some good old pin you to your seat acceleration. But the GXP also packs plenty of low end torque to pull the car briskly out of up hill corners. My biggest complaint with the engine would have to be the noisy blow off valve that seems to operate even when the digital boost gauge reads 0 psi.

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Possibly the best part of the GXP is the turbocharged power plant.

The cars handling characteristics are also a leap ahead of the regular Solstice that I drove awhile back. Taking a page from the Saturn Sky’s revalved shocks, the Solstice GXP absorbs bumps in a much less jarring manner but still manages to feel sporty and keep the tires planted on the ground. Although the car feels a bit chunky on the suspension at times, it can be driven quickly down a back road without difficulty. The rubbery/numb steering feel and the dialed in under-steer are the car’s biggest handling draw backs.

The last plus I will give to the Solstice is its external styling with the top down. The Solstice, Sky and Solstice GXP are all good looking cars. They have some great lines that are unique in the current car market, and I think the average Joe would have to call the car attractive. With the top down the rear head rest fairings actually look sporty, not cheesy, and the smooth, rounded front end of the Solstice has a distinct vintage car flavour. With the top up the car looses a lot of its aesthetic appeal, but since it is a rag top designed to be driven with the roof folded away and hidden underneath the rear skin, I’ll chalk it up to “no one looks great first thing in the morning”.

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Now for the bad. When the Solstice first came out its ergonomics and interior design were horrible. The cockpit was cramped, despite the cars bulbous size, with little room (even by little car standards) for storage. Things like rolling up windows and using the parking brake became awkward Yoga exercises using motions that you never knew you could do before. Cup holders interfered with elbows, windows couldn’t be rolled down unless you reached across your body with the inside hand, and storage compartments were scarce and uncomfortable to use. I’m sorry to say that the GXP is more of the same. A tacky interior with cheap materials in a poorly designed layout makes the Solstice GXP downright unpleasant to drive daily. The trunk holds next to nothing, which actually doesn’t bother me so much in a two seat roadster, but the fact that the trunk is sharing room with the top is annoying at times. With the top up, you have to disconnect and reconnect the top when opening and closing the trunk. With the top down you have to lift the top a bit if you plan on stowing anything larger than a juice box back there.

What really disappoints on the Pontiac are all the little things that don’t work right. The fuel gauge sometimes comes up tot he quarter tank mark, then goes up a bit more a few minutes later, but some times it will hover in the same place. When you pop the trunk to fold out the top (which is a several step process) the rear struts don’t hold the deck lid up like they are supposed to, meaning you have to hold it yourself and unfurl the top, and this is a new car. And speaking of the top, right out of the box it doesn’t fit or lineup well and when it is up the wind noise is pretty intense. One of the best and most poignant moments was when a fellow writer went to story his hooded sweatshirt in the trunk of the car. With the top down he popped the trunk with the remote key fob and the trunk lid strained to open due to its lack luster gas struts. After stuffing his sweatshirt under the top in the back he tried to close the trunk, but it was interfering with the top, so he slammed it a bit, which succeeded in closing the trunk, but set off the car alarm. It is these small details that really kill the GXP. It really makes you wonder why you would choose this car over the other two seat competitors who seemed to have worked these little bugs out.


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While I would never buy one of these cars, I did have a decent time driving GXP on the local back roads. With the sun out and the top down the powerful roadster was definitely fun. But when compared to other cars in its class it simply comes up short. Too little too late.

-Bill Mertz

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Barrett Jackson Lawsuit

Monday, March 19th, 2007

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I just read a press release regarding anti-defamation suit from the famous classic car auction company Barrett-Jackson. The lawsuit, which was filed on March 15th in a U.S. District Court, was entered in response to a disgruntled consignor who was unhappy with some facet of the auction process or the result of the auction itself. According the release, “the consignor, apparently unhappy with the $300,000 sale price of his vehicle, placed chains and locks on the vehicle after it crossed the auction block and was sold, while it sat in the area where featured auction cars were displayed”.

The press release which was issued by Barrett-Jackson continues, “he posted multiple notices on the vehicle claiming that the sale was void due to claimed ‘auction irregularities,’ and published other false and defamatory statements about Barrett-Jackson in view of the company’s customers and the thousands of patrons attending the event”. Apparently the consignor was upset enough to launch an online smear campaign against Barrett-Jackson with “numerous defamatory rumors and untrue statements being published to websites and online chat rooms viewed by the company’s core customer base”. The press release refers to one particular “untrue, derogatory and defamatory ‘article’” which was published on more than 20 “automotive-related online ‘blogs’ and discussion boards frequented by thousands of classic car enthusiasts around the world”.

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As an automotive blogger I know first hand that there is a definite lack of quality control when it comes to online gossip. However, I’m hesitant to jump in the Barrett-Jackson corner for two reasons. The first is that I have worked in classic car consignment and it is a shady business full of misdirection, deception and occasionally out right lies. Even if Barrett-Jackson is massive company with a long standing reputation, they are still part of that line of work (just like not trusting politicians).

Secondly, Sports Car Market’s own Keith Martin was recently tossed out of a Barrett-Jackson event for supposedly talking bad about the company for pushing the prices of muscle cars up and recommending rival auctions amongst other things. He may have deserved to get tossed even know he denies the actions, but I know people who know Keith, and while he does have a bit of mouth on him, he is a pretty straight talker and tends to tell it like it is. I trust his word more than the Barrett-Jackson, and think that throwing a journalist and auction specialist out of your auction because he is a being critical is a bit fascist.

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That being said I will keep an open mind and reserve judgment on this particular news item until I hear the out come of the case (years from now no doubt).

Copies of the lawsuit can be obtained by contacting the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Phoenix or at: http://www.azd.uscourts.gov/.
-Bill Mertz

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AB 616: California Smog Bill

Friday, March 16th, 2007

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Recently it came to my attention through my extensive “car guy” connections that there is a bill running through the California legislature that might impact the automotive community. A.B. 616 was introduced in the California Assembly by Assemblyman Dave Jones. Part of the proposed bill would require annual smog check inspections for vehicles 15-years old and older. It would also require that funds generated through the additional inspection fees be deposited into an account which can be used to scrap older cars. Cars built before 1976 would still remain exempt from smog checks, and presumably cars newer than 15 years old would only need them every couple of years as is the law today. The bill has been referred to the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Click for full text of the Assembly Bill as it was introduced:
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I haven’t had time to analyze the wording of this Bill too much; however a politically minded vintage car enthusiast that I know sent an interesting response to one of the email lists I subscribe to. He shall remain nameless to protect his identity but this is what he had to say about AB 616:

Hello.
As a California citizen and auto enthusiast, I am concerned about your
support of AB 616. I think that the current smog laws do not take many environmental
concerns into account and AB 616 is a great example of this. Between 60% and 80% of the pollution an automobile will ever make in its operational lifetime is created in the manufacturing process, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. It is therefore preferable from an
environmental point of view to keep the old cars on the road rather than manufacturing new ones, as the environmental impact of the older vehicles has already been absorbed by the planet.
If you do a bit of research on the manufacture of the batteries for Toyota hybrids, you will find an area of Canada that looks like the surface of the moon because of the plant that makes the batteries. Moving pollution around so that no one notices is not a good solution to the problem.
Other possible solutions might include: simplifying the process of smog checks to look at tail pipe emissions only, which would take some of the financial burden off of the consumer, reduce the temptation to ‘cheat’, and possibly allow for some innovations that may further reduce pollution; having the state pay for engine rebuilds/swaps and tune ups for cars over a certain age, which would cost about the same as enforcing the current program but would create jobs (and tax revenue from those jobs) and foster a cooperative rather than antagonistic relationship between consumers and the state, and probably be far more effective environmentally; sponsor a bill that creates a really good public transportation system state wide in order to reduce reliance on personal motor vehicles, which would again create jobs
and reduce pollution; propose a law that taxes vehicles based on their fuel consumption in order to encourage fuel efficiency to be a factor on the purchase of new vehicles.

Further, the current laws look as though they were dreamed up by auto manufacturers in order to encourage consumption rather than environmentalism. The entire burden of payment is brought upon the consumers in the form of smog check fees, taxes, fuel additive costs and new vehicle costs. The role of the state is like a thug/enforcer that deems a car undriveable and sends the consumer to the car dealer to get another, assessing taxes the entire way… By supporting new car sales over proper maintenance, we are in effect supporting the destruction of the environment in Mexico and Canada (see NAFTA, just the parts that benefit corporations as that seems to be the only part we are interested in enforcing), the erosion of the American workforce and economy and by extension health care and other social services.

Do something meaningful about the environment. AB 616 is not it. Buying new cars is not it. Enforcing all of NAFTA would be a start. Taking practical steps to work with consumers in order to reduce pollution would be another positive step. More frequent smog checks and crushing more cars makes about as much sense as testing kids in school every year to see if
they meet some imaginary benchmark of performance and then fining the schools if they don’t make the grade…Oh wait, I forgot that we are doing that…

Public service means a lot. I hope that you and your fellow public servants are up to the full implications of that task. We do not need any more band aid solutions to our problems. We as a society need real solutions that look at causality that may not be simple or obvious, and
solve the systemic problems we have instead of the symptoms that are so easy to get on a soap box about. Band aids are for crisis symptoms, real work prevents crisis from occurring.
Thank you for your time.

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While I don’t agree totally agree with what he says, he makes many valid points. One thing that is a bit deceptive is the pollution statistic. I’m sure that the total pollution from a car manufactured now is less than it was 25 years ago, so the 60-80% from production might also be significantly less (as well as tail pipe pollution). However, I do agree that this is a Band Aid fix, and doesn’t deal with the core of the problem. The car hobbyist lobby has proven powerful in defeating this type of bill in the past; it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Bill Mertz

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Loose Association of Lambretta Owners

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

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50+ Lambrettas

This weekend was the 3rd Annual all Lambretta ride here in the Bay Area. Local Lambretta enthusiast and guru John Quintos created the ride as way for Lambretta owners to get together to share their love for Lambrettas, exchange information, ideas, tuning tips, and just to meet each other. Instead of creating an exclusive club, like many marque-specific groups do, Quintos wanted to keep it really informal, that’s why he calls it the LALO-Loose Association of Lambretta Owners-ride. It’s really not a club at all, it’s just a group of people who meet up every once in awhile to ride their Lambrettas and hang out, no more no less.

As is the case with most events I had a fair amount of prep to do to my Lambretta before I could ride it. The scooter needed a new clutch, some sort of custom air filter for the bigger aftermarket carburetor I am running, and an uprated rear shock/spring so I could ride two-up (my girlfriend on the back). Once I got the clutch parts it was a relatively straight forward job, but the air cleaner and shock required a little fabrication. For the air cleaner I took an old Weiand air filter that used to be on my MGB and modified it so that it could clamp onto my scooter’s carb. I really like this setup because it provides plenty of air flow but has a nice vintage look (since it came off of a 60’s British car).

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R1 shock conversion, installed on the scoot

For the shock I decide to try out a conversion that has been gaining popularity in the Lambretta community. Step one is to get a remote reservoir rear shock from a Yamaha R1 or R6 sport bike. Because the spring in this unit is setup for the much heavier bike you need to order and fit a lower ratio spring. I went with a 215 lb spring of the same height and size as the stock Yamaha spring (which is closer to 500 lbs). There is also the matter of having custom bushings made to fit the Lambretta’s shock mount. Being the cheap guy that I am, I also decide to make a spring compressor instead of buying one. I used an old car scissor jack, cut it up into pieces and welded it back together so that it could compress the new Lambretta spring and let me put it onto the new shock. Making the compressor ended up being the most time consuming part, but now I have a custom tool that works great for the job.

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Vintage Weiand air cleaner from my MGB

With the new shock fitted, a new air cleaner attached and a new clutch installed (the night before the ride no less), we assembled a group of five scooters over in the east bay, loaded them into pickups and trucked across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The ride started on the water front where over 50 Lambretta’s gathered at the beginning. In a massive cloud of two-stroke smoke we raced all over the city, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and rode through the headlands than back into the city to the final destination, the bar/club at 330 Ritch. After a beautiful ride with some amazing weather, and no break downs for me, we kicked back and enjoyed free pizza and a few beers.

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After putting a lot of labor into my scooter I was happy that the bike performed flawlessly. The new shock worked great, especially with two people on board, and the clutch didn’t complain at all. Lambretta owners are a fine bunch of people, and riding around San Francisco with them on 50 vintage Italian scooters in gorgeous weather was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here are some more pics from the ride:
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-Bill Mertz

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New Deronda Sports Car Coming to the States

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

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My first thought when seeing the Deronda sports car was that it looked like a mid-engine modern day Lotus Seven. In fact that description really isn’t a bad one. The car is a bare bones lightweight design, with a small but powerful four cylinder engine giving it excellent power to weight, advanced four wheel independent suspension, and looks that are more about function than style.

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This week the Deronda is making its US debut in Sebring, Florida. Coming from across the pond in England the Deronda is being produced and sold in the US by Autosport Development in Trenton, Michigan. The company will only be assembling a limited number of these road legal race cars with a price of around $70,000.

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The make up of the Deronda is quite impressive. A steel tubular space frame is at the center of it all with double side impact bars, a front crash structure and rear crash bars. For safety the car has double longitudinally braced rollover hoops, a foam filled gas tank, an external master cutoff switch, and an onboard fire suppression system. Suspension duties are handled by a double wishbone suspension that sports fully adjustable Ohlin springs and dampers. Power for the car comes from an Audi sourced 1.8 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine that delivers 250 brake horsepower and 300 pound feet of torque. The Deronda also comes with massive brakes, light weight wheels, performance tires and a fully adjustable pedal box to help tailor the car the specific needs of different sized customers.

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Weighing at only 1600 pounds the Deronda can scorch the tires and reach 60 mph in less than four seconds. Add to that the nimble handling and quick direction changes that only come with a sub-2000 pound car and you have one amazing package. Like the Lotus Seven the Deronda shines because of its lightweight minimalist approach. Even though it is light-years ahead of the Seven in terms of performance, how it delivers the performance is much the same. I look forward to seeing one of these on the road or track, and hopefully it will be dusting a car with twice the power and weight.

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-Bill Mertz

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FoMoCo Announces Aston Martin Sale

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

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Nearly a year ago Ford announced that it would begin exploring options for its Aston Martin brand. Now, in the midst of a massive restructuring effort, the Ford Motor Company says it has found a buyer for Aston Martin and announced the sale today.

The consortium of buyers is made up of three different parties: David Richards, founder and chairman of Prodrive, a leading motorsport and automotive technology company; John Sinders, an avid Aston Martin collector and a backer of Aston Martin Racing; and Investment Dar and Adeem Investment Co, international investment companies headquartered in Kuwait.

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A Ford era DB7 Zagato

The sale is expected to close during the second quarter with a selling price of around $925 million. As part of the transaction, Ford will retain a $77 million dollar investment in Aston Martin.
Fords chief executive and President Alan Mulally explained the sale as way for Ford to stay on track for its restructuring, “the sale of Aston Martin supports the key objectives of the company, to restructure to operate profitably at lower volumes and changed model mix and to speed the development of new products,” He went on to emphasize how the deal was helping out everyone involved, “from Aston Martin’s point of view, the sale will provide access to additional capital, which will allow Aston Martin to continue the growth it has experienced under Ford’s stewardship. Today’s announcement is good for Ford Motor Company, good for Aston Martin and good for the UK. We wish Aston Martin every possible success for the future.”

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The Early Years: A beautiful DB2

This seems like a logical move on Ford’s part. Streamlining the company and putting the focus on cars for the masses seems like a pathway to success. As for Aston, I’m glad to see the brand stay alive, and it is nice that the new owners are enthusiasts as well as business men. Maybe this will help the company get back in touch with their small business roots. This is one deal where everyone could indeed come out a winner.

-Bill Mertz

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New From Geneva: Spyker C12 Zagato

Monday, March 12th, 2007

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This year marked the 77th passing of the Geneva International Motor Show. For the last several years Spyker Cars of Holland has used this as a platform to unveil some magnificent vehicles. Upholding this tradition, Spyker pulled the curtains off of a new Zagato bodied C12. The stunning Dutch car is powered by a 6 liter 500 horsepower W12 sourced from Volkswagen. With the addition of a supercharger this figure can be easily, if not expensively, bumped up to 650 horsepower. The standard 500 horse motor is powerful enough to propel the 3086 pound super car to 60 mph in only 3.8 seconds with a top speed approaching 200 miles per hour.

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Rumor has it that this car is a bit piggish in the handling department. This is probably of little concern to the 24 customers who will get to drive this limited production vehicle, as it is much more rolling art than it is a race car. However if I was going to shell out 495,000 Euros before tax (that’s $649,341 for all of us Yanks) I would hope that the car could out corner most of the vehicles on the road. It would be pretty embarrassing to have a Honda Fit or a Toyota Tundra chase you down on a windy road in this thing.

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Aesthetically the C12 Zagato pulls many styling cues from Spyker’s 2007 Formula One car, with air inlets, diffusers, ducts and small winglets shooting off in all directions. Certainly not an understated vehicle the C12 is still handsome in its all aluminum Zagato coachwork. In the past Zagato had a reputation for building lightweight and rounded bodies with questionable fit and finish. The C12 however looks taught and fast with few of Zagato’s signature design features. With a jet fighter appearance the C12 Zagato looks as unique as it is rare. There will undoubtedly be a couple of these cruising the streets of Monaco in the upcoming year.
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The Alfa Romeo Sprint Zagato has classic Zagato lines.

-Bill Mertz

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Ode to the Pinto

Friday, March 9th, 2007

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Before last month I knew very little about the Ford Pinto. I knew it was from the 70’s, rear drive, not attractive, and had a serious problem with bursting into flames when it caught fire. So why my sudden interest in a vehicle that has been universally condemned by society as one of the ultimate lemons? As it turns out my team for the 24 hours of LeMons is campaigning not one but three Pintos (sub-$500 dollar Pintos I should add) under the team name Squadra Pinto. It only made sense that if I was going to race and work on one of these cast aside Fords I better do a little homework to see what I was getting into.

When the pinto burst onto the scene in 1971 (similar to how it burst into flames) it was one of the first American built vehicles to enter the sub-compact category here in the US. Ford built the Pinto to compete with some of the smaller import cars like the VW Beetle and Toyota Corolla. The fact that those three cars would all be considered competitors is definitely a sign of the times. Eventually Chevy and AMC jumped into the ring with the Vega and Gremlin respectively, and while the Pinto often lost in the magazine shootouts it proved to be the most popular of these American models from a sales stand point.

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Cruising Wagon!

The Pinto had a classic layout with a front longitudinally mounted four cylinder engine driving a live rear axle. The front suspension was double wishbones with coil springs while the rear was the tried and true (aka old and unsophisticated) leaf springs under the solid axle. With unibody construction, rack and pinion steering with optional power assist, optional power brakes and an available four speed stick, the Pinto was a pretty good starting point. In fact, on paper the car is pretty damn similar to my MGB (solid axle rear, independent front, 4 banger etc..) Add in the different body styles–two-door coupé with a conventional trunk, three-door hatchback called the Runabout, two-door station wagon, the Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon complete with rear round bubble window (Mad Max) and a top of the line Pinto Squire with fake wood paneling–and you have a car with some real selling points, well mediocre selling points… for the 1970s.

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Unfortunately, as the story goes, Ford rushed the Pinto into production quite quickly. When they did their crash testing they found that the Pinto had a problem with gas tank related ruptures when it took a hit from the back. Tooling was already in place when the defect was discovered, so Ford officials decided to push ahead with production. In a great example of “what not to do” Ford did a cost benefit analysis on dealing with the faulty Pinto and decided to keep it in production until 1977 before making any major safety changes to the cars problem area. They figured it would be cheaper to settle claims than to recall the cars. As a result over 500 Pinto related burn deaths (some estimate it closer to 900) have been recorded. Eventually Ford was forced to recall all affected vehicles and ended up losing millions of dollars and tarnishing their name over a car that could have made them a tidy profit (they sold several million Pintos). It should also be mentioned that in 1991 Gary Schwartz refuted the number of Pinto burn victims claiming the actual number was more like 27. It should also be noted that Ford came very close to installing a bladder inside the gas tank which would have prevented most of the ruptures, but hindsight is 20/20.

Pinto Crash Test

So after hearing all of this you might ask why I would want to race one of these things. Well the car makes a good race car platform. It is relatively light weight, has sturdy construction, is rear wheel drive and has reliable and simple components. We plan on defusing the bomb by moving the gas tank location, and with a few other safety and go fast modifications we should have 3 good little Pinto race cars. Winning might not be in our destiny (although I sure as hell am going to try) but if we can finish, ok maybe finish in the top ten, I will be thrilled.

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Vive Pinto!

-Bill Mertz

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The New Killer on the Road

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

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Distracted driving is the number one killer of teens in the United States. According to the American Beverage Institute (ABI) distracted driving is an increasingly dangerous problem, even more so than driving drunk. In the past 20 years drunk driving deaths have gone down, but the number of traffic fatalities has remained the same. The ABI attributes this to an increase in aggressive, negligent and distracted driving.

While the ABI doesn’t have a strict definition for “distracted driving” they imply that it includes driving drowsy, talking on the phone or texting while driving, speeding or being aggressive, and basically not paying attention to the road. This is a pretty broad array of behaviors but the popularity of cell phones over the two decades and the increase in road rage certainly helped the rate of “distracted driving” fatalities shoot up.

The American Beverage Institute has been a leader in anti-drunk driving campaigns but feels that the problem is larger than drunk driving alone, hence there full page advertisement in this weeks U.S. News and World Report. The ad shows a woman talking on her cell phone, sending a text message, checking her email, eating, and speeding and it reads:

“She would never drive drunk yet she’s MORE dangerous than a drunk driver.”

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When done behind the wheel, many everyday activities can be lethal. In fact:

— Distracted driving is the number one killer of American teens.
Alcohol-related accidents among teens have dropped, but because
distracted driving is on the rise, teenage traffic fatalities remain
unchanged.
— While over 90% of teen drivers say they don’t drive drunk, nine out
of 10 say they’ve seen drivers distracted by passengers or using cell
phones.
— A drowsy driver, or even one going ten miles faster than others on the
road, is more dangerous than one who is legally intoxicated.
— More than 80% of drivers admit to hazardous behavior while behind the
wheel including: reading, changing clothes, steering with feet,
painting nails, and shaving.
— Drivers on cell phones are more impaired than drivers with a .08 BAC
level.

Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the ABI, made the point, “most people would never drive drunk, yet people don’t think twice before taking a call while driving, sending a text message, or eating, even though those actions are often as bad, if not worse than driving drunk.”

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I’m totally with the ABI on this one. Distracted driving is a serious problem and really dangerous. Even things like CD players and IPods have made it worse. I know I’ve had several close calls doing things like turning the volume up, or reading a sign to long. Some of it is a person to person kind of thing, but there are only so many things the human brain can focus on at once. I’ve gotten in the habit of not taking calls while driving (I think it is illegal here now) and if I need to make a call I pull off the road or just wait. I’ll admit I still do it occasionally but the close calls have taught me fast.

My one critique of the ad campaign is that it seems to down play the severity of drunk driving a bit. If people think that drunk driving is less dangerous than driving while talking on a cell phone, I know some people will read the ad and think, “I can drive fine while I’m on my cell phone, so driving with a little buzz is no big deal.” Hopefully their new campaign against distracted driving will have some affect.

-Bill Mertz

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Hottest Woman in Motorsports?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

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The lovely Danica Patrick

In the last couple of years there have been several notable female drivers who have emerged onto the main stage of motor sports. In the male dominated realm of auto racing, names like Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher have become common place. However, these women aren’t always applauded for their talents; in fact many in the auto racing fraternity simply like to talk about them because they are attractive members of the opposite sex. Nothing wrong with that, so long as you give them credit for playing with the boys on a playing field that is probably tilted slightly in the man’s favor (unless you’re Robby Gordon, who complained about a woman having an unfair weight advantage). I for one am all for hearing about these women drivers in the media, whether it is in glamour magazines or sports news. I think diversity in motor sports is a wonderful thing, and the more attention it gets the better.

But there is one thing that bothers me (warning this is where I get a bit shallow); some of these girls get classified as “hot” just because they are female racers. And while I’m probably not the best person to make a judgment call on who is hot and who is not, I can’t help but think that there are other attractive women in the world of racing that are flying under the radar. Not to take anything away from Danica and Sarah, they are both talented racers and not unattractive, but I just don’t think they are as “hot” as they hype makes them out to be. In fact there are several other drivers who are at least in the same league in both looks and talent; Katherine Legge who drives in Champ Car, Milka Duno who is a rising star in the Rolex Sports Car Series and Erica Enders who runs a Pro Stock drag racer are a few of the more prominent examples. But there are two in particular who I feel rank above the rest.

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Ashley Force

Today I was flipping through AutoWeek’s NASCAR fan guide when I discovered one of the drivers who gets my partial vote for hottest woman driver in motor sports, her name is Ashley Force. Now I have to admit that part of the reason she gets my vote is because she is the daughter of one of the greatest personalities in all of racing, John Force. It appears that Force, who is a legend in the drag racing world, has passed some of his talents on to his second eldest daughter Ashley. The 24 year old Ashley started out running dragsters in the Super Comp sportsman category, but she quickly graduated to bigger and badder things, namely Alcohol/Fuel dragsters capable of five second quarter mile times and 270-mph trap speeds. This year Ashley is continuing her climb up the drag racing ladder and will be join her father as part of a four-car team running an 8000 horsepower, nitro-burning Ford Mustang Funny Car. Oh and did I mention that she is hot. The Force family also has two daughters younger than Ashley who are both racing drag cars as well. I guess talent really does run in the family.

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Leilani Munter

The other half of my vote goes to up and coming NASCAR driver Leilani Munter. Munter, who has done her fair share of stunt work in Hollywood, has been ascending the ranks in NASCAR feeder series’ lately. She’s also been featured in numerous magazines including FHM, Men’s Journal, and Corvette Quarterly (woooo hooo Corvettes man!). If she ever breaks into Nextel Cup tickets are going to be very hard to come by.

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Vanina Ickx

I would also like to give an honorable mention to Vanina Ickx, daughter of the great Grand Prix driver Jackie Ickx. The beautiful Belgian native has had a strong career in sports car and endurance racing and has done her family name proud.

-Bill Mertz

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Sweet Home Alabama

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

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Ever wonder what would happen if you painted something controversial on your car and drove it through a rough neighborhood? Don’t worry; I’ve never wondered that either, but the boys at Top Gear decided that it would be good experiment. So three of the Top Gear hosts headed to good old Alabama to partake in a bizarre test. This test was less about vehicles and more about culture, and the bravery of the drivers however it was entertaining nonetheless.

Starting out with three prime examples of American iron, a Camaro IROC Z, a Cadillac and a Dodge pickup, the Top Gear hosts were issued the challenge to paint messages on each others vehicles, the catch was the messages were supposed to be something that would get them killed. The slogans they chose certainly were potent enough to raise a few eyebrows, but as the video shows there was more than eyebrow raising going down in Alabama that day. I’m not really sure what to make of this episode. It has little to do with actual vehicles (the point of the show) but in a scary way I found it pretty funny. It certainly highlights some cultural insensitivity, and shows how much trouble simple words can get you into. On the one hand these guys are lucky they didn’t get seriously hurt, but on the other hand why are people trying to hurt them over things like NASCAR, Hillary Clinton, “man love” and country music, that seems a little idiotic to me.

Here is the clip, I’m curious to here your thoughts:


-Bill Mertz

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Hangin’ With Mini Cooper

Monday, March 5th, 2007

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This weekend was the best weather we’ve seen in the Bay Area for quite some time. Fortunately for me the unseasonable shorts and t-shirt temperatures coincided with a stint behind the wheel of an ‘07 Mini Cooper S. As a lover of old cars I had a really hard time loving the “new” Mini’s when BMW first released them. The original British made Austin Mini’s were so cool and functional, and it seemed to me that the new BMW incarnation of had sucked the lovable English soul out of the car. But I couldn’t ignore the hard facts: the car handles well, has a powerful engine and although it is quite a bit larger than the original Mini, the BMW designed Mini is small when compared with other modern cars. These are all qualities which I hold in high-esteem so I figured it was only fair that I give the new Mini the benefit of the doubt.

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While the 2007 Mini is actually physically larger than the previous model year it is nearly impossible to tell at first glance. As I walked around the 2007 Cooper S I was impressed by how much more aggressive the S model is when compared with a base Mini Cooper. A bolder front fascia combined with larger wheels and a tougher stance gives the Cooper S a purposeful look. Even though I’ve never been crazy about the new Mini’s aesthetics, especially the back, I have to admit that the ‘07 Cooper S is good looking vehicle, especially the dark grey version that I had the privilege to test. Inside, the car is comfortable and roomy enough for a tall guy like me to take on a long road trip without complaint. Certain appointments, such as the central gauge cluster, suit the retro-themed car quite some of the buttons and switches looked like they belonged on a Disneyland ride instead of inside of a road going vehicle. The controls were also a bit counterintuitive at first, but to be fair most new cars are like this now, and a few minutes is all it takes to figure things out.

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For the 2007 S BMW stuck a turbocharger on top of its new 1.6 liter Valvetronic engine. This gives the Cooper S pretty good kick with roughly 175 horsepower and slightly more torque. The turbocharged motor replaces the old supercharged Cooper S of the previous generation and provides slightly more kick with improved fuel economy and reduced CO2 emissions. The car is available in both 6 speed manual and 6 speed automatic trim. While I’m not one to complain about test driving any new car, I would have preferred the manual gearbox to the slush-box that came with the car. Like many of the sportier automatic transmissions these days this one featured a manual mode allowing you to select gears via steering wheel mounted paddles. But even in sport mode the up-shifts had the same slow and slippery engagement that a normal automatic transmission provides. Aside from that the gear box was great, down shifting quickly and never missing a beat.

On the road the Mini is a blast. As long as you are comfortable with your man hood you can rip around in this car all day and maintain a fat grin on your face. The turbocharger is almost unnoticeable delivering smooth power without the normal quirks that turbochargers often bring to the table. The suspension is taught but not at all rough. The steering is a bit elastic, but has more than enough precision to point the Mini wherever you want to go. With 175 horsepower there is a bit of torque-steer when you are hard on the throttle in a turn, but I never found it unnerving or unpredictable.

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As I piloted the Mini Cooper S in the East Bay hills I had a good dice with a late model GTI VR6. To his credit the driver, who had a kid on board, put up a pretty good pace allowing me to really see where the Cooper S shined and where it came up a bit short. In all honestly I found very few short comings. More than enough power, predictable and grippy handling, a comfortable ride, and with the sunroof open and the warm air coming into the cockpit I could think of only a handful of vehicles that I would rather be driving.

All in all the 2007 Mini Cooper S really impressed me. Its combination of performance, practicality and fun make it the type of car that I might buy new off the lot if I could afford it (in the $30,000 dollar range to get behind the wheel). And while the original English Mini will always remain a proper Mini in my mind, the new Cooper S has certainly earned my respect and admiration.

-Bill Mertz

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About William

I am a twenty something car enthusiast. I spend most of my days working in a small restoration shop in Northern California that specializes in vintage Alfa Romeos. I also manage to do some freelance writing for a handful of automotive publications. When I'm not at the shop I can usually be found working on one of my own project cars, out driving on a good windy road or good jeep trail. Despite what my girlfriend says cars aren't what defines me, they are only what I do. When I have a chance I also love to go camping, play sports or generally do any type of outdoor activity. I don't take myself to seriously, so I hope you don't either.

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