Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Saintly Fiat 600 Multipla

I just watched the first four episodes of the 1960s Roger Moore TV classic The Saint. In addition to the protagonist, I am fascinated by the veritable who's who (or rather, what's what) of 1960s automobile-dom.

In each episode, one or two cool contemporary cars share the small screen with James B..., er, Simon Templar. The white Volvo P1800. The W111 Benz. Assorted Ford Consuls and Morris Minors. But what captured my imagination was the Fiat 600 Multipla driven by a mischievous but ultimately loyal Roman taxi driver in Season One, Episode Two: The Latin Touch.

The Multipla was derived from the little Fiat 600. In the taxi version, a single seat and a luggage platform sat in the front. There was a folding seat in the middle, and a bench seat in the back.

It was incredibly roomy and could seat six, despite being just 19.7 inches longer than the original Mini Cooper.

The 767cc four produced 32 horsepower. It has a top speed of just 60 miles per hour.

130,000 units were made. They are quite rare today. I hope to see my first Multipla next year at the Microcar Museum in Madison, Georgia.

Its extraordinary utility is surpassed only by its quirky beauty.

If a "saint" is one deserving of public veneration, then the Multipla is most definitely a saint.


The F1 Safety Car's Bumpy Ride

Despite the fact that Formula One may be one of the most written-about motorsports, little information can be found about the history of the F1 safety car. Based on the snippets I have uncovered, I would not be surprised if Ecclestone had personally ordered all writings about safety cars pre-AMG (circa mid-1990s) be destroyed out of shame.

Out of Euro-centric pride, Formula One was late to adopt the pace car concept used for decades in America. Formula One experimented with the idea in fits and starts and called its version the "safety car".

In 1973, the F1 safety car was introduced at the Canada GP in Mosport. The Porsche 914/6 had a whopping 110hp 2 liter flat 6 derived from the 1969 911T. It was driven by former F1 driver Eppie Wietzes. Due to ineptitude, unfamiliarity with the rules, and the lack of computer timers, the yellow Porsche drove in front of the wrong car and set half the field one lap behind-- incorrectly. It took three hours post-race to determine the true winner.

There is a dirth of data about safety cars between the infamous 1973 episode and the early 1990s. I did, however, find some spectacular photos of at-speed Countachs which acted as safety cars in the 1980, 1981, and 1982 Monaco GPs. Go to Lamborghini Registry dot com to view these photos.

Depending on the source, the safety car became an official F1 institution in 1992 or 1993. In 1993, at the rainy Brazilian GP, a 16 valve, locally assembled Fiat Tempra 2.0 estate acted as the official safety car. At 127hp, it was not impressive.

The slowness of the safety cars showed its dark side at the 1994 San Marino GP. Due to an early accident, a safety car proceeded to take over. The bone stock Opel Vectra's brakes were completely worn out after just two laps. It was abysmally slow. The competitors' tires turned ice cold. The great Ayrton Senna crashed and lost his life soon after the Opel pulled into pit lane because of the cold tires. Ironically, it was the safety car that caused Senna's demise. (This issue is very controversial and subject to heated debate.)

Having not learned any lessons from the San Marino incident, the 1994 Japan GP at Suzuka was led by a stock appearing silver Honda Prelude. If it's anything like my old pal JP's Prelude, it handled okay but was slower than a U-Haul truck.

In 1995, it was a marshal's car in Hungary that grabbed headlines, and the collars of blooper show producers worldwide. Poor Taki Inoue, a hapless Arrows driver, had already been hit in Monaco while his car was being towed. In Hungary, after stepping out of his Arrow, Taki was hit at low speed by a marshal driving a Tatra 613, a feat of Slavic engineering.

After all these weird, scary, and tragic incidents, F1 began using a series of AMGs capable of sustained high speed driving, cornering, and heavy braking. Since 2000, the safety car has been driven by the very competent Bernd Maylander.

It is finally in good hands.


F1 AMG SC Convoy

Whilst I research F1 safety cars of yore, take a gander at these recent AMG safety cars, in chronological order.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ever the Twain (Fantasy Garages) Shall Meet

For 38 weeks now, Jalopnik has run a weekly series called the Fantasy Garage, in which readers vote vehicles into a coveted and ultra-exclusive collection of dream cars. Coincidentally, Tamerlane has in his cerebral warehouse his very own Fantasy Garage, which was started about two years ago. Both Garages continue to add vehicles to their respective rosters. To date, Jalopnik's garage has ten vehicles that are also in Tamerlane's inventory. These uber-, super-fantastic cars are as follows (photos all courtesy Jalopnik):

1. Citroen SM: Coolest car from the land of Gaul.

2. Nissan Skyline R34: I prefer the R32 but that's just splitting hairs.

3. Lamborghini Miura: The classiest Bull.

4. McLaren F1: The best car in the world...ever.

5. Lamborghini LM002: The only SUV I would be caught dead in.

6. Aston Martin V8 Vantage: The best and most muscular looking Aston.

7. Porsche 928: The epitome of late 70s/early 80s excess.

8. Mercedes-Benz 300SL: Timeless beauty.

9. Ferrari 288 GTO: Magnum's car-- on steroids.

10. Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9: The first performance luxo-barge.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Death of Captain Cook

Most Captain Cook fans recognize John Webber's illustration of the captain's last moments at Kealakekua Bay. But is it accurate?
In Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes, the author meets Herb Kane, a renowned artist who resides just up the hill from Cook's last stand. Kane apparently used a combination of first hand accounts, and science, to create a more precise and accurate depiction of the macabre scene.

Because Cook's decision to go on land was last minute, he was most likely wearing utilitarian canvas trousers rather than the showy breeches and hose depicted in Webber's iconic drawing. Scientists estimate that the coastline has subsided by 28 inches in the 200 years since Cook's death. Kane snorkeled the coastline to record the correct contour in 1779. He then calculated the phase of the moon and tide at the time of the killing, 8 a.m., and added these details to his work.

The details and precise calculations translate fantastically onto the painting, as these close-ups show.
I am left speechless every time I study this picture....


Friday, December 07, 2007

The ATCC (The Pre-V8 Era)

Before the Ford-Holden duopoly that is V8 Supercars, the Australian Touring Car Championship had a nice grab bag of cars from many countries, with varying engine displacements and set-ups. Before we delve into the current battle between Ford and Holden, let's look at some past ATCC champions (that were not Falcons or Commodores). As the Australians eventually figured out, if you can't beat them, ban them.
1983. Allan Moffat, the Moses of Mazda racing, beat out all competitors in '83 with this rotary powered RX7.
1985. The legendary Jim Richards won his first ATCC title in this John Player Special BMW 635CSi. This is probably the most beautiful car to win the title.
1986. Robbie Francevic won the '86 title in a turbocharged Volvo 240, which made other three-box saloons look virtually Giugiaro-esque.
1987. Jim Richards regains the title, this time in a John Player Special E30 M3. The car is now sponsored by a garage door maker and raced (successfully) at vintage events.
1988, 1989. Dick Johnson (that's his real name) won back-to-back championships in this red Ford RS500, which some of you may recognize, vaguely, as Stateside's Merkur XR4Ti.
1990. Jim Richards continued his dominance in 1990, when he took the championship in the above Skyline R31 and the newer R32.
1991, 1992. Richards wins two more titles in this Skyline GT-R, also known as Godzilla. At this point, the natives were growing restless. Foreign models were sidelined, disfavored by the rules, or outright banned.

The dawn of the V8 Supercar era approaches.



I just watched my first DTM race. It was the April season opener at Hockenheim and aired at an ungodly hour last night/this morning on SPEED. I've always been fascinated by this sedan series and I'm glad I got to watch it. I'll follow it all season (even though I know the results already) and give it a shot, but so far, I am not impressed. Below are some random observations and opinions.

Pro: Driver diversity. The drivers are really diverse, in terms of age/experience, nationality, and gender (yes, gender). Young upstarts race alongside elder statesmen like Mika Hakkinen. There are Germans, Brits, a Canadian, a Swede, a Finn, a Dane, a Greek, a Frenchman, an Austrian, and a Belgian. There are two women (Stoddart and Ickx). This has to be one of the most diverse fields in motorsports.

Con: Poor car diversity. Although there is a mix of 2005 through 2007 models, there are only two makes: Audi and Benz. In order for this series to be truly interesting, and truly German, Opel and BMW have to be in it.

Con: Poor turn-out. I have not seen the financials behind the series, but the half empty stands did not forebode well. Granted, Hockenheim can hold a lot of people, but this was the series opener-- in Germany-- at Hockenheim.

Con: Poor liveries. This is a pretty superficial complaint. I'm not asking DTM to paint a huge Tide logo on the hoods of their cars. But aside from the Red Bull Audi, I was not able to identify any other car or brand/sponsor. The cars all have black and/or silver backgrounds with small fonted words and even smaller logos. How are you supposed to root for your car when you can't even pick it out?

I will give DTM a chance by watching every race this season. But I'm not holding my breath. Now I'm going to go watch the V8 Supercars race from Adelaide. Now that looks interesting.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Cali to Hali in a W126 (Almost)

Yesterday, I saw a beat up W126 bodied 560SEC parked outside a laundromat. In its heyday, this chariot was the pinnacle of automotive design-- combining luxury, technology, safety, and brute torque into a neat and elegant package.

Two summers ago, I was offered the gig of transporting the car of the late Eugene Kleiner (of Silicon Valley V.C. fame) from San Francisco to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Herr Kleiner loved his 380SEC so much, when the engine got long in the tooth, he shoehorned the 5.6 liter V8 under the bonnet.

The car was a daily driver and took Mr. Kleiner everywhere. No doubt, while sitting in Peninsular traffic in this W126, he contemplated whether he should invest in little startups like Sun, AOL, Google, and Genentech. Of course, during my trip across the Canadian prairie, while hurtling through the wheat fields at 180 clicks per hour, I would contemplate the etymology of words like "hoser" and the correct pronunciation of "Regina".

But alas, the trip never happened. In an alignment of the stars, one party's flakiness ended up helping the other party witness an important, once-in-a-lifetime, moment. Halifax, and the rest of Canada east of the Rockies, will have to wait.

Oh, Canada....