The Toyota monolith can be difficult to denigrate. Since the Toyopet Crown came to Hollywood in 1958, all Toyota has done is define the course of modern American personal transportation. The only recurring criticism of Toyota's cars over the past 60+ years is "Boring", which really isn't a criticism at all, but a comment on the critic's headspace. Toyota is the biggest car manufacturer in the world (pending how Renault/Nissan choose to organize themselves that day), they own the number one spot in passenger car and SUV sales, and they're always in the top 5 for truck sales, and in minivan sales, oh and the midsize luxury car segment, they have the number one spot in that too - No, Tesla, deliver what you "sell" and then we can talk. Toyota is nothing short of dominant. And yet, what if I told you that with some extra effort, Toyota might have expanded their dominance even further and taken complete control of the entire Crossover segment? It might have happened. I reckon somewhere, there is a parallel universe where Toyota rules the CUV market with three kings: The RAV4, the xB, and the Venza. It all starts 20 years ago.
In 1999, Toyota saw that their buyers were getting older. Building solid, reliable cars like the Camry, RAV4, and Corolla had made their brand an icon. But - then as now - Camrys don't get the youths excited. As an aside, that's pretty impressive foresight. American brands barely noticed this exact same trend in the past decade. Toyota's research lead them to create a new, youth-focused brand named Scion. Despite their urban-focused marketing schemes, decent selection of OEM aftermarket parts, and their ventures into tuner culture, Scion ended as a failure. Their model selection stayed small, they never really grabbed a youth audience, and their no-bargain sales technique came across as a ploy. Yet Scion had one shining, glimmering beacon of hope, and it was no more or less than exactly the car that Toyota did not expect people to buy: The Scion xB.
In 2003, Toyota launched the Scion brand with two models, the xA and the xB. I had to look up the xA to write this and I've already forgotten what it looked like, but everyone knows the xB. It's the square one. The one that looks like a box with wheels. Usually purple or orange. Toyota had planned that the xA would outsell the xB two to one, but that very much did not happen. From the jump, xB sales nearly doubled the xA, and that gap grew wider and wider until the xA slid mercifully into a cold grave in 2006. The xB was more than just a success, it was a bonafide hit, selling over 47,000 units in its first full production year, and over 285,000 units by 2009. Toyota had aimed for the younger Generation Y, but had squarely hit the Gen X-ers, with the xB's lifetime average purchaser age standing at 46. YouTuber Mr. Regular has attributed this twist to the car being very easy to get in and out of, and...he might be right. But no matter the reason, Toyota had unwittingly popularized what we now recognize as the Subcompact SUV, and they had found a brand new market segment that was all their own. Until 2009.
That's when the hamsters came. The rapping, dancing hamsters. By 2009, a small, upstart Korean car company named Kia had taken notice of Toyota's special little market segment. And all they did is come in and take the entire shit for themselves plus a good deal more, thanks to the Kia Soul. The sales figures are shocking. In the Soul's first year it managed to outsell the redesigned xB. In year two, Soul sales tripled sales of the xB. In year three? No, not quadrupled. In 2011, Kia sold ten times more Souls than Toyota sold xBs. And it was over. Just as Toyota's run was ramping up, it was completely and totally destroyed. The xB was never redesigned again. It was never even meaningfully updated. Toyota just let the car, and the entire Scion brand, whither and die.
But it didn't have to be that way. Nearly every single thing Kia did with the Soul they took directly from Toyota. Kia aimed for the youth with an urban-focused aesthetic. They had a smattering of OEM aftermarket parts. They produced true special editions. They used bright paint colors and big alloy wheels. Kia's unique twist was that hamster-abomination moonshot which flew directly past every youth in the world and buried itself deeply in the heart of your aunt who is thrice-divorced and calls herself "quirky" to cover up the fact that she's a fucking basket case. I can mock it as much as I want, but it worked perfectly. Kia more than won. Not only did the Soul kill the xB in the harshest way possible, but the continued success of the Soul allows Kia to make things like the Stinger, and the Forte 5 SX, and that weird K900 thing. In 2018, Kia sold over 108,000 Souls, and it was a down year. Try and tell me Toyota wouldn't like some of that market right now. They're still trying to re-enter the compact SUV market with flotsam like the C-HR, which was a Scion concept car originally, and which has been such a failure that Toyota is trying to replace it after just two years. Whoops.
The death of the xB is odd because Toyota is used to battling tough competition in tight market segments - see the Camry, see the RAV4 - and yet Toyota allowed Kia to use their own tricks to take over a segment that they popularized. It just doesn't make sense to me. And clearly, once the Soul came out, the xB no longer made sense to buyers. Maybe it was the relative scarcity of Scion dealerships, and Toyota should have absorbed the xB as its own. Maybe it was the fixed-price thing, combined with the xB starting at $3000 more than the Soul. Maybe it was the fact that the xB never got anything better than a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual, and while it had more power than the base Soul, it had less than the top-trim Soul, and the xB got worse combined gas mileage than either trim.
Looking at the sales figures, I think it's safe to say that by 2010, Toyota had given up on the xB. But I don't think they had to, and I don't think they should have. Yes, the Soul outsold the xB even in its first year, but the Soul was also so poorly made that Kia was forced to do a half-year interior redesign, which is bad. The Soul also rated Poor on the IIHS small-overlap test, which is very bad! The xB was made well. It had all the standard build-quality hallmarks of Toyota. It was an IIHS top safety pick. Why didn't they lean on any of that to fight back against Kia? They easily could have. Imagine this: A xB commercial that has some other kind of creature, perhaps a small cat, in their xB, driving into the city towards a huge, lit-up party or club, passing all of these various rapping hamsters on the side of the road in their broken down cars that for some reason, look like Kia Souls. And as the cat drives past the last hamster, the window rolls up, and Kanye West's new song Power starts to play. Cut to black. Some slogan about individuality flashes. Then some award, maybe Top Safety Pick. The Scion xB. Starts at $16 thousand-whatever it was. I feel like that could have worked. Even outside of the IIHS rating, awards are easy enough for manufacturers to get once they decide they want one. Heck, that little half-year redesign that the Soul got because the interiors were so bad? Yeah, that redesign won Kia the coveted, uh, Ward's Auto Interior Design of the Year Award. I'm sure Toyota could have grabbed something if they wanted to, maybe even from J.D. Power. Or, if marketing wasn't enough, why didn't Toyota reach over to the fresh corpse of the Matrix, and come out with an AWD xB? Or a sport version to go with the manual transmission? Or they could have beaten Jeep to the punch and released a lifted, "offroad" xB. Any of those would have moved metal for Toyota, for a certainty. The Hyundai Kona, the Soul ! (yes, seriously, that's the fast one), and the Jeep Renegade prove it. It was right within their grasp! Come ON Toyota, why did you give up?
Let's see if we can find a pattern by looking at another Toyota with a similar story: the Toyota Venza.
In my mind, the Toyota Venza was a shot aimed directly at the Subaru Outback, and it almost worked, too. In 2008, Toyota brought a brown wagon to autoshows across the US. Except, it wasn't a wagon. The Venza was a mid-size five-seat Crossover built on the venerable Toyota K platform. In reality, the Venza was absolutely a wagon, but just like the Outback, it was never sold as one. The Venza rode about as high as the Highlander, but the roofline is lower, and the interior was made to look modern and sleek instead of inoffensive like the Camry. It was a vehicle made to sit in the middle, and in its base trim, that's exactly what it did. But the Venza also brought some spice in the form of a V6, AWD trim, which somehow was the hottest seller. Can you imagine that?
Actually, let me not play coy. The V6 AWD Venza was Toyota's attempt at stealing sales from directly from Subaru's cash cow. The Subaru Outback had slightly higher ground clearance, but the Venza could tow more. The Venza cost slightly more, but came with more tech than the Outback. The Outback had more cargo space, the Venza had more passenger space. The two even cut nearly identical figures, with the Venza measuring 189" x 75" x 63.4", and the Outback measuring 189.6" x 72.4" x 66.1". And for a very short while, the look worked. In it's first full production year, the Venza fell short of Outback sales by only 955 units. But 2010 brought a fully re-designed Outback, which stormed back and more than doubled the sales of the 2009 Outback, while Venza sales declined. Subaru hasn't sold fewer than 100,000 Outbacks per year ever since, and the Venza was killed off in 2015. Did they push back against their surging rival? They did not. Once again, Toyota tapped a market, got some pushback, and just gave up. Even though Toyota knows how to market specifically against Subaru. They've been doing it for years with the Camry against the Subaru Legacy, you know, the sedan version of the Outback.
I said that the look of the Venza worked for a short time, and I think that was the real problem with the car. It only looked like the Outback. It only played the part. You see, the base Venza was...kinda bad. The front wheel drive and small engine worked fine in concept, but really, the 2.7L 4 cylinder was too anemic to meaningfully move the car along, especially on the freeway. Also, for some reason, Toyota chose to give AWD Venzas a part-time, torque-on-demand AWD system, instead of the full-time symmetric AWD system that already existed on the platform-shared Highlander. In fact, the Highlander and the Venza shared almost everything. Toyota used the same engines, the same chassis, the same transmissions...and different AWD systems. Subaru, with the Outback and the Forester, had long-proved that two similar crossovers can happily exist on lots as long as they are slightly different shapes. Toyota could have reworked the Venza and kept the Highlander without cannibalizing the business for either model, there is precedent. In the end, the Venza was something of a mirage. It had all the stats, but it didn't have the heart. It had the look, but not the guts. Customers noticed, and flew back to Subaru in an instant. They even brought their friends and family with them.
So what we have are two vehicles, both in the highly-coveted SUV market segment, with both having made a meaningful impact on different parts of that segment, and both coming from the manufacturer of the most popular SUV right now. Yet both the xB and the Venza still failed, or were left to die, and both under similar circumstances. Both vehicles should have been aggressively updated using platform-shared mechanicals and technology that already existed inside the very factories where these two vehicles were manufactured. But instead of trying, Toyota did nothing.
I have a theory on why Toyota gave up on the xB and the Venza. And it's the RAV4. I'm not talking about a "steal sales away" kind of thing, but a commitment thing. Toyota brought the RAV4 to the US in 1996, where it was an immediate sales success. But Honda launched the CR-V in 1997, which then outsold the RAV4 from 1998 until 2017. I think that Toyota wanted their crown back, and I think they chased Honda and the CR-V down for almost 20 years at a pretty high cost. The two brands have battled back and fourth every single year: generation to generation, facelift to facelift, and feature to feature. Throughout the last two decades, Toyota have put everything they had into the RAV4 to keep it as a segment leader, and they were rewarded with the number one spot in the hottest segment right in the thick of the SUV revolution. I doubt they would change anything about what they've done to get themselves here, even if it did cost a few niche SUV models.
But still, I do think it's sad that the xB and the Venza died before they should have. I believe both of those models had untapped potential, and could have reshaped the SUV market before it hit its most recent stride. Who knows what the market would look like right now if Toyota held the Compact SUV market along with the Midsize SUV market, and then also had carved out a chunk of the Crossover/wagon market from Subaru. I know it's weird to talk about the failings of a market giant, and it's even weirder to be excited about a dominant company possibly being more dominant, but dynasties are boring if they're never truly challenged, the sales show that the Soul and the Outback are dynastic. I think Toyota could have been the challenger to make it stick. But they chose a different path.
In 2017, McLaren Competition Director Eric Boulier met with McLaren CEO Zak Brown shortly after taking the job. Brown asked Boulier a simple question: “What does your perfect team look like?” Boulier answered “Any team with Fernando Alonso”. Brown's response was simple: “Okay then. Go get him”.
McLaren was right to go after the Spaniard. Alonso is considered one of the most talented drivers of this generation. In 2003, in his 2nd start for Renault F1 Team, Alonso raced his way to the podium. His first career win followed later that year. 7 wins each in 2005 and 2006 propelled him to consecutive world championships. At the time, he was the youngest in history to win a race and a season championship. By 2017 he had amassed 32 wins, 22 poles and 97 podium finishes, a legendary resume that McLaren - a team with lots of resources but not a lot of recent results - desperately needed. McLaren found themselves reeling in the wake of several unusually tumultuous years. Historically, McLaren is a team of winners. From Hunt to Lauda, to Prost and Senna, through Hakkinen, Kimi, Montoya, Button, and of course Hamilton, throughout its history McLaren Racing has consistently put the best drivers in the world behind the wheel of their cars. They weren’t used to the struggles they endured in this new hybrid engine era, and so the team brought in Zak Brown and Eric Boullier to right the ship. They inked a new deal with Honda to supply engines, recalling the glory days of Senna. And on top of all that, they lured in Fernando Alonso, hoping that “El Nino” would return them to their past glory. They were wrong
The McLaren-Honda deal from 2015-2017 was a complete disaster. The two sides were never able to come together and put a reliable package together for Fernando and his teammate. In 81 starts in these 4 seasons, Fernando was only able to finish 47 races. I’ll say that again: FORTY SEVEN out of 81 races finished, or 58%. That’s dismal. In those 47 finishes, there were 0 podiums. He did amass some points, because he has an innate ability to outdrive the equipment he’s given (see his 2011-2014 run at an underperforming Ferrari for proof), but Alonso was at wits’ end from the time he ran his first test in 2015 until the time he retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2018. So, why did he stay for 4 years? A driver with his credentials would be able to any team he chose to try and find a car more worthy of his talents. What kept him in the turmoil of McLaren Racing? The answer was also, I think, the problem: Zak Brown.
Brown, a former racer from California, found great success in the business world once he stepped out of sportscar racing. When he sold his company Just Marketing International, it was the largest motorsport marketing company in the world. Brown has won multiple marketing awards, and the sports car team he co-founded with Richard Dean, United Autosport, has been successful in both GT and prototype cars. So why the struggle in his time as CEO at McLaren? I think it's because Brown is an expert at commercialism, not building race cars. Endurance racing is all customer-based: you buy a vehicle from a manufacturer and it comes delivered to your facility ready to race. But F1 is different. Instead of buying a car from a factory, F1 teams have to build almost everything from scratch. Brown didn’t have any experience leading a team of engineers building wining cars. He is, however, a brilliant salesman. He’s fantastic at building and maintaining high-level business relationships. True enough, he did inherit a shit show at McLaren when he became the top dog, but even then he used his marketing expertise to position the company as a heritage brand, selling sponsors on the team’s storied history. McLaren = Winners. McLaren = History. McLaren = Tradition. And it worked. Brown's successful re-brand is what brought in the sponsorships despite the poor on-track performance, and it also brought in Alonso.
But the bravado that McLaren presented to the media and sponsors also impacted the attitude internally when things started going south with Honda. According to multiple sources (look them up yourself if you want all the deets, I’m not going to list them all here), Honda found McLaren hard to work with when - not to be too coy - the rubber met the road. McLaren would tell Honda, “We need the engine to do X” and Honda would say, “Okay, but to maximize our efforts we need Y and Z changes to be made to the bodywork, or cooling, or aero, or engine mount points, etc.” McLaren’s response? “No. Fuck that. We’re McLaren. We didn’t do anything wrong. YOU fix it.” But that's not how engineering works. That complete unwillingness to bend caused a massive rift in the McLaren/Honda relationship, and ties were finally severed after the 2017 season. Honda has moved on to Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Torro Rosso, where they have immediately seen improved results. Red Bull’s young driver Max Verstappen even put Honda back on the top step of the podium in Austria. As for McLaren? They decided to use Renault power for 2018 and 2019. Still no podiums. Still a midfield car on a good day. Maybe Honda wasn’t the problem, huh, Zak?
So much for the cars, but what about Fernando Alonso? Somehow, SOME WAY, he's is still on McLaren’s payroll (EDITOR'S NOTE: Literally until today, 7/5/19. Yeah, we're that good. It seems like Alonso signed a deal to the McLaren brand either in addition to or instead of to the F1 team - more smart marketing work on Brown's part). Because as I mentioned, Zak Brown is an expert salesman, and he kept selling McLaren to Alonso. When Alonso started to voice his displeasures publicly, Brown caved and let Fernando do...whatever he felt like doing. You wanna start a lifestyle and clothing brand? Sure! McLaren will back it and we'll promote it in every race series where United Autosport runs a car. You want to go run sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona? You can use my car! You want to skip Monaco, the biggest race on the F1 calendar, to go race the Indianapolis 500? Be my guest! You want to run the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, too? Here, let me make a few phone calls and get you in the best car on the grid, because I can’t give you shit in F1, Alonso, and we both know it.
Zak Brown is the perfect Chief Marketing Officer for any race team. He would be a fantastic VP of Public Relations. But he is not an ideal CEO because he lacks the experience necessary to establish and maintain a productive culture in the engineering room. Sure, his United Autosport outfit does well, but that’s because he has a partner. Former race driver and sportcars champion Richard Dean heads the competition side of that business, while Zak does the business deals. Brown doesn’t have to worry about making the cars fast, that’s what Richard does best. Zak makes the phone calls, he sets the lunch meetings, he does the talking. Just like he did when he talked his way into a CEO position for an F1 team he had no business running. Just like he did when he talked Fernando Alonso onto a team he had no business joining.
Fernando, I get that loyalty still means a least a little bit from time to time, but PLEASE sever the ties with McLaren! You talent was heinously wasted for the past 5+ seasons and you don’t’ have that much time left before you hang up your helmet for good. There are plenty of teams with plenty of cars that would KILL to have you strap in for them. Do like LeBron did. Take your talents elsewhere.
Hello dear readers! This week, for our hottest of blogs, I would like to offer up a toast to the best worst car you’ll ever drive. To your chance to see how the other half lives. To the infinite promise of not having to own something. To, as one famous car presenter put it, the Fastest Car...in the World. Here’s to you, rental car!
We as a podcast have often discussed how much we like discussing rental cars. We’ve even come up with a Rental Car Reviews segment. But you know what? That isn't enough for me, and after my most recent rental car experience I felt I needed to write this blog. It was at the outset of a great Memorial Day adventure to Tennessee that I was handed the keys to a dreary Hyundai Elantra. It was the most basic of most basic models, redolent of the heady smell of industrial cleaners. The seat was tipped back to a simply astonishing angle by the lot attendant who had dropped it off. In my head, I decided that this was not going to be worth a rental car review. In fact, that specific Elantra is not going to be worth many more pixels on this page. What that car did do, however, was spawn the idea for this blog post.
The rental car, I believe, is one of the most under-appreciated luxuries of modern life. The rental car is often met with derision or, almost worse, just paid no attention to at all. I just did it to the poor Elantra mentioned above. But as a car person, I can tell you the last three or four cars I rented, easily. Yet I suspect that's pretty unusual. I think most people would remember the color of the car they rented more than they would remember the make or model. However, I really do find this to be a shame. In this country where distances are so vast and the forecast for quality public transportation is grim, rental cars are a godsend for travelers. Instead of getting off of the plane and having to go wherever the winds of fate (read: CTA, MTA, BART, etc.) take you, what can you do instead? Bounce on down to the rental counter and speak to a harried-looking man in a tie and ask him for a(n) car please. You can even pick the size of the car you want. It could be not a car at all, in fact! You want a truck? A SUV? A creepy panel van? No problem! And, just like that, you have as much freedom in the vast, far away land of Ft. Lauderdale as you could ever need. Of course, the rental car you get might be something you would never buy yourself, but then again, you didn't buy it. That car WILL take you to your hotel without having to wait for a shuttle. It WILL take you to the 24 hour Walgreens without having to talk to a cab driver. It WILL allow you to visit JimBob’s Barbecue and Moonshine Shack, located so far up in the mountains that you would never get there otherwise.
The other thing rental cars allow is the continuity of joy, at least for myself and my co-hosts. We’re drivers. We love driving. We love road tripping. We’ll be doing it to Watkins Glen in a few short weeks. However, we do realize there ARE some places to which it is quite difficult to drive. Like Madagascar. Or, for a less extreme example, the drive may be prohibitively expensive, like driving to Alaska from anywhere that isn't Alaska. The rental car allows you to still live out your “live like a local” fantasies while not having to take three weeks of vacation. You can even - like my family has done multiple times - rent a car in your very own home city! We often do this for road trips because, well, as great as they are, road trips put a lot of miles on the cars we love so very very much and if those cars break, that REALLY puts a wet blanket on your cool road trip. With a rental car, you don’t have to worry about the miles or the fear of turning your road trip to Colorado into a road trip to... Nebraska or something. Your rental car breaks? Great, have them bring you a new one. No fuss, no muss.
Rental cars also give you the opportunity to experience a car that you might not, otherwise. Sometimes, that can actually be a really valuable thing. For years, my co-host Andrew, had been harping on and ON about how actually good the new Hyundai/Kia models were. In the relatively standard response for someone who is a fan of German car... or Japanese cars... or actually lots of other cars, I always replied “Oh, I’m sure! Just not my scene, you know?” As if I were a man from the 70's (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is still a strong possibility). I was still living in the biased past where Korean cars were junk. However, that all changed when Nick and I drive a rental Kia Optima from Milwaukee, WI to Austin, TX and back. A trip of some 18 hours each way. In the span of that trip, we stopped three times on the way down and three times on the way back up because we had to. Not the car. The squishy human bits were tired and had to use the bathroom. The car could have gone another quarter tank each time we stopped. To us, that was an amazing feat! It rode out an absolute frog-drowned of a storm in Dallas. It was super comfortable and it had Bluetooth for our phones. (Something which neither of us had in our own cars, at the time, might I add). That one rental car experience took my entire car world view and tipped it on its head.
So, my point stands. Rental cars are cruelly under-appreciated. Are most rental cars the bottom of the options list barrel? Yes. Are they often not even close to the best model in their class? Yes. Are they YOUR car? No. But... are they A car? Yes. And that has a lot of value. You’ll be able to drive, no matter where you go, courtesy of the rental car. And hey, you might even learn something along the way.
Yep, it's another car culture blog. I'm just bringing up Goldeneye because I couldn't think of a better jumping off point to talk about my thesis that didn't involve the phrase "rose-tinted glasses" and I hate that phrase. I'm just going to hit you with the main idea:
It is fine to judge old cars by modern standards.
A simple enough statement, but one that super-triggers people with fan allegiances or nostalgia issues. These same issues exist anywhere self-made loyalties lie: movies, music, food, and of course video games and cars. The reason I picked seminal Nintendo 64 title Goldeneye to clickbait this blog is because its saying Goldeneye sucks is one of my very hottest takes, and also because the reaction I get to that take almost exactly mirrors Tristan's reaction to my statement from a few episodes ago that old land yachts suck. There's anger. There's strident protest. And of course, the endless tide of "Yeah but".
Some more background for you non-gamers, feel free to skip ahead if you know this stuff: Goldeneye 64 was a first-person shooter released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. It was absolutely groundbreaking. Goldeneye proved not only that first-person shooters could work on home consoles, but also that shooters could be open-world adventures. The game's story mode mirrored the events of the hit 1995 Bond film, and the game's multiplayer mode reached such legendary status that not only has it spawned a hundred direct-line imitators, mods, remakes, and re-imaginings, but it also poisoned the mind of an entire generation. I'll bet at least a third of gamers my age would say Goldeneye is the best shooter they've ever played, and every single one of them would be complete idiots to do so. Because Goldeneye is trash. The controls were created by a meth-addled tarantula-ape-squid. The multiplayer is farcically unbalanced. Every aspect of the single-player has aged exactly as well as summer roadkill deer. All of these problems were screamingly evident with the advent of the very next console generation - just four years after the game's release. Goldeneye 64 is fetid. And it's also extremely important.
It's possible to like things that are of poor quality. It happens all the time. Look at McDonald's. Look at Twitter. Look at Dodge. Look at The Bachelor/ette. There's no accounting for personal taste. For example: I love chocolate cake. But only if it is not in any way homemade. I like the homemade stuff, sure, but I love the commercial-grade stuff. Would they serve it in a dorm cafeteria and/or a hospital? I already have my tray. With the chocolate sprinkles? Even better. Two pieces. And the big ones. But commercial-grade chocolate cake is objectively shit compared to "real" cake. It tastes worse. It looks worse. The texture is worse. It contains no love or care. Commercial-grade chocolate cake is worse than homemade chocolate cake by every meaningful standard of the food world, but I like it more. I freely understand that it is worse, and I can even tell you why it is worse, but I like it more. I'm fine with that. And by the way, we aren't going to talk about irony here in this blog. There is no irony any more, irony is dead. Stop bringing it up.
It's also possible for things that are of poor quality to be important, or even vital, in their own context. Those ideas are not remotely incomparable. Context is extremely important whenever you're judging an object of any kind, and it can't be elided or forgotten. The thing is that when context is properly considered, even if you judge the past by using the lens of the present the best will always shake out on top. For example, if we judge Goldeneye by modern video game standards, it's going to get utterly destroyed - but it will still come out as critically important because it was the first game to establish...well...almost every single tenet of the first-person shooter genre we know today. If you judge the 1974 BMW 2002 by modern standards, it looks pretty good! Decent power, decent-looking, good features, sure 9 seconds to 60, and it nearly created the sports saloon. That's pretty good! Ditto the original Ford Mustang. And the Firebird Trans Am. And the Model T. And the Honda Accord. And the Beetle. And a dozen-dozen other cars. And if you do the same thing with a Cadillac Brougham, you end up cry-laughing. Because that's how bad that car truly was. It reads exactly like a joke. So why can't it just be that? Even a joke has an audience.
Of course, car culture is absolutely infested with this nostalgia obsession where everything you like has to also be validated as good by some outside source. Car fans have always chosen to die on the hoods of the cars they like the most. Every few years some Detroit publication prints some soft-focusass piece on the newest Ford exec who was raised in fucking House Karstark or whatever and how that exec was promised to GM as an infant and then after the exec got the Ford job their father or uncle wouldn't talk to them for three months or whatever. Obviously these stories are complete fabrications, but the element of truth in the lie is the still-aggressive undercurrent of diehards in car culture. And to those people I would ask these questions: Why can't you like what you like and still recognize it for what it is objectively? Why is it total devotion or accusations of not being a "real fan"? Why is it zealotry or being a filthy casual? Why do the new Star Wars movies have to ruin the old ones for those too weak-willed to accept that they grew out of it a little bit in the interim of forty fucking years?
Maybe that last one is less connected, but I think my point is clear. It's perfectly fine to like things that are factually bad. It will always be okay to like what you like, but I honestly think we'd all be better off if we all could also understand what we like in it's own context, no matter what that context illustrates. And you know what? If facing the reality of what you like changes your like for it, then you didn't actually like it all that much. Move on. Find something else that's more your taste. It's fine to do that. It's fine to change your own opinion. But that's a blog for another day.
Damn, CEP listeners, it’s been awhile! I hope you’ve all been well, and I appreciate you all sticking with my cohosts and I as we come to grips with being more professional. But there’s no better way to return to the World of the HOT BLOG than with the annual Indianapolis 500 preview! It’s that time of year again: The greatest weekend on the calendar for gear heads. I want to jump right in with a look ahead to the world’s greatest race, but before we do that, we need to look back at the weekend that was.
Qualifying weekend at Indianapolis delivered in every way: There was weather to contend with, there were major upsets, there is a new pole winner and 3 drivers left disappointed after the Last Row Shootout (IndyCar’s new term for Bump Day qualifying). Talk about a pressure cooker: The 6 cars that didn’t make the top 30 on Saturday each had one chance to make the final 3 positions on Sunday. One solitary run; 4 laps, 10 miles, for the rest of your life. While there were a few smaller teams in danger, as expected, the real story was the big name drivers and teams fighting for their Indy dreams. Could people’s champ James Hinchcliffe actually miss the race 2 years in a row? He destroyed his primary car in Saturday qualifying, and had to jump in a backup car with very few practice laps and lay it all on the line. Or what about international mega-star Fernando Alonso? The McLaren team both looked and acted overmatched and out of place all month, but surely a team with pockets that deep and resources that profound would find a way to squeak in, right? Well, Hinch snuck in by the last hair on his chinny-chin-chin and will roll off 32nd out of 33, but Mr. Alonso will not be joining him on the last row, thanks to tiny little Juncos Racing.
Alonso was sitting in P33 when Kyle Kaiser went out as the final car to qualify in the Last Row Shootout. Kyle and his team had been through a hellacious month of May to that point. Right as practice opened, their major sponsors backed out. The team’s plan was to try and qualify, then worry about funding to actually contest the 500. Then, later in practice week, Kyle had a hard accident and destroyed the one car the team had prepared. The Juncos boys had to somehow pull a whole race car out of a hat just to get Kaiser in the qualifying line. They worked nonstop overnight to scrap, claw, and assemble an old borrowed race car. Team owner Ricardo Juncos, who immigrated to America as a go-kart mechanic and eventually started his own team, moving up the ladder from karts through junior open wheel to eventually a part-time IndyCar program, said he kept his team fueled with “pizza and Starbucks” as they slaved until 4am to make qualifying tech inspection. With no practice on this car, the 23-year-old Kaiser took to the track for his last ditch effort to make the show. The mission: knock out 2-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and the mighty Team McLaren. The 4 lap average to beat? 227.353 mph. Kaiser’s first lap was faster than Alonso’s. Encouraging, but he still had three laps left. 2nd lap: faster than Alonso’s. You don’t think….3rd lap, right there, in line with the champ. This can’t be happening…Kaiser rips across the stripe to register a 4 lap average of 227.372 mph. By 0.019 mph over 4 laps, Juncos knocked out McLaren. Kaiser takes down Alonso! David defeats Goliath again! This is exactly what makes the month of May at Indianapolis so special, and one of the many reasons why I can’t WAIT for this weekend. What happened with McLaren? What’s next for Alonso? Don’t worry, that’ll be in my next blog. But for now, let’s focus on the 103rd Indianapolis 500, set to take place this weekend.
I just spent a lot of time focusing on the back of the grid, and that’s because the sharp end is pretty much status quo. The top 9 starting spots are dominated by juggernaut Team Penske and superspeedway specialists Ed Carpenter Racing. Ed is an Indianapolis native, who grew up racing the local dirt tracks, went to school at Butler University, and has started on pole for this race 3 times. He finished 2nd last year, and if he were to move up one more step on that podium, the entire grandstands might collapse from the pandemonium that’s sure to ensue. He’s got a fair shot, as do his two team cars driven by young American Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones, who finished 3rd here as a rookie in 2017. But to accomplish this, ECR needs to run through the buzzsaw that is Team Penske.
Penske also put 3 cars in the first three rows, led by first time Indy polesitter Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman won a championship for Penske in 2016, but has struggled since. There were grumblings for the past year and a half that he was close to being dropped from his contract, but he has responded this year with a brilliant drive in the rain at the Indy GP two weeks ago, running down CEP favorite Scott Dixon from 7 seconds back in just 3 laps to pass for the win. He then qualified on the pole for the biggest race on the calendar, and has history on his side. Last year, Will Power won the Indy GP and followed it up by winning the 500. His team owner? Oh yeah, Roger Penske. Things are looking up for the one they call “The Professor.”
Of course, in a 500 mile race like this we can expect more than just 2 teams to spend time at the front. Herta-mania is in full swing, as the now 19-year-old rookie Colton Herta - already with a race win to his credit in 2019 - was the quickest qualifying Honda-powered car and will roll off from row 2. Andretti Autosport brings a 5-car armada led by former champ Ryan Hunter-Reay and budding superstar Alexander Rossi, who is proving to be a straight up assassin. He doesn’t come to the track to win, he comes to embarrass the competition and does so with no remorse. Drivers like the aforementioned Dixon and Graham Rahal are too experienced, smart and talented to not have some say in how the final results play out. They may start further back in the field, but they’ll find their way to the front through speed, strategy or both. And what about Hinch?? He starts 32nd, but Rossi started there last year and finished in the top 3. After all that The Speedway has put him through in the past few years, I feel like the ol’ girl owes him one.
So, after ALL this talk, who is actually going to win the Indianapolis 500? Below are my 3 favorites, and a few dark horses to watch out for:
1 – Alexander Rossi
2 – Simon Pagenaud
3 – Ed Jones
1 – Connor Daly
2 – James Davison
3 – JR Hildebrand
This is going to be a weekend for the ages. I can feel it! So crack open a cold one, pick your favorite chip/dip combo, and settle in for the greatest show in the world of motor racing. I am fortunate enough to be able to attend once again, and I’ll be wearing my podcast shirt on Sunday, so feel free to say hello if we cross paths. Even if we don’t run into each other (or you avoid me on purpose), be sure to stop and see our friends at the Styled Aesthetic booth. Indiana is broiler-hot at the end of May, so you’ll need a CEP can coolie to keep those drinks cold! Shameless plugs aside, my one wish for any petrol-head out there is that they get as much joy as I do out of watching these 33 gladiators vie for the single greatest trophy in racing. It feels great to be blogging again, and it’ll feel even better to back in the Tower Terrace at Indy this weekend! Let’s GO!
If the rumors are true, the C8 Corvette will be king in a way that no other Corvette has ever been.
And that's me saying that.
If I were Acura, and had the NSX out right now as the quintessential modern American mid-engine supercar (Yeah, American, fight me in Marysville), I'd be scrambling. Because the C8 is coming. And after it launches, nothing will be the same.
At this point, there's little reason to doubt the leaks and rumors on the C8. Between Corvette forums, Reddit, and good-old fashioned journalism, basically every previous reasonable leak has been proven true. From the mid-engine layout, to the wiring issues, to the hybrid rumors, to the Cadillac coverup, to the engine options, it's all been rumors or leaks, and it's all turned out to be fact. Two months before the car's official debut, there's a new rumor, and it's about the price. According to Hagerty, the base-model C8 Corvette is slated to start between $60-70,000. We predicted that by the way. Or at least we asked "What if". But divorced from our awesomeness and objective right-and-righteousness in all things, remember: That Acura NSX, the Corvette's main American competition, starts at $157,000. Not twice the price, $100,00 more, almost three times more. Holy shit.
Imagine this: A Corvette C8 that costs $65,000 and matches the performance of the NSX. Not almost matches, not comes close, but matches it. That car would be king. Right now, the C7 Corvette ZR1 is just slightly faster than the NSX in pretty much every measurable test. But the ZR1 also matches the NSX when it comes to price, with the top trim coming in at around $155,000. Of course, the current ZR1 has that big Supercharged V8 in the front making over 600 HP, but the first C8s are expected to sit on lots with a 500-ish HP V8 in the middle. Okay, so maybe the 570 HP hybrid NSX beats the base C8 in a drag race, but doesn't the C8 need to match it around a track? It feels that way to me. After all, we know that Corvette loves racing, and we know they've been race-track testing the C8 since August of last year, all the while watching the NSX race across the class line in the Weathertech Championship. Corvette won't release an all-new mid-engined car that's a slouch on the track, it's not even possible. We also know that Corvette perennially has one eye on Ferrari. And with the C8, they have their other eye on hybrid technology. Ferrari is announcing their first-ever hybrid V8 any day now. Try to imagine a Corvette engineer who isn't quaking and frothing at the mouth to see the specs on that Ferrari, ready to rabidly work on how they can match the Ferrari on it's home layout turf for half the cost. Given what Corvette wants to have the top trim of the C8 compete with, and given how much the layout change has put at stake for Corvette, Chevy, and GM at large, I don't think it's strange to say that the base C8 needs to match the NSX. Actually, I believe it's fair to ask if Corvette can afford to not go directly at the NSX, a car that has its own cult following and launched to international acclaim. In fact, if Corvette can't make a huge international impression with the very first C8s, this whole mid-engine transition could fail before it even makes it off the ground.
But just for a moment, let's say that all my prophesies come true. Let's say that the base C8 gets fabulous reviews, that it matches the NSX, and that the top-tier C8 is a twin-turbo, hybrid, Ferrari-mashing, scalpel-wielding track lunatic from Bowling Green. And let's imagine the C8 comes in a color called Bowling Green, because it really helps the imagery. All of that still might not matter. Because of Nick.
Not Nick specifically, but Nick too. Reading the C8 rumor threads in Corvette forums is an awful, awful time. So many FRAM-brained layout truthers pop in to talk about how the C8 isn't...whatever, or how it doesn't...uh...how it...Okay, I honestly don't know what they're talking about, because I get really bad synesthesia when I read something fundamentally at odds with reality, and all I hear is this song. I said this about the Charger all the way back in the Mustang blog, and I'll say it again now: Any given modern car is so different from any of its progenitor's roots that a layout change cannot even matter. Oh wow, the first Corvette was front-engined! Y'all sure cracked that case. It also was also so ugly it caused an Anthrax outbreak in Manchester, New Hampshire. The C3 was a trash fire. The C4 was so 80s you still can't legally be seen in public next to one. The C5 was a fantastic race car...as long as it had its entire own class. But they didn't keep any of those parts for the C7 just because they were tradition! They didn't even keep the appalling chrome wheels from the C6. Does anyone truly believe that the C7 should be compared to the C1? Of course not, nobody wants those problems. The C8 doesn't need that comparison either.
The truth is that if you look at the entire history of Corvette with an objective eye, not only are they one of most changeable cars in all of car history, but they also are notable trend-followers who lead from the front. Meaning, Corvette is rarely the first one to do anything new, but they are regularly the first ones to do anything new successfully. That's not damning with faint praise, it's just praise. Between the C1 and the C8 lie four dozen rusted hulks of lost, failed, and abandoned American supercars. The Corvette has outlasted the Mustang. It outlasted the Camaro. It outlasted the Panoz Esperante, the Delorean, the Firebird, the Thunderbird, Vector, Mosler, AMC, Callaway, the Cobra, Consulier, Plymouth, SSZ, the Charger, the Falcon F7, the Saleen, the GNX, the Viper, every single weak attempt from Cadillac, the GTO, Mercury, Glickenhaus, the Challenger, the Ford GT40, the Ford GT, the Ford GT, the Roisson, everything from SSC, the Venom, the G8, the SS, and every single other car that has challenged it for its entire existence. Yet people who stanned the Corvette would dare to threaten to leave over an engine layout change? Pure nonsense. Utter foolery!
But of course, some old fans will leave. Some, like Nick, already have. Former Corvette fans taking their nonsense and leaving could be damaging enough to kill the brand, potentially. But staying where they've been since 1953 would kill the brand with absolute certainty. When we initially talked about the mid-engine Corvette rumors, we postulated that maybe - just maybe - the Camaro division had fired a ZL1-shaped bullet directly through the heart of the Front/Rear Corvette by making a car that could, with a hobbled engine, race on track in a class with the ZR1...for the price of a Grand Sport. Now, there's no doubt in my mind that was the final straw. That fact - added to the ever-mounting staleness of a C7 that was an on-track winner and off-track media darling, but has been utterly humiliated by the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger in sales for the C7's entire existence - makes it clear to me that Corvette had no choice but to swing as hard as they could with the C8 and hope for the best. No matter what The Olde Guard might think about it. Corvette was in the Harley dilemma. But they chose to act, instead of gracelessly sliding into a grave of their very own American design and manufacture.
And so, Corvette is taking on almost endless risk with the C8, specifically because of the fans: new, old, and prospective. That's why I titled this post Scary Hours. Not just because I like Drake, but because the Hours be Scary. Acura has to be scared. Ford has to be scared. Ferrari better be scared. Corvette stans have been scared, scared enough to run away. GM must be scared. We all know Chevy is scared. Corvette themselves have to be scared too, because it's all on them. Right now, every major development in the world of the supercar is entirely focused on the C8. If they execute, none of this Corvette fan grandstanding will matter or even be remembered. If they waver, or if they fail, then how long will it really take for a GM on the desperate hunt for cash savings above all else to shutter the Corvette division in total and let the resurgent Camaro reign? It's already the face of the brand in NASCAR, and their sports car volume-seller, and they could easily make a more plush, GT-style trim to grab the older Corvette buyers, and it could definitely be homologated to race in IMSA. It even has that precious Front/Rear layout that brings all the old men to the yard. I don't think it's a far-flung imagining to say that should everything break wrong, Corvette could be two or three years from disappearing out of car history. GM has killed better-selling brands for less.
Fortunately, all of this imagining and prophecy and guesswork ends soon. Because 7/8/19 is almost here. Right now it's scary hours, but a new king is coming. And after that - come hell or high water - nothing will be the same.
At the end of Season 3, Episode 14 of The Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson announced that the series as it has been for 3 years will be ending. Fortunately, Jeremy, Richard, and James aren't leaving us in the lurch. There will still be new road trips, new episodes and more seasons of the show. But nevertheless, when Jeremy gave this announcement, he broke down. And I felt his sadness at a deeper level than I would have even one year ago. I felt more than sympathy for the stalwart-if-problematic Clarkson, I actually felt empathy. What I saw was a man mourning the loss of his creation, a loss that he may not have been fully able to process as he was - deservedly - pushed out of Top Gear and the BBC as a result of his own actions. No matter how anyone might personally feel about the three men, there can be no doubt that Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond created modern car media. After 16 years, they are putting their own creation aside and choosing to do something else, and all three of them have now lost their own IP twice in five years. I can feel their pain. Even at this early stage in our growth, I understand how hard it must be.
What makes this announcement even sadder is that The Grand Tour was just hitting its stride. The content in seasons one and two went from extremely rough to decently polished. There was the terrible Celebrity Brain Crash segment, the somewhat less-bad Celebrity Face-Off segment, the drippingly lush Amazon cinematography, the ultra-high production value, and always underpinning it all, the incomparable relationship between the three main hosts. Season 3 kept everything that was good about seasons one and two and cut away the fluff, making the show tighter and more focused. Yet moving forward, there won't be any more car review segments. There won't be any studio segments. Just road trips. And that's fine, but I need to say a proper goodbye to what we're all losing.
Top Gear was the first car show to inject true personality into car culture and have it stick. Their car reviews always carried more weight than others I read because they always seemed more realistic. We - the audience of Jeremy, Richard and James - grew to know cars and car culture through the host's direct opinions; through the lens of their personalities. That is the mark of truly gifted reviewers. Every story and review should feel like it strings to the last, every feeling should be connected, even and especially when you end up contradicting yourself. That's relatable. That's life. Cars can be perfect and still bad, and the hosts showed us that. Cars can be terrible and wrap themselves around your heart, and they showed us that as well. Beyond review scores and test numbers there is a feel to cars, a connection, and Clarkson, Hammond, and May always put that front and center. And now, so does pretty much everybody else.
The influence of the way the three presented car news can also be seen everywhere. Long before Twitter, Clarkson, Hammond, and May were giving short, gut reactions to car news. Heck, most car coverage for the past decade or more has roots in The News (eventually Conversation Street), including this little podcast. Again, it all comes down to the personalities of the hosts. It's the personalities that lead, that generate the traffic, and when it works, it really works. Mr. Regular I think is a good example in the vein of old Top Gear, and even Jalopnik has moments, though by and large they try to be far too SFW while also having an edge, and you can't have it both ways.
The death of the celebrity interview is also rather sad. I believe I'm right in saying that Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was a Jeremy Clarkson idea. His concept was to have celebrities do race laps and then give interviews, in the hopes that some compelling nugget of information would be dislodged. Over the years, it produced a lot of memorable moments, and the competition for the to spot on the lap board was always extremely entertaining to me. Is it any wonder that The Grand Tour tried to re-create a celebrity spot in their show when that was taken away? What else could they do?
And all of that, all those segments, are now gone. Or rather, the pioneers of those segments are now gone from them. It's a loss for all of car culture.
There's no point in pretending otherwise: Nick, Tristan, and I created The Check Engine Podcast because we wanted - and still want - to be like Clarkson, Hammond, and May. The reality of old Top Gear and The Grand Tour is that they were shows about friends that like cars, not car shows. Because the original cast joked so relentlessly about hating each other, the friendship is something that every single drab American reboot of Top Gear has missed, and something that new Top Gear misses out as well. Ditto Netflix's sad attempts at car shows. Ditto every show ever put on Speed and/or Velocity, and/or whatever other car show channel which might be the same channel but maybe isn't who knows not me. What I learned from watching Top Gear was that the relationship between Clarkson, Hammond, and May always mattered to me far more than whatever they were driving. I believe that was the core of the pitch I made to Tristan and Nick as I piloted the TrailMcBlazer away from VIR and into the pooling night of the Blue Ridge Mountains: We need to make a show about us, and we need to talk about cars.
Maybe that comes across as selfish. Maybe it's braggadocious. Maybe it was arrogant to assume that three Wonderbread Wisconsin boys would be interesting to listen to. Only somehow, we are. Thanks to every single listener, reader, and supporter, we know that we have a worthwhile product. The three of us have genuinely created something that works, something that connects with an audience, and because of that, when I saw Jeremy Clarkson wiping away a tear, I suddenly realized how I would feel if we lost what we have built, even in its fledgling state. Rental Car Reviews, Pace Laps, this blog, Show and Tell episodes, the social media accounts, all of that has been created by the three of us. And if any of it were to be taken away, I would be shattered.
We aren't going away. Of course not, we have too much to do, too much to accomplish, too far to grow. Next week we'll put out what we're calling Episode 50, even though it might not actually be number 50, eh, whatever. Along with that, we're rolling out a new content schedule. First, we're moving blogs to every other week, but the rotation will stay the same. So Nick will post a blog next week, then it will be an off week, then Tristan, than an off week, then me, and then an off week. Really, it got to a point where the blogs were getting so good, I wanted to be able to talk more about them in episodes. This will allow us to do that. Second, on the blog off-weeks, we're going to bring back the live videos, so there will still be fresh content in the weeks where there is no blog. Third, we're going to add in more open-format episodes, because we all enjoy them and they keep the creative juices flowing while also allowing us to cover things in more detail. Fourth, we're aiming to get more focused with our episodes, so we get better lead-up to and after-impressions from our races, and other events we go to. And finally, we are aiming to make it easier for us to schedule and record interviews. Because between the three of us, we have half the average person's ability to organize, so creating this schedule will allow us to plan more effectively and be more accountable to our fans and to our content.
We will start recording video and create a YouTube presence, and that's in the works. We've had a lot of failures, but success is within our grasp. We will add a soundboard, and we're so close on that, we just need the quality to match what we have already established. We will continue to step up the content in our blogs. We will keep pushing ourselves to create the best content we can in our episodes. We will keep manning the social media accounts to expand our reach. We will keep growing. We will keep getting better. And it's all thanks to every single person who has ever tuned in to an episode or read a blog. And no message of thanks from us will ever be enough to accurately portray how grateful we are for each and every of you.
To close, I want to share with all of you a message that ranks as a personal life highlight: An Instagram message from user joeroy15. Joe wrote to tell us that he likes our podcast. He wrote to tell us that he just found us three weeks ago, and only has 4 episodes left. He said that he's been listening to us all day while he's at work. I teared up a bit when I read Joe's message. I never thought that I would make anything that would be binge-worthy. I never thought to create something worthwhile enough to become a daily part of a stranger's life, something that other people would be excited to get more of. It makes me want to work harder. It makes me want to grow this podcast and this content more than I ever have before. It makes me dream bigger, and even bigger than that. So, here's a thank you Joe, just from me to you: Thank you for your inspiration. And Happy early Birthday. Welcome to CEP Nation. Here's to the next 50.
As you may have heard on our most recent podcast, as Andrew so gleefully pointed out, the new C8 Corvette is being revealed in July, and it is confirmed as a mid-engine model. To some, this may seem long overdue and a step in the right direction. To others, including myself, this is nothing short of blasphemy. I have an emotional reaction because Corvettes have been in my life since I was old enough to start remembering things. My father has had a Corvette in the garage since before I was born. He’s had a 1969 Stingray (C3), a 1963 split window coupe (C2), a 1986 C4, and a 1997 C5. As a retirement present for himself, he bought back the 1969 Stingray that he sold 25 years prior…not just the same model, the Exact. Same. Car. How great a story is that?
My initiation to car culture came from my dad, and so did my love for the Corvette. As the C6 and C7 models were revealed, I noticed that I was liking them less and less. It just seemed like they were continually losing their “Corvette-ness”, and I felt like the writing was on the wall. This C8 mid-engine announcement didn’t surprise me one bit, but I’m still seething about it. I meant what I said on the air, that as of July 18, 2019, I will no longer be a fan of the Corvette. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the old ones, but I refuse to support any mid-engine GM vehicle with a Corvette badge. Besides all the emotional reason listed above, from a practical standpoint there was absolutely zero reason to change the layout of the Corvette, despite what my co-hosts may tell you. To help you understand why the car should have stayed the same, let’s first take a look at what being a “brand” means. The Webster definition is a little basic, so I found a good one from businessdictionary.com for you to read below. Pay attention to the 2nd and 3rd sentences in particular. Emphasis mine:
Unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. Over time, this image becomes associated with a level of credibility, quality, and satisfaction in the consumer's mind. Thus brands help harried consumers in crowded and complex marketplace, by standing for certain benefits and value.
To sum it up, besides being a name and icon, a brand is how companies become ingrained in the mind of the consumer. A brand is the messages you send as a company. It’s the images you conjure, it’s the feelings you evoke; your brand equity. A brand is supposed to stand for something. You see, there are certain competitive markets that are heavily saturated with a lot of choices for the consumer. One of the markets that most exemplifies saturation is the automotive space. With so many manufacturers releasing so many models and trying to catch a whiff of consumer attention, it becomes difficult to establish brand equity. General Motors had it with the Corvette: A legendary American sports car with (mostly) manual transmissions, high horsepower V8’s and a front engine, rear wheel drive layout. It’s been that way since 1953 when the car was first introduced. It’s what car fans everywhere have come to know and love. It conquered the racing world with that layout, with 170+ race wins, 8 titles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 manufacturer championships, and over 50 1-2 finishes. And GM is throwing this away for…what, exactly?
Yes, there are very many successful and popular vehicles on the road and racetrack with mid or rear engine layouts. All the credit in the world to Porsche for the 911. The #1 and 1a cars on my dream list right now are Ferraris: The 458 for nostalgic reasons, and the F8 Tributo because HOLY SHIT have you seen it?! The mid-engine layout is prized in the racing world (and therefore on the streets), because putting the engine towards the back of the car puts more weight on the driving rear wheels for traction, and it also helps the suspension absorb rough roads. But the front-rear layout shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Why not? Well, see the race record above for starters. Racing comes down to a lot of different factors, not just vehicle layout. Corvette has beaten a lot of Porsches, Ferraris and mid-engine Fords in its day. And General Motors is not the only ones with front-rear performance/muscle/sports cars. Mercedes competes with multiple cars in this layout. BMW, does the same. Hell, the M3 is one of the most revered front-rear sports saloons of all time! Aston Martin launches almost all of its models with front-rear, like the Vanquish and the DB11, and they race them too. Jaguar has always gone with this layout for its lineups, which currently include the venerable F Type and the XE/XF sports sedans. Let’s not forget all the other American muscle cars out there like the Challenger, Mustang and the Camaro. The ZL1-trimmed Camaro is a proper track beast, all with an engine up front and the drive wheels out back. And who can forget the awesome Dodge Viper? Even the aforementioned Ferrari has released an F-R car to go along with all of their mid-engine examples: ever hear of the 812 Superfast? If this vehicle layout is so subpar when it comes to performance, why do all of these manufacturers continue to produce cars in this way?
One thing that Tristan and Andrew were absolutely right about is this: GM has a massive opportunity to produce a mid-engine sports car with a price that can undercut its competitors. The Corvette as it is today is already a value for the performance a buyer can enjoy. Its base price (roughly $53,000) is $40k less than the Nissan GT-R, $60k less than a 911 and $100k less than the NSX. Only when someone chooses to invest in the mighty ZR1 package do they need to pay prices anywhere near that much. Even if the base price goes up by $20,000 for a mid-engine package, I’m sure a $75k GM sports car with an engine behind the seats will most definitely turn some heads. Just don’t call it a Corvette. How cool would it be to resurrect the Firebird, literally another name for a bird that rises from the ashes, as this new mid-engine contender from GM? It wouldn’t do much good to badge it a Chevrolet, with the Camaro already there. Although Vettes are technically Chevys, I think we can all agree that it is a brand unto itself that can stand on its own. That leaves Cadillac if they really want to go that route, but I honestly don’t care what make General Motors designates it as, so long as they leave the Corvette as it is.
I’m not completely against change, but there are plenty of ways to advance technology and modernize without moving the engine. Throughout its history the Corvette actually served as General Motors’ incubator for many tech advancements that would eventually be passed on to other cars in their portfolio: things like disc brakes, fuel injection, independent rear suspension, traction control, antilock brakes, stability control and lightweight materials all made their GM debut on the Corvette. Today, the magnetic ride suspension on the C7 is widely considered to be one of, if not the best in the game today, and the Aerogel material GM fits it with to insulate the cabin from any transmission tunnel heat was developed specifically for NASA to use on its Mars rovers. Its precise 50/50 weight distribution led to the car receiving top handling and braking marks against rivals such as the Porsche 911 and McLaren 570GT. That doesn’t sound like a “dopey” front engine car to me, Tristan.
Think of how many automotive nameplates out there truly stand the test of time. Corvette, Mustang, Beetle, F-150, Jeep, the DB designation from Aston Martin…bottom line is, it’s near impossible to do, and if a car maker is fortunate enough to achieve that status, they should hold onto it with a death grip. The Corvette is a legendary name that is hardwired in the psyche of car fanatics the world over. This car has come to truly stand for something in the minds of the consumers. It’s the American sports car that conquered the world, with an engine in the front. It isn’t broke. There wasn't any reason to fix it.
Last weekend I was in the front garden digging a hole for a Blue Heaven hydrangea when I found a whole car. Well, a whole die-cast car. The weather that day was gorgeous, and my wife and I had gotten all first-time-homeowner excited to get a head start on our plans to redo the gardens around our house. You see, the previous owners had been a bit overzealous with their planting (why a cactus), and we had to do a lot of removal last fall, leaving some areas looking pretty bare. Plus, we had made some exterior color changes, and of course the gardens have to match and enhance our color scheme and spread it across the yard so the neighbors feel inferior, you know, regular stuff.
At the time I wasn't thinking anything about cars or the podcast, both of which regularly occupy my thoughts more than is medically advisable. I was just listening to some Michael McDonald and digging a hole. And then I had a clump of dirt in my hand that, for some reason, appeared to have wheels. After just a tiny bit of amateur archaeology, I unearthed the die-cast car pictured above. It seems to be a Datsun, but I can't be sure which one yet. Perhaps a 240Z or Fairlady Z, perhaps a 260Z, but it definitely looks like something in that line. It was previously green with a beige or white interior, and the hood opens but the doors do not. Also it's mostly missing one wheel, as you can see. Of course, upon revealing my find, I immediately posted it to our Instagram, where it became our most-liked post ever.
I'm not a big believer in signs or comic energy, but it is quite nice to have a random moment of personal encouragement every now and then. This was one of those for me. Recently, I've been feeling a little stagnant with the podcast, a little like I'm losing momentum, which of course just leads me to obsessively think about what I've done or have been doing wrong, or what I need to be doing differently. But when you overthink your content, it shows in the final product, so you have to think about it without thinking about it but make sure you're always thinking about it so you don't miss your own thoughts about it - small wonder pretty much all artists have anxiety. Yet outside all of that recursive bullshit, at a moment when I couldn't have been farther from my podcast worries, I found a Datsun in my garden. To me, this die-cast car is a small reminder that Hey, You're Doing Alright. It helps.
In order to investigate my find a little further, I took it to the kitchen and tried to wash it off a bit. Unfortunately, the car had been outside and buried for so long that just merely cleaning it off wasn't enough to read the letters on the bottom so I could find out more about the thing. Then, a thought occurred. What if I restored this little car a bit? For content, and also to return the favor it did for me. Is that possible? Is restoring die-cast cars a thing?
How little I knew. When I tell you that restoring die-cast cars is a thing, I mean it is AN ENTIRE THING. Forums, international online shops, YouTube channels with millions of views, collectors, sellers, buyers, conferences, conventions, eBay stores, How-Tos, Wikis, custom-made replacement parts, lingo, techniques...everything. There is everything, and its all out there on the internet for everyone to find; an entire subculture that's as well-developed as any in car fandom, and as technically astute as the most hardcore tabletop gamers. Up to this point I've avoided calling my Datsun a Matchbox car or a Hot Wheels car, and there's a reason for that. After a second of looking into this subculture, I learned that you can't just call every die-cast a Hot Wheels or a Matchbox car, you normie. You casual filth. You have to know the brand. THEN you can worry about the model.
In all honestly, the die-cast restoration subculture seems to be one of the healthiest I've ever seen online. Go check out some videos on YouTube. They're typically just a person with a camera and a voiceover mic showing you what they did, how they did it, and telling you why they did it that way. Every video is an instruction, and the comments are shockingly non-toxic for YouTube, and for car culture, and for the internet in general. Typically its either someone going "Wow, I didn't know this was a thing, amazing" or a different restorer saying how they do things, or pointing out tiny flaws in the finished product with tips or suggestions on what could make things better next time. Nobody fights. Nobody gets insulted. Typing it out, the whole thing sounds kind of simple, but the work these folks put into their restorations is deeply impressive. Clear coats, drilling out rivets, era-appropriate color-matching, custom transfer stickers, modifications, every single thing. If you want to do a die-cast restoration, you can rest assured that somebody out there has done one similar to one you want to do, and they've probably made a video for you to follow.
I think I'm going to give this a try. To pay respect to this little buried treasure, I think I'm going to take a whack at restoring it. Step one will be finding out what it is and who made it. So far, I've had no luck finding a green die-cast Datsun that has an opening hood but no opening doors. It doesn't seem that Hot Wheels or Matchbox made one exactly matching that description, but there are more than 50 brands that have made die-cast model cars over the years, and obviously one of them made my little Datsun. So thank you little Datsun. I would very much like to pay you back, and hopefully with the help of the die-cast restoration subculture I'll find myself equal to the task.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about something we’ve discussed on our recent episodes: the VW and Ford partnership. As the podcast’s resident VAG fanboy (or VW AG for the more childish of our hosts), I’d like to weigh in on the issue. My verdict: PUMPED. I’ve been looking into it more and more, and I have to say I’ve come away excited. We rag a lot on Ford in our episodes for boneheadedly choosing to move away from the regular car, but what we don’t give Ford a lot of credit for is their very good trucks and vans.
This is because we are an automobile enthusiast podcast, but when we say automobile enthusiast, we generally mean cars, not trucks and vans. Minus some offroad variants or special editions, to us, pickup trucks and vans are just kind of... there. A lot of people drive them daily, but for the most part, they are there to do a job. A lot are fleet vehicles or are owned by individual tradespeople. At the very least some of them are privately owned for to boat towing, RV towing, or go kart towing. Although necessary in some cases and good at what they do, trucks and work vans are rarely, if ever, glamorous.
That said, we did have the F-150 on our bracket for most iconic car for a reason. It is still the benchmark and template for the “pickup truck”. 32 million F-series trucks had been sold as of a year ago (the most recent numbers I could find, given lag in collating data). Two are sold every minute, on average. On the van front, the Ford Transit is also king. Four hundred thousand have been registered in the US so far. It’s only been here since 2014, and in America, vans don’t sell nearly as well as trucks. Getting Americans to make the leap to an extremely European, kinda weird looking van is no small feat, but the Transit seems to have accomplished it. Some might argue the Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter was first, and it was, at least chronologically. But the Sprinter was just the ripple that started the tidal wave of Euro-style vans on North American roads. The Transit is the wave. So, in the truck and van market? Ford is doing well.
But Ford isn't doing well everywhere else. Despite being a dominant force in the work vehicle markets, Ford’s overall market share has plummeted in the last three years. At the CEP, we chalk that up to aging car models, lackluster crossovers, and horrendous interiors even before they decided to completely stop selling cars. Fortunately, all of this is something that VW can help with. VW has recently had a notable re-invigoration of their design departments with the new Arteon, Atlas, new Jetta (which I prefectly predicted, but anyways), and the new Tiguan all sporting really solid looks matched with VW's signature high-quality interiors. VW seems to have taken our advice and put the value back into the People’s Car. If any of that manages to bleed over to Ford, especially into their already successful trucks and vans, it can only be a good thing. But what does VW get in return?
A goddamn truck. Simple as that. I state again, I’m the VW fanboy around these parts and even I would never drive their current truck, the Amarok. It just doesn’t have the chops to be a "real" pickup truck. For example: The Amarok is All-wheel drive instead of true 4WD, it has no low range gearbox, it has leaf springs in the back, etc. Of course, the most damning evidence that the Amarok isn't a real truck is that VW doesn't even sell it in America, home of the truck! Now, it does have some excellent engine options and it IS a traditional body-on-frame design. However, that makes it seem half done to me. I think Ford could help VW finish the Amarok. Ford is already developing a new platform for the re-introduced Ranger, and it’s already been confirmed that they are going to share truck technology with VW. If VW can bring a real truck to market in order to compete directly with the Ranger, Colorado, and Tacoma, then suddenly, VW - who has been doing everything else correctly as of late - will have a powerful new weapon in not just the rest of the world, but hopefully in America too.
The idea of this partnership began with plans for sharing development and production of commercial vehicles. Large work vans, delivery trucks, etc. This was purported to be in order for the two companies to save billions in development, production, and distribution costs. But the talks have grown to encompass everything from technology sharing for consumer vehicles, to EV technology, to VW possibly purchasing a stake in Fords autonomous car division “Argo”. Yes, I had to look that up. I didn’t even know it was it’s own division, much less that it was named Argo. To me, that’s the only sour grape in the whole bunch of goodness that can come from this. We know a certain amount of driver aid is coming, but we also know that, according to all the experts so far, truly autonomous vehicles are, if not impossible, a VERY long way off. I would wait, VW. Run your own tests. Create some of your own tech. Buy into an alliance LATER if it makes sense. Don’t give needless money to Ford to buy into their tech.
So yes. You heard it on the podcast. Initially I was skeptical of VWs ties to one of the most anti-car car brands in America: Ford. It’s weird to say that about the brand that BROUGHT you the car, but there it is. Ford is anti-car. Not anti-automobile, but anti-car. VW, of course, loves the car. 13 of the 28 countries in the EU have either the VW Golf or the Skoda Octavia as their best-selling car of 2018, and every single country has at least one VWG car in their top 3. So why would VW want to associate themselves with Ford? Because it’s not Ford’s car expertise they’re after. VW is after Ford's trucks. And maybe, hopefully, a little of VW’s continuing love for cars will rub back off on the Ford executive board. We can always hope. But for now, I think we’re going to see some very good things come from this unholy-seeming alliance. Bring it on.