machines


fordHaving to take our 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (with a whoppingly low 12,600 miles on the odometer) into the dealership for service this week, I’d been meaning to write about the odd temporary malfunction that prompted the visit and what was determined (more like “best guessed”) to be its strange cause — essentially a street-level variation on the principle as to why you’re not supposed to use your cellphone during flight.

So we were coming back from our Eastern Sierra vacation two Saturdays ago, southbound on the 14 Freeway in the HOV lane in Santa Clarita a few miles from the 5, when I went to accelerate into the lane to the right to get out from in front of a tailgater and encountered no response. I pressed on the pedal a little more and more until it was all the way to the floorboard, but nothing. All systems were operating: the engine was running, the A/C was blowing, but when I’d give the vehicle gas it wouldn’t respond. Noticing a “What the hell does that mean!?” wrench icon light was now illuminated on the dash, I let Susan know we had a problem and began carefully transitioning to the far outside lane in case everything suddenly quit. But since we were on a good downhill portion of the freeway we were able to continue with the flow of traffic. It was when we started to go up a slight incline and the car quickly its momentum that I knew we had to get off the freeway.

Exiting at Sand Canyon with the vehicle idling uncharacteristically high but the accelerator now a bit more responsive at low speeds, I crawled us into a service station and stopped. After a few moments of the engine still revving in park I decided to turn it off and let it rest for a spell. Starting it back up, she revved high again for about 10-20 interminable seconds before the electric motor kicked in and all ran silently. The wrench icon on the dash was now no longer lighted. Hmmmm.

Susan took Ranger for a leg-stretch down Soledad Canyon while I popped the hood just to make sure nothing looked wrong/broken/disconnected. And in fact other than making the surprise WTF discovery of  accumulations of old-ish looking rat poop in the wells where the front suspension/shocks bolt to the vehicle — proof that our garage rats had taken to nesting/resting there (perhaps moreso during the colder months) — everything else looked fine.

Not confident about getting back on the freeway, the decision was to plot a surface-street course home via “Gladys” (that’s what I call the GPS), cross our fingers and see if we can get there. At worst if the car quits, at least it’s in a safer, slower environment where we can pull over, call AAA, and get towed.

The good news is that it worked and we arrived home without further incident (and in the process I was happy to discover the long unknown street route between the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita (you know, in case I ever want to bike between the two places). The bad news is that we knew we had to get this curious incident examined.

So fast forward to this last Wednesday when I take the Ford to Sunrise Ford in North Hollywood, where I explained the above to the service manager, and in response he was curious of either my wife or myself have iPhones. I told him we both do, that my wifes iPhone5 is paired with the car via bluetooth and that at one extended point about 120 miles before the incident she was also using her iPad to surf the internet. He explained somewhat sheepishly that there’s apparently a conflict between the Apple devices and Ford Hybrids that can produce interference resulting in similar situations.

Seriously?

He explained that he’s personally seen cases involving the city of Burbank’s hybrids fail to start as a result of their operators packing iPhones. He added that Ford’s aware of the problem but so far there’s been no solution.

Huh.

In my looooong history with a variety of motorized vehicles, this was my first time hearing a powertrain problem caused by a possible “programming glitch.”

Brave new world.

Of course, he took the vehicle and put it through a panel of diagnostic tests, wherein he said he failed to recreate the loss of acceleration. The best he could do was recommend a series of software upgrades that may or may not eliminate future incidents and of course was not covered by any warranty. Oh, and by the way, I also needed a new A/C filter. Total estimate: $180. Sigh… sold.

I asked: Does the new software include a “pre-flight” warning to turn off all Apple devices prior to departure?

He chuckled.

I didn’t. And now basically all we can do is cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t happen again. That’s tolerable for short city trips. But you can bet during our next longer drive there’ll be some pins and needles in the driver’s seat I’ll be sitting on throughout the journey. NOT the way I like to roll.

In a post to his Busblog, Tony Pierce shares some Twitter love he got from The Donnas and it prompts him to wonder if they know how much he loves them, or if anyone knows how much he loves them.

Right below that he shares the following wonderful bike-related video, a Swedish import that if not for him stood a good chance of otherwise missing my radar:

robo-rainbow from mudlevel on Vimeo.

I love Tony Pierce.

I wonder at times about high-priced bicycles and the companies that make them. When the people involved decide upon the retail price, do they do it in all unblinking seriousness believing it an entirely valid amount, or do they nervously hunch over somewhat reflexively in wide-eyed incredulity, like they’re doubtful they’ll get away with such an outrageous thing.

Certainly I understand that R&D, and materials and manufacturing and design and components and craftsmanship and overhead and advertising all play important roles in bumping up that final figure. But when I see Cannondale’s Flash Hi-Mod 29′er profiled in the Health section of today’s L.A. Times and priced at five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars, all my mild-mannered and rational understanding goes out the window and what I really want to do is storm their HQ, kicking all sorts of ass between the front door and the vault that keeps the documents showing the actual total per-unit cost as being $795.23. Or for the sake of argument let’s say it’s $1795.72.

For a bike. Not including the 200% mark-up. Or the sales tax.

Yet the folks there at Cannondale with the key to that vault in one collective corporate hand manage to staunch any snickering and straight-face you when they hold out their other collective corporate hand demanding payment of  five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars for what I’m sure they pretend is the privilege of riding such an exceptionally state-of-the-science mountain bike.

And it may be. But it’s still just a bike, one that’s sporting a huge profit margin.

I’m sure there are people out there with that kind of scratch who will oblige. Just as there are those who’ll fork over amazing amounts for designer blue jeans.

Now, I don’t want to squelch the evolution of bike technology. Like I said, I understand that there’s a pricetag attached to the latest and greatest and I’m all for making bikes betterstrongerfaster. I just will never accept a figure so exorbitant. Because I come at it from an insulted perspective that probably insults Cannondale and any other company charging such sums. I rode a $300 track bike for more than 6,000 miles until the frame weakened a year ago. Then I sent the manufacturer the old frame and  $119 for a replacement frame, and I’ve been riding that ever since. Prior to that I put more than 5,000 miles riding a 1970s-era 10-speed someone had thrown away and that I invested a few hundred bucks returning to rideable condition.

My mountain bike: a $350 expenditure purchased over the internet more than seven years ago.

My most expensive bike? A 2000 Giant OCR-3 for which I paid $500.

The most expensive bike I ever bought: a $900 Klein that I returned less than a week later wondering how I could’ve been such a sucker.

Even if I had a spare five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars hanging around and could get past the ridiculousness of making such an obscene purchase without having myself committed to an institution for the financially inane, do you think I would actually go up in the Verdugos or the San Gabes and actually ride the thing?

No, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. At that price, it would be a far better thing to hang it on the wall as testament to wretched excess then to risk getting such a masterpiece dirty!

Since Susan and I took that 4,500-mile Western U.S. road trip in the summer of 2006 there’s one thing I kick myself for not doing: recording a train as it came through Troy, Montana, where Susan’s grandma lives, and where we spent July 4.

There was something super awesome in the horn blasts that registered as the Best I’ve Ever Heard. Part of it was their proximity as the trains regularly barreled straight through the small town. But there was something beyond it just being loud… a peel-like clarity to the sound augmented as it reverberated off the nearby mountains. I’m not an authority on Gabriel’s trumpet, but there was something heavenly about it.

Well I can quit kicking myself about the second one, because this weekend Susan paid a weekend visit up there to Troy with her mom to see her grandma, and I she went there with my digital recorder in the hopes of capturing that distinctive sound.

She did — beautifully. And while I can’t vouch it’ll sound the same to you as it does to me, feel free to crank this soundbite up and let her roll:

Hear how after the first wail it just continues on through the pass? Damn. I mean hallelujah!

UPDATE (9.27): Upon repeated chill-inducing listenings, I’m SO figuring out how to make this my iPhone’s ringtone.

The Beverly Boulevard/1st Street bridge is a bit of an anomaly nowadays, its graceful arc over Glendale Boulevard and 2nd Street seeming like literal and figurative overkill. But from this photo found — you guessed it! — in the LA Public Library digital archive you can see the span once served a more obviously cooperative purpose. Dated September 2, 1942, the image showcases the brand new viaduct about a week or so before the $1-million project was opened to cars.

Back then the city’s train routes were still being accommodated and included in the transportation grid by building auto infrastructure around or over them rather than destroying the rail lines wholesale for the sake of adding vehicular traffic lanes. With the Hollywood Freeway still about 8 years away from its first leg opening up, it’s easy to see the importance of Beverly Boulevard as a major artery getting people to and from the civic center. But if the Red Car hadn’t been there, it’s hard to imagine the city’s engineers going up when they could just carve out the connector at street level.

So over they went, crossing the roads along with the rails leading to and from  the yard in the foreground, which is Belmont Station. The photographer is positioned on the hill above the famed Belmont Tunnel that took cars entirely underground to and from the heart of downtown.

Long after the trains stopped running, the tunnel actually remained accessible to curious urban explorers, film and video crews, graffiti artists and the homeless until some five or six years ago. But the tunnel has been permanently blockaded, and where L.A. commuters once rocked, rolled and rumbled along those rails, now on the yard’s footprint this past couple of years has stood the Belmont Station apartment complex, its facade facing the anachronistic arch that’s liable to strike anyone who considers it as a curiosity, and whose purpose now (to those of us who know it origins) is to serve both highly as a monument to a time when rail ruled, and lowly as a footnote to the transportation history of a Los Angeles that forsaked integrating its multimodal past to instead embrace a short-sighted vision of its automobile-centered future.

I don’t ever need an excuse to go to my favorite restaurant, but this time I have one. After attending the party celebrating its grillmaster’s 1941 Tatra T87 win in the New York Times Collectible Car of the Year contest, I did as I said I would and took the photo I snapped of the car’s badge, goofed with it a bit in Photoshop and ordered up a mounted canvas-ized print of it from Snapfish.

I told Susan that if it arrived this week and it didn’t look like a total piece of crap, we’d be dining at Blue Star Saturday so as I could present it to Paul as  token of my esteem and admiration.

Sure enough, it arrived yesterday and I think it looks pretty cool (click it for the bigger picture):

Date burger, here I come!

A little over a year ago my friend Stephen Roullier introduced me to Blue Star Restaurant, a retroasis in the middle of a scrap metal wasteland south and east of downtown, and since then I’ve gone to no place more times for Saturday morning/early afternoon eats, in large part because the grillmaster there rustles up the most awesome burger I’ve ever had.  Ever. That grillmaster’s name is Paul Greenstein, and if you’re familiar with the downtown scene that thrived waaaaaay before the gentrified downtown as we now know it moved in — with places like Atomic Cafe, Gorky Park, Madame Wong’s, Al’s Bar — than you might recognize Paul’s name since he was a big part of it.  I believe somewhere else on his curriculum vitae you’ll find he once owned Millie’s here in Silver Lake. On top of that he’s a master neon-sign maker.

I had no idea who he was, of course, seeing as how my connection to that bygone era as a chronic Valley dweller involved one tentative late-night stop at Gorky’s sometime in the mid-1980s after a wide-eyed visit to the old Power Tools club when it occupied the ground floor ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel.

During that same first visit to Blue Star with Stephen that I met Paul and fell in love with his fantastic Date Burger, I also met his car parked out front, hands-down one of the most unique vehicles you’ll ever see. Ever: A 1941 Tatra T87.

A what? Yeah, me too. The rear-engined jet-black sexy beast looks something like a VW Bug on steroids, only with a third headlight and the most hot-damn dorsalist of dorsal fins. It also looked brand spankadankin’ new, not at all like it had been almost 70 years since it rolled off the Czechoslovakian assembly line where it had been built.

There’s one reason and a whole bunch of money behind why. After winning it on eBay in 2001, Paul and his girlfriend Dydia meticulously brought it back — even sent it back to the Czech Republic for a 3.5-year restoration process that they estimate came with a $60,000 pricetag.

And it’s paid off pretty handsomely. There was a great spread on the car in Motor Trend Classics magazine, a precursor to the Tatra recently being announced as the winner of the New York Times’ Collectible Car of the Year Contest.

So why am I writing all about this? Mainly because I’m a sucker for awesomely authenticalized automobilage, but also for a simple little reason. Paul and Dydia had a party this past Sunday at Blue Star to celebrate the victory and Stephen was kind enough to pass along the invitation to attend. And while Susan and I were there I got a good enough shot of the T87′s fantastic badge, above, that I’ve goofed with in Photoshop and may put it onto a t-shirt or frame a print of it.