Friday, July 27, 2007

Found On The Road Dead

This past weekend, I found myself needing, once again, to enlist the services of the local car rental facilities. It was MotoGP weekend. But faced with the prospect of cramming 4 grown men into the tiny confines of my little red 2 door with ailing suspension (the Beast was sadly out of commission with a corded rear tire) and with the other passengers equipped with a modded out M3, a 2-passenger pickup truck, and a pristine lowered 4-door turbo car, I had no choice. Luckily for us, Hertz had a special…full-size for two days for a measly $110 with tax+fees. Not bad.

“Full-size” meant one big hunk of sheetmetal: a gleaming Ford Taurus.

Having spent a total of about 300 miles and 10 hours in the car (Saturday qualifying and Sunday race) it’s easy to see why US domestic automakers are ailing, with the bulk of their vehicles being relegated to fleet (i.e. rental & commercial) status. It only takes ten minutes looking at the cars on the road around us to realize that no one is buying domestics anymore. Save for maybe the Corvette and ummmm… well, the Corvette.

Sure, the machine didn’t fail us once. But after spending almost 14 years now in imports, it really is sad to see the current state of hardware being produced by those folks in Detroit. The entire weekend I was fighting the car, which tramlined like crazy on stretches of the 101. And the willy-nillyness was amplified by the car’s propensity to flail wildly in the mild crosswinds. Inexcusable. Sure, it could’ve been attributed to the ridiculously cheap Continental tires with sidewalls of jelly, but this is the company’s bread-and-butter sedan. Couldn’t they source a better quality OEM tire for not much more $$?

And then there was the god-awful antiquated power train. It felt exactly the same as that old tech iron-block 3.8L 90-degree pushrod V-6 that was in my Mom’s old Thunderbird. Which was made in 1989. Anemic throttle response, moderate torque off line, and out of breath at anything above 3000RPM. Head up a road resembling any bit of a hill, and you’re forced to punch a hole in the firewall with your right foot. But all you get is a lot of noise and no power.

The puny excuse of a transmission didn’t help either. Downshifting with a huge lurch about 30 minutes after you pressed the gas pedal, it did nothing to instill confidence. And unbelievable…it’s the same P-R-N-OD-D-1 sequence on the shifter. That same sequence which refuses to let you choose 2nd gear. So why bother?!? Is it so hard to fit a “2” in there? They might as well replace the letters on the shifter console with: L-A-M-E

For brakes, the big blue oval decided to eschew the norm of four-wheel-discs and go with drums out back…Horrid. Absolutely horrid. With pedal feel that ranged from squishy to mushy, I had zero faith that I could stop this behemoth of a car (oh, it was huge) in time. And worse yet, as you slowed down, while maintaining the same pressure on the pedal, the brakes grabbed even harder! Aaaargh! So I had to back off the brakes as I slowed down. Is it that hard to design linear brakes?

The list goes on and on and on: numb steering; windows that constantly fogged up; seats that hurt your butt and back after only 30 minutes; front doors with bottom corners that had a nasty habit of taking out big fleshy chunks of your shin; no PRNDL position indicator in the instrument panel; an emergency brake release handle situated perfectly inline with the hood release lever; back windows that refused to go below halfway; non-folding side mirrors; lame excuse for a stereo; no separate recirc button on the climate control; a monstrous B-pillar that blocked my view of blind-spot traffic…

It does sadden me to see the company where Quality was once “Job 1” producing pieces of junk like this. The competition is light years away in technology and materials. I sure hope they aren’t charging folks an arm and a leg for this thing. You see, our family used to be a Ford family. I learned to drive in a 1980 notchback Mustang and a 1981 Fairmont wagon. I tried to impress girls I liked by taking ‘em out in my parents’ ’86 Mustang hatchback with the big torquey V-6, with power windows and bucket seats (ooooooh). I went to prom in a Mustang GT convertible, storming the streets of La Jolla with the top down and V-8 muscle under my right foot. I lusted after the hot-rod Taurus SHO equipped with the magnificent 220hp 24-valve 3.0L Yamaha masterpiece. I convinced my friend to buy a Probe GT Turbo.

But after making the switch to Nissan in 1993, I never looked back. Great handling, amazingly stout and peppy powertrains, and reliability that blew all those domestics out of the water (nothing major after 230K miles in the 240, 160K miles in the G20, 200K miles in the Altima, 150K miles in the Maxima). I was convinced…the imports got it right. And caught the domestics asleep at the wheel. One thing that impresses me to this day is changing the oil in my Mom’s Maxima. The oil filter and drain plug are situated close together at the front passenger corner of the car. So you only need one pan. And, you didn’t need to jack up the car. You basically got on your knees, reached under there, and presto, the oil filter and drain plug were RIGHT THERE. The best part? The filter was screwed in vertically…so no mess. And the Thunderbird? Well…the oil filter was situated right above the front suspension crossmember. This crossmember has a little lip molded into it, like a channel that runs from from left-to-right underneath the motor. So, when you pulled the filter, all the oil dripped into this channel where it pooled. And you had to take a towel and push all the oil out of this channel through the sides. You did have multiple pans ready, right? It was a million tiny little details like this that convinced me to never go back to domestics.

…Regardless, some of my fondest memories growing up as a kid were in the family Fords. One that does come to mind was from the passenger seat of that big brown Ford Fairmont Station Wagon. Being the oldest automatically entrusted me with the huge responsibility of navigator for those big week-long driving adventures throughout the west. At the impressionable age of 10, I regarded this responsibility as superior to all passengers except for the driver, of course. A veritable Number One to our Captain Jean-Luc Picard, if you will (much to the dismay of my younger siblings). In addition to the typical duties of calculating alternate routes, determining times to next destination, and looking out for cops, I managed the tape deck, provided refreshments for the Captain and ensured that he remained awake at the wheel. These lengthy road trips revealed a side of my father that I never knew before then. Usually strict and overbearing, often doling out stiff punishment for our shenanigans through a belt and/or a stick, we were downright terrified of the wrath that our father can bring. But with the rest of the car asleep, I had the privilege of spending a few hours with my Dad, where he taught me the fine art of passing and other driving techniques that stick with me to this day. He spoke of fond memories of adventures in Spain and picking up hitchhikers on Highway 1. It was a side of my Dad that I never knew about, and will never forget. And it was the first time that I heard about what “Ford” meant: Fix Or Repair Daily. Found On the Road Dead.

There’s a sentimental part of me that hopes Ford will come out of the ashes and start making cars that are worth buying again. But then there’s that part of me that realizes sentiment and hope is one thing, but reality is something quite different.

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At 7/27/2007 9:50 AM, Blogger oj_rokk said...

I still want a Mercury Marauder. You should write for

At 7/29/2007 9:52 PM, Blogger Big Sexy said...

Well, I saw a Ford GT on the road today and because of that, i still have hope for FORD.


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