The Brakes

I replaced the rear brakes on my car at the end of last week. It’s been a long-standing issue that I’ve been waiting to fix for a little while now, and once you can hear the brakes working, it’s generally a good indication that things need to be replaced. There’s been a bunch of things that have gone wrong with my car since I’ve owned it, ranging from the more serious (transmission failure) to the incredibly minor, (windshield wipers needing replacement).

When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve opted to fix things myself. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it’s much, much cheaper. The estimated cost of brake replacement for the Mini was somewhere in the $300-$350 range. That’s doable, but it takes a huge chunk of cash away from me. Fixing the brakes myself does more than save me money, however; it gives me some time learning just how my car works. Pulling the tire away gives me a good view of the suspension, and while I’m unscrewing or removing something, it gives me some time to actually examine how this works. It also gives me a bit more ownership of the car, making it a bit more my pride and joy, in a way.

Still, waiting to do the brakes, while possibly not the smartest thing to do, has imparted me with some lessons that have affected my driving habits. Coupled with the mindset of trying to save gas, I’ve come to change my driving habits in a way that makes me a better driver overall, I think. At the very least, it’s gotten me thinking about how I’m driving, which few people seem to be able to do.

With the brakes going, I’ve learned better how to avoid using them. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t use them, but used them more sparingly, and drove in a way that meant that I didn’t have to use them to the extent that I did. This means driving at a bit of a slower pace in traffic, giving myself more space between myself and the car ahead of me. Instead, I’d coast, downshift the car and take my foot off the gas, which helps bring down the car’s fuel consumption a bit.

And it’s worked – driving carefully, I’ve noticed a slight uptick in my car’s fuel mileage, which is good, but I’ve also been a better driver around people. In doing so, I’ve noticed other bad habits that I’ve seen people doing – braking constantly, riding their brakes, tailgating other cars, braking while going uphill and not paying attention to the road through a variety of means.

While I’ve taken ownership of my car and responsibility for its maintenance, I’ve found that I’ve become more interested in the road and my own driving habits. Hopefully, with fuel at high prices and people watching where they put their money, they will do the same things.

The Mighty Mini: 50 Years and Counting

Fifty years ago today, in 1959, a car arrived that changed the face of motoring, with the unveiling of the Austin 7 (sometimes as Austin SE7EN) and the Morris Minor, best known as the Mini. In that half-century, the Mini has become a popular icon in today’s culture, and was ranked by car experts just behind Ford’s Model T in terms of overall influence to the motor industry.

The Mini got its start initially with the Suez Crisis, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, restricting traffic and prompting military action from Britain and France. The canal was shut down, and as a consequence, fuel prices in Great Britain rose dramatically. The British Motor Corporation (BMC) chairman, Leonard Lord, asked designer Alexander Issigonis to design a small car as soon as possible. The events of the Suez Crisis only underscored the need for such a vehicle, as it was becoming apparent that larger cars that used more fuel could become very impractical in the country.

The car had only one specification: a preexisting motor had to be used, in order to cut down on costs. Issigonis opted for several other requirements: the car had to be no longer than ten feet long, four feet high, requiring the designer to maximize space inside for passengers to be comfortable. This prompted several innovations that are now widespread in the industry. The engine was mounted sideways, in the front, which allowed for the driver and passenger in front to be as far forward as possible. The wheels were in the corners of the car, and because of the size and weight, it could go rather fast – new tires had to be designed for the vehicle. The trunk could be loaded with the tailgate down for more space. The result was a car that was small, fast, minimal and above all, fairly cheap.

Just after it’s release on August 26th, 1959, the Mini’s sales were, well, mini. The car didn’t do very well in the market, with fairly slow sales, against the larger, more flashy cars from the United States, and consumers at the time saw a small car for a very small price, and because of that, were wary of the quality of the car, as well as its very basic approach to things. (The original cars didn’t have radios, rollup windows or other things that Issigonis felt distracted from driving).

However, sales began to pick up when icons in popular culture began to buy the car. Members of the Royal family bought the Mini, as well as pop stars such as members of the Beatles and so forth. Between 1959 and 1960, production went from just under 20,000 vehicles to over 100,000, and sales increased from there. In 1961, racing car designer John Cooper collaborated with Issigonis and came up with the Mini Cooper, a racing version of the car, to much success, and a Mini Cooper S version was created in 1963.

Another element of visibility for the little car was its performance in some of the bigger races, beginning in 1963, and in 1964, with Paddy Hopkirk’s victory at the Monte Carlo rally. (Incidentally, the British television show Top Gear refurbished Hopkirk’s Mini Cooper S as part of a phone in vote, Restoration Ripoff a couple years ago, which speaks to the popular nature of the car.) The Mini became a contender in the racing world after that point, with its agility and speed. Top Gear did a short video on the history of British Touring Car Racing (BTC), which you can see here.

The Mini had made it’s mark, and the BMC continued the car by expanding its brand in a way that really hasn’t been seen with a number of other cars. In 1969, the Mini Clubman was introduced, a longer version of the Mini, while its height and wheel base remained the same. By this point, the original Mini had sold over a million units, and by 1975, it had surpassed three million units. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the original version was updated a couple more times, and several additional variations were introduced, such as the Mini Van, the Moke and the Estate, but none had the lasting appeal of the original Mini.

The Mini was built through the 1990s, when it was phased out in the year 2000. In 2001, BMW brought back the Mini under the moniker, MINI, with a Mini One, Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S, to great success. In the years since, the company has reintroduced the Mini Clubman, and today, on its 50th birthday, unveiled a Mini Coupe Concept, which you can see here. There is an additional version in the works, set to be released sometime next year, called the Mini Countryman or Crossover.

In 1969 the Mini Cooper’s enduring influence in popular culture was further cemented with the release of The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward. The film is centered around a gold heist by a group of thieves, who use a trio of Mini Coopers as an integral part of the heist. The cars were the true stars of the film, with one of the best car chases that I’ve ever seen. The cars were used once again in the movie The Bourne Identity, with another exciting car chase. With the introduction of the new Mini Cooper to the public, a remake of The Italian Job, featuring the updated Mini Coopers, was released in 2003, and was the highest grossing film for Paramount Pictures in that year. Once again, the Mini Coopers were the stars of the film. A Rebel Without Pause, a short film done by BMW looks into the popular culture aspect of the Mini.

This is where I was introduced to the Mini Cooper, and I remember pretty clearly when I first fell in love with the car. I was in my 3rd or 4th year of working at YMCA Camp Abnaki, and on a weekend trip, I caught a ride in with a group to the theaters, where I saw the Italian Job. The Minis were spunky, quirky and fast, very different than the car that you see every day. I remember thinking: I want one of those cars. Over the next couple of years, I looked at them off and on, until last fall, when I somehow got onto a website selling them, jotted down figures and decided that I could afford a new car to replace my other one. Things were starting to go wrong with that one, and the time was good. I went out and after test-driving a couple, I found my own one, and bought it that weekend, learning to drive a manual transmission along the way.

One of the things that I’m most impressed with, looking over the history of the Mini, is the appeal to popular culture that the car has endured over the years. It has been part of movies, of celebrities and races, and it turns heads where ever it goes. The interesting thing that I see is that Mini has become a brand, something that hasn’t really been done with a number of cars. There is an enduring Mini-look that is easily adapted to other vehicles, such as the Clubman, the Countryman, Traveler, pickup, Cooper, etc. This helped with the re-launch of the brand, which has made it so popular in recent years. When I drive along, I see other Mini drivers who wave, and the like, which is something that the company has capitalized on with their marketing, and far beyond just building a car, have built an entire community of people who have something in common. That sounds a bit dopey, honestly, but it’s true – I’ve never felt any sort of connection to fellow Chevy Prism or Toyota Camry owners, that I have with the Mini.

I absolutely love my car, as I’ve written about before. The entire experience of driving it differs from anything that I’ve driven before, and I often will break out into a grin when I’m driving along. I love throwing Maxine into corners at speed, accelerating along straits and simply enjoying owning a car. I don’t believe that a car should be boring, or simply just to go from point A to B during commutes. That just seems dull, and that just seems like a waste.

Happy Birthday Mini. Here’s to another 50 years.

Rant: Montpelier Drivers

I love driving. I love it a lot, despite the slightly more frequent fuel ups – it’s about $30 to fill up my car – and the annoying price of insurance in Vermont with my type of car. However, there are elements to driving that I’m not thrilled with, namely, other drivers from Montpelier, VT.

As a population, they need a re-education when it comes to driving their eco-boxes (As Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear and the UK Times calls the Prius and other hybrids). The amount of problems that I’ve come across lately is just annoying, and while I don’t know if it’s just Montpelier drivers, I do know that it’s incredibly annoying.

  • While entering traffic, please look both ways before just driving into a lane. While there might be a small gap, you’re most likely crap at figuring out the timing that’s required to enter that gap. Most likely, it’s not big enough.
  • Turn Signals are used to indicate when you’re changing direction, entering a new lane or a new street. Slowing down to five miles per hour a hundred feet from where you’re going to turn just pisses off the driver behind you.
  • There is a posted speed limit in Montpelier. Within the town, it’s 25 MPH. Stick to that, because the people behind you have places to be.
  • Plan ahead and know where you’re going. Don’t slow down and turn on your turn signal every intersection because your girlfriend thinks this street might be the right one. Don’t even think about waving your hand around in a WTF gesture when I honk at you.
  • When at a stop light, please keep an eye on the signal to see when it turns green. When it turns green, go, especially when there is a line behind you.
  • If said signal is a red, you’re intending on turning right and there is no cars coming at all, please take a right on red. It’ll keep traffic moving.

I much prefer driving on B roads than I do in the city, although larger cities are fun to drive in. While in a city, what I’ve found is that there’s a couple of priorities that drivers should take – safety of their own person and vehicle, safety of the others around them, and to ensure that traffic flows smoothly as a unit. You’re not the only person on the road, you’re surrounded by other people, and any actions that you take will inevitably cause reactions down the road, such as stopping suddenly, not starting off, or being efficient with your driving habits.

The Best Driving Road in Vermont

Yesterday, I left work early to go to a talk by P.W. Singer at Middlebury College, about the book that I just reviewed, Wired for War. It was a fascinating talk, but it didn’t really tell me anything new from the book.

However, the talk was in Middlebury, in Western Vermont, where I’ve only been a couple of times, and to get there, I had to do a bit of driving. Ever since I got Maxine, I’ve been wanting to really drive her, and that’s precisely what I got to do. (One thing though – don’t buy magnetic stripes for a car. I hit 50 mph and they flew right off. Bah!)

About ten thousand years ago, there was a global ice age that covered much of North America in a mile-thick ice sheet. This sheet ground over the state, shaping the surface to what we have today, and forcing the crust down. It’s still rebounding, at about an inch a year, if memory serves. Central Vermont in particular still retains a memory of this. Valleys, running from north to south, held huge swaths of ice that would later become glacial lakes as the earth heated up and melted back the ice. As the ice sheets melted, sediment was dropped, and ice jams kept these lakes in place until more melting occurred.

That’s what’s happened with the route between Montpelier, Northfield and Moretown and Middlebury. To get from point A to point B, I went up Route 100B. Because my directions from Google Maps were abysmal, I went with the vague knowledge that I have of the area and continued down Rt. 100, through Waitsfield and into Warren. Past Warren is Granville, a tiny town that seems to have been squeezed between two sets of mountains. Looking at a topographic map, one can see the lines get closer together, and as you enter this area, the mountains loom steeply on either side, and close together, while a river borders one side of the road.
This is the best place to drive that I’ve been to thus far.

The road is narrow, and curves around in a number of very sharp turns as the road meanders through this pass. Ten thousand years ago, it was the floodgates of a glacial lake, which in turn carved a path through as the ice melted. Driving past the trees, I can imagine the force of the water going through there. Large boulders litter the sides of the roads, and at points, it feels like you are driving through a canyon.

In Maxine, this was a joy to travel through. I’m a big fan of the British automotive magazine show Top Gear, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, where they have extolled the virtues of European automobiles while denouncing American made cars. One particular complaint that I remember from them is that American cars can’t go round corners without problems, i.e. crashing. While on this ten or so mile stretch of winding corners, I found that my MINI could pull some impressive speeds over the speed limit. Maxine held her own wonderfully, being fairly low to the ground and wheels out to the corners. I never felt her slip or misstep once, and fortunately, the one car that I came across was going around the same speeds as I was.

It wasn’t the speed that I was thrilled with, although that made the ride exciting. (And, I did make sure that I was well within my limits) It was the curves, which really allowed me to test out the maneuverability and my own skills at turning around corners. This is something that I would have never dreamed of doing in my old Chevy Prism, which would have had to go far slower and would have likely gone off in the ditch if I’d driven like that. I do, in the future, need to remember to actually put away my CDs and not have anything in the passenger seat when I do this again.

One out of Granville, I reached the town of Hancock, which I had never heard of prior to today. From there, I turned onto Rt. 125, which the signs indicated led to East Middlebury, and recognizing a town name, I turned right, and found another stretch of curvy roads that went up and over Middlebury Gap. Overtaking a large truck, I followed someone in a Honda Fit, which handled the corners just as good as I, and we shot down the mountain. This drive was particularly nice, as it passed right through the Green Mountain National Forest, and through Breadloaf, Ripton and East Middlebury, all along this road, which was marked as scenic, which I can completely believe, driving along it. The only problem along this stretch was the sheer number of bumps from the frost heaves.

I reached Middlebury for the talk (I was running late, arriving about a half-hour after the talk started) got my book signed, and went back off, thinking that I would travel up to Burlington and back down, as it was falling dark. Driving up Rt. 7 from Middlebury and over to Rt. 116, where I remembered that I could go from Bristol to Waitsfield over the Appalachian Gap on Rt. 17. This is where the drive got interesting. As a child, my Grandparents lived in Lincoln, and to get there, we would travel over this route, which featured a road that twisted and turned far more than the Granville section. Maxine’s tires squealed around the corners, and I almost hit a guard rail at one section (thank god for snow banks, which only filled my front tire with snow). In daylight hours, and when there will be no snow on the ground in June, this will likely be a fantastic drive that will really put Max to the test. The top of the mountain features a small parking lot at an intersection of the Long trail, and it provides a fantastic view of both sides of the state, all the way to Lake Champlain on clear days. The way down is even better, with the same curves down past Mad River Glen and back into Waitsfield, closing this fantastic section of driving.

I honestly can’t wait to retrace my steps when the roads dry out and smooth down a bit, because this was an exciting drive through the Vermont countryside, something that I’ve been meaning to do ever since I first drove Maxine home. That particular section of Vermont is very beautiful, and there are several sites in the region with historical value (Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point) that I’m intending on visiting again. When I do, I know just how I’ll get there.

You've got a sweet ride now, Charlie!

It’s been 4 or so weeks since I first test-drove and then purchased my Mini. During that time, the new-car smell has gone away, I’ve learned what all the buttons do and I still have a working clutch for the thing.

I love this car. I absolutely love driving it, and now that I’m far more comfortable with stick-shift, I’m not as worried as I was about driving in traffic, because I would stall out a couple of times each trip out while I worked out the timing of the pedals. I still break into a foolish grin every time that I walk into the parking lot and see it.

While driving out and about around Vermont and the surrounding states, I’ve seen a lot of other minis on the road. I see one regularly on my way to work on Rt. 12, and there’s a couple others in the Montpelier area, while I’ve noticed a bunch of others in the Burlington area. What’s funny is that as I pass a lot of these minis, the drivers will wave when they see me passing them. It’s not something that happened with my old car. While I don’t feel a whole lot of comradeship with people based upon what type of car they drive, but it’s nice all the same.

I bought snow tires and got a set of rims for Christmas from my parents. It’s not wonderful in the snow, handles corners extremely well, and I don’t think that I’ve ever felt it slip at all now that we’re getting snow and ice on the roads here.

I still love this car.