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Moto-Darwinism

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is a talented and fortunate individual.  From a humble 6th round draft pick to his first pro snap under center in 2001 – Tom's been on an enviable path of pro bowl selections, 3 Superbowl rings and a supermodel wife.  Very, very few people are so blessed with such incredible success right out of the gate -  and I think that's true of cars as well.  Very few great cars are born absolutely perfect. The best cars often begin with a fundamentally sound technical premise and are then allowed to evolve with the aid of sufficient investment, engineering talent and marketing saavy.  Along the way, this evolution is facilitated by a corporate sense of purpose that allows this progress to continue in the face of economic uncertainty and constant shareholder pressure.  In the market today, 4 cars well support this hypothesis:

Porsche 911 – The 911 was introduced in 1963, but shares architectural DNA back to the 356 models from the 1950s.  At a time when most manufacturers strove for bigger, heavier and ever more powerful sports cars, Porsche took a distinctly different approach – a lightweight, modestly powered and air cooled sports car with distinct styling.  These cars had incredible reflexes and good power to weight.  However, in the wrong hands they could be lethal with lift throttle snap oversteer.  Fortunately, high prices and Spartan creature comforts generally confined the 911 to hardcore sports car purists that were able to keep them between the guard rails.  Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the 911 received a series of power and performance increases culminating in the uber 911RS, RSR and 930 Turbo models.  In the 1970’s, Porsche management began to doubt the long term viability of the 911 platform,  and actually designed the 928 as a replacement for the 911.  Fortunately, tradition and good sense prevailed at Porsche and the 911 platform was retained.  Since then, Porsche has continued a path of relentless improvements,  including more benign (but still razor sharp) chassis dynamics, significantly improved reliability, more creature comforts and substantially more horsepower.  The 911 may now be water cooled and far more luxurious – but is still remarkably true to the original design and performance philosophy.   Since the introduction of the 911, many Porsche models have come (and some gone) including the 914, 928, 924, 944, 968, Cayenne, Boxster and Cayman.  But for most, the 911 remains the true and forever face of Porsche.  

BMW 3 Series – The 3 series is the poster child for automotive evolutionary excellence.  The origins of the 3 series are the 1600 and 2002 sport sedans which exemplified balanced performance.  In most every objective performance category the 1600 and 2002 were above average – but where they truly excelled was in the subjective “driver engagement” category.  For 40 years BMW had made this initially good car better in every way.  With supernaturally good handling, awe inspiring straight six and V8 engines and timeless exterior and interior styling – BMW has taken a great initial concept and made it absolutely, positively superb.

Chevrolet Corvette – The Corvette evolutionary story is foremost one of perseverance, for the ascent of the Corvette was anything but a smooth upward trajectory.  From spotty quality in the late 1960s to the generally woeful performance in the 1975-80 timeframe – team Corvette hit more than a few foul balls. And, many enthusiasts fail to realize that the Corvette nearly ceased to exist in the mid 1990s.  Faced with an uncertain economic future, volatile demand for sports cars and the substantial investment needed for the C5 model, GM leadership seriously contemplated cancelling the Corvette after a 40+ year run.  However, John Cafaro and the Corvette design team tirelessly (and secretively) worked on the C5 prototype while securing internal funding and political support for continuing the Corvette program.  When the C5 prototype was unveiled internally – it was simply so compelling, so improved over the C4 model and so excellent - that GM’s commitment to the car was perhaps forever renewed.  Thank heavens for that! Since the introduction of the C5 and subsequent 2006 C6, the Corvette has just continued to improve in all objective and subjective ways.  With the Grand Sport, Z06 and ZR1 –  the Corvette has reached an unimaginable level of relatively affordable supercar performance.  All the while, it has retained its identity as a uniquely American expression of the sports car.  Sports car purists think  the Vette is a vulgar dinosaur due to its continued reliance on pushrod valve actuation and tranverse leaf springs.  They really should read "Lightning Lap" in the February 2011 issue of Car and Driver - where a  Corvette Z06 laps the Virginia International Raceway significantly faster than a Mercedes SLS AMG, E63 AMG, Jaguar XFR, Porsche Boxster Spyder, 911 Turbo S and a 911 GT3 RS!  Brash, bold, V8 powered and in your face – the Corvette probably will never win over the conformist wine and cheese crowd.  Frankly, it could care less.

Ford Mustang – We recently drove a 2011 Mustang GT, and this car is just amazingly, spectacularly good.  Like all great cars, the Mustang was born from a solid initial premise.  A low priced, sporty car that could be almost infinitely personalized to suit the priorities and financial wherewithal of the customer.  From 170 CID six cylinder cars to 271 horsepower, solid lifter“K” motored GTs – Mustang was truly the car for anyone that wanted stylish design, good performance and a great price.  By the late 1960s, it had also evolved into a car with serious performance credentials – aided by the successes of the 428CJ on the drag strip and the competency of the Boss 302 on the Trans-Am circuit.  These model years established a permanent imprint in our conscience about what made a Mustang truly a Mustang.  A big V8, rear drive, capable performance and reasonable price.  But twice Ford fiddled with the Mustang recipe and both times nearly screwed it up for good.  The 1974-78 Mustang II failed to impress Mustang devotees with lame engine options and a Pinto derived chassis.  Mercifully In 1979, Ford rolled out the much-improved Fox platform Mustang. The re-introduction of the 5.0 liter GT model in 1982 was almost singlehandedly responsible for the resurgence of interest in the American performance car (Not convinced?  Ask any American aged 15-50 about the Mustang 5.0, and be prepared for a wildly enthusiastic response).  Despite the good vibes however, Ford almost ran the Mustang into the puckerbrush again in 1989.  A heretical plan to migrate the Mustang to the front drive Mazda 626 platform nearly succeeded until a grass roots letter campaign from Mustang purists prevailed.  From that point forward though, Mustang would remain true to its origins, and year over year just kept getting better.  In an era where many cars are as inpiring as the wine list at a Waffle House - exciting Mustangs just keep pouring out of Dearborn in GT, Bullit, Cobra, Cobra-R, GT350, GT500 and GT500KR variants. After 46 years Ford's Mustang is still iconic, V8, live axle, rear drive and unapologetically power oversteering its way into our hearts.

Here are 4 great cars, each with well over 40 years of tradition and evolution.  None of these cars was born absolutely perfect.  However, they all were based on a compelling initial idea and has been (more or less) allowed to evolve in keeping with the times.  Driving any of these great cars today, we feel a direct nostalgic connection to our past and an appreciation for how well they have raised performance, increased safety and reduced their environmental footprint. That's our kind of Darwinism!

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