August 27, 2008

What is this?

This car marked a big change in direction for the company that made it. My father owned a new one and to quote him, "the dealership spent more time repairing it (at my expense) than I did driving it."

Today a lot of these are rusting into oblivion and nice ones are a bit hard to come by. This one is sitting on top of a junkyard in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Sicilia.

What is this car?

August 23, 2008

Road test: 2008 smart fortwo.

The original smart car was met with both admiration and skepticism. Some called it too expensive, some called it ugly and some thought it was the best thing to hit the streets of big European cities. The smart ended up being a hit, enough so that they wanted to create a brand around it. The little two seater was rebaptized the fortwo while the roadster and the forfour (that seats five) made their appearances in showrooms, all under the smart moniker. The roadster and the forfour were phased out fairly quickly, a real shame when you consider the driving pleasure the roadster has to offer. The lisence to build it was sold to Chinese-owned MG.

This left the little fortwo. At one point, whether or not it would be replaced was up in the air, there was talk of killing the smart brand. They decided to keep it around and redesigned it. This car is a huge hit in big cities and as of now, the smart has no direct competitor, surely that was a big incentive in keeping it around. It's worth noting that Toyota has a smart rival in the works, one they call the IQ, not a horribly original name..

Previously, smarts were sold in Canada but not in the U.S. due to the myriad of regulations the EPA imposes on cars. This new model was designed with those regulations in mind and it was ready to take on the U.S. market.

I hopped in my 300D and trekked out to Mercedes-Benz of Lindon. I found a showroom with no sales people. I went up front and asked for assistance, they sent a guy over who directed me to the "smart lady, she's really smart." Nice pun.

I eventually got behind the wheel of a 2008 smart fortwo passion coupe (I guess the smart brand doesn't like capital letters), a midrange model with a base price of $13,590. Add the blue paint, a "premium" radio, a clock, an tachometer and the destination charge and you're up to $14,730. A rather hefty sum for this type of car but is it worth it? Well, it all depends on what you actually plan on doing with the smart.

I knew what to expect, I've driven several smarts in Europe. The ignition is in the center like a Saab 900. The brake pedal is round and floor mounted like a Citroen DS. The engine is rear mounted like a Fiat 600 (albeit it's transversal in the smart) and the radiator is up front like the Abarth version of the 600. The wheels are held on by three lugs like so many French cars of yesteryear. This car is French, in a way-- final assembly takes place there.

The engine is a three cylinder, one litre unit. It's actually pretty peppy for what it is. It's very nimble to drive, as one might expect. The steering wheel is minuscule, especially coming from a 300D, the turning radius is great and it's very maneuverable. In a nutshell, it's everything you would expect a small car to be.

It's actually surprisingly roomy inside. Two adults and their groceries/dog/or something of the like can fit comfortably, leg room is more than adequate. The materials used are a wee bit on the cheap side but that's forgiven by the economy aspect of it. In Europe, some models don't come with a standard glove box, just with door-less storage area on the dash, I'm not sure if it's the same way here but this one had a glovebox.

There is one big flaw that try as I may, I can't get over: their "automated manual" transmission. I knew I was in for trouble when the saleswoman felt the need to explain to me how to shift what is essentially an automatic transmission. "When you feel the car about to shift, release the gas a little." Heeey.. I used to do that in my 1979 300D.

Shifting her way takes some getting used to. You don't quite know when it's about to shift so you lift off the gas too early, the car doesn't shift, you start losing speed, push the gas again and right when you do, it shifts with a mighty jerk-- another common trait with a 300D and a particularly annoying way to accelerate. When the stars allign and you get the timing right, it shifts smoothly.

If you ignore the saleswoman's instructions, the car takes off a little faster but the engine revs quite high and shifts late, I don't imagine that's overly good for the drivetrain, especially not since the car is only under warranty for 2 years or 24,000 miles, a low amount for the price and for a Mercedes product. It'll be interesting to see how well these transmissions provide power to the rear wheels with 150,000 miles on them.

Then you've got a third way to shift: when you're in drive, move the gear lever to the left and you can shift it manually by moving the lever up or down. Alternatively, you can pretend you're Michael Schumacher and use the little paddles behind the steering wheel. Whether you use the paddles or the gear lever, the end result is the same: lift off the gas, change gears, wait and it eventually kicks into the gear you're trying to get into. Not a very enchanting way to drive.

It's a bit interesting on the freeway. With such a small wheelbase, it's very twitchy. Due to the dimensions of it, may some higher force help you out if you're caught in a crosswind or if you get passed by a lifted Dodge Ram pulling a trailer at 85mph, an all too common sight in this part of Utah. It will, however, get up to highway speeds and maintain them fairly steadily.

But all that aside, it gets great gas mileage, doesn't it? Sadly-- not really. Smart has no plans to bring the diesel powerplant here so it's only available with the aforementioned gasoline engine. The EPA estimates an average of 33 city and 41 highway. That's roughly the same as a Jetta TDI (base price of $21,990.) Don't get me wrong, 33/41 is respectable but I would have expected more from car with less engine displacement than a 1962 Volkswagen Type 1.

The window sticker proudly brags "super creative parking solutions." That's true to an extent. While a curb, a median or a roundabout are all perfectly acceptable parking spots in southern France or Italy, I think the Salt Lake City Police Department would frown upon seeing a Fortwo parked on a sidewalk and you'd have to get "super creative" when trying to explain why your car was parked there while trying to get it out of impound.

But, no matter, you love the smart and must have one. You go (probably a very long way) down to your local smart dealer with a briefcase full of cash, pay, sign and drive off in your new smart. Or at least you would in Europe. The process in the U.S. is incredibly complicated for what it is: you log on to You pay a $99 reservation fee. They assign you a smart dealer and you order your car through them. The waiting list for one of these is two years. Yes, two years! You'd order it now and get it in the fall of 2010. I suppose that the bright side to it is that if you already own one, that colossal waiting list is sure to keep used smart prices up.

Driving this thing is a love it or hate it deal. If you can get used to it, this is an original little car to run errands in, to do city driving or as a nifty second car. If you regularly go on the freeway, I would opt for something else. If you plan on starting a family in the next two years-- pass.

August 20, 2008

Early Turbo.

At the time of writing, I own nine cars. I could cause my own traffic jam if I wanted to. But, it hasn't always been this way. In early 2005, I only owned two! Both of them Alfas (1966 GTV and 1988 Milano Verde), both of them are still part of my fleet today and neither of them run.

Back to 2005-- I was starting to realize what a huge mistake it was to drive my Milano every day and was looking to retire it from daily duties and replace it with something more reliable. At the time I was enamored with Saabs (this obsession came to a halt in 2007 when I owned a 1989 900 Turbo, the car that put me off them for a while.) I was thrilled when driving home one day I saw a black 900 with a big cardboard "for sale" sign across the windshield. Also on the windshield were fliers:

"For Sale $400
1980 SAAB 900 Turbo
Engine and turbo work great
All electrical, lights, lock, windows work great
Needs work on power steering and bearings"

Sounded pretty alright to me. I called and set up a time to drive it. A closer look revealed this wasn't your average 900 Turbo. With a build date of 1/80, this was one of the very first Turbos produced! It had several early production details, notably a 5-speed badge on the rear, the old Triumph-based B motor, a double vented hood, some interior pieces that were carried over from the 99, Inca wheels and the early grille. 105,000 miles on a working odometer, the interior was in very good shape. It had some rust but nothing major. It needed a left front headlight and I just happened to have one (and still do) from a 1984 I owned in the summer of 2004. I drove it briefly, I don't remember much aside from the fantastic amount of turbo lag, apparently normal for a 900 of this vintage. The drivetrain was in good shape. No matter the power steering and what not, I had to own this car.

At the time I was finishing up my last year of high school, unemployed and driving an Alfa Romeo, needless to say that money was not on my side. It took a couple of days of but I managed to gather up $400 and called the guy to tell him I'd buy it. I got his voicemail: "Hi, this is ____. If you're calling about the Saab, it's gone. I repeat, the Saab is gone."

Waaait.. what? I called again about an hour after and this time he answered. Turns out somebody was test driving it and the car "stopped, parts were everywhere on the road." An axle boot was ripped and the axle had finally seized. The obvious remedy to that was to junk the car. I thought he was kidding but nope, he gave me the name and address of the junkyard he shipped it off to, Tear-A-Part on Redwood Road.

I went there a couple of weeks later and sure enough, the car was there with a newly acquired dent on the quarter panel. I pulled the 5-speed badge, the grille and the hood and had to leave the rest there.

August 18, 2008


While a lot of Porsche 356s are being restored and sold for phenominal amounts at auctions, some aren't as fortunate. This one is sitting in the same area as the Honda N600, engine-less and nearly covered in vegetation.

Before the Civic.

Everybody knows what a Honda Civic is. Chances are you've driven one or you know somebody who has one. They seem to be appreciated by two distinctly different crowds: they're the econo-mobiles of gas savvy consumers and they're the dustbin-exhaust fitted charriots of boyracers across the world. But what came before the Civic?

Go back to 1968, a lot of Americans didn't know what a Honda was because they weren't imported here. Only in 1969 did Honda import its first car, the N600. A 600cc two cylinder engine lodged in the front powered this two door car that was small enough to compete against the Fiat 500 and the original Mini. Shame they tried to market it in the late 1960s on a market dominated by land yatches with huge V8 engines and running on cheap gas. The N600 was a flop and production was stopped in 1972, replaced by the Civic. These are seldom seen today but they've got a following amongst the early Honda crowd.
This one is sitting in Centerville, Utah, and appears to be complete, save for the glass.

August 12, 2008

Changing the fuel filters on a 300D.

Since the week I bought the car, I have had both the main fuel filter and the pre-filter bouncing around the rear footwells of the car. I turn, they turn too, it's all fun and games until I hit a hill and the car essentially goes nowhere. Clearly the hour to change the filters had rang. So I naturally put it off for a bit. I got around to it this morning, it's a fairly simple job.

I changed the pre-filter first. It's right by the injection pump on the driver's side of the engine. It has a line on either end held on by a ring.

Unscrew the ring, take the filter out, put your finger on the end of the line and quickly put the end of the new filter in there. Set the old filter down above the headlight. Realize it's leaking diesel and toss it on the ground where it will continue to leak. Make sure the new filter is in all the way and tighten the ring. Repeat the process for the other end of the line.

You've now changed the pre-filter. The main filter is a bit different. It looks just like a regular oil filter:

That said, you might be tempted to grab your oil filter wrench and attack it. That would not do much good. On the photo above, look at where my key is pointing-- that's the bolt that holds it in. Now, as much as I'd like to tell you what size that is, I have no idea. It's larger than a 19mm, I didn't have anything larger on hand and didn't fancy digging through my garage to find one so I used an adjustable wrench, worked fine.

Undo the bolt, you'll see the filter slowly start to drop. This is full of diesel and, much like the last one, will leak. Let it leak onto the pavement for a bit until you decide to use the roll of paper towels you brought down for this very purpose.

Once the top bolt is loose you can unscrew the filter. Toss it next to pre-filter where they will leak in harmony, nicely complementing the oil stains from your valve cover gasket.

Now that the filter is off it gets interesting. You need to prime the car because air gets into the injection system. The injection pump has a little knob that you use to prime it. Alternatively, Ian told me of a way that involves cracking open the injector lines until gas comes out.

I did none of that. I filled the main filter with diesel until it was almost to the top, screwed it back on, tightened the bolt. Then I got in the car and cranked it until it started. And it did. And it died. So I cranked it again until it started, this time it started faster and ran fine, albeit with a shoddy idle, my treat every morning when I start it up.

Make sure everything is tight and that you haven't left any diesel-soaked paper towels in the engine bay, close the hood and start the car. Drive it around to see how it runs. While you're driving, you'll notice a mighty diesel smell. You'll likely worry about that diesel smell, you might even be tempted to turn the car off until you realize it comes from your hands. Park it, open the hood and inspect for leaks. If it all checks out okay, go inside and take a shower.

August 11, 2008


With a mere 372 miles to go until it hits the half-century mark, this '80s Saab 900 wound up in a Dallas junkyard.

A moment of silence for an odometer that will likely never move again, please.

August 1, 2008

Road test: 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D.

Last December, I posted a road test of my old 1979 300D. The test ended along the lines of "if you want a daily driver, get one with a manual transmission or get one with a turbo."

After spending seven months driving a whole array of French cars and a Fiat throughout France, Italy and Spain, I've returned to the land of funeral potatoes, multicolored Jell-O and missionary farewells: Salt Lake City, Utah. The first order of business was to buy a car. I looked at a couple but finally settled on one: a 1984 300D, this time with a turbo charger. Let's see how it compares to the 1979.

In all fairness, I should mention that despite being older, the 1979 was in better shape. The 1979 had just barely crossed 195,000 miles when I sold it and this one is sitting at 194,855. Problem is, the odometer rarely works, so it has a bit more than that. It has the same gas gauge issue as the 1979. Every now and then it'll display the correct amount but it usually just bounces around, sometimes in tune with the music.

Coming from an n/a car, you really feel the extra power the turbo delivers when you're driving on flat ground around town, avoiding traffic cones left and right because UDOT can't be bothered to finish a construction project. From a dead stop at a traffic light (and you have a lot to choose from in Salt Lake City), it's a bit slow until you get to 15mph, then it picks up and it's alright. 40-45mph is optimal cruising speed for this car. Going on the freeway is a bit of a chore, getting to 65mph is interesting if the on ramp is uphill. I've gotten it up to 70-75mph but it's much more comfortable at 60mph. One has to keep in mind that it's 24 years old.

One issue it has in common with the 1979 is performance (or lack there of) while going up hills. For those of you familiar with this city, I can launch it at about 30-35mph going up Virginia Avenue if I manually shift the gears, which results in shifts reminiscent of a magnitude 6 earthquake and makes you feel like you're doing life-threatening things to the transmission. Once I hit Terrace Hills, the best I can hope to achieve is 20-25mph, giving me plenty of time to pull out the Scrabble set the previous owners left in the car. In the interest of full disclosure, the fuel filters don't appear in the maintenance the records so they probably need to be changed, that doesn't help the problem (and could even be the cause of it.)

Another point of concern it shares with the 1979 is the transmission. Mercedes did a fantastic job designing the w123 series.. except the automatic transmission. I've described above what shifting it manually is like, keeping it in drive is just as bad. If you keep the rpms low it shifts fine but that stops as soon as you get into higher rpms. Much like the old one, it never seems to hold a gear when you want it to but it does a great job at it when you don't want it to. Not to mention the longevity issues these have, they're not even close to being on par with the engine.

The interior is the same as the 1979, save for the radio. The 1979 used a very vintage looking Becker unit, this has a more "modern" Becker unit that I actually pulled from a 190E, but it's identical to the stock radio the 300D used. The seats are upholstered in MBTex, which holds up very well to time and wear. The steering wheel measures the same Freightliner-worthy diameter but the design is slightly different. Unfortunately it doesn't have a knob to adjust the idle.

Bottom line? The turbocharger is great, it makes the 300D infinitely more driveable, but the transmission is still a huge problem. I haven't been able to compare gas mileage between this one and the n/a one but when I do, I'll report back.

(As made evident by the first photo, the front of it has been lightly hit. Nothing mechanical was damaged, just the grille and bumper.)