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Saturday, January 17, 2004

When Enthusiasm Yields to Ergonomics 

One of my normal daily activities (being a diehard car enthusiast) is to look at pictures of nice cars and try to memorize every little detail. Today the vehicles of choice were vintage sports cars. After admiring multiple examples of numerous models, I started to notice something rather alarming: Sports cars, like people, mature. And when they mature, they get dull. Mind-numbingly fucking dull.

One of the first examples I noticed was the Jaguar XK100-series sports cars. When the XK120 was released in 1948, it was a simple yet elegant sportster, setting numerous top speed records at the time. Although it was pure in line and precise in construction, it also had a mean little mother of an engine that was quite capable of the rambunctious driving that sports cars are occasionally subjected to. Then something bad happened, and that bad came in the form of refinement.

Refinement is the enemy of the sports car. Once automakers decide to boost sales by making their sports cars more civilized and comfortable (it typically doesn't boost sales, but I'll get to that in a minute), the car loses its essence and becomes bland. Gone is the personality and spirit of the original car, replaced with that of a docile, pussified grocery getter in a slightly bloated caricature of the same car. Jaguar did this with their subsequent XK140 and XK150 models...but luckily, the later models were still great cars and still managed to capture some of the 120s. Not all models are so lucky.

Let's continue with another of Jaguar's creations: The XKE. Launched in 1961, the XKE came in the form of a sleek drophead roadster and a stunning hatchback coupe. Equipped with simple yet tasteful interior appointments and a lusty 3.8 liter inline six, this is absolutely one of the most awesome sports cars ever made. But slowly things started to change...at first for the better. A 4.2 liter model was introduced in 1964, and apart from the increased displacement it featured more supportive seats, synchromesh in all gears, and several smaller upgrades. But 1966 is when things started to go downhill. This was the year the 2+2 coupe was introduced. Insert hissing and booing here.

Just as Ford did with the 1958 Thunderbird and so many other automakers have done since, Jaguar decided to add rear seats to boost sales and the make their cars practical. Sports cars are never practical, but apparently automakers were just as clueless then as they are now. Jaguar said the car was for the "family man who doesn't want to lose the feel of a sports car". Bullshit! If he wants to keep driving sports cars, he shouldn't have polluted the world with his goddamn crotch fruit. If you want to contribute to overpopulation, you shouldn't have a good time doing it.

Whoops...I'm getting off-topic. Anyway, The XKE continued downhill with the series 2 and 3 models, and even the introduction of a 5.3 liter V12 engine in 1971 couldn't make the now heavy and bloated Jaguar perform anything like the early 3.8 cars. Shameful.

A few other quick examples of this: The Ford Mustang, the 1993 Mazda RX-7, the 1984 Corvette, the 1993 Toyota Supra, the Triumph TR series, the 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Toyota MR2.

Notice that the Japanese seem to be the worst in this trend. I'm not sure what that says about the Japanese, but it sure can't be good. Maybe they just like being sick twisted people. Then again, I guess tentacle-rape hentai is proof enough of that.

Back to the sales aspect that I briefly mentioned earlier: Note that almost all of these cars had sales drop off after their "refinement", and most of them have stopped production (the Mustang and Corvette being the exceptions). The original Mazda RX-7 was one of the best selling cars of all time in the USA, but how often do you see '93 or later models? Almost never.

The worst example of this, though, is the one I'm saving for last: The Z. The 1970 Datsun 240Z was introduced as a cheap, simple, fun sports car. The subsequent changes to 260Z (1974) and 280Z (1975) did little to tarnish this image, as the feel of the original car remained mostly intact. The 280ZX was introduced in 1978, a much heavier car with (you know it had to happen) an available back seat. However, even the 280ZX remained simple enough to be a fun sports car. The 1984 Nissan 300ZX was more of the same, but then the slap to the enthusiasts' collective face came with the 1990 300ZX...an ugly, slow, bloated pig of a car. The car enjoyed lukewarm sales figures until Nissan put it out of it's misery in 1996. The car was recently revived in the form of the 350Z, a nimble but bland performance car with only paint colors and the option of a heated steering wheel keeping keeping every one of them from looking identical. Screw Nissan and their boring-ass 350Z.

Whether or not some of these cars perform better (such as the Supra and the 350Z) is irrelevant: Performance numbers aren't what makes a car fun to drive, ask any Mini Cooper enthusiast. The essence of a sports car is a delicate thing, and it's easy to destroy through refinement. Thanks to the villainous principle of pussification, the true sports car is all but completely dead.

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