Rewind: the watery Big Bang, the 32-step power steering fluid check, disposable faux-ury.

In a former life as an occasional participant on the fringes of the ol’ illegal street racing, I was a member of an “underground message board” where matches were set up, smack was talked, grammar was tortured, you know the deal, right? The board was well-known for being completely cop/narc-free, largely because the cops didn’t care about two community-college dropouts racing 15-second Hondas behind a grocery store in the sticks at two in the morning and then creating twenty-eight-page forum threads detailing their particular excuses for losing. In fact, until some GTO-driving halfwit managed to kill himself and cripple an innocent woman traveling the other way on the freeway, it was pretty much open season for 40-rolls on the freeways of Columbus, Ohio.

But I digress, so we shall return to the topic at hand. There was a fellow vaguely known as “Concrete Sam” on the boards, some mouth-breathing driveway-pourer who had managed to funnel his entire career’s earnings into a tuned-up C5 Corvette. His “signature” on the boards was “THE VETTE GETS THEM WET — Call me for all your concrete and masonary (sic) needs”. Crass, but honest. You know what you’re getting with Concrete Sam. He has a Vette. It is popular with his chosen genre of female. Also, he is available to do actual work for actual cash, which he probably will plow into his Corvette, enabling him to win more street races, drop more panties, and ever it shall be thus. Concrete Sam is the real deal.

Imagine a spectrum of self-delusion and pretension, if you will. Concrete Sam, tirelessly filling sidewalks by day and chirpin’ in third on the mean streets by night, is on one side of that spectrum. On the other side? Why, it’s the Hublot Big Bang.

As the Reagan era came to a close and the last vestiges of disco died screaming under the relentless, atonal attack of Kurt Cobain’s Fender Jag-Stang, America’s men came to a sudden, almost universal realization: it was no longer okay for men to wear jewelry. Of any kind. Almost overnight, gold rings and sterling-silver necklaces disappeared from the public attire of the middle and upper-middle classes. Perhaps it was the always-present “preppie” influence given additional teeth by post-Carter prosperity. I really couldn’t tell you, but it happened with the kind of speed normally reserved for a change in preferred tie width. It also appears to have been a remarkably durable change; even today, only our urban disaffected wear gold chains. Even such harmless staples as the high-school class ring went from mandatory to horrifying tout suite.

Still, there was one piece of jewelry a man could wear: his watch. This made watches “hot” all of a sudden. The default watch on which one could visibly spend money was the Rolex, so everybody bought a Rolex. But once everybody had a Rolex, wearing a Rolex meant nothing. The “Holy Trinity” of watchmakers — Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audermars Piguet — boosted their prices into the stratosphere to ward off the proles, scarcely understanding that only the (ex-)proles had that kind of money anymore anyway. The demand for new and unique luxury watches far exceeded their supply. What happened next was an odd sort of pre-Cambrian watch explosion as old factories were reopened, meaningless old names were dusted off, and heritages were invented with the sort of free-wheeling fictional license typically reserved for a salesman’s resume. Ulysse Nardin, Bovet, Panerai: out of the Swiss graves and onto the wrists of the oligarchs!

One of the more offensive designs of the Luxury Watchpocalypse was the Hublot “Big Bang”. The recipe for a Big Bang is simple: take the same movement one finds in a $500 Hamilton Jazzmaster watch, put it in a case which is a grotesque, oversized knock-off of Gerald Genta’s designs (full disclosure: your humble author owns a titanium Ingenieur, designed by Mr. Genta), then add a ten-dollar rubber strap to pay homage to Hublot’s “heritage” as a twenty-year-old maker of rubber-strap watches. The resulting watch is “worth” ten thousand dollars or more and is worn by such persons as Bernie Ecclestone (who did an advertisement after he was beaten and robbed of his Big Bang by some watch-ignorant thug who probably overlooked a JLC Master Compressor on the wrist of the guy next to Bernie) and Diego Maradona.

The Big Bang is the perfect “luxury watch”. Its worth consists solely of its price. It is cheap to make and contains cheap parts. Its manufacturer doesn’t even bother to fabricate a “heritage” the way the brand-disinternment crowd does. The only reason to wear a Big Bang is to advertise that one can afford to wear one. Plain and simple. They aren’t even well-made within the confines of their modest technical brief; at a very rainy Petit LeMans a few years ago, a good friend of mine endured the agony of watching his Big Bang Carbon’s face cloud up with internal condensation from an improperly-sealed case. Fifteen grand for a watch you can’t wear in the rain! Luckily it never rains in the Moscow EDM clubs or at David Guetta’s Ibiza DJ-in-residence gigs, or the Hublot would be entirely worthless. Hublot’s razor-sharp sense that a Big Bang is only valuable because of its sticker price finds its most sublime expression in the “Big Bang $3m”, a Big Bang which was loaded with enough diamonds and other junk to not-really-justify a price of three million dollars. Apparently someone was willing to buy it, which caused Hublot to release the “Big Bang $5m” this past year in search of the proverbial bigger fool.

Not everyone is so readily fooled, however, so Hublot and other watchmakers are busy CAD-creating their own “manufacture movements” to replace the generic ETA/Sellita/Valjoux movements found in their products. In this, the Cretaceous period of watch enthusiasm, the ability to engineer and manufacture one’s own mechanical watch movement is essential for “credibility”. Not that the genuine prestige watchmakers all used their own movements anyways, but there’s a certain amount of Cadillac-at-the-Nurburgring idiocy going on: Rolex makes their own movements, and they are a respected brand, so we need to have our own movements as well, even more complicated and feature-packed, and then we will be more respected than Rolex.

There’s just one little problem with that strategy. The proliferation of quick-bake “manufacture” movements is creating an entire generation of hugely expensive, amazingly complicated, completely “bespoke” watches which will be impossible to fix. Most watch repairmen can fix the ETA 2892 movement found in affordable Swiss watches, and most watch repairmen can fix a Rolex because they are numerous and well-documented, but can anybody fix a Grand Complication Tourbillon watch from some company which was in business for three years, selling watches at $150,000 a pop to Chinese entrepreneurs, before going bankrupt and disappearing?

Of course not. These watches, which can’t match a eleven-dollar Taliban graduation watch for accuracy, are also imperfectly ticking down the seconds to their own deaths. That’s good! They are even more perfect as luxury items than the original Hublot Big Bangs, because they are ephemeral. There’s something unpleasantly Protestant about a Rolex, you see. One might wear it for a lifetime, or buy it used, or simply purchase it affordably on the used market and enjoy it for a long time. It isn’t a perfect statement of immediate, current, present wealth. A Rolex or Omega might cost as much as a Ulysse Nardin, but how can one be sure that one just bought it for a large sum of cash on the barrelhead? It might be old, or refurbished! It isn’t a true luxury good unless it expires, the same way a trip to Spain expires, the same way a week in a five-star hotel expires. Only then is it completely unnecessary, totally flashy, utterly ephemeral.

My Porsche 993 is like my Omega Speedmaster Broad Arrow. I bought them both lightly used for a fair price. I’ve maintained them, had them refurbished when necessary, kept them up to spec. They both appear reasonably new, even though they are not. I expect to give — or leave — them both to my son, who will take the uncomplicated ignition key of the Porsche and the polished wooden box of the Omega some time around his eighteen birthday, I expect. Neither is a simple machine, but they are well-understood and can be fixed correctly when required. Neither is a marker of wealth in 2012, and they will be even less so in fifteen years. There’s a simple, mechanical, tangible pleasure in touching and using them both. They exist as worthwhile objects in their own right, farther and farther away from sociological meaning as the years pass. They’ve also both stopped depreciating.

My Boxster S, on the other hand — well, the other day, I heard it groaning. Oh, how it moaned as I drove around the Wendy’s parking lot. Off to the internet to find out that the Boxster is known for eating power steering pumps. It also requires that the fluid be frequently topped-off. I confess that after just 42,000 miles on the car I hadn’t considered its power-steering needs. The power steering pump is $375. Quite a bit of money for something that can’t last 42,000 miles. If a Hyundai Accent had a power-steering pump failure at 42,000 miles I’d call it an unreliable piece of shit. Still. I’d better fill the reservoir and see if that helps.

I’ve detailed the steps below to check the power steering fluid on a 2004 Boxster S. I want you to read them, and consider what Porsche’s own opinion was of the Boxster’s likely durability when they designed the car. Is this a car which will persist for thirty years?

  • Unlatch the top and open it to the approximate half position. At this point, the metal cover for the top will be cantilevered away from the body and the fabric top will be half-folded.
    Reach into the car and find the snap-ball connector which keeps the top attached to the body. This piece feels flimsier than a Suntour derailleur clamp. Pop it off.
  • Go to the other side of the car and do the same thing.
  • There is a plastic/vinyl sheet which is held taut by the top mechanism on one side and two cheap looking plastic clips on the other. Unlatch the plastic clip closest to you. DO NOT BREAK IT. If you do, your top won’t work any more.
  • Go the other side and do the same thing.
  • On the passenger side of the car, push the now-freed glass rear window up and reach down until you find an electrical connector, similar to a computer hard-drive connector. Squeeze it to unlatch it.
  • There is one plastic rotary latch on each side of the top of the carpeted subwoofer. Yes, you have to remove the subwoofer to check the power steering fluid. Unlatch your side.
  • And the other.
  • Lift the subwoofer assembly out of the car. Don’t scratch your $3,600 GT Silver paintjob. Put it somewhere on the ground.
  • There are four more rotary latches to undo on the carpeted panel beneath the subwoofer. Unlatch the ones on your side.
  • And the other side.
  • Lift this flexible carpeted panel out of the car. It’s nice to have help to do this, by the way.
  • Now you’re confronted by a plastic/metal panel sealing the engine compartment. This, at least, has metal fasteners. Unlatch the fasteners on your side.
  • And the other side.
  • Lift this panel, which weighs about 25 pounds, off the top of the car without scratching or damaging anything. Put it somewhere. Again, nice to have help at this stage.
  • The power steering fluid filler and dipstick is at the very edge of the engine comparment. Unscrew and check.
  • Perform all the steps in reverse to reassemble. Be exceptionally careful about the snap-ball connectors. They have a limited lifespan.

Thirty-two steps. To check the power steering fluid. In a car that is well-known to require checking of that fluid on a frequent basis. If you actually need to replace the power steering pump, prepare to enter a new and exciting area of Hell itself. You’ll be lucky if that’s all you have to do. Boxsters are notorious for melting the very lines which carry the fluid to the rack. The lines are more expensive than the pump and require massive disassembly to replace.

My power steering reservoir is empty. My Porsche dealership no longer carries the appropriate fluid, since this 2004 Boxster is a very old car by the standards of people who only expect their watches to last a few years. The nearest shop to have it is on the other side of the city. I’ll refill the reservoir tomorrow and see what happens. It might fix it. It might be just the first stop on a multi-thousand-dollar adventure, on a car which is still depreciating at considerable speed and which, I remind you, has under three years’ worth of use on it by commuter-Hyundai-Accent standards.

I’ve been reading the Paris Auto Show coverage. Most of it was written by people who were flown to Paris by a manufacturer or an exceptionally generous media conglomerate. These people will never own a Porsche. They certainly won’t ever have to take personal responsibility for diagnosing and fixing one. They swallow the sewage-like PR poured down their throats about how wonderfully “upscale” and “luxurious” and “desirable” the Panamera and the 991 and the others are. They don’t ever stop to consider what it means when a company requires thirty-two steps to perform a basic fluid check. Many of them don’t even own cars. Very few of them could fix a car themselves or even perform an oil change.

Modern Porsches, just like the Hublot Big Bangs and their ilk, are ephemeral. Fleeting. Fake. Faux. Luxury. Junk. The pleasure of purchase is all you get. After that it’s a full-tilt rush to buy the next thing. Their Eloi owners won’t think about the Morlocks who own, maintain, race, and enjoy old Porsches. We don’t exist to them. They are simply chasing the next brightest thing. An unfixable watch, worn to a meaningless meeting and left in a disposable “luxury” car. We know it’s luxury because they tell us so, with every press release, with every five-star hotel used for the first drive, with every Chinese-sewn-junk branded polo shirt left on the hotel bed.

The old Porsches, the old Mercedes-Benzes, they had some integrity, some value for the Morlocks, for the third owners, for the hobbyists. They endured. They were like old Rolexes; expensive to run but durable by design. That’s no longer desired, if it ever was. Today’s “luxury” car is just like today’s “luxury” watch. The value of the thing is the price, the presence, the heavy flame-surfaced tank-like offensiveness of an X6 imposing your prosperity on your neighbor’s fragile psyche like a heavy gold chain worn around one’s neck a thousand years ago.

It won’t last. It cannot last. It is a house built on sand. I want to believe that the tide will turn, that we may value vehicles once again for their integrity, their construction, their durability, their real-world performance. The day may come when the Panamera’s successor meets the same icy disdain among the upper-middle-class as the downsized Fleetwood did in 1985. The purveyors of instant junk may push too far, too hard, dare too much, fly too high, crash too hard. The ultimate status symbol may become an old 560SEL, that million-mile aerosedan from another era. It may become the 993, that perfected expression of the air-cooled ethic. It might be an E34 BMW M5, the last six-cylinder gasp of the true M-car. Aw, hell. It could be a C6, for all I know. Concrete Sam could wake up and find that, against all odds, the Vette now gets them all wet.

Postscript: This was originally published October 1, 2012. In April of 2017, I sold the Boxster to a friend who wanted to use it as a track rat. She ended up spending approximately $4,500 addressing a series of cascading failures on the power steering system, replacing some parts TWICE in her quest to get everything squared away properly. The good news is that it’s all working fine now and she’s driven hundreds of laps at Mid-Ohio without any other issues. I will give my old waterboxer credit for being more durable than I ever suspected it would be! — JB

20 Replies to “Rewind: the watery Big Bang, the 32-step power steering fluid check, disposable faux-ury.”

  1. John C.

    Another great article on the difference between flash and substance. The problem comes when the lines get blurred. Lots of coked up crooks had a Rolex on their wrists in the day. I was perusing one of those great English Classic car mags that was talking up the Aston Martin Virage, the last hand built Aston based on the proprietary Aston V8. Great value and a sure winner. One of the used ones listed was formally owned by Lenox Lewis, the boxer and urban style icon. The fact is you can’t keep the low lifes from the good stuff. In the 19th Century, newly rich Americans were thought gross and tacky, and it was true. Today Americans think the Russians, the Middle Easterners, the rappers, and the Chinese are gross and tacky. Also true. The only answer is to keep standards high for luxury makers. Aston wasn’t able too and even Bentley mainly makes it on rebadged assembly line Phaetons.

    Reply
  2. HarryC

    Re: “Concrete Sam”. I’d swear on a stack this is the same guy who used to live on 502StreetScene in 2003 or so, who’d always bitch he couldn’t hook up his “NAWS!” to run autoX.

    Or, maybe every berg just has that guy.

    Reply
    • Eric L.

      I lurked on 502StreetScene before quitting Louisville for San Diego. I can’t figure out where the street racing scene is down here. Not what I would have imagined, as I thought the ricer Civics rolling around the Watterson were imitating some mythic west coast scene.

      That article though… Wow:
      >Eight beers into the evening, George Staton Jr. decided he was up for a “kill” …
      >His wife, Michelle, cried inconsolably as she bent over his body until she was pried away by rescue workers. Following in another car to watch the race, she witnessed the death of the father of their two young daughters.
      Wow.

      Reply
  3. Peter DushenskiPeter Dushenski

    I happened to have re-read this article about a month ago after seeing that, indeed, the prices for pristine 560SELs like my dearly departed “Saddam” were suddenly fetching $35k+ on the open market.

    The vintage watch market, particularly for Rolex and Heuer, which continues its ascendency in the Hondinkee Era, is further evidence to support the theory that durability is increasingly en vogue.

    Even the bonkers success of Richard Mille could well be attributed to the fact that his timepieces are both iconic and nearly indestructible.

    Reply
      • nightfly

        This comment is outstanding, especially as this page loaded for me with an ad for Tag Heuer with the pitch line #DontCrackUnderPressure.

        Yes, the pitch uses the hashtag and doesn’t apostrophize the “Don’t,” primarily because punctuation kills the hashtag and it would just be #Don, and Don doesn’t need that sort of grief in his life I guess. Grammar is breaking as quickly as high-status consumer goods lately.

        Reply
  4. JustPassinThru

    As a permanent member of the Prole Class, yet one who has feet in several other castes…I found it all illuminating and darkly hysterical.

    Sam and his get-em-wet Vette. A million years ago, a young buck, I got into motorcycling partly for the same reasons. The same virility advertisement. But, since I favored the UJM with effective muffling, over open-piped Harleys…I had success but limiting.

    A longtime friend, now deceased, came from East Cleveland. Clevelanders’ antennae are up…no, he was as white as me. His family resisted the White Flight of the late 1950s, and he grew up in a neighborhood that had gone ghetto.

    It showed in his taste. He had a big ring, made out of a kruggerrand. I kid you not. Had the Rolex; and the Italian suits; and the designer khakis and loafers.

    He worked the same job I did, for Lake County…pay, $20,000 a year. Was it worth it? Maybe to him. We were an interesting pair, since my two suit-makers were Levis and Sears, and my watch came from Casio.

    But…some tastes are inculcated early. He was Ghetto Fabulous, and he lived and died that way.

    His car was an Eldorado – a 1985. Borrowed the money from his gram to pay for it (he was 34). My car, same time, was a Toyota pickup. Since I did the light-wrenching on Bill’s Eldo, I had plenty of time to compare the two design philosophies.

    And that difference continues today. There is quality…and quality.

    Quality of PERFORMANCE, is what BMW/VW/MB/other European elite brands, offer. Or at least suggest. VWs, since the NSU takeover-from-within, have been all about road performance. Porsche, now part of VAG, are in line with this.

    Then there’s engineering of durability. Toyotas, mostly, have been pretty bland cars. Even in their explosive-growth years, the 1970s and ’80s, they were cursed with bland, often bizarre styling…crude shifters…wooden steering…poor handling.

    They lasted. And where they fell short, in rust-prevention, Toyota worked to improve. And did.

    And many makers followed their lead – particularly Hyundai and Kia. Nissan, the onetime front runner, has been taken over by the French, and now has all the problems expected.

    So here we have the bookended design-and-marketing philosophies. The People’s Car Company, Volkswagenwerk, has become die Reichen-volkswagenwerk. Cars for rich people.

    Who are then expected to pay rich-people’s prices to do repairs and maintenance.

    Which happen far sooner, and cost far more, than repairs to prole Kias.

    Which leads to ten-year-old VWs tossed into scrapyards, for repairs that should have been simple to make – just a module replacement; just some power-steering lines.

    But planned-obsolescence, taken far beyond anything Harley Earl ever promoted, now translates into deliberately making these rich-people’s chariots prohibitively-expensive to repair.

    Reply
  5. Jeff Zekas

    My parents owned two sixties-era BMW’s, which really embodied “German quality”… imagine my shock, driving my son’s modern 3-series: cheap materials, constantly breaking parts, trim falling off… he got rid of the Beemer and bought a Toyota truck: lesson learned. You can only run on “heritage” for so long, before the proles wake up, and find a durable substitute.

    Reply
    • John C.

      Not really sure Toyota pickups are the smart answer to every automotive question. By choosing a truck for personal rather than commercial use, you are condemning yourself to fewer creature comforts, worse mileage, higher emissions, and worse ride and handling. It is true, that these days not as many women disqualify a man for making such a choice, but they used too and the fact that they don’t is just another manifestation of dropping standards.

      In choosing a Toyota over a well engineered domestic, you are transferring your wealth out of your community to overseas. Often this fits some political point you are making, but people do notice, and like a gold coin ring of JPT’s friend above,not all the attention you are drawing is complementary

      Reply
      • JustPassinThru

        I take exception to this, John – and we may have had this discussion before, at the other site.

        Toyota is an international company – the world headquarters are in Japan, true. But they have manufacturing plants worldwide – and Americans’ trucks today come from San Antonio.

        They are bought from dealerships. Owned by American businessmen, often locally, sometimes a regional chain. But American.

        Some of the designs on some of the products are done in the home markets. Much of the components and base material is locally sourced…Toyota has had several recalls with their Tacomas because of prematurely-rusting frames.

        Made of AMERICAN steel. When they sourced frames from Japan they had no problem. When they contracted American sub-manufacture for their frames (which has always been common in the States; A.O. Smith’s big business was automobile frames) those frame corroded.

        First time there was an issue, Toyota voluntarily had customers (used!) trucks rebuilt on new frames. Costly. When a second series of frames were found defective, Toyota bought them back.

        FWIW, I never heard of Ford or Chevrolet or Rambler (three makes of models I know had severe rust issues) buying back rusty product. The only other company to do that was Honda…gee, another Japanese company.

        Reply
  6. hank chinaski

    I could probably buy a serviceable used car today with the amount of Au I sported back in the day.

    Pops has an old Zodiac dive watch that looks a lot like those Big Bangs.

    Reply
  7. CJinSD

    A third owner Cayenne can look quite presentable while being on its final tank of gasoline. The people who buy them for mid-four-figure prices can’t even afford to change the oil, let alone repair any of the car’s systems.

    Reply
  8. cwallace

    Jack, your Eloi/Morlock analogy really helped me understand the purpose of “expensive to run, but durable by design”, and who it is for.

    I daily a Land Rover almost old enough to drive itself, and like you am the current custodian of my son’s Omega (Seamaster Planet Ocean Co-Axial, thanks for asking). My neighbor recently brought home a top-line Wrangler, and enjoys telling me all about the things he’s paid someone else to bolt onto it. He visited my garage while I was replacing an air strut and, asked the inevitable “why don’t you just get a new Jeep like mine? You can afford it. Why do you keep messing with this Land Rover?”

    My first thought was that I have zero interest in being a shorn-fendered, cloudy-LED-bar Jeep person, but there was more to it than that.

    “I do this because men like you can’t.”

    Reply
  9. Sam Zimmerman

    So if we are looking at current rides, what do you see as well-engineered cars/trucks built for the long term. It seems like even the least expensive cars built today will go for 150K miles without too much effort. What do you see as the next 993 or Mercedes 560SEL?

    Reply
    • CJinSD

      The Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus LX570 is about it. Everything else is either engineered badly or built down to a cost.

      Reply
  10. -Nate

    I used to think Timex watches were quality because I couldn’t wear them out, only beat them to death and mailing them to Arkansas resulted in it being fixed *very* cheaply and mailed back .

    I hope to God no one ever decides old Mercedes are hip ’cause my battered but unbowed 400,000 + mile beat to shit W123 Diesel Sports Coupe would prolly get stolen .

    I can’t imagine paying any money to impress anyone else .

    If you need a car, truck or Motocycle to get laid, you’re a worse sad sack than _I_ am .

    -Nate

    Reply
  11. JustPassinThru

    You know…following back on this, a couple of days later…there’s nary a mention of the disposable-luxury goods of the era of bricklike Mercedes-Benz cars. I mean, cars like the 1959 Cadillac – which were, in THEIR day, designed to be used for a short time and discarded.

    Now they were well-lathered with bling. And as Smokey Yunick wrote, in those days, Cadillac engineers actually spent some time in the Cadillac Engineering shop. The automatic transmissions were the best GM had at the time, maybe, in durability, for all time.

    The bodies were crap. The styling was gauche. The best feature of the 1959 Cadillac was the Cadillac crest. Loud and uncouth it was, but by gum and by God, it’s a NEW…CADILLAC.

    Which of course only stayed new for twelve months or so. By the time I was counting cars, those finned farces had drifted into the ghettos and trailer parks, and were coming to roost in wrecking yards everywhere. You had some semi-illiterate J.D. teen with his 13-year-old runaway girlfriend…even chances his car would be that last hurrah of Harley Earl.

    So. Disposable luxury goods are not new. What’s changed, and this is concerning, is that the Bling-and-Toss crowd is winning over the timeless generational quality buyers.

    Reply
  12. Dave L

    I wonder if this piece was written in the present, Hublot would be replaced by the exponentially more garish Richard Mille.

    Reply

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