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.