Thursday, October 1, 2015

Does Competition Exist in the Audio/Video Community?

I have written about some of the various questionable sales tactics that exist in the audio / video community in the past, but as I’ve been doing some shopping lately I’ve witnessed even more head-shaking behavior by several different manufacturers.  For the most part, the industry does a fairly good job in policing itself and in the era of online reviews and blogs it is more difficult to con the consumer than it has been in years past… but as I will show, it most certainly is not impossible.  

Rebadging: A Product by Any Other Name…  

One of the trends I’ve started to notice is simply rebadging one product under the name of an entirely different brand or manufacturer.  This isn’t all that unusual of course and we have seen this occur in a variety of different industries over the years including automobiles, cosmetics, clothing and food. 

Whether it be a Toyota Matrix being sold as a Pontiac Vibe, or a package of ice cream being sold under the Edy’s label in one area but Dreyer’s in another, this type of situation occurs each and every day.  That in itself isn’t really an issue, because over time some companies have purchased other companies and brands have merged, or in some cases (such as mattress sales) the industry uses different brands to prevent direct comparison shopping.  

We have seen situations for years where a manufacturer will produce a single product (lawnmowers, snowblowers, and bicycles for example) and then they will sell that product with different paint colors and badging to different stores.  So while one store offers a Husky snowblower, you might find a Yard Machines snowblower down the street that is identical aside from a few stickers and the color.  Another store might have a Bolens snowblower, while another has a model with the Toro brand.  They might all use the same parts, the same engines, and come from the same assembly line, but to the casual observer they appear as competitors.  

Another example from several years ago was when I noticed some “Scott’s” brand lawn tractors for sale at Home Depot, but a year later that same exact model was sold under the John Deere brand name.  It was obviously the same tractor aside from some decals and badging, but you can bet the John Deere version sold better and it most likely reflected a premium price.  I’ve found this same scenario time and time again throughout the power equipment industry, but there are many, many less obvious examples such as oil filters, canned goods, generic pharmaceuticals, and batteries.

The Competition Really Isn’t   

As is the case with many industries we also see this same rebadging scenario within the consumer electronics industry, and just like with garden tractors or snowblowers sometimes the appearance of a competitor can be deceiving.  For instance, you can purchase an Onkyo home theater receiver that is practically identical to a model sold under the Integra name.  Both are made by the same parent company and in some cases they share the same chipsets, specifications, and features – yet the Integra model can run hundreds of dollars more.  Someone buying an Integra might feel they are getting a better, more exclusive product, and I’m sure the salesman will try to present it that way, but they might have a hard time explaining why a few years ago when Onkyo had to issue a recall due to some defective components, that Integra had to do the same.

The thing is, Integra is typically sold via a select dealer network which includes custom installers.  So these installers can sell a unit to a customer as part of a home theater room install and they can explain that they are the exclusive dealer in the region.   Integra limits pricing to MSRP with very little room for adjustment, so if the customer happens to shop around they will find no matter where they look they will be spending about the same.  Now think about an installer that jacks up the price of an Onkyo, and then the customer types the model number into Google only to find out they spent $1200 for a receiver that retails for $799 on Amazon.  In this case, it makes sense for Onkyo to offer a standalone product under a different brand.  They can offer a different warranty (Integra will come with a full three year warranty while the Onkyo twin will only include a year) and they can ensure it is only sold via a select number of hand-picked installers who cater to that specific customer market.  

Another example of this is Runco, a high-end brand of home theater equipment (primary televisions and projectors).  Runco is a subsidiary of Planar technologies, and as one might expect there have been numerous products sold under both the Planar and Runco names that were practically identical aside from minor cosmetic differences or changes in firmware.  In the past, Runco sold televisions that were essentially rebadged NEC (Pioneer) models, and rumors of them rebadging products from others live on in many audio and video discussion forums.  In some cases this may be justified if there are significant changes from the base model or when they are simply outsourcing for select components and then enhancing them, but one starts to wonder at what point is someone merely paying a significant price premium for a product that just happens to carry a high end brand name?  

The R&D Problem   

The problem with some of these boutique manufacturers is they tend to cater towards a high-end segment.  A company like Sony or Samsung might offer numerous different models of televisions or home theater receivers designed to appeal to consumers at all pricepoints, but the bulk of their volume will come from the end-user community who purchases a device, takes it home, hooks it up, and uses it.  On the other hand a company like Runco is more likely to sell their products through dealers/installers who work with a client to design a system and then the dealer handles the installation of the system.   Because this high-end market is significantly smaller than that of the mass-market segment, companies who sell these high end products know up front that their sales volume will be much lower.

So how does a company cover all of their research and development (R&D) costs when they know they will only sell a limited number of units?  It seems there are two possible options – number one they simply raise the price of the end product to compensate, so the percentage of that product devoted to R&D ends up being significantly higher than it would be on a mass-market product.  The second option is to lower R&D costs by either outsourcing some of the development or engineering, or by building upon existing technology.  Both of these options are used with great success in the market, and I’ll talk about each next.  

Raise Prices to Capture Costs   

In the first scenario a company simply raises the price of the product to compensate for their R&D, which logically results in a product being more expensive (often significantly more expensive) than the competition.  In some cases this increased cost may even be justified because the product is a substantial improvement over standard offerings, but I have seen many times where the more expensive product isn’t actually superior to one sold at a much lower pricepoint.  If you think about it, this is a difficult situation as a large company who sells millions of units every year will obviously have a much larger R&D budget.  They can spend a lot more to develop new products knowing the costs will be distributed over a much larger number of units sold.  On the other hand, a small niche company will not have as large of a budget and will not produce as many products, therefore they are not as able to absorb losses if a product fails in the marketplace.  In some cases the only way to compete is to charge significantly more for their product while trying to convince the consumer that the price is justified.  

The Example   

To use an example, let’s pretend there are two companies developing projectors for the home theater market.  For this example, the companies are called “Epsomate” and “Rumcorp” (of course any resemblance to existing companies is purely coincidental).  

Epsomate spends $20MM in R&D to develop their latest projector.  They expect to sell 250,000 units worldwide, and the cost of components including assembly in their new design will run around $1200.  So if we forget about marketing, administrative, or other expenses, Epsomate would need to see each of those 250,000 projectors for at least $1280 just to break even.  

Now let’s look at Rumcorp.  Because they wish to be an industry leader, then tend to spend more on R&D than their competition in an effort to produce a higher end product.  In this example they spend $30MM in R&D to develop their latest model.  However, since Rumcorp is a much smaller high-end company, they can expect to only spend a fraction of the amount of projectors that Epsomate might sell, and in this case they predict they will see around 20,000 units worldwide.  The cost of components including assembly is higher due in part to smaller volumes (suppliers are less likely to give discounts for smaller quantities) and due to them specifying components with tighter tolerances.  In this example cost of components including assembly is $1600. Again we exclude marketing, administrative and other general expenses which results in Rumcorp needing to sell each of those 20,000 projectors for at least $3,100 just to break even.

So at this point the Rumcorp projector already needs to retail for at least 240% more than the Epsomate projector.  That in itself limits their market, but when you also consider efficiencies of scale that Epsomate may have and how they can use some of the technology from their latest projector on several models designed for the business community or for the educational segment you start to realize how the smaller custom segment is at a disadvantage.  Then you start to realize that a full page advertisement in Sound and Vision magazine is going to cost just as much for Rumcorp as it does with Epsomate, meaning their marketing expenses may not be substantially different (although there is a chance Rumcorp would forego any marketing and instead focus upon training their dealer network).  

Next you realize that the Epsomate model will be sold through a variety of brick and mortar stores as well as online from numerous different sources while the Rumcorp model will only be sold through a pre-selected integrator/installer network where price-matching and comparison shopping is all but impossible… and you suddenly realize it is entirely feasible that the Rumcorp projector may end up costing three or four times what the Epsomate projector costs regardless of the performance.  

So what happens when someone decides to compare the two projectors side by side and they realize the differences in performance are rather minor?  What happens when the high end projector produces a better picture, but not substantially improved over the projector that costs a fraction of the Rumcorp? What happens when a typical consumer cannot discern a difference between the two at all, or what if an actual industry analyst is unable to consistently pick the more expensive projector during blind testing?  

The truth is, price isn’t always indicative of quality, and when it comes to audio and video equipment, often times the increased cost of a higher end brand has more to do with dealer markup and higher profit margins than it does with better components or design.  This is why when you read unbiased reviews and when you compare specifications on some high-end equipment you often find the higher end brands fail to impress.   It isn’t that they aren’t good products, but they often aren’t good values. 

Most people aren’t willing to spend four or five times more for a product that has only a marginal improvement in performance, especially when that marginal improvement is practically undetectable outside of a lab.  Of course those that do spend much more for the boutique brand products may attempt to justify their purchases by proclaiming they can discern a massive difference or that some random engineer from an obscure website did a review and was very complimentary, but that is fairly typical of self-proclaimed videophiles, who much like their audiophile brethren like to equate price and exclusivity with performance and quality.


So if the boutique manufacturers are unable to compete by raising prices to offset their R&D costs, if they are unable to justify the much higher price of their products based upon name brand alone, or if the cost to develop their own in-house product is simply too expensive there is always another option.

This route involves reducing costs by letting someone else handle the actual R&D.  This is done a few different ways, but primarily it comes in the form of a company outsourcing their development and engineering, or in other cases a company may borrow (license) technology from other firms to use as a starting point for their own enhancements.

More than a decade ago I worked for a computer company called Gateway, and to many people Gateway was a PC manufacturer.  However, what most people didn’t know is that Gateway was essentially nothing more than a specifications company who assembled PCs.  Gateway didn’t manufacture motherboards or processors.  They didn’t build CD drives nor did they write device drivers.  Gateway didn’t even produce the metal cases the PCs were shipped in nor did they produce their own keyboards, mice, or speakers.

Each and every component of a Gateway PC came from another vendor who designed that component to meet the specifications that Gateway required.  So basically what Gateway did was purchase motherboards from one supplier, processors from another, cases from yet another, cables from this supplier, power supplies from that supplier, and cables and cd/dvd drives and software and hard drives and everything else from dozens upon dozens of suppliers.  They shipped all of these materials to a production facility where the parts were assembled into a case, software was loaded, the final PC was put into a box and it was ultimately shipped to the consumer.

That isn’t to say that Gateway didn’t have a hand in the design, because they worked with suppliers to design the cases and components and picked the features they wanted included or excluded.  They picked the colors and the styles and decided where the logo would be… but they never actually built the individual components.  In fact, some of the suppliers that Gateway used also supplied other PC manufacturers that were direct competitors to Gateway.  I worked in an engineering and testing lab and can still recall working with one of the suppliers (Tottori SANYO) on a new laptop design.  When we were presented the mockup of the laptop it was actually shipped to us with a Dell power brick.  The final production model (Gateway Solo 2100 for those interested) was practically identical to a laptop produced by Dell, and aside from the exterior plastics, BIOS screens, and the labels – it was in effect the same computer.  In fact, some of the removable components such as the CD-ROM drive or floppy drive were actually interchangeable between the Gateway and Dell systems.  

My point in all of this is that it isn’t unusual to a company to outsource some of their development.  They might dictate the specifications and they may customize numerous aspects of the final product, but in many cases they won’t actually handle the final design, engineering, or production of a component or even an entire unit.  In Gateway’s case, assembling a laptop was simply a matter of installing a processor, some memory, and a keyboard to match what the customer ordered, and much in the same way an electronics company might outsource the production of a CD changer or an amplifier assembly to a company that can produce that unit at a lower cost due to their production capacity.  

The Blatant Fraud  

As I have shown above, outsourcing isn’t unusual nor is it indicative of any nefarious behavior.  It is a common tactic used successfully across a variety of industries, so in theory it is nothing to be ashamed of.  In most cases companies that outsource do so in order to minimize costs or to leverage the expertise and intellectual property of another firm.  Then they incorporate the technology into their own products which are sold under their own label.  I completely understand why this happens.  I understand why there is a need for it, and I understand the efficiencies that can be gained by outsourcing.

What I cannot understand however, is outsourcing to a company and then essentially just taking their design – putting a new name on the front of it, and selling it at a price which is exponentially higher.    For instance, a few years ago an electronics company by the name of Lexicon was caught red handed rebadging an Oppo Blu-Ray player that retailed for $500 inside of their own aluminum enclosure which they then priced at $3,500!  Lexicon claims that it is “one of the world's premier manufacturers of home theater and professional electronics”, but does that claim justify them jacking up the price of a Blu-ray player by $3,000 (700%!) just because their nameplate was slapped on the front?  

Lexicon did try to claim they used the Oppo player and then in turn did some enhancements to it, but unfortunately for them, the experts at Audioholics not only disassembled both the Oppo and Lexicon players to verify they were identical inside, but they even took it a step further by performing detailed tests on the two devices to verify they were identical in both components as well as performance.  So in this case Lexicon was caught and their fraud was shown to the world, but how many consumers purchased a $3,500 Blu-ray player under the belief they were getting the best possible technology available to them only to be handed a $500 player inside of a $3,000 aluminum box?  

Obviously Lexicon isn’t alone here but they are one of the more egregious examples.  I don’t feel it is entirely unfair to call this type of behavior fraudulent, because there is clearly zero justification for the 700% increase in price which is one prime example why I would never do business from a company like Lexicon.  However if it were not for Lexicon’s pure laziness in this case, would anyone have really noticed?  If Lexicon would have had Oppo redesign the primary circuit board and if they would have rearranged the components (and perhaps even designed their own chassis instead of just using a stock Oppo design), chances are nobody would have ever realized they were the same product.

They also could have simply tweaked the Oppo design to add features or customize it in some small way by modifying the audio processor and claiming their own engineers simply built upon the existing Oppo platform. Sure many of us would still be skeptical, but at least they would have some small defense for their increase in price.  

In fact this type of behavior happens all the time. If you take the time to open up the cases of modern electronics, you often find circuit boards, power supplies, or other components which have been produced by third party companies, and often those components (with very minor changes) may appear in multiple different brand name products.  Many people are aware of Chinese electronics assembly companies like Foxconn who produce products for companies such as Apple, Acer, Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony, Vizio, Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo, Toshiba, Motorola and many, many more. 

Other companies like Quanta Computer product products for several different PC companies from the exact same building so it isn’t a stretch to assume in some cases they share components or even assembly lines. This is why it pays to do research on products before purchasing them, and when possible it is always a good idea to do comparison testing with your own eyes and ears.  Even if you can afford to pay 200 or 300% more for the same product being sold under an exclusive name, with a bit of research and a dosage of skepticism, you won’t have to.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


As children we are continually encouraged to remain curious. Parents and educators alike foster our
creativity and our curiosity and push us to never stop seeking answers. As we become adults we have college professors and employers who continue to reward curiosity and who suggest incredible advancement is science and medicine are due to nothing other than human curiosity.   We hear positive terms like “visionary” and “inquisitive” attached to those who are naturally curious, and we are taught that asking questions is important.

Then one day you decide to observe a liver transplant procedure and suddenly the only questions being asked are “where did you get that lab coat” or “how did you get past security” and people start tossing around words like “fanatic” or “felony”...  suddenly it becomes obvious that maybe curiosity isn't such a big deal after all.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

A lot of people receive preapproved or prescreened credit card offers in the mail, and I am no exception.  I sometimes receive several in a week, and on more than one occasion I've received several in a single day.  Thus throughout the years I started to wonder how many of these applications are actually sent to me in a given year... and in 2012 I decided to find out.  Therefore, beginning on January 1st I began collecting and documenting each and every prescreened credit card offer that arrived in my mailbox not only to determine how many of these offers I received, but also to document the differences between the offers.

Since January, I have documented a total of 69 offers that have arrived in the mail.  Initially I thought about attempting to document offers received via email as well, but I soon realized that would include hundreds of such offers, so I opted to limit this experiment to only offers that happen to appear in my physical mailbox.  I then used a spreadsheet to list details such as introductory interest rate, regular interest rate, annual fee, balance transfer fee, as well as any particular "bonus" offered with the card such as airline miles, cashback bonuses, or points per dollar spent.

Yes... I apparently have far too much free time.

The Offers

Here is a summary of some of the more interesting facts about the prescreened offers I received:

  • 57 of the 69 offers included a introductory APR of 0%.
  • A shortest intro APR offered was for 12 months; the longest for 18 months.
  • The lowest, regular (non-intro) APR was for 9.99%; the highest was for a whopping 25.24%!
  • 61 of the 69 offers had no annual fee.  The few cards that did include an annual fee were typically travel cards that offered airline miles for every dollar spent.  The annual fee for these cards ranged from a low of $95 to a high of $150 although in most cases the fee was waived for the first year.
Now as far as which banks were responsible for the offers I received, the breakdown is as follows:
  • Discover: 23
  • Citi / Citbank: 16
  • Capital One: 14
  • American Express: 11
  • HSBC: 2
  • Comenity Bank: 2
  • Chase: 1
It should be noted that in mid-2012 Capital One bought HSBC, so I could have listed those as the same company for a total of 16 offers.  Either way Discover is the clear winner here with a total of 23 offers out of the 69 I received.

If you prefer a visual reference, here is a pretty chart showing the final outcome taking into account conjoined companies:

Factors Impacting The Number of Offers

There are a few specific items I need to point out regarding the total count of prescreened offers showing up in my mailbox.  First of all I currently hold three credit cards.  I have a Wells Fargo Visa, a Chase Freedom Visa, and a Menards card issued by HSBC (aka: Capital One).  My relationship with these companies most likely impacts the number of offers coming from them, as I wouldn't expect to get a lot of offers from companies that I already hold cards with.

I have been told that Wells Fargo does not currently send prescreened offers to non-Wells Fargo customers therefore if someone isn't a Wells Fargo customer and doesn't receive offers from Wells Fargo I wouldn't exactly be shocked.  In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I do in fact work for Wells Fargo, but I do not work in the Credit Card line of business so don't quote me on how they handle their prescreening process.

As to my Chase Visa card, I should note that prior to me having a Chase card, I would get prescreened offers from Chase about as often as I do from Discover.  Apparently these people don't give up easily.  Capital One on the other hand doesn't seem to care that I have a HSBC issued Menards Card, because they continue to send me prescreened offers on a regular basis.

In years past, I have had cards from Capital One, Citibank, Discover, and retail (store) cards issued by Wells Fargo and GE Financial.  The Wells Fargo card was from a furniture store, and the GE account was for a carpet purchase.  The cards from Discover and Capital One were closed upon my request because I rarely used them and they were simply taking up room in my wallet.  The store accounts were opened at the time of the purchases due to 0% APR offers, and they were closed within the interest free window in order to prevent any interest charges being applied to the accounts.  I only mention these cards because I have an account history with these companies which may or may not impact the number of prescreened offers I receive from them.

My Credit Profile

I will admit if you would have asked me how many prescreened credit card offers I receive in the mail over a one year period, I would have guessed at least 150.  When the total count showed me that I actually receive less than half that amount I was somewhat surprised, but I cannot state if my estimates were based upon past experience, or if perception simply doesn't match reality.

I don't believe my actual credit score has changed much in the past few years, so I doubt that has anything to do with the number of offers arriving in my mailbox.  I monitor my credit report on a regular basis and have good to excellent credit.  My credit score ranges from high 700s to low 800s depending upon the credit bureau and when I happen to check (the most recent score I have seen was in the upper 700s).  I've never been late on any payments and I have verified my credit reports do not show any late or missing payments.  

That said, I have noticed over the past year my credit score appears to have dropped a bit which I attribute to the fact that some of my older accounts are dropping off my credit history due to them being closed.  This likely impacts my credit utilization, and because I no longer have a car loan that I'm paying on a monthly basis I'm assuming there is some impact due to fewer types of credit being used.  

One mistake I made in years past is to close old credit cards and open new accounts when there was a tempting bonus offer.  For instance at one point I had a Capital One card with a fixed 5.9% APR, however because I rarely used the card I closed it and opened up a different account with another card issuer because of a $300 cash bonus.  Because I don't typically carry a balance on any of my credit cards, I generally don't care about the APR of a card, however the cycle of opening and closing credit card accounts can have a negative impact upon a credit score.  Because of this, I plan to keep the cards I have even if I only use them several times a year.  

The Never-ending Sales Pitch

It seems clear that Discover, Capital One / HSBC, and Citi are very determined to give me a credit card and on more than one occasion I received multiple offerings from these companies within a one week period.  In fact, I received an offer from Discover on April 16th, and a second offer from them two days later on April 18th.  The offers themselves were identical, so I could see no reason why they were so quick to send a follow-up mailing.

As mentioned previously, Discover was responsible for sending me a total of 23 prescreened offers throughout 2012 or an average of two offers per month.  I am convinced that they are single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Speaking of Discover, their typical offer included a 0% intro-APR for 12-15 months with a regular APR of 9.99%.  However in May I noticed their regular APR moved upwards to 10.99% and in July it moved up to 12.99%.  In August the APR reached a peak of 14.99%, but two short weeks later in September they were back down to 9.99% where they have remained until the end of the year.  I'm not sure what drove the varying interest rates, but it seems odd that an APR would slowly rise only to drop 5% in a matter of two weeks.  I guess this is one case where it clearly pays to keep track of the various offers before sending in an application.

The Outliers

If this little experiment has taught me anything, it is that there are vast differences between offers when you look at the details.  Late in the year I received two offers issued by Comenity Bank for the "Express NEXT" card (a store credit card for the Express clothing stores).  This wasn't exactly shocking to me because I had recently signed up for a rewards program in my local Express store, and shortly thereafter the prescreened offers showed up.  The disturbing aspect of this was that the regular APR for this card is a whopping 24.99% which was second only to an offer received from Sears.

Speaking of Sears, their offer (issued by Citibank) not only was the highest APR of any card received throughout the entire year at 25.24%, but they didn't even include any type of intro APR.  They were nice enough to offer a $10 statement credit after the first purchase, but honestly... I find this offer insulting.  I realize store-branded cards typically hold higher APRs than regular bank-issued, non-branded cards, but a card with an APR above 25% is simply insane especially considering the card offers no significant benefits on top of a traditional card.

I realize Sears has been losing billions of dollars a year for the past few years (yes that is billions with a "B"), but if they want to stay in business and build brand loyalty it probably isn't a great idea to attempt to return to profitability on the backs of their credit card holders.  To make matters worse I hold a Sears loyalty card with VIP status meaning I have spent thousands of dollars with Sears in a one-year time frame... and this is the way that loyalty is rewarded?  I'm underwhelmed Sears... but that really isn't anything new.

The Fine Print

I of course am not about to list all of the fine print for each of the offers I received, but I will provide a little insight as to my methodology.

First, if the regular APR was listed as a range (for instance 9.99% - 12.99%) I always listed the lowest APR in that range to correspond to a person with good to excellent credit.  Obviously not everyone would qualify for the lowest APR, but this was one way to level the playing field.

Next, most APRs were listed as varying with the market based upon the Prime Rate.  I documented the APRs at the point the offer was received, but if the Prime Rate happens to change, it is assumed some of the APRs would as well.

Finally, I didn't list all of the bonuses that are included with each offer.  I did document them in my spreadsheet for comparison sake, but I didn't take the time to outline each here for space reasons.  Most of these offers were for point or mileage bonuses after charging so much on the card within a specific time period.  For example it is very common to receive 10,000 bonus miles or $100 statement credit if $1,000 is charged within three months.  A few offers included gasoline gift cards, cashback bonuses, or bonus miles upon an approved application as well.

Stop The Madness

As fun as this process is, I really have no desire to receive dozens upon dozens of these offers each and every year, and because of the ever-increasing threat of identity theft, I'm forced to shred these offers rather than just chucking them in the trash.  Therefore, I will be putting a stop to most of these offers by following the recommendations of the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC advises anyone who wishes to stop such prescreened offers to call toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit  Either of those options should remove your name from the mailing list for five years, which for most people is probably a good thing although if you do decide you want a credit card you may have to reach out to a card issuer rather than waiting for them to reach out to you.  However as a bonus, you will probably save several trees due to the massive reduction in junk mail arriving in your mailbox.

Do you have a question or comment about this post?  Sound off in the comments and I'll do my best to respond.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Motoring Memories

This is one of those blog posts that is more of a mental memory dump.  I was thinking the other day that I've owned a lot of cars throughout the years, but I've never actually taken the time to count them.  There are also a few of them that are a bit blurry as far as the year or exact model, so I felt it was a good idea to just go ahead and write them down once and for all.

1986 Chevy Cavalier CS

This was my first car that my dad bought for me.  Technically he bought it for my sister and it was handed down to me a couple of years later, but who was I to complain.  It wasn't the sportiest car around, and it was nothing more than a typical four door econobox, but I loved it just the same. 

It had a white exterior and red/maroon interior and originally it came with a AM/FM radio with two speakers in the dash.  No tape deck, no rear speakers... just a AM/FM radio.  There were no power locks, no power windows, no rear window defrost, and no keyless entry.  Heated seats hadn't even been invented yet, and the term airbag was something associated with politicians rather than automobile safety.  The Cavalier had a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that produced a whopping 86 horsepower (thank you Wikipedia), and yet I still managed to get something like three speeding tickets while driving it.

Eventually my father paid to have a tape deck installed and some rear speakers, and I actually felt that stereo was pretty nice.  A few years later when CD players became the norm, I installed a CD player and then proceeded to install various amps and speakers to ensure my neighbors hated me each and every time I arrived home.

I was involved in my first accident in this car during a winter storm.  The car in front of me lost control on an icy road and slid sideways blocking traffic, and I in turn bumped into the side of their car because I couldn't stop in time.  It was a minor no-fault accident and the only thing that was damaged on my car was the plastic bumper... along with my ego.  Months later I was rear-ended by a different car while I was sitting at a stop sign and it practically destroyed my car.  I still remember it was $2600 in damage which doesn't seem like a lot now, but in the early 90s it was probably about half what the car was worth at the time.  The accident blew out my rear window and pushed the rear fenders up into the rear tires along with causing significant damage to the trunk, bumper, and taillight areas.  Eventually the car was fixed, but I continued to find little bits of broken glass each time I vacuumed the interior even months later.

At one point in my high school life I ended up foolishly attempting to drive through a puddle out by a lake and the car stalled.  The interior filled up with muddy stagnant water and I ended up having to walk to a nearby home and call a friend to come get me.  Eventually I was able to tow the car out and it started just fine, but the next several weeks involved a lot of vacuuming with a shop vac to pull the nasty water out of the water logged carpeting, several different types of carpet deodorizer, and a continual need to drive with my windows open regardless of the weather due to the unpleasant smell.  I think I eventually got it all cleaned up, but I swear on a hot day there was still a little aura of swamp stench in the air.  Good times.

Everyone has a special place in their heart for their first car, and part of me wishes I could find it because it would be neat to own again, however the reality is I'm 99.7% sure this car has long since been crushed and recycled into something a lot whole more useful than a 86 Cavalier.

1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais

The Olds was a car my step-mom drove while I was in high school, and because it was a two-door and had a few extra horsepower on top of what I had in the Cavalier, I thought it was a pretty nice car.  When I was in my freshmen year of college my dad offered me a deal that I could buy the car by giving him my Cavalier plus $1000 cash.  At the time it was a pretty good deal, so I jumped at the opportunity.

The major issue with this car was the fact it was this horrible brownish orange copper color.  Sure in 1987 it was probably ok, but when I owned the car (circa 1994) that copper color was incredibly ugly, and it seemed anytime you saw a copper colored GM car it was probably a 1987, so I'm assuming this particular color was not a great seller since it only seemed to last that one model year.  For whatever reason about a year later when I bought my next car, my dad wanted this thing back so I sold it back to him.  I think they drove it for a couple more years and eventually passed it on to another relative.... I never heard what happened to it, but I'm pretty sure it is either sitting in a shelterbelt somewhere or it was melted down to make new manhole covers.

1983 Mazda RX-7

Sometime around 1993 or 94 my brother Dean had purchased this RX-7 and he was ready to get rid of it a  short time later.  I loved the idea of a small sporty car, and I loved the idea of a manual transmission, so we worked out a deal where I traded him a laptop computer and a few hundred bucks for the car.  My father thought I was nuts because it was several years older than the Olds, but to a teenage kid there was no comparison between an Olds and a RX-7. 

I loved driving this car, and I have a lot of great memories with it.  It wasn't the fastest car around, but it handled well so I managed to get into trouble from time to time.  I even had a little incident that involved being unsuccessfully pursued by one of Mitchell's finest which looking back upon probably could have landed me in jail.  Who knew that driving about three times the speed limit is typically frowned upon?  Granted not pulling over when you see flashing lights is even worse, but I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations is up so I can probably admit to it now.

Also, due to the car being so low to the ground I was actually able to drive under the barriers they used to close down the public beach at the lake which meant I could park at the beach at night without ever worrying about being bothered.  Years later I was told they modified the barriers and thinned the trees so you could see the parking lot from the road all because of rumors that people were driving under the barriers when the beach was closed... I suppose that is part of my legacy.

One feature of the RX-7 that I always loved was the fact it had a manual choke.  This is something that was almost unheard of at that time, and I still remember pulling on the choke in order to start the car in the winter.  As the car would heat up you could push the choke in further and further until it was closed, but if you left it wide open and came up to a stop sign, as soon as you pushed the clutch in the engine would rev up.  It took a while to get used to, but it was just one of those things that made the car special and unique.

Unfortunately the RX-7 was a maintenance nightmare and it required something to be fixed or replaced about every other week.  The AC never worked and was way too expensive to fix, and eventually the car started burning so much oil that I feared OPEC would start sending me Christmas cards.  It had some electrical quirks that were impossible to trace down, it was starting to show many signs of significant rust, so I figured it might be time to look into something a bit more reliable. 

By the time I traded the RX-7 in, the fuel tank would start leaking if you filled the car up more than half way, the rear bearings were howling and needed to be replaced, the AC still didn't work, the car would not downshift into second gear and would often grind a bit when upshifting, the APEX seals on the rotary engine were all but shot, and I'm sure there were at least 20 other things wrong with it.  It was fun while it lasted, and I'm sure I was responsible for many of the things that were wrong with the car simply because I was so hard on it.  However all good things come to an end, and I ended up trading it off on my next car.  The funny thing was that they gave me $1800 in trade-in value which was far more than the car was worth at the time, and was more than Dean had paid to buy the car a few years earlier.

1989 Chevy Cavalier Z24

I bought this car in 1995 or so and I must say I loved it from day one.  It was a two door and it had a V6 which was actually pretty powerful for its day.  It had a maroon exterior with some gold accents along with a black interior.  I spent a lot of time and money on the stereo and to this day I've never had a stereo that was as loud or as nice as what I had in this car.

For all intents and purposes the car was actually pretty reliable.  It wasn't horrible on gas (although my driving style probably didn't help matters), and it was comfortable.  This is probably one of those cars I wish I would have kept longer, but I have often been guilty of simply getting bored with my cars and feeling the need to trade for something else.  I suspect another reason I ended up trading is because at one point I was stuck in a snowbank for four hours during a blizzard which made me think I should really have something that was 4WD.  The day after that little blizzard I was stuck in a different snowbank when a woman in a minivan rear ended me.  Thankfully the accident was relatively minor and it was ruled her fault, plus it has given me some good stories to tell, so it really wasn't a huge deal even if I wasn't so impressed at the time.

1995 Jeep Wrangler Rio Grande

I think Jeep Wranglers are one of those vehicles that everyone should probably own once.  What's not to love about something as versatile as a 4WD convertible that has a trailer hitch?

The biggest mistake I made with buying the Wrangler was buying the four cylinder engine rather than the V6.  I think that engine had something like 115hp, and due to the total lack of an aerodynamic shape, it honestly struggled to hit 75 on the Interstate.  In fact at one point I tried pulling a trailer out to Rapid City to deliver some furniture to my sister and brother in law, and there were points even with the pedal to the floor I was unable to hit 65mph. 

The other main issue with this idiotic vehicle was the fact I was so in love with the idea of owning a Jeep that I ignored the fact that it was bright orange.  Officially Jeep called this "Bright Mango" and it was a very, very rare color.  I'd like to think it was rare because it was a limited edition or something, but I'm fairly certain the only reason it was rare is because it was ugly.  In the right light it looked orange, but other times it looked red, and I even had someone ask me if it was pink (I'm assuming that person was colorblind, but you never know).

My Jeep did have the hardtop, and I purchased a softtop for summer use.  It was also a manual transmission which was perfectly fine for day to day use, but the few times I went off-road it was less than ideal.  Of course I soon found out that in the winter time Jeeps are essentially worthless because of the short wheelbase and lack of weight.  The other negative was the heating system in a Jeep was superb at roasting a person's feet while they were freezing from the waist up, and even with the hard top installed there were still gaps and cracks that resulted in a cool breeze blowing through the passenger cabin at highway speeds.  To make matters worse, the Jeep was horrible on gas at any speed above 35 and because I was commuting about 30 miles each direction at the time, it wasn't exactly efficient.

1998 Chevy Cavalier Z24

This Z24 was my first new car.  I bought it in late 1997 and at the time I was incredibly proud.  I think the purchase price was right around $17,000 which was a lot for me at the time, but I made it work.  This was my third Cavalier which probably tells you I had fond memories of the first two, and I honestly have to say this was probably one of the most reliable vehicles I have ever owned.  In fact during the time I owned it, the only thing that ever broke was the latch to the glovebox.  Mechanically speaking aside from routine maintenance and a couple sets of tires I never had to spend a dime on the car.

The Cavalier was bright red with a gray interior, and I opted for the 5-speed manual transmission.  Chevy had started using four cylinder engines in the newer Cavaliers so it didn't feel quite as powerful as the V6 in my previous Z24, but it was plenty peppy and fun to drive.  I even drove this car from Rapid City to San Diego and back again only stopping for gas and food... it was over 26 hours each direction and the car never let me down.  Note this is not something I would recommend someone do, but I was young and stupid, and there was a girl involved.  Enough said.

Anyway the car was very good on gas, it treated me well, and I drove it over 87,000 miles in four and a half years.  I owned that car longer than any other vehicle, and I have no regrets about buying it.  If anything I probably should have kept it longer since it was such a great car.

1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited

Looking back buying this Jeep was a really, really bad idea.  It was fairly expensive to buy, and it was one of the most unreliable vehicles I have ever owned.  Within the first month I owned it I had to take it in twice to have issues worked on which thankfully were covered under warranty.  Then it seemed that almost once a month I was taking it in to the dealership for one thing or another.  It was a very comfortable vehicle, I liked the styling, I liked the color, and it had a large V8 engine that made boatloads of power... so had the thing actually been able to go six months without a trip to the dealership I might have kept it longer.

The truth is I still have a soft spot for Jeeps, but based upon this particular vehicle I haven't been willing to take another gamble.  Whenever I see a similar body style Jeep driving along the road I always feel sense of pity towards the owner knowing they are probably on a first-name basis with the service advisor at their local Jeep dealership.

1990 Volkswagen Jetta Wolfsburg Edition

This Jetta was a gigantic pile of crap, and is by far the worst vehicle I ever owned.  I bought it from the back lot of a dealership because they were sending it to auction.  That probably should have been a clue that it wasn't worth buying, but if I recall correctly they only wanted $1500 for the car.  This was going to be a second car for me in addition to the Jeep, and the goal was to just have something I could drive to work without worrying about door dings.  At the time I was parking in a ramp where the spaces were very small, and I was do a lot of driving from building to building for work... so the idea of a small economical car was very appealing to me.

I kid you not - after I signed the papers to buy this rolling disaster I was on my way back home when a warning light and buzzer came on indicating low oil pressure.  This light would come on at any time the car was at idle, and the only way to stop it was to rev the engine, so you can imagine sitting at a stoplight was less than pleasant.  There were a handful of other things wrong with the car too, but for $1500 I thought I could afford to put a little money into it.  I paid a visit to a junkyard and picked up a few parts, and then I took it to a local indy mechanic who did a few things for me. However - the more I drove it, the worse it got and it slowly became clear it was going to nickel and dime me to death.

It was nice to drive a car that I didn't have to bother locking the doors on, but it was not nice being worried that you weren't going to make it across town before it broke down.

1996 Ford Probe GT

One day when I was driving the Jetta I drove past a local user car dealer that had a dark red Ford Probe GT on the lot.  Years earlier a friend of mine had one (well technically it was his mom's car but he drove it much of the time) and I had always loved those cars.  There was something about the styling of them and just the way they drove that I really, really liked. 

So there I was staring at this Probe and a saleswoman approached.  We spoke about it for a few minutes and she offered me the keys for a test drive.  I can still remember to this day being so impressed at how much power the car had and how it seemed to lurch when the RPMs hit 3500 or so.  It was such a violent surge of power that I actually opened the hood and searched for a turbocharger thinking a previous owner may have installed one. 

The idea of having another manual transmission was a nice bonus, and the overall allure of the car was simply too much.  I ended up agreeing to a trade and soon enough the Probe was mine while the Jetta would be retired.  At this point I had only owned the Jetta less than two months and I didn't even get the title in the mail yet.... but I knew the Probe was a much better option.

As with most of my cars, I spent some time fixing a few things that previous owners had overlooked, and I bought a few parts from junkyards to get things just how I wanted them.  I really did enjoy driving the car and for the most part it treated me well.  The problem I had was that at this point I had two fairly nice cars... the Jeep and the Probe, and I was considering the purchase of a motorcycle so one of the cars had to go.

I tried to sell the Jeep for quite some time, but had little success, so eventually I tried to sell the Probe and it sold fairly quick.  As with most of my old cars I sort of miss having it, and if I ever saw a nice clean Ford Probe GT sitting on a lot I might be tempted to pick one up just for fun... but I doubt that will ever happen.

2003 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T

This was another new car that I bought when I started to realize the Jeep was probably not the best vehicle for me.  I wanted to get into something that was a bit sportier and the idea of a German sports sedan was appealing.  I traded the Jeep in on the Jetta and probably came out ok on the deal, but in the end the Jetta wasn't much more reliable than the first Jetta I owned.

Thankfully I had a warranty, but after three or four trips back to the dealership in the first six months of ownership I was less than impressed with the quality. The other major problem was that when I bought it I couldn't get the color I wanted (white, or possibly gray) so I was stuck with what the dealer had on their lot, and to get a manual transmission with the turbo engine and the options package I wanted left me with one color option... black.  I hate black cars, and I really hated them after owning this Jetta.

This was also about the same time I bought my first home, and I soon realized trying to haul trees, shrubs, and building materials home in a Jetta didn't exactly work, so I started looking for a pickup.  I only owned the Jetta for about a year and although it was a nice car, I can see now it was a mistake to buy it.

2004 Ford F150 FX4

I set out to buy a small used pickup... something like a Chevy S-10 or a Ford Ranger.  However after test driving a Ford Ranger, I opted to test drive a full size F150 and the differences were huge.  Yes it was more expensive, but at the time I sort of got wrapped up in the moment.  I did like the truck and it was reliable, but I never really fell in love with the color (red and gray two-tone).  I also regretted not springing for the four door truck and instead I got the extended cab version. 

The F150 was also my first (and last) experience with leasing, so after 39 months it went back to Ford and I had nothing left to show for it.  I decided at the time that I would never lease another vehicle and I also decided to shy away from buying anything new.  I do still like F150 pickups though, and I may own another one someday, but it won't be new, and it most certainly will not be leased.

2003 Audi A6 2.7T

When the lease ran out on the F150 I opted to buy something that was considered to be a luxury automobile.  I can't explain why I opted for an A6 or even why I focused on Audi, but I do recall trying to decide between an A6 and an A8.  My local VW and Audi dealer is known for bloated pricing (which I learned from trying to buy VWs from them in the past) and I wasn't able to find anything locally, so I ended up buying a car via eBay.

From the moment I got the Audi I loved that car.  I flew out to Cleveland, OH to buy it and I drove it all the way back to Sioux Falls.  I loved the way the car drove, I love how it handled, I loved the power, I loved the options, and I really loved the color (white) - it was a great car.  At first, the A6 was fairly reliable and didn't give me any troubles, and as time progressed I just had to do a few minor things.  However this was at the same time that I found out I was going to be a father, and I started wondering if having an Audi was such a great idea.

I weighed the pros and cons of the Audi versus getting something like an SUV, and it was about this time I started suspecting the turbochargers were going to need to be replaced soon.  I also knew the car was going to be due for a timing belt, and the front suspension needed to be replaced.  All things told, if things suddenly got bad I could have been looking at $4000 to $5000 in repairs, so I opted to trade the car off and move to an SUV.

I do still miss the Audi though, and it was the nicest car I've ever owned.  Because of it I have developed an affinity for Audi and fully expect to own another one in the future.  I just hope I can find out that is a tad more reliable than the A6 I had.

2004 Honda Civic

I can't really say all that much about this car.  My ex-wife (Katie) bought it while we were dating so technically it was never really mine.  I only mention it because after my daughter was born I ended up driving the Civic while Katie drove the SUV since she was responsible for getting Tae back and forth to daycare the vast majority of the time, and we both felt it would be safer for Tae.  In addition to that, I worked on the other side of town so the gas mileage was also a factor.  The Civic was a reliable vehicle and was great on gas, but it just wasn't exciting to drive.  In fact it was flat out boring and I almost felt embarrassed to drive it because it seemed like a "girl car" for some reason.  After the divorce Katie took the Civic and she put something like 110,000 miles on it before finally selling it, so if nothing else she got her money's worth out of it.

2007 Honda Pilot EXL

I sort of purchased this on protest as I was never a huge fan of Honda Pilots.  Katie wanted it and although I had agreed to trade in my Audi, I had my heart set on a white Pilot.  For whatever reason, I have had this thing about white cars and felt a White Pilot looked better than any other color.  My first car was white, and my Audi was white... it just seemed like the perfect color.

However, after a couple of months of shopping we were never able to find a white Pilot.  So one weekend we were wasting some time at the dealership and thought maybe we should take a Pilot out on a test drive.  We drove one, and it seemed nice.  I hated the color (black) but Katie was really excited about getting a newer car so she pretty much had her heart set on it.  Against my better judgement I opted to go for it, and a short time later we were signing the paperwork.

After our divorce I ended up with the Pilot and it was a good car.  I suspect there is nothing very exciting about any Honda, and the Pilot was no exception.  I never got excited about driving it like I did with previous cars, and I honestly never really cared for it.  I hated the color and I was never sold on the styling, but I must say it was super reliable.  I changed the oil and put gas in it... that was about it.  I did have to put brakes on it, but it also had over 80,000 miles so that isn't unheard of, but aside from routine maintenance the thing just ran.  I drove it for over 50,000 miles on it and it never left me stranded... it just worked.

Anyway eventually Katie decided she wanted to buy the Pilot from me, so we worked out a deal and I passed it on to her.  It is still going strong and I expect it to have another 100,000 miles ahead of it if she really wants to keep it that long.

2003 Chevy S-10 ZR2

When Katie decided to buy the pilot, I was sort of under the gun to buy something quick, so I started shopping.  I had been thinking about trying to get a pickup although I still liked the idea of driving a car on a daily basis and just having a truck for when I needed to haul something or when weather required four wheel drive.  Therefore I opted to start shopping for a less expensive truck along with a nicer car.

After a bit of shopping and narrowing down my choices, I settled upon the S-10 with the ZR2 off-road package.  I always liked the S-10 trucks ever since I was a kid, and I have memories of my grandfather buying a new GMC S-15 (the GMC equivalent of the S-10 at the time).  The S-10 was discontinued in 2004 and the ZR2 package was last available on a 2003, so I knew in order to get one it was going to be a bit older and probably have higher mileage.

Thus the search began.  This time around I knew I wasn't going to settle for black, and I really wanted a white one.  However, finding a white S-10 was more difficult than I had anticipated, and finding one that wasn't entirely rusted out or that was in need of major repairs was difficult.  I eventually found a one-owner white 2003 with zero rust, but it was up in St. Cloud, Minnesota which is about four hours away.  I made the deal over the phone, and my brother and I drove up to get the truck.

Thus far I'd have to say I really like the truck.  No it isn't the most powerful vehicle around, and it doesn't handle like a sports car.  It had 125,000 miles on it when I bought it so there were a few things that needed to be cleaned up and the normal Chevy squeaks and rattles here and there, but overall the truck is in fantastic condition for its age, and I think I got it for a fair price.

The Next Vehicle??

Now that I have the truck to get around in, the search has started for the car which eventually will become my daily driver.  I'm focusing my search on RWD or AWD four door sedans, and ideally I'd like to find a vehicle with a manual transmission.  I'm looking at something that is probably about five years old because I don't want to pay depreciation of a new vehicle, and I don't want a run-on-the-mill Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu, so it will take a little hunting to find the right vehicle.

I would consider an automatic transmission if it were a dual-clutch / sequential transmission to allow manual shifting, but I really don't think I want to go for a straight automatic.  The problem is finding a sedan that happens to have a manual transmission is very, very difficult and generally limits me to only a few cars such as select vehicles from Audi or a Subaru.  I also am about 90% sure I want the car to be white, although for the right car I would consider silver or gray.  I can say for certain that I won't be doing black however... that much is a given.

15 cars seems like a lot I suppose, but what can I say - I just like cars.  If space and money weren't an issue I'm quite sure I would probably have a dozen vehicles to suit my needs and desires on any particular day, but since space and money are always issues I suppose I'll have to limit myself to perhaps no more than two vehicles at any given moment... not counting motorcycles of course.  That is very much a different topic for a different day.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Things Even James Bond Can't Make Look Cool

In a recent post, I spoke about James Bond films and the actors that portrayed him.  The character of James Bond is known to be cool, calm, tough, smooth, and to have truckloads of confidence.  He is good at practically everything, rarely makes mistakes, and it is safe to say every man who has ever watched a James Bond movie has wanted to be James Bond at one point or another.

With that being said, there are several things that even James Bond couldn't make look cool.  What are these things you ask?  Well read on:
  • Eating gummy worms
  • Flossing
  • Tripping on his way up a flight of stairs
  • Wearing skinny jeans
  • Trying to run while on ice (without the special shoes made by Q)
  • Hanging out at a Star Trek convention
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • Clipping his nose hair
  • Wearing those gigantic hipster glasses without any lenses in them
  • Trying to scratch a spot on his back that is just out of reach
  • Walking a tiny dog and then having to use a plastic bag to clean up the resulting "landmine"
  • Driving a Smart Car
  • Using a Snuggie
  • Tube socks with shorts... enough said
  • Utilizing a fanny pack
  • Talking on a Bluetooth headset while buying ANYTHING from Walmart
  • Wearing New Jersey levels of self-tanner
  • Using a hula hoop
I'm sure there are many, many more - but the point is even the smoothest guy on the planet can't do everything.  I mean really... could anyone actually make a Snuggie look cool?

I rest my case.