Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thoughts on Overhaulin’ the Europa

I have made it known, both in my book and in presentations I give at events, that I have a jones to own a Lotus Europa twin cam. They weight just 1600 lbs, are only 42 inches high, look like nothing else on the road, and are currently undervalued because those looks are so extreme that they’re often referred to derisively as a “bread van.” My friend Alex said “I always they thought they looked like a Ranchero.” Ouch.

Having nothing to do with Europas, in my book I am a bit hard on the cable show Overhaulin’. To those unfamiliar with Overhaulin’, they take a beat-to-shit car that someone loves, work with their spouse or significant other, abscond with the car on the ruse it’s been stolen, then resurrect it. Automotive customizer par excellence Chip Foose is with the show, and there’s no denying that he and his crew do incredible work. The cars are rebuilt from the ground up, usually with heavy customization – updated high-output engine, massive wheels and low profile tires, leather-stitched dashboard, killer sound system, etc. They do all this in a hugely compressed time frame with a hard end date (“the reveal”). They then present the car to the owner, who is filmed overcome with tears of joy.

While I’m certain that all of the people working on the cars (and on the show), take pride in what they do, I have problems with it on several levels. First, no restoration work – indeed, no project management work of any kind – is like this, ever. You never are part of a project with boundless scope and an immovable end date where you have absolutely no skin in the game. Second, a car, particularly an enthusiast car, is a very personal thing, and, as I say in the book, owning an enthusiast car is very much about the feeling of control. I wouldn’t want any of my cars taken out of my control and modified in ways I hadn’t explicitly approved of. Third, they never talk about the after-care of these cars. I doubt the pre-overhauled shitbox required high insurance and a locked garage, but the Cinderella version certainly does. And it’s a one-off. Who maintains it? Who documents, orders, and installs the necessary parts? I’ve always felt that “Overhaulin’ – Behind the Alcantra” would be a very interesting show.

So I took notice when two friends sent me e-mail referring to a recent episode of Overhaulin’ where they do a Europa. One said the treatment they gave it was pretty cool, and implied that if I watched it, I might soften the opinion expressed in my book. I’m actually inching closer to perhaps buying a Europa, so with a certain curiosity and enlightened self-interest, I found and Tivo’d the episode, and last night, sat down to watch it.

The episode was a bit unusual in several ways. The guy who’s Europa it was delivers soda to Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage where Jay maintains his cars. The guy volunteers his time there after hours as a wrench. So Jay Leno – the car guy’s Car Guy – was involved in this episode and had a lot of screen time. The guy had owned and raced this Europa over a 30-year period but blew up the engine about six years ago. The car was then parked at the Big Dog Garage, where it sat. He eventually traded it to someone at the garage for a set of wheels for his Camaro. So at the time of the episode, the guy no longer owned the car.

The Overhaul treatment the car received was over the top. A 350 hp supercharged engine from a Lotus Elise and a Porsche Boxster 6-speed transaxle were installed. The obligatory massive wheels and tires were stuffed under the wheel wells, requiring the fiberglass body to be cut and widened around the fenders. A full custom suspension was designed and installed, requiring the mounting points on the car’s frame to be changed. The usual retinue of body workers, painters, interior specialists, all did their thing.

At the end, with the paint literally still tacky on the car, the guy was called in on the pretense of a TV segment on Lotus being filmed, his role being an enthusiast who had once owned and raced a Europa. First they revealed that this tricked-to-the-max machine was the very Europa that was once his, then Leno and Foose appeared and gave him the keys. So, in ways, this reveal had three components: 1) This is the Europa that was yours; 2) Look at what we did to it, and 3) It’s yours again. His response certainly contained the customary surprise and gratitude, but seemed to me to be somewhat measured. That is, he was surprised that this was the same car and grateful for all the work that’d been done on his behalf, but he didn’t express any over-the-top sentiments like “oh, this was the best car I’d ever owned it was part of my life for so long I never should’ve sold it thank you for rectifying this mistake.”

But that’s not what wrapped this episode up with an unintended bow.

If you read up on Europas, you’ll find that the generally small size of any British sports car combined with the Europa’s 42” ground-to-roofline dimension makes them challenging to fit into unless you’re a little guy (see the banter on regarding a Europa I almost bid on several months back). Fortunately, I am a little guy.

But this guy on Overhaulin? Taller and probably a good 40 lbs heavier than me. At the end of the episode, he could barely fit in the car. They literally joked about getting a transmission jack to help him in.

It made me think. Of course he’s a bit restrained in his reaction to the car. He sold this car. No. Wait. He didn’t. He traded this car for a set of wheels for his Camaro. Maybe he was done with this car. Maybe he thought, yeah, at this point in my life I’m totally a Camaro guy. Maybe he walked away from the reveal thinking “what I am I supposed to do with this thing now?

So, Mr. Leno, Mr. Foose, you are Car Guys Extraordinaire. If we ever meet, I would be honored to soak in your aura. But, if you read my book, don’t mistake the misty rose-colored comments I made about my Triumph GT6+ and my ’63 Rambler Classic 660 for actual actionable lust. I don’t really want either of them back.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Apparently, People Like My Book

So much has happened...

“Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic reminds me of summertime Saturdays when I was a boy and Dad and his buddies would park their rides — Mercs, Caddys, Chevys — in our broad dirt dooryard and make out with them. It was a wrench-twisting ardor full of grunts, cursing and the sizzle of beer bottles bursting open. Rob Siegel, a writer with permanent grease under his nails, would’ve totally been into it. And this funny, frisky book tells why.”

“Rob Siegel, a Newton resident, has produced one of the best auto memoirs I’ve read in a long time."

“This book is written by a car guy for car guys about car guy experiences. It is part autobiography, part encyclopedia, and part advice column. It is chocked full of useful hints about everything from acquiring a car, repairing a car, and even when the sad event is necessary, disposing of a car. It is a lifetime of experience hard-won and passed on gladly.”

“Rob Siegel writes observations on the Life Automotive that are centered on both his personal quest towards Wholeness by fixing broken BMWs, telling the world (at least those readers of Roundel) about his journey towards this goal, tossing in what he accurately calls “actual useful stuff” along the way, and comes across as the sort of person who you pray will sit at your table at a dinner because you KNOW you will have a good time. Yes, he is funny in the way that those who never quite grasp the notion that life is supposed to be an A to Z proposition are, and, therefore, approach life on their own terms.

The tone and Zen-seeking flavor makes Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic an easy read that often makes you chuckle (because you've been there) or marvel at the clever solution to a potential landmine of a repair ("cascading failure" is Siegel's apt descriptor). Talking about the process of auto repair not from the "put-tab-B-into-slot-A" perspective, but from the "stand back and look at the big picture" point of view that the book takes is due, in part, to the author's day job as an engineer. It's good advice, and it's why the book has appeal beyond fans of Neue Klasse Roundies.

Jeremy Walton, Automotive Writer:

“Siegel’s expletive-undeleted sense of humour and intelligence rule and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The hard-earned mechanical knowledge shared is worth triple the price of the book, especially that on painting a car and degrees of rust. I think that’s summed up best by this observation: “I think I can safely say that one has ever taken a car in for restoration and been told, ‘You know, that rust isn’t nearly as bad as we thought.’”

“This is a must read for any self professed “car guy.” We're only about half way through it and so far it's fantastic! In Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, Rob Siegel shares his secrets to buying, fixing, and driving cool cars without risking the kids' tuition money or destroying his marriage.”

“Inspired by John Muir's VW 'Idiot Book' (aren't we all), Rob Siegel spins a fab mix of Zen and 20w50; engine rebuilds in the kitchen, a hated GT6, an obsession with BMW's 2002 (he owned 25!), song-writing, guitars and the meaning of life via a greasy tool kit. The wealth of advice and humorous stories will strike a chord with any classic car nut.”

“Author Rob Siegel from Roundel magazine came to the Vintage with his 1973 3.0CSi. Siegel signed copies of his new book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, and talked about parts of the book that might surprise people. “I have a chapter in the book titled ‘Why Men Love Cars,’ and it offers insight into the mind of a car guy,” Siegel said. “Cars are useful to men as objects of passion in a way that’s difficult for women to understand. But it’s also healthy and constructive in terms of long-term relationships. It’s maintaining passion within a sane set of boundaries.””