Monday, January 29, 2007

The Blue Renntransporter

Race car transporters are bland and utilitarian by nature. Very rarely does a transporter attract more attention than the car it is carrying. When a transporter attracts more attention than the legendary W196 or 300SLR it is carrying, it is time to stop, stand back, and admire.

In the mid-1950s, Mercedes-Benz created a one-off transporter to carry its silver W196 and 300SLR racers. Called the Renntransporter ("race transporter" to us), it stirred more interest and commotion at the silver starred paddock than the famed race cars themselves.

The Renntransporter was an amalgamation of pre-existing Mercedes vehicles. The frame was from the 300S. The front and rear of the truck were stretched. The interior, including the checkered cloth seats, was borrowed from the 180 series. A detuned 300SL engine, from 215 to 192 horsepower, was transplanted. The SL's grill was also borrowed. Only the rear glass was created solely for the Renntransporter. The glass was designed so that it matched the aerodynamic profile of the W196 it often carried.

After the 1955 season, the Renntransporter was displayed at various venues, including the United States, for P.R. purposes. In fact, "Max. Speed: 105 m.p.h." was stenciled on the rear fender of the Renntransporter while it was briefly Stateside. It then sat in disrepair and was finally scrapped in 1967. In the ensuing years, tales of the Renntransporter reached epic, almost mythological proportions. A replica, based solely on anecdotes and black and white photos, was built in the 90s and unveiled at Goodwood in 2001. It took 6,000 man hours and seven years to complete. The only complaint about the new Renntransporter? It is bluer than the original.

I say-- Give the replicators a break; they had no color photos to work with!


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Rendezvous avec 450SEL 6.9

As I waited for three hours in a Tallahassee office lobby for an appointment that never materialized, my eyes caught a quick blurb in a dog eared car magazine about Rendezvous, a 1970s cult film lasting a little more than eight minutes.

When I came home, I learned more. C'etait un Redezvous was shot by filmmaker Claude Lelouch. He had just finished shooting a film with a gyro-stabilized camera mount. With the mount and ten minutes of film left, he decided to install it onto the front of a car and have it race through the streets of Paris at breakneck speeds. When French authorities turned down his request to close the streets down to make the movie, he took it upon himself to do it-- at 5:30 in the morning in August-- when traffic and pedestrians were at a minimum.

The film is surreal, sublime, and outrageous. The reckless disregard for human life exhibited is matched only by the skill with which the driver propelled his car through the streets of Paris. The Arc de Triomphe, along with anonymous, windy, and narrow cobble stoned streets all make their cameo appearances. The movie can be found with a quick search on youtube or google video.

For decades, this underground cult film has been the source of much rumor and speculation. One of the key questions is-- what kind of car was used? A Ferrari 275 GTB, an Alpine, a Benz 450SEL 6.9, and even a LeMan prototype, possibly a Matra, have all been suggested.

The leading theory is that Lelouch's own 6.9 was used with a Ferrari V12's engine sounds and tire screeches dubbed in. Although I would like to think that it was a 6.9, there are too many inconsistencies. First, the 6.9 was equipped with an anti-dive, anti-squat hydropneumatic suspension. Even with the gyro-mount, the car in the film dove and squatted too much like a conventional car, albeit with a tuned suspension, especially during turns and hard braking.

Second, although automotive journalist extraordinaires like David E. Davis likened the 6.9's agility to that of a Mini, the long wheelbased uber-saloon simply could not be as spritely as the car used in the movie. I had the privilege of learning to drive in a 1978 450SEL, sans 6.9, and it was like driving a bus. It would have been almost impossible to toss something that BIG around like a rag doll.

Ronin 6.9
Finally, despite its prodigious 6.9 liter V8 with 286 horsepower and 405 lb-ft of torque, and a zero to sixty time of 7.4 seconds, I don't think that it was quick enough to be the car in the movie.
Of course, all of this is speculation and conjecture. A recent photo popped up on the net showing Lelouch working on a gyro-mounted camera in front of a W116 bodied Benz. This may have resolved the question once and for all. If a 6.9 was indeed used in the movie, I must say that the movie just got even better.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The LM002: Ostentatious Ruggedness

So what do old-money Dutchmen, Uday Hussein, Hunter S. Thompson, and Vladivostok mafioso all have in common? They all own(ed) Lamborghini's uber-SUV, the LM002. Forget the AMG Gelandewagen or the Cayenne Turbo S. The LM002 was the original high performance, luxury SUV, preceding the aforementioned by decades.

The LM002 was created for armies of Middle Eastern autocracies, e.g. Saudi Arabia and Libya. Although these governments snatched up over 100 of these in total, with machine guns mounted in the back, they never caught on as a military vehicle.

Towards the end of its life, Lamborghini wanted to enter modified LM002s in the Paris-Dakar Rally. For financial reasons (supposedly), the project fizzled.

In the end, the notorious LM002 became an extension-- no, a badge-- of its infamous owners around the world. For the Dutch gentleman who got his fortune merely because his ancestors were astute middlemen, owning an LM002 in a cramped and expensive country known for bicycles represents his I-don't-give-a-shit-about-anything attitude and wealth. To Uday Hussein, Saddam's bloodthirsty son, ownership exuded his uncontrolled power.

Hunter S. Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism, also owned an LM. And just like Thompson, the Lamborghini was profane. It was decadent. It was an exaggeration.

When I was little, I had a zebra striped Matchbox Cheetah, the LM's prototype. I would not see my first real life LM until 2005 when I happened upon one near the Geneva Airport. It was bigger than life. A beast. Monolithic. It was an LM002.


By the way, Uday's LM002, was confiscated by the U.S. Army and blown up to demonstrate the force of IEDs. It was not until the offending soldiers returned to the States and showed photos of the blown up LM that their more knowledgeable, car-savvy friends pointed out that they had destroyed a rare supercar. Kinda sums up our entire (mis)adventure in Babylon, no?

Miura: The First Supercar

The silver Miura I ordered from Canada just arrived. Aside from the currency exchange mix-up, the transaction went relatively smoothly. As I stare at my latest purchase, from every which angle, I must say this could be the most beautiful car ever made. Did I mention mine is a 1/43 scale Minichamps die cast model?

Inspired by the Ford GT40, the Miura established the first rule for all supercars: the engine must be in the middle. The idea of positioning the V12 sideways to save space was borrowed from the Mini Cooper. Other than that, the Miura is all original. The styling, by a 22 year old, is jaw dropping, even by today's standards. Just imagine what people thought when it rolled down the boulevard in the mid-60s.

The second rule for supercars was also established by the Miura: it had to be temperamental. The Weber carbs, while idling, often spat gasoline onto the hot engine, causing fires. Placing the gas tank up front meant that as fuel was consumed, the front end became lighter and harder to control. The list of mechanical, structural, and dynamic miscues can go on for a few more pages.

But all is forgiven. The bottom line on the Miura is its sheer exotic, unadulterated beauty. Bertone's lines could not be any more perfect. Even while parked for a photo shoot, it screams outrageous power, exclusivity, and delinquent behavior. As the Piedmontese exclaim when they see a beautiful woman: Countach!


Monday, January 08, 2007

5 Maui Eateries Worth Visiting

Hotel Hana Maui, Hana
The theme here is fusion. Ginger ahi. Hoisin BBQ quail. It is no better (and no worse) than the above average fusion restaurant in San Francisco or Manhattan, but it's all about location, location, location. After a long drive (or short flight) to Hana, the Hotel Hana Maui is a true oasis and mark of civilization. The view of the hotel grounds and the Pacific from the lanai makes the lunch even more savory and memorable.

Honokowai Okazuya, Kaanapali
Every regular condo renter along Lower Honoapiilani Road knows about this take-out joint. It serves Hawaiian lunch plates that are not only healthy, but tasty and sophisticated. Look no further than the mahi mahi with lemon capers. For 1/3 of the price of a similar entree at other restaurants, you get a generous portion of fresh mahi mahi. After the first bite of the flaky, tender fish with the tangy sauce, you realize that rumors that the Okazuya's owner used to be a chef at Mama's Fish House may just be true.

Honolua General Store, Kapalua
In the middle of Kapalua, where Tiger and Vijay vie for golf dominance every January and the rich and the wannabes spend their precious vacation days, sits Honolua General Store. Inside, you will find it always crowded with tourists loading up on kitschy souvenirs. But if you look carefully on the left end of the store, you'll see a cafeteria line serving artery busting lunch plates such as mac chili and beef with the obligatory scoops of rice and mac salad for under $7. You will also notice that while the store is filled with haole tourists, the lunch line is composed of locals-- hotel chambermaids, gardeners, and contractors. The food is authentic and delicious. But more important, it is a microcosm of overdeveloped West Maui and the uphill struggle by the working class locals to keep their traditional way of life.

Cafe des Amis, Paia
This is my favorite eatery on all of Maui. Once you cruise around for half an hour, find a parking spot, and slalom through the denizens of Paia (pot dealers/users, trust-a-farians, smelly hippies), you come to this quaint, clean, and charming little cafe. It specializes in two things, and two things only-- crepes and curries. I always go for the curries. The young chef in the back is constantly tinkering with the curry recipe. Everyday, it's a little different, but always extraordinary. The curry is served on a bed of white rice in a simple bowl. I am salivating right now, just writing this.

Mama's Fish House, Paia
This is a pretty touristy place and Visitor Channel 7 touts this place ad naseum. Ignore all the hype, go there, and judge for yourself. The ambiance inside is 1950s Hawaiiana with a modern touch. The freshness and quality of the seafood, the variety and creativity of the selection, the masterful execution and presentation-- all this makes Mama's the institution that it is. It's pricey, but well worth every penny, especially when enjoyed with family and friends.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Turkmenbashi's Successor

Last week, I was at a used book store and found a copy of Night Train to Turkistan, a story about a group of Americans who traveled by land to Turkistan, or Xinjiang Province in China. The cashier, upon seeing the book, said, "Whoa, didn't the president of Turkistan just die?" I replied: No, that is Turkmenistan, not Turkistan. I usually do not like to correct people because I don't want to come off like a smart aleck and I don't want the other person to feel bad. But on this occasion, I really felt it necessary to educate people about the differences between the "-stans". Our collective ignorance about Central Asia is so overwhelming, not even William Safire mentioned Turkmenistan last Sunday in a NYT magazine article in which he tried to list all the -stans.


Of all the -stans, Turkmenistan is the most eccentric. Its personality cult, which is based around Turkmenbashi (Saparmurat Niyazov), is akin to that based around Kim Sr. and Jr. of North Korea. When Niyazov unexpectedly died of a heart attack on December 21, the big question was, who was going to take his place?

G.B. in center

In just a few days, the answer became clear. It was going to be Vice Premier Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ("G.B."). A one-time dentist, he is best known for closing all hospitals outside of the capital city because he, as the health minister, wanted to assure quality health care to all. Though that was a pretty bone-headed move, his machinations after Niyazov's death would make even Machiavelli proud. This is what he did to consolidate power:

1. Appointed himself the task of organizing Niyazov's funeral.
2. Under the constitution, the Parliament speaker was to succeed as interim president. G.B. immediately had the speaker arrested.
3. G.B. became interim president.
4. Under the constitution, the interim president is not allowed to seek the presidency. On Dec. 26, G.B. has the People's Council grant him the eligibility to run.
5. G.B. then has the People's Council unanimously nominate him for the presidency.
6. Simultaneously, G.B. has a law passed that bars citizens living abroad from running for the presidency. This effectively disqualifies all exiled opposition leaders.
7. The only viable opponent living within Turkmenistan that was not in jail was Nurberdy Nurmammedov. He was immediately arrested/disappeared.

Surprisingly, our government has been quiet through all of this. But I'm sure it has nothing to do with Turkmenistan's location (between Iran and Afghanistan) or the fact that it has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. Democracy, schmocracy.

Machiavelli smiling down at G.B.

Happy New Year!