Sensory Shopping

Sensory Shopping

When shopping for a new or used car or motorcycle we use our sense of sight first – does it look good? No, does it look great? Even in mundane transportation choices, such as a work pickup truck or the family van, we seek that which looks pleasing to the eye.

Perhaps this should be segregated a bit to separate out those of us who are fanatics about cars and/or motorcycles. That would explain why the most commonly chosen colors by those not of our tribe are silver and white. Very few cars, and even fewer motorcycles, look good in silver or white. Black is also popular, although in a car it brings with it the psychic load of almost always needing a wash, as not only road grime but mere dust will hamper the visual impact. If you like to wash your vehicle – a lot, this can actually be a positive.

After color, where I would argue for red, maroon, black, red, or a sparkling green as strong candidates, plus my own unexplained penchant for yellow, our beady little shopper eyes scan the vehicle for overall continuity of shape. Do the lines flow for you from stem to stern? Does your eye pause to caress the details? Oddly, head and tail lights and such items as the grill are now referred to by designers as “jewelry,” which makes me a bit uncomfortable. Another oddity is how the appearance will grow or dim over time. I thought the AMC Pacer was a good looking car, and still do. Nobody else did. The current Corvette seemed too angular and wedgy to me when introduced, but now the smoother predecessor seems bloated and porky – which it was, but still.

What of our other senses? We can leave out taste, perhaps, as few of us actually lick or bite our vehicles, and if you do I do not want to know about it. At all. The current fad in magazine road tests seems to be to evaluate the touch sensations of the dashboard, seeking what is termed a “quality feel.” Bosh and horsefeathers, I say! When was the last time you caressed your dashboard? It is there, but do you feel it often?

A more important measure of touch is at our other extremity. The seat will tell you a lot about how much you will enjoy the vehicle, and here it gets a bit complicated. A seat that looks comfortable may not be, and a seat that is comfy when stationary, such as when you sit on the bike or in the car in a showroom, may not be so on the move. Many motorcycle seats are designed to be comfortable to sit on, since manufacturers know, and are partly responsible for, the fact that most motorcycles are purchased with no test ride at all or perhaps a short hop around the block. Sitting on that seat for an hour or so at speed would tell you a lot about the touch sensations of the seat, handlebars, pegs, and controls, and some of the lessons learned might be dismaying. Thus has grown an active industry of aftermarket seats. At the high end, you can have a seat custom made to cradle your specific gluteus maximus, for a price. The situation with cars is similar, as many sports cars can be optioned “up” to a seat that is perfect for track days and feels racy to sit it. It may cause agony on the daily commute, however.

Corvettes are routinely panned for seats that are too wide and lack sufficient side bolstering for aggressive cornering. My suspicion is that Corvette designers know that their target buyer is not a magazine road tester on a race track but a middle aged male who is probably 50 pounds overweight and will rarely, if ever, drive the car with gusto. Apologies to Corvette owners, although I used to be one, so I know whereof my butt speaks, or something like that.

Smell is taken care of pretty easily. Most people love that “new car smell,” a mixture of vapors of the glue and plastics used in construction gradually seeping out of the materials. This smell is so attractive, for reasons that escape me, that you can now buy it in a spray bottle to “re-new” the smell of the car’s interior. Leather interiors, of course, are the best. They probably provide olfactory stimulants to our reptile brain and hearken back to when fresh leather smells meant your family had food, clothing, and shelter – for now.

Used to be that motorcyclists could enjoy the odors of fuel and oil leaking from various pores of the bike. Race bikes used oil made from Castor beans, and old hands still reminisce with rapture at the lingering traces of it wafting across the track. Today the motorcycle itself is unlikely to emit any odors, but one of the joys of motorcycling is the constantly changing perfume of the outside world. When you ride past a dairy farm you absolutely know it. It is not so much the pleasing attars of each smell, but the constant change that is appealing. Your nose can even predict the weather, as rain can be smelled miles before it begins to fall. A favorite moment for any Northwest motorcyclist returning home from a long trip is cresting Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 and filling your lungs with “real” air – the moist fresh brand that we take for granted most days.

The sensory stimulus that most road tests fail to cover in enough detail is one of the most obvious – sound. How does this thing sound to you? Mellow? Powerful? Peaceful? Do you enjoy the powerful growl of massive torque at low rpm? The soprano scream of a small engine at very high rpm? We all have our own take, and perhaps that is why road tests spend little time on it.

At one time I had a Triumph Speed triple for a “company bike.” I loved it so much I purchased the next iteration of the design for my own. I loved the aggressive power from off idle to Ohmygod, and a three cylinder engine makes a sound like no other. That company bike was eventually purchased by a good friend who traded up from a Kawasaki 600. On a long trip he got a bit frisky on the way home and passed me as we accelerated onto a long straight. I heard a sound from his bike I had never heard when it was under me – the staccato chirp of the engine bouncing off the rev limiter before he shifted. Paul likes big RPM, while my taste runs to the middle of the range.

Manufacturers deal with the sound issue in many ways, some of them really creative, or bizarre, depending on your point of view. When the original Honda CBX 6 cylinder motorcycle was produced, the lead engineer wanted it to sound like a jet fighter plane. He spent days at a US Air Force base in Japan tape recording the sound of F-14 fighter jets taking off, and then went to work to create an exhaust system to emulate that. Most would say he succeeded. Today some manufacturers install electronic flapper valves in the exhaust system which opens at higher rpm to increase the volume of the engine note – which seems to be cheating to me.

It is of crucial importance when considering sensory shopping to remember that more is not always better. A pleasant perfume is nice – gagging in an odiferous cloud of miscellaneous floral effluvia that threatens to constrict your esophagus is not. A firm seat makes you feel confident – a seat made of solid steel is not a good time. One Snicker’s bar tastes good, but on the 5th you will begin to gag.

Here is where so many enthusiasts go wrong with purchasing or, more often, modifying their car or motorcycle. Legislation has made it imperative that new cars and motorcycles adhere to ever stricter low noise levels. Legislation to govern aftermarket products trails each new lower limit by, at times, decades, so folks are free to pursue their passion, and some quite obviously go too far. There is a difference between a louder sound that sounds better and sheer noise which irritates. Every person has their own threshold for this, which varies with the item in question, but you do have to wonder how people can reach some of their conclusions. Some of the more obvious examples:

Harley-Davidson. For decades Harleys came with exhaust systems that were extremely quiet, but few people knew this because fewer people kept them. Harley also manufactured “Screaming Eagle” aftermarket exhaust systems which sounded much better, and a great many Harleys left dealerships with the aftermarket pipes installed before the first mile. In this manner Harley managed to sell almost two exhaust systems for every motorcycle, and the mark-up for aftermarket products is higher, so the profits must have been considerable.

When I first went to work for a Harley dealer, I was appalled to see brand new exhaust systems in the metal recycling bin. (At least they were recycled.) As chrome plating is a toxic process that would turn any eco-minded person green with illness, I set out to create a plan for the excess exhausts, and I failed. There were simply too many of them, and no demand.

The staccato beat of a Harley engine is horrid for efficiency, but seems to be very pleasing to the inner soul. I had to ride a big Harley home from an event an hour and a half away. It was 11pm, and I had been standing on my feet talking to customers for 12 hours. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. And, it was starting to rain. Out on the freeway the engine spoke to me with a reassuring throb and seemed to say “Relax – we got it handled. Enjoy the ride home.” And I did. I pulled into my garage rested, refreshed, and very impressed by what sound and a syncopated rhythm can do for you.

Obviously, some Harley owners go too far. A set of open pipes is just irritating. All those who cry out that “Loud pipes save lives” are just relying on the psychological principle that a lie that is repeated en masse and with volume and repetition is more effective. Loud pipes do not save lives, but they do piss people off.

Non-Harley cruisers can be worse. The Japanese manufacturers spent forever trying to clone the Harley experience. Their Achilles heel was that they could not understand the Harley forked connecting rod, cylinder, and timing layout, which they found to be inherently inefficient. What they failed to realize for a long time was that the layout also created the signature sound that many find so pleasing. A sound so iconic that Harley at one point attempted to patent it. A sound so alluring that Honda eventually learned to build V twin engines that were less efficient but sounded better. All of the Japanese cruiser engines are more efficient, and make more power and use less fuel per displacement than the Harley. But fitted with less restrictive pipes, they make an engine which produces sheer noise, with no charm, romance or appeal. Just noise.

Some bikes sound just perfect as is. I had a dearly beloved Kawasaki ZRX with a stock exhaust. On downshifts into corners, you could hear it gently belching backfires inside the exhaust can – a jolly sound that deserved to be preserved.

In cars we have an interesting dichotomy. If you have sufficient funds, you might lust after a European exotic with a high revving engine of relatively small displacement but big power. Actually, probably more people without funds (people like me) lust for these cars. The sound of a double overhead cam V-8 or V-12 at 6,000 or more rpm can literally raise the hairs on the back your neck, even if you’re bald. But, if an engine of that power is turning that RPM you are speeding, probably by a lot. So you pay through the nose, and other orifices, for a sound you rarely hear.

We owned, at one time, a rather tired Porsche 911 Targa. It is a long sad story for another day. It was a terrific car to drive, when all was working well, but the sound was nothing special. Unless you were outside the car. I was raking leaves one day when my wife backed the Porsche out and drove away. What a cool sound! A colleague at work has the same problem. When I hear his Japanese luxury sport coupe drive by I always enjoy the sound – it sounds powerful and expensive. He has heard that from many people, but never experiences it himself while driving.

Best sound? We all have our favorites. One of mine was our 1958 Corvette, purchased just after our marriage. We were cruising back home from Spokane at 11pm on a hot summer night. The top was down, the stars were out, and the mildly hopped up 283 V8 burbled along at a comfy 70 mph cruise. To my right my beautiful bride was cuddled up next to me fast asleep. I wafted along listening to the engine sing a backup chorus to one of the most blissful scenes of my life.

Or this one. I have relatives in Las Gatos, California. Every time we visit I walk the few blocks to the Las Gatos Luxury Cars every chance I get to listen and breathe in a selection of exotics I will never own. On one occasion, I overhead an instruction to a staff member to warm up a new Saleen S7, because a customer was coming in for a test drive. That car, at that time, cost $750,000.

The rear bodywork was raised to expose the engine and sundry mechanicals while everything was checked. Slatherings of carbon fiber and titanium and who knows what materials were on display. When it was started up and sat there idling with a combination of vast power, incredible potential, and more that a hint of menace, by golly it SOUNDED like $750,000.

The point is that when looking to purchase a new or used car, pay attention to all of your senses. Good news – anything you find thrilling, whether it be the appearance or the feel of the seats of the instrument array, will provide a new thrill every morning. The bad news is that any touch, smell, or sound that is not pleasing to you will be there for as long as you own the vehicle. Every day.

Copyright 2011 David Preston

About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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1 Response to Sensory Shopping

  1. david says:

    Trivia item of note. In WW II my father invented an oxygen system that would work upside down that worked to great avail in the air war in Europe.

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