SEMINAL MOMENTS by bill orth
Each of us has had experiences in which we gained lasting insight about something that is important to us, and usually those episodes are remembered very clearly and continue to color our opinions and behavior. Our preferences for certain types of cars, climates and spouses all usually spring from some specific experiences—good or bad—and tend to stick with us permanently. Here’s a few of the defining moments certain cars have left with me:
The first new car my dad brought home that I was aware of was a dark metallic green 1953 Chevrolet 210 sedan. It replaced the gray 1948 Chevy 2-door that was the first family car I remember. My dad spent a long summer evening after dinner snooping around under the hood, peering in the trunk and sitting in the driver’s seat while looking through the owner’s book to see what was new. He then sat on the front porch just looking at it in the driveway while the evening grew dark. I know now that he was enjoying absorbing the soon-to-be-lost new-car smells, how clean everything was and the satisfaction that it was his. I sat on the porch with him, watching the lightning bugs come out and listening to the river while he talked about some places he wanted to go with it. I remember similar rituals when the ’54 Mercury, the ’55 Chevrolet, the ‘56 Packard and the 1957 Cadillac came home, too. That’s probably why I enjoy just sitting and looking at whatever different vehicle has newly joined our household fleet and reading through its manuals, whether it’s a Ferrari or an ATV bought to plow the driveway.
As a kid, I occasionally got to sit on my dad’s lap and steer one of the family cars. Those big monsters took several inches of travel on the wheel to alter course even a little bit, and were just clumsy. But Dr. Rumble (who had delivered me ten years earlier) let me “drive” his black MD TD one summer day. The slightest movement of that thin, wiry wheel made the car dart abruptly and we nearly took out a fence before I learned the delicate touch necessary….and I have loved sports cars ever since.
The carrot-on-the-stick to entice me towards succeeding in high school and entering college was a promise of a car of my own choosing, not another family hand-me-down. I was focused on a Triumph TR-3 and we found a beautiful one-year-old red one the month after graduation. It had black leather seats with white piping on them and a white convertible top. The morning we picked it up I was in heaven, and as soon as we got home, I took the top off and went back out for a ride. Isn’t that what convertibles were for—breezing around top-down on a bright summer day? Well, after about an hour on that 90-degree, humid Florida July day, my clothes were soaked through and sweat was dripping from the end of my nose. Rivulets of perspiration ran down the inside of my glasses lenses and I stuck to everything I touched. That wasn’t any fun at all! Henceforth, the shade-providing top never came off until spring, fall or after sundown and I still don’t understand the attraction of an open car in the middle of summer!
The TR-3 had disc brakes on the front wheels and stopped far better than the old drum-braked monsters I had learned to drive in (see above). Braking hard in nearly any all-drum car led to lots of diving and weaving, but not much stopping. And if it rained and they got wet, they didn’t work at all, but at least the swerving wasn’t as bad. However, in 1969 my older brother bought a new Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina sedan with four-wheel power disc brakes. I can clearly recall the first (and only) time I drove that car—it was the day that the astronauts landed on the moon! Anyway, when I first toed the brakes coming to a corner, the little Alfa acted like it had run into an invisible wall! No drama of any kind; it just stopped! The incredible braking prowess of that little sedan left a greater impression with me than its exotic twin-cam engine and 5-speed transmission—and made its pitiful air conditioning almost excusable. Several other cars by that time had adopted four-wheel disc brakes, including some Ferraris I would own later on, but none would shove you into the seat belt like that little Alfa did!
Speaking of other “cutting edge” cars of the late ‘60s, we bought a 1968 Rover 2000TC in 1969 that was full of for-the-time technological marvels. It had also been in a pretty good accident while being used as a demonstrator, but no disclosure of this was made to the naïve young buyers. Although a “commercially acceptable” job of repairing it had been done, more and more skeletons kept rattling out of its closets. Mysterious electrical problems came and went, always leaving a dead battery behind. Accessories failed, things leaked, and in general it was very disappointing. The moral to that story I have kept with me is: No Wrecked Cars. Oh, a dented fender or a backed-into panel is acceptable, but any structural damage to frame, suspension or unibody is a car to run away from. Yes, they get offered really cheaply, but I’ll never buy another one.
In the early 1970s, I was working for a Mercedes-Benz dealership and frequently drove the then-new 450SE sedans. Wow! What a difference from most cars of that era! The doors closed with a deep, solid-sounding thump! that just shouted “quality.” The chrome door handles were beautifully made, smooth to the touch and felt like they would function perfectly for thirty years (which they did). The V8 engine was silent, smooth and powerful, there were NO wind whistles around the doors, the paint and chrome was deep and beautifully applied—far better than on Cadillacs or anything else at the time—and the whole car was just superior in nearly every way. Although several other manufacturers have elevated their build quality and engineering to top-drawer standards today, and even though M-B has had a few quality faux pas over the years, I still think of those old SEs as the first really well-made cars of my experience.
Ferrari memorable moments? Well, let’s see: My first one, bought well-used and eight years old for the price of a new Oldsmobile in the mid-70s was an eye-opener. It demonstrated that just because a used car had cost as much as many new ones, it was still a used car with numerous and on-going maintenance issues to deal with, both financially and mentally. That car taught me that an owner’s expectations must be based on age and original design criteria—not on comparisons with dissimilar newer cars that happen to share a price point. A second Ferrari impression that stuck with me clearly was a ride in a 355 Challenge-series race car that had huge racing brakes and racing slicks. The depth that you could run hard into a corner and still slow down was dramatically greater than obtainable with any street car. The belt harness left black-and-blue marks on my chest that afternoon and my eyes forever widened! Moral: If you’re ever at a track event in your street Ferrari and get passed by a Challenge car, don’t try to follow it into corners!
Although the newer models from Ferrari the past few years have gotten steadily better and better, the increments of improvement have rarely been as indelible to me as the first time I released the clutch on a new yellow 360 Modena at Road Atlanta over five years ago. The 10% greater horsepower and four hundred fewer pounds than 355s had was immediately apparent, and the first few laps readily demonstrated the effectiveness of these improvements. It felt more lively, it accelerated faster, it cornered better and was more easily controlled. In my opinion, the 2004 Stradale’s superior track prowess over the standard 360 and the new F430’s advancements over the Stradale, while certainly noticeable, haven’t been as dramatic as what I felt that hot summer day in 1999. (In fact, that 360 inspired so much confidence that another Ferrari dealer’s representative got ‘way over his head, carried too much speed into turn One and looped the car into the Armco, tagging both front and rear ends!)
-- Bill Orth --