The Learning Car

For automobile enthusiasts and especially those bitten by the mod bug, there is always a defining automobile. The one that you took your time with and really set out a plan for. You may have had cool cars before, or it may have been your first car. If you had previous vehicles, they may have been alright, but somehow, not quite what you had wanted.

This is the story of my learning car.

My learning car, a 1999 Ford Mustang Cobra, was the first car I purchased for myself purely as a toy. Yes, I'd had two mustangs prior, but at the time they were also my daily use vehicles. This brings me to the first thing I learned about cars.

Daily use and fun can and often do go hand in hand. However, because of the necessity to be reliable and work in varying weather conditions, such vehicles tend to be a compromise. The previous cars, I was forced to keep my builds and plans in check so that I could still rely on my vehicle. Living in Northern Colorado, that also means contending with snow. So with those cars, I never did everything I wanted to them and certainly not in a manor that was thoroughly thought out and executed.

Enter the spring of 2005. I'd been driving around my 2003 Cobra for a year and a half. The girlfriend and I had just purchased a condo and I was ready to pop the question. As they sometimes do, things went south and I was left with an expensive car and now a mortgage on a single modest salary. Risking default, I sold the Cobra and purchased a used Toyota Tacoma on the cheap. It was a good truck that was solid around the edges, but had high mileage. No matter, it was steadfastly reliable.

Six month later at the onset of winter, I happened on an Electric Green 1999 Cobra sitting on a dealer lot in Ft. Collins CO. You don't see too many 1999 Cobra's around and Electric Green being the rarest of color, you certainly don't see those hanging around on a lot. Upon closer inspection I found that it was an ebony interior car instead of saddle, another bit of rarity. I gave it a thorough once over before I caught any attention from wondering salesmen. It had two tiny dings and one of the wheels had some road rash on it. From what I could see through the tinted windows, the interior looked to be in good shape.

Enter the salesman.

He was cordial enough, but as with many salesman I encounter, didn't know dick about autos or especially anything about the car I was looking at. He gave me the standard "it was driven by an old lady" comments about the car. I asked about the price and he offered up that they wanted $19.500 for it and that it had 42,000 on the odometer. Having sold my 2003 Cobra six months earlier for $23,000, pricing on this vehicle was a touch (sarcasm) high. When it comes to dealerships that price vehicles through the stratosphere just because they think they can swindle an onlooker, I don't give them the time of day. I thanked him for his time and let him know the pricing was not in order to even make an offer. I was on my way back to my vehicle when the sales manager greeted me and offered to negotiate on the price.

I had happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was the end of a poor sales month, with winter coming and they had a rear drive mustang on the lot that was going to stay there if it wasn't moved soon. I could go in to full detail, but I got the car for a fair price and significantly under budget. I drove the Cobra home and left my Tacoma at the dealership...I picked that up the next day with the help of a friend.

The Learning Car

The car was all stock, had low miles and aside from the aforementioned ailments, in darn good condition. I had myself a blank canvas to work from. In vehicles before this, I would have immediately purchased an X-pipe and Cat-back for it and started modding. This car was different though. Because I hadn't purchased another expensive new car, I had a lot of budget to work with. I wanted this car to be different. To be special. Instead of spending all my money on modifications instantly, I decided I wanted to try some motorsport with this car. It wasn't a daily driver, so I could beat on it and break it without worry.

This car is how I got in to road racing and lapping events. After careful research and diligence, I went to the track with a bone stock car with nothing more than a brake pad change.

The Learning Car

It was far and away the most fun I had ever had behind the wheel. It didn't matter that the car was stock. It didn't matter that it wasn't the newest and shiniest car there. What mattered was that I was using the car for a purpose that was about true enjoyment and not trying to keep up with what everybody else in the scene was doing. It got more enjoyable as my skill level quickly started to ramp up and I found myself passing cars I had no business passing on a road course in a crude Mustang.

This was a big lesson for me. Having fun with cars isn't necessarily about putting loud exhaust and flashy wheels on them. It's about using them and pushing yourself while you're behind the wheel. I continued to do lapping events with the car in this configuration. Getting better and better all the while. After a set of all season tires and several sets of brake pads (no rotors though) were gone, the mod bug finally bit.

Drawing on my experiences modifying my previous mustangs and the track experience as well, I drafted a plan on what I wanted to do. The car was nimble enough and had enough grip to be decent on a tight technical course. Even as high strung as that DOHC 4.6 motor was, I felt as if she was running out of breath on long straights. What space I would gain through a technical stretch would be swallowed up on the straights. I needed to improve my power to weight ratio, but without unbalancing the car. I went for a cold air intake from JLT Performance and a full length Bassani system with a catted x-pipe and cat-back. The additions bumped up peak power a bit, but also removed about 30 lbs of weight from the vehicle. The soundtrack with that all aluminum, high revving V8 was an added bonus!

I went back to the track and sure enough, the little bit of extra grunt and a bit less weight had helped improve the car were it was falling down. Lap times decreased marginally. Being able to hear the engine a bit better improved my personal performance as well.

Now it was time to tackle a suspension that was in need of a little TLC. One of the isolator rings had started to wear significantly under heat and stress of the road course. The bushings were aging and the factory shocks were giving up the ghost. I called up Maximum Motorsports and opened up my checkbook. One thing you'll hear from pretty much any major tuning house is to never change springs without changing your shocks or struts to match the new rates. Unfortunately for me, the shocks I wanted and needed were on back-order at the time. Knowing I was going to be replacing the shocks once they were off back-order, I went ahead with a spring install anyway. I replaced the rear isolators and completely removed them from the front of the vehicle.

I also picked up a pair of street wheels to add a bit of look to the car when it wasn't seeing track duty.

Before W/New Wheels:

The Learning Car

After:

The Learning Car

While I waited on those pesky shocks, I took part in a track rental with some buddies. Five cars and the entire 2.2 mile road course at PMI to ourselves! It was a blast! What wasn't a blast was the new suspension. The dynamics were awful! It was horribly underdamped and balance had shifted from neutral in stock form to wildly loose. My lap times around the same course had dropped by almost 2 seconds. I made the best of the day and it was back to the drawing board.

The biggest issue was the factory shocks. The springs I installed had simply too much rate in them for the factory dampers to even think about coping with. Once I got the new shocks installed (Bilstien HD's) ride and handling characteristics vastly improved. She was still prone to being overly loose however. With a bit more research and study of the mustang suspension, I found a few issues that may be at play. By lowering the vehicle about an inch and a half at all corners, I plunged the front roll center below ground. This was causing a bit of bump steer and the added tendency to roll was upsetting the chassis. I went to Steeda for their tall ball joint to correct the roll center, as well as full length sub-frame connectors to stiffen the chassis. Back on track, the car's manors were much improved. Turn in feel was back and the car no longer felt underdamped and lost it's tendency to wallow through corners. My lap times had dropped slightly from pre-suspension change madness. A good sign.

Those were the last physical changes I made to my Cobra. It's performance was about as good as it was going to get without spending a lot more money and making it unreliable and expensive to work on. I continued to track the vehicle and simply enjoy what it was and what it had become.

In all the time I enjoyed this vehicle, I performed all the maintenance and installed all of the parts. Instead of throwing parts at the vehicle, I took the time to develop a plan for what I wanted it to do. That diligence let me do things with the car that I hadn't been able to do with anything previous. Not only did I learn how to install, maintain and adjust a suspension system, but I also gleaned critical pieces of information to make the entire driving experience while modified a pleasure. She wasn't the fastest car around and certainly not the fastest around a road course, but she was fun, repeatable and reliable to the end.

That method was so rewarding, that every car I've owned and modified sense has undergone the same diligence to doing it right the first time. Although as I've gotten older I've tended to stray away from modifications, those ideals help with general maintenance and care of even a stock vehicle. In the end, the most important thing I learned with this car was to simply go out and enjoy them. Cars aren't made to sit in the garage and look pretty, or perpetually be down with new parts going on them. The true joy is getting behind the wheel.

In the spring of 2007 my journey with the bright green Cobra came to an end with the purchase of my first Corvette. It was a sad day watching the new owner drive off with my little green track machine. I'm even happy to say that I sold the car for nearly what I originally paid for it. To this day, I've never learned so much from a single vehicle, or had as much fun.

If you've made it this far in my novel, you deserve a cookie and I award you 5 internets. Thanks for reading!