Precision and a McLaren MP4-12C

This morning I drove the McLaren to the dealer for its annual service.  Not having driven the McLaren in awhile, I became aware of its precision in a way I’d missed before.  When attempting to justify how and why a car like this is worth double what cars with similar performance numbers, I realized that precision is a factor I’d heard mentioned regarding McLarens, but not something I’d personally noticed until now. Now I understand.

The PerfectionistsNot too long ago I read a wonderful book by historian and New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester titled The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.”  Winchester looks at history beginning in the Industrial Age until recently through the lens of precision. He is a master story-teller and once started, I found the book impossible to put down. Since completing it, I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well.  Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes. The book came up in conversation the other night and some ghost of that conversation must have been going through my head this morning. Okay, now back to the McLaren.

Driving the McLaren this morning north bound on Hwy 51 in Phoenix, I noticed how precise the steering was.  This car goes exactly where you point it, absolutely straight, with no appreciable deviation in either direction.  It does not move a single degree off center. My good friend David Barnett’s 1948 MG-TC is at the opposite of end of this spectrum.  He let me drive it once and with his coaching I learned to turn the wheel in the general direction of where I wanted the car to go and then to wait a bit, to see if it would head in that direction before making any further adjustments to the wheel.  That was an acceptable level of precision when this car was built.  Nearly all modern cars have vastly improved steering over the MG-TC.  But what I wish to make clear here is that the McLaren is noticeably better in this respect than my Acura NSX and I now suspect it is probably better than an entire host of higher-end, truly wonderful automobiles built by Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini, among others.  Why? The first thing that comes to my mind is that designers and engineers conceptualizing and building my McLaren MP4-12C had taken on the project after their roles in building McLaren’s F1 cars. Precision requirements for F1 cars are, I suspect, a tad stricter than cars targeted for public road use.  Next was McLaren’s price target, which at the time (2014) was around a quarter of a million dollars for a base model (with options the prices generally ran a bit over $300K).  As Winchester points out in his book, highly precise machines come at a price and until the new level of precision is amortized over a large number of pieces, it costs a lot of money. The 12C engineers had the budget and know-how to introduce a level of precision in this automobile that even someone like me can notice and appreciate.  That says a lot.

What I experienced this morning was this: with no idea of “precision” in my conscious mind, I began to notice how precisely the steering wheel worked.  Not just on the straight, but when corning too.  Then it was the accelerator and the brakes conveying the same precise and highly accurate response to every input.  I was not on any mind-altering drugs! My friend Clayton is an engineer and knows what I mean.  There’s nothing that doesn’t register somewhere in his mind.  Precision – or lack thereof – is everywhere.  Start looking for it.

Disproportionately High Value #4: Polaris Slingshot

Not everyone knows I own a Polaris Slingshot.  Fewer still have any idea how or why, but I’m about to tell you.  But before I start, I need to make a point.  No, it is not a motorcycle.  While it may be called a motorcycle from a legal standpoint, it does not handle like a motorcycle, nor does one straddle it like a motorcycle.

Polaris makes toys.  A lot of these toys appeal to boys from the age of 18 to 80.  I just saw a cute T-shirt broadcasting “Grandpas are just ‘Antique’” little boys.” Polaris has a history of knowing what guys want even before they do and gives its designers a lot of rope to create vehicles that tick the imagination of toy-loving outdoor enthusiasts.  Of course, many women love motorized outdoor toys, too, but out on the road or the trail, there seem to be more men and boys on these road-toys than women and girls.

My Polaris Slingshot is somewhere between an Ariel Atom sports car and a Ducati GP motorcycle.  It’s got three wheels and a 173-HP front-mounted engine.  The single rear wheel connects to the transmission with a belt. The ultra-wide stance front wheels and ground clearance put you just inches above the pavement.  It is an absolute hoot to drive, exhibiting near super-car agility while looking like it came off the set of a Batman movie. It cost me about $25K new but delivers the driving exhilaration of vehicles costing much more. There are tradeoffs: while breathtakingly gorgeous from the front, not so from the back. Someone said from the back it looks like a ski chairlift with a tire attached, which I admit, is a pretty good description. With a 105-inch wheelbase and 70-inch track width in front, this thing is wide. The twenty-mile stretch of twisty roads on Hwy 89 up from Peeples Valley to Prescott, AZ, found me more than once dropping the front outside tire off the tarmac.  Weighing just less than 1,700 lbs., that’s only 10 lbs. for each horsepower to pull, making the Slingshot accelerate like a rocket. I’m often asked about the stability of 3-wheel versus 4-wheel vehicles and enjoy pointing out the inherent stability of 3-wheel platforms.  If you’ve spent any time at a restaurant attempting to get a 4-legged table stable using napkins and matchbooks, noticing in the process that 3-legged tables never require such ludicrous adjustments and are always wobble-free, you get it.

Some friends and readers of this blog are spirited drivers.  They like to drift. While it can be done in both motorcycles and cars, let me review how it works in cars.  I grew up in the Midwest where winter snow and icy roads required me to learn a driving technique called drifting. This “requirement” often became just plain fun for many.  Simply put, in a rear-wheel drive car, drifting is when you intentionally over-steer the car while spinning the rear tires.  You point the front wheels in one direction and stomp on the accelerator to cause the rear wheels to lose traction, resulting in the rear slip angle exceeding the front slip angle to such an extent the front wheels point in the opposite direction of the turn. In the same way poor traction due to icy or gravel roads make this easier, having just one wheel at the rear makes it easy to do in a Slingshot.  This technique is a great deal of fun for the hooligan tendencies of certain drivers. Not that I would know any of this them personally.

Slingshot with Christmas lightsIn December a few years back, I wired a 12V-to-110V inverter into the Slingshot, making it possible to power Xmas lights I’d strung all over the car.  Riding around town in this “one horse open sleigh” all festooned with lights, blaring Xmas carols over the speakers and dressed in Santa hats, was wonderful fun.   Just like Santa’s sleigh, you step over the frame to get into the car (there are no doors).  You sit on race-like waterproof seats, and settle yourself into a futuristic open-air space frame surrounded by polymer body panels.  The exceptionally close proximity to the pavement amplifies the sensation of speed.  Sliding over pavement with your backside less than a foot off the ground, you get a whole new perspective on velocity and the true meaning of ground clearance. In my NSX or the McLaren, it is shockingly easy to accelerate up a highway on-ramp and inadvertently find myself at triple digit speeds.  Not so with the Slingshot. Here, 45 mph feels like 90 mph and even at modest speeds I find myself grinning ear to ear while passengers raise their arms in the air as if on an amusement park thrill ride.

My Slingshot is “Red Pearl” and came with the optional larger 18-inch wheels in front and a larger rear wheel as well.  All wheels are forged aluminum. This SL model also included a sort of half-height windscreen, integrated backup camera, and a six-speaker Bluetooth-enabled audio system.

There are innate human reasons that convertibles, motorcycles and ATVs are so popular.  On a beautiful day there’s nothing better than the sun in your face and the wind in your hair as you experience firsthand an unforgettable urban or rural landscape.  But taking the Slingshot out on a dark winter’s night around Phoenix while glowing with Xmas lights is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

TV Top Pick #9: Motorcycle Touring Movies

There are motorcycling adventure movies floating around that deserve attention from my riding readers. “Long Way Up” recounts the latest adventures of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on AppleTV. Then there’s Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio, an independently produced and directed film by two Las Vegas guys with minimal riding experience who set off to ride to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and making a film in the process. Lastly, Slow Ride Home is about 8 friends, members of the “Soldiers of Destiny” scooter club who make an epic cross-country ride from Florida to Seattle, WA on 125 cc motor scooters when hilarity breaks out.

All are worth watching if you ride motorcycles, think about riding motorcycles, or enjoy travel movies. The two lessor efforts (Slow Ride Home and Ride Report) are the most fun and easy for most of us to relate to. The third McGregor/Boorman effort comes on the heels of their other popular motorcycle televised riding trips, Long Way Round (2004) and Long Way Down.  Those first two movies had a bit of adventure here and there, but I found this third series ridiculously absurd – at least the first 3 episodes.  The way riders define “Adventure travel” varies widely and what actually constitutes “adventure” is a near-constant argument among travelers.  I find virtually no “adventure” in two guys riding bikes with an entourage consisting of a movie producer, a director, a couple of cameramen, at least two support trucks (and drivers) with massive amounts of tools and gear.  Add to those assets a no-limit credit card to assist with the extradition from any uncomfortable or difficult circumstance and you have something that feels to me like every bit of actual adventure has been squeezed out of the experience.  But we’ll come back to this.

Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio:  In this Amazon Prime hour and a quarter movie, two guys in their twenties, Matt Kendall and Tierman Turner capture a genuine motorcycling adventure.  It appeals to me the most of the three as it is so reminiscent of early road trips I took with my first motorcycle. When I got my first bike, I was totally overwhelmed with the freedom of hopping on my bike, throwing a few gallons of gas in the tank, and heading off into the horizon.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I repeatedly made up places to go and my trips were absurd, foolhardy and mostly crazy.  On top of it all, I was totally unprepared, learning through a variety of errors, how to plan a bit better for my next trip.  When I think back to my utterly naïve younger self, taking off on my bike without proper tools or gear, possibly without even checking fluids or tire pressure, I cringe. Kendall and Turner put more thought and planning into their trips than my early escapades, but they were ignorant of much and left many steps totally unanticipated, figuring “we’ll work that out when we get there.” And this is precisely why I identified with them so completely and loved this movie. It’s a super low budget film, but they manage to capture the authentic joy and utter relief when things go right along with the frustrating disappointment and despair when bikes break or they get totally lost and realize they’ll have to back track an entire day’s riding.  It is the total opposite of the big money approach of the Long Way Up saga where one tires of the continually artificial risks and feigned obstacles McGregor and Boorman encounter.  The final plug I’ll make for 10,000 Miles to Rio is the degree to which the locals extend themselves to help these two often hapless riders in distress. When we’re being bombarded daily with the supposedly vile and villainous dangers awaiting us around every unknown foreign corner, it is so refreshing to see a true reflection of what I’ve always found – most human beings just want to help out a stranger in need.

Slow Ride Home is just good, silly fun.  The idea for this movie had to have come from a night with too much alcohol and someone saying, “Ya know what we oughta’ do?”  The bikes making this trip top out at, maybe, 55-65 mph (down hill, wind at the back), although trying to average more than 45 mph over any sustained amount of time will result in parts failing frequently. Scooters are built for 20-30 minute convenience trips at relatively low speeds, in cities, with lots of stops and at most, a few trips a day.  Deciding to ride them 3,700 miles, 11 days straight cross-country, creates its own spirit of adventure.  Unsatisfied with allowing their adventure to be just staying on course and making the trip in once piece, this group of geniuses filled the route with a set of obscure and ridiculous obstacles that, if a particular rider fails to manage the obstacle he pulled from the hat for that day, faces a frat-boy list of personal humiliations from which they must chose as punishment, much to the merriment of their fellow riders.  The one I liked best was having the hair on one’s head shaved into what was affectionately known as the “cul-de-sac” cut. Watch the movie to see how good this particular style can make someone look.  Deliberately or not, they manage to poke a finger in the eye of every serious documentary filmmaker on the planet, but do it in such a way, that they’ll all be on the floor laughing.  I know I was.

My opinion on the McGregor / Boorman series I’ve left to last, because frankly, who cares what I think?  But if you’ve made it this far, you’re going to get a dose of why I find these movies tiresome, unrealistic, not really about motorcycle riding and frankly ridiculous. First, I have nothing against Ewan McGregor.  He’s a fine and highly productive actor.  I do have an issue with the idea of him being a serious motorcyclist and his general lack of commitment to acquiring the skills necessary for some of the trips he portends to complete.  It is like he’s playing another movie role.  In the 1997 movie, “Nightwatch,” he played a night watchman and law student. It was fine. He was an actor.  Nice job. However, no one was trying to seriously pretend he was a law student or night watchman. However, these motorcycle adventures are positioned as documentaries and yet he’s just playing the part of a motorcyclist, and that is what so irritates me.  Charley Boorman is a different story.  I get no bad vibes from him.  His book, although ghost written by someone else, was a superb read on his taking on the Dakar Rally. It was authentic and very good.  Boorman’s a good rider – not fancy, but he has solid skills. I admire what he’ll try to do on a bike. Now, this may be because we’ve both experienced the Dakar Rally, which is far from a walk in the park.  I chronicled that 2011 experience for The Overland Journal and you can read about it here.  Eventually I will finish the “Long Way Up” series.  I have no doubt the scenery will be spectacular and some of it will be familiar from the riding I’ve done in that part of South America. The camera work will be stunning with new drone technology, but it will take all the constraint I can muster to keep my snarky comments on the other stuff to myself.

While everyone knows Easy Rider (1969), there are other overlooked great motorcycle movies to consider if you’ve not seen them.

I’m leaving out: Easy Rider, The Wild One, The Great Escape, Being Evel, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road and several others.

Chasing Dakar cover
My story in the Overland Journal Magazine about chasing the Dakar Rally through South America

Top Tier TV Pick #3 – Good Omens

When you find yourself watching a mini-series 4 times, it probably means you liked it.  Maggie and I rarely share the same affection for television programs. So when we are both uncompromisingly enthusiastic about a production, you can be sure it’s special.  And Good Omens is quite special.  Here’s why.

Good Omens, video seriesBesides a 1930’s Bentley, it has the apocalypse and its four horsemen, angels, demons, magic, a hell hound, a flaming sword, the Antichrist and witches.  It is based on a brilliant novel written by two amazing writers – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  The show stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant, a pair of terrific British actors at the top of their game.  American actors Jon Hamm, Frances McDormand and Michael McKean also play key roles, and Englishman Benedict Cumberbatch shows up, too.

What most drives this unabashedly endorsement is that it is pure fun – every single minute.  We’ve suggested it frequently to friends and been rewarded with grateful thanks every time, without exception.  Like the movie “The Princess Bride,” it does not get old.  Suddenly one of us will think of a particular scene, say one of the ones with Michael McKean and Miranda Richardson, and before we know it, the other one is laughing and we’re saying, “Oh God, let’s watch it again.” You’ll find it on Amazon Prime and, rumor has it, there will be another season starting soon.