[ originally published 11/12/14 | updated 01/22/18 ]
Driving a slow, low-powered machine has taught me much. I’ve got a whole new appreciation for things.
I had a particularly pleasing drive to work one morning in November 2014, carving my way through rush hour traffic in Rocinante, my 100hp, 1989 Mitsubishi Pajero. “We should all spend more quality time driving slow, low-powered cars,” I thought.
Always looking for another
Then I started thinking (again) about the 1972 Alfa Romeo Spider I almost bought back in 1996, and how absolutely perfect it would be to drive an old Alfa like I daily drive my old truck. But do I really want to get another slow car?
“I could totally do it,” I thought.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been pining away for a Delica. Maybe I should just fix up the Pajero, throw a small camping trailer behind it, and put the kind of punctuation mark on a mid-life crisis only an Italian sports car can.
“But if we don’t get the Delica—if we’re going to get another car—shouldn’t we get something that’s actually fast?” (I tend to have these deep, internal conversations with myself during my commute.)
Rewarding as it is to wring the last drop of performance from a slow car, as gearheads, we know there’s no escape from the horsepower arms race. We’ve all got an exotic, hypercar we’d drive in a heartbeat, given the chance.
You learn a lot about driving when you can’t just open the floodgates of power with more right foot.
You learn how to carry your speed. You look for opportunities to improve your position up close, but also further ahead. Even though your older machine is likely hundreds of pounds/kilos lighter than everything else in the pack, you know you’ll quickly lose your late braking gains after the apex, so you have to focus on the average speed overall.
There’s a voice in your head telling you you’re making a mistake when everyone behind you jumps into the middle lane and passes. The only thing silencing it is knowing they’re all going to get stuck behind the oblivious turds in those lanes because none of the four cars ahead of you are going to let themselves get cut off and you’re going to pass them all with ease.
Fear and loathing in a Montero
Driving back to work after a doctor’s appointment one afternoon, I heard what I thought was something with a fart cannon exhaust—maybe a street bike—but I couldn’t see anything. The strangely pleasing exhaust note remained steady, as though it was coming from nearby and traveling the same direction I was headed.
Looking all around me and seeing nothing capable of such a noise, that noise became less pleasing. I started to freak out a little bit.
Did I have a plastic fender liner come loose, rubbing on a tire? Did I even have plastic fender liners on this truck?
Less than three months after replacing the engine, I’d developed a small, but steady, leak from inside the transmission bell housing. I knew my engine oil level and pressure were good (not making that mistake twice), so I suspected it was the input shaft seal I neglected to replace when the engine was out.
Was I about to lose the gearbox? Oh shit. I’d been pushing that brake job off until after I got this thing to pass emissions. I was about to lose my brakes I just knew it. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit!
That’s when traffic ahead of me cleared enough to let a single, round tail light catch my attention through the parade of commuter cattle.
Approaching the next intersection and slowing to a stop, after maybe a full minute of tripping balls over what part of my 25-year-old, fun-to-drive hooptie was about to leave me stranded (again) and piss off my wife (again) and inconvenience everyone in my life (again), I learned the source of my phantom noise—a black Ferrari 599.
In an instant, all my worries were pushed back down into when-I-get-to-it status, and I turned the radio down, lingering at the green light for a final taste of the sharp, sweet nectar that is Tipo F140C Ferrari V12.
He did not disappoint. I was half a block away at 3,000rpm, Pandora resumed on the Bluetooth when he finally got a gap in oncoming traffic and made his turn. Glorious.
The 100hp Club
Back to my slow, low-powered machine, I still needed to throw some new plugs, filters, and fluids at Rocinante to stand any chance of passing emissions before anything else. My tags were 38 days expired.
Next, I needed to find time to rip apart the hubs for a brake job. And then I would have to decide between ripping out the dash to replace the heater core and replacing the blown front shocks. The former addressing chilly commutes with my little one in the morning. The latter, me not looking like I was having a seizure from the steering wheel shaking in general. And the growing oil spot wherever I parked only served as reminder the whole friggin’ engine would to have to come out sooner than later.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about stuff like this. We’d all much rather spend our time and money improving our machines than endlessly repairing them, right? I tend to remind myself that, for all the nickel-and-dime bullshit, it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper living with a barely reliable old hooptie than making a car payment.
Some quick numbers? I paid $1000 for the parts truck, which got me a good engine, steering wheel, heater core, and all kinds of little interior bits my truck needed. I threw another $100 into pads and rotors, maybe an oil change or two, and I’m still driving away less than $100/month. Hell, tags were only $17 a year (when I passed emissions). Compare that to the $300/month I planned to spend on my JDM Dream Delica.
I’m used to driving a slow vehicle. I’m used to driving a hot/cold vehicle without functioning AC/heat. I’m used to having to roll up my sleeves and deal with something in need of repair on my daily driver on a monthly basis.
I truly enjoyed my tired, old, slow-ass truck. For all the time and money I spent keeping it on the road, it wasn’t really that much—and it was certainly less than any car payment.
Was I really in a position where an old Alfa Romeo would be the affordable option? Is that even possible? I couldn’t shake this stuff all day.
It was still WAY too early for me to be making plans, but much like the way I drive, I’m always sizing up the immediate situation relative the flow of traffic in the distance. I’m trying to get my average speed up overall, ya know?
Godzilla has no clothes.
Remember why you clicked this link in the first place?
Some experts say you should come up with your headline first. Others say to wait until you’re done. All agree it has to deliver.
I got the idea for this post from the old story, The Emperor Has No Clothes. You know the one. The Emperor takes pride in being a snappy dresser and becomes the target of scammers who sell him an outfit so fine that’s it’s invisible to anyone who isn’t worthy to see it.
The Emperor doesn’t see anything but doesn’t want anyone to think he’s not worthy, so he goes along with the scammers. As do all the Emperor’s assistants and servants. Even the townspeople lining the street pretend he’s wearing the most incredible clothes they’ve ever seen as he walks by, until a small child—too young to care about fitting in—shouts out, “The Emperor is naked!” At which point everyone else realizes how stupid it is to pretend the naked man walking down the street is wearing anything but his pride.
Pride and intellectualism
Vehicles become more advanced. Technology allows more power, more speed, greater control—reduced responsibility. And the prices increase with them. Our debt-driven society, awash in marketing scientifically designed to target our most primal needs, is an endless barrage of messaging telling us we need bigger, better, faster, more.
We need it now! Can’t you see? This is making people like you happy today! If you don’t have one too, how can you possibly be happy?
I’m not trying to tell you modern supercars like the GTR35 are anything less than technological marvels demonstrating the spirit of motoring is far from dead. Like Lance said in the first Fast and the Furious, “It’s an amazing machine.”
What I’m trying to point out is that we’re increasingly getting caught up in the hype cycle of the media—social and otherwise. [ BD: 2018. Boy was I right about this one. ] It’s more rewarding to drive a $2,000 car at its limits on a daily basis—just keeping up with traffic—than it is to drive a $200,000 car in first gear everywhere, like a pretentious choad, knowing there’s really nowhere to really open it up and experience its performance (which you’re nowhere near skilled enough to handle).
So we line these digital streets, falling all over each other in an effort to describe the latest models on the international circuit. We reach for bullshit words nobody uses in real life—sonorous, mellifluous, dulcet—to describe the way the new machines sound, as we know the sounds they make speak to the core of what makes us gearheads.
We casually drop the word cachet, hinting at our bourgeoisie aspirations, without coming right out and saying, “I like this car because it’s expensive and that means it’s the best and I think I’m better because I can afford it.”
What’s that little kid inside want most?
He wants to drive.
He wants to get behind the wheel, put his foot down, and experience Newton’s Third Law. He (and she—much respect to the gearhead ladies out there) wants to feel one with the machine. The intoxicating driver’s high evidenced by slightly sweaty palms, a racing pulse, and slow, deep breaths when piloting a machine near the limit, on purpose.
It’s a place of zen. A place made up less of dyno plot and window sticker, and more by the alignment of man and machine, performing in unison, as equal parts of a greater whole.
You can get that in any car, really, but how often can you get it in a 600hp monster?
Some people, like that emperor, like to show off. They don’t know they’re naked. And hey, some people like to party naked. More power to ’em! But some of us, we just want to drive.
Driving a slow, low-powered machine has taught me much. I’ve got a whole new appreciation for things. Thought I’d share.
Lead image of GTR35 on fire via ForceGT.com.