It was a long, wide baseboard in a bedroom of the brick house which hadn’t been disturbed since the house was built in approximately 1898.  The wood is chestnut.  Virtually all of the wood in the structure of the house is chestnut.  The magnificent, sweeping ash staircase is chestnut, though the bannister is cherry.  The trim around the towering windows is chestnut.  The floor joists and the two layers of 1″ sheeting behind the brick exterior are chestnut.  Even the loose floor in the attic is made of clear, straight chestnut boards.

Anyway, I was prying on this baseboard to make way for new wiring.  As I worked at it I noticed that the final two feet had been joined to the 12′ board with a very clever butt joint shown in the photo above.  Those aren’t the usual horseshoe-type flat nails used elsewhere in the building.  These are true square nails, and much smaller than the others.  I guess they must have been the finishing nails of the time.  These are the only two I have encountered in this building, despite extensive renovations since 1966.

Now look at the photo and determine what the guy did with the nails.  He clearly drove each into the wood, persuaded it to turn 90 degrees, and keep going straight.  This was no lucky accident:  both surfaces of the end grain have been planed for an exact fit.  It was only as the joint opened from prying that I realized it was there.  The baseboard did not rely on nails into a stud for support at that point.

This craftsman with a pair of nails and a hand plane did what today we would use a biscuit jointer or dowels to accomplish.  The same guy fitted the curves of the ogee moulding at the top of the baseboard, not with a coping saw, but with a gouge, a very sharp, scooping wood chisel.

Then there’s the knob-and-tube wiring, installed in the summer of 1939.  My job was to pull up tongue-and-groove pine boards to expose the wires from above.  When my friend looked at the array of wiring in the cavity under the floor of a bedroom, everything lined up precisely, all of the ceramic insulators exactly the same, every joint done with pride, he exclaimed:  “These guys were masons!”  Then we set about wrecking their work.  Progress.

I can justifiably claim some credit for that population explosion because I let a local businessman who harvests pine boughs onto our land.  The crew prune the lower branches of the 5 to 10 year-old white pine trees and haul the bundles of foliage to Toronto for sale in the booming Christmas decoration market.  The guy says it enables him to keep his construction crew active for an additional month each fall.  They’re good at what they do and the overall quality of the stand shows improvement from their efforts.

An unanticipated consequence of the pruning of the trees is more sunlight in the rows of the plantation, an area away from the hay harvesting machinery.  Milkweed plants grew rampant last summer.  Monarch butterflies emerged and flourished around the property.

I figure the timing was good.  Dog Strangling Vine (DSV) is spreading rapidly in the Chaffey’s Locks area.  Monarchs are attracted to this milkweed-relative to lay their eggs,  but the caterpillars can’t eat the stuff so those hatchings are lost.  Along with allowing the milkweed plants to grow without mowing them, I’m carefully patrolling my property for DSV.  I found and uprooted 6 stems last summer, though it has taken over another woodlot a half-mile away.  I’m prepared to encourage milkweed growth to crowd out DSV and wild parsnip.
Besides, Granddaughter Ada likes to play with the dried seed pods.

In 2003 Porsche came out with a radical machine, a sport utility vehicle to compete with the Range Rover, the Mercedes G class, and the BMW X5. It had to outdo these established models in a crowded field. The engineers went to work, adapting a borrowed chassis from the VW Tuareg into an SUV which was also a Porsche.

The resulting Cayenne succeeded, to some extent. Its on-road handing was so good that many Porsche 911 owners happily added one to their garages because it was so much fun to drive. That level of sophistication did not come cheaply, though. In Canada, with taxes, the original V8 cars cost right around $100,000. and the turbos were even pricier.

Then some problems popped up with the V8 engines. It seems Porsche reduced weight and cost by gluing plastic coolant tubes into centre V of the engines, right above the starter. They also added some plastic T’s to route coolant on the turbo models. Both plastics turned out to have short lifespans. Coolant gushing over the starter and the automatic transmission caused both to fail with annoying regularity. Recalls and a class action suit came too late for the model’s reputation for reliability. Values plummeted.

Other quirks include a coolant-cooled alternator and in some cases a rear battery in addition to the one under the driver’s seat, though these features seem generally reliable, if bewildering to the new owner. On the other hand, air conditioning servos packed in a grease which becomes so stiff with age that it causes the servos to seize causes much angst to owners in regions experiencing extreme temperatures.

The V8 engines have a major lubrication problem in sub-zero temperatures: they don’t get enough oil at start-up to #5 to keep the rings from scraping the lining off the cylinder. Repeated extreme-cold starts with sludge impeding oil flow erode the cylinder wall, evidenced by an incremental ticking noise which eventually renders the engine unserviceable. When word of early engine failures got out, nobody wanted the prospect of a $30,000 engine rebuild. Cayennes dropped in value about that much.

Then came the drive shaft support bearing. For some reason Porsche engineers suspended the tube responsible for transmitting the torque of engines up to 500 hp with an eighth-inch thick rubber membrane. When it failed the symptom was commonly reported as: “An irate midget with a hammer pounding on the transmission tunnel.” Repairs cost about $1200. More depreciation occurred because the potential owners of these cars did not want to be saddled with further expenses.

Then came the do-it-yourselfers. As soon as used Cayenne values descended toward the magic $10K mark, the market changed significantly. Turns out the best way to fix the driveshaft was with a compress of short heater hose sections held in place with zip ties. A perfectly usable repair cost an hour under the car and about $10. They called it the Jimi Fix after the mechanic who did the first one on a Nissan pickup in an off-road race.

All owners had to do to protect their engines from the cold was keep them in insulated garages in winter and change the oil a lot, or else live in a warm climate.

Coolant tube repairs were more demanding, but aftermarket aluminum kits appeared everywhere. Some owners (myself included) were astonished to discover that the repair had already been done on recall years before on their Cayennes. It’s very hard to tell without opening up the engine. I bought mine on the assumption that it would need a $3000 coolant tube repair, and the price had been adjusted accordingly.

The surprise to the determined do-it-yourselfer was that, once the various glitches of the early cars were sorted, the Cayennes proved reliable.

The 5400 pound cars still use a lot of fuel, tires, and brakes. They are far from economical to drive. On the other hand, the bodies are very durable and most still look like new when they are scrapped because their engines have clicked themselves to death or overheated from coolant loss.

My son and I bought a pair of 2004 Cayenne S models because they are tremendous vehicles, priced artificially low, at about 1/3 the price of the desirable Toyota Land Cruiser. They make better tow vehicles, easily handling 7400 pounds in stock trim, and actually use less fuel than the off-road icon. With proper care the Cayenne engines are durable and offer very high performance, though the Land Cruiser has it all over the Cayenne in off-road performance and life expectancy.

A taste for black humour has pervaded the online Porsche Cayenne owner’s culture. Purchasing an early Porsche Cayenne without a full warranty was likened to “going naked.” Buying an ’04 to ’05 model was described as “cliff jumping.” But the naked cliff jumpers communicated among themselves and took a perverse pride in sorting out the various quirks of their “Pigs.”

The coach work on the Cayenne is of exceptionally high quality. Every reviewer who has driven one on the highway loves it. The bad reputation has cut the price of the early Cayennes down to where a knowledgeable do-it-yourselfer with moderately deep pockets can buy and own an outstanding car.

A car provides a space where you are effectively autonomous. This power is the result of mobility and anonymity. For the teenager its initial appeal is sudden control over vast distances. The process of conquering the previously inaccessible develops the taste for freedom in the forms of speed and unsupervised time with others, the chance to cut loose.

For my generation the car was the trysting place of young love. Woe betide the swain whose mechanical skills weren’t up to the task of reviving the battery of his car in the gravel pit at the end of a country road with the local clergyman’s daughter in the front seat beside him.

A car is its own economy. It provides mobility, the product, in return for considerable effort to pay its costs. This usually involves using that mobility to go to a variety of places of employment at regular hours, so the car imposes a discipline on the individual which we generally accept as normal in Western society.

Leaving the farm for life at university comes as a wrenching change to the young auto enthusiast. All of the sudden in a high-density environment, a car is a real nuisance and his newly acquired repair skills are in low demand. Parking on campus is prohibitively expensive. Cars are the fashion statements of well-to-do fathers and there is no correlation whatever between the price of the car in front of the residence and the level of satisfaction of the kid in the room above.

Walking provides amazing mobility in the microcosm of a university campus, but a bicycle is even better, if less anonymous. Kamikaze rushes across campus to the lunch room fill the need for speed, and the frequent short stair descents on the route provide adventure. Winter riding enhances these thrills, especially when a blast through a snowbank encounters a fire hydrant.

A car is a much warmer vehicle in winter than a bicycle. It is also much less likely to lose traction on an angled railway crossing under slush, or to spin out on glare ice and slide into a curb.

One’s first new car is a shining, wonderful thing, a sensual delight of smells, sounds, and G-forces. It comes with worry. The owner signs away his freedom in a contract promising to pay a significant amount, each month, for the foreseeable future. The new job imposes even more regularity to the driver’s life, this one with a 35 year contract.

Over the duration of this contract marriage and dogs, houses and kids happen, the trappings of a happy, successful life.

All to pay for that first new car.

My third-hand 2004 Cayenne S was built in 2003, so I guess it qualifies as an example for your question. Ruby came to me by railroad from Vancouver where it had led a sheltered life, I believe. With 125,000 km and evidence of a few minor fender-benders, I expected little from the $10,000 CDN car purchased off Craigslist.

The Ontario mechanics who inspected it were amazed at how new the car looked. “We don’t get 2004’s in that condition in here.”

To be fair, before its owner let it go, he had his mechanic pull the valve covers and repair a small oil leak, an “O” ring. This indy mechanic had done oil changes at 5,000 km throughout the car’s life, and he gave it another one on the way out the door.

So Ruby had a pretty good chance at its new life in Ontario.

The first thing to set right was the rear hatch. I replaced the struts. Things went back together well. The air conditioning was next. It was a mess of non-functioning actuators which clicked. I expended quite a bit of time and health switching out seven a/c actuators for a set off a 2010 I found on eBay. This was a very hard job when conducted from the foot wells by reaching up into the dash.

My constant worry with the car was the coolant pipes. I was convinced they’d fail at any moment. In fact they had already been replaced, but I had bought the parts and lifted the intake manifold before I figured that out. Bathos. Even with a good scope I couldn’t definitely say if a Cayenne has had the coolant replacement process or not.

Earlier I tracked a coolant leak to the reservoir and replaced one in perfect condition. The seal between the rubber hose and the reservoir had gotten a little crusty. All it took was a good rub with a finger, when disassembled.

The other worry has to do with cold-weather starts. #5 piston apparently doesn’t get enough lubrication for the first second of a sub-zero start on the S model, and this can produce a cumulative scrubbing of the cylinder liner, which produces a clicking sound and the eventual extinction of the engine.

So I keep Ruby in an insulated garage all winter and worry if I have to start it outside in the cold.

There’s been a deep rumble in the drive train since I bought the car. We couldn’t find it. Diffs and axles are fine, and it has not changed in 50,000 km.

The factory-installed trailer hitch opened up and plugged in nicely when I added the parts from Amazon.ca. But it won’t provide running lights to my trailers, and the unmodified hookup only fires the right signal light. I took it to an expert indy who suggested supplying the headlight/running light feed with a separate power supply because VW/Porsche trailer lights are so confounding to install. That works, sorta.

These gripes obscure my growing awareness that the 2003 Cayenne S, extra battery in the hatch and all, is by a wide margin the finest car I have ever owned. It was intended as a shop project and has become our main vehicle.

I do all maintenance in our hoist-equipped hobby shop. First came lower control arms for the safety check, then a front half axle removal and re-lube with fresh boots. Ignition coils were a perennial problem until I bought a set from Porsche. Then things settled right down. An O2 sensor failed and things settled down again as soon as I installed a new one, again from the increasingly-friendly Porsche parts guy.

Oil changes are quite a job. It takes about twenty minutes to remove the bottom plate which bars access to the two drain plugs. The plugs are torqued to 35 ft lb, which is just under the torque at which the 8mm Allen fittings destroy themselves. I keep extras. Don’t skimp on the compression washers which Porsche insists that I use to cushion the drain plugs. Every time I have recycled one, it has dripped a measurable amount of oil through until the next service.

My verbosity on the subject (sorry) shows my enthusiasm for this car. I love to work on and drive Ruby, and often make excuses to myself to take it out on long, solitary expeditions. In return, Ruby has proven reliable and not a major pain in the wallet, with the exception of fuel cost.

Is the 2003 Cayenne a good car? No. Fuel costs are too damned high. If that is your main criterion for a vehicular selection, buy a Prius. If you look at a car as an interesting Rubik’s cube, an early Cayenne which has had loving attention will provide a lot in return, especially if you have a hoist in your shop.

My first car was a $100 1960 VW Beetle with three working brakes. I very much enjoyed its challenges and I learned to drive it in all seasons without killing myself or my passengers.

The hairiest adventure with “Herbie” came when my friends and I borrowed a ski-tow rope from a fellow and set out to ski on the local frozen lake. There was a good base of frozen snow over abundant ice, so it came down to who had the nerve to try my recently-acquired boots and skis. My friend Don Goodfellow drove, John Wing rode shotgun, and I started off behind.

I had had one lesson on a ski hill so I was the expert, but turning behind a tow vehicle seemed different than snowplowing on the slope. I discovered as Don worked up to third gear — the VW’s fastest on snow — that by bracing myself against the skis I could make the rear wheels of the car skid a little bit. This was fun, so I tried swinging up by the passenger’s door, and then around to the driver’s.

Just as I was making a face at Don and trying to yank the Bug into a spin, the rope broke. I slid sideways on those steel edges for a long, long time before halting, arches crushed from the vibration.

Unsurprisingly, nobody else wanted to try the skis.

Crow Story

December 14, 2018

It was early winter in Eastern Ontario, in a deep gravel pit just north of Seeley’s Bay. I had pulled in with my SUV and trailer to get a load of salted sand. The wind was howling from the south.

As I waited for the loader my attention drifted to a small gaggle of crows fooling around on the edge of a tall bank to the north of me. They were hopping off the edge, only to be blown upward and back by the wind bouncing off the vertical face of the pit.

One slightly smaller crow apparently grew tired of blowing away every time he* tried to soar, picked up an egg-sized piece of gravel in his right claw and hopped off the bank. He suddenly had stability against the wind. He tried again, with a slightly larger stone. He was able to hang motionless in the air. He tried swinging from side to side like a pendulum, and so on. At the time the loader arrived he was well on the way to flying an egg-shaped piece of granite through a loop in the powerful updraft above the wall.

*It is hard to determine gender with a crow, but I have observed a lot of adolescents at play over a 34-year teaching career. This bird was a male.