Saturday, November 3, 2012

My Top Five Triumphs about my USA Experience

5. LIVING AND VISITING ALL OVER

There just isn't a substitute for the introspective questioning that comes associated with travel. Besides the generous pockets of free time to submerge oneself in deep thought, any journey is exposure to something different, something striking that will trigger a multidimensional point of view. What do I mean for this? The human experience is a constant struggle to find a place to belong, a home, happiness. Through constant exposure to various strikingly dissimilar backgrounds, one's natural instincts make choices on our own sense of belonging. Do we agree with the notions of physical closeness in Mexico? How does the Dutch government handle the legality of drugs in Amsterdam? Do I even want to try drugs myself? Why do I find a barren landscape so beautiful, while the streets of New York City revolt my guts? Is a higher rent a higher living? Questions like this are asked everyday, directly and indirectly, to slowly compose a framework of decision-making. It helps set your priorities straight.

No landscape is complete without its people. Everything under the sun is witness to the attention and neglect of mankind, and the connotations that are given to it. It is practically impossible to look down into Monument Valley without remembering the Marlboro man, and the many advertising legends; or to squint in the sheer whiteness of the Utah Salt Flats without remembering the first time you played Frisbee on the immense horizon. We carve our personal legends into the land, and what the suburbs of Petaluma may be to me, the remotest hut in Barbados may be to you! There is beauty, heightened by the meaning we impose on it through our own lenses.

As one travels and fills one's eyes with sunrises, starry domes, glittering windows and majestic shadows in the rock, any reminiscence of fear and doubt disappears. Whatever lies ahead is yet a surprise that hides the excitement of what is new, and the mystery of what is unexpected! Who wouldn't want to wrap his arms around the world with these prospects?

Oh, the places you will go! Oh, the places you will see!

4. FINISHING WHAT I START

Before coming to the US, I was a person overwhelmed by an outrageous number of ideas. I was very sheltered, however, and not very aware of the resources or means to take them to fruition. My entire college experience was plagued by unfinished projects, some due to my overly perfectionist nature, and some due to my emotional weakness. In any case, being in a state of grief so profound that it practically tied me to my bed for two whole years, I cut out many of my stress-inducing responsibilities (mostly after-school activities), manned up and finished school on time. That little confidence I developed by arriving to the end of the race I expanded with my big cross-country road trip, my contract with Burlingame Motors, and many a small job on a vintage Mercedes, executed to the best of my ability. Then, in Wichita, I got to finish one full episode of Open Roads (see the "work" section of the website) and shoot two others. US immigration cut my time short, but I am confident I can edit as I travel, as my equipment is fully portable.

Working on cars has been one of the greatest activities I could practice to develop my self-discipline. In the world of automotive repair there are two options: something is fixed right, or something is not fixed right. With a solid base of truth and error, I learned to balance my possibilities, evaluate my skills with conservative modesty, take a step away and think about how something may be put together. Then, remembering the overall structure of a mechanism –being fascinated in the process–, I could put it back together and get the satisfactory feeling of something well done, something as useful as an automobile shifting right or a Delahaye blower motor push-button restored to like-new condition. Once I became familiar enough with the process, I could actually give estimates on all my work, from a 30-second animation to a window regulator replacement. Which takes me to the next point...

"The Life of Reagan", an animated short in the style of Terry Gilliam that never had an ending.


3. UNDERSTANDING THE VALUE OF MANUAL WORK

Beyond approaching work with a method and an honest knowledge of one's own skills, is the realization that the lessons learned through handwork are the same as the ones in the broader scope of life. Being used to the art of animation, confined to the drafting table and the computer in a permanently enclosed environment, felt like the wrong kind of whereabouts for self-development. Two dimensions on a sheet of paper of a PC screen can't convey the wholeness –and holiness- of the human experience. They just can't.

First lesson: doing is learning. Studies have proven that the degree to which the brain forgets something decreases when learning through action rather than word/writing/reading. By wrenching, cutting, hammering, torquing, splicing and a million other processes, one learns an action with more than one of the 5 senses, making it far more memorable. Mistakes hurt, sometimes literally. The body learns, the mind learns, and they interact in an instinctual dance, waltzing together in the beauty of achievement.

Second lesson: same as traveling, one learns to make choices and make them fast. One learns how much one's body is willing to take within its limits, and maybe push them even further. Using this as a guideline, one's decisions mark the speed and duration of a job. It determines if we quit, if there are alternatives for increased efficiency, or if we demand a higher pay for the work we do, or to simply put the pieces together and guess the missing links in a process.

Third lesson: self reliance –a word that should always be said in Sean Connery's voice–, one of the absolute best skills a person could have. Self reliance means having the intelligence to diagnose and fix your own problems without the need of other people, to really master your own destiny anywhere and anytime, and deal with the consequences as they come to you. Self-reliance means being awake, being ingenious and being strong. By building self-reliance you build self-confidence, as any skill that you invest for yourself will result in trust that is put in yourself, by yourself. Which takes me to the next point...

The shop where miracles happen. Photo taken in the mid-1980's.

2. GROWING THE BALLS TO TAKE INITIATIVE

Sometimes I think I just have a strong grasp on where I want to take my life because of my innate lack of patience. What patience? I do have patience with myself and patience with my work, but do I have patience with others? Do I have patience with Age and Death? Heck no!

Give your hand to the world, and it will take your entire arm. Respecting the rule of others can seem like an act of civic duty, and it is, most of the time. That's the reason we have public highways and an organized mail system. However, when it comes to one's own life, it's time to set limits to the degree of control that others have over choices that should be wholly ours.

The first step is to learn to disengage. Whether it is a pain-in-the-a** girlfriend, a job that does not convince you 100%, a libido out of control or chronic shyness, GET RID OF IT BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Your own existence, the tale you will tell before your death, is far more important than these punctual past-times that society taught us were cool and important.

The second step is to set priorities, which is easier said than done.  Many are the people who I have found have absolutely zero sense of prioritization; as a result, they get lost in the clutter of their dreams. This state feels like an ether, it is comfortable and sedating, but it is the strongest immobilizing force. Just as someone can lack motivation, one can have motivation spread too thin. What helped me set my priorities straight was to crave something really bad. For that matter, I had to experience very strong feelings of hatred, sadness, fury, restraint and ecstasy before I got to know what my call was... courtesy of a nervous breakdown. Should I look for a nervous breakdown? Absolutely. Avoid being sheltered and safe, and break down as badly and as close to your teenage years. Tear yourself apart, read, experience, open yourself... and then reconstruct.

The third step is to be courageous. Take the gamble, bet it all and remember that you, as a member of a civilized society, will not starve or end up homeless. You have a network of friends and relatives who believe in you. And if you fail, fail greatly, fail memorably. Who knows? Worst that can happen is that you have found a way not to do things, and maybe publish a freaking two-hundred-page book on the subject. Books on petty failures and petty struggles do not sell; whatever you do, do it on a scale surpassing your own limits of ridiculous etiquette.

In my very own, personal case, I grew the balls to put my promising career in animation into a screeching halt and to concentrate on learning a skill that I find immensely important: auto mechanics. But I would not settle for any mechanical job, so I went ahead and restored 300SL's. As if that wasn't cool enough, I found the schedule did not give me enough freedom and time outside my position –due to US regulations- , so I partnered with my friend Tyler and moved to Kansas to start a TV show with all my lifetime savings. Half a year later, a lawyer tells me I have zero chance to stay in the US legally, so that means having to stop production dry and get out of the US. But by "getting out of the US", I can only understand "getting out of the US greatly", so I decided not to further delay my plans to go on the PanAmerican route and that's what I am doing right now. I take adversity and twist it to my own desire into an opportunity for a fresh start to do something just as interesting.

Screw this, I am going to host my own TV show. And drive the car I WANT.

1. ALL THE PEOPLE WHO I HAVE MET

"When life give you lemons, make lemonade, and when life gives you shit, just air it on television". Coming from a Catholic background, I was always taught that blessings come disguised in the form of curses. Let's start, however, with the many impersonated blessings of my life...

I have been beyond blessed to have so many amazing people in my life. I name most of them on a HUMONGOUS list at the end of my big cross-USA road trip, plus may I add Tyler Hoover, my loyal friend and business partner, René Wiegand (plus Al and Peter) at Burlingame Motors and every  charitable soul to give me the strength and encouragement in this new adventure.

The people who have made my life difficult –from my bullies in elementary school, to whiny exes, half of my family, the Mexican Federal Police, many a hipster at RISD and the US Department of Immigration–, those are all individuals placed along my path to make me stronger, to remind me of my skills to fend for what I believe in, to reconstruct myself, to react predictably in stressful situations and to just teach me that life does not cater to anyone, that it is you who has to approach it with your empty plate and hack at it. Tough? Definitely. Worth it? Damn sure.

Friday, September 21, 2012

My Top Ten Regrets about the USA Experience

Living in Mexico for over a month now has given me the gift of detachment. While it often means a sore homesickness, it is also the best time to reflect on the biggest mistakes I have made in my five years in the United States, hoping that the young, naïve international students that may happen to read this may not make them again in this new stage of their careers. Do not worry, there will soon be a section about my top ten triumphs, but for now let's talk about the downfalls.

10. NO EBAY SALES IN COLLEGE

A beautiful, perfectly-functioning Omega 321 chronograph I sold at age 18. Best watch I have ever owned!

At the tender age of 16, I set up an operation to buy vintage watches (mostly Omega) from poor countries in Asia and resell them to industrialized nations. Many times these came fully serviced, but other times I had to get them fixed at the local Omega expert. In any case, the product was exceptional, customers were happy and I made a healthy profit of $200 per piece. From there I moved into collectible firearms, where profit could exceed $400 per piece. One of my wacky customers even invited me to a $250 dinner in one of the best restaurants in Madrid as a tip. Much of the money I had saved derives from these sales, and lasted me well into 2012.

However, once I got into college, life became incredibly busy. At that time I was involved in several extracurricular activities that would have cleared some space for business if I had not been so fanatically dedicated. I did not know how to balance my sales with my education, and that really affected my checkbook once I found out eBay was not what it used to be prior to 2008. After resuming my eBay activity in 2011, I concentrated on Mercedes-Benz parts at a marginal profit, still not to the standards of guns or fine watches, two markets that had died during my hiatus.

9. NOT VISITING CERTAIN PLACES

May this map be the guideline for a future road trip in a few months/years...

I have traveled the US from coast to coast many times, but there are a few places of exceptional beauty that have not crossed my path. For that matter, I should have made the time to visit Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Washington State, Oregon, Montana, the Dakotas, Vermont, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Puerto Rico –despite not being a State- and most of Canada, especially Montréal. Out of these, perhaps the ones who itch the most are Hawaii (for its remarkable native culture), Montréal (for being close to Rhode Island and just being plain cool) and Michigan (for being the cradle of the American auto industry). These places, however, will still be there when I return.

8. CONTRACTS WITH A(NY) PHONE COMPANY

First time, and last time. Not only that, they're raising their fees!
 For those wondering, the absolute best phone plan in America is the T-Mobile $100 pay-per-talk recharge, which enables you to 1,000 minutes, or 4-6 months of use. What makes it so great is not only the bang-for-the-buck factor, but the fact that you do not need to be subject to a contract.

Now, in my California home I was in such an odd location my only choice was to get internet through a 3G dongle hooked to a computer. I contracted this service from Sprint, with a very courteous seller who went above and beyond his duty to earn my trust. This service was reliable and quite fast, and even though it was a little bit pricey ($75 a month), I could take my computer and connect anywhere. The big downfall came when I no longer needed the service: as I handed back my device to the store in Wichita, KS, I was told there was a $180 cancellation fee. That's one-hundred and eighty dollars, or a month's worth of groceries. A FULL MONTH OF FOOD, or a fee that I could easily have avoided by forgetting about it after crossing the Mexican border. I did pay like a good citizen, but I learned to avoid subjecting myself to any kind of phone company contract.

7. DOING BUSINESS WITH BANK OF AMERICA

Not only customer service sucks, the customer base –whether in the office or ATM- is sketchy as heck.
I really do not know where to start, but as an innocent foreigner I thought that putting my money in Bank of America would be a good idea. "They are everywhere and they are big", I thought back then. Three and a half years of being treated like cattle, bankers who were not serious about my willingness to invest in stock, visibly unmotivated clerks and stupid fees that seemed to come out of nowhere, I moved on to Wells Fargo, and have been a happy customer since. I also opened a secondary account with a credit union (Meritrust), and the customer service is simply spectacular.

6. INSISTING ON LIVING ALONE

What?! I love self-reliance! Plus, this kind of home is easily defendable in a zombie apocalypse.
I have always been a loner, and I always do appreciate a quiet home that is up to my standards of cleanliness. After having my dormitory gather a healthy community of cockroaches due to a filthy roommate and an inept resident assistant back in the times when I lived in England, I swore to myself I would be solely responsible for the space I lived in. From 2007 to 2011, I locked myself in solitary confinement and life was great –at a cost: I could have saved between $100 and $400 a month if I was sharing the space with someone. Month my month it seems like a luxury that I would treat myself to, but over four years, the savings would have amounted to a hefty sum.

Many of the places I have lived in by myself have been charming lofts or dreamlike cottages in the woods. However, two out of my five years in the US I lived in a basement room and that had a severe impact on my morale and my energy. The space couldn't be gloomier. That, combined with some strong personal circumstances at the time, made me slide into deep depression.

In the living situation that I had in Kansas (a $150-per-month, sunny room with its own bathroom) I shared the rest of the house with a good friend, a quiet roommate who was outside for most of the time and a friendly labradoodle called Dino. It was the perfect balance of privacy and social life.
 
5. BEING TOO BUSY TO LEARN NEW SKILLS

Drool and cry: while I saw these machines pretty often, I never learned how to use them!
Being at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) gave me access to one of the coolest Industrial Design and sculpture facilities in New England. In those departments they use very specialized tools for metal work (welding, folding, shaping, casting), woodworking (cut, assembly, layering) and glass (blowing, cold working, carving)... all of which I never had enough time to dare use. However, signing up for a labor-intensive class at RISD always means having to sacrifice grades, performance, social life and any trace of the outside world.

Added to my sin is the fact that Brown University was two blocks from campus. I did a lot of work for two of their publications and their TV station, but never had the chance to take a single class due to reason #1. Brown offers a wide varieties on language courses and specialized topics –such as engineering– that I may have had taken good advantage of, and maybe minored in.

4. MATCHING THOSE WEALTHIER THAN ME

Sometimes this is a fight you have to let go... especially when you make 15k a year.
Don't ask me how, but I have the magic tendency to end up in environments where people are moderately to substantially wealthier than me. As someone who tries very hard to be generous and fair, I like to take the bill or invite people to things for no apparent reason. However, I do so in complete disregard to the fact that I have little to no income, and some savings inherited from my grandfather and my glorious eBay days. I was raised in the fashion that my grandfather raised the family: with grandeur, and dedicated attention to details and interpersonal relationships that are paved with presents. As a result, I keep getting run over financially at a pace that does not belong to my actual financial situation. This happened to me in school, with my wealthier friends, and during my stay in Kansas with the expenses of the online series, where I did not have a stable source of income other than a few hundred dollars worth of eBay sales and car transport gigs.

For the next time I have learned to stand my ground and say "no" when my pocketbook aches. My foolishness in following the pace of others has almost gotten me under, and forced me to sell Newport the 300TD, the vessel of that first eye-opening experience across the USA.

3. MY PROMISCUITY WITH AUTOMOBILES

At one point I owned this European model 380SLC, which I wanted to convert to diesel.
Not all automobiles are money pits; however, any newish automobile bought off a dealer is assured to never appreciate. In the five years I have lived in the US, I have owned the following: a 1971 Volvo P1800, a 1991 Lexus LS400, a 2000 Lexus LS400, a 1979 Mercedes 300TD, a 1980 Mercedes 380SLC, a 1982 Mercedes 300TD, a 1987 Mercedes 300TD, a 1970 Volvo P1800, a 1990 Lexus LS400, a 2000 Subaru Outback, a 1990 Range Rover Classic, a 1984 Mercedes 300TD, a 1994 Toyota LandCruiser and a 1981 Mercedes 300TD. Fourteen cars in total, most of them Mercedes diesel wagons. Usually, the classics or quasi-classics on this list have made me money or have had a zero loss. On the newer ones I have lost from $100 to $3000 on average.

Making money flipping cars sales is very hard. I have had very limited success and that has cost me close to $6,000 in losses, despite the many punctual successes with the older models.

After being burned by many of these fine automobiles, I have gotten to the conclusion that the best car is bought cheap enough to be worth parting in the event something goes horribly wrong, it is in decent order of maintenance to start with, it has no rust, it is bought from its owner and not a dealer, and has the chance to appreciate as a future classic. As an example, the $4,200 purchase of the 1971 Volvo P1800, despite having severe issues inherited from the previous owner, was a quick sale and a complete breakeven, as it had appreciated a lot during my ownership. The $1,200 1984 Mercedes 300TD, surprisingly, made close to $700 in profit as a parts car. The 1987 300TD was a complete blessing and had been taken care of, but a seized AC compressor reduced the profit to $500 after all the work and parts I put into it. Not bad for four months of free commuting! I would stay out of anything Japanese, as it never ages well or appreciates in value.

If after having read that I have owned an average of 2.8 cars a year in the US you think I am a spoiled brat, think again: 70% of these purchases were intended to make money, the other 30% were daily drivers that were substituted for something I thought I would keep forever. So far, I am extremely happy with the W123 Mercedes 300TD as an excellent compromise of ease of maintenance, durability, reliability, safety, engineering integrity, fuel economy and looks.

2. PAYING ALMOST $200,000 IN TUITION

Welcome to the real world: you'll need those gloves.
My grandfather died believing that education was the most precious treasure you could own: the only possession that could never be taken away from you. For that reason, he locked up a hefty amount to be destined exclusively to the education of his descendents. After a year of uninspiring university in Spain, I went the extra mile and worked 110% to get admitted into the most reputable art school there was, the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD. I was beyond excited about the prospects of taking part in the best education available, without the pressure of student loans.

Looking back, I remember all the outstanding friends and acquaintances I made there, but really can think of a better way of putting $200,000 to work other than an overrated piece of paper. With the burst of the housing bubble at the start of my American education, I should have created my own LLC in the US and invested in real estate in the name of the company. That would not only have provided me with a monthly rent to live cheaply while I got education through a job,  but would also have allowed me to get a Green Card as an investor. Unfortunately I didn't know anything about investment or alternative immigration statuses. Why don't schools teach this?

The administration never bothered to give me any financial aid at all, despite my excellent grades or dedicated involvement in school life. They also refused to refund me for a semester that I spent doing nothing once I had completed all my credits, about $20,000 that I fought tooth and nail for to achieve nothing but a bland "It's in the statute" from the registrar. Never before I had seen education as such a ruthless business, especially with something as relative as art.

The kind of education I got at RISD turned me from an extremely motivated animator to an extremely jaded individual. The anything goes philosophy was extended so far into the realm of what is art and what is not, that straight out of school I resolved to become a mechanic to get the sense of right and wrong again in my life, of what works, and what doesn't.

In the end, I left RISD with $200,000 emptied from my family's bank account and an enormous hatred for all art, including the one I once loved to do. I did not have anything left but my car, my stuff, and the feeling there was a bigger world out there. I started writing this blog as a way of getting my life back on track, as a way of finding myself again after this heavy blow.

1. DATING ALTOGETHER

Romantic sunsets together are great, but it's nothing you couldn't do with the right friend.
I was raised with every single Hispanic notion of eternal love and self-completion through the perfect woman, plus the immense pressure to prove my manhood. However, I admit I am an introverted, world-traveling loner with a sub-zero libido. While I should have known myself better, I have gotten to the conclusion that, in my case, the expectations and demands from a romantic partner far outweigh the sheer pleasure of having the freedom to make drastic changes in one's life, to feel in complete control and assume responsibility for your own decisions –good or bad.

I loved my first partner beyond words. But that incandescent love, despite bringing the best out of myself towards others, made me blind to her main flaw: she had no sense of empathy. None. In 2009, a long and unfortunate chain of family deaths and accidents quickly allied with the stress from school, so I got a severe case of the blues. She had absolutely no regard for my situation other than a cold hand on my shoulder. She did not even bother to ask for someone else who could help if she felt it was too much on her plate. The more pain I felt, the more distant –and sometimes, flirtatious towards others– she became. When this relationship ended, I mourned her loss for the following two years. Yes, two years... about a gallon and a half of tears. I loved her that madly. This long depression made me lose two valuable years ($100,000) of schooling and demoralized me to such extent I had to rebuild myself practically from zero.

The next one was the sweetest girl one could ask for. We did not share some vital interests, but that was okay. We were together for a year, but I had to put an end to the relationship after enough bursts of anger towards my condition as a white man had suffocated any feelings towards her. I then moved to a close friend who is still a soul twin to me, but unfortunately she wanted kids –major "NO" for me–. The fact that our respective life paths were drawing us apart did not help either.

All these flaws, combined, were mixed in moderation in my fourth partner: the arrogance and sheltered nature of the first one (she could not understand what it is to be short on cash), the explosive anger of the second one, and the demand for kids of the third one; all seasoned with a touch of Latin drama. After breaking up with her three times in two months, I realized, in retrospective, how stupid I was to even consider having a girlfriend, given my priorities.

I'm just a humble human being who, just like his fellow men, requires affection and empathy. I have friends who are true soulmates to me, friends whom I cuddle with and talk to in the wee hours of the night; it's them whom I relentlessly love, for the thought of their warmth in the turbulence of my path is more precious than the most idyllic companionship, or the most elevating of orgasms.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

10 Cool and Cheap Coupes for College

The time has come. College is around the corner, and you, needing a set of wheels, have ended up looking at this very post in the immense realm of the inter-webs. Your friends keep suggesting you to buy a used Toyota Camry a Honda Civic, cars that, despite having a solid history of reliability and affordable maintenance, provoke nothing but yawns out of the dozens of –potentially– sizzling hot companions who will occupy the passenger seat. The problem is simple: you are not rich, and will soon adopt a monumental amount of debt that will stick with you for years. How, then, can you choose a car that will be economical, attractive and reliable without boring yourself to death? Assuming that your top-dollar is a reasonable $3,500 for a decent vehicle, read on, and find out some potential candidates for your college years!


FUTURISTIC FOUR-WHEELER: SUBARU SVX (1991-6)

Not bad for a maker of toasters, right?
For those living in areas affected by the snow in the Winter, you will be relieved to know that you will not need to sacrifice styling for a full-time four-wheel-drive. The SVX not only sports the traditional attributes of solid Subaru construction and mechanical integrity; in this particular instance, its looks are the work of Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, author of supercar legends like the Ferrari 250GT, the Iso Revolta Grifo, the DeTomaso Mangusta, or –not so much a supercar as a gullwing curiosity– the DeLorean DMC-12.

PROS: Italian styling, well built car, reliable engineering, 4WD, advanced safety features, sporty.
CONS: MPG in the low 20's, space distribution is not too practical, parts can be hard to find.
LOOK FOR: being an automatic car with a very torquey engine, check for records on transmission service and/or replacement, especially after 90k miles; radiators tend to crack; axleshaft bearings can be problematic in earlier cars; a non-working sunroof shouldn't surprise you. Leather tend to be poor quality, so look for fabric.


TOUGH: TOYOTA CELICA SUPRA MARK II (1982-6)

Once upon a time all cars had to be photographed next to airplanes.
One word: 22RE. Turbocharged or not, the reputation of this powerplant –also used in the unbreakable Hillux and Runner- rivals that of the 80's Mercedes diesels: tough as nails. Its presence is utter, no-frills masculinity; solid in its construction and, despite not being a rocketship (it goes from 0 to 60 in over 10 seconds), the safe feel derived from its weight and stability well compensate for it as a college car. They can be had for little money, and be ready to replace some 30-year old original parts. Still, an excellent buy for the money and a trustworthy automobile that is guaranteed to still attract looks.

PROS: cheap to buy, ultimate reliability, excellent build quality, smoothness, parts are plentiful.
CONS: MPG in the low 20's, be ready to replace a bunch of 30-year-old parts, bad resale value.
LOOK FOR: normal wear items (gaskets, leaks, bearings, fuses, relays). Finding a good used Celica is hard to do: with cars this reliable, people mistake them for maintenance-free machines, so look for one with service records that has not been beat up.

DEMI-LEGEND: MERCECEDES-BENZ SLC (1973-81)

Brownie points for a European model with the glass headlights and short bumpers!
The C107 Mercedes has always been considered an illegitimate child of the SL dynasty when compared to its convertible sibling: the R107. Consequently, the prices of these cars never fared too well, and well-maintained examples can be had in the 3-4k range. Still, in terms of durability and construction, it's all said: it's a Mercedes. Parts are astronomical brand new, but should be plentiful in your local scrapyard if you are up for adventure. The variants of this car are the 280SLC*, the 380SLC, the 350SLC*, the 450SLC and the 500SLC*. The ones with the asterisk are European-market variants, much more desirable, so make sure they can be registered legally.

PROS: cheap to buy, very reliable if well maintained, supreme build quality, V8 power, show-off factor.
CONS: MPG in the mid-teens, outrageously expensive to repair when they break, mediocre resale value.
LOOK FOR: a good maintenance history, avoid cars that have been stored for a long time. Rust is a deal-breaker. It will be a surprise if the A/C works, and a miracle if it blows cold. Fuel distributors tend to fail from sitting. Make sure all rubber parts are in decent condition, especially in the suspension and drive-train.


THE WANNABE: DATSUN 280ZX (1978-83)
Lots of European queues mated to Japanese mechanical proficiency.
Very much in the Japanese tradition of imitating Europeans, the Z-Car is no exception. With styling queues from the curvaceous Jaguars and Ferraris of the 60's, you will be guaranteed to get some jealous looks in school while not breaking the bank. The previous generation (240Z, 260Z and 280Z) is currently stepping into classic car territory, and their values are currently on the rise. It should be a matter of time before this little sportscar does the same! If you are looking for one, do yourself a favor and get a turbo (1981 up), as this sweet increase in power will have little to no effect on fuel economy. As with the Supra, beware of any signs of abuse.

PROS: cheap to get, dependable, up to 30 MPG's, modern amenities with retro styling.
CONS: rust prone, you can spend thousands in getting it to showroom condition.
LOOK FOR: any signs of rust, as sheet metal is not well protected. Make sure the turbo is in working condition (hear it spool) and that the car has sufficient oil pressure (60psi at idle); other than that, check anything that you would on a 30-year-old car.


SPACESHIP: FORD PROBE (1989-97)
With the right set of wheels, it makes for a respectable, current-looking sporty coupe.
Something most people will not know at first sight is that the Probe is a Mazda in disguise, with innovative styling by Ford. With this marriage of American mass-production and Japanese engineering precision, this car sports very low repair costs, low parts prices, and a reliable four-banger that able to surpass 30MPG. Ford probes can be had for so cheap, it can be turned into a good beater not to be taken too seriously. You can splurge a few bucks for a couple racing stripes along the car, or a set of wheels that would bring it up to the 21st century without making it look like a 1990's electric car prototype. Overall, an all-around economical car without pretensions, and unique looks.
 
PROS: dirt cheap to buy and maintain, reliable, allows for many modifications, fuel economy above 30MPG.
CONS: plastic fantastic interior, amongst many of Ford's cost-cutting measures.
LOOK FOR: distributor problems and signs of racing. Anything on this car, however, can be repaired for peanuts except for major body damage. On the downside, you will never sell a Probe for more money than you got it for: this is no future classic.

SAFE CHOICE: BMW E30 (1982-94)
Much better looking than the bloated cucumbers that BMW are nowadays...
Without any trace of doubt, the BMW E30 series (318, 325) is one of the best cars that can be had for the money. At this point depreciation has taken away any trace of their original value, yet they still remain a well-engineered, safe and exciting college cars that won't put a dent on your bank account. They have a traditional rear-wheel-drive layout, and in some rare instances, they can be had with four-wheel drive (the iX models). There is an immense amount of aftermarket suppliers to customize the E30, in both styling and performance. This BMW, along with the Mercedes, will be your best bet for a car to keep after college into your early working years without losing a trace of distinction.

PROS: German build quality, plenty of them to choose from, 25MPG and TONS of custom options.
CONS: parts can be expensive, some aspects in it feel cheap, fasteners are soft, electrical system is iffy.
LOOK FOR: any signs of hard driving, as these cars drive and corner VERY well. A/C, instrument clusters, door locks and windows are problematic. Many of these can be fixed easily by the owner. Check thoroughly for timing belt service and suspension wear. In 4WD models there are model-specific parts can be expensive.


VERY ITALIANO: BUICK REATTA (1988-91)
Who said Buick was a car for old people?
While Cadillac was playing with Pininfarina and Chrysler was teaming with Maserati in the mid-80's, the Buick division of GM decided to go all-out in creating a car that would look, feel and drive like an Italian one. To that mix, they added a lot of pioneering technology, like a built-in LCD screen and their invincible 3.8L, 6-cylinder engine. The result is a car with an exquisite leather interior, Buick's standard levels of quietness and comfort, and an overall degree of quality not common in the American market. The Reatta was not a big sales success due to its original sticker price and foreign feel to Americans, so it had a very short life. Towards the end of production, GM made a convertible version.

PROS: Excellent build in and out, parts are cheap, 25MPG, great visibility, fantastic ride quality, comfy seats.
CONS: some pricey Reatta-specific parts, only 2 seats, door seals can be noisy, separate dash can be rattly.
LOOK FOR: a non-working LCD display can set you back close to $400 in parts alone, check for spent seals, rubber trim and O-Rings, as well as electrical gremlins. Headliner tends to sag in Buicks this age. 


RACER KID: LEXUS SC300 (1991-5)
Simple, understated, and open to MANY modifications.
The story behind the 1st Generation Lexus SC resembles that of the Ford Probe: Japanese precision masked under the beautiful, restrained work of the designers at the Art Center of California. As with most old Lexus drivers, you do not choose your car because of its styling being over the top: its beauty lies on the careful craft behind every detail, from its dependable Camry engine to the subtle click of the buttons in the stereo. This Mercedes competitor came equipped with a 4-speed automatic transmission for cruising comfort, or a 5-speed manual, for an extra pep. The SC also came with the UZ-FE V8 engine, used in the refrigerator-like LS400, but we discourage that option due to the costly timing belt service and drastic drop in fuel economy and increase in pricing.

PROS: Build quality comparable to Mercedes, quietest car for the money, silky smooth ride, dead reliable.
CONS: model-specific parts can be exorbitantly expensive when they –rarely– break, can be numbing for some.
LOOK FOR: burned LCD's, flickering instruments; leather in old Lexus models tends to dry and crack. Check when the timing belt was last changed ($250, once every 90k). If you find a affordable SC400 with a fresh timing belt service, you just saved $1,000!


PIMPMOBILE: LINCOLN MARK VII DIESEL (1984-5)
American body, European soul.
While gasoline Lincoln Mark VII's can be obtained for one/two grand all day long, their oil-burner counterparts still fall under the budget of $3,500 for a college ride. Back in the mid-80's, with the vogue for diesel-powered cars led by Mercedes and Volkswagen, the Americans decided to hop on the bandwagon. While GM converted one of their gasoline engines to diesel with disastrous consequences, Ford installed a silky-smooth BMW diesel in their flagship car. The result was an almost 40mpg automobile that rode like a cloud. For those looking for gobs of vintage American flavor or maybe a little bit of Italian Mafia flair, the Mark VII is the way to go for a roomy, distinguished buddy hauler.

PROS: MPG in the high 30's, extremely cheap parts, floaty and quiet ride, large trunk for your hitman needs.
CONS: air suspension o-rings like to fail, dropping the car to the ground; BMW diesel parts are scarce.
LOOK FOR: sagging or leakage in the air suspension bags; electrical problems; any signs of overheating in the BMW engine: they like to eat head gaskets.


FRANKENCAR: VW CORRADO (1988-1995)
Despite the Volkswagen Golf being the undisputed king of compact, 2-door hatchbacks, there's an essential problem that prevents it from making it into this list: everybody has one. The Corrado, on the other hand, is a lesser-know sibling that shares a multitude of parts with the Golf and the Jetta, put together by the works and wisdom of the VW factory at Osnabrück, Germany. Its styling echoes the sporty lines of the Alfa Romeo GTV6, with a substantial edge in engineering integrity that enhances its performance in every single segment compared to its counterparts in the hatchback segment. Parts are readily available, new and used –with some exceptions–, and the value of this future classic can only go up from now on: ask Top Gear!

PROS: Upper 20's for gas mileage, lots of shared Volkswagen parts, responsive handling, practical, fun.
CONS: pricey Corrado-specific parts, paint chips easily, lousy crash-worthiness, lots of plastic.
LOOK FOR: door handles like to break; driver profile is sporty, so check the suspension; electrical problems as it is common with other Volkswagens. Other than that, the usual laundry list you would use for any other car (leaks, oil in the coolant, cosmetics, clunking sounds, grinding or moaning bearings/gears...).


The college experience does not have to include "point A to point B" driving. Make sure you take care of your automobile at the same time you take care of your studies; in cars this old, check the fluids often and wash your pride and joy to prevent rust, regardless of where you are. Do some research around your community and find a specialist on your kind of car, sometimes they will even give you student discounts. Mechanics are deeply moved by young people who insist on maintaining older cars, so do not hesitate to ask any technical questions online and offline! Best of luck in your choice and happy schoolin'!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Boston Blackie's - Chicago

Deep in the heart of Chicago, surrounded by monstrous towers of terracotta and steel, lies a small, unregarded establishment, just one story high; a modest building indeed, yet a cave of wonders once one sets foot in what I would like to call Burger Paradise. And with reason.

Complete understatement, nothing fancy outside of pink Neon. Photo by Justin Henry.

Remember Scarface, that film starring Al Pacino as a drug magnate in the early eighties? The decor would be one that Tony Montana would be seen in, with touches reminiscing the 1930's and 1940's Golden Age of Chicago Gangsters –Al Capone included-, with a touch of kitsch from Coppola's set designers mixed with the environment of any Chicago-based John Hughes film. The original furniture dates from the post-disco age, and it is mixed with murals evoking a flavor of Dick Tracy noir and the Coco-Bongo in The Mask. Straight of a comic book with an acid twist!

Two eras into one at Boston Blackie's. Photo by Justin Henry.

I sat down in one of their leather-upholstered booths, and was attended promptly. The staff was friendly and down-to-earth, they knew their menu and could verify that, in the course of my three visits, that each waiter/waitress had their own opinionated choice for their recommendations, a much better choice than recommending the "star dish" or a generic option for those undecided.

Now, let's get down to business: their burgers. There are many factors that make a good burger,  including, but not limited to: meat quality, consistency, bread, supplement quality, seasoning, juiciness, sauces, weight, after-flavor, smokiness and bun texture/softness. Boston Blackies pretty much aces all of these categories, and I will describe why...

For starters, the bun is buttered and grilled slightly, enough to be firm and slightly crunchy, far from anything resembling grease-dipped bread. The cook did anticipate that the juicy burger in between would slowly soak the bun, the matter was when, and the challenge was for it to be as late as possible, yet eventually. Once you sink your teeth into the meat, chopping through very crisp tomato, tasteful blue cheese and –in my case– the slight acidity of Heinz Ketchup, you will be transported to a whole dimension once these ingredients all fuse under your palate. The consistency of the beef used in their burgers makes for the most astoundingly perfect patty I have ever had. It is somewhat granular in nature, allowing for the slow crumbling of the patty as you bite, still keeping isolated caspules of flavor as you chew. Even in rare/medium-rare form, the meat was cooked to a healthy standard without renouncing to extreme juiciness, far from traditional above-alive bloody meat. A large bite will not disappoint: the proportion of bread to beef to other ingredients is calculated to be a full, wholesome, juicy gnaw... no air, no fluff. Just melty tender goodness.

Their fries are massive and in generous amounts, fried to a degree of rightness that almost feels boring, too standard. Be warned, the hamburger is the reason to come to this establishment; ordering anything else would be sacrilege, and, if it so happens to be your only time in town, you may have deep regrets after you find out where the treasure chest lies in this apparently average restaurant.

Price should be in the $12-$15 range with your choice of drink, well worth every penny. Usually you will end up in that pleasant fulfillment that does not feel stuffy but cancels the possibility of dessert.

Pay close attention to the meat consistency. Photo by Justin Henry.
Boston Blackie's has two locations: one in Chicago itself and one in Deerfield. I had the chance to visit both more than once, and the Chicago branch would beat its counterpart any day of the week. However, as I have read rumours of the downtown establishment closing, the Deerfield restaurant will not disappoint to those who are active in the quest for a burger that is more Nirvana than it is meat.

Chicago Restaurant
120 South Riverside Plaza
Chicago, IL
(312) 382 0700
Deerfield Restaurant
405 Lake Cook Rd.
Deerfield, IL
(847) 418 3400