Tag Archives: Tony Swan

LeMons and the Guinness Book

13 Nov

 

The 24 Hours of LeMons—the racing series for $500 cars—recently observed its 10th anniversary, the weekend of October 22-23 at GingerMan Raceway in western Michigan.

It was not a weekend that provoked many hosannahs on the part of Team Hell Kitty, ex-officio Car and Driver. Our ancient Honda Prelude Si (vintage 1988), though willing, emerged from the anniversary race much the worse for wear.

On the other hand, given the Prelude’s maladies during the race—persistent overheating, epic oil consumption, a fried wheel bearing, plus a significant rearrangement of the right front bumper—we regarded merely finishing as an achievement, and finishing 41st of 107 starters to be worthy of a modest celebration.

One of our drivers ensured the modesty of the celebration by obtaining the cheapest champagne he could find. Hey, was 10 a.m. a good year?

But in the meantime, while we applaud the 10-year series persistence, there is one achievement that merits its own separate mention, to wit: the 24 Hours of LeMons has a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, for most starters in a 24-hour race.

Does 107 starters on a 2.14-mile track sound like a challenge? That would be the number of cars that started at GingerMan, and it was indeed busy. But the LeMons record involves a bigger number. Much bigger.

The record was set at Thunderhill Raceway Park, in northern California, near the town of Willows. It’s a lovely circuit, with lots of elevation changes. And it’s also considerably longer than GingerMan, 4.8 miles with all sections of the track in play.

The Guinness Book—which is now owned by a Russian group, and has nothing to do with the Irish brewery—has some odd rules concerning who is and isn’t a starter in a round-the-clock race. To be counted as a starter, a car has to run for at least 10 minutes after the green flag flies, and in a LeMons race attrition starts early.

LeMons puts on one actual 24-hour race each year, and this record-setter ran in 2014. A total of 242 teams registered and paid entry fees for the race; 238 showed up for tech; and 214 ran long enough to be counted as starters.

That makes for a very busy track, folks, even though Thunderhill’s max length makes it the longest road course in North America. And with the zany vehicles that show up for LeMons, it’s not only busy, it’s bizarre. Not to mention fun.

We hope to run the Hell Kitty Prelude at Thunderhill in May. The biggest starting field I’ve ever seen there was 155 cars. But more is merrier. Right? Right. Stay tuned.

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Zany car prep rules at LeMons, and this Cadillac Eldorado was the zaniest at GingerMan, with two big ol’ V8 engines–one at each end. It ran briefly until the front engine expired. The crew spent the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday moving the rear engine to the front.

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The Show Goes On. Again.

23 Jan

Welcome to 2016, and welcome to the first manifestation of my New Year’s resolutions, to wit, the revival of this irregular collection of activity reports, back-in-the-day musings, and irreverent observations. I confess that Swan Drives languished during 2015, which was a very good year for me (and the industry) in terms of new car introductions, major auto shows attended (5 of them), North American Car of the Year, and extra-curricular automotive events (read: 24 Hours of LeMons racing).

Extra-curricular also applies to my ongoing dance with the Devil, better known as squamous cell cancer. The short version: after a third round of pruning by the redoubtable Dr. Yoo—a BMW owner, BTW—a follow-up CT scan last week did not set off any new alarm bells. While this isn’t exactly a cause for hosannahs, it does inspire cautious—very cautious—optimism. And it allows me to focus more fully on resuscitating this column. So this year I vow to do better on all of the fronts.

Post-NAIAS

Detroit’s 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is just about in the books, and aside from the puzzling absence of Jaguar-Land Rover, Bentley, and Mini it was once again an exposition chock-a-block with world premieres, which is how we assess the merit of big-time shows. World premieres and concept vehicles.

I’ll confine myself to a couple of my show favorites, both very sexy, one a concept, the other a production car.

Lexus LC 500

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It’s no secret that Lexus has be working to put some adrenaline in its corporate image. It’s not something that happens overnight. Images are easily acquired, but when they’re undesirable they’re very difficult to alter. Lexus is a powerful case in point. Created as a Japanese rival to German luxury sedans, Lexus drifted into a series of beautifully boring offerings—meticulously assembled, beautifully finished, handsomely furnished, quiet as midnight in a cathedral … and as exciting as tofu. Toyota’s luxury division has been trying to alter this perception with its performance-oriented F models, as well as the LF-A supercar.

And now, closer to the economic realities to at least some of the rest of us (the very limited production LF-A carried a $375,000 pricetag), here’s the LC 500 coupe. Chassis with granitic rigidity, lots of carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum. A 467-horsepower V8 feeds power to the rear axle via a 10-speed automatic transmission. And there’s nothing conservative about the styling. It almost makes the trademark spindle grille treatment acceptable. Almost. Look for an MSRP in the vicinity of $100,000, Can’t wait to drive this one.

Buick Avista

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It’s fair to say that Buick has successfully hoisted itself out of near-obscurity with a line of vehicles that appeal to buyers well outside of geriatric ranks. So now the challenge is coming up with designs that go beyond merely attractive to compelling. Buick has had a few of these over the decades—the 1939 Y Job, the 1953 Wildcat, the 1973 Riviera, and now the Avista. I am not alone in thinking this was the hottest concept at the show; it took the EyesOn Design award for design excellence. The Avista is a real car, with a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine under that long hood. But whether it will get a green light for production is unknown; coupes don’t sell in the kind of volume General Motors marketing people like to see. Maybe if it had four doors…?

As noted, there were many more newbies at Detroit’s Cobo Arena over the show’s two press preview days, 35 of them at least, far too many for me to catalogue here. For a comprehensive rundown, check www.caranddriver.com, where you’ll find all of them in glorious color with detailed info.

NACTOY

The acronym stands for North American Car and Truck of the Year, and by now I’m sure you’re aware that the Honda Civic and Volvo XC90 have been named North American Car and Truck of the Year for 2016.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

What you may not know is that both vehicles have won in the past, the Civic in 2006, the XC90 in 2003. But for both winners, those predecessors are ancient history. The state of the art keeps evolving and advancing, and the pace seems to keep accelerating; last year’s wundercar is this year’s old news.

To someone who’s been making a living in connection with wheels for over four decades (hint: that would be me), contemporary vehicles are incredibly sophisticated. My notion of infotainment, for example, dates to cars like my 1954 Mercury, a time when AM radio was as good as it got. KDWB, Minneapolis, Channel 63.

But I digress. The thing that impresses me about the new Civic is not only that it’s the best compact sedan going for model year 2016. It’s that Honda has sustained that nameplate ever since the first Civic made its U.S. debut for 1973. Not all generations were best-in-class, but unlike many domestic nameplates, Honda never gave up on Civic. (The same can be said for Toyota and the Corolla.)

One other Honda note: the sedan is only the first chapter in the new Civic story. Next we’ll see a new coupe—I’ll file a report in early February—followed by a four-door hatchback, a high performance Si, and an even higher performance R version.

I Learned About Driving from That: Love and Addiction

7 Apr

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to begin at the beginning. My beginning, that is. Be calm, I’m not going back as far as biological origins, which may (or may not) have occurred in Duluth, Minnesota. We’re talking about the origins of my all-American love affair with the automobile. Typical, for the day, albeit it not so much now. (More on that phenomenon in another post).

I was about seven, living in sub-suburban Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka. I should add that this was before I got behind a steering wheel (sitting on an adult driver’s lap doesn’t count). But it wasn’t all that much before.

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

The first manifestation of impending automania was when my Mom got me a scrapbook. Her idea, very traditional, was for me to fill the book with snapshots, family memorabilia, and similar bric-a-brac. So she exhibited a certain amount of dismay when I immediately began filling the book with photos of contemporary cars, clipped from magazines. This was long before ads displaying only the Cadillac V and crest, interpreted in diamonds by Cartier. Ford ads still promised “there’s a Ford in your future.” (Which in my case turned out to be true. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, I found all those shapes enchanting. The low-slung Hudsons. The bathtub Nash. Kaisers and Frasers and double-ended Studebakers. I was destined to become better acquainted with the latter than anyone liked. But of course they’re all gone now. So now it can be told.

“You’re not going to just fill that up with cars, are you?” It was more command than it was interrogative. But in fact, yes I was. And did.

An Inconvenient Tree

The scrapbook wasn’t even filled when I had my first unassisted experience at the wheel of an automobile. It was pretty brief.

The car was a 1947 Studebaker coupe. In case you’ve forgotten—or, possibly, never knew—this car’s starter button was on the floor, under the clutch pedal. When you wanted to start the car, you stepped on the clutch. The arrangement made sense, and the designers though it was foolproof. Right.

My stepfather had showed me how the system worked, and allowed me to start the car from time to time. However, he didn’t know that I’d modified the starting procedure, reaching under the clutch pedal to get at the starter. I wasn’t all that tall at age seven, and somehow this was easier, hanging my right haunch on the forward edge of the bench seat and reaching down with my left leg to get my toe on that button.

This worked fine—provided the car was in neutral. I wasn’t quite dialed in on the gearshift, so on this one fateful occasion when I stretched my toe down there for the starter] the Studey happened to be in reverse. Naturally, ignition occurred, as I expected, and so did motion, which I hadn’t. The Studebaker’s wheel was cocked to the left, and the car accelerated backward. Vigorously. I never even touched the gas pedal.

So my first drive was even shorter than the Wright Brothers’ first flight, maybe all of about two seconds, culminating with a loud whump against a big ol’ Maple tree that happened to be just behind and to the right of the car. Hey, how’d that get there? Could it have been there all along? Yes. So before I could say uh-oh, there I was, with the Studebaker wedeged up against that tree, and the right side door stove in. Fortunately, the impact was enough to kill the engine, because at that point I was strictly a passenger.

The tree didn’t seem to mind. But my stepfather did. He was unhappy. Who can blame him? But can you imagine a starting system like that today? Every liability lawyer in the country would be licking his (or her) chops.

I wish I had that Studebaker today, for a couple reasons: first, presuming reasonable condition (and repair from my first drive), that car would be worth a lot more now than it was in 1947; second, I’d show everyone that you can get away with putting your toe directly on that starter button. Although I confess that what I learned was that it was more prudent to operate the system as designed, rather than using a shortcut.

As adventures go, that one was brief but exhilarating, albeit unhappy. It was the first chapter in a lifetime of expanding my driving experience and acumen. There were many more, and I plan to share more of them in future chapters. Stay tuned.

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