“Hey, how you doin’?” Jason exclaimed as I vaulted through the front door of Flemington Volkswagen. He recognized my masked face, even though he hadn’t seen me since 2017, when I returned the Jetta I had leased from him. Like the good salesperson he is, he remembers customers (and admittedly, he was expecting me since I had booked this test-drive with him last week). “I’m just finishing up with this customer and I’ll be with you in a few”. That was fine with me, and gave me a chance to do my own brief walk-around of the ID.4 on the showroom floor.
To bring you up to speed, Volkswagen, after the debacle that was Dieselgate, changed directions as a company. This was partly forced upon them as part of their governmental settlements, and partly done voluntarily as a way to reinvent their future. They have established an all-electric sub-brand called “ID”, with several models already available in Europe. Here in the States, the first of them, the ID.4, has been launched, with online ordering having started a few months ago. The “1st Edition” launch model is sold out.
Once Jason was free, I sat at his desk, we exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him a few questions about the ID.4. He quickly brought me up to speed from the dealer’s perspective: cars are trickling in very slowly; aside from demos, every unit that arrives is pre-sold; if I (or anyone else) want one, it’s best to simply go online and order one; expect to wait ‘about a year’ for it to arrive; and on the chance that someone cancels their order, you might get lucky and move up the line.
He fetched the key and a dealer plate, and gave me a choice to either wait a few more minutes for him to ride along, or take the car out on my own. I told him that I was comfortable doing a solo test drive, so once he showed me the most basics of basics, I was off. Actually, I drove the ID.4 into the back lot to spend a few non-distracted minutes familiarizing myself with the interior controls.
The dash layout doesn’t necessarily scream “EV!” but it is spartan by my standards. There are two screens: a small one directly in front of the driver (which moves along with the up-and-down adjustments of the steering wheel, a nice touch), and the larger, primary screen in the center console. There are very few physical controls. The steering column keeps the two conventional stalks for lights and wipers. On the right side of the smaller screen is the “shift quadrant” such as it is: a spring-loaded knob which can be rotated forward or back changes the gearing from P to R to D/B. What’s D/B? It’s your choice between conventional “D” for Drive, or “B” for Drive with regenerative braking. More on that later. A button in the side of the knob engages “P” for parking brake.
The interior, also spartan, is not unattractive, except for that bright white steering wheel. The white interior accents may be part of the launch edition cars, but I would need to see some other color choices in there. I don’t drive with dirty hands (most of the time) but cannot imagine that wheel staying white.
The center screen has all the controls for the HVAC system, sound system, phone, nav, apps, etc. At the bottom of the screen are “slide bars” that don’t physically move, but swiping one’s fingers left or right will raise or lower temperature, volume, etc. There are no conventional knobs. Considering I had no tutorial, I did ok with it, but did not find it as intuitive as other vehicles. However, learning the center screen was not my primary objective: I wanted to experience how the ID.4 drove as an EV.
Tip-in was like the other EVs I’ve driven: the torque is there with zero delay. I should mention right here that ALL 1st Edition ID.4 models are rear-wheel-dive only, with an electric motor only at the rear axle. According to Car & Driver magazine (VW’s website frustratingly hides the vehicle specs, and only presents marketing info with as little technical detail as possible), the RWD car makes 201 horsepower and 229 lb. ft. of torque. Acceleration was perfectly adequate, although it came nowhere near the neck-snapping jolt I experienced in the Polestar 2 (not an apples-to-apples comparison, with a 20 grand difference in prices).
The car was mostly quiet inside, but coast-down produced an annoying sound of a motor winding down. Intentional? Don’t know. The biggest surprise during the test-drive was reverting to “B” mode, and feeling very little in the way of regenerative braking. The only time the car brought itself to a complete stop was at parking lot speeds below 5 MPH. In every normal driving situation, I needed to use the brake pedal. Not a big deal compared to an ICE car, but the fabulous one-pedal driving in the Polestar is not to be had here.
I stopped for a bit, took some pictures, and opened all the cavities. The rear hatch is electrically-powered and opens wide. I did not fold down the rear seats, but the lack of a mechanical drivetrain might make for a smidgen more cargo room (the ID.4’s wheelbase beats its two competitors by several inches). There is no “frunk” storage, that space consumed by other stuff. So resign yourself to putting your shopping bags in the wayback.
Resuming the test-drive, the best I could muster was to tell myself that the driving experience was fine. After a few minutes to become acclimated to the lack of exhaust noise, it drove like many other cars. The touchscreen controls will require a learning curve (I couldn’t figure out how to pair my phone), but VW fans and really anyone looking at small crossovers who’s willing to also consider an EV should add the ID.4 to their shopping list.
I got back to the dealer and returned the key to Jason. We chatted a bit more about electric vehicles in general. He expressed some frustration about the lack of stock from which to sell, but acknowledged that with the sold-out status of the 1st Edition, this might not be a bad problem to have. Then Jason shocked me by stating that VW, as part of the sale price, is offering “free charging” for the first three years of ownership. Sure enough, I found this statement on VW’s website:
The 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 comes with 3 years of unlimited charging at Electrify America DC Fast Chargers at no additional cost. Electrify America chargers can be found along most major highways.
Kudos to VW! That fact alone will go a long way toward alleviating some shoppers’ charging concerns. Jason stressed that the free charging offer also applies to the chargers installed at the dealership. Depending on your proximity to such things, this offer could sway someone on the fence about an EV.
The ID.4 is continuing the trend of building EVs that look normal. Is it new and stylish looking? Yes, somewhat. But it’s not different for the sake of it. As a CUV (compact utility vehicle), it’s sized to go head-to-head with two of the best-sellers in this segment as these specs bear out (figures courtesy of Car & Driver):
overall length (in.)
overall height (in.)
passenger volume (cu.ft.)
Looking at the Monroney, I think that the well-equipped 1st Edtion, at $42,995 plus $1,195 shipping, is a compelling offer. The car is eligible for the full $7,500 Federal tax incentive too. One issue with the 1st Edition is that RWD for most of us in the Northeast is a deal-breaker (the last time VW sold a RWD car here was the 1979 VW Beetle convertible). According to VW’s website, adding a 2nd electric motor to make it AWD adds $3,680 to the check you’re going to write, and the website states that the option isn’t available until “Oct-Dec 2021”. Oh well, you’re waiting for the car anyway.
Points in favor of the ID.4 include a ‘right-sized’ CUV, VW quality, a well-equipped car at this price point, and the bonus of 3 years’ worth of free juice. On the flip side, it’s RWD for now, the regen braking is poor for an EV, the AWD option adds almost four grand to the bottom line, and there’s a long wait for a car once you commit to placing an order. You also need to like that interior.
If price weren’t a factor, I’d jump at the Polestar in the time it takes an electron to (never mind). But price is almost always a factor. The Mustang Mach-E, with a starting price close to the ID.4, offers a nicer interior and (probably) a little less cargo capacity. I personally greatly prefer its looks versus the ID.4. The Mach-E’s AWD option is pricier than it is for the ID.4, and it also lacks the free recharging. The fun part is, more and more EVs are going to be introduced over the next 12-36 months. Competition makes everyone’s game better. If the VW ID.4’s size, shape, and cost hit your sweet spots, go for it. For me, I’m waiting to see what ‘s coming next. I’ll be ready to move into an EV in about two years. I’ll keep you posted.
Until the day arrives when we are ferried to and fro in anonymous autonomous pods, THIS is the future of human-piloted automotive transportation.
After 48 hours, I didn’t want to give it back. My extended test-drive of a Polestar 2 began when I signed up for a 30-minute drive, and the return text message asked: “would you like to take the car home for the weekend?” (It helps to be good friends with a former colleague who is a Polestar exec.) I didn’t need to be asked twice. I drove up to Volvo/Polestar HQ in Mahwah NJ on Friday afternoon, left my Volvo V60 in the lot, and returned home in the “2”. Sunday afternoon I reversed the process, putting about 200 miles on the vehicle during my time with it.
Polestar is a name which has had an ongoing connection to Volvo since the first decade of this century. Starting as Polestar Racing, the company prepped modified Volvos for competition. By 2009, Polestar was the official performance outlet for production cars, analogous to Mercedes-Benz’s AMG or BMW’s Dinan. As Volvo grew under ownership of China-based Geely, Polestar was designated to serve as an upscale, breakout brand for hybrid and fully electric vehicles (EVs). The first Polestar-branded vehicle, Polestar 1, is a two-door hybrid, built in very limited numbers (see Sidebar). The next model to be released, and the first with some volume aspirations, is the Polestar 2, a five-door hatchback sedan.
It simply is not going to be possible to cover everything there is to say about this automobile. I’ve broken down my observations and comments as: the vehicle as an upscale brand, the vehicle as transportation, and the vehicle as an EV.
AS A BRAND
While the desire to project an image of Polestar as a notch above Volvo is understandable, the car has Volvo genes, and that’s a good thing. This isn’t some unknown startup launching its first-ever automobile. (It’s not been widely publicized, but Volvo has been working with EVs at the concept level for at least a decade.) It is comforting to think of this vehicle as “Volvo+”.
These attributes include quality, attractive minimalist (Scandinavian) design, and safety. An exterior walk-around assures the viewer that fit and finish are top-notch. Doors and front and rear lids open and close with authority. Interior components are well-trimmed and operate like precision machinery. It was very easy to find a comfortable seating position and adjust everything to the driver’s needs. Anyone who has spent any time behind the wheel of a late-model Volvo, or indeed any European luxury car will quickly feel right at home.
Volvo has owned “safety” for its entire time in the U.S. market, and although the competition keeps threatening to catch up, Volvo, and now Polestar, work at staying ahead of the pack. There are no optional safety features on the Polestar 2: a full suite of air bags, front and rear collision mitigation, run-off mitigation, cross traffic alert, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, 360 camera, and more, are all standard.
AS A CAR
Eric greeted me at the Polestar pod, informed me that he was expecting me, and told me that my car was ready. The model I was given had two major options: an all-leather interior upgrade, and the Performance Package. My car, finished in black (Polestar calls the color “Void”) was offset by an interior trimmed in gorgeous tan leather with birch-looking wood trim. The most eye-catching accents are the gold calipers (Brembo in front) and matching gold seatbelts. It’s just enough bling to let you know you’re in something special.
Controls were easy to find and intuitive to operate. I set the power seat and mirrors, and adjusted the wheel for reach and rake (it’s manual, which may irk some, but a power-adjustable steering column is overkill).
The vertically-oriented center screen uses large-font typeface and large icons, a boon for operating while driving. I didn’t want to be too distracted while driving a car that didn’t belong to me, but I was pleasantly surprised by its ease of use. Polestar uses Google as its screen Operating System, and once your phone is paired, using the various features (navigation, phone calls, plus any app that’s on your phone) is a snap. Voice commands were especially reliable (“Hey Google, navigate me to 777 MacArthur Boulevard in Mahwah New Jersey” was correctly understood on first try each time). This stuff is far from my area of expertise; I’m convinced that if this were my car, I’d learn a lot more about it the more time I spent with it.
There is no “ignition” – with key in proximity, once the driver is seated and belted, the gearshift can be moved from P into either R or D, and a tap on the accelerator (can’t say gas!) starts it rolling. At first, the quiet is eerie. Once you’re at or above 30 mph, tire noise is the predominant sound, but is not obtrusive. The car is so much quieter than an ICE vehicle, and it’s a quiet that you quickly accept, then appreciate.
The Performance Package concerned me, with its 20-inch wheels shod with Continental high-performance summer tires. I expected a harsh ride as a tradeoff for good handling. My concerns were assuaged within the first five minutes of driving. The suspension tuning provided both a quiet and comfortable ride along with rail-like handling.
Once I pulled out of the parking lot, with Nav set for “home”, I was on local roads for about 15 minutes before reaching the Interstate on-ramp. I rounded the curved ramp at about 35, and a quick glance in the mirrors showed that both middle and right lanes of the highway were empty. I said to myself ‘what the hell’, and floored it. The acceleration caught me by such surprise that I slammed the back of my head into the head restraint. The car jumped from about 35 to about 75 in 2.5 seconds. I have never experienced automotive acceleration like that in my life. The problem is it’s addictive: it happens so quickly and so quietly, with so little drama (aside from the self-induced headache) that you’re only discouraged from this behavior by its effect on battery life (and the threat of summonses).
Forward and side visibility are very good to excellent; to the rear, the fixed rear seat head restraints and blocky rear pillars limit your view (which is where the 360 mirror comes in handy). Braking is superb, but really deserves to be discussed as an EV-attribute.
Some final comments about styling: from the front, it looks like a mid-size 4-door car, although you will also notice it sits a little higher than a typical 2021 sedan (the matte black wheel-well trim provides an accent for its slightly higher ride height). From the rear, the hatchback is not obvious (the long sloping rear has become a styling cliché on late model sedans). Opening the hatch and folding the rear seat backs forward reveals a generous cargo hold that it limited only by its lack of a vertical tailgate.
Some of you may be thinking “sedans are dead; EVERYONE wants an SUV”. Yes, well, maybe most, but certainly not everyone. It’s time to bring up that T word for the first time (5 letters, ends in A, last name of electrical engineer Nikola, company founded by that guy Elon something….). If sedans are dead, how is Tesla doing so well with its Model 3 sedan, the best-selling EV vehicle in America? “Oh that’s different” you might say. How so? I don’t know Polestar’s future model aspirations, but I think the Polestar 2 neatly splits the difference between “sedan” and “SUV”.
AS AN EV
Aside from a 10-minute test drive in a BMW i3, and several rides in EVs (most recently, a long test-ride in a Mustang Mach-E), I have not driven a pure EV long enough to get some sense of what day-to-day living with one might encompass. I had that chance this weekend, and I am a convert.
Starting with the driving experience, the quiet, the acceleration, and yet the normalcy of cruising down the highway brings you to the understanding that it’s still a car, and as long as it’s a good car (which the Polestar 2 is), it could be your daily driver.
Earlier, I mentioned braking and said that my comments will fit better under the EV discussion. The “2” has adjustable regenerative braking. The screen calls it One Pedal Drive, and the 3 modes are “off”, “low”, and “standard” (which is full regenerative). When turned off, releasing the ‘go’ pedal will allow the car to coast for as long as momentum and gravity will let it, just like an ICE car. At “full”, the accelerator is like an on/off switch. As soon as it’s released, the car starts to slow down. If you’re at very low speeds, the car stops almost immediately; at higher speeds, it will roll for a few yards, but you’ll sense that the brakes have been applied. If this sounds weird, I gotta tell you: I got used to it in about 30 minutes. One pedal driving. It’s easy. It’s safer. It’s fantastic. I wish all my cars had it!
I tried the “low” mode and frankly didn’t see the point. It’s an unnecessary compromise. I suspect drivers will either get used to and enjoy “full” or will want it to be as much like an ICE car and turn it off. When you do need to quickly get on that brake pedal, those front Brembos haul this 4,700 lb mass to a stop quickly and quietly. Those batteries are heavy, but the car does not have a heavy feel when driving.
I was provided with charging cables for home use, both 120V and 240V. I do not have a 240 setup at home, so I plugged into a 120 outlet in my garage, snaked the cable under the garage door, and let it charge overnight. Admittedly, the battery was only 25% depleted when I started, but I had a full charge in the morning. I was told that at 120V, a full charge from 0 to 100% would take 24 hours. The 240V charge would happen much more quickly. Owning this vehicle would really require the one-time investment of a dedicated home charger – figure roughly a grand for that.
I cruised by two public charging stations, both within a 15-20 minute ride from my home. Spots were available, but I did not take the time to top off the battery. At one (Charge Point) juice can only be purchased if the app is downloaded to your phone. The other, Electrify America, offers the option of an app or will take a credit card at the charging station.
The following comments are true for all EVs, not just Polestars: not enough has been made of the savings in repair and maintenance costs. Starting from the moment of purchase, you will never need to be concerned with spark plugs, engine oil, oil filters, transmission or gear oil, oxygen sensors, charcoal canisters, exhaust systems, radiator coolant, belts, or hoses. There’s nothing to leak. I’m having a difficult time imagining what happens at a dealer service visit: check your tire pressure and fill your washer solvent bottle? Your “consumables” are reduced to tires, brakes, suspension bits like shocks and bushings, wiper blades, light bulbs (less and less of an issue with LEDs), and…what, THE BATTERY? By that time you’ll be trading in for a new one.
TO THE NAYSAYERS
I know that some of you, including friends and colleagues of mine, don’t agree that the advantages of an EV outweigh the disadvantages. Listen, I get it. You should drive what you want to drive. However, living with this Polestar 2 for 48 hours also brought me to the conclusion that many of the stated opinions why EVs won’t replace ICE cars are excuses. Let’s address some of the commonly-cited issues about EVs:
“Range is too short”
Three factors influence range: the size of the fuel tank (or for EV, energy supply, i.e., the battery); the fuel economy of the engine (for an EV, its ability to efficiently consume that energy as motive power); and finally, the driver’s influence (local vs highway driving, frequent stops, idling, heavy accelerator usage, etc.).
The range on the Polestar 2 with 100% battery is 230 miles. Some critics have knocked that as not up to Tesla standards, and it’s not. But how large a factor is that in the purchase decision? It’s never been for me; fuel economy, yes, but my earliest car purchases were vehicles with 10-gallon tanks, so 30MPG still only netted a range of 300 miles, and that’s if I drove it dry, which I never did. Realistic range was 250-275 miles (and that’s what it is in my Miata, also with a 10-gallon tank).
Committing to a purchase of an EV, I now realize, requires a mental shift and a mindset change. Some planning ahead will help ensure that you’ll get there and back. You do the same thing now with gasoline: if you’re leaving early in the a.m. on a 300-mile trip, you’ll likely fill up the evening before. Why wouldn’t you do the same with an EV? Yes, with an ICE, you’ll always find gas stations to refuel, no waiting. The Polestar 2 has tools to overcome “range anxiety”.
“Range anxiety means I’m nervous about venturing far from home”
Google Maps very happily responds to the voice command “Hey Google, where are the nearest charging stations?” by displaying a list of EV chargers within sight on the map. Amazingly to me, this list includes information about the total number of chargers at the site, and how many are presently occupied.
Wouldn’t that be neat to do for the local Exxon station? “Hey Google, how many Exxon stations are nearby?” and you not only get a map of them, you see that “Ed’s Exxon” has 6 pumps, and 4 are being used at present.
“Ha!” You laugh at this notion. “Who needs that? There’s never a wait at a gas station!”
I’m convinced you have short memories. Many of you were driving in 1979, when we had our 2nd fuel crisis of the decade, with OPEC turning off the taps, leading to oil shortages, and eventually, rationing. At that time, I was making an 80-mile round-trip to work, and I could only purchase fuel on “even days” based on my license plate. I could do no extra driving outside of my commute during the week. In 1979, I had range anxiety, although we didn’t call it that.
How stable is the Middle East today compared to 40 years ago? Let’s see: Iran’s nuclear buildup, the wobbly Iraqi government, civil unrest in Syria, the Khashoggi murder by Saudi Arabia; I guess we can expect unlimited oil supplies to continue from the region …. The truth is we don’t know what could happen in one, five, or ten years down the road. I would not bet against another large price jump or oil shortage.
“I can’t charge my car if there’s a power failure”
This is very true. Actually, there are a lot of things you can’t do if there’s a power failure. At my house, loss of power means we can’t charge our phones, keep our refrigerated food cold, wash dishes, take showers, flush toilets, light up rooms after sundown, use the microwave, or watch TV. The last time we had a lengthy, large scale power outage was during Superstorm Sandy in 2011, when the neighborhood lost power for four days. At least we weren’t alone in our misery: a quarter-mile away from me is a Shell gas station. They lost power too. You know what they couldn’t do?
They couldn’t pump gasoline.
“I can’t fill up my car with gas if there’s a power failure”. What WE did, based on the forecast, was fill both cars before the storm arrived. Then we didn’t go anywhere anyway. True, we don’t always know when the power will go out. But if I had an EV and we were expecting a major outage, I’d top up. And probably not go anywhere anyway.
“I’ll miss that incredible thrust from that massive V-8”
Anyone who says that has not driven an EV like the Polestar 2 with its instantaneous 487 lb-ft of torque. End of that discussion.
NITS TO PICK
Trying my best to be objective, there is nothing I found that would be a deal-breaker if I were in the market for an EV in this price range. Like so many other vehicles today, the exterior and interior color palette is limited. To my eye, the “2” looks better in lighter colors. I wish there were interior options between the basic grey/black synthetic and the full-zoot tan leather. My V60 has power-folding rear seat head restraints; I miss them here only because I have them already. The buttons on the side of the little black key fob are ridiculously small for my old eyes (yet admittedly I didn’t need to touch them once). That’s all I can think of.
HOW DOES IT COMPARE?
I would spec it out in white with the tan leather (I would spring for the upscale interior and skip the $5,000 Performance Package). All Polestars are eligible for the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit. $59,900 plus destination, metallic paint, and leather interior, minus the credit, puts me right at $59,000. Don’t forget to factor in the fuel and maintenance savings.
I’m hard pressed to think of another $60,000 sedan, ICE or EV, that beats this car in equipment, safety, driving dynamics, and environmental care. Teslas have their advantages, including a dedicated charging network, and extensive range. The Model 3 is smaller and has less equipment than the “2”. The Model S is closer in size, yet is priced starting at $10,000 above the “2”, is no longer eligible for any Federal Tax Credit (no Tesla is), and have you seen that yoke of a wheel? How is that thing even legal? A close competitor might be the Volvo S90; I’d hate to suggest that Polestar would cannibalize its own sibling, and the choice might come down to preferences over things like colors and motive power.
When I was checking out one of the charging stations, a guy in a pickup truck stopped and yelled out the window: “Nice car! What is it?” When I responded “a Polestar”, he asked “where do I get one?” I told him NYC. Hope I made a sale.
SIDEBAR: THE POLESTAR 1
There were seven of these beauties lined up in the same lot where I picked up my loaner. This was my first time seeing this car in person. It’s lower than I expected; at first glance, I called it the “Swedish Camaro” – it has that pony car stance.
On closer examination, I began to see hints of the P1800 coupe from the 1960s. Make note of the jutting grille and the sweep of the roof’s rear pillar. The taillights are current Volvo design language. Hoping for a drive in one of these on my next visit.
It turned out to be an eventful year, 2009, which in retrospect was no surprise at all. It started with me (again) telling my bosses at Volvo that I had every intention of taking voluntary retirement in December, to which they continued to react with disbelief. My recent promotion to Manager of Technical Engineering kept me busy, and my own work ethic wanted to ensure that I would depart without leaving unfinished assignments for others to clean up. I was informed that there would be at least one more business trip to Sweden, likely my last. Finally, I would be turning 55 in March, not a major milestone in my mind, but one that still deserved some reckoning.
I still had the ’68 Mustang, and I still had the Isetta, both tucked safely away in the garage. I had toyed with the idea of selling the Isetta, and even ran a few print ads, which got zero response. Since participation in the New England 1000 classic car rally seemed to be on hiatus for now (we last drove in it in 2007, and wouldn’t again until 2013), I continued to search for new opportunities to show the Isetta. The first such opportunity of the year came about when I saw an ad for the Readington Township Memorial Day parade: the parade organizers were looking for “old cars”.
My entry was accepted, and we trailered the car to the assembly area, a local strip mall. (In fact, we live in Readington Township which is quite large. I considered driving the car there but it would have meant crossing several major thoroughfares.) The variety of vehicles in the parade confirmed for me that there were no limits to vehicle type, as long as the cars were “old”. Volunteers handed us the obligatory red, white & blue accoutrements, and we were off.
The challenge with driving an old car in a parade is maintaining an appropriate speed. Too fast, and you’ll zoom by spectators who’ll barely get to see their reflections in your shiny chrome. Too slow, and you might overheat, or, if you’re driving a stick, you may find yourself slipping the clutch. This parade was S-L-O-W. I had trouble maintaining a steady pace of, oh, about 2.5 mph. More than once I would pop it into neutral and coast, even if that meant leaving a greater distance between my car and the car in front of me. Nevertheless, it was a delightful parade, with Main Street lined with the cheering residents of Readington. The tortoise-like pace, though, bored me, until I got the bright idea to throw the door open while driving. The car can still be steered, however, the door opens both outward AND upward, which blocked my forward view. It was worth it, though, because the crowd (ok, just the kids) went wild with screams and laughter every time I did that.
Later that summer, I dragged the little red bubble to the Boonton Cruise Night, a Friday tradition in northern NJ. Boonton’s affair is possibly typical for a suburban cruise night, set in the large parking lot of a strip mall anchored by a WalMart, so there’s plenty of regular traffic along with that generated by the car nuts. A pizzeria kept us nourished with food and caffeine, and a few friends showed up. This September outing was the second and final one for the Isetta in 2009. In December, as promised, I retired from Volvo Cars of North America after 23 years of employment. I had no idea what I would do in 2010, but I certainly hoped to have more free time to play with cars.
The last official day of summer turned out to be a near-perfect day for a breakfast drive. Pre-dawn, the air remained cool enough for a light jacket; once ol’ Sol broke above the horizon, or in our case, over the Mahwah Sheraton, the air temp quickly climbed and didn’t stop climbing until reaching the 80s.
Eleven gentlemen in nine different vehicles made the trek on the 22nd. Six of the nine rides wore German badges (I was surprised the group didn’t demand knockwurst and potato pancakes for breakfast). However, it’s a genial bunch, and we heard nary a complaint about our chosen destination, the Hampton Diner in Newton NJ.
We set out from the Sheraton at about 8:35am, with Larry leading the way in his Nova. It was a glorious drive through northern Jersey, dipping into then out of New York State. A planned pit stop was undertaken at a BP gas station in Vernon NJ. To everyone’s surprise, Bill’s Porsche did NOT need fuel, but more than a few of us took advantage of the restroom facility. One patch of rough road brought our speed down to below 30mph for a bit, but all the cars escaped unscathed.
We reached the Diner just before 10:30am, were immediately served coffee, and got our breakfast plates not long after. Thanks goes out to our young waiter who seemed to have a pot of hot java available for refills at a moment’s notice.
As is our habit, the conversations continued out into the parking lot, and it was past noon by the time the final vehicles began the return trip home. While tomorrow may be the first day of autumn, that should still give us ample time to fit in one (or two) more breakfast runs this year.
It’s been 10 years or more since the Sunday Morning Breakfast Drives started; my partner-in-crime Larry and I have been spearheading the events for at least the last 6 or 7 years; and the format is almost always the same: rendezvous at the Sheraton Hotel in Mahwah NJ; drive a pre-planned route, with all our vehicles following each other; and arrive at a breakfast joint for food and coffee.
However, we’re always looking for ways to mix things up for our little group, so we decided to try something different this time out. We opted for our own “cars & coffee” type of gathering, in lieu of an actual drive along scenic country roads. So while our participants had to drive to get to today’s destination, The Fireplace Restaurant on Route 17 in Paramus NJ, there was no caravan per se. For consistency though, I still used the word “drive” in the subject line.
A dozen or so cars arrived promptly at 8am in The Fireplace’s parking lot, and as is our wont, we chatty men loitered and gabbed for about 20 minutes before Larry yelled “hey, let’s get some breakfast before it gets too crowded in there!” I confess, one aspect of The Fireplace that I enjoy is that it’s each person on his own for ordering and paying. The usual gig at a diner is for the bill to come to me, and after I’ve calculated the tip and grand total, I’m collecting money from 20 heads. The Fireplace affords me the chance to forego that responsibility.
After a hearty breakfast, we headed outside to admire the hardware. It’s been a hot summer in NJ, and today was not any different. The temperature differential between 8am and 10am was noticeable, but that did not dissuade us from checking out each other’s rides. Several of our regulars arrived in vehicles we’ve not seen before: Julio in his very original Dodge pickup, and Sal in his “I just bought it yesterday” Alfa spider.
We heard no complaints about lack of a tour, and everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, the cars, and the camaraderie. By 11am or so, the group started to break up and head back, which points out another wonderful aspect of our Sunday runs: most of us are home by early afternoon, leaving the rest of the day free for whatever occupies one’s time on a hot sunny August Sunday. Larry and I promised each other that we’ll get another event on the calendar ASAP.
Our second Sunday morning breakfast run of the year was held on June 9, 2019, starting as always at the Crossroads Sheraton Hotel in Mahwah NJ. The assembled group consisted of 12 people in 10 cars. Our eclectic collection included Chevys, Porsches, Miatas, a BMW, an Alfa, a VW, and a Buick. This time, we headed south, with the Readington Diner in Whitehouse Station NJ as our destination. We pushed off at 8:35 am, but not every vehicle was destined to make it to the diner…..
The Buick, a ’67 Skylark convertible driven by our friend Ralph, had engine trouble on the way. This was unbeknownst to me in the lead car, but I learned later that billows of smoke were wafting from the engine compartment. Ralph quickly got to the shoulder of the highway, and just as quickly, 3 of our other drivers stopped with offers of assistance. A peek into the engine compartment revealed a connecting rod (connects the crankshaft to the piston) extending itself through an aperture in the side of the engine block where previously there had not been an aperture. This is colloquially known as a “blown engine”, and cannot be fixed with Gorilla Glue. Sadly, Ralph missed breakfast.
While Ralph waited for the flat bed tow truck, one driver who stopped needed to return home, and the other two, having long lost our caravan, found their own way to the diner. In the meantime, a dawdler who had missed our departure came rushing down the same highway, saw the blown Buick, stopped for a brief chat, then continued to the eatery. Yet another driver, residing well south of our destination, came up on his own and met us there. So we still ended up with 12 at the breakfast table!
The wait staff at the Readington Diner was outstanding as always; those of us who require morning caffeine were never without hot java. With bellies full of food and beverage, we meandered back into the parking lot, admired each others’ cars, then headed home to enjoy the remainder of what was certainly one of the most weather-perfect Sundays we’ve seen in the Northeast this year.
We plan to do this again soon. We also hope that Ralph can get his car fixed, because we like Ralph, and want him to be able to enjoy breakfast with us next time.
The members of the New Jersey Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) again provided a number of antique and classic cars to participate in the Hillsborough NJ Memorial Day parade, held this year on Saturday May 25, 2019. This was my third consecutive year in the parade, as it’s local to me. (You can read about the 2017 and 2018 events at the underlined links.)
The splendid late May weather helped produce an excellent turnout for the club, with over 20 vehicles participating. The event chairperson, Bob Hudak, encouraged non-AACA members to also drive with us, as long as the vehicles were 25 years old or older. Several pre-war cars, including a 1929 LaSalle, a 1935 Packard, a 1939 Ford, and a 1940 Buick showed up. Orphan marques Hudson and DeSoto were there, as was good ol’ American muscle, amply represented by a 1966 Corvette 427 (still with its original owner). A new club member brought his pristine 1959 Ford 2-door sedan. And like last year, I was again the only driver with a non-domestic vehicle.
The parade started moving precisely at 10:30 a.m., and seemed to snake along more slowly than in previous years. Hillsborough is a diverse town, and I have always enjoyed taking in this true slice of modern America: people of all ages, races, and genders wearing and waving the red white & blue, cheering us on as we slowly inched past. I’ve also noticed, as you can see in the photos, that once a camera is pointed at them, most people love to smile and wave!
This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend a day with my good friend “Pete”, the fellow who sold me my Alfa Romeo after his 45-year stint with it. Pete has always had an eclectic collection of older and newer special-interest cars, and one of the oldest in his ever-changing fleet is his 1936 Oldsmobile L-36 convertible, with an inline eight-cylinder engine. During this most recent visit, I finally got the chance to drive it.
First, a history lesson: in the 1930s, General Motors’ car marques consisted of more than just the five that may come to mind. Besides Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac, there were Marquette, Oakland, and LaSalle. Marquette, Buick’s junior division, was dead and gone after 1930, and Oakland survived only one year longer than that. LaSalle, Cadillac’s sister division, produced its last car in 1940. Even in the 1930s, GM priced its cars in a very careful step-by-step fashion.
Omitting the low and high outliers Chevrolet and Cadillac, if you were shopping for a mid-priced GM convertible in 1936, you had no fewer than these 8 different models from which to choose:
Master Silver Streak cabriolet
inline-6, 80 hp
inline-6, 90 hp
DeLuxe Silver Streak cabriolet
inline-6, 80 hp
DeLuxe 8 Silver Streak cabriolet
inline-8, 87 hp
Series 40 Special convertible
inline-8, 93 hp
inline-8, 100 hp
Series 60 Century convertible
inline-8, 120 hp
Series 50 convertible
inline-8, 105 hp
The chart is arranged in price order, low to high. First note, not surprisingly, that the six-cylinder models all fall to the bottom of the range. The least-expensive 8-cylinder is the most expensive of the three Pontiacs. Don’t downplay the inclusion of “wheelbase” in this data: a vehicle’s wheelbase, and hence overall length, contributed mightily to its visual statement as a luxury item. The 4 straight-eight GM convertibles pricier than the Pontiac 8 have wheelbases 2-to-6 inches longer than Pontiac’s 116”, and engine output figures which are 5-to-33 horsepower above Pontiac’s meager 87.
The savvy buyer who might have compared the two Buicks, the Olds, and the LaSalle eights may have realized that for just $30 more than the “junior Buick”, s/he could get an Olds with a 3-inch longer wheelbase, and 7 more ponies to pull that extra length. The next choice in this price hierarchy, the “senior” Buick (admittedly with a big power jump) cost over 20% more. In this light, the Olds L-36 appears to be a smart choice.
Actual sales figures bear this out. According to my copy of the “Encyclopedia of American Cars”, Buick sold only 766 Series 60 Century convertibles, while Oldsmobile sold 931 L-36 convertibles. What does this prove? Only that the original purchaser of Pete’s ’36 did their homework, and would likely be shocked to know that the car was still around 83 years later.
Regarding my time behind the wheel, the driving experience was sublime. That straight-8 has torque to spare, so shifting the 3-speed gearbox (with lever on the floor) could be conducted at a leisurely pace. First gear is almost a granny gear. At one stop sign, facing downhill, I started in 2nd, with no complaints from engine or clutch. I found that I could comfortably put it into top gear by the time I reached 20 mph, and acceleration was always smooth and velvety, if a bit unhurried compared to modern metal.
But when you’re cruising in a ’36 Olds convertible, what’s the rush? The heavy steering requires that you take your time in turns anyway. Actually, after a few lefts and rights, I got the hang of it. Just think about the turn 100 feet or so before reaching it, begin to dial in some lock, and point that long nose in the general direction you’d like to head. It’s easy, really.
All the pedals, extending through the floor just like the Alfa, had good feel. The brakes brought the car to stop without drama, at least from 30 mph (my max speed for the day). The clutch exhibited no signs of chatter or slipping, and shifting was smooth on the all-synchromesh box. (Pete caught me double-clutching my first shift and said “you don’t need to do that!”) Visibility out the front was very good, but out the rear was inhibited by the small opera window in the erect cloth top.
The odometer on this car reads 60,000 miles, which is nothing for a car this age, but perhaps a significant number for a car of this configuration. And back to that production total of 931: how many have survived? First, these are convertibles, which reduces their lifespan (theft, water damage, rust). Second, by the time this car was 20 years old, the modern V-8 engined car, with its attendant power steering, brakes, windows, etc., would have made this ’36 look like the dinosaur it was. And last, as sad as it is to acknowledge this, those in the collector car hobby have been eyeing Fords, Chevrolets, and “true luxury” nameplates like Packard and Auburn. Oldsmobiles were not on most hobbyists’ radar. Taken together, all of these factors make this one rare bird. I’d guesstimate that there might be a few dozen 1936 L-36 convertibles out there, and many fewer that look and drive as good as this one.
This particular jewel of the motor car deserves to be kept in the loving condition it’s in, with occasional maintenance use to keep it fresh. I’ve already volunteered to be available for future test drives in order to accomplish just that.
This particular vehicle is for sale by its owner. Please contact me directly if you are interested, or might know of someone who is.
The New Jersey Chapter of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club (AROC), under the able leadership of Chapter President Enrico Ciabattoni, held its first event of 2019 by organizing a luncheon on Saturday April 13. Our hosts were the fine folks at Driving Impressions, a Dover N.J.-based business which sells racing accessories in the front, and has ample garage space out back.
We had a small but enthusiastic turnout of about a dozen, consisting of a mix of AROC-NJ members with some local friends. The lunch (Italian food, whaddya expect?) was grand, but we were really there to get together to talk about our #1 passion, cars. There was lots to talk about, starting with the cars on either side of the lunch table. The service bays were occupied by Italian cars OTHER than Alfas, and there were interesting non-Italian toys too.
One corner of the garage is rented to a tech who specializes in Porsches. A 928 with its drivetrain removed was high up in the air, and next to it, on the ground, was a 356 coupe which appeared to be in original condition. It actually gave off the vibe of one of those barn-find 356s I’ve seen at auctions that hammer for 300 large.
Three Italian cars competed for my attention: a current-generation Fiat 500, with turbo and other goodies under the hood, claimed to be the fastest 500 on earth (based on a magazine article I was shown, so it must be true); a Fiat 600, with its cheeky water-cooled four-banger out back, appeared to be in the throes of major reconstruction; and a Lancia Delta Integrale, all ‘80s squared-off inside and out, lounged in the corner, looking like it was daring the turbo 500 to a duel.
A quick peek outside revealed the 3 classic Alfas which dared make today’s drive. It stayed warm and dry, so it was an ideal day to cruise in our classics. Alas, no modern Giulias or Stelvios made the trip.
With the AROC National in Pittsburgh fast approaching in July, there was some discussion among the Alfisti about who was attending, who was driving there, and who might want to caravan. Your author has volunteered to lead the caravan; now I just need someone to agree to join it.
The first breakfast drive of 2019 was held on Sunday April 14, 2019, and while the weatherman and weatherwomen of the greater NY Metro area may have earlier tried to dissuade us, their forecast eventually pushed the predicted rain back into the latter part of the day. We made the go/no go decision on Friday, and the Sunday skies were bluer and air temperature warmer than expected.
We Alfisti almost got away with turning this into an Italian breakfast run, as the first 3 cars to show were all from the fabled Milanese marque. But diversity ruled the day, with one Japanese car (Miata), one domestic vehicle (Nova), and 6 German machines (3 Porsches, 2 BMWs, and a VW GTi) in attendance.
After a long winter’s hibernation, it was great to see so many familiar and friendly faces. We pushed off from the Sheraton Crossroads parking lot at 8:30am sharp. Eleven cars, 15 hungry car-centric folk, and a scenic one-hour drive along Greenwood Lake had us at the Empire Diner in Monroe NY by 9:30 am.
The friendly staff at the Empire had tables ready for us, and we were ably attended to by two of the diner’s finest waitresses. As usual, we lingered long after plates were cleared and 6th refills of coffee were served. Car guys never seem to run out of things to talk about. We found our way back to the parking lot, said our goodbyes one last time, and as always, promised each other to do this again as soon as practical.
Our Sunday morning breakfast runs have taken on a life of their own. As your humble scribe glanced around the breakfast table, he saw former colleagues he has known for 30 years, and also saw fellow diners who have just recently become “regulars” because they were recommended to us. The group makeup is certainly not limited to “old friends”. We had cars from the ‘60s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and the 21st century in the lot. It’s not about whose car is the fastest, or shiniest, or priciest. We’re all passionate about our four-wheeled modes of transportation. It’s not about anything but a chance to spend an all-too-brief few hours with each other, driving together and dining together, doing what friends do, which is sharing our lives with each other.