The car guy

In memory, I see my father at the wheel of the ’47 Pontiac.  It was black, with long sweeping fenders and sloping rear deck, the trademark ribbons of chrome running down the center of the hood, the Indian head hood ornament out in front.  My view was from the back seat, surrounded by nondescript grey mohair upholstery, my fathers head and shoulders above the front seatback, his black hair combed straight back, a match for the lines of the car.  To my boyhood senses it was a dark car, dark in color and mood, a serious car.  It was the first car I ever knew.

1947Pontiac-sep27aBut.jpg (400×300)

When I was 5 or 6, the ’53 Plymouth arrived.  I remember seeing both of them at the curb together, the dark, drab Pontiac and the bright, colorful Plymouth, with its trim lines, two-tone paint, rich brown on top, coffee-and-cream body.  Inside, chrome knobs and levers gleamed on a bright green dashboard.  Inside and out, it shined and sparkled.  The dismal Pontiac, built just 2 yrs after the end of the war, contrasted with the exuberance of the Plymouth, belying the mere six years that separated them.  The old car still reflected the austerity and shortages of the war years; the Plymouth was a car of the 50’s, an automotive expression of the good life returning.  Attractive and optimistic, a cheerful car.  Dad bought it because he got a great deal on it, a newer, low-mileage car for the family; the rest of us loved it because it looked so good.  Seeing it the driveway in front of the house improved our standing on the block.

These were formative experiences for a young boy, formed by the experience of growing up with our family cars and by a father whose gift was his way with machinery, who shared his love of mechanical things with his son.  These were my earliest awareness of the part of me that I later came to identify as a car guy.  Even as a kid, playing with toy cars, I had plans for automotive ownership.  The plastic ’57 Fords that came free inside my cereal boxes were the first.  I told my Mom and Dad that I wished to own one someday.  Then, the Ford salesman who lived two doors down the street gave me a bright red 1/24th scale ’57 Thunderbird and it became the car I aspired to, the toy Ford sedans forgotten.  Later, plastic car model kits added breadth to my automotive aspirations.

By the time I got my coveted drivers license, the list was getting long.  I had in mind an orderly, upwardly progression through various makes and models, cars I wished to possess.  As with most things in life, the plan was subject to revision, the actual result compromised by the usual priorities of living.  An SVX was not in my plans.

I remember seeing my first SVX, passing in traffic on the freeway, next to my sensible but boring ex-rental Dodge Colt.  The Giorgetto Giugiaro styling made a noticeable statement.  I remember thinking “lucky rich guy”.  But for a long time after, I never thought much about the SVX.  In our garage, there was a succession of plain, utilitarian vehicles, with the exception of Jeni’s Miata.

The Miata was her aspirational car.  She had wanted one since they first came on the market.  When she told me after owning it for three years that she wanted to sell, I didn’t believe her but, the following spring, she told me to advertise it.  We talked about what she wanted to replace it.  It was then that I was reminded of the SVX.  I showed her an SVX website.  Like me, she was grabbed by the design from the first.

The Miata sold quickly.  As it drove off, we went to the dealership where I knew there to be two SVX’s for sale.  When she drove one for the first time, her mind was made up.  The Ebony Pearl LSi came home.

My first impression behind the wheel was of a sporty but practical coupe, a safe, respectable, reliable car, a good choice for her.  That perception persisted until, one afternoon early in our ownership, exiting a parking lot into traffic, and a bit impatient, I buried my foot into the accelerator pedal for the first time and suddenly found all 230 horsepower and 230 foot-pounds of torque that had lain sleeping in the 3.3 litre horizontally-opposed, four-cam six-cylinder engine.  At low speeds and in more gentle driving circumstances, the car is quiet, tractable and deceptively sedate.  Opening the throttle plate wide for the first time brought forth an unexpected element of the cars personality.  From that day, it’s been all I can do to keep from dipping into that potential.

One Saturday morning, we packed the SVX for a weekend run to the Columbia River Gorge, an event sponsored by Jaguar, drawing participant owners of vintage and modern British sports cars; hardly the place one would expect to find an SVX.  The tour began at the Jag dealer, winding through the backroads and foothills of the mountains to the river valley beyond.  The transition stage led out of the city to a small rural town, the first stop along the route.  As participants congregated in the parking lot, I fell into conversation with the driver of the only other Japanese car on the run, a Honda S2000.  He in turn was parked with a Lotus Elan and a Jag XK8.  After talking for a while, someone suggested that we get started. We all returned to our cars, engines were started.  I pulled the SVX in behind the S2K.  Almost simultaneously, the Lotus, the Jag and the S2K did a full-throttle exit out onto the two-lane highway.

A friend of mine has observed that on road tours, there are always two groups of drivers: the slow group and the fast group.  I had inadvertently fallen in with the fast group.

We motored briskly along the highway until the route instructions took us off onto the forest road that traverses the east shoulder of the mountains.  The first sign after leaving the highway was the much-sought-after yellow diamond with the squiggly arrow and the smaller sign below announcing “for the next 40 miles”.

Sports car nirvana.

With the Lotus driver as our rabbit, the rest of us followed, driving fast and hard for the next 15 to 20 minutes, on the most wonderful turns anywhere.  Off-camber, decreasing radius, turns with pavement dropouts in the apex caused by winter freezes or undermined by spring runoff, uphill turns and down, blind corners and esses with a clear line of sight.  The lightweight Lotus ate up that road. The Jag matched him.  The S2K, with 100 hp for each of its two litres and six-speed transmission, kept the revs up, constantly stirring his gearbox; in that leg, I saw his brake lights come on not once.  Somehow, we encountered only a few other vehicles, all of which pulled over to give us way and all of which got four grateful and friendly “thank you” waves as we sped by.  On we went, more of same, fast and faster.

If there’s a point here, it’s this: in that estimable group of blueblood sports cars with capable drivers at the helm of each one, the SVX gave up not one inch.  Not for a heartbeat, not even once.  At one stop, the S2K driver walked behind his car looking to see if I’d left any of my black paint on his silver rear bumper.

I realized the capabilities of my SVX for the first time that day.  Years ago, I’d driven autocross and rallies but I never engaged in driving as sporty as that Saturday.  All afternoon, the SVX demonstrated its horsepower, torque and all-wheel-drive.  As I set the car up for each turn, aiming for each apex, power-on, the feel of four wheels working together was revealed.  Understeer?  Just input more power, and the 3.3 was there, ready to deliver.  No watching the rev’s, no waiting for turbo spool-up; no shifting, for that matter.

Counter-intuitively, when power is applied, the all-wheel-drive shifts power from the front drive wheels to the rear, changing the attitude of the car from early understeer to near-neutral, while still accelerating.

It all works like this:

Set up the car to enter the turn, drop the inside front tire over the fogline, look for the apex, squeeze on more power, feel the G’s build, hit the apex while fully opening the throttle plate and accelerate with all four wheels pulling toward the exit, while sizing up the next one and being careful to not actually nudge the S2K.  The car goes where it’s pointed, never threatening to loose grip, become disorderly, leave the road or in any other way embarrass the driver.  On the short straights, quick bursts over 100.  I’m always surprised how fast the SVX is from 60 to 100.  In forty-odd miles, this was repeated scores of times without drama.  I still don’t know where the limits are in this car, although, on one decreasing radius turn I’d sized up incorrectly, the near-neutral attitude switched for a split second to oversteer; the outside rear tire chirped once, felt momentarily through the seat of my pants as the rear slipped outward.  On cue, the whole power-delivery system took over, handling returned to neutral and we exited the turn with dignity intact.

The SVX is very forgiving.

On Sunday morning, with the tour over, we left the hotel on our own and did some sightseeing down the river valley, poking along, gawking at views and waterfalls like the tourists that we were.  After that, we entered the freeway for the three-hour drive back home.  Windows and sunroof closed, climate control on a gentle setting, CD in the stereo.  She fell asleep, as the SVX wafted us in comfort and quiet.  It’s all that too.

After that weekend, I had more respect and admiration for my SVX than any car I’ve ever owned and many that I’ve lusted for.  We were as good as any car on that road that day and better than many.  I don’t expect to experience a repeat of the unique combination of that group of drivers, that road and the absence of traffic on that magic day, but I shall never forget it.

1994 Subaru SVX LSi AWD

Engine:                         3.3-liter EG33 6-cylinder 24-vavle DOHC Boxer
Horsepower:               230 bhp @ 5400 RPM (6500 redline)
Torque:                        228 ft lb @ 4400 RPM
Transmission:             4EAT 4-speed automatic
0-60:                            7.3 seconds
¼ Mile:                        15.4 seconds @ 92.5 mph
Skidpad:                       0.85 g
Top Speed:                  143 mph
Mileage:                       17 / 25 mpg
Weight:                        3580 lbs
Color:                           Ebony Pearl
Production:                 Built February 1994, #138 of that month, one of 1666 sold in 1994
Price New:                  $34,494.00, Suburban Subaru, Pittsburgh, PA 10/17/94

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