Back in the day, while purchasing a new car or motorcycle, the buyer could choose to upgrade with a number of accessories or options at the time of purpose. Said options were almost exclusively aimed at trading the buyer’s cash for improved function and performance.
True, in cars you could order first an AM radio, and then an AM/FM radio, and then a progression through 8 track tapes, cassettes, and now CDs, with CD changes of one CD capacity or 6. In performance cars, there was actually a “delete” option for the radio, such as in our 1958 Corvette, if the car was intended for competition. This seems amusingly benign in retrospect, as the weight savings in a 1958 Corvette by deleting the radio amounts to not much more than skipping the double cheeseburger and fries lunch for a few days. More recently, Gordon Murray, designer of the fabled McLaren F1, drove radio suppliers to baldness by demanding a radio of at that time uncreatably light weight. In the end, he won out. In addition, our Corvette had originally been purchased in Georgia and was also a “heater delete” car. Neither of these weight saving choices kept the original owner from creating a large notch at the base of one of the cylinder bores when a 283 V-8 connecting rod made a successful break for freedom. For whatever reason(s), the engine was rebuilt with the spendy 12.5 to 1 compression ratio forged pistons, but a stock cylinder head, carb, and headers. Of course I knew none of that at the time of purchase. But I digress..
Despite such fripperies as radios and perhaps power windows, for the most part, the buyer spent money to improve the performance of the vehicle. A twin carb set-up, perhaps, or disc brakes on the front or all around. In motorcycles, there was often an upgrade for improved front and rear suspension, or twin disc brakes for the front wheel.
In recent years (alas, from my point of view), accessories and options have all been about items which push the owner further and further away from the actual core functions of the vehicle. Navigation displays may be useful, but they are also a distraction. Hands free phone systems, blind spot and lane variation warnings, back-up cameras, remote hood and trunk and what-all releases, more and more numbers of high quality speaker systems that turn the car into a rolling small sound booth, and on an on – all with the apparent intent of removing any need to pay attention to what you are doing – controlling a moving vehicle. ABS brakes and stability systems seem to be safety enhancements, but I wonder if the ever-increasing reliance on them simply makes the driver less of an essential and simply a passenger. A recent sales experience with the Kia Soul featured the salesman extolling how great it was that the outer rims of the speakers glowed in various colors. Did I ever feel the need for such a thing?
I had the chance to drive a new Mercedes-Benz convertible around Pacific Raceway a couple of years ago. It had an automatic, of course, and so many anti-lock brake systems and stability systems talking to each other that it was more than a bit dismaying. Even at goodly speeds, it would take a complete idiot, perhaps assisted by a snootful of alcohol, to screw up badly enough to get into difficulty. With all due respect to the engineers who created it, I did not have an enjoyable experience with it – even on a racetrack.
Motorcycles are following the same trend, with GPS systems common. I know of at least three people who have inadvertently discovered a ditch after gazing a half a second too long at the handlebar display while a corner loomed. Phone connectivity can now be done with a finger on the side of your helmet. Anyone looking forward to a fine ride on the new BMW K 1600 GTL or GT needs to spend a few minutes scrolling through multiple menus and selecting various options before setting off – even if you are a troglodyte like me and eschew both the nav system and the stereo controls.
A prime example is today, when Seattle is bathed in sunshine and benign temps. A glorious day to be alive and mobile, and yet most of the cars I see have the convertible top or sunroof securely closed and all the windows up as the “driver” floats along in a sybaritic concert hall kept at 72 degrees. Phooey on that!
When vehicle designers do deign to return to the manic pursuit of performance allied with (relative) safety for the operator, they often create a vehicle that is faster and more capable, but less involving to drive. In addition to the Benz convertible excoriated above, I once had the opportunity to ride a Kawasaki ZX 12R Ninja and a Suzuki GSXR back to back – with similar results. I used to own a similar ZX 12R, and the experience of riding it reminded me of mine – a Saturn launch rocket of a motorcycle reliant on the skills and especially restraint shown by its rider to keep both from yawing off the road to an explosion of fiberglass, metal, and bone. I loved the experience, even though I always had tremendous respect for the motorcycle and both the heights and depths of the experiences it offered just a twist grip away. The GSXR was newer, at least 80 pounds heavier, and had an engine of similar power. And yet, when riding it, you had the nagging feeling you were not really necessary. On the street, there was nothing you could do that would stress the capabilities of the engine, brakes, or chassis and it felt like the bike was sort of ho humming through the motions as it waited for a track and a rider who could actually exploit its incredible performance potential. I am sure that around a track the GSXR would be perhaps 10 seconds a lap quicker – an absolute ocean of a time span on a track, and yet in street use the ZX 12R was so much more attuned, it seemed, to the rider and a far more pleasant ride. You sat on the GSXR, whereas you worked with the ZX12R.
None of these recent trends would bother me if it did not interfere with the purchase process of someone who wishes to have a more “pure” experience. My current car buying saga is a great case in point. If you want a small car that is interesting to drive with a manual transmission and as few techno-distractions as possible, your buying quest if primarily an exercise in eliminating candidates. If the desired goal is two doors and a stick shift at a sub-25k cost, you get to – the Kia Koupe, the Fiat 500, and… I can’t recall others. Even then, you have to search for one with a manual.
In motorcycles if you wish to ride a performance bike and be totally in charge, you need to look smaller. All of the big performance bikes are now involved in a techno-war of increasingly capable traction control systems, engine management systems, and ever more sophisticated ABS braking systems. There is no question that these make the motorcycles better, but the question is do they improve the riding experience? Perhaps perfectly maintained restored bikes from the near past that feature strong performance without any “nanny aids” will be the next big trend. My 2005 Triumph Speed Triple is a good example. 135 hp at the crank, no ABS or traction control, but one of the most enjoyable and involving motorcycles of my experience. A new BMW S 1000RR can run circles around it without breaking a sweat, and in inflation-corrected dollars costs very little more. Is it a better ride?
There are a few dim rays of sunshine trying to peep over the horizon, although it may take a bit of the Pollyanna to see them. The source may seem unlikely – ecology based “green” cars. A lot of the hype surrounding various hybrid and high mpg cars is exactly that – hype designed to separate the more traditional green from the gullible – but recent accessories packages do bring with them some hope. The Honda CR-Z and many other new designs have standard or optional features with various methods to show how intelligently you are driving. In this case, “intelligently” refers to how little fuel or other energy you are consuming. Such cars might do this by altering the instrument lighting from the preferred green glow of ecological purity to other colors based on how profligate you are with your right foot. Other more prosaic gauges may show the health of the battery pack, or which source of energy you are tapping.
What they all have in common is that the driver is now actually paying some attention, albeit scant, to what the vehicle is actually doing. Could this be the foothold of a gradual return to a land where people are actually involved in operating their cars and motorcycles and attuned to what the vehicle is doing?
I hope so.
Copyright 2011 David Preston