Matt Farah Talks His First Car, Ralph’s McLaren F1, And Manual Vanquishes
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you need no introduction to our friend Matt Farah. On the off chance you do, you should know that he’s one of the most prolific automotive YouTube stars on the scene today, and has been belting out deep cut car nut podcasts under the name “The Smoking Tire” for quite some time. What draws me into Matt Farah’s universe isn’t his podcast or his videos, however, it’s what inspires those.
If you have the chance to speak with him at some point on the side of the road on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll immediately be impressed by just how knowledgeable this guy is. There’s scarcely a chassis number on any marque he can’t recite by memory.
But never, at any point in my handful of conversations with him did I ever feel like he was speaking down to me, or making me feel inferior on my lack of knowledge around Fox Body Mustangs. He’s a true “car guy’s car guy”, as they say.
Ted Gushue: So what was your first car, Matt Farah?
Matt Farah: Well, my first car was a hand-me-down from my mother. It wasn’t really mine, but I used it. It was a 1996 Mercury Villager, Nautica Edition.
MF: Oh yeah, with the white, it looked like a capsized sailboat. Back before the Villager drove people away from buying Nautica clothes. I killed it. I took it off-roading and it died a pretty brutal death.
TG: Why are we obsessed with off-roading as kids?
MF: Because it seems like you’re misbehaving. It’s not like as kids we get have access to lifted Moab-ready Jeeps. You’re talking about your mom’s minivan. Off-roading that is incredible, because it’s still something that feels wrong even when I do it at 34 years old now.
TG: My first car I off-roaded was my Jeep. I had a 1998 Grand Cherokee with a 4.7L V-8. It eventually died when a band of teenagers in my college town burned it to the ground.
MF: No way, really?
TG: Yep, they threw a burning piece of furniture out the back of a truck at it while I was away.
MF: Really? You just came back and find ashes?
TG: Oh, I came back to it full on fire.
MF: Oh my God, that’s crazy. That’s the craziest one of those stories I’ve heard in awhile. That’s excellent.
TG: The flames reached the top of our house, 4 stories. A 38 foot tall inferno.
MF: That’s crazy.
TG: Cars burn.
MF: Yeah, they do, I’ve learned that a few times.
TG: What’s the one that kind of gave you that spark? That feeling that said “I need to make driving things my full time job.”
MF: I always loved driving. I was kind of obsessed with cars since I was a little kid. The idea of driving was always very appealing to me. I bought my dad’s 1992 Lexus LS400 off him for cheap as my second car. At the time, it was six years old.
TG: How cheap?
MF: I think it was $5,000. The kind of money you’d give your dad for his old car. It’s like, “Here, I’ve earned something.” I drove that for a little while.
TG: What color was it?
MF: White, the same color as my Lexus now. It circles back. My current Lexus, a lot of it has to do with that first Lexus that I remember being so awesome. It was a really neat car even then, but it was inappropriate for a high school kid. It wasn’t “cool”, it was just weird. People looked at me funny. So I eventually wanted something new, and I had been working at Foot Locker selling shoes, trying to save up for a new car.
TG: You look like someone who worked at Foot Locker.
MF: I worked at Foot Locker for six years, and I bought a Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT, which was a manual transmission. It had all-wheel drive. It was sort of sporty-looking. I had that for a little while, and I sold it because this was kind of pre-turbos.
TG: What year was this?
MF: It was a 1998. This was a pre-turbo Subaru. There wasn’t much you could do with that. You get kind of an exhaust, but that was it. There was no “oomph” And I wanted something I could modify. So I sold that and bought a Mustang. That was was when I was a junior in high school. That was my first car-car, where I bought it. My two friends had Mustangs and they would go drag-racing. The parts catalogs were seemingly endless.
TG: This was a new 1998 Mustang?
MF: No no, this was in 1998, it was a 1994 Mustang with low-ish miles. It was a stock red Mustang GT. I had it about a week before I pulled the motor out of it. We did a stroker engine, a 347 stroker. Then we did some coil-over suspension. I don’t even think I really knew what it meant to have a coil-over suspension.
TG: You were swapping engines on a Foot Locker budget?
MF: No, I had gotten this Subaru, which was a new car, and after a year, I traded it for a four-year-old car, so there was a difference and I put the difference into the older car. So that was sort of “the” car for awhile. I remember it being fast for a 17-year old. My five best friends all had Mustangs by that point. We’d all go to Englishtown every week and drag-race. We all parked up front in high school together. They let us park our cars all next to each other and we’d make a lot of noise. We all had exactly the same modifications to our cars. The first guy got it and everyone else was like, “Whoa! I like how his sounds!” So we all got the same stuff.
When I went to college in Philly, I don’t know if you’ve been there much, but it has almost the worst roads anywhere in North America. Boston might be worse. That pretty much killed that car. So I sold it and bought an SUV and went back to cool cars afterward.
TG: What was the cool car after the SUV?
MF: Well, I got my Corvette, my C5 Corvette, which I bought new. I still have it. It has 31,000 miles on it now. Your audience will hate that it’s not stock, but a stock C5 isn’t anything special. Then I had a John Cooper Works Mini, 2006, that was great. I had an Audi S4, a B6 V8 in it that was great. I bought a Hummer H1 that was the worst pile of shit you could ever imagine.
TG: Horrendous car.
MF: Horrific car. When Doug DeMuro from Jalopnik emailed me and said, “I’m looking at a Hummer and I remember you had one,” I said, “Run.” Which is I think what put him over the edge into buying it. Because for him, who was just writing about a car for a year, the worse the car is, the better his stories are.
TG: Is he the one who does the…he buys the car from CarMax?
MF: Yeah, he buys from CarMax and writes about them.
TG: That’s a great column.
MF: I enjoy it. The people in our industry either find Doug to be silly and irreverent and funny, or they really hate him. I find him to be funny.
TG: I wonder if CarMax actually is frustrated with the amount of money they spent on that car.
MF: I think they’ve earned it back in marketing value. Although I’ve heard the cost of the extended warranty has gone way up.
TG: Tell me about the Hummer.
MF: I actually had the Hummer first and I traded it straight up for the Mini, which was really funny. The salesman at that Mini dealer has a picture of the two cars parked next to each other. It was a wagon. An H1 wagon with the diesel, and it was an apocalyptic piece of shit.
TG: And you were parking it in Venice?
MF: No no, I was living in New York. I was living in Manhattan. I parked it in fucking Manhattan.
TG: That’s a double-wide car.
MF: It cost me $1000 a month to park that thing in Manhattan.
TG: Where were you parking in Manhattan?
MF: I was living in Stuyvesant Town, which is at 16th Street and First Avenue. The nearest parking garage was at 11th Street and Third Avenue. I had two spots we parked in. It was so dumb. At the time I was working at Gotham Dream Cars, which is an exotic rental car company. I don’t know why I got it in my head, I wanted an exotic car but I wanted something I could afford and drive every day.
I swear this is a true story. There was a crazy rainstorm and I was sitting in two hours of traffic in my S4 to get to work. It was horrible. I was just like, “If I had a fuckingin’ Hummer, I’d just drive on the shoulder and be out of here and that would be it!” That day, someone came in with a Hummer and said, “I’m trying to sell this thing.” I drove it and I just went, “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” And I bought it on the spot. Which nobody should ever do. It’s such a bad disaster.
TG: Can I ask you what you paid for it?
MF: I traded straight up for my S4. I think the value would be about $40,000. It was a B6 S4 with 12,000 miles on it at the time. I think it was less than a year old or maybe a year old. I think it was about high 30’s-low 40’s. Whatever it was, it was a straight up trade. I drove the Hummer for three months and I sold it back to the guy I bought it from at a $3000 loss.
TG: That’s not bad.
MF: It was stupid. It was exceptionally stupid. I don’t advise anyone ever by an H1 Hummer unless it’s a dedicated off-road.
TG: Does Schwarzenegger still have his?
MF: Oh, I’m sure. He has multiple. In fact I know a guy named Bill Woo in San Diego who is an H1 collector and has more than 10 of them.
TG: So, after the Hummer was the Mini?
MF: After the Hummer, I traded for the Mini. I actually sold it back to the original owner. I traded it to the dealer and arranged with the dealer to wholesale it back to that guy.
TG: So this guy, he did very well on this. How did you fit in the Mini? You’re a big dude.
MF: The first generation Minis are great for big guys. Thaddeus, my camera man who is outside right now, is even taller than me, and he had one as well. That was a great car for a big guy.You’re low, it’s got a ton of headroom and the seat goes really far back. As long as you don’t care about having a passenger behind you, it’s fun. I took the backseat out of my Mini, actually. It was a two-seater with a giant trunk. You could fit a refrigerator back there.
TG: They were big, now I think about it. I learned how to drive a stick on one.
MF: Yeah. It was an amazing car. When I moved to California and I sold that car to start The Smoking Tire. That car funded the first year of our business.
TG: The rest is history.
MF: Yeah, I brought my Corvette with me, I dailyed a motorcycle when I first got to LA.
TG: What bike?
MF: SV-650, Suzuki. Great city bike.
TG: Great LA bike.
MF: Yeah, then I bought the Raptor, the Ford Raptor after that. Really neat, great truck. I mean, it’s huge. I bought the Raptor based on a conversation with the chief design engineer of that car, he’s been a friend for a while. He was in New York in 2007, and we’re drinking at 60 Thompson. He pulls out his phone and says, “You have to see what I’m working on.” He shows me a picture of that camouflaged prototype Ford Raptor four feet in the air. I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” Then he shows me the rendering of what it’s going to look like, which is essentially what the finished truck looked like. I just go, “Holy shit, I have to have that.” It’s like a Tonka truck, a real Tonka truck.
We thought we wanted to build a camera truck. We thought that would be a thing, so I bought this Raptor and it held all our gear in the back. We built a crane that would go in the trailer hitch. It was a 12-foot jib that would go up and we’d manually operate the jig from the back of a moving Raptor in the canyons, which is super dangerous and should never be done by anybody ever.
TG: That’s insane.
MF: Only Tom Morningstar, our DP at the time, would do it.
TG: Was he like in a harness or something?
MF: No. He was just insane. Proper adrenaline junkie, that guy. He was utterly fearless and would do it. We stopped doing it and I won’t do it again. Then I moved to Venice and I didn’t have anywhere to park it anymore. It won’t fit in my garage and there’s no street parking at my house, so I sold it and got a Chevy Volt daily driver.
TG: Interesting choice. Anything in your collection say fits on the “tasteful” spectrum?
MF: The DeLorean and The Skyline, for sure.
TG: Talk a bit about the DeLorean.
MF: The DeLorean is the car that made me love cars when I was five. My dad brought home a Car and Driver magazine and there was a spread of the DeLorean with the doors up. Five-year-old me doesn’t care that the company is badly run, or the cars are slow.
TG: It’s sweet-looking.
MF: You look at it and go, “Cars can be special.” It made me fall in love with cars. Back to The Future didn’t hurt, that helped too. But I was actually able to separate the DeLorean and Back to The Future more than other people. So when I turned 30 and I realized I wasn’t broke, I was like, “I’m going to get a DeLorean.” It took a year to find one, it took another year to restore it.
It’s a 1983. I have all the paperwork for it going back to the factory, including the bill of landing when it went on the boat. I have an insane stack of paperwork for the car. I even have the press kit. I have an original press kit from the press launch of the DeLorean.
A guy sent it to me. A fan was like, “I’ve had this for 30 years. I don’t know why I’ve kept it, but you would appreciate it.” He sent it to me in plastic. So the car had 2000 miles on it and had been parked for 30 years. We got it out of the barn, I was able to get it cheap, and we restored the entire car. Cosmetically, the body panels, the interior, all that is 100% original. Every wire has been replaced, every hose. Mechanically it’s been completely updated to modern DeLorean standards.
TG: Did you rework anything?
MF: It has better heads, it has better cams, it has an upgraded intake manifold. DMC has about $10,000 worth of updates they do which are things they’ve learned over time just making the car work better. In addition to restoring it, in addition to giving it a little extra horsepower and putting the Eurospec suspension on it, we updated it to DMC’s new standards. Now I have a car that works. You have to spend a little more money up front, but I’ve never had a problem with the car. It just runs and drives beautifully. Every light bulb works, every function of the car works.
The problem with DMC is that most people who drive DeLoreans don’t drive good ones. If you drive a good one, I think you’d be impressed. You’re welcome to drive it. Then came the Mustang. I wanted a Fox body in high school. My mom said, “If you want to buy a Mustang, it has to have air bags.” Which is how I ended up with a 1994 Mustang, but I always wanted a notch-back. I’ve really put on a clinic on how to dump money into a car with this Mustang because it’s just not normal how much attention I’ve given that thing.
TG: Would you say people see the Fox body as some kind of undiscovered, underrated gem? It is a great platform. You can do great things to it.
MF: Totally. It’s sort of getting to where the BMW E30 was a few years ago, which is to say that there are some very nice clean ones and the people who have them are keeping them. You see really raggedy ones running around on the street that have been neglected or modified badly or whatever. You see some that are race cars. I’m 34, and that was the first Mustang I saw sitting in a showroom, brand new. It reminds me of my youth. At the time I was in high school, they were cheap enough that kids could buy them and race them, or whatever. They’re still kind of that price.
TG: Under $10,000.
MF: Under $10,000 will get you a clean car. What I like about it is the shape, I think it’s aged well for a clean car. The notch-back especially. It’s small, it’s very light. You can do a lot of things to it. It’s a muscle car but it’s a small muscle car. It’s also modern enough where it’s not like driving a car from the 1960s.
In terms of long-term value, I don’t think they’re going to shoot up the way 911s have. But I think as examples become fewer and farther between, finding good ones is going to become challenging. The $10,000 car now was $5,000 15-18 years ago. I suppose it’s a wash with inflation, or whatever. But they’re still attainable. You can still get them. You can still get parts. You can make one whatever you want.
Most people set these cars up for drag racing. Every once in awhile you’ll see one set up for a road course. I wanted the car to visually be what I liked about it, to look and sound like what the 16-year old me wanted, but I like to go around corners in the canyons now.
TG: Walk me through the the set up.
MF: It was a Highway Patrol car. It was the VSP package, which is the lightest one you could get. No power windows, no power door locks, no sunroof, no fog lights. It has a 302 GT40 Crate engine, 350 horsepower engine out of the Ford racing catalog. It has independent rear suspension, which is based on the 2004 Cobra setup, with an upgraded diff, upgraded bushings, upgraded axles. It has a new drive shaft. It has upgraded brakes with all stainless steel lines.
In the front is a tubular k-member front suspension. It has custom Blisters all the way around. Thirteen and a half-inch brakes. The cooling system is not stock. The brakes, the IRS, and stuff like that are just out of newer Mustangs. The steering system, I have a 2004 Cobra. It’s really neat.
I had to widen the car six inches to make it work. Yeah, it’s widebody and I make fun of widebody stuff sometimes if it’s not functional, but I had to do it to make it work.
I like it. I built it for me, not for the internet, so it makes me very happy.
TG: What was the impetus for the build?
MF: It’s certainly a form follows function build. I didn’t go at it saying, “I want to build a wide-body Mustang.” I went out and said, “I want to build a Mustang that handles as good as it can handle.” I actually wanted narrower tires. The guys at Maximum Motorsports wanted me to put 305’s all around. I said, “No, I want 285’s.” They said, “Split the difference, 295’s.” And that’s what it ended up at.
TG: Did they want that because it was a market decision?
MF: They wanted maximum grip. My car is their American Iron car except without any rules. They can only run at 275, I can run at 295. Otherwise, the car is set up just like the race car. The newest, craziest, dopest thing I’m working on is the Aston Martin Vanquish, which I bought in 2004 but just got back after going to Newport Pagnelli in England where it was built for a year. It now has a stick in it, which is crazy.
TG: Are you the only one that has that?
MF: They’ve done about 50.
TG: It must be great.
MF: It’s the greatest thing you could ever imagine. The car was so fucking cool but it had the worst gearbox in history.
TG: You can buy them super reasonably.
MF: I’m telling you, I saw one the other day for dirty cheap.
TG: Like $30,000?
MF: Like $40,000. I’m sure there’s something wrong with it for $40,000. Whatever. The manual gearbox conversion for that car, you cannot imagine how great it is. The only downside to it is a) it’s very expensive; and b) it now now has 3 pedals in a foot box that was meant for two. I can’t wear my big clunky normal shoes, I have to wear driving shoes to drive it. But whatever, who cares. It’s a V-12 with a stick. I had them wire the baffles, and the exhaust, open. The newer Astons, you just pull a fuse, they’re electronic baffles. The Vanquish is actually a vacuum line, so they have to take the vacuum line so yeah, it’s louder now.
TG: Very cool.
MF: That car, which I got from Ralph Lauren, so the door sills say, “Hand-built in England for Ralph Lauren” and the car is trimmed in purple label leather and suede. Not purple colored, it’s like a baseball glove colored. But it’s Ralph Lauren leather and suede in the whole car.
TG: How did you come to buy it from Ralph Lauren?
MF: My father was the CEO of Ralph Lauren for 15 years until 2014. We’ve had a pretty close relationship with Ralph for awhile.
TG: That’s how you do it.
MF: Yeah, my favorite McLaren F1 story is from Ralph, actually. It goes back to about the year 2000. One of his three F1s. He has two normal road cars and an LM. Anyways, the cars are crazy—it came with a 14.4k Modem in it.
TG: A wireless modem?
MF: Not wireless, wired, you plugged it into the wall. This was one of the first cars to ever come with something like this, a communications system. The car wasn’t running right, so he plugs it into the wall. The car dials McLaren. Two guys in tweed jackets come over from England, they show up at his house. They go, “Okay, give us the keys.”
They take the car out, drive it for 10-15 minutes, come back and go, “You’re not shifting high enough,” and fly back to England. That was it, that was the whole problem. That’s what owning a McLaren F1 is like.
TG: What other cars have you driven of Ralph’s?
MF: The first Ferrari I ever drove was his. It was a 550 Barchetta, which is still one of my favorites. I love when a car company goes “Roof? Fuck the roof.”That was great. That car and the F1 are the only cars of his I’ve actually had the pleasure, but I’ve been to his warehouse. You can’t even call it a warehouse, it’s basically a museum.
Ralph is an interesting guy and he takes it very seriously. If you’re going to know somebody, that’s a good place to start.