In pictures: The cars of Leftlane News

  by Leftlane Staff

In pictures: The cars of Leftlane News

The landscape of automotive journalism has changed drastically over its history, and so too has the typical automotive journalist. In the heyday of print, many prominent auto writers were engineers--not known for their skill with words, perhaps, but when you can afford a talented editor, that's not such a big deal.

There were racers, too, and hobbyists. There were "creatives," as there always have been. Writing and driving talent are not mutually exclusive, after all, and often having both wasn't even necessary. The profession was concentrated; even those with no mechanical or racing backgrounds became authorities through repeated exposure to the subject matter. Drive enough cars, in other words, and you will inevitably become an expert on what works and what doesn't. 

It's not enough for a writer to simply describe a car, or even the experience of operating it, as these details are meaningless without proper context--something which appears in many different forms. It can manifest as words of experience, outright bias, or something more subtle that can't be as easily detected.

More and more, it seems that automotive journalism is no longer journalism, but a venue for brand evangelists to quarrel over which luxury automaker more properly perforates its leather. Fanboys disguise themselves as impartial judges. Sponsored content is often indistinguishable from honest-to-goodness editorial. Nuance has given way to hyperbole; everything must be the best or the worst, and often it is so-described by people who themselves don't even own cars, let alone have to live with them every day.

We all write what we know. We put a little bit of ourselves into everything we produce. Who are we? We are owners. We are drivers. We are unabashed automotive enthusiasts, but as anybody who's taken a creative writing class knows, it's always better to show than it is to tell. Come along with us, then, and we'll do just that. These are the cars of Leftlane News, past and present. Welcome to our world.

Drew: 1978 Jeep Cherokee

Drew Johnson, Managing Editor

This is Daisy, our family’s beloved 1978 Jeep Cherokee. I started the search for a Full Size Jeep shortly after the birth of my son; prior to his arrival my wife and I enjoyed attending the local cars and coffee in my 1966 MGB GT, but that was no longer possible with a party of three (there were no seatbelts for the GT’s rear bench in ’66).
While the later Grand Wagoneers get a lot of love, I’ve always been a fan of the earlier models. I just like the vintage look and feel of them. I spent months searching for a 1978-or-earlier model, but kept striking out — one got away on eBay, I missed out on another that was on the East Coast and I flew to Florida to look at a Wagoneer that looked promising on Craigslist but ended up having more rust than I wanted to deal with.
Lo and behold, a bright yellow 1978 Cherokee popped up on Craigslist about an hour a way from me just a few days after I returned from Florida with my tail between my legs. It had everything I wanted — four-doors, decent body work, a couple of vinyl benches and, most importantly, those classic Jeep hubcaps. I bought it immediately.
I don’t have a full history on Daisy, but she was clearly loved by the original owner for a long time. I have a pile of paperwork on her, including the window sticker, warranty booklet and even the paperwork for the original loan. The odometer is only five-digits, but displays a believable 84,000 miles.
During the summer months we use Daisy for fun family outings — picnics, ice-cream runs, trips to the park, you name it. It’s a fun way of doing things together and hopefully it’s imparting a love of cars on my two young children. 

Byron: 1990 Mazda Miata

Byron Hurd, Buyer's Guide Editor

This not-so-sterling example of Japanese aluminum and steel is my 1.6L runabout. Purchased eight years ago, it's a bit of a survivor (if any 30-year-old sports car can be called such). It has just shy of 220,000 miles on the odometer--maybe 10,000 more than it did when I bought it--and holds the distinguished honor of being the car I've owned longer than any other, past or present. 

I don't name my cars, but this one has been called many things: "****box," "that ****ing thing," "the stupid Miata." My then-girlfriend, now-ex-wife called it "the other woman" whenever she saw fit to point out that I'd yet to buy her a ring. 

In my defense, I spent only $1,350 on it initially, and maybe as much to fix it up. It came home on a set of 15-inch Rota Spider Evolutions, which were promptly re-wrapped in Falken Azenis RT-615s and put to work for autocross and track duty despite their heft. The interior basically didn't exist, which I rectified to a degree I deemed reasonable; a roll bar and suspension refresh took priority.

As years went by and life intervened, the Miata was demoted from track and autocross rat to winter car (you read that correctly). It now sits on a set of OEM "Daisy" wheels and General Altimax snow tires. If she were ever mighty to begin with, perhaps she's fallen, but the ****ing thing still works.

Justin: 1999 BMW M3 Convertible

Justin King, News Editor

To be blunt, I never really liked the E36 styling. This was a random purchase, bought from a friend, and my taste has since warmed to the E36... probably because it drives like a dream. The Estoril Blue paint doesn't hurt.

Buying advice: Don't get a convertible. Mine leaks like a sieve, likely explaining why it came without a back seat where the water tends to collect. And even if it was sealed tight, the chassis flex is very pronounced. If you want the wind through your hair, get a Miata or an S2000.

Ronan: 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD

Ronan Glon, European Editor

My current daily driver is a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee but it's probably not what you have in mind. It was manufactured by Magna-Steyr in Graz, Austria, and it's powered by a 2.7-liter five-cylinder turbodiesel engine lassoed from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin -- #DaimlerChrysler, of course. 

The CRD provides 163 horsepower and as much torque (295 pound-feet) as the lesser of the WJ's two available 4.7-liter V8s. The five-speed automatic transmission came from Germany along with the engine, while the Quadra-Drive four-wheel drive system is all Jeep. Engine aside, it's almost identical to the second-generation Grand Cherokee sold in North America. The most notable visual differences are fender-mounted turn signal repeaters and reflectors integrated into the rear bumper. The build sheet also lists a "firm suspension" fitted to European-spec cars.

Ben: 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser

Ben Hsu, Weekend Editor

The Toyota Land Cruiser is known the world over for its indestructibility. It is the weapon of choice in even the most remote corners of the globe, and can be found stomping over any kind of terrain, whether jungle or desert or mountain. I searched long and hard for a 1987 FJ60 chassis (built between 1981-87), as it was the last year you could get a manual transmission in stick-averse America. With a 4-speed mated to a 4.2-liter inline-6 making just 135 horsepower, it's not fast, but the 210 pound-feet of torque it has grunt when you're scaling a rock-strewn landscape. Plus, with a new set of Yokohama Geolandar M/T G003 tires, it's quite composed on-road and comfortable at a 70 mph cruising speed.

I missed the boat on getting a previous-generation FJ40 for a reasonable price — prime examples are worth $80,000 now, but I think the FJ60s will be next to shoot up in value. 1987 was also the last year for carburetion too, so in addition to being a final-run collectible it's EMP-proof as well. The Land Cruiser serves as insurance in two ways. 1.) I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that if a zombie apocalypse breaks, I can bug out to just about anywhere that doesn't require a boat. 2.) If armageddon doesn't happen, it'll make a nice little nest egg.

Drew: 1997 BMW M3

The Jeep scratched my itch for a vintage family cruiser, but I still yearned for something more fun to drive. I still had the MG, but it was becoming harder and harder to sacrifice family time for wheel time in it. So I did the sensible thing and sold the MG and started looking for a sporty family hauler. I wanted something modern but still analog, so I settled on an M3/4/5 (insider talk for an E36 M3 with four-doors and five-speeds).
BMW sold about 4,500 M3 Sedans with a manual transmission during the 1997 and 1998 model years which may sound like a decent number, but keep in mind the newest E36 M3 Sedan is now 20 years old. And during that two-decade span most E36 M3s have been turned into track rats or fallen into complete disrepair.
I spent the better part of six-months scouring every used car site looking for an M3/4/5 with decent miles and an interior color that wasn’t gray. As with the Cherokee, I found several promising leads, but everything sold before I could get to it.
But then the stars aligned and I found a Boston Green over Magma M3 in Bozeman, Montana (of all places). Best of all, it turned out to be a one-owner car with the very rare sunroof delete. I bought the car sight unseen and had it shipped home to Cincinnati.
Whereas the MG sat in the garage until I could find a few fleeting weekend moments to take it for a spin, I use the M3 on a daily basis during the warmer months, taking the kids to school and running whatever errands need to get done. It’s a fantastic little runabout that always brings a smile to my face. I’m not sure that I’ll hang on to it for 20-years like the original owner, but the M3 is a car I’m not planning to part with anytime soon.

Byron: 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392

When I tell people I own a Miata and a Challenger, the reactions vary from incredulity to suspicion. It's the sort of admission that invites "expert" reactions, like, "Seriously? In Ohio?"

I purchased the Chally CPO from a local dealer in June of '17 with just 31,000 miles on it. The LX cars have always spoken to me. They've never been the best at anything (save perhaps their superlative ability to convert fuel into noise), but they ooze charisma in a way that few affordable modern offerings do. I don't see the Challenger as a Mustang and Camaro competitor, but rather as a poor man's E64 AMG Coupe with a stickshift that Mercedes-Benz would never consider including.

It's a big, dumb car that puts a big, dumb smile on my face, and that's as valid as any other reason for purchasing a car. So delightfully tacky is my Plum Crazy Purple 392 that it inspired me to apply for a vanity plate for the first time, which in turn led to my "creativity" being featured on Jalopnik. My backup, "H8 BEIGE," made the cut. 

The Challenger is not my first rear-wheel-drive car (the Miata gets that honor), nor is it my first V8 (I owned a 2015 Ford Mustang GT for almost two years; its fob is featured in Leftlane's holiday slideshows.). It is, however, my first purple car. Perhaps surprisingly, that's not even a Leftlane first; Drew's fourth-gen Z/28 holds that honor.

I've been told on many occasions that I should sell the Challenger and (not quite in these words) "get something that doesn't suck." Usually, the advice is coming from somebody whose automotive knowledge doesn't include the ability to distinguish a Challenger from its four-door sibling, so you can imagine the regard in which I hold such opinions.

Justin: 2004 Infiniti FX45

This is an amazing all-around vehicle. I consider it more of a jacked-up hatchback than an SUV. For a 14-year-old performance crossover, this is an absolute bargain compared to a Porsche Cayenne. Its 4.5-liter V8 absolutely loves to be pushed and the exhaust note still puts a smile on my face after 30,000 miles.

Buying advice: There are many reports of engine failure with the 2003-2004.5 model year FX45, typically due to rod bearing failure. I picked up one such victim to use as a parts car (the oil cooler seal leaked and the previous owner let the oil run down). But beware -- the engine must be removed from the bottom, and rebuilt FX45 engines aren't cheap. Nissan apparently changed the oil pan baffles, pickup tube, oil pump and rings by the 2005 model year, just ahead of a facelift for 2006. Look for one of these, or just get an FX35 with Nissan's tried-and-true VQ35DE V6.

Ronan: 1979 Mercedes-Benz 300D

There's another five-cylinder diesel listed on my insurance policy. This one is naturally-aspirated and a lot more basic than the one in the Jeep. It's bolted under the hood of a 1979 Mercedes-Benz 300D. It's my fifth w123, a three-owner car with a four-speed manual transmission and roughly 280,000 kilometers (about 170,000 miles) on the clock. I purchased it in 2014 from a Mercedes enthusiast who bought it in 1980. It had been parked in his garage for about a decade when I got it.

The prolonged period of hibernation preserved the body while dry-rotting every single part made of rubber, from the tires to parts of the shift linkage. I'm a former mechanic so getting the 300D back on the road was relatively straight-forward. I used it daily before buying the Jeep on a whim last summer. I even drove it to the Geneva Auto Show one year and managed to score one of Switzerland's eye-wateringly expensive speeding tickets right after the first press day. The Mercedes is unquestionably the car I'd keep if I had to whittle down my driveway to just one vehicle.

Ben: 1997 Lexus SC 300

The newest car I own is 20 years old now, but it still drives as smoothly as the day it left the dealer lot. Another manual transmission swan song, 1997 was the last year Lexus offered a 5-speed with its bulletproof and butter-smooth 3.0-liter straight-six. It was also the first year of the facelift, which added a small grille, chrome-ringed taillights, and a tougher looking body kit. Many SC enthusiasts, myself included, believe this to be the better looking version. That means it was the only year the facelift and 5-speed overlapped, and if this ClubLexus post is correct, my car is one of just 120 such cars made.

In true Lexus fashion it soaks up potholes like a memory foam mattress and ensconces you in serene tranquility while gliding through gridlock, but to be honest, on city streets it always feels a tad too big. On vast open interstates, that's where it comes alive. It's a true grand tourer, built to cut down freeway miles like a hot katana does bamboo. Meanwhile, inside, surrounded by leather and real wood, the atmosphere is as calm as a sleeping baby. If you have the optional Nakamichi stereo system, you’re free to enjoy studio-like sound quality, but even the unbranded Pioneer 7-speaker, 5-amp audio setup is fantastic.

Don’t get me wrong, the SC also drives brilliantly on curves. The steering feel is precise and taut, its suspension able to conquer the tight turns of any mountain road if not for the car’s girth. It’s superbly balanced, letting you know exactly when the aft tires are about to break traction, but allowing you to push it over the edge with linear predictability. And should you lift off the throttle, the rear snaps right back into place with no drama.

Back when it was new, Road & Track called the SC 400 a car in a class of one. The Acura Legend slotted below and was front-wheel-drive. BMW’s $90,000 V12 850i cost twice as much and was only slightly quicker. And the Jaguar XJS was neither cheaper nor a more engaging dance partner. Plus, it broke a lot.

And that's the key for any car that purports to call itself a grand tourer — you must never doubt its durability. I drove 3,200 miles cross-country in my SC, and there were stretches where I didn’t see another human being for hours and dead zones with no electronic lifeline to the civilized world. I never once felt unsure about its granite solidity. All 90s Lexus cars were remarkably overbuilt, thanks to Bubble Era habits and the fact that Toyota needed its luxury marque to excel. But I’ll wager a body part that any given 1990s Lexus will outlast any new car built in the last five years.

Drew: The others

1966 MGB GT: As I’ve mentioned several times already, I used to own a 1966 MGB GT. Growing up my family was very active in the local MG club, so I had a natural affinity for them. But while my parents owned a couple of MGB roadsters, I lusted after the sexier GT hardtop. I remembering seeing a GT for the first time at a car show when I was about six-year-old and it completely blew my mind. I’m particularly a fan of the 1967 and earlier cars due to their steel dashboard and simpler, pre-emissions mechanics.
1993 Chevrolet Camaro Z28: I purchased my Camaro during my sophomore year of college because it was the cheapest way to go fast back in 2003. I paid just $3,000 for it and used it for bracket racing and some SCCA autocross events. It squeaked and rattled but never skipped a beat. I hung up my racing shoes in 2012 and sold it to fund the purchase of my MG.
2006 Dodge Magnum R/T: I purchased the Magnum in 2009 to serve as my daily driver. DaimlerChrysler interior materials aside, the Magnum was a wonderful car….until it wasn’t. Eight-years into my ownership an electrical gremlin reared its ugly head and would randomly put the car into limp home mode or shut the engine off completely. I sold it to a local dealer last year with just 74,000 miles on the clock.
2011 Dodge Durango Citadel: Yes, even after being stung by the Chrysler bug once, I went right back to the well. With two kids and a dog, we decided it was time to take the plunge on a three-row family vehicle, and the Durango is one of the more palatable vehicles in the segment (especially with the HEMI V8). Moreover, the Citadel comes packed with a lot of tech, so I have niceties like keyless entry, a heated steering wheel and adaptive cruise control. I drive it daily in the winter and it’s also the car we pack up for vacations and road trips. 

Byron: The others

There was a time when I owned a small fleet of cars, but life has a way of interfering in hobbies. For the time being, my fleet has dwindled to just the Challenger and Miata featured earlier in this slideshow, but my automotive ADD will strike again; it's only a matter of time. Here's (ample, but not comprehensive) proof. 

1995 Volkswagen Passat GLX: This was my first car, and one of my more brief ownership periods. I bought it for the usual reasons (I was 17 and thought German car ownership was a hallmark of automotive enthusiasm.) and sold it for the usual reasons (I was 18 and German car ownership had made me a slave to retail labor.). The VR6 was great, and the lesson was an important one, but learned the hard way.

1997 Jeep Wrangler: This was my father's sight-unseen eBay purchase circa 2009. He picked it up to replace another TJ which he'd sold when my brother reached driving age, knowing full well it would end up on its side (or worse) in the hands of my impulsive sibling. With him out of the house, my dad was free to indulge again. A vocal hater of used-car ownership, he got fed up with it in just a few years and handed it down to me after purchasing a 3.8L JK Wrangler to replace it. Not only was it a 2.5L, 5-speed, non-AC car, its durability was everything you'd expect from a first-year Chrysler product of the mid 1990s. I sold it in 2017 and haven't looked back. 

I expect I'll inherit the 2010 soon enough.

2006 Mazda6 5-Door: This was my first new-car purchase. I bought it in my final year of college with my no-longer-Volkswagen-depleted savings and the glimmer of professional life appearing on the horizon. Hey, it was 2006. We didn't know. 

The 6 was an amazing car, and the first one I was actually able to modify (rather than simply repair). It was also the first car I autocrossed and tracked. 

2008 Mazdaspeed3: This was my first true enthusiast car. It's shown above, wearing Nolan Ryan's "34" and being tossed through the Keyhole at Mid-Ohio circa 2008 or 2009. The little beast never gave me any trouble that wasn't wear-related (it liked to eat CV boots, engine mounts and suspension components) and happily endured engine massaging that put roughly 300 horsepower to the ground and shamed many an unsuspecting lease-spec luxury car on my old D.C. commute. 

2015 Mustang GT/PP: My first V8, and really my favorite of all the cars I've owned. It saw its share of autocross and track events before life intervened only a year into ownership and forced me to sideline it. It sat in my driveway for another 12 months before I gave up and unloaded it for a Fiesta ST, which got me through the lean times. It was the Fiesta which was ultimately traded for the 392 once the dust  from my personal life settled.

Ronan: The others

The Jeep and the Mercedes need company, right? To that end, I've also got a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle, a pair of Renault 4s, a 1978 Citroën 2CV4 (pictured), a 1983 Citroën GSA, and a 2007 Renault Kangoo panel van to haul parts for the other ones. There's also a ran when parked-style 1968 Solex moped tucked away in a dark, unswept corner of my shed and, finally, a 2010 Citroen C3 my wife and I bought new. All of them run but some are projects; the 2CV you see above is currently in a dozen pieces, Ikea-style, in my garage.

The catalog of cars I've previously owned is far too long to list. I've thinned the fleet significantly, too. Consider this: in the last year and a half or so, I sold an Alfa Romeo GTV, an Alfa Romeo Milano, another w123 300D, two more Renault 4s, a mid-1990s Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon, a Citroën Visa, and a pair of Renault 14s. The Grand Cherokee and a 1991 Toyota Corolla wagon I bought from a friend in college are the only misfits in my 40ish car-long streak of owning European cars. Most have been classics.

The cars I've got left with are keepers with one notable exception: the Jeep. It's been fun, I've enjoyed exploring the hills around town in it, but it's time for a change. I'm not sure what I'll replace it with; something older, most likely. Another Saab 900, perhaps? I haven't owned one of those since I was 18. I've never owned a Peugeot or a Volvo. Alternatively, I certainly wouldn't mind another Mercedes 300E. Decisions, decisions...