Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

Bad luck for car enthusiast

As a car enthusiast, sometimes luck simply isn’t on your side. I’m not talking about the big sorrowful events like horrible accidents, but rather mundane annoyances that strikes at random (like a scraped bumper), and should you be so unlucky, a cluster of them seems to hit you all at once.

Mind you I am not talking about me, thank heavens, though back in April just about the biggest rock chip I’ve ever seen was thrown into the upper portion of the GT3’s bonnet. Actually, there was also that rear tire puncture as well, which turned out to be quite the chore to fix. But no, compared to my brother’s year with his mark 7 Golf GTI, I’d consider myself fortunate.

Indeed, said brother have only had the car for one year, and within that time-span the following misfortune occurred to his precious little hot hatch. First was the time during his move back to university for the Fall semester, and my clumsy dad absentmindedly scraped the rear quarter panel when he attempted to stuff the mini fridge into the rear passenger compartment (it didn’t fit through the aperture, obviously). Shortly after that, the GTI got broken into whilst parked in the lot of a restaurant, necessitating a replacement of the rear passenger window, plus that annoying tiny triangular glass at the corner that doesn’t really do anything.

California saw its wettest rain season in many years, so road conditions this winter was not very good. My brother drove over a set of light-rail tracks thinking nothing of it, but lurking adjacent to far rail was an enormous pothole. It obliterated the front left tire, requiring an emergency trip to the nearest tire shop. Now my brother did take this opportunity to swap the crappy stock all-season tires with a solid set of summer performance boots, which I have to say utterly transformed the GTI’s character. However, I’m sure his wallet holds a different opinion.

Lastly, a month ago an errant stone chip to the windshield proved a bit on the too large side, causing two parallel cracks to form at lower left quadrant, directly in the sight-line of the driver. My brother is still in the process of getting that replaced, which is another chunk of change that with better luck could’ve been avoided.

That’s all part of owning a car, isn’t it? To keep a car pristine, stuff in a garage forever; otherwise, it’s simply things a driver has to deal with. A person could go for years without a puncture, then suffer multiples of them within a short time. I jokingly told my brother that he doesn’t have to deal with any of this if he’d only take the bus instead.

Like I do. Sort of.

A veritable jungle on campus.

It's not all that precious

It’s expectedly strange to drive around in a car costing six-figures: the price-tag never really leaves the back of your mind. Every peculiar sound the car makes, loud or faint, causes an immediate reaction, questioning whether this will be the hour the car crumbles, costing to the tune of thousands of dollars.

It doesn’t help the GT3 is a manufactured in Germany, and we’re quite familiar with German automobiles’ reputation for reliability, which is to say, not good at all.

Alas this is what happens when you buy a car in that high of a price category, but you yourself am not sufficiently endowed monetarily as the typical owner (I don’t even make the price of the GT3 in salary annually). Surely those people have no issues dropping the occasional hundreds or thousands on an errant bent wheel or coil-pack failure, but I definitely do. I’m somewhat stretching it just to afford the 911 as it comes, so surprise repair bills are not welcomed sights.

Obviously, the prudent option would’ve been to buy not so nice of a car, but as the kids say these days, you only live once, and indeed I can pay for the GT3 and its associated running costs; it’s just that when things go wrong in a Porsche, the fix is usually spectacularly expensive (hello, Porsche tax!). Therefore I end up treating the car as if it’s the most fragile object in the world, like dodging even the smallest of road debris, or thinking it’s irreparably ruined at the first hint of any weird noises.   

Often times I have to remind myself the Porsche 911 is known for its robustness, a supreme legacy of reliably fun motoring for nearly six decades. It features some of the finest German engineering to exist, and ergo I shouldn’t be so apprehensive about driving it as I would any other car (within reason). The components that interacts with the ground are all motorsport focused, so the typical pothole isn’t going to do any damage. The engine is meant for heavy track abuse, so my putting around town and the occasional mountain road isn’t hurting a thing.

I have to train myself to let go of the GT3’s preciousness, and treat it as it’s meant to be: a superbly fast and immensely sporting transpiration device. Unexpected costs should be dealt with as they come unexpectedly, rather than keeping it constantly in mind. I bought the car for a sole reason, and that is to drive, unreservedly.

Lens flare to make JJ Abrams proud.

Fast mountain driving is an exercise

Can spirited driving be considered as exercise?

After what transpired this past Saturday, I certainly think so.

It was a glorious post-rain afternoon basking in sunshine, on a long stretch of winding tarmac where nary a car could be found (we were out in the middle of nowhere); I had the first opportunity to really explore the lofty limits of the 911 GT3 since I bought it back in January. For a word to sum up the experience, it would be ‘sweaty’.

Perhaps an empty parking lot might have been the more ideal proving ground to start off with, because for the first quarter stretch of the road I was super hesitant with my inputs, not daring to upset the car. Admittedly I had yet to break the GT3’s backend loose even once, so I had zero idea what its dynamics were like. All I knew at the time was the Porsche has tremendous power and grip, and it’s up to me to find the edge where either of those begin to falter.

That is, if my body is up to the task.

For the first proper go on a twisty mountain road in anger, I can say I handled myself fairly well: my friend who was following behind told me afterwards that I got noticeably quicker the deeper we got into the route. That said I simply could not keep up with the driver in front of me in a Chevrolet SS; he’s had 60,000 miles of familiarity with that car, and in his capable hands the SS disappeared from my windshield in short order. No doubt the GT3 is capable of going much faster - a 475 horsepower sports car ought to be quicker than a 4,000lb sports sedan; the problem is obviously not the car, but rather me.

Nevertheless, I was absolutely hustling the car to my (not so great) abilities, and it was indeed quite the workout. Even with the automatic climate control set at the standard 72 degrees, my back was perspiring heavily, and my palms needed periodic wipes on my shirt. I had to take off my hat because sweat was forming on my head as well. A leisure weekend drive it certainly was not.

And I felt the affects the following morning: I must have gripped the steering wheel too hard because my fingers were sore, and due to the countless shuffling of the right foot between braking and acceleration, the calve muscles were barking. I guess I never appreciated - until now - how much of an athlete a racing driver has to be, and how sorely lacking my own conditioning is.

Looking forward to improving on both fronts: mastering the GT3, and making sure my body is up to the task of doing it.  

Paying my respect to the locals.

Damn it, why can't I just drive?

I am indeed that person who implores people to drive their cars, that vehicles aren’t meant to be permanently stored in climate-controlled garages, that superficial blemishes give character to a car (those sweet patina points), and it’s okay for it to not be as perfect as the day it rolled out of the factory.

I am also the person who is supremely obsessive compulsive about keeping a car as perfect as possible, and the two diametrically opposed ethos create quite the friction point for me. There’s not a lot I love more than taking the GT3 out on a long drive: music on to accompany the melodic rumble of the engine, and with no particular destination in mind. But, as soon as a set of loose pebbles get pelted onto the windshield, creating fresh pockmarks, that’s when the agony begins.

So much for putting miles on cars and embracing the patina. Given the opportunity and resources I’d totally park a car forever in a my living room and polish it with the finest baby diapers and extra virgin tears.

Admittedly my car OCD was immensely worse back a few years; these days I’m much more accepting of flaws and scars from normal wear and tear (or self inflicted extracurricular wear and tear). I’d thought buying a used car would alleviate some of the compulsions, given the car is innately imperfect, and the first few cuts (if you will) have already been done. Contrast that to the brand new vehicles I’ve purchased, where it was an utter mental drain to pay attention to each and every weird sound, and thinking the worse of it. That pothole I ran over? The car is ruined!

Turns out I’m equally obsessive with a used car, and worse, I’m being OCD about blemishes that weren’t even my fault! Isn’t that just the most pathetic: I’m letting things done to the car by the previous owners bother me. He put a scratch on the steering wheel leather - that bastard!

Obviously I’ve been fighting myself to not be so caught up with the GT3’s imperfections, whether or not they were caused by me. As long as the car remains clean and mechanically sound, that is all I can and should ask for. The GT3 is a driver, not a museum art piece; though the process to be completely at peace with that notion is going to take some time. The work continues.

Spring bloom in full effect.

Hot hatches are awesome

I have indeed seen the light.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is universally known for being the best all-round car for the money, an indefeatable combination of power, sports, and utility. If you need one singular car to do everything in, and you’ve only got around $30,000, the GTI is the definitive answer.

Which explains my excitement a year ago when my brother brought home a brand new 2018 edition of the GTI. I’ve never driven one up until then so I was eager to get a taste of what everyone’s been raving about. For sure it seats four adults in comfort, and the boot can swallow a surprising amount of gear; but does the Golf GTI really live up to its sporting acclaims? 

Initial impressions were a bit of a disappointment. Yes, the power from the 2.0-liter turbo four is wholly sufficient, and the torque shove is tremendous fun on urban routes. However, it’s when I took the GTI through some corners where it started to baffle me: it’s very quick through the turns, but to my hands it felt numb and sterile. It was as if there’s a filter between my inputs and the car’s reactions. The GTI is an adequately fast car, but as is from the factory it’s curiously lacking in driving thrill.

It turns out, the culprit was the tires.

A few months ago my brother had an unfortunately run-in with a serious pothole, and the left front tire got obliterated. A perfect opportunity to swap the stock all-season tires for a set of proper summer performance boots. I recently got a go in the new setup, and the GTI’s dynamics have been utterly transformed. The car was simply let downed by the stock tires.

I finally got to experience the genuine joy of driving a hot hatch. Armed with a sticky set of tires, the GTI becomes incredibly playful and alive. The turn-in is just mega: jerk the steering wheel with abandon, and the front-end responds with seemingly endless grip. Mash the throttle out of a corner, let the limited-slip differential do the work of finding purchase, and the GTI rockets out with the gobs of available torque. The amount of confidence in the front axle so high, it beggars belief it’s front-wheel drive.

Combined with a good manual gearbox and nicely spaced pedals for heel-toe maneuvers, the GTI, when fitted with good set of tires, is an absolute revelation. I can now see why people adore hot hatchbacks; I might need one of my own.

Gum spots.

Dash-cam videos of car crashes are fun

As one does I spent a significant part of this weekend sleuthing on Youtube. What took me down the endless rabbit hole this time were dash-cam videos of bad driving and car accidents. As someone who haven’t driven regularly for over seven months now, the wonton idiocy and incompetence of other drivers is something I do not miss. That said, I shall be back on the road sometime next year so those compilations videos are a stark reminder of the potential dangers.

In my previous cars I ran a GoPro as a dash-cam as a sort of insurance policy against possible accidents, ensuring zero ambiguity as to whose fault it was that caused it (unless it’s me?). Luckily in those four years I never had to use it for that specific purpose; the GoPro primarily served to capture stupid drivers on the road and for me to look at the footage later and have a laugh.

It’s interesting to see the dash-cam movement catching on here in America: there’s even dedicated websites and storefronts to the cause now. We’ve all seen the crazy Russian dash-cam footages on Youtube, and in Asia almost all cars (that I’ve been in and I can see) has them installed and running. In supremely litigious United States it was only a matter of time before it absolutely proliferated here. I think it’s a hugely missed opportunity that automakers don’t fit these cameras as standard in cars.

I think in my forthcoming 911 I will bite the bullet and hard-wire a dash-cam unit in so I don’t have to screw and unscrew a GoPro every single time I get into the car.

Perhaps a bit arrogant on my part to say, but from what I can analyze of the dash-cam videos I watched this weekend, much of the accidents can be easily avoided. It’s incredibly easy for our egos to get inflated sat inside a 3000 plus pound rolling missile, and the key is tame that down. Be on a constant alert for bad drivers, and be ready to react when they encroach onto my space. Many of the collisions I saw were the unwillingness of the aggrieved party to acquiesce to the terrible driving of the other.

If another cars wants to cut me off, jump a line, make an illegal turn, go super slowly on a 65 mile-an-hour highway: I let them. The goal is to not play cop and challenge these drivers, but rather extricate myself and my precious car from the situation as soon as possible. The reward of a victorious ego from righting a wrong that ends up in a mangled car is pyrrhic indeed.

But it does make for entertaining videos on Youtube.

There was a time when appendages like these on a car would excite me to no end.

There was a time when appendages like these on a car would excite me to no end.

My first joy of driving wasn't in a car

Back in my high school days, Initial D was the biggest thing amongst us kids who loved Japanese cars. I was introduced to the anime by a friend of mine who lend me his bootleg CDs of the first series, and as a person who grew up on watching Japanese anime, I was quite excited that finally there was one about cars.

Kids these days have it so incredible good with easy online access to content; back in our day there was no such thing as Youtube, no such thing as digital release - Internet wasn’t even fast enough. Anime gets broadcasted on TV in Japan, and then you either wait for the DVDs, or pray someone recorded the broadcast on a computer, dub in English subtitles, and puts it up on peer-to-peer networks (Bittorrent for life). For the second and third series of Initial D I actually had to ask my father’s friend who was visiting Hong Kong at the time to buy the DVDs. It wasn’t until the fourth series that the content was widely available online the day after broadcast thanks to dedicated subbing groups.

Alongside the anime program there’s naturally offshoots in merchandising. One of the most popular Initial D related items were the arcade machines. The opportunity to “drive” the cars in the numerous racing battles seen in the anime was completely irresistible. Luckily for us there were arcade machines a brief 15 minute walk from our high school - at San Francisco State, where I currently work at, coincidently. Back then the hoards of people queueing up just to have a go was enormous, often dozen deep during the hours immediately after school.

Unfortunately I was seriously lacking in funds (each turn required two dollars) so I never got too far into the game unlike most of my peers. Now that I think about it I don’t think I’ve played Initial D more than five times. I thought wouldn’t it be great - far less costly, and no lines - if I had such a driving game setup at home. When Gran Turismo 4 was introduced in 2004, I seize the chance to do just that.

Logitech and other accessories manufacturers was at the infancy of offering wheel setups for driving games, and for $150 in 2004 dollars I bought a Logitech Driving Force Pro to get the Initial D arcade-like experience at home. We had to build a stand out of Home Depot wood to position the wheel in front of the television, and for seating I simply used my desk chair. It was crude indeed compared to the Logitech T300RS and Playseat Challenge combo I’ve got now, but chasing the final bits of realism and force-feedback wasn’t the point: back then it was solely about the pure joy of driving.

A kid who’ve loved car since he can remember was all of a sudden able to drive over 700 of them in GT4. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t remotely close to piloting the real thing; I had a steering wheel in my hand, with gas and brake pedals beneath my feet, and I’m controlling a car on the screen in front of me. That was more than enough, especially since I haven’t yet gotten my driver license. I absolutely worn it out out driving on the Nurburgring whenever I had free time, which is something i still do in Assetto Corsa.

So yes, my first ‘joy of driving’ moment wasn’t in an actual car, which I think is pretty awesome.

In 2016 the Initial D machines are still there, though the amount of customers have dwindled considerably.

In 2016 the Initial D machines are still there, though the amount of customers have dwindled considerably.