Cars

Here are Blog posts about my cars.

3 cars in a workshop

My workshop – with each yellow car getting its own bay. Not a typical view.

Okay, about my car “collection”:  Separate from my vehicular toys like the Slingshot and Polaris RZR and the Audi daily driver (referred to as “Maggie’s Car), I have a three car collection of all yellow cars.  Unbeknownst to me, I became a car collector came on a summer day in 1971 as I watched a yellow 1969 Lotus Elan being rolled onto the showroom at the local Renault/MG dealer.  Asking my friend Jeff Munger who ran the front of Munger Imports if I could drive it, before picking up my repaired Triumph Spitfire, ended up changing my life.  Two hours later I owned the car and still have it.  Many, many other cars have come and gone, but only two others genuinely fit into what I now claim as a complete, legitimate and genuine car “collection.” 

Do I think of myself as a car collector? While I think it depends on your definition, my opinion is that a collector is anyone with decent taste and lots of patience. As I mention above, my first “collector” car was my 1969 Lotus Elan which I bought in 1971.   It had less than three thousand miles on it. From the first minute I drove it I knew it was something special. The handling was not like anything I’d ever driven. At the time I didn’t know it was a collector car, it was my daily driver for the next five or six years. And I wasn’t a collector then.  I suspect I became a collector when I decided that come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to sell that car.  Then I was a collector, although with only one car, I don’t think it qualified as a “collection.”

Coming up on 50 years of ownership, have I ever been tempted to sell it? Yes, there were several times I thought I should sell it. When it wasn’t being driven or we’d moved to a house with limited garage space.  But each time I thought of letting it go, I remembered the times some old white-haired guy had come up to me and said, “Wow, that’s a pretty car.  You know, when I was “X” (years old – typically a number starting with 2), I had a “Y” (often Alfa Romeo, Triumph, MG or some other two-seater sports car) and the dumbest thing I ever did was sell that car.  I’d give anything to have that car back.”  This always made me pause when I thought of selling.

When I got married my aunt (Effie) confronted my new bride at the wedding with the question, “Now that Steve’s married, I imagine he’ll be getting rid of that little yellow girl-catcher of his?”  My wife’s response is likely a good part of why I still have the car, as she said, “Well Effie, if Steve’s going to have a mistress, I prefer to have her in the garage where I can keep an eye on her.” The Elan survived moves from the Midwest to Los Angeles, then to New York and back to the Midwest before finally arriving in Phoenix. It always got the prime garage spot, even in Minnesota when our daily drivers sat frozen outside.

a 1997 Acura NSX, red

My first NSX, a 1997 NSX-T. The perfect car. I should have never let go of it.

If not a real car collector with the Elan, when did I become a collector?
That would be when I bought my second Acura NSX in 2003. The purchase of my 1997 NSX, was sort of a fluke because I knew very little about NSX’s, other than I loved the lines and that I saw so few of them. But in the 15 months I owned and drove it, I absolutely fell in love with the car. It was just incredible.  The handling was awesome, the view of the road for the driver and the fact that everything worked, all the time, was amazing. But the only reason I had purchased it was that the waiting list for the car I wanted, the 2001 BMW M5, was so long, the dealer offered to sell me the NSX as a temporary ride, promising to take it back in trade on good terms when the M5 arrived.  When I turned the NSX back into the dealer and picked up my new BMW and drove it home, while excited about my new awesome beast of a car, I sensed I’d made a mistake, and I was right.

Acura NSX in the garage - yellow

Acura NSX in the garage

Three years later the M5 had only 7,500 miles on it, my wife was afraid to drive it and I was fed up with super lousy mileage. So, I went looking for another NSX and found a brand new 2002 model and traded the M5 for it.  And it was yellow, my favorite car color, so all was right with the world.  But I didn’t really “need” the NSX and the Lotus was already an “extra” car, so I suspect that is when I’d subconsciously moved to “car collector.”

So, do I consider two cars a car collection? Frankly, yes.  I think so, although I didn’t stop quite yet. In 2014 I bought a new McLaren MP4-12C, also yellow. It was late in the model year, the 650S had been announced. Owning a supercar had been a lifelong dream of mine and I’d been following McLaren and its drivers in F1 for years.  I found I really preferred the design of the 12C to the 650S, so when the dealers started discounting the MP4- 12Cs, I managed to get one at a fair price.  If two somewhat odd cars don’t make a collection, I would say that three most certainly do.  But once you have a collection, then you have to start thinking of why it’s a real collection, and not just several cars hanging out in the garage together.  In retrospect I’ve come to see that all three of these cars have a common theme, not the least being high performance design focused on very low weight.

Colin Chapman of Lotus had a thing for weight and is famous for saying “Simplify, then add lightness?” The same applies to the NSX and McLaren. 

Three Cars in a Garage. All cars are yellow

The best three car garage ever – if you like yellow.

Colin Chapman is to light-weight cars what Dumbledore is to magic. He pointed out that adding power makes you faster on the straights, but that subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.  He also said that any car which holds together for a whole race is too heavy and was heard to complain that when he left the factory for a few days he’s come back to find his cars had added weight. When I rebuilt my Elan I found the frame to weigh just 76 lbs. The body, all fiberglass, is around 200 lbs. The entire car is about 1,550 lbs. The McLaren’s frame, all carbon fiber, is about 275 lbs., and the entire car with fluids is just over 3,000 lbs. Watching the BBC documentary on the creation of the MP4-12C you heard repeatedly of the fierce commitment Ron Dennis and his team had to making the car as light as possible.  Frank Stephenson, the 12C designer said, “Weight is the enemy.” Sometimes it seems almost silly. For example, it doesn’t have a gas cap because, well, it adds weight.  And of course, the NSX was designed with a similar emphasis on being light.  The car is pretty much all aluminum, from the engine to the chassis to the body.  It weighs just 3,000 lbs. as well.

The Ayrton Senna connection: One of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time.  Ayrton Senna may be one of the strongest connections between the three cars. Senna drove for Lotus between 1985 and 1987 before moving on to McLaren in 1988, winning many Formula One races on his remarkable driving skills. In addition to his driving, Senna was renowned for his ability to provide very specific technical details about the performance of his cars on the track long before the advent of telemetry. His sense of the car under racing conditions was unequaled along with his ability to convey that to the engineers at Lotus and McLaren.  So it’s extra special that Senna played a key role as a test driver for the NSX.  In 1989, Senna was in Japan testing his Honda-powered McLaren and while there, drove and evaluated the NSX prototype for Honda, which resulted in the chassis being fine-tuned and stiffened by over 50%.  Later, at the first dedicated Japanese test facilities at the Nürburgring, he provided further input to help Honda’s engineers fine-tune the NSX.  Senna’s perfectionism helped create a masterpiece and Senna ended up owning several NSX’s personally.  But that isn’t the end of it.  Senna convinced Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray to see the NSX as well, which they did. Murray, who was just beginning his design work for the McLaren F1, has spoken about how influential the NSX was in his thinking, especially the suspension design,  driver comfort and road visibility. Murray has said that from the moment he drove the “little NSX,” all the benchmark cars – Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini – that he had been using as references for the development of the F1 just “vanished from my mind.”  In the BBC documentary on Gordon Murray and the F1, he reveals that other benchmarks discarded included the Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Countach, BMW M1, Porsche 959 and the Bugatti EB110 as he felt the NSX stood head and shoulders above them.  Of course the McLaren F1 would need to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality and handling would become their new design target. He copied the NSX aluminum suspension and drive-by-wire for the F1.

The Gordon Murray connection. Renowned as a car designer (McLaren F1) and for a string of Formula One title wins for Brabham and McLaren, when asked about his dream car, he said: “I’ve actually got my dream car, a Lotus Elan. I’ve never driven a better sportster.

man, young girl and a small yellow car

At the annual Lotus meet in Lime Rock, NY

It’s just what I like in a car, and has the best steering feedback ever.  The F1 was close, but the Elan nails it.  It looks pretty, too, and makes a nice noise. I had one in 1970 when I first got married and I’ve had two since.”  Murray grew up in South Africa where he first fell in love with the Elan. When he immigrated to Great Britain, his goal was to work for Lotus. Lotus had no openings and so he went to Brabham, the British racing car manufacturer instead.

Gordon Murray as a sort of “gateway drug”: In some ways, yes, but mostly this is stuff I’ve discovered later. Jay Leno, as you know, is a truly knowledgeable car guy and really respects the Elan.  Leno owns a McLaren F1, too, and knows designer Gordon Murray. He says Murray’s praise for the Elan convinced him to buy one. His first was a 1969 Elan, the same year as mine, and he actually ended up buying two of them.  Later he got another, a factory lightweight Elan 26R intended for racing. He now owns three. He’s extensively rebuilt two of them.  His well-documented rebuild of the two Elans on his Jay Leno’s Garage YouTube channel served as a video blueprint when I rebuilt mine.  Although I don’t think it took Jay Leno 3 years to rebuild his.

How these cars are different: The Elan is just about half the weight of the other two. The Elan has a fiberglass body, the NSX is aluminum and the McLaren is mostly carbon fiber.  Two of them, the NSX and McLaren, were designed to be daily drivers while at the same time offering the option of some pretty incredibly high performance on tap any time you want it and succeeded quite well at that. One just happens to have more than 350 horsepower than the other.   And of course they’re very different ages and as much as I love older cars and the ability to work on them, the handling, performance, reliability and comfort of newer cars is just remarkable.  The Elan is an incredible experience to drive. It is so

a cutaway drawing of a yellow NSX -

Acura NSX cutaway created by KHI,Inc.

precise and requires your full attention.  Then you get in the NSX and you appreciate things like air conditioning, a bit more room, not having to check the oil and water levels all the time.  Plus, you can take off on a 2-3 day drive and be totally comfortable the whole time. The NSX, until you put your foot in it or take it on the track, handles just like a Honda Accord in some ways.  Now the McLaren has the same easy-to- live-with comfort boxes checked, but the performance is so intense it’s hard to describe.  It’s the first car that has ever scared me, it is so fast.

So, why these cars are yellow: Well, I like yellow.  But that’s another connection.  According to Frank Stephenson who designed the MP4-12C for McLaren, the volcano yellow color on the 12C is taken from Ayrton Senna’s helmet. If you look closely you can see a bit of green inside the yellow, which is a tribute or nod to Senna.

About car collections and financial appreciation: My goal was never to make money selling the cars and I suspect that is true for most serious collectors. The assumption was when I bought each one that I would have it forever, and I still am of that mind.  The Elan has slowly begun to be appreciated and the prices are climbing for cars with lower miles and no abuse, like mine. It’s hard to find Elan’s that haven’t been modified extensively and raced. They were fast, light and not very expensive, so found their way to folks who wanted to modify and race them.  Gooding & Company have sold a few prime, untouched examples in the $50 – $75K range in the past few years that I’m aware of.

McLaren on Salt Flats

It’s cool how Photoshop can put me and the McLaren on the Bonneville Salt Flats – when this McLaren has never been there.

Now the NSX is a different story.  It was a very low production car. Some years Honda made only a couple hundred of them or less. It was very expensive to build. It’s is now reaching that magic 25 years old mark when you start to be able to more accurately predict if prices will climb or fall.  With the introduction of the new NSX in 2017, interest in the original models has picked up and prices have been rising rapidly.  Again, mine is a one owner car, still in like-new condition, so I expect it may have just passed what I originally paid for it by a few dollars.  The McLaren at this point is falling in value faster than the NSX is growing and I suspect that will continue for quite a while.  Exotics like the McLaren drop in value like a rock, sometimes worth only half of the new price when they’re just 5-10 years old.  My experience is you need to keep a car for a very long time before you see the value start to increase.  My problem is that I only have room for three extra cars. There are several cars I’ve wanted to own all my life, like a Porsche, for instance. How can you be a genuine car guy and not have ever owned a Porsche, especially a 911? That means I may need to break up the collection and sell one of these gems to make room for something else. The problem is “which one?”

 

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