The Thing About Car Blogs
Original Content and Recommended Reading

If you saw my recent review of The Complete Book of BMW Motorcycles, this book will be familiar: same format, same author. Ian Falloon knows his motorcycles is a well-respected author about them. In this book he presents a complete look at Moto Guzzi from the beginning a hundred years ago until the present day. No stone is left unturned as every Guzzi is covered from the most basic small bikes to the racers and even some futuristic concepts. This is a fabulous resource for any Moto Guzzi enthusiast and is available from Motorbooks.

The best part of this book is that we’ll be giving it to a lucky fan at Italian Car (and Motorcycle) Day, November 7 2020 at Ferrari/Maserati of Atlanta! Come out and see lots of belissimo cars and motorcycles, and who knows, you might be the lucky winner of this book! Ferrari/Maserati of Atlanta is located at 11875 Alpharetta Highway in Roswell GA. See you there!

Your first thought upon reading the title of this is probably that I’m going to talk about those sexy, swoopy, fantastic, expensive cars that most of us will never be able to have but nevertheless inhabit our daydreams and those ‘what if’ we games we play about winning the lottery. That’s great, but what’s on my mind right now is the cars that appear in our night dreams, the weird and often inexplicable visions our brains concoct while we sleep.

I’m writing this on the morning of November 1, the day after Halloween. I don’t know if the Halloween season or the full moon that combined with it this year had anything to do with it, but I had some weird dreams the last two nights and while that’s not so unusual in itself, the fact that I remembered them so well was, as was the fact that the same car appeared in both of them. Weirder still, it wasn’t even some oddball car that my brain created (as my dreams tend to be rather surreal more often than not), but rather a real-life car, presented in correct detail despite somewhat surreal situations. A car I used to own, in fact. A 1983 Honda Accord.

Photo from teh interwebz. Not my car but it looks just like mine looked.

I’d bought the Honda used but in really nice shape considering that it had 91 thousand miles on it. I was in the army at the time, and six months earlier I’d bought a 1977 Monte Carlo right after getting back to the USA from an overseas assignment. The Monte was a big, long, obnoxious disco-mobile that was was available for very little money, and I grabbed it. Now I was looking ahead to my discharge in less than a year, and hoping to go to college after that. I knew that the big fuel-thirsty beast wouldn’t do well for a student on a budget, so I traded it in at a fly-by-night used car lot near the army base for the Honda.

Also not my car, but you get the general idea.

It was a 2-door hatchback, a style of car I still love and wish still existed in today’s market. It had a 5-speed manual gearbox and was that shade of light metallic blue that most Hondas in the ’80s seemed to be, with blue velour upholstery inside. Not ‘fully loaded’ but still very snazzy as Hondas went in those days. It was in really great condition and ran like a new car, obviously very well-kept by whoever owned it before. If there was one thing about it that seemed a little spooky, it was a hole in the driver-side door. More of a slit really, a narrow penetration of the metal about an inch long, obviously made from the outside, with one end pointed and the other end flat. It looked like a knife-stab wound, and it was very low, no more than knee-high. Great, the car got stabbed by a midget. Not wanting moisture to get in and ruin anything, I sealed it with some silicone caulk covered by a piece of clear packing tape, a repair which held until the end of the car’s life.

That Honda would prove to be one of the best cars I ever owned, although the competition is getting pretty stiff with how just damn good cars have been getting in recent years. I kept it for eight years and about 155 thousand miles. It got me through college, several jobs before, during, and after college, and a move to another state and a couple more jobs there. It was a remakably good ‘truck’ too and hauled all manner of stuff such as a ’47 Ford flathead V8 block, a load of firewood piled up to the ceiling, my big ungainly bass-amp rig to lots of band gigs, and even a few friends who piled-in under the hatch one time. And then there was the 13-foot kayak I owned for a while: fold down the rear seat, fully recline the passenger seat, wrap a towel around the nose of the boat, then shove it into the open hatch until the nose rested between the dashboard and the windscreen, then tie the stern to the tow-loop under the rear bumper, with about four feet of the hull hanging out the open hatch. Or the gigantic radio-control airplane that I built: a one-third-scale replica of a Super Decathlon. This airplane’s fuselage was about 7 or 8 feet long, had a 22-inch propeller up front (spun by a 65cc engine, bigger than some scooters have), a 30-inch wide empennage (the ‘tail fins’) at the other end, and an 11-foot wingspan. Luckily the wings were detachable, and with the car’s rear seat folded down and the hatch open, the fuselage went in nose-first with the wings laid alongside it and several feet of the tail and empennage stuck out the open hatch. Must have been quite sight in traffic, especially since the airplane was bright yellow.

Imagine this in bright yellow hanging out the open hatch. There is probably somebody in that town who still talks about seeing a car driving around with an airplane sticking out of it.

That Honda stood up to all my abuse, got a few dents along the way, effortlessly made countless road-trips, and could crawl out of anywhere as long as the drive-wheels were touching the ground. It even survived having a colony of fire ants move into the back seat once! And it did all this very reliably, having few major troubles at all, and very efficiently too. On top of that, it was also fun to drive. But nothing lasts forever. As it approached a quater-million miles, the wear and tear was starting to add up. The steering got a little misaligned one day when I hit some debris on the street, and not long after that the head-gasket started failing. With great sadness I knew that it was time to let the car go, knowing that the only place it could go was to the scrapyard, the crusher, the Great Beyond of recycled steel. I donated it to one of those charities that take old cars in any condition. It was probably a good thing that they picked it up while I wasn’t home. I’m sure I would have bawled my eyes out if I’d seen it being loaded and hauled away.

I loved that car. It was a true friend and faithful companion through thick and thin. Many cars I’ve known continue to live on in memories, but I’ve never dreamed about them- until these last two nights when the Honda showed up. The first night it had a larger role, and even met an identical Honda at a gas station. The second night it was more of a cameo, just a brief appearance that included the giant airplane sticking out the open hatch. I don’t buy the idea that dreams have meanings we can decipher, but that doesn’t mean that our brains have no creative process in making them. As I see it, dreams are ‘brain-jazz,’ improvisations on whatever themes happen to float through. I can’t even begin to wonder why, more than twenty years after the Honda’s departure, my brain chose these two nights to be haunted by it. But at least it was a good kind of haunting. I fondly miss most of the cars I’ve owned in the past, but I especially miss the Honda and I’m sure I’ll keep missing it until I draw my final breath and my consciousness dissolves into the void.

Mine was blue but otherwise the same as this. It felt like home.

And still I wonder why I don’t have dreams about cars more often. Maybe I spend enough time thinking about them when I’m awake that there’s just no need. Maybe my dreams are usually too surreal for something as useful as a car to fit into them. Maybe my brain-jazz provides a break from them that helps me think about them better when I’m awake. I don’t know. What I do know is that after these two nights, part of me is eagerly curious to see what comes in future dreams. But since that curiosity comes from the same brain that produces the dreams, does that curiosity affect the result, much like observation affects things in the quantum-world? Now that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about being visited in my dreams by my beloved Honda, will the visitations cease? Will I instead dream of tearing through the Alps in my Lotus? Of going 100 MPH on Route 66 in a ’58 Corvette? Of being short enough to fit into a Countach? Of romantic encounters in the back of a beat-up station wagon? Of waiting forever in the lobby of the tire-shop? Probably none of the above. Daydreams are another matter entirely.

Sweet dreams, gentle reader.

Friends, we’ve had a minor technological setback and we’re breaking in a new computer this week.  Moving from a 2009 laptop to a 2019 laptop comes with a new set of procedural challenges.  Mickey hopes to have it all ironed out in a couple of days, and will update you as soon as possible. We hope to have the next episode of The Thing About Cars out as soon as possible.

Your Support

Your support via Patreon will facilitate some of the peripheral upgrades we must also make at this time. (A firewire hard-drive won’t readily talk through a Thunderbolt port, it seems. Yes, we said firewire.) We’ve been producing The Thing About Cars for over three years with virtually no sponsor support. Your help will keep the show free of advertisements.  

Our friends at Motorbooks know that I’m an enthusiast of two-wheeled machines as well as four-wheeled, so when they sent me a copy of Vespa Style and Passion, I knew I was in for a treat. 2020 Is the 75th anniversary of the Vespa brand, so this book is well-timed and will thrill many readers. I was thrilled as soon as it came out of the box- Vespa is known as an icon of style, and this beautiful volume is very stylishly designed with a light and inviting layout and cheerful colours. But just like its subject, there is substance beneath the style. Let’s take a peek inside.

Authors Valerio Boni and Stefan Cordara have impeccable credentials as moto-journalists, with a combined 71 years of experience in the field, having written many books and magazine articles about many marques. Their skills and experience show well in this book.

Despite being over 200 pages, the book only has three chapters (which, in fairness, are divided into a few more sub-chapters). The first chapter opens with some background on the evolution of the Piaggio family businesses, starting in furnishings for ships and progressing through railcars and into aviation, becoming the leading aviation manufacturer in Italy. After WWII the company needed new business and saw an opportunity in fulfilling war-ravaged Italy’s immediate need for affordable transportation. The design that became the Vespa scooter was revolutionary, following an intuitive approach that was centered around the human user. This groundbreaking design also incorporated some technical brilliance, such as aircraft-derived suspension, a forced-air system for engine cooling, and interchangeable wheels. The original Vespa concept was so good that it is still used today and has been copied for decades.

The sketches that started it all.

The second chapter is the largest, one subchapter of which contains roughly half of the book’s page-count in a section detailing all the models from 1946 to 2020. You’ll find everything here from the 98 that started it all, the GS that was made famous by the Mods of the 1960s, and many, many more variations on the original theme, right up through the current Elettrica, and electric-powered model that can be connected to a smartphone. And the original theme still shines through and still works brilliantly. There is also a section about Vespa’s advertising and communications.

Every model is detailed.

The third chapter is perhaps the most interesting, as it deals with Vespa’s impact in the world- from movies and fashion to serious travel and customisation and art and even racing. Yes, there IS such a thing as scooter-racing! For me, the big take-away from this chapter is that something that started as a utilitarian tool to meet a specific need in a defeated country was so elementally good that it can’t die, and that despite what seems at first like a design that does so little, the Vespa has become so many different things to so many different people. These qualities are what make Vespa a true icon, and this book beautifully presents that iconicness.

Ciao bella!

No book about Vespa would be complete without documenting Vespa’s cultural significance.

I got lucky again with this one. I had to see some customers in other states for a few days and a local branch of the car rental company put me in a nice fresh BMW. I only had it for a short handful of days, but I made the most of those days with it. I had three customers to visit, the first one in the opposite direction to the other two, so some miles would be involved. The Alpine White 330i looked like a great traveling companion- would it be?

Once inside, the first impression was comfortable but it required some adjustment. The seat seemed a little awkward until I started playing with the controls. It had more than the average assortment of adjustments, and the seatback’s bolster-width adjustment was the key that made the rest of if fit. The ergonomics worked fairly well for my big, tall frame, with one exception- getting out of the car. The doors are somewhat small, and I needed to have both the seat and the steering wheel far back. This resulted in the seatback being behind the edge of the doorway, and the wheel encroaching into the other side of the passage, making for a narrow gap between wheel and doorjamb through which to extricate myself. A little push on the sill from my left hand helped, a similar trick to one I used to use for getting out of the very low and wide-silled Turbo Esprit that I once owned. But the difficult egress was a small price to pay for the comfort.

Getting out isn’t easy for a big fella.

Another impression this car gives is of technology. The instrument cluster isn’t a cluster of instruments at all, but a single instrument in the form of a multifunction TFT display that conveys lots of information, all organised by which screen you’ve selected or which drive-mode is in use. The displayed information isn’t always intuitive to interpret, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of what’s going on. BMW could have made the tech very Germanically cold, but they put a certain amount of ‘organicness’ in it that made it a little easier for humans to grow into. They also kept the dashboard fairly clean, putting most of the tech-controls on the centre console, but even that wasn’t overwhelmed with buttons and switches and knobs- just enough to let you know that a lot of features are accessible but not enough to discourage exploring them. I didn’t have time to dig into all the features, but those that I did were easy enough to understand and use. Speaking of user-friendly controls, I’ve often had less than great things to say about the ‘joystick with a flowchart’ school of gear-selector design. This BMW’s selector is of that type, and it takes a few tries to get the hang of how the buttons and nudges make it work, but once you get the hang of it, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen (looking at you, Cadillac XT5).

Levers and buttons and screens are all fine and good, but cars are for driving, and the 330i is a delight to drive. Comfort mode is the default setting, and in this mode the car is unobtrusive, just getting along as needed, perfect for most people’s everyday utilitarian driving from A to B. Pro Eco mode is for energy-efficiency, although I’m not what’s ‘pro’ about it. Sport mode is for fun. I found Pro Eco was most useful for long hauls on the highway, Comfort in the city, and Sport for when I wanted to get around the slowpokes or otherwise enjoy a brisker drive. BMW stick tightly to their tradition of rear wheel drive; as a result you can enjoy as much acceleration as you want without any torque-steer surprises. The handling is good and very smooth but don’t stay in Comfort-mode if you really enjoy cornering. The steering-feel is good, certainly better than the bland anonymity of most current cars’ electrically-assisted steering, but it still isn’t the great feel for which the BMW 3-series was famous in times past. There has GOT to be a way to improve this woe that afflicts so many cars these days.

Go for a drive.

Disappointments were few. The biggest one for me is the lack of a spare tire. Not even a space-saver, not even a compartment under the trunk floor to hope for a spare. I also wasn’t pleased that the only 12V socket for the front seats is at the front of the console, right by the cup-holders. If you use a big travel-cup, this gets a little crowded, and certainly isn’t as neat a solution as putting the socket inside the storage space under the armrest. And the socket didn’t even function in my rental car, but luckily my charging cables were long enough to reach from the socket on the rear of the console for back-seat passengers. If those passengers have legs, they won’t want to sit behind tall people: the legroom behind the driver seat all but disappeared once the seat was adjusted for my size. I was also surprised that the 330i was not equipped with heated seats, which are so common today that almost every car has them, even my seven-year-old Mazda 3.

Nice touches abound too. The TFT displays are bright and easy to read. The climate-control system is easy to understand and keeps up well with southern summer heat. The smart key is even thoughtfully designed, so that you don’t have to remove it from your packet to find the button to lock the car- just stick your hand in your pocket, and when your thumb finds the raised, rounded BMW roundel, give it a press. The car will also unlock automatically when the key gets close to a door, taking things a step further than the touch-unlock feature that many cars come with.

The BMW 330i’s MSRP starts around $41000, and options can make it climb steeply from there. For the money you get a comfortable, satisfying, well-designed car that is a joy to drive. Given the opportunity to spend more time with it, I definitely would.

If Twin Power seems cryptic, it’s really pretty simple: a twin-scroll turbochager that has separate exhaust- inputs from pairs of cylinders of the same orientation in the power cycle, resulting in faster spinning.
Tall people in front means very little legroom in back.
TFT display is bright and easy to read, although some information isn’t intuitive to understand. Different drive-modes have their own versions of the instrument display; Pro Eco mode is shown here.
The reverse-camera’s guidance graphics are among the more useful ones.
Illumination for door handles seems nice, but ultimately is more of a solution looking for a problem.
BMW styling gets more and more futuristic, yet remains familiar.