It’s Labor Day here in the US, and that means the Orbiting HQ is closed until Tuesday. While we take a welcome day off, we thought you might enjoy a look at some of the whips, rides, cruisers, and other forms of transport we’ve called our own. Some are our current cars, some are our favorite cars from the past, and, in some cases, our least favorites. One might even be a bicycle. But they’re ours.
It’s too hard to pick a favoriteLike Eric Bangeman, my first car was also a VW Beetle, which taught me about lift-off oversteer and why you should never buy a car from a friend. But I today I shall neither dwell on the VW nor the Mk.2 VW Golf Driver that followed it. Instead, I’m going to focus on my favorite cars past and present.
First up is my 1996 Ford Ka. This was Ford’s subcompact, sold around the world, but not in the US. Powered by an ancient 1.3L crossflow engine, it was truly a budget model, and mine—an ex-rental car—was particularly underspecced. I used to joke it was the clubsport model (that will mean more to Porschephiles than anyone else, I think). Wind up windows. A tape deck that only had two buttons: play and fast-forward. My Ka even lacked the power steering common to most of the line, which meant 4.2 turns lock-to-lock. But the feedback of the road beneath the front tires was sublime.
On top of that the chassis had been tuned remarkably from the factory, the product of Richard Parry-Jones’ legendary car setup abilities. Bought in 1998, I’d have kept the Ka until it rusted away to nothing (as they all have, apparently), but a move to the US in 2002 forced me to sell it. For late night dashes across an empty London or covering country lanes on a sunny weekend, it delivered more smiles per pound than anything else I’ve driven. Godspeed, P126 MOP, wherever you are now.
My move to San Diego meant I needed new wheels. Armed with some cash from the sale of the Ka and a friendly credit union at Scripps, I was determined to get something good. My criteria were rear-wheel drive, two doors, and the ability to fit a surfboard. Porsche 944s and 968s seemed too much of a risk as a poorly paid postdoc, so the obvious answer was the Miata.
Named “Mr. Car” after the rear license plate holder that it came with, it still lacked any frills. Mr. Car did have power steering, but the windows were once again manually wound. And it lacked air conditioning. That wasn’t much of a concern in San Diego’s; it proved more of a problem once I relocated to Kentucky and then Washington, DC…
Me and Mr. Car shared some good times. It helped me realize I didn’t want a career in science, for it dawned on me the highlight of my workday was the commute. One memorable morning during my 45-minute drive through North County’s back roads while every else sat in traffic on the Five stands out. A menacing black Ferrari Enzo appeared out of nowhere and filled my mirrors. Pulling quickly aside and then into his slipstream, the next few miles are burned into my prefrontal cortex.
The Miata finally left us in January, donated to the Humane Society. Now we’re a one-car household, and that one car is “Sven,” the Saab 9-2x Aero.
The 9-2x is badge engineering at its finest. In the mid-2000s, Saab needed a car for the US market that could compete with Volvo’s C30. But Saab was in terminal decline and parent company General Motors evidently didn’t feel like spending any money to arrest that state of affairs. The General did own a stake in Subaru though, which is why the latter grafted a handsome Saab snout to the front of the five-door Impreza. The result remains—to my eyes—the best looking variant of that generation. The Aero version got the same 227hp (169kW) turbocharged flat-four as the WRX, along with some suspension parts usually fitted to the even-faster STI.
Few people agreed with me, particularly given the insane original price tag, over $30,000 in 2004! Heavy discounts followed, and in 2006 we bought Sven after waiting several weeks for an Aero with Blue Mica and a manual gearbox to make its way from Japan to Lexington, Kentucky. Air conditioning and power windows were a novel luxury!
That was almost 100,000 miles ago, although reaching that milestone might take a while longer. Neither Elle nor I have to drive to work now, and there’s often a press car parked outside when errands need running. The body panels and paint need some attention and new tires are planned next month. But the mechanicals are sound, and we’ve got no plans to replace it any time soon. Not even for a Ford Focus RS…
—Jonathan Gitlin, Automotive Editor
My (mostly) unfortunate history with roadsters
My first car was nothing to write home about: a 12-year-old VW Beetle, purchased for $1,500 in 1985. For reasons involving going to college in Minnesota and having limited experience with winter driving, I found myself looking for another car within a couple of years. My father, a intelligence officer stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, took advantage of an airman’s impending transfer overseas to purchase my first roadster in 1986—a green 1977 Datsun 280Z. As my colleague Lee Hutchinson is writing in depth about his 1976 280Z (and I agree with him 100 percent about the glorious clutch action on it), I’ll not say anything else about that car, other than that I might still own it except for reasons involving going to college in Minnesota and driving on rural two-lane highways with soft shoulders on rainy nights.
Thus began my fascination with roadsters. While I’m not a true petrolhead—I don’t speak the language fluently and I lack the in-depth knowledge of cars that some of my colleagues have—I do love driving small, quick cars, preferably with a removable top.
That love of fast, nimble vehicles has led me down some dark roads to regrettable decisions—decisions that show I can have a bit of a steep learning curve when it comes to cars.
I’ve owned two Alfa Romeo Spiders. 17 years apart.
There, I said it.
The first one was a 1973 Spider with mechanical fuel injection. I paid very little for it in 1989, as it had some rust. I had grand fantasies about fixing up the body and getting a new paint job. That lasted for all of six weeks, which was the amount of time it took for the engine to seize up. 20 years later, I found myself browsing eBay auto auctions and lingering on the Alfa Romeo listings. Instead of going to therapy or A.A. (Alfaholics Anonymous), I snapped up a 1982 Spider with electronic fuel injection and just 12,000 miles on it.
Man, it was a joy to drive. While not fast, it was quick, and it took corners like a dream. The body was in great shape with just a little bit of paint imperfections. The mechanicals… well, let me just say they were typical. On the plus side, I lived near a mechanic who specialized in Italian cars. On the minus side, I had to visit him way too often. I enjoyed driving the car during the times it was running, but every time I pulled out of the garage I feared my final destination might be Italia Automobili instead of my house. The Spider and I eventually parted ways.
But the lure is strong. As I was writing this article and doing a bit of surfing to supplement my memory, I felt… tingly when I saw pictures of Alfas. The design (at least the Series 1 and 2; I never cared for the fin on the Series 3) is timeless and the cars still beautiful.
My current roadster is a 2008 Audi TT convertible. Again, I won’t go into details on it (see Jonathan’s review of the 2016 TT) other than to say it’s the weaker 2.0-liter model. It is an utter blast to drive. The exhaust system is impeccably tuned so that the TT sounds incredibly satisfying when it accelerates. It’s tight on corners and quick on the mark. I replaced the stock stereo with a new Pioneer CarPlay unit, so the car offers everything I need for a joyous ride. My only regret is that I live in a place where I can’t drive it year round.
—Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin