Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 9, 2019

Infiniti, the Luxury Brand, Celebrates Its 30th Birthday

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The first Infiniti, the Q45, went on sale 30 years ago today

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona

Infiniti, the luxury brand of the Japanese automaker Nissan, celebrated its 30th birthday here, with look back at its past, a summation of its present state, and a glimpse into its future.

“It was November 8, 1989 that Infiniti was born,” said Mike Colleran, its global leader. “Today is the day the brand opened its showroom doors and sold the first Q45.”

Colleran, who just took over the reins at Infiniti earlier this year, said he was working for another automaker then. “I wasn’t exactly sure what Infiniti was,” he noted, “but I was pretty sure they were spelling it wrong.”

Infiniti was intended to re-define the concept of automotive luxury, but frankly, Infiniti couldn’t even really define itself back then.

An advertising campaign meant to grab attention was instead roundly mocked for showing images of flowing water, raindrops, plants and birds – but not the car itself.

“We still hear about those ads,” Colleran said. “But they must have worked, because people are still talking about them 30 years later.”

The Q45’s simple styling also came in for some criticism as bland, generic and odd – particularly in regards to its grille-less front end treatment. It was rather hurriedly redesigned to include a grille – although it had no purpose (most grilles at the time facilitated engine cooling, but the Q45 was designed not to need that).

Its 4.5-liter V8 should have been a selling point, especially since its 278-horsepower output made it the fastest sedan on the market at the time. But the company decided it was too powerful, and dialed back its performance in subsequent models.

For a time, Infiniti seemed to struggle to find its niche, even as Lexus, the Toyota luxury equivalent, had been launched at the same time to immediate success.

The model line was slowly fleshed out with smaller M-Class siblings, and the QX4 sports utility vehicle (a gussied-up Nissan Pathfinder). And little by little, Infiniti caught on.

Today, Infiniti has strengthened its identity, and distinguished itself further apart from Nissan. Its sedans and sports coupes are known for their sleek styling, powerful performance and refined luxury. Their SUVs pack power and all-terrain capability into a commanding road presence. Technologically, Infiniti separates itself from its competitors with innovations such as its unique variable-compression ratio engine, which maximizes performance and fuel economy as needed.

The company, however, seems to be in constant motion – it moved its global headquarters to Hong Kong under one leader, but now is moving it back to Yokohama under another. It tries to distance itself from Nissan, only to realize the synergies that are beneficial with closer integration. It launched in markets, like Europe, it has now withdrawn from.

For the foreseeable future, Infiniti sees its strengths in North America, the Middle East and China.

For the future, Infiniti faces more change and re-definition.

Colleran said electrification will transform Infiniti in the near future, into a brand that leverages hybrid gasoline and electric technologies.

In showing off some of the future concepts Infiniti is considering, it was pointed out the electric vehicles don’t have front grilles – just like the original Q45.

Maybe, like the strange ads that people haven’t forgotten, Infiniti was on to something.

Jerry Garrett

November 8, 2019

 

 

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS Museum)

INDIANAPOLIS

Roger Penske, the former racer turned billionaire entrepreneur, stunned the sporting world today when

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Roger Penske

he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Racing series, which includes the famed Indianapolis 500-mile race, and related businesses.

The purchase price was not announced.

The speedway, the famed “Brickyard”, had been owned since 1946 by the family of Anton “Tony” Hulman, a Terre Haute, Indiana, businessman who rescued the dormant property after World War II. The Hulmans, and later the George family which is related by marriage, have also been involved in sanctioning the IndyCar Racing series since the 1990s. The Hulman heirs recently sold the family’s other core business, Clabber Girl Baking Powder, for $80 million.

Penske, 82, developed an interest in sports car racing as a young man in the 1960s, and made quite a name for himself, winning races and a championship in 1962. But he suddenly retired from his promising driving career – his invitation to race at Indy was taken instead by a young Mario Andretti – to operate the business end of his racing pursuits.

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Penske at speed, 1962

From there, Penske built a racing empire that has enjoyed unparalleled success; today Team Penske includes competitors in IndyCar Racing, NASCAR, sports cars and even Australian stock cars. In the 1970s, he even fielded a rare American entry in Formula 1.

He also acquired stakes in Hertz truck rental (now Penske truck rental), a vast auto dealership group, Detroit Diesel, and, at one time, a collection of speedways – in Michigan, California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – which he sold in 1999 to International Speedway Corp. He has served as a director and/or board member of General Electric, The Home Depot, and Delphi Automotive, to name but a few hats he has worn in his business career.

A native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, got his start in business selling aluminum chicken coop roofs.

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Receiving presidential medal

Most recently, Penske was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Despite his steady climb to success in the business world, Penske never lost his love for racing, and he could dependably be found most every weekend calling the shots on his IndyCar and NASCAR teams from the pits.

But with his purchase of the Brickyard, Penske says those days are ending. “I will personally walk the facility tomorrow morning,” he said at a news conference at the speedway, announcing his purchase. “I will sit down with current leadership and get a top-10 to do list, and get to work.”

Although Penske’s announcement took even some in speedway management by surprise – I thought, “It’s too early for April Fool’s” said one when he first heard the news this morning – there had been rumors the speedway might change hands since the death of Hulman’s daughter, Mari George exactly one year ago. Her son Tony George had been actively involved in speedway and racing series management off and on the past 25 years – a turbulent time in the sport.

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Penske driver Simon Pagenaud wins 2019 Indy 500 (Jerry Garrett Photo)

Penske said he was committed to keeping and nurturing the core events at the speedway, including the 108-year-old 500-mile race, and the newer Brickyard 400 for NASCAR cars. But he was also open to exploring new racing opportunities, and perhaps even bringing back Formula 1 cars. The speedway underwent a $30 million upgrade to add a Formula 1 road course two decades ago.

“Hopefully I have enough credibility with everyone to understand that this is not a conflict,” Penske said of his continuing interest in entering his racing teams at Indy, where he had won a record 18 500s. “If there is, I know you guys will tell me pretty quick.”

Jerry Garrett

November 4, 2019

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 23, 2019

Driving My Mercedes To Italy – The End Of The Road

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My classic Mercedes-Benz 450SL in Italy

VENTIMIGLIA, Italy

Two years ago, I shipped my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450SL from Las Vegas to Italy. The whole process took months – almost five weeks longer than I expected. I chronicled the journey daily in a series of more than 30 blog posts (starting here).

The original idea had been for it to arrive by late May for the Monaco Grand Prix, the ultimate place to show and shine. It didn’t show up until mid-June. I stopped writing about it, after picking it up at the port of Genoa and driving it 110 miles home. It ran flawlessly.

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Sitting at the port of Genoa customs depot

So then what happened? (Thanks for asking!)

Plan B was just to drive it around the Italian and French Rivieras and enjoy it as much as possible, even though the original motivation (i.e., Monaco posing) for going through this rather expensive and laborious process was gone. In the back of my mind, I had been hoping I could sell it to some rich racing fan or Monagasque millionaire.

The car was perfect for a Riviera poseur; it was a flashy bright red, with black leather interior and in very nice shape for its age. It evoked scenes in my mind of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly driving around the same roads in 1954 in a Sunbeam Alpine convertible for the movie “To Catch A Thief”.

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Screen grab: My Riviera dream, like Grace Kelly & Cary Grant

But my fairy tale was not as enduring.

Ventimiglia is only eight miles down the beach from Monaco. I was worried about the corrosive damage of salt air. So, I rented a space in a two-place garage in the basement of the building where I was living. The property manager assured me that the other space in that garage belonged to a neighbor who “only comes once a year, in August, for a few days.” (Beware of Italians who exaggerate – which is all of them!)

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Space Invaders?

Of course, as it turned out the neighbor was around much more than that. All summer, in fact. And he complained – in an anguished note left on my windshield – that my little Mercedes was “troppo largo”. Compared to say a Fiat 500, okay, the Mercedes is rather huge.

Although I moved my car as close to the wall as I could, and worked with the property manager to paint a blue line down the middle of the garage to delineate our respective spaces, that was not good enough for the neighbor. He (or she) continued to complain to the manager, even though I never saw him (or her) or their car.

I didn’t know what else I could do. I tried ignoring the unpleasant situation.

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On my side of the blue line

A short while later, the Mercedes started running oddly. Black or brown smoke trailed from it, at times. It became harder and harder to start, until it finally wouldn’t. The garage was too cold and too dark to do any work on the car. Getting a battery charger to it was a chore. I tried pushing it out of the garage to the street, but it was a nightmare negotiating such a heavy car (with no power steering) out of the tight basement and up the ramp. Outside, it was almost impossible to work on, parked on the street. Street parking is vigilantly regulated, and now it was also exposed to the dreaded elements.

Knowing something about cars mechanically, I nevertheless tried to troubleshoot it. With only a few tools, I cleaned the fuel lines, and ordered a new fuel pump and fuel filter online – because it didn’t seem like fuel was getting from the tank to the engine. All that helped me get it started long enough to get it around the corner, into a parking spot, off the street. But it went no farther.

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“Il motore è morto”

In Italy, if there’s an off-street parking spot, you can bet somebody claims to own it. And someone did. It took quite a bit of negotiating, and several translators to get the owner (who didn’t actually even own a car) to agree to let me leave the car until I could find a mechanic to help me get it running again.

That proved to be a tough task. First, this was Italy, not Germany, and virtually no one works on Mercedes in Italy. (Mercedes parts are equally tough to find, especially for classics). Second, good luck finding anyone still active as a mechanic who works on 45-year-old cars of any kind; vintage cars are a very rare luxury in Italy. Third, if you could find a mechanic – which I did! – the logistics of getting it there would prove too much.

The mechanic had a shop in Monaco. Although only eight miles away, it would take three tow trucks, stopping, unloading and loading with a carefully choreographed rendevous at each border to get it there. Plus, there are language barriers as formible as the physical ones. And, anything that involves Monaco is going to be a big-ticket tab.

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“Nessun parcheggio qui”

I explored the idea of just shipping it back home; but, surprise, surprise, the cost of shipping it back was three times what it cost to ship to Italy in the first place.

“There is a lot more stuff coming from Italy to the U.S. than vice versa,” said the shipping supervisor. “We can bring cargo back much more cheaply, because the U.S. doesn’t ship as much out of the country anymore.” (Thanks Trump?)

With my year in Italy rapidly coming to a close, and no solution in sight, I was becoming desperate. I was about ready to leave the keys in it, with the doors unlocked and a note on the windshield, “Free to a good home.” (Insurance fraud was suggested to me, but I couldn’t go through with such a thing!) I was leaving for America in a matter of days.

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Ready to be abandoned, under the parasol pines

But then a friend in the classic car auction business came to my rescue. He lived in northern Italy, near Milan.

“I will send someone to pick it up,” he said. “We will get it running, and offer it for sale at one of our auctions, and give your proceeds to you after we take out our commission, and the cost of any repairs.”

Of course, I gratefully said, “Si, grazie mille!”

I left the keys with my property manager and departed.

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Last look: Farewell, My Lovely

The problems were not solved. Weeks passed before anyone could pick it up. I wondered if it was still there. My friend finally contacted me with quite a bit of complicated paperwork that needed to be completed before he could sell it. More time passed.

“We cannot make the car run,” he notified me, some months later. “Do you have any idea what has happened to it?”

My hunch had always been that the neighbor had done something to it. But there was no evidence; I couldn’t prove anything.

“Maybe someone has put something in the gas tank?” I suggested.

“Sabbotaggio?” he answered incredulously. I told him the story, and he said he would check.

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Heading to an uncertain fate

More months went by, and finally the friend contacted me and said the car still could not be started. But he had found a buyer. The man was from Germany and he thought he could fix it; he had spare parts that he could try – including a new gas tank, which he figured was the culprit.

Good news, all things considered, but the bad news was the amount of money I would gain was basically the price of my beloved classic rendered as scrap.

This was a better deal than abandoning it, for sure. So I took the money. The story ends.

Lesson learned? Ship only myself to Italy from now on!

(P.S. I never heard if the car ever got running again.)

Jerry Garrett

October 22, 2019

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 20, 2019

“Armchair Archaeology” To Infiniti And Beyond

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The ruins of Petra, a city carved into the rocks. (Jerry Garrett Photos)

PETRA, Jordan

Petra is an area of spectacular ruins of a 4,000-year-old civilization that has since vanished. It has been designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world. Archaeologists have been swarming over the area for nearly 200 years, since its re-discovery by the outside world, trying to unlock its mysteries and unearth its lost secrets.

Archaeologists now believe they have already discovered most everything there is to find at Petra; the last major find came in the 1990s. The site also has been heavily looted, over the centuries since its original inhabitants cleared out.

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Ancient Petra at right, modern Petra left background

But we think we may have found something, even though none of us has ever set foot here before.

“We” is a small group of explorers, adventurers and a noted archaeologist invited here by Infiniti, the luxury car maker. Infiniti’s interest in activities like this comes from an enthusiastic bunch of its executives, who belong to The Explorers Club, a society formed in 1904 to further responsible scientific exploration and field study. Explorers of historical note include the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Prince Albert of Monaco, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Sir Edmund Hillary, Charles Lindbergh and Indiana Jones (just kidding about that last one, but you get the idea).

The Infiniti folks think their vehicles are an especially good fit for explorers, or wannabes like our group, with a sense of adventure. Last year, Infiniti sponsored an expedition to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to look for dinosaur bones (which they found). This does not seem like an unreasonable niche for Infiniti’s 4-wheel-drive vehicles like its QX50 and QX80 SUVs.

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Exploring in style

Our group has something of an ace in the hole: Archaeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic Explorer from the University of Alabama-Birmingham (alma mater of Infiniti exec Trevor Hale), who is pioneering a new field of study using satellite images to scour historic sites for overlooked treasures. She is the author of a new book on the subject, “Archaeology From Space”.

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An archaeologist’s satellite “treasure map”

Dr. Parcak thinks she has spotted something, via satellite images, in the hills away from Petra’s tourist-infested, combed over main archaeological sites. Something that may have eluded notice by earlier explorers because of its relative inaccessibility.

“It may be a temple, it may be nothing,” Dr. Parcak says. “But the satellite images show some kind of area of interest.”

“It has right angles, and archaeologists know right angles like that don’t occur naturally,” Mr. Hale notes.

As we trek past the world-famous tombs and ruins carved into Petra’s distinctive red rock cliffs, the temperature is increasing rapidly toward a forecast high of 105.

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Up early, sharing the commute with local traffic.

Good thing we started before dawn. Now, only a handful of tourists are present, but later, the hordes will arrive – on foot, on horses, mules, camels and quads.

The SUVs were only allowed to bring us to within about two miles of our goal; the site is heavily regulated these days, to protect what few artifacts besides the empty structures remain.

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Open concept: Caves, thousands of years old, still lived in.

We hike up and down rugged hills which are crisscrossed with trails traversed by modern Bedouin tribesmen and their donkeys. As remote as this location is, in one of the most foreboding deserts on Earth, there is a disturbing amount of trash: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, snack wrappers and the like. Maybe we aren’t the first visitors.

Despite the arid, treeless terrain, people still live in these rocks – in caves and cliff dwellings they’ve carved out. They eye us suspiciously, as they make small fires with twigs to heat up samovars for morning tea.

This is a tough climb for an automotive journalist, who is usually hard-pressed to hike from one free buffet to the next. But, after an hour, exhausted, we reach the site Dr. Parcak is seeing in person for the first time. It is on a hilltop, raked by parching desert winds.

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Foundations remain of a temple thousands of years old.

“Yes, this could have been a small temple of some kind,” she says with a sense of accomplishment. She takes measurements, and makes notes. An extensive stone floor is visible, but whatever walls and roof there might have been seem to be long gone. “There were pillars,” she points out. It appears remnants of at least two of them are still around.

The nomadic Nabataen people probably built this place between 2,000-4,000 years ago. They’re long gone – probably conquered by and assimilated into legions of Greco-Roman invaders – but they’ve left a rich archaeological history in Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (we are just a few miles from the border) to explore and learn from. Archaeologists consider the Nabataens “one of the most gifted people of the ancient world.”

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Dr. Sarah Parcak surveys the site.

Dr. Parcak’s work has just begun here, as she will map and catalog everything she can identify in the area. She and others are likely to return and continue their work on later expeditions, now that she has confirmed something of historical value has been located. I found a small pottery shard, which might be a Nabataen artifact thousands of years old, or just a piece of a broken Bedouin clay pot from last week.

Except for Dr. Parcak, the adventure is ending for the rest of our group, as our goal has been attained. We are lucky; generations of archaeologists may scour this area without finding anything of historical interest. We came, we saw, we left in air-conditioned vehicles.

It was one of the more interesting adventures I can recall for people in our profession, who usually are usually entertained with fuel mileage calculations, 0-60 times, and skid pad g-forces. This is an intriguing new idea for positioning Infiniti in a genre that might have once been the sole purview of long-storied off-roaders like Land Rover.

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Treasure? Or trash?

(The vehicles we used here have been souped up for the Middle Eastern market, where they are driven at higher speeds, on miserable roads, in brutal heat and through sandstorms of Biblical proportions.)

It feels like cheating, in a way, to use satellites, apps like Google Earth, airplanes and drones to do some of the hard work of identifying lost sites, and sophisticated vehicles like the posh QX80 to get to them. But Dr. Parcak says it opens the scientific community to whole new possibilities of discovery.

“Armchair archaeology” some people call it. I say, “To Infiniti and beyond!”

Jerry Garrett

October 20, 2019

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 19, 2019

Jeep Gladiator – Automatic or Manual ?

Screen Shot 2019-10-19 at 2.01.34 PMCEDAR CITY, Utah

We recently spent a very enjoyable week test-driving a box-stock 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport 4X4 around the colorful countryside in southern Utah.

This is an area where the paved roads don’t always lead to where you want them to go, so improvisation is often in order. In other words: Jeep Country.

When we headed off-road, I was reminded of something the late Mickey Thompson, who once raced a Cadillac in Baja, told me: “The longer the wheelbase, the flatter the bumps become.” The Gladiator, with its 137.3-inch wheelbase, did an admirable job of flattening the bumps – off-road and on.

One of the best features of the Gladiator is its base price: $33,545. Of course, it is very easy to content-up that amount considerably with all the options available. But with the base model, the essentials are there: the 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 with 260 pound-feet of torque, air conditioning, 17-inch wheels and all-season tires, full-size spare, part-time four-wheel-drive, etc. The list also includes some welcome amenities such as a backup camera, tilt wheel and a full suite of safety and stability aids. A cloth top is standard; it’s a lot of fun to play with all the open-air options, and even romp around with the removable doors off.

What you also get on the base model are old-school hand-crank windows, manual door locks and a six-speed manual transmission.

Normally I would award plus points for the manual – my preferred way to motor – but, man was this one a lot of work. I can’t imagine coping with this setup in traffic, or any kind of urban driving.

The Aisin D478 manual helps make the truck faster 0-to-60 mph (but so does nearly 500 pounds less curb weight in this configuration). I also briefly drove an early production Gladiator with an eight-speed automatic, with much closer ratios; I thought that was a much more harmonious marriage for the V6’s horsepower and torque.

In layman’s terms, the manual has more gears than it needs (I once said this about the six-speed 208-mph Dodge Viper too). You spend most of your time in first, second and third – wondering why you need the other three gears. That’s largely because first is good up to 31 mph, second handles speeds up to 60, and third can top out at 103 – which is probably faster than you want to drive this trucklet on the road. Much less off of it.

It is possible to opt for a 4.10:1 axle ratio (available in higher-priced trim packages), which lowers shift top speeds by about 10 percent over the stock 3.73:1 gearing. But even then, it seemed the gear spacing didn’t seem natural, and the truck often seemed to bog down, especially between second and third. And because of the way this setup is geared, those are your go-to gears.

The clutch travel also drove me to distraction; you keep letting it out, and out, and…until it finally engages. The shifter needs long, industrial-strength throws, reminiscent of a school bus I once drove, to row through the gears. I stalled it an embarrassing number of times during the week I had it; perhaps with more time, I would become more used to it.

If you have passengers, you often find yourself assuring them, “I actually do know how to drive a stick.”

So, between the wearying operation of the clutch, the shifter and the number of gears, I found myself longing for the idiot-proof eight-speed automatic.

The automatic would seem to be the better choice, even for trailer towing. Torque is skewed more toward top end speeds, than low end, which seems counter-intuitive. In fact, the as-tested acceleration times, with a 4,000-pound trailer, more than doubles, 0-60, from 7.9 to 15.9 seconds.

For early buyers of the Gladiator, the gas-powered V6 was the only choice. But the much-anticipated 3.0-liter EcoDiesel, and even a 2.0-liter turbo-four, were due to be later options.

The added oomph from the torquey diesel might be worth the wait.

Overall: If you love the Wrangler, despite these caveats, you’ll easily find room in your heart for the Gladiator.

Jerry Garrett

October 19, 2019

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | September 27, 2019

Ashamed Of The Name? Buicks Are Now Buick-Less

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 20, 2019

2019 Pebble Beach Concours: The Aroma of Home Cooking

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2019 Best of Show at Pebble Beach

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.

The winner of the prestigious, highly coveted Best of Show honor at the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was a one-of-a-kind 1931 Bentley Sports Tourer. It won because, well… of course, it did.

Let’s say this Bentley had a few things going for it: Bentley was celebrating 100 years since its founding. Bentley was also this year’s “Featured Marque” at the world renown classic car beauty contest. And, it was also interesting to note: The car’s owner is kind of a “local”.

Never mind that a Bentley had won “Best of Show”, only once – in 1965 – since the concours’ inception in 1950. Never mind that this Bentley was not among the pre-event favorites, as selected by automotive journalists in attendance. Never mind that it wasn’t even the pre-event favorite among the six special classes of Bentleys entered this year.

This long-shot selection had the aroma of home cookin’ about it.

The car is owned by The Honorable Sir Michael Kadoorie, 78, Hong Kong’s eighth richest individual, with a fortune estimated at nearly $8 billion. He owns about a sixth of the power company that supplies most of Hong Kong’s electrical needs, and a little less than half of the hotel ownership group that controls the Peninsula Hotel chain. He also owns the Quail Lodge Golf Club, in nearby Carmel, which also hosts a large car show for motorsports enthusiasts a few days before the exclusive concours on the Pebble Beach golf links. Together, the two events help act as bookends for nearly a full week of celebration of the history and heritage of classic automobiles.

Sir Michael’s Peninsula property in Hong Kong offers VIP limo service for its guests, in classic Rolls Royce cars. He himself, not surprisingly, is an avid classic car lover, with a discerning collection of unknown size. He acquired the Bentley in 2010, in the middle of an unfinished four-year restoration process, which he duly oversaw to completion.

“The Centennial of Bentley may have played a role in this award,” conceded Mr. Kadoorie, “but the 8 Litre is the ultimate W. O. Bentley–era automobile.” His particular car is fitted with a custom body by coachbuilder Gurney Nutting. Only one other similarly accoutered Bentley 8 Litre was ever made; however, its owner decided to have it re-bodied as a Rolls-Royce, for an indiscernible reason. That leaves Mr. Kadoorie’s version the only other extant.

“This is the car that represents Bentley at its finest,” he added, “and I have been very fortunate to have a car that has this elegance and finish, and that the Pebble Beach Concours feels is worthy.”

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Finalist: 1936 Mercedes-Benz

The process for selecting a couple hundred cars for entry each year in the Pebble Beach pageant is very exacting. The field “turns over” every year, as both losers and winners go home. “We generally do not allow cars to return to our show field within a ten-year period,” organizers advise. A new array of entrants is chosen for each successive year, and so the process goes, for 69 years now.

Entrants have been known to plow many hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring their vehicles to showroom condition. So many of the competitors are keen to see a return on investment that comes with winning awards – which are given not only for overall achievement, but also in dozens of individual classes. It is not uncommon for one year’s winners to cross the block at the next year’s companion auction events here; often the prices such winners fetch carry a bit of a premium in recognition of the awards they have won.

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Finalist: 1962 Aston Martin

So, more than bragging rights are at stake. But if the losers from this year’s event had issues with the outcome being to whatever degree “fore-ordained” – thus negating a measure of their efforts – their opinions for the most part remained closely held.

“Oh well, I guess French cars can’t win every year,” muttered one, with a tinge of sarcasm.

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Finalist: 1938 Talbot-Lago

The Best of Show finalists did include a stunning French entrant: a 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C-SS Figoni & Falaschi Teardrop Cabriolet. The remaining finalists were a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Erdmann & Rossi Special Cabriolet and a 1962 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato Coupé.

Jerry Garrett

August 20, 2019

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 28, 2019

How Honda Threw Away Victory In The 2019 Indianapolis 500

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The finish of the 2019 Indy 500, from the press box (Jerry Garrett Photo)

By JERRY GARRETT

INDIANAPOLIS

Okay, so Simon Pagenaud’s Chevrolet-powered racer edged out Alexander Rossi’s Honda-driven machine in the 2019 Indianapolis 500.

But it was a case of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” for Honda.

The 15 Chevrolets in the 33-car field were paced by Pagenaud, who qualified fastest and led 112 of the 200 laps in the race; but the 18 Hondas, best represented by Rossi, seemed to get slightly better fuel mileage. Rossi even managed to lead a second-best 22 laps.

This is not a tortoise-and-the-hare tale, but there are elements in this story that remind us that the race does not always go to the swiftest – although it did in this case. And the “tortoise” in this tale committed more than enough unforced errors to screw up itself out of a happy ending.

“Horsepower,” is what Rossi said it all came down to at the finish, as Pagenaud held him off by two-tenths of a second, in the seventh closest finish in the 500’s 103-year history. Pagenaud’s Chevrolet had slightly more power than Rossi’s Honda, when it came down to who could take the point and hold it for the frantic final five miles.

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How they finished.

“It’s not that the Honda has any significant disadvantage, from a horsepower standpoint,” Rossi said. “Yes, it’s an engine whose basic design is now almost ten years old, and they keep doing clever things to keep it competitive. It’s just that when it came down to the finish, Simon had the power to pass me, and I was unable to get enough of a run to re-pass him.” A series of wild blocking moves by Pagenaud complicated Rossi’s task.

But Rossi actually had the keys to victory snatched away, multiple times – by other Honda drivers!

Rossi, who scored an upset victory here in the 2016 500 as a rookie, won that race with superior fuel mileage, and a clever strategy that was slavishly adhered to – until the final lap, when he took the lead, as driver after driver ahead of him ran out of fuel.

This time around, Rossi and the other Honda drivers – 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon, Conor Daly, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais chief among them – had an improved fuel-stretching strategy to go with a go-fast plan to stay closer to the front as much as possible the whole race.

In 2016, Rossi had been willing to drop all the way to last at the mid-point of the race, in order to stretch his fuel to the max.

In a normal Indy race, at least six pit stops for fuel are to be expected. If you can stretch your fuel, as Rossi did in 2016, and make only five fuel stops, you’ve gained a theoretical advantage of nearly an entire 2.5-mile lap, at these speeds. That’s huge.

Many of the Honda drivers this year were mindful of that five-stop strategy, while the Chevrolet crowd was just going to go for it, running flat out all day, in hopes the chips fell their way. A sort of hare-brained strategy, if you will.

What negates the fuel mileage strategy is when there are too many crashes and yellow caution flags that slow the race during clean-up periods. Then pit stops can be made during the ensuing slow-down periods, without losing much track position.

For instance, Pagenaud led the race until lap 32, when he made his first fuel stop. Rossi didn’t pit until lap 36.

Though it didn’t take Pagenaud long to race back into the lead, he had to stop again at lap 64. Rossi, who remained among the top five during this segment, didn’t stop until lap 70. So, it was becoming clear what Rossi was up to – and it was working.

On lap 99, Pagenaud came in again for fuel – once again giving up the lead, as happened each time he pitted. Rossi managed to stay out until lap 106. So the extra laps that Rossi had “in the bank”, so to speak, over Pagenaud grew again. And they could be expected to continue growing until the last 30 laps or so, when Pagenaud would have to make a final stop, while Rossi could keep going. Game over for Chevrolet, in that case.

But here is where the plan started to unravel for Rossi, and his Honda mates. That lap 106 pit stop for Rossi was botched when his fuel man could not get his balky re-fueling rig engaged and disengaged quickly enough during the stop. So, Rossi’s stop took 8.8 seconds, while Pagenaud had received service earlier in just 7.2 seconds. That translated to at least four football fields worth of distance on the race track; Rossi had to start driving like a wild man avoid losing even more time. Rossi knew if he was bogged down behind slower traffic, the leaders could pull away quickly.

In his mad dash to the front, Rossi narrowly missed colliding with Bourdais and Oriol Servia, as they failed to move over fast enough. Rossi angrily shook his fist at them – while continuing to race on at 220 mph with one hand!

What added to Rossi’s pique at these guys was they were fellow Honda racers, and they had an obligation to give a faster “teammate” plenty of room to go by.

Behind Rossi, Honda drivers Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon were on a plan to stretch their mileage even farther, and they didn’t stop until laps 109 and 112, respectively.

At this point, Hondas occupied nine of the first 11 places in the running order. And the two Chevrolets among them – Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – were doomed, because they would have to make one extra, hope-killing fuel stop in the last 200 miles!

Honda’s strategy was working perfectly. Until it wasn’t.

The advantage was wiped out as the race neared its 350-mile mark: Top ten Honda runner Marcus Ericsson blundered too fast onto pit road, spun around and banged the wall. This pit road blockage brought out the yellow flag. As the field slowed and bunched up behind the pace car, the backmarkers all caught back up. And everyone got to make essentially a free pit stop, without jeopardizing their positions on the race track. This was great for the Chevrolet drivers, who desperately needed this, but disastrous for the Honda guys, who definitely did not it. They had all too recently stopped for service.

So Rossi’s growing 12-lap fuel cushion – and his need for one less fuel stop than the Chevrolets – was wiped out. Same with most of the other Honda runners.

Rossi’s problems were compounded when his pesky fuel hose problem resurfaced; he lost a huge amount of time – which put him back in the running order once again – while his pit crew struggled to get fuel into his car.

When the race resumed, Rossi – furious over the pit stop debacle – drove like a man unafraid of Indy’s mortal dangers, to erase the setback he had suffered. He was soon back among the top five, but his fuel advantage was zeroed out. On lap 167, Rossi, Pagenaud and Newgarden all pitted for fuel again at the same time.

But even if the race had run to its conclusion from this point without caution, there was still a chance fuel mileage maybe – just maybe – could come into play again. Here’s how: Racing at similar speeds, Pagenaud could expect to get about 29-30 laps on of a tank of fuel, while Rossi was looking at 32-33, at least. Pagenaud might have to mitigate his horsepower advantage to conserve fuel, while Rossi could race flat-out.

So off they went again, with Rossi dogging the Chevrolets of Pagenaud, Newgarden and Ed Carpenter.

Then came what proved to be the final nail in Honda’s coffin: Rahal and Bourdais were having it out. Rahal was trying to pass, Bourdais kept cutting him off. This went on for a lap or two, until Bourdais again tried to cut Rahal off going into a turn. They bumped. Bourdais turned sideways in front of Rahal, who then collected him. They spun into the wall, while Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach crashed behind them.

The truly stupid aspect about this totally needless crash was that it was two Honda guys crashing out two other Honda guys, and again thwarting another Honda guy – Rossi – and his relentless march to the front.

The Chevrolet guys, meanwhile, emerged more than “unscathed” – they were gifted another free pit stop as a result, and more than enough fuel to run to the finish at full warp! So thanks to the dispiriting lack of Honda camaraderie, their potentially unbeatable fuel mileage strategy was pronounced dead, once and for all.

At the end, it came down to Rossi, and another determined Honda driver Takuma Sato (recovering from an early race pit foul-up) trying every trick they knew to vanquish the Chevrolets. They bravely got past Newgarden, Power and Carpenter with nail-biting passes. But then they lacked that extra dab of horsepower needed to dispatch Pagenaud. Rossi did draft into the lead with three laps to go. But that was actually Rossi’s fatal mistake, Pagenaud believes.

“When he got me [with] three laps to go, I’m like, ‘Man, you shouldn’t have done that,'” Pagenaud told Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an interview after the race. Pagenaud employed the same slip-streaming strategy to take the lead right back for the final lap.

“The actual thing I said to myself when he goes around me in Turn 1 is, ‘Perfect. Perfect.'” Pagenaud continued. “I was so worried that he was going to wait for the last lap and do it, and if he did it on the last lap, he could have won the race.”

By making his move three laps from the end, Rossi left Pagenaud too much time, and opportunity, to use the same slipstream move to get the lead back. In theory, the two combatants could have used the slipstream to leap-frog each other indefinitely.

But the checkered flag at the end of lap 200 decided the battle, although Pagenaud had to use all his wiles to block Rossi’s desperation, last-lap bid to go in front two turns from the finish.

“By the white flag, he was so far (behind), I thought I had it,” Pagenaud recalled of the frantic few seconds left in the race. “But then on the backstretch on the last lap, then he got really close. He had a good Turn 2, and I had to pull the Dale Jr. card there…

“My last card in my game was to break the draft, find a way to break the draft. And obviously, I was able to finish the corner really low to break the draft because my car was just sensational. And then he couldn’t really do the same, so that gained me a little bit. And then when he started drafting (back to me), I just moved to the high side, and he couldn’t move as quick as me, so I did it again. And that was just enough to be inside Turn 3, and I wasn’t going to lift no matter what.”

“We had the superior car, I felt,” Rossi lamented, “for most situations. But at the end, we lacked just that tiny bit of horsepower we needed to get past Simon that last time.”

May 27, 2019

(Editor’s Note: Versions of this story appeared in the May 26, 2019 editions of The New York Times.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 21, 2019

Contrarian View: McLaren At The 2019 Indy 500

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Team McLaren’s ill-fated, unsuccessful Indy 500 run (IMS)

INDIANAPOLIS

Another gimmick has failed racing.

There are 33 starting positions available for would-be qualifiers for the Indianapolis 500. It used to be that the 33 fastest qualifiers would occupy those spots.

Not anymore.

Now, there’s a gimmick. One of those little twists that organizers have added, to theoretically jazz up the proceedings – which suggests the sport’s promoters think the traditional way of qualifying for the Indy 500 was too boring.

I disagree.

There were 36 drivers and cars vying a spot in the 2019 race. Three of them weren’t going to make the starting lineup. This math exercise was easy to understand. What was less clear was that it wasn’t necessarily going to be the cream of the crop – the “fastest 33 drivers in the world,” as they used to proclaim – that would make it into this year’s “Greatest Spectacle In Racing”.

Under recently promulgated Indy rules, the first 30 starting positions are in set in a single qualifying session. The final three spots are set in a separate “last chance” qualifying session.

This year, that left six drivers on the outside looking in. These included star attractions such as two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and former pole winner James Hinchcliffe.

Under this rule, before this last dance, these drivers are allowed to go fiddle with their cars, to try and find more speed. What can – and inevitably does – happen, as a result, is these final qualifiers end up going faster than some of those already in the field.

This also creates a ridiculous situation where faster drivers can end up starting behind slower ones. This gimmick is dangerous. Needlessly so.

In fact, this brings up another gimmick – along the same lines – that ended up back in 2011 at a Las Vegas race, leading to a 15-car crash that killed two-time Indy winner Dan Wheldon. He was starting at the back of the field, trying to earn a $1 million prize, if he could pass slower drivers in front of him and win the race.

Why does racing, especially IndyCar racing, where the cars and drivers are so evenly matched, and the racing so blood-curdlingly close anyway, need such gimmicks?

They tend to end badly.

This year, it ended badly for Alonso and Team McLaren, a new entrant that organizers were ecstatic to have. (As always, organizers are searching for ways to expand the sport’s appeal and attract new drivers, teams, sponsors and television advertisers.)

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Alonso bounced off two walls (BBC)

Earlier in practice, Alonso had an inexplicable crash that destroyed his front line car. So he was obliged to move to an unprepared backup car.

In a heroic fifth and final attempt at qualifying a car not well suited to the task, Alonso came up less than two-hundredths of a mile an hour short. Actually, he turned in the 31st fastest qualifying speed. But under the qualifying gimmick rule, the 31st qualifying position had already been locked in earlier by someone else. So, Alonso ended up being  excluded from the last row slots (Hinchcliffe was luckier), while two drivers with slower speeds were able to start instead.

How idiotic.

McLaren, the vaunted Formula 1 team with two previous Indy victories to its credit, was made to look incompetent and foolish. Alonso, who fancies himself one of the greatest drivers in racing history (and few would argue that), was mortified. The team principal apologized to its fans; its president was summarily fired. It would not commit to returning again in 2020, or anytime in the furniture.

Headlines made merciless fun of McLaren’s misfortune.

A lot of other potential Indy 500 aspirants must look at such scenarios with horror. Why would you come to Indy, as McLaren had done, as a one-shot deal (i.e., not planning on running any other IndyCar races during the rest of the season) and take a chance on missing the race? Not to mention taking a shot, like McLaren, did to its reputation and brand image. I mean, McLaren builds road cars and is hoping to sell them to the enthusiast public. What does a debacle like this do to those goals? It couldn’t have helped.

In the final analysis, McLaren had some bad luck, with its primary car being damaged in the practice crash. In the haste to make the poorly suited backup car equal to the task, a small detail was overlooked: The gearbox had the wrong ratio settings. The proper settings – a relatively easy fix – would have easily given Alonso a top speed capability of 229 mph, instead of the 227 he barely managed on his final qualifying attempt. A 229 average would have been enough to challenge for the pole position! In the race itself, 227 would have been more than competitive. Instead, he was sent packing.

And a final note: The 2019 field was the closest, in terms of speed from fastest qualifier to the slowest, in the race’s history dating back to 1911. The difference between best and worst was barely calculable: literally a matter of a few feet.

So, with a two-time World Champion and his team going home humiliated, perhaps never to return, Indy’s gimmick cost the sport, its backers and its fans dearly.

No more gimmicks, please.

Jerry Garrett

May 21, 2019

 

 

 

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This vandalized speed camera, in Corsica, has a snotty warning from the gilets jaunes for French president Macron (CNN)

NICE, France

The French government admitted this week that 75 percent of the country’s nearly 3,300 speed cameras have been vandalized. The destruction, a separate agency confirmed, has to date cost government tax collectors more than 209 million euro ($235 million).

The figures are notable, for two reasons: First, as recently as December, only a few hundreds of the cameras had been damaged, according to the government (which had been trying officially to minimize public concern over the carnage); now, it is confirmed over 2,500 of them have been attacked. Second, the government hadn’t released a monetary figure on lost revenue until now, other than to say the losses were “in the millions.”

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Arbitrarily lowering speed limits from 90 kph to 80 last year helped spur the yellow vest reactions (BBC)

Search the internet for speed camera vandalism. There’s no shortage of photos of camera boxes that have been crashed into, duct-taped blind, shrink-wrapped, spray-painted, even blown up. Near me, someone with a backhoe dug one up, and dumped it in a ravine.

Who’s responsible? The yellow vest, or gilets jaunes, protesters and their sympathizers. No question. No debate about this. Also, no shortage of suspects.

French motorists – millions of them – hate speed cameras, and the many other tricks and traps the government uses to try and extract revenue from them. They hate them even more, since the government arbitrarily lowered speed limits from 90 kph to 80 last year, in what was widely seen as a way to extract even more fines from drivers. (The government lamely cites “increasing” traffic mortality rates as a justification, and cocked-up “public opinion polls” claiming support for the lower limits.)

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Gilets jaunes aren’t shy about who is vandalizing speed cameras (The Independent)

Undaunted in their pursuit of revenue off the backs of motorists, the French government says it will start replacing the destroyed speed cameras with radar machines, which they say will be harder to destroy. We will see.

When the yellow vest protests broke out last year, official explanations were vague about the causes behind the increasingly violent protests. “Economic disparity” came to be blamed. But the trigger for such intense public anger was the French government’s war on the automobile and just about anything to do with motorized travel.

There’s a long history of vindictive persecution of the automobile, its makers and its consumers in France. During World War II and its aftermath, many of the industry’s leading players, giants such as Louis Renault and Ettore Bugatti were vilified as enemy “collaborators” jailed and allegedly tortured. Their factories were confiscated by the government, and ruinous taxes imposed. In fact, France’s once-robust automotive design and coach-building industry, featuring such vaunted names as Delahaye, Talbot-Lago, Figoni & Falaschi, Sauotchik and Voisin, was quite literally taxed to death.

Back to the present day.

What about rising fuel taxes? They are a factor, to be sure, but probably not to the extent they are given blame. Gas prices in France have long been much higher than in neighboring countries. (I always fill up in Italy.)

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World’s third largest motorway petrol plaza – in Luxembourg (Tokheim)

Tiny Luxembourg exists, wags say, as a gas station for the neighboring French; huge “petrol plazas” greet motorists at nearly every entrance to the country.

Speed limits are generally lower in France than neighboring countries (in Italy and Spain the 130 kph limits are lightly enforced in most areas). Germany’s autobahns, famously, offer sections without any speed limits at all.

Every autoroute, or “interstate”, in France is also a toll road. And tolls are constantly going up. Toll booths (usually understaffed and only partially open) are installed every few miles, it seems, negating any speed advantage that might come from paying extra to take a limited access highway.

Every city and town has its own speed cameras,  traffic radars, and traffic cops. Crosswalks are elevated (with mounds of asphalt), ostensibly to slow traffic, but they also do a fairly reliable job of damaging cars – especially luxury models that hug the ground. (A particularly nasty crosswalk/speed bump I know of in Menton warns motorists it must be taken at no more than 10 kph; there’s a speed camera mounted there, which invariably catches offenders – airborne).

Vehicle registration and licensing fees are always increasing.

Air pollution is terrible, because the French government for years misguidedly promoted diesel-powered vehicles and discounted diesel fuel, to encourage adoption. Now that “clean” diesel has been outed as a big fraud, the government wants to raise diesel fuel taxes to demand-destructive levels, and to tax diesel cars off the road. Paris, in fact, wants to ban diesel cars (and eventually all cars) from its downtown core.

French cars, as a whole, are something of an acquired taste. They sell in sufficient numbers to keep their manufacturers’ solvent, but only in France. Italians buy Italian cars, Germans buy local, even Spanish motorists favor SEAT-badged VWs over French cars. The worst cars I drove out of dozens I tested in Europe the last three years were Peugeots and Citroens (Renaults were slightly more competitive). There’s a reason French cars are no longer even sold in the United States.

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Don’t be surprised when French public transportation goes on strike (BBC)

Might public transportation be a more attractive alternative? Well, that’s a whole other mess. The government is constantly raising prices of those conveyances, and always thinking of new ways to tax users into poverty. This, while ignoring maintenance, dumbing-down schedules, and generally making the travel experience as miserable as possible. Public transportation also perpetually seems to be suffering through some kind of strike – against bus companies, against airlines, against railways, against fuel refiners. Protestors infamously chased down airline executives announcing layoffs (two years ago now) and tried to rip their clothes off, as the desperate men threw themselves over a barbed wire fence to escape.

In balmy southern France, yellow vest protesters even wintered in makeshift encampments in highway roundabouts, try to rally the sympathies of motorists to widen the revolt. Traffic, understandably, was tied in knots for months.

Compounded by the still-unrequited hatred of the gilets jaunes, the situation seems almost at an impasse.

Is there a solution? I hardly think so. My conclusion is France just hates the car.

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A notable Kickstarter campaign for two-horsepower forms of transportation.

Jerry Garrett

April 1, 2019

 

 

 

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Italy: Unforgettable to visit, but mind your wallet (Jerry Garrett Photo)

VENICE, Italy

Just finished reading a very smart blog post from the always very savvy Bianca at ItalianFix, with some suggestions to avoid getting fleeced when using a debit or credit card for travels in Italy. I recommend reading it (and following her blog).

Anyway, she offers five tips, which I would like to expand upon a bit. But first let me back up a bit: Before you go, let your ATM and credit card issuers and your bank know a) that you are going on a trip, b) what countries you are going to, and c) when you are leaving and returning. If you don’t they may put a block on your card – which is all kinds of fun to try and get un-blocked when you are in a foreign country and trying to call collect, or to an 800 number back home that won’t answer in the middle of the night there.

1. Now to her tips: Bianca suggests, “Have 50 euro in cash when you arrive.” Yes, this is a solid idea (for several reasons, which I will expand upon below), but not always as easy to do as you might think. Hopefully, if you travel to Europe often (like I do), you will have left Europe on your last trip with at least 50 euro still on you. Then you are all set when you return. So, plan ahead, if you can.

If you haven’t done this, or it was not an option, you might find it is not worth the trouble and expense to get just 50 euro from your financial institution back home. Think of getting at least 100 euro! And get it from your bank, if you can. You will be charged the best exchange rate, and pay fewer fees, as a general rule. Don’t change money at your departure airport – unless you are desperate. You will probably get fleeced out of a quarter, or more, of your transaction in fees.

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Beware: Not an “ATM”; It’s a Travelex kiosk

2. Get the best exchange rate. Okay, number one: Don’t change money at the airport. We mentioned your departure airport above; but don’t change money at your arrival airport either. It’s probably even worse! There’s a reason those currency exchange booths look so lonely these days: People have, for the most part, figured out what a ripoff they are. But here’s a new trick they try: An ATM in the baggage claim or arrivals area, that looks like a regular ATM – but it is actually a currency exchange machine placed there by those same ripoff artists! They will nail you for the same rate they are trying to clip you for at their kiosk (or worse).

Before you use any ATM in Italy, especially at the airport, train station or downtown in large cities, make sure (as best you can) you understand whose ATM it is. Those specifically tied to banks are the best best. We usually see the reliable ones with a sign that says, “Bancomat”. There are also many with a kind of stylized “3” logo that accept cards affiliated with a group of Italian banks. We’ve had good success with these charging fair rates (or no fees at all, see below).

If you can, when using an ATM machine, try to figure out at least in general terms how many euro your money will net you. (Be at least generally aware of the day’s euro-to-dollar exchange rate.) We’ve been terribly shortchanged (literally) in touristy areas like Venice and Como.

3. Beware the foreign transaction fee. We have two Visa cards from Chase; one charges a foreign transaction fee, the other does not. The difference in the bills we got, when we got home, was staggering. We learned our lesson. (On larger amounts, it’s as high as a 3% commission, plus fees; on smaller amounts, we were charged a minimum fee – which when we were forced to use it for an autostrada toll, for instance, turned a tiny fee into a large one. The best we have found is the American Express Platinum which is, sadly, not as widely accepted as MasterCard and Visa. We also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred. We find people snap to attention when you use an AMEX card, because they are so hard to get in Italy (you must keep a lot of money in the bank as collateral, and so usually only rich people carry them there). Affinity cards we have with Delta and United airlines are not good ones for foreign travel, as a general rule. (All the cards I mention here do earn you frequent flier miles!)

3a. The “dynamic currency conversion fee” is another of those little tricks they’ve come up with to swindle you. Ever been asked, at a restaurant or store, to choose between being billed in euro, or your home currency? That’s them trying to get you to pay their version of a currency exchange fee. Always choose to get your bill in euro. Best to have your credit card company calculate the exchange rate and any fees when they get around to billing you.

I have also seen instances recently in which you are prompted to leave a tip on your bill, with helpful calculations for 10%, 15%, 20% or more. Remember this is another trick; tipping is not generally a thing in Italy. And if you do tip, you want to leave it in cash. And don’t tip too much: “It can send the wrong message,” a pretty waitress advised me.

4. Use a credit card, if you can, rather than burn through your cash, or carry large amounts of it around (A no no!). This is vital: This is how you have some leverage over strange charges that may (often) crop up on your bill when you get back home. Don’t hesitate to contest any such charge. I do. Always good advice. Particularly if you are going to do something like rent a car (a whole other topic!). Also know that if you use something like an AMEX Platinum to charge your rental car, it covers the ghastly “collision damage waiver” upcharge.

5. Please note that it is always a good idea to have a debit card on hand. Certain automated payment kiosks, such as at airports and train stations, may only take a debit card, regardless of what the signs say. I’ve had this problem on autostrada toll booths and for parking meters too. It’s a good backup to have when you start to panic, “None of my credit cards are working!” There’s a reason; Italians get your money faster when they force you to use a debit card.Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 10.36.46 AM

Bianca also makes some other good suggestions about using a debit card in Italy (beware of fees, and limited acceptance). I will add one of mine, but it is probably not practical, unless you are planning an extended stay. I transferred just under $3,000 (the amount above which starts getting scrutiny from the Guardia di Finanza) from my U.S. bank to an account that I opened at an Italian bank (with the help of my kind landlord). I did this back when the exchange rate was really low ($1.04 to the euro!) and this allowed me to pay my rent, pay my utilities, get cash (from any of those banks with the weird “3” logo) without a transaction fee, and pay anyone without looking like a tourist (and getting asked to opt for tricky stuff like the “foreign conversion fee”). Plus, when the exchange rate tanked in 2017 (thanks Trump), I got a lot of bang for those bucks I had exchanged six months earlier.

Pro Tip: Exchange rates are pretty low again, right now. Might be a good time to take advantage of an idea like this.

Jerry Garrett

March 23, 2019

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 22, 2019

The Car Radio Turns 90, Thanks To A Picnic

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The “Motorola” Model 5T71, the first car radio

The idea for the car radio was born 90 years ago, by some accounts. The story of how that came about, and what the idea set in motion, is a fascinating one.

It would be a few years before the idea became feasible, but today of course the car radio is as ubiquitous as the automobile itself.

Commercial radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, and the whole industry was still in its infancy when William Lear (more on him later) and Elmer Wavering wondered if they could adapt a home radio to use in an automobile.

According to a story that Lear was fond of telling, the two young men were on a picnic with their lady friends, on a promontory overlooking the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois, one evening in 1929. One of the women said she wished they could listen to music, as they watched the sun set.

That started the whole idea. Both men had tinkered with radios, and had enough background in the basics that they thought it was possible. (Other inventors have claimed to develop the same notion a bit earlier or around the same time, but all automotive radios trace their genealogy from this ancestor.)

But there were issues: Besides having to downsize the whole radio apparatus, which was quite large in those early days of the technology, the men had to solve problems of durability – bouncing around in cars with primitive suspensions on early roads. And then were was static. This was an issue for all radios, and a number of companies began offering solutions to static in home-based radios. But a car presented a unique set of issues with interference from its electrical equipment, such as the generator, the spark plugs, and its ignition.

Lear and Wavering eventually presented their idea to Paul Galvin, who operated a small company in Chicago that specialized in making “battery eliminators” which converted home radios to run on household current; all radios up until about 1927 ran on separate, bulky storage batteries. Galvin was eager to expand into a new product category, and so he offered the men space in his factory to tinker with their radio.

They got a prototype up and running in a Studebaker, and decided to approach a banker for a loan, to go into business mass-producing car radio kits. To show how versatile the application could be for any car, the men installed a demonstration model in the banker’s Packard. But disaster happened: The system malfunctioned and set the car on fire. Needless to say, they didn’t get the loan.

Galvin refused to give up, however. He drove the Studebaker from Chicago to a radio convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When he arrived, he found he couldn’t afford to rent a booth at the show, so he ended up parking the car on the street outside the convention center, and blasting the radio to passersby. He managed to get enough people interested to start taking orders.

Galvin decided to call the radio “the Motorola“, a mash-up of the Victrola brand name and other popular radios of the time. The first model was designated the 5T71, for whatever reason.

The biggest problem for the young business was the cost of the unit: $110, uninstalled. That was a lot of money back then, during the depths of the Depression, when a new car cost $650 or so. Plus, it took two men several days to install the contraption and all its necessary parts, pieces and wires. The radio even needed its own source of power (i.e., a separate battery) in those early days. And it wasn’t exactly pretty, once installed.

It’s a miracle the company survived.

But the idea of putting a radio in a car was too popular to fail, it seems. Galvin said he lost money the first couple of years, until he perfected the system enough to get Ford Motor Company to begin offering them as options on its 1933 models. (Chrysler actually offered radios as options on a few 1932 models; General Motors wouldn’t join the radio craze until 1934.) Galvin got another big break – and a leg up on aggressive new rivals like Philco – when B.F. Goodrich agreed to begin selling simplified Motorola kits and installing them in existing vehicles, in their tire stores, for $55.

By 1934, a factory-installed radio could be had in a new car for $39.95 (an antenna cost extra!)

Motorola would go on to develop the first push-button radio in 1936; the company soon became an idea factory for innovations such as police cruiser radios, walkie-talkies, early home televisions and myriad other electronic marvels. Later, they even developed communications equipment for the first moon landing, pagers and early mobile phones. (Galvin’s company finally converted over to the Motorola name in 1947.)

And what happened to those enterprising young men, who originally turned the idea into reality? Wavering stayed on as an engineer with Galvin and Motorola. He was instrumental in developing the automotive alternator, which eliminated the generator; the alternator facilitated a whole new, more robust electronic architecture for the automobile, including such power-hogging amenities as air conditioning, power windows, power seats, and – yes – even better radios and stereo systems.

Lear leveraged his one-third ownership interest in the radio venture to strike out on his own as an inventor. In his lifetime, he would be issued more than 150 patents. He came up with tape players (remember four-track and eight-track?), helped develop radio direction finders for airplanes, played a key role in the development of aviation auto-pilot systems. And of course, his most famous invention: The Lear Jet, the world’s first mass-produced and (somewhat) affordable business jet.

Kind of makes you wonder how differently history might have been written without that sunset picnic?

Jerry Garrett

March 22, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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