State Pride Grillework

I saw this car in the parking lobby of the hobby shop down the block and thought it was pretty cool.  At first, I thought the Jeep Corporation had manufactured some Ohio-specific models and wondered how the company had managed to keep the center parts of the “Os” in place.  Upon closer inspection, however, I saw that the “Ohio” grille was the creation of the car’s owner, who strategically placed a few strips of black duct tape on parts of the standard Jeep grille — which features six vertical lines — to create a message that indisputably identifies the driver as a proud Buckeye.

Duct tape — is there anything it can’t do?

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Faithful Steed

We’ve had our Acura SUV for a long time now.  I think it’s a 2011 model, and we bought it new.  We’ve carefully maintained it in conformity with the manufacturer’s instructions, have complied with all dealer notices of needed servicing, have gone through several sets of new tires, and have avoided any major mishaps or accidents aside from a few tiny side door dings.

It’s been a good, reliable car, one that we’ve driven across the country — to Maine and back, and down the east coast, and on a dog delivery trip to Texas, and on other long road trips.  It’s always gotten us to where we want to go, and we use it with confidence.  We’ve gotten attached to it, as people often do with cars.  We haven’t named it, but I’ve enjoyed driving it and how it handles, and I also like the fact that, when I approach the car from the front and see the grillwork, it always looks happy to see me.

But . . . it’s time.  The car has more than 150,000 miles on it, the air conditioning system is on the fritz — which would be a concern if spring and summer ever actually arrive in central Ohio, which admittedly seems unlikely at this point — and when we’ve driven new rental cars we’ve noticed that advances in car technology have left the poor old Acura in the dust.  Whether it’s rear-facing cameras, dashboard computers, or other high-tech gizmos they’re putting into vehicles these days, car companies have made some significant improvements in the last eight years, and we don’t have any of them.

So, it’s time.  Today, we’ll go car shopping for the first time in almost a decade, and take a look at what the auto manufacturers have to offer.  If we find something that strikes our fancy we may trade in Acura for a new model.  But before we do, I want to acknowledge and salute the faithful service of our faithful steed.

Red Jeep

On St John, you have three choices: stay at a place in Cruz Bay and stick in town during your visit, or use the taxi and bus service, or rent a car. We chose the latter option, and rented a bright red Jeep. As a result, we fit right in, because Jeeps probably make up more than half of the vehicles on the island.

Renting a car has pros and cons. On the con side, there’s lots of hairpin turns without fencing and straight uphill roads, and the occasional donkey or goat by the side of the road, so you have to watch it — especially at night. Plus, it’s the only territory under the U.S. flag where you drive in the left side of the road, which requires a lot of focus. All in all, it’s not exactly relaxing driving. But, it’s nice to have the freedom to go where you want when you want. If you like hiking and snorkeling and want to go to the out of the way places, as we did, a Jeep makes a lot of sense. We ended up glad we got it.

Why a Jeep, and why red? You need a car with power to be able to crawl straight uphill after one of those abrupt switchbacks. And I thought the red was just in line with the general theme of bright Caribbean colors — but I later learned there’s a safety reason, too. Other cars can see you through the green foliage, and if the approaching vehicle is a long truck that needs a lot of clearance on a turn, it can sound its horn before you’re trapped in the turn.

Plus, donkeys evidently like red.

Piloting The Boat

Dad was a car dealer.  He ran a Columbus Ford dealership from 1971 until he retired in the late ’80s.  As the manager of the dealership, he had the option of driving cars with dealer plates, the better to show the Columbus driving public some of the new options that were available in the showroom.  As a result, it was not unusual to see a different car in the driveway every night when Dad came home from work.

2f8b1531b9932fa2cad0abc8ca022eb6The good news:  that meant UJ, Cath and I got to try out some new cars when we started driving.  The bad news:  they were all ’70s-era Fords.  Ford produced some of the ugliest cars, from a design and paint job standpoint, in a decade that will be forever known as the low point for American style — whether you’re talking about automobiles, haircuts, or clothing.  Every American manufacturer lost their marbles and churned out products that had none of the sleek, appealing features of cars of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, and Ford, too, produced models — like the Pinto, the Maverick, and especially the box-like Granada — that were the vehicular equivalent of the leisure suit.

For the most part, UJ, Cath and I stuck with the small cars that we’d take to high school, but from time to time we’d drive one of the big luxury cars that Dad would bring home.  During that time period, Ford had taken the Thunderbird — which started out as a cool, spiffy little roadster — and turned it into a huge, grossly overpowered monstrosity.  The 1975 Thunderbird had an enormous front with a hood that covered approximately one square acre, a half-vinyl top with tiny rear windows, a big hood ornament, and front seats that were wide enough to comfortably sleep a family of 6.

We called it “the boat,” because when you took it out on the street it was like trying to steer an ocean liner.  If you took a corner at a speed exceeding 5 m.p.h., you’d see that massive front end oh-so-slowly make the turn and you’d find yourself sliding all over that sprawling front seat.  You had to wear seat belts, a recent safety innovation, just to avoid being pitched out one of the windows.  Some cars could turn on a dime; “the boat” could probably manage to turn on a $100 bill.  In short, “handling” was not one of its top selling points — and in retrospect, I’m not sure exactly what the selling points actually might have been.

I thought of “the boat” when I ran across a news article about people who rave about American autos of the ’70s.  It’s an example of nostalgia overwhelming reality.  Me?  I’ve got no desire to return to those days of vinyl and velour and gas-guzzling enormity.  I’ll take the sensible, maneuverable cars of the current era any day.

Under Lock And Key

Do you ever leave your house unlocked, even for only a few minutes?  How about your car?

I never do.  In fact — and you can call me obsessive-compulsive if you want — I make sure I always lock our house with the deadbolt and not just the automatic lock, and I try the door handle after I’m done to be certain.  I also hit the locking button on our car key and hear the little chirp twice and then pull on the door handle to make absolutely sure the lock is engaged.  I have keys in hand before I do either of these things to make sure that I’m not locking myself out, too.  These are habits I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

187098I mention this because of this article I ran across about crime statistics in one upper middle class midwestern suburb in a recent month.  All of the 25 cases of automobile theft in that month involved unlocked cars, and half of the house thefts involved unlocked homes.  That’s mind-boggling to me.  And the house break-in data is skewed, because of some unique circumstances — typically, according to the article, an astonishing 80 percent of such thefts involve unlocked cars and houses.  Why would so many people leave their cars and houses unlocked?  Are they worried about locking themselves out?  Do they think they would be inconvenienced by the few seconds it takes to fish a key out of pants pockets or purses and unlocking their car or house?  Do they think they’re going to be gone for only a few minutes and there’s no risk?  Or are they just trusting souls who are convinced their neighborhoods are totally safe at all times?

According to the article, too, the identity of the criminals has shifted.  Before, teenagers looking for a little pocket money were often the perpetrators of such petty theft; now it’s inevitably adult opiate addicts who are looking for money that will allow them to get a quick fix.  Check out the chilling video surveillance footage accompanying the article, of the guy quickly checking the doors on cars.  According to the article, the thieves try to minimize their risk — in cars, they’ll look for an unlocked car and when they find one they’ll steal loose change and whatever appears to be valuable and be out in a few seconds, and in houses they’ll head directly to the bedroom, steal any visible small electronics they see, take any jewelry and money from the bedroom, and get out of the house in a few minutes — so being away from your unlocked house or car for only a few minutes isn’t going to provide any protection.  And the article notes that having a dog isn’t a sure-fire thief deterrent, either.

Why take a needless risk?  As the title of the article states:  Lock your damn doors!  (And make sure your kids do, too!)

The Demise Of The Internal Combustion Engine Is (Probably) Greatly Exaggerated

Volvo has announced that it plans to phase out production of automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine.  After 2019, all Volvo car models will be either fully electric or hybrids, and the company has set a goal of selling one million electric or hybrid cars by 2025.

This week, too, Tesla begins production of its electric-powered family car.  And, as the article linked above notes, all of the major car companies are looking ahead to the point where people are routinely buying electric vehicles, and to the “tipping point” at which some electric vehicles are actually cheaper than their conventionally powered competitors.

cq5dam-web-768-768Are we witnessing the end of the internal combustion engine — the hardy invention that, in some form or another, has powered personal transportation in America, and the world, for more than 100 years?

Not so fast!

There’s no doubt that electric cars, and especially hybrids, are gaining in popularity, but I think we’re still a long way off from the day when quietly purring electric vehicles dominate American streets.  For one thing, we don’t seem to have the infrastructure to support substantial use of electric cars, especially for long-distance trips — I haven’t noticed charging stations opening up on busy intersections to compete with those ever-present gas stations, at least not yet — and as the article notes, electric cars remain an expensive proposition.  And there’s also the fact that a substantial sliver of the American population, typically male, really likes the power and sound and thrumming feel of cars powered by internal combustion engines.  “Performance” cars seem to be extremely popular these days, as do grossly oversized and overpowered pickup trucks, and we’re still getting the annual stories about how cheap, or how expensive, gasoline is on the Fourth of July.  Those reports suggest that while we definitely seem to be inching toward a world of more electric-powered vehicles, we shouldn’t be shoveling dirt on the internal combustion engine just yet.

Keyless

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and many of my travels have required me to rent a car.  Through the rentals, I’ve been introduced to the wonders of keyless automobiles — at least, keyless in the sense of the old-fashioned, cut metal, keychain jangling in your pocket, keymaker and locksmith keys that I associate with cars.

img_3660We bought our Acura just before the keyless revolution really took hold.  It’s got a kind of awkward interim technology, bridging the gap between metal keys and totally electronic unlocking.  There’s a plastic part of the key with buttons that open and lock the doors and the rear gate, but there’s also a little button that you push to make a metal key flip out, and the car’s ignition requires the insertion of that metal key.  It’s as if the designer recognized the simplicity of electronic access, couldn’t quite bring himself to go the Full No-Metal Monty.

When you’ve been using metal car keys all your life, the electronic gizmos take some getting used to.  When I get into a rental car, habit compels me to look for the key in the ignition switch — but of course there is no ignition switch, just a button.  The “key” is a plastic device sitting in the cupholder.  You don’t need to touch it, or do anything with it; it’s very electronic presence is so powerful it allows you to start the car by stepping on the brake and pushing that button.  Because you don’t use the key to turn the car on or off, I always wonder how many people inadvertently leave the key in the car when they’ve completed their journey.  I don’t, because I’m anal about locking any car I use even if it’s totally empty, but I’m guessing that forgotten keys, and perhaps also stolen cars because the keys have been left in them, are a lot more common now than they were before.

I don’t mind the electronic keys, really; we’re living in an increasingly electronic age and you’ve just got to be ready for the next technological leap forward.  But while pushing a button and hearing the engine start is perfectly fine, in my view it doesn’t really compare with the tactile sensation of sliding that key into the ignition switch, feeling the rasp of metal on metal, and turning the key to hear the throaty thrum of the engine.