In the modern age, the car is a machine, a tool, something utilitarian. Features are added to meet regulations or to make you spend your money on something slightly better than what you had, or so Brand A can win a spec sheet comparison against Brand B. There’s very, very little soul; whatever little there is has to be engineered in. I don’t think this is the case with cars that are 50, 60, even 70+ years old; even if they had no soul to begin with, over the years they’ve certainly acquired patina, and with it, a history.
In many ways, the two industries are frighteningly similar: technologically complex, requiring huge capital investment for relatively small margins, enormous marketing machines, some semblance of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, and ever shrinking improvements just waiting for whatever technology is just over the bend (hybrids, Foveon sensors, etc.). Perception over substance rules, too. And there’s a lot of crossover between the enthusiasts of both – I have a huge number of students who are also petrolheads. But there are enough differences that one could learn from the other, I think…
In a break from regular programming, I’m going to take up one of my readers’ suggestions from a flickr comment and review something different for a change: a car. There are a few automotive journalists I admire and whose work I enjoy for various reasons; the Top Gear trio, Chris Harris, etc. But I’m going to approach this in the same style I approach my camera reviews: from an unashamedly practical standpoint and with some nice images. I’m an enthusiast and nothing more. Read on if you dare.
What do these two things have in common, other than they’re from (very, very loosely, give or take a decade) the same era?
It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.
*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.
From a recent roll shot with the Nikon F2 Titan, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon and Nikon 58/1.2 Noct on Ilford XP2-400 – somehow, a good number of the images turned out to be of cars, even though they were shot a quite different times. Even more curiously there are quite a few BMWs in there…
Note: Ilford XP2-400 is a C41 process black and white film, which means it’ll give monochrome (if in my experience, slightly toned due to the development chemistry) images through a normal minilab process. However, what isn’t so well known is that the film is also developable in regular black and white chemistry; I used DDX 4:1 at 26C for five minutes, and it worked out just fine – as you can see here. Contrast needed a bit of a boost after digital copying (with my usual D800E and macro lens setup), though, and dynamic range appears to be a bit limited compared to normal black and white negative film. Still, I’m quite pleased with the results. Enjoy! MT
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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved
Perhaps I should have called this post ‘a parable in headlights’. I am a BMW fan, which isn’t to say I don’t like other makes; the lower vehicle is my daily car, and serves me well in a versatile manner for everything from grocery shopping to ferrying the wife around to the occasional spot of sideways driving along my favorite piece of road on Sunday morning. It also has a remarkable engine that puts out somewhere in the region of 210bhp and 450Nm after a little ECU tweaking – oh, whilst managing a consistent 35mpg in our abysmal traffic. (I’ve seen it go as high as 58mpg for long distance cruising, and it’ll do 0-62mph in about seven seconds). I’d say this is much like the car equivalent of the D700: you can do pretty much anything with it, and it does a very competent job and doesn’t get in your way. Even the standard non-M sport base 320i petrol version is a nice drive, and the only difference between the two is body roll, power and suspension stiffness. Otherwise, they handle much the same – think of one as moving along at five-tenths, and the other as eight-tenths.
The new model – codename F30 for BMW geeks – is a bit of a different beast. I test drove two versions – the normal, base, bog-standard 320d with no frills or options; and the ‘sport’ package 328i with (optional) adaptive suspension, active steering and BMW’s new masterpiece turbocharged 2-litre petrol that puts out about 250bhp and 350Nm. The 328i was one of the most nimble, responsive cars I’ve ever driven. It was just so easy to drive; I felt confident straight away and able to push the car to perhaps 90% of its limits (or at least the limits to which I feel comfortable driving on public roads). Even the new electric power steering system, whilst oddly and irregularly weighted at low speeds – the sensation of the rack ratio changing while maneuvering at 5mph feels like the front wheels are losing traction, but you’re most certainly not – becomes perfectly weighted and direct (if a little less communicative than I’m used to) at speed. The paddle shifters, combined with the new 8-speed ZF gearbox, make firing off a gear change fast and easy. And that engine…oh boy. It’s got power and torque everywhere in the rev range, and just feels more eager to rev than the 2 litre turbo diesel I’m driving now, even though the car I drove only had 40km on the odometer. The only thing I didn’t like about the car (apart from the increased price tag, nearly 10%!) was the odd-feeling steering at low speeds. Would I buy this? Hell yes, if I could find some spare organs I didn’t need, or perhaps a hidden hoard of diamonds under my floorboards.
The base 320d (F30) on the other hand, was utterly horrid. I hated it. I didn’t feel confident in the car at all; the suspension wallowed and rolled; the steering was equally odd at low speeds, but strangely disconnected and uncommunicative at high speeds; even the interior materials felt a step down from the other car – even though they were supposedly built at the same plant. Even though the engine was a supposedly updated version of the one in my car, it felt tight and underpowered, lacking the midrange punch between 1800 and 2800rpm that I’m used to. Would I buy this one? No.
I felt that this odd duality gave the new 3 series a similar personality to the D800: a specific tool, which if configured (optioned?) correctly, would do a peerless job; but was also capable of being entirely inappropriate in some situations compared to the old model.
Conclusion: newer isn’t always better, often the refinements mean that what you’re going to use it with (i.e. the engine and options, in this case) is almost equally as important as how you’re going to use it. As a consumer, don’t always get fooled into thinking that you need to change something. Just because a new model is out doesn’t in any way reduce the capability of the existing model you own: yes, it might be better for some things, but if those things aren’t important to you, then why spend more money? You’d be surprised at the number of emails I’ve been getting in the last few days asking ‘D800 or D700?’ when clearly the person using the camera has no need for large file sizes, but every need for speed or higher ISO. Know what you need your tools to do first before you buy them. MT