SEMA Las Vegas – November 2013

My third year at this epic show and I’m still overwhelmed by the depth of creativity represented in aluminum, carbon fiber, rubber, paint and steel. Between David, Tyler, Sean, Dave and I think we saw about one fifth of what was there. Next year I’ll bring a bigger entourage…

Gallery is here – slideshow button is at the top-right corner.

SEMA Las Vegas – November 2012

My second year and another incredible week in Las Vegas. I’m amazed at how creative and innovative these car builders are, and at the resources – time, money, aluminum milling machines – they have at their disposal. To save you the trouble this time, I put my favorite shots first, so the first 4 pages of the gallery are filled with those.

Gallery is here – slideshow button is at the top-right corner.

Seattle Auto Show – November 2011

I felt like an auto industry photographer this week, as the morning after my return flight from SEMA in Las Vegas I was behind the lens again shooting the Seattle Auto Show. Lance joined me in pushing buttons and critiquing design choices. I most impressed this year by Buick – impressive interiors and competitive cars for the price – and Hyundai – unique designs with a distinctive California studio flavor, really coming into their own rather than just shadowing trends. Click through to critique the 2012 models for yourself.

Gallery is here – slideshow button is at the top-right corner.

SEMA Las Vegas – November 2011

More insanely custom rides, meticulous detailing, original machine work, and incredible cars than I’ve ever seen in one place. There are over 1300 photos because I saw so many things that I wanted to remember, but if you’re just looking for a quick review, click here for my top 40 favorites.

Gallery is here – slideshow button is at the top-right corner.

Me + Car + Oregon = Buffy?

I’ve been feeling the pressure to share my truck-buying adventure last week with the world – or at least with my five readers and the google robots. This is me caving to peer pressure, something i don’t do very often, partly on principle and partly because i rarely shut up long enough to listen to anyone else’s advice.

The plan was simple. I wanted an Infiniti QX4, chosen over the equivalent Pathfinder for its more carlike and freeway-tuned 4WD system and handling, luxurious interior and greater quota of buttons and switches. It had to be a 2001, as the 2000’s 3.3L engine is warily regarded by every mechanic i’ve discussed it with as a problem waiting to happen, whereas the 3.5L VQ-series in the 2001+ is a media favorite and has seen service in the Maxima, Altima, Pathfinder, 350Z, G35… several minivans, and probably a few Tim Allen-style lawnmowers. I had a price range, and a *strict* interior color scheme (black only). My exterior colors were more flexible: black, dark grey, or dark blue – so basically any color that would coordinate with my high-fashion Manhattan wardrobe.

After a month or so of searching, i found one that met the qualifications above, 283 miles away in Eugene, OR. Not the furthest i’ve driven for a vehicle – you’ll recall my Z is a Medford, OR transplant – and not an impossible weekend drive. As usual, when none of my friends were willing or able to make the trek, my awesome little sister stepped up to the plate and agreed to drive me down there saturday morning. She needed to check out of her old apartment that morning, so we left after that was completed.

It was a long, hot drive and Danielle’s car’s AC struggled to keep us from becoming human pot roast. We found the dealership holding my target vehicle, Kiefer’s Mazda, and threaded our way past the eager Mazda salesmen practically hurling keys at us and bellowing “Test Drive!” as they jostled past each other, elbowing ribs and nipping at heels like pack animals hoping to pick the wounded widlebeest from a herd. Keeping my herd close together for safety, i found the receptionist and paged the sales guy i’d been talking to on the phone all week, so i could experience his halitosis in person.

We poked around the truck, Danielle testing out buttons while i looked for signs of bodywork, undercarriage leaks, and crumple zone, uh, crumpling. Everything checked out, except that there was no radio – just a big hole in the dash. Despite his protests that the vehicle came to them without one, i insisted that their ad showed one and mentioned it in the ad copy, but let it go after that, as it was less important than the truck’s overall condition.

After some quick test driving on a nearly-empty tank, i pulled the trigger and agreed to meet with the business manager. Here i learned about (and declined) various extended warranties, undercoating sprays, fabric protectant (for the leather interior?) and “powered by Mazda” stickers. A lot of nodding, signing my initials and letting my thoughts drift to important issues like whether i should keep my old ski rack or get a new one. I held my ace and played it last; when everything but the final signature had been inked, i inquired about the radio. Since – of course – it was nowhere to be found on the parts shelves, having probably already been installed in a 97 Mazda Protege which was sold, driven to Tacoma, stolen, parted out and shipped to Mexico in boxes, they had no choice but to throw in $200 cash on top of the deal. Brian: +1.

Danielle followed me out of the lot and across town to the Econolodge, me driving on the imaginary fumes of gasoline i did not have. I parked where i could see my new truck out the window of our room, we settled in, and planned for dinner.

I need to take a short aside to describe the comedy of errors that was this room. When i made the reservation, a 2-bed suite and a regular 2-bed room were nearly the same price. As i wasn’t sure at the time how many friends/mechanics would be in my entourage, i splurged 3 extra dollars on the suite in case the extra square footage might prove useful. You know me, always trying to be prepared. Our plan, as discussed on walkie talkies during our crosstown caravan, was to gas up the new ride, find some dinner – preferably accompanied by very large, very frozen margaritas – and return to the hotel to find a movie on cable that we could fall asleep halfway through. The “suite” (and, later, the evening’s events) would send awry the best laid plans of mice and men.

Here’s a diagram of the room’s genius layout, drawn by yours truly using the Photoshop equivalent of a half-chewed crayon:

As you can see, lying in bed watching TV was completely out of the question. Also, the second bed’s proximity to the bathroom door made this luxury suite not just wheelchair-inaccessible but pretty nearly alert, sober, walking-on-two-feet-person-inaccessible. I won’t even get into the bizarre wasted space and the extraneous – but not what i would deem *luxurious* – second sink. This room was wack.

So, returning to the primary story. I’m sure you’re wishing by now you’d brought a snack on this rambling thought-journey. We were hungry too, and so was the new truck. Trouble is, we couldn’t go fill it up, because it wouldn’t start. It just turned over and over, acting like it was out of gas. Which seemed like a plausible situation, given how low the needle had been riding all day, and that it was now parked on a slight incline. We walked a few blocks to a gas station, sweating in the 90-degree heat, bought a small can, and brought home a gallon ($3.39 charged to my Amex card). Nothing. A return trip, another gallon, a weird look from the attendant (remember, this is Oregon, where you’re not allowed to pull the trigger on your own 92 octane), and still nothing. Could it still be low fuel? I called the dealership several times, until i had several different employees scurrying about requesting manager approval for things, and finally secured a 5-gal tank of gas to be delivered by two lot attendants. They arrived, the tank was filled, it started right up, problem solved. Dealership: +1. I drove the few blocks for a fillup, and brought it back. Danielle and i had already ordered in (tragically, sans margaritas) and resigned ourselves to the sofa where Nicolas Cage tried valiantly to put us to sleep, but was trounced by the carved-granite sofa. We fell face down in our respective beds, willing the morning to come slowly.

Up at six, trying to make good time, as Danielle needed to be home by noon for her appointment to be thoroughly frustrated by Comcast. An exit or two up I-5 we saw a Fred Meyer near an offramp, and pulled in for breakfast and travel food. Our efforts to choose breakfast items that were easy to eat while driving proved futile, however, when my truck wouldn’t start again. We opted to eat our breakfast first and think about what to do, as thinking on an empty stomach wasn’t getting us anywhere but hungry. Once our hunger was satisfied, it was replaced by frustrated apathy, and we opted to wander around Freddy’s for a bit and see if the problem fixed itself. It was apparently a brilliant strategy, as 20 minutes later after our second trip through the Freddy’s checkout, the engine whirred to life.

At this point, theories on the truck’s reluctance to leave Oregon were flying across the airwaves on multiple frequencies and across several state lines. The simplest plan was the most obvious: never turn the truck off. It worked flawlessly at our next stop, securing gas for Danielle’s car and junk food for the drivers. Thankfully the truck was sipping fairly miserly at its fuel reserves (considering it’s shaped roughly like a shoebox with wheels) as i wasn’t sure an Oregon pump jockey would swipe my card with the engine still running.

The third time was in a rest area south of Olympia. I was following the plan – i didn’t shut it off – but it died when i tried to leave the parking space, so i just coasted it back to the curb. At this point, we returned to our previous strategy: ignore it and hope it goes away. Fifteen minutes on a shady park bench and everything seemed better, and the truck must have thought so, too, because the key worked its magic and that now-familiar tone rumbled from the exhaust. We left quickly before it changed its mind. Strategy: +1.

The fourth – and final – time was just south of the West Seattle bridge, within sight of downtown and less than 20 miles from these bedraggled travelers’ final destination. Freeway traffic looked slow through the city, so we were merging right to detour on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, when i apparently gunned the engine in an unacceptable way and it responded with the silent treatment. As with every time before, it was courteous enough to throw its tantrum as conveniently as possible, after we were already halfway down an empty exit ramp and well distant from speeding traffic. Truck: +1.

Not wishing to tempt fate any more, and having no desire to find out where the *next* spot would be (The express lanes? The Battery St tunnel? The Aurora bridge?) i called AAA and enlisted a wrecker for the last leg of the trip. They were fairly prompt and only left us baking on the shoulder for 30 minutes or so. Of course, my truck started readily and loaded itself onto the flatbed with no winch-based assistance. I sent Danielle home and i rode in the tow truck, trying to make small talk with a tow truck driver that had absolutely no interest in anything i had to say. He dropped me and my truck (which, again, drove perfectly) at the Nissan dealership near my house, where – when he received the hundreds of voice mails and text messages i’d sent – Travis would hopefully be able to look at it on his next day at work. Despite being consciously aware that i had comfortable shoes and clean socks as close as my suitcase, i walked the last mile home in flip-flops, arriving at my front door limping from the kruller-sized blisters my feet were now sporting. (A week later they’re still not entirely healed.)

One anguishing day later, Travis was able to open the hood, connect a code monitor, and pronounce an $80 sensor the culprit. He changed it in less than 3 minutes, confirmed for me that – now – the truck was in excellent shape and would be very dependable, and sent me home happy to swap clutter from the old glove box to the new. Travis: +1.

As a sort of a postscript, Danielle and i drove it across Washington and back this weekend, into the north Idaho mountains to meet Mom, Dad, and a significant chunk of our extended family on their annual July 4th campout. The engine started every time, the AC kept us at a comfortable 72 inside while the digital ambient readout glowed “100F”, and we are both home safely tonight with no new roadside tow truck stories to tell. It’s going to be a great truck, but i will definitely be hesitant to buy another vehicle in Oregon. I think they must do something to their cars there, something evil, something that must be exorcised from them before they change ownership lest the curse follow the new owner, even across state lines. Travis seems to have made this one clean again; even so, i’m weaving a rope of garlic tonight and keeping a wooden stake under my pillow. You know me, always trying to be prepared.