I recently spent two weeks streaking across Florida in a Mercedes E55 AMG, one of today's definitive high-performance full-size sedans. From its 469-horsepower supercharged V8 to its crisp-shifting, manually-controllable automatic transmission, the car is a finely-tuned machine that delights in gobbling up vast distances effortlessly.
Aside from its expectedly pathetic navigation system, the E55 is so well set up that after a few minutes of familiarization, you feel as if you could be turning hot laps at the Nürburgring.
A slightly less-sophisticated machine kept me occupied last weekend. I hauled our battle-worn 1978 Honda XR-75 motorcycle out of winter storage, as it was time for yet another youngster to be initiated into the land of chokes, clutches, kick starters and throttles.
Oregon's Mt. Hood National Forest is crisscrossed by thousands of one-lane dirt and gravel roads. Originally carved out by lumber companies for their log-laden trucks to use, they are now in generally poor repair and see little use.
Which made them the perfect place for my 12-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to learn to ride. Having grown to the impressive height of 4'9-1/2" (the half is important when you're twelve) and weighing 70 pounds, she declared herself ready to learn to ride "the big bike." Although mechanically sound, the Honda proudly bears the scars inflicted by other kids who, while learning to ride, got brake and clutch confused, popped wheelies and usually ran directly into trees.
Unlike every exotic car I have ever owned, the Honda started immediately, even after sitting for a year.
While rummaging around for the chain lube, spare brake and clutch handles, and other various maintenance items, I thought about the E55. During the 1,500 miles I spent behind the wheel, it never crossed my mind to check the oil level; surely there was an electronic sensor that would let me know if something was amiss. As I adjusted the tension on the Honda's chain, I realized that the chances of my ever doing any maintenance on the E55 or similar modern cars were non-existent.
A by-product of the stringent emissions requirements that new cars must meet is the complex, non-user-accessible systems that they require to work properly. Your mechanical responsibilities boil down to this: When the "attention required" light on the dashboard starts to flash, get the car to the dealer.


Teaching Alex about the care and feeding of a 26-year-old motorcycle was a more complicated experience.
New cycles for kids can be bought with electric starts, automatic chokes and clutchless shifting, and maybe in the end, that's a less user-cruel way to go about learning to ride. But as Alex has already demonstrated some mechanical interest and aptitude (she thought learning to drive and shift our VW Thing last summer was a terrific experience), I decided we'd go about Motorcycle 101 the old-fashioned way.
The process started with an explanation of checking oil and gas levels and tire pressures. Then it was how to roll the bike while spraying lube on the chain. (Yes, she got the sticky, nasty stuff all over herself as well-isn't that a part of the process?) Looking to see if the chain was dragging on the guide was next, and making sure it was tensioned properly. And finally, given the 55-degree ambient temperature, setting the choke lever to the halfway position.
This was followed by the 15-minute kick start process. She had to learn to feel just when the piston was at top dead center, and then how to flick the kick starter with maximum velocity (as opposed to maximum effort) to get the bike to fire. I met her plaintive, "Daddy, I'm tired of this, won't you start it for me?" request with a smile, and told her that if she just kept at it, the bike would eventually fire. It did, and from that moment on, it was her bike. She had brought it to life, and now she was going to learn to make it do what she wanted.
Once it was burbling along, we moved to the mystifying combination of throttle, clutch, shifter and brakes. Having to coordinate all your appendages at once while rolling down the road is a challenging process. "Stall" is now a word that has a resonance for her.
But after a surprisingly few fits and starts, we were off on the fire road that runs by our cabin and leads to Trillium Lake. (My mount is a 1986 Yamaha 200-cc Big Wheel.) She practiced shifting up and down, then coming to a complete halt and starting again. As a father, you can imagine my sense of pride as I followed her, watching her gain confidence as she mastered her machine.
Being a student of automotive history, I reflected on the coming generations of kids who will never experience the raw mechanical sensations that a simple piece of motorized equipment can provide. I'm not saying this is a terrible thing-after all, how many of us can shoe a horse or sow corn, skills that were critical less than a century ago. But as there is gasoline in my veins, and perhaps a little in hers as well, I'm glad I've had the opportunity to help her discover the sometimes maddening, sometimes magical relationship between the skill of an operator and what a machine can deliver in return.
I can think of worse things taking up space in the garage than an E55 for lazy cruising down the freeway at triple-digit speeds, and a couple of vintage dirt bikes as a reminder of what it's like to have to understand and truly control a machine to get it to do what you want.


Soon, there will be a 1967 Jaguar E-type coupe in our driveway. Dave Stewart, a Portland SCMer who recently owned a 1934 MG-PA Airline coupe, is our partner in the car. We bought it from Andy Manganaro, another SCMer, who lives near Cincinnati, Ohio.
My hunt for a good GTC/4 had bogged down: not one of the many cars offered had been driven on a regular basis. In the meantime, Manganaro sent a complete packet about his car, which highlighted its desirable attributes of having scored more than 99 points at a recent Jaguar concours, along with completing the New England 1000 without drama. Soon enough, we became owners, and I will share more details with you next month.
In another change of plans, the Jaguar won't be sitting next to a blue 308 when it gets to Portland. For a variety of reasons, most centering around higher-than-expected renovation costs on what will be the new SCM offices, we decided not to consummate the deal on the Ferrari. Given an opportunity to rethink our needs, we've set our sights on a Boxster.
This car is going to be a daily driver, and frankly, there's no better bargain today than this late-model Porsche. I'm told that a 2001 2.7-liter, non-S, in a good color (yes, blue would be best, but silver is awfully nice as well) with under 30,000 miles should be bought for around $25,000. If you've got an opinion on this, Boxster vs. 308, or, better yet, a Boxster in your inventory you'd like to send on its way to us, I can be reached at [email protected].

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