Automotive Wanderings

About Automotive Wanderings: A periodical journey through whatever automotive topic is around the next corner from Bozeman, MT. What are we buying next? What's happening in the automotive industry? What have we recently done in our own garage?  We make no guarantee that this will be interesting to anyone but us. This is the journalistic equivalent of "As Is." Welcome!

11/30/2021:
Something from Nothing:
The Fabrication of the "Early 996"

By Christian

I've been following an interesting trend in the Porsche world lately: The fabrication of a mythological car.  The car is the "Early 996." It is a fabrication because there isn't actually any such model, only the typical continuum of changes and updates we see through any car's life cycle. And the mythology is that it is better than other 996s. In fact, picking a 996 along the continuum of the model's life cycle is about personal preference, not objective superiority. For those who haven't been nerding out on Rennlist lately, some background is in order.

First, a bit about the 996. Each generation of 911 is differentiated using a confusing matrix of coded language. The subject of this missive is the 1999 to 2005 model years of 911, called the "996" by nerds. Other generations are referred to by similarly opaque nomenclature: SWB, Long Hood, G-Body, 964, 993, and others, each signifying a very different car to enthusiasts despite all being the same "model" car, which is a 911. Fairly or not, the 996 gen 911 has long been the whipping boy of the 911 world. To start, it's water cooled engine was a departure from the traditional air cooled design, and then Porsche poured gasoline on the fire by making this transition with a motor that suffers from a varied and diverse litany of fatal and not so fatal flaws. These include: IMS bearing failures, bore scoring, D-Chunks, oil starvation, cylinder sleeve slippage, sticky lifters, and RMS failures. Porsche then fucked with the iconic round headlight design, put samesies interiors in the 911 and Boxster, and built the whole car to a price point. The predictable result was a full on dumpster fire. Porsche set the fuel in place, and enthusiasts lit the match.

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The shame of this reputation is that the end product was and still is a beautiful driving 911, that if carefully looked after and maintained (including preventative maintenance and products to address some of the engine issues), can be a reliable and very rewarding sports car. This is not another article trashing the 996. And much of the criticism of the 996 is purely subjective and/or the product of resistance to change. But let's be honest, Porsche screwed the pooch on some elements of this generation and some of the derision is not unfounded. So what, then, is an "Early 996" you ask?

Technically, it's not even a thing. The "Early 996" Carrera is a myth whose origins probably started on Rennlist, and then spread to 6Speed, Bring-A-Trailer, and other sites. I knew the story had fully penetrated the Porsche doctrine when I read Rob Sass, editor of the Porsche Club Magazine Panorama, discussing his early build 996 in a recent editor's note (Nov. 2021).  I suspect unwittingly, he succinctly laid bare the lack of authenticity of the "Early 996" as a special model. More on that below, but suffice to say the myth has penetrated to the top of the Porsche world. According to this recently created legend, the holy grail Early 996's are cars built from 11/'97 to 8/'98 (all sold as '99 model year). And while that all seems innocent enough, here's the fascinating part: it's created an entirely different pricing structure for the newly minted model. And that's where the rubber hits the road for me.

There absolutely are and were real changes made to the 996 throughout the model's life cycle. Without going into great detail here, they include switching from cable to e-throttle, different dashboard materials, different headlight designs, an optional wheel package, a change in steering wheel design, a different headliner, a dual to single row IMS bearing, and other differences. A certain composition of those parts make up the Early 911, including: Cable throttle, dual row IMS, dimpled dashboard, fried egg headlights, four spoke steering wheel, manual trunk/hood releases, and some others.

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But here's a cold does of reality: The vast majority of the changes that took place are subjective preferences, not objectively worse. The rallying point seems to be the change in IMS configuration, but that's a red herring. The early dual row IMS may be a more stout design, but those early motors still have IMS failures and most enthusiasts are never going to trust even the dual row bearing 20+ years on. Since they are going to replace it, it's a null point to begin with. And most telling, most people who preach the gospel of the Early 996 have replaced their IMS bearing. Further, the motors still suffer from D-chunking, sticky lifters, bore scoring and a host of other maladies. The "lightness" of the early car is often touted, but totally overblown.  Any weight savings would easily be countered by a hefty lunch by the driver. And in an ironic twist, the Early 996 advocates ignore significant improvements in the later cars, like a more rigid chassis, a wide body option, and better power to weight ratio. So where does that leave us? With a continual progression of changes through the 996 that leave a buyer with lots of options to exercise and express his/her preferences, but no car that is objectively better. And not car that should be priced higher.

Yet the Early 911 mythologizers would have you believe differently, arguing that their chosen combination of features is some purer essence of the 911. It is a fabrication of a mythological sub-model of Porsche that is anchored in internet forums and collector nerdery, and not driving reality. Does that matter? Not really, to be honest. But it's a fascinating study watching the owners of these cars gin up this fervor, and then seeing it actually translate into higher values in the market place. If I'm honest, it also gets my goat to see online scriveners create these differences, as opposed to the realities of seat time in the cars. It feels a bit... fraudulent. Especially when the propagators are also the ones who stand to gain financially.

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My rant on these pages was triggered by the aforementioned Editor Sass's note in Panorama. In it, he discussed his surprise at where the values of early 996s have gone since he sold his early example 4 years ago. To paraphrase, he thoroughly enjoyed his 996 as a "light, quick, and tossable" car that was good value. That sounds objective and fair to me. And part of the reason he sold it, is he figured he would likely be able to buy again in the future for similar money. That has turned out to be wrong. The Early Prophets have spoken, and their word is now gospel, reflected in the 996 market.

Mr. Sass says, "I'm not really certain why first year 911s have become darlings to so many people... Why wasn't its specialness more obvious to me at the time?"

I have an answer for Mr. Sass: it wasn't obvious because it doesn't actually exist, the early 996 isn't really more special. It's just a bit different.

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12/16/2021 Update: After originally penning this post, one of the foremost propagator's of the "Early 996" myth has now put his Early 996 up for sale. This individual has spent the past year or more going on every early build 996 listing on the internet, including Bring-a-Trailer, and posting a litany of ridiculous comments about the glory of the Early 996 (as well as the rarity of the color of his own car).  I'm talking 8 or 9 posts per auction, the same posts in each one repeated near daily. He has also posted repeatedly in Rennlist Forums about the objective superiority of the early cars. And predictably, despite droning on about the "engineering marvel" that is the M96 with a dual row bearing, he didn't trust the bearing on his own car, and is advertising it as replaced by an LN Mfging unit.

So after chumming the waters for a year, he's ready to cash in. I'm not in the least bit surprised.

9/28/2021:
The Prindle: Sometimes Progress is Anything But

Story by Christian

Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low, or PRNDL. Five letters in sequence burned into the mind of anyone who has driven a typical slush box tranny. In fact, so ubiquitous is that series of letters that automotive engineers and designers often refer to the lever or selector for an automatic transmission as a "prindle."

The prindle is one of the more vexatious intersections of engineering and design. It is a critical physical input, yet to serve its full function in modern cars nothing more than a simple lever (or even a button) is needed. At the same time, it has long been a prominent design feature of modern cars. The center console mounted prindle (between the seats, like a manual) became a symbol of something sporty and modern in cars. The old column mounted prindle was reserved for the likes of your grandmothers Grand Marquise. And so began a "progression" from the slim, chromed handle finished with a delicate knob of an early Mercedes to a bloated plastic appendage with wart-like buttons and faux-wood veneer in the 90s and 2000s.

Some cars even have a useless leather shift boot, reminiscent of a real manual gear lever. Let's be honest, the fake boot only serves to reinforce the fact that the pussy that ordered that slush box in his 3-Series knew that a manual was the right choice, and is trying to hide his regrettable decision.

But the true nadir of the prindle likely came when pick-up trucks, trying to look modern and sporty, started to clog up valuable space with levers comically towering above a hollow console below. That is why I was struck by a breath of fresh air when I bought a new Silverado (2021 model year), and saw that GM has stuck with the column mounted prindle, reserving the center console for useful things, like storage. (Ideally, I'd prefer no center console at all, like a Work Truck spec Silverado).

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Interestingly, the automotive press has long been knocking the Silverado/Tahoe/'Burb for use of the old school column mounted prindle. And the reviews of the 2021 Silverado all talk about a dated interior in desperate need of a refresh. Living with one just reinforces the fact that most of the new car reviewers are desperately looking for some difference to write about, and glom onto something obvious like the gear selector. In reality, the column mounted selector chooses gears just as well, it is out of the way, and increases space. How is the center console mounted appendage progress?

At left, you can see the nicely laid out storage space afforded by the column mounted prindle design. Although not the focus of this rant, I think this picture also demonstrates the useful and straightforward design of the Silverado interior. Physical controls, clearly marked, and well at hand. This interior is not going to please most Volvo owners. But it's a pickup truck. Function is it's reason for being!

Alas GM has succumbed to the scribes, and created a new interior with a center mounted shifter and looks to suit a Swedish design house in the new for 2022 Silverado. And it does look nicer, it just doesn't function nicer. And in a pickup truck, how is that progress?

UBU: Ugly But Useful
UBU: Ugly But Useful
The Apogee: MB 280 SL
The Apogee: MB 280 SL
The Nadir: 2nd Gen Tundra
The Nadir: 2nd Gen Tundra

9/14/2021:
Today I discovered my ideas are not a snowflake,
they are not original and unique

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Story by Christian; Photos by mschoemann via www.bringatrailer.com

A few months ago my wife came home with these Mexican mineral waters I'd never seen before, called Topo Chico. They were delicious. Refreshing, and yet with a bit more chewiness than mere sparkling water. I said to her, "what a great discovery, you're really onto something here, these are fantastic, wait'll we tell our friends!"  And then I started looking around, and everyone in Bozeman including their Yellow Lab (probably named Bridger) is drinking fucking Topo Chico.  There was no discovery that had occurred. Nothing spontaneous, organic, or original about the way this product made it into our fridge.  Some buyer at a major beverage distributor decided that next year Americans will drink Topo Chico. And a year later my wife and I "discovered" this beverage.

Well, a few weeks ago a retro-review came across my YouTube feed for late 90s classic Acura Integra Type-R. My first car was a used '94 Acura Integra LS that had been ridden hard and never put away, not even wet. It was pretty much poverty spec and had about 60k miles when I got my hands on it, but it was fun, reliable, had a manual, fit my friends, and even a keg in the back in a pinch. It was a rad car for a high schooler. So I've always had a soft spot for the Integra, although I hadn't thought about them in quite a while, until this video was "chosen" for me by the YouTube algorithm. Watching this guy rip this little car to 8,200 revs really got me thinking. Then a few popped on Bring-a-Trailer and sold for big money (like the one in the photos here, credit to mschoemann). And then a few more videos popped up in my feed, and I noticed articles by the big publications. Interestingly, they were all done with the same car, a beautiful yellow example from Honda's museum.  Then I noticed that all the reviewers were saying the same things, almost like the PR people at Honda had delivered the same spiel to them just before they drove the car (Best FWD car ever! Double wishbones up front, like the new GT3!). Light finally dawned on Marble Head when I saw that in August Acura announced a new Integra Type R coming in a year or two.

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Acura has been chumming the waters behind the scene for a about a year. Whoring out their yellow museum car to Doug DeMuro, Smoking Tire, Motor Trend, anyone who would drive it (and who wouldn't?). And so what I thought was perhaps a diamond in the rough discovery by me was actually hand fed by Acura's marketing department, courtesy of automotive journos. There was nothing random or accidental about the fact that I just "rediscovered" the Integra Type-R. (NB: don't mistake me, I know these cars have had a loyal following since new, but the soup d'jour fed to the internet masses seems to be "modern classic" Euro sports cars and sedans, and so this seemed like a bit of find to me at the time)

I must say, when I saw that press release by Acura, I felt a bit duped. My wife hadn't discovered Topo Chico, and I hadn't re-found the Type-R.  Rather, they were very intentionally planted right into our path. After smarting for a bit I realized that doesn't diminish my fervor at all.  These cars are rad, and I want one again. Although I might try to find mine with the more squared off JDM headlights...

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