Heavy Metal Affliction - Mike Spinelli Pt. 2
In part two of our interview with Mike Spinelli, we get into the cars he has owned and get some details on his gorgeous 2002 Jaguar XJR 100. That, and how he feels about cutting his hair and how beards are perceived these days.
Let’s get right to it!
Heavy Metal Affliction: Tell me about your personal car buying process. How do you go about deciding something is worth buying?
Mike Spinelli: I’m the worst car buyer. I’m terrible at managing risk, since I’ve never had much in the way of disposable income. So I mostly end up on the sidelines, even when I have a few bucks and know a particular car is a good deal. It’s ridiculous. I’ve been doing this a while and I know the landscape, and yet I totally missed the air-cooled Porsche 911 spike, and the Ferrari 308 spike too. I knew they were coming, I even did shows about it, but I couldn’t commit to the risk. Not to mention, I live in the New York metro area, so I don’t have a lot of room for cars. Every new car is a logistical nightmare, so I have to focus one one or two at a time.
HMA: What cars you have owned?
MS: It’s really not that many, and only a couple were any good. I spent a bunch of years with just my ’93 Toyota pickup, which was unbreakable and the perfect city car. I loved that thing. Technically, my first car was a 1966 Mustang that I bought for almost no money. I paid a tow truck driver from the garage where I pumped gas, to drag it home for me. I didn’t even have my license yet. I thought it would make a good father-and-son project. My dad wasn’t into that, so we ended up paying one of his mechanic friends to get it running. Once it was running, my sister took it to Vermont and I never saw it again. After that, I never had any money, so I was always buying whatever was in front of me and was cheap. My first real car was a 1973 Buick Century four-door like the one in the TV show “Kojak.” It was a complete stripper, with a 350ci V8 and three-on-the-tree, which I had converted to a Hurst floor shifter. I messed with that car a bit until it could take on the local Camaros. It was a real sleeper.
1966 Mustang 289
1973 Buick Century “Kojak” sedan
1983 Mazda 626 coupe
1988 Hyundai Excel sedan
1984 Buick Regal Limited
1993 Toyota 2wd pickup
2000 Toyota MR2 Spyder
2002 Jaguar XJR 100
HMA: What is currently in your garage? What purpose does each of these cars serve?
MS: Right now, I’ve got a 2004 Toyota RAV4 that I knock around in. The city can be really rough on cars, and the Toyota is indestructible. I have my MR2 Spyder, which will be my winter project. It needs some TLC, but I love that car. Anyone who thinks the Mazda Miata is the best roadster has to drive a Spyder. It’s engaging and still comfortable for long drives. And then there’s my Jag, which I spend the winter just staring at in the garage, in awe of how beautiful it is. I have to put in a new supercharger idler pulley in that too, and of course I have to drop the radiator to get to it, so it’ll be a winter project as well.
HMA: Now tell me about your Jaguar XJR 100. Was there something in particular that made you buy this car?
MS: I’ve always loved Jaguar designs, and with the X308-era XJ, designer Geoff Lawson really captured the spirit of the first-gen XJ -- the classic one that came out in 1968 -- while updating it for the 1990s. It’s the most beautiful three-box design of its era, which was when cars became more and more rounded, de-emphasizing the engine, passenger compartment, and trunk. The XJR was Jag’s high-performance model with the 370 hp, 4.0-liter, supercharged V8. The 100 was a special edition celebrating the 100th birthday of the late Jaguar founder William Lyons. It’s black with greyish wood veneer and leather Recaros inside, and big Brembo brakes and 19-inch BBS Montreal wheels. It’s stunning. It brings out my inner cockney gangster.
HMA: What do you know about its life before it became yours?
MS: I only know the second owner, Dr. Omar Stratton of Los Angeles. He was chief of staff at the California Hospital Medical Center, as well as a Ferrari nut and huge Formula One fan. He also had a Ferrari Daytona, which was his pride and joy. The Jaguar was his daily driver, and he took excellent care of it. Unfortunately, he passed away at 83 and his daughter had the car listed on the auction site Bring a Trailer, where I bought it. It was dusty and had been sitting for a couple of years, but it was in great condition.
HMA: How much do you think the ownership of a company like Jaguar impacts the cars of the company? What enables or impairs the company to retain its identity when being passed to companies like Ford or Tata?
MS: That’s an important question in the car industry now. There’s no doubt that by consolidating a spectrum of brands, modern car companies have been able to offer buyers more choices, while deriving economies of scale and boosting profitability by sharing platforms and toolkits across many models. That’s how the business works now. At the same time, luxury brands like Jaguar always have to make customers feel like they’re buying something special. It’s jarring when switches or control stalks from a $30,000 model show up on a $70,000 car, so you can really hurt a luxury car by putting too much emphasis on achieving corporate efficiencies.
In an ideal world, the luxury- and performance-car development path would start at moonshot projects – like cutting-edge hypercars and Formula 1 – where engineers can push the envelope of what’s possible, using all available knowledge and tech, no matter the cost. Technology would trickle down to the high-end luxury cars, and then to the economy cars in the line, improving them and making them more competitive and appealing.
That’s not quite how Ford was set up when it brought Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, and Volvo into the fold. Those remained largely independent companies, so Ford had few opportunities to achieve real efficiencies, except for some platform sharing among Ford, Volvo, and Mazda. With Jaguar, which had engineers and designers with a solid vision for the brand, the best thing Ford did was pour money and quality-assurance resources into it, give it access to the best suppliers and purchasing muscle, and then stay out of its way. Jaguar made some mistakes by trying to compete in too many segments to build market share, but the infusion of stability after years of uncertainty kept it together.
You can really see the difference between the previous-generation XJ40 and the later X300 and X308 XJs. The new cars were less quirky, but leagues better. In the end, Ford didn’t get much back from Jaguar to put into its own feedback loop. They did get the Jaguar-developed AJ V8 engine, which was a true, premium-vehicle powerplant that ended up in the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and, after some reengineering, the Lincoln LS. But ideally, Jaguar and the other Premier group brands should have been the tip of Ford’s development spear. But Ford already had a massive R&D program so the point was moot.
HMA: Your XJR represents the last of a long line of XJs that carried the essentially same body style longer than any other car I can think of, except perhaps the Porsche 911. To you, what makes that style so timeless and able to carry itself for so long?
MS: I think the XJ is an absolutely beautiful design. Its proportions are perfect in every aspect, which makes it feel timeless. It was penned by Jaguar design legend, the late Geoff Lawson, who coined the use of “DNA” to describe the visual elements that define a car brand. He used those elements to make the XJ really feel like a link in the chain of Jaguar history, which was hugely important in the context of Ford’s emerging engineering influence during those years.
HMA: What is your favorite element of the XJ? What is its biggest fault?
MS: Really, the design is key for me. But I’m also a huge fan of the supercharged AJ V8. It may not have the character of a V12, but it also doesn’t have the same kinds of headaches. By late ’02 when my car was built, Jaguar had worked out most of the early build problems, like the Nikasil bore liners and the crap plastic chain tensioners, and I think the water pump impeller on my car is metal, not junk plastic like the older models. The Denso electronics are more reliable than the storied, “Prince of Darkness” Lucas stuff in the old days.
The only mechanical problems I’ve had were caused by aging, or corroded module circuit boards. But now I have a guy in San Diego, a retired Navy electronics specialist, who freshens up and repairs dodgy boards for a flat fee. Also, I have a couple of annoying interior issues, a sagging headliner and cracking wood veneer bits, but those can be fixed.
If I were reviewing the car, though, I would have to point out that -- compared to its 2002 luxury-sport competitors, the BMW E39 M5 and Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG -- it has a really shallow trunk, no limited-slip differential and some weird ergonomics. It was largely built on an aging platform that was due for a complete replacement. Its steering and chassis dynamics are generally well tuned, but at the limit the handling starts to fall apart, unlike the E39 M5, which just keeps getting better the harder you push it.
HMA: What do you do with this car? Tell me about an adventure you have had in it.
MS: I’ve mostly taken it on weekend cruises, so no real adventures yet. I’m planning a long trip for this Spring. Up to now, the biggest adventure was buying it. I was with Matt [Farah] and Chris [Harris] and the crew from /DRIVE on NBC Sports, and they saw me staring at the XJ’s Bring a Trailer auction, and they started egging me on. I went a little over my bid limit, but it was worth it.
HMA: You are huge in car world but does the general public know who you are?
MS: It’s funny to talk about being perceived by the public. I like that the people who do recognize me are more interested in talking about specific things I’ve written or done videos about; they don’t treat me like a celebrity. No one wants to take a selfie with me to put up on their Instagram page, like they do with Matt and Chris. But I’ve had some great conversations with people I meet randomly in airports and on planes and at car shows, and I don’t have to be the center of attention. The problem is that now, if I were smart about my career, I’d work toward becoming an “influencer,” which I think means I’d have to do more videos about my life, which is pretty boring.
HMA: How much did your hair define you? Was there a Samson effect? Did you feel different when you cut it off?
MS: Haha. I’ve had long hair on and off since I was 14, and it’s always a kind of relief when I cut it short. But every time I do, the guy who cuts my hair always asks me, are you sure? I guess the further against the grain a style is the more significance people assign to it. Like it’s a major life change. My hair really not a big deal to me; sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t. But I think I’m going to keep it short from now on. It makes wearing helmets much easier.
HMA: What about facial hair? Discuss how a beard or a moustache affects the way people perceive a person.
MS: I can’t grow facial hair without it looking all patchy and weird, so it’s not really an option for me. Facial hair has become such a major style trend that a beard or mustache really doesn’t say much about a person any more. When I was a kid, only cops and firemen had mustaches. Maybe you’d grow one in high school just to do it. You’ve seen those bad prom pictures from the ‘80s, the kid with a mullet and a ratty mustache wearing a powder-blue suit. That was real. But seeing a kid at a punk rock show with tattoos, short hair and a huge beard would have been really shocking. Now tons of people look like that. You never know what’s going to hit, fashion-wise. That’s one good thing about getting older, having the perspective that styles will always change in ways that are both familiar and not. It keeps things interesting.