California Dreaming — Ferrari California, That Is!

May 27, 2008

The Ferrari California is the company’s first front-engine V8-powered car…and one of the most visually-pleasing designs in years (photos courtesy of Ferrari S.p.A.)

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone here at The Four Wheel Drift organization who isn’t a self-proclaimed Ferrari fan. Consequently, the recently officially announced Ferrari California has us all giddy — like the first time we got to second base with pretty girls.

“First time” is actually a good theme for the upcoming Ferrari California. The model will be Ferrari’s first front-engine V8 — ever. It will also be the company’s first series production front-engine 2+2 convertible.

Despite being Tifosi (the name given to Ferrari fanatics), we’ve also been quite outspoken over the years concerning the lack of really pretty cars coming from the house that Enzo built. Sure, we have liked the 360/430 series, but we’ve gone on record calling the 612 “ugly”, the 599 “questionable”, and the Enzo “without soul”. We’ve even referenced the lack of passion and risk-taking in the lines of cars of the 550 and 456 GT series. A couple of us went so far as to discuss our opinions at great length with the project manager at Pininfarina responsible for producing Jim Glickenhaus’ wild and alluring Enzo-based P4/5 custom…

…So we’d like to think our words got back to Ferrari and the Pininfarina groups that worked on the California, because this car is gorgeous! It’s not perfect, like a 246GT Dino, but it has the attitude, sex appeal and presence of a summer blockbuster’s leading lady without the shock-value or polarizing weirdness of a runway model.

The last time Ferrari delivered a 2+2 convertible was the Mondia of the 1980s and early ‘90s. With all due respect to my friend who just bought a 1989 Mondial T convertible, these were not the prettiest cars. Furthermore, heavy bodies and bulky luxury equipment made the Mondials a little too slow and ungainly in corners to excite purists.

This time around, the Ferrari California will certainly deliver performance with its style and extra seats. The 4.3-liter V8 utilizing direct injection will likely deliver 460 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. This will probably put the 0-60 time at 3.6 seconds – over twice as fast as the Mondial convertibles with the 3.0-liter quattrovalve V8. Helping acceleration will be an all-new dual-clutch paddle-shift gearbox, which was developed largely by reverse-engineering the hardware and software of the industry-leading Audi unit.

Acceleration is helped by a weight-saving all-aluminum body. The California also utilizes an automatic folding hardtop — a Pininfarina specialty. Ferrari has yet to release to us the photos of the car with the top up, but we can already see the tight lines with the top down. Speaking of tight, the rear seats will be best used for gym bags and briefcases. And to ensure that no Mondial-esque complaints are made about fat-guy-on-rollerskates-like handling, the new suspension and front-midship placement of the V8 engine will pay dividends in apex carving duties.

Original leaks had this pegged as an entry-level Ferrari called Dino. Using the California name was a smarter move, evoking the original 250 GT California Spyder, which first appeared in 1957. California Spyders were built by Scaglietti, initially on the long-wheelbase 250 GT platform using the standard three-liter V12 developing 240 hp. (Later cars switched to the shorter wheelbase chassis and some were fitted with higher-power engines.) Thanks to a recent $10M-plus auction sale for one example, the 250 GT California Spyder is now the most valuable car model in the world, and hence on of the most coveted classics on the planet.

Ferrari is choosing to cash-in on the model name’s always-strong-but-still-rising stock. Unlike the Ford GT, Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, or Chevy Camaro, which were little more than old looks on modern technology, the new Ferrari California uses only subtle cues to remind of its ancestor. It is retro in spirit, but not in design or lines, an obvious key to success in the supercar market. The most important homage to the great 250 GT California is that this new Ferrari will be just like its dual-purpose grandfather: just as capable of being driven during the week to work as on the track during weekends.

Alas, we probably won’t be able to afford one, since it likely will be priced similarly to the current 430. The current 430 will get a modest price increase, holding true to initial reports that the California will indeed be the “entry-level Ferrari”.

Hopefully we’ll be able to steal a ride when one comes stateside. And we promise that there will be no “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”-like calamities when we take out the new Ferrari California for a first date.



May 21, 2008

Vanity plates show the extent of an owner\'s creativity

States make quite a bit of money off issuing vanity license plates. While I’ve never been able to justify parting with an extra $50 each year for my own vanity plates (especially when collector cars are eligible to pay for plates only once), I have always found the world of personalized plates very intriguing.

Personalized plates usually say quite a bit about the car or its driver. One of my all-time favorite plates was shown in Car and Driver Ten Best Plates decades ago – an urologist with the plate “PPDOC”. Actually, it seems like doctors are vanity plate addicts. I know a pediatrician with “KIDSMD”, a family medicine doctor in a small town with “CNTRYMD”, and a dentist with “TOOTHDOC”. My favorite job-oriented plate is on the wild hot rod owned by a local funeral home worker: “CREM8R”.

You can say a lot about the driver without disclosing his or her profession. Certainly the twenty-something guy who had the vanity plate “GOTMILF” had a great sense of humor… Obviously the woman who called Washington State DOT to complain, causing the plate to be revoked didn’t have a sense of humor at all. Washington, like most states, prohibits vanity plates that “suggest vulgar, racial, ethnic, or indecent messages”. Somehow, GOTMILF slipped by.

A now deceased friend of mine had a plate that offended nobody – “IAMME”. His wife had “IAMME2”. Cute. A family friend had a business called A Tisket A Tasket, which made and sold gift baskets, so the plate on her Audi 5000 was “ATISKET” and the Suburban had “ATASKET”. Unfortunately, it only made sense when the vehicles were parked at her house.

I’ve never understood why people spend the money on a plate that simply indicates the make and model of the car on which it’s bolted. I often see a blue Toyota Prius with the license plate “PRIUS”. Like I’d mistake your car for a frigging Bentley Continental?

By the way, if I can’t identify that you have a “C5VETT”, “MSTNG” or “VDubya”, I probably can’t figure out the plate without crashing my own car first.

For some reason Ferrari owners love to indicate that their cars are Ferraris again on the plates. I’ve seen literally every possible phonic combination for these cars. The first thing my friend Bret did after buying a 1981 Mondial 8 was take of the “4RR EE” plates.

I did buy a Triumph Spitfire with the license plate “SPIT”. I didn’t keep the car, but the license plate is still on my wall. I’m trying to find the corresponding vanity plate that would come with a Swallow Doretti.

The art of the vanity plate is to be creative without being cheesy. Creative is the Maserati Bora owner with the plate “DOES185”. Cheesy is the plate that came on a beat-up 1968 Camaro I bought a few years back “SEXY68”.

Some personalized plates are a little too de rigueur. Seemingly all DeLoreans have some Back to the Future reference, like “OUTATIME”, “88 MPH” and “DRBROWN”. Chances are that the next Viper you see will have a plate indicating a characteristic of a snake, like “SLITHR” or “SNKBITE”.

A plate also shouldn’t work against you after being pulled over. The owners of “TWOFAST” and “PDL2MTL” deserve the tickets they get. I must admit that I thought about putting “BLUBYU” on my Powder Blue 1959 Triumph TR3, but that’s only because a) I was living in Houston – the Bayou City at the time … and b) that TR3 wasn’t capable of safely exceeding the local speed limits.

Creativity is key. A math teacher I knew had the plate “NOSRFUN” (“numbers are fun”). A local doc here in town who flies on the weekend put “FLY0AGL” (which means “flying at 0 feet above ground level”) on his Miata.

I’d have to give serious thought if I were to spend the $50 and add a vanity plate to one of my cars. In Washington State, “SAMIAM” was claimed about 25 years ago – I know the guy who got it, and he had it pinned to his VW Beetle. Actually, I’d never want to put my name on my car…Just not my style.

I’m more likely to go for the self-deprecating route. “COMPNS8” would fit just fine on my Corvette.

For more information on personalized plates, go to your state’s web site. Washington’s site at even offers a searchable database to allow people to see what is already taken and what still is available.

Proposing alphanumeric model name rules for manufacturers

May 13, 2008

I’m going to get right to the point here: I can’t stand modern alphanumeric model names. They are more confusing than what you hear eavesdropping on a conversation between two quantum physicists speaking in pig-latin.

Alphanumeric model designations are as old as dirt…or John McCain, for that matter. Actually, they’re older — think 1922 Citroen 5CV or the famous Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Back in the old days, naming a car model after a combination of number of cylinders, displacement and/or horsepower was standard practice.

For those like me who grew up before the era of Japanese and European automobile dominance, alphanumeric names were the exception, not the rule. Model names showed the creative prowess of domestic product marketing. My family had relationships with LeSabre, LeBaron, Special, New Yorker, LTD, and the neighbors had Corvette, Duster, and even a Beetle and Rabbit.

My parents still live in the same house, but now the carport is home to a Lexus ES300 and BWM 335ic. One neighbor put his ’63 Corvette in storage, and instead drives his Mercedes Lexus LS430.

As an automotive guy holding a Bachelor’s Business Marketing (who whooped-ass in every competition against MBA candidates taking the same courses from the same professors), I certainly understand the perceived benefits of alphanumeric designations.

Among the upsides:

  • It prevents model identity from eclipsing brand identity
  • Enables dealers to have a better chance at upselling to more expensive cars and more options due to product benefit confusion.
  • Provides upsell potential due to envy of higher numbers that come with a more expensive car in the lineup.
  • Makes a model year-oriented designation publically obsolete (ES 300 vs. ES 330 vs. ES 350) much quicker, causing consumers to either lease or buy new cars on a truncated schedule to keep a new-appearing model.
  • Minimizes problems and demarketing costs associated with curing negative name recognition with failed models, such as with Pinto, Pacer, and Aztek.

    When looking at the benefits, one immediately understands why this is now common practice among the mass-production luxury car brands.

    But Alphanumerics have huge downsides:

  • Lack of convention translates to lack of model recognition and identity.
  • It becomes very hard to differentiate the intersections between product lines, products and options.
  • Most importantly – AN designations often lead to customers linking a model with the wrong manufacturer.

    The market has a right to be confused. In some cases, the letters represent the product line, while the numbers indicate a displacement or other option category. This is true for Mercedes, which offers the S, SL, C, E, CL, CLK, GL, SLK, ML, as well as other product lines with a bunch of engine options, which gets you something like a S550 or S430. Lexus (LS, LX, GL, GS, GX, IS) and Infiniti (Q, G, M, QX) follow Mercedes lead with first the letters, then the engine displacement.

    Acura once relied on AN model names — flipping the Mercedes/Lexus/Infinity convention by listing the engine size then the model line, as in 3.2TL. Now, however, they also just offer the RL (which used to be the 3.5RL), MDX, RDX, TSX.

    BMW uses a different methodology. Its product lines are numeric or alphanumeric – 7, 6, 5, 3, 1, Z4, X3, X5, and M (in 3,5 and 7 guises, as well as “M Roadster” and “M Coupe” forms of the Z4s). BMW used to also attach a number indicating the total displacement of the car’s engine and a letter for the body configuration, so a 740iL was a 7-series sedan with four-liter fuel injected V8 and a long wheelbase. Now the numbers no longer always identify the displacement, as the 3.0L sixes in the 328 and 335 prove. (For the record, the 335 has the twin-turbo engine, while the 328 has the normally aspirated engine.)

    Audi uses yet another letter-number methodology. They have the 8, 6, 5, 4, and now 3 series lines. Most can be had in A (standard) or S (sport). One can have a four-cylinder engine, six-cylinder or eight-cylinder in the 4 and 6 lines. Oh, then there’s the Q7 and R8…which has a V8 now, but will have a V10 next year.

    Since seemingly all the foreign luxury brands went away from real names, so are Caddy (DTS, STS, CTS) and Lincoln (MKZ, MKX). If I were an executive for Ford, the brain surgeons who decided to rename the Zephyr to MKZ just a year after the product launch would all be blackballed from holding any marketing or product management positions anywhere. In fact, I’d ensure the only things out of their cornholes was “Welcome to M-C-D’s, would you like fries with that?”

    The FTC needs to mandate some type of naming convention, so car shopping (or in my case – helping people car shop) is less like trying to pick up a girl in a bar who doesn’t speak English.

    So this is what I suggest: When using alphanumeric model designations, the letter must identify a series (product line) and the number following it must either represent the number of cylinders or engine displacement. Displacement can represent the total, or in traditional Ferrari-style, of a single cylinder. A letter can follow either the number or initial letter to designate a body style.

    While we’re at it, companies should be banned from using an “I” to indicate fuel injection anywhere in the model name. BMW – when was the last time someone thought your cars might be equipped with a carburetor?

    I’m not a guy who likes to yearn for “the good old days”, because as Billy Joel once said “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”. My kingdom, however, for a model line of clever names like Studebaker’s President, Dictator and Commander.

  • The sad, deadly side of cars

    May 9, 2008

    It\'s enough to make one cry. (Photo by J. Lok / Courtesy of the Seattle Times)
    It is with a heavy heart that this picture of Jesse’s fatal accident (by J. Lok /courtesy of The Seattle Times) is posted. I hope it reminds us all how dangerous cars are and helps us all to drive slower and safer.

    The automobile’s various roles in life are the topics of endless discussion here. Those of us who see vehicles as more than just a form of basic transport are never at a loss for words when describing how a specific car makes us feel.

    Monday morning I was quickly reminded how cars can indeed leave me speechless. I received a call from my brother informing me that a person I had known his whole life was dead. The bright, energetic, funny 23-year-old had been killed in a car accident.

    Jesse had been driving his Porsche Boxster when he somehow veered into a Ford Taurus head-on. Initial indications point that he might have been going too fast or he swerved and overcorrected to miss something. He crossed the center line and slammed into the larger Taurus. The picture shows the perfect angle the Taurus took up the side of the Porsche. Jesse was killed instantly. His passenger was rushed to the hospital with multiple injuries – but will recover. The driver of the Taurus was treated at the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

    Just ten weeks ago, Jesse had gone to work for my brother at his business strategy consultancy. One of my best friends, who also happens to work for my brother, said it best: “all 23-year-olds drive fast, at least those you want to be friends with.” We all did at that age, and many still do. Most of us felt entirely invincible behind the wheel of a car until we started wondering if we had attached the baby seat correctly for our first child.

    Speaking with friends at Jesse’s funeral, the common theme was “it could have been any of us.”

    We might have escaped the probabilities, but they caught up with Jesse. The chances of a car-crazy guy in a fast car getting into a fatal accident are significantly higher than those of a minivan-driving forty-something mom. This doesn’t make it easier to swallow or accept.

    Jesse had car crazy DNA. His father met my father at the Northwest racetracks in the late 1950s. His father has owned a number of wonderful sports cars, and just recently competed in the Chihuahua Express Mexican vintage rally in a borrowed Jaguar E-Type. Just a week ago, Jesse’s oldest brother (around 20 years older), three nephews and I attended an Italian car show together. So, Jesse getting his hands on a Porsche Boxster didn’t seem strange at all, because passion for sports cars ran deep in the genetic code.

    And who wouldn’t like to own a Boxster? From the day it debuted, it has been a favorite of those of us who appreciate true automotive works of art. Pretty, refined, capable, exhilarating to pilot, the Boxster was a throwback to the early roadsters of the glory days of road racing. I would have bought one myself, but in a 1997 test drive, I realized I was about four inches too tall to comfortably fit. (I wound up with a C5 Corvette instead.)

    Now every single time I see a glorious Boxster, I will be reminded of the tragic loss of a truly great individual. It won’t be the first time a car has been tied to horrible loss. The Mercedes 300SL still makes many think of the catastrophic accident killing drivers and spectators at the ’55 Le Mans. The Porsche 550 Spyder is synonymous with the loss of another young, handsome, promising gentleman: James Dean.

    It’s entirely different when it’s someone you know. I remember when Jesse was born. I videotaped his circumcision, for God’s sake! I used to get frustrated when at family events he’d keep crawling under the table. He grew up into an admirable young man – and the over-capacity crowd of friends and relatives at his funeral spoke to his affect on those that knew him. Most did not know he had served as a Big Brother for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Puget Sound. Professionally, my brother (not known for heaping liberal amounts of praise on anyone) had been extremely impressed with Jesse’s analytical abilities ever since his first interview at the company.

    Life goes on for the rest of us. The chances that those of us who were car crazy before will swear off sports cars and unsafe classics are slim-to-none. We understand that while possible, Jesse’s accident resulted in a low probability worst-case scenario. Be this as it may it warrants a moment to stop and think.

    No matter how good we think we are behind the wheel, all cars – be it a Porsche, Volvo, Model A, Packard, Ferrari, or Honda require a healthy dose of attention and respect. When we neglect attention or respect for even just the most fleeting moment, a car can bite back quickly, altering the course of lives forever.

    Editor’s Note: Jesse had served as a big brother for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Puget Sound. Donations of any amount can be made to Jesse’s memorial fund to support Big Brother/ Big Sister programs at