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No Cars for Old Men

Updated on August 3, 2015

A Place for Experienced Car Nuts

I love cars. Since getting a license at 15, I've been all about cars. That was 30 cars ago. There is a lack of car sites that cater to folks of a more experienced view point. Not everything is about track performance, image, or wings and wheels. After you build your own car (3 cars ago), you begin to appreciate the technology and design at that level. So let's talk cars - but please leave the kids at home.

Fast versus Thrilling

Cars have been getting faster with each generation for years on end now. That wasn't always true. In the early 70's emissions laws pretty much killed anything that could be considered fast. Today, however, each generation of car keeps getting faster. Just the normal process of market demand and engineering success working their combined magic.

This has some pretty interesting effects, though. A Toyota Camry is faster in every respect of performance than that cool little Ferrari that Magnum drove in the TV series Magnum, P.I. I don't know if the new helicopters are faster than TC's chopper from the series, but the cars certainly are. Ferraris of today are getting really fast, like motorcycle fast. Some more fun examples: The 1989 Taurus SHO, known back then as the poor man's BMW M5, could do a 0-60 in around 6.6 seconds. There are SUVs today that can shave 2 seconds off that time. The 1988 BMW M5 could do a 0-60 in 6.4 seconds. Today's crop are almost twice as fast, with the Audi S8 coming in in the low 3 second range for that.

Pretty amazing stuff, and on paper, it seems now is the best time to be a car enthusiast. Just one problem, though. Have you actually driven the car pairs mentioned above? The new cars are all quiet, smooth, sensory deprivation chambers with sometimes artificially created "good mechanical sounds" generated through the car's audio system when the manufacturer thinks you need to hear it. The old cars barked and shook the moment you started them. There was no doubt that the focus of the car was the performance, or more to the point, the engine. The latest M5, S8, AMG, etc. don't really provide that in a visceral way. They are more like sensory deprivation chambers with the occasional ability to shove you in the back pretty hard.

Which is to say that they are not really that fun. If you can only have one car to serve all your needs, than a modern car can't be beat. It's quiet and smooth for most of your transportation and when you need to gain some speed, it delivers. 'Course you tend not to dip into the performance that often. It's fun in a video game sort of a way to mat the accelerator and hang on a few times, but then it pretty much becomes a car for transportation. Might make more economic sense to buy the small engine version as it gets better fuel economy. Leave the video game like sensation of performance for your video games in the living room.

So what is a thrilling car? I'll define it as something that stimulates the senses and leaves no doubt about the intent of the car. Nothing like getting into a vehicle in anticipation of the sensory overload that's about to come. Turning the key and getting a little "refusal to start" followed by a satisfying roar as the beast lights off. You want to feel the vibrations that the LeMans winning engine sends through the cabin at idle, an unhappy caging of the beast. A quick stab of the accelerator should delight both in sound and feel. Getting underway should involve some work. And flooring it should overwhelm every sense. Not just the g-meter we have in our inner ears. We've all probably driven cars like this. And we all probably remember them. I really couldn't tell you any of the sensations that the last big Audi, BMW, or Mercedes I've driven elicited. Most likely because there weren't any.

So a thrilling car makes the right noises and vibrations, slams you around and makes you worry about it. Huh - nothing there about actually being fast. As in 0-60 in 3.3 seconds. That's an unexpected conclusion. There has been evidence of this in the past. Some of the more noteworthy examples being:

Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, owns many fast cars. I think he just purchased a Hennessy Venom. You know, the Lotus Elise with the 1000 HP V8 jammed in it. He notes that his favorite car is the Lotus Super 7. I saw in an interview with him that the reason was because you feel like you are racing when only going 50 MPH. If you've driven a Lotus 7, you know that you hang half out of the car, and you feel almost more exposed than on a motorcycle. Except you aren't wearing a leather full body suit or even a helmet.

Richard Pryor did a cross country trip in a then new Ferrari Testarossa. He describes his exploration of its capabilities as a series of scenes where the road conditions permitted him to open up the car. Each time, the car surged to a higher and higher speed. At some point, he noted that within the blink of an eye, the car was doing 140MPH. It was just humming along and not even taxed at that speed. That's when he realized that "this car is going to kill you". He said that after that he was content to drive the speed limit.

I know a few folks that like to race vintage cars. The race cars are the ultimate expression of what they were in their time. Being on a race course in a full on race car that makes all the right noises is a whole lot of fun. The SUVs they use to tow their rigs are in some cases, faster than the cars they "race". After a weekend at an event, nobody seems to be going on about the performance of the tow rig.

I used to be a worshiper of the 0-60 MPH list. I've owned a few of the notable cars on that list. Of late, the cars on that list are getting to ludicrous level in their abilities while at same time approaching isolation chamber levels of refinement. It's the refinement that'll return your investment. For real thrills, buy something old and raw and scare yourself silly at legal road speeds.

As for the modern missile, I recommend that you at least roll down the window and turn off the stereo when you mat the accelerator. At least then you'll hear the squeal of the tires. And a note to the manufacturers - please don't generate "artificial tire squeal noise" and pipe that in through the stereo. Nothing beats real tire squeal. Nothing.

Breaks for Brakes

So I'm out driving my truck the other day, you know, getting some miles on a vehicle I don't use much. I'd almost completed my trip and was turning into my neighborhood off a 45MPH road. So I've got my foot on the brake, slowing down, and have the turn signal on. Did I mention it's downhill and my truck weighs close to 6000 pounds?

All this build up to set the scene for the bad thing.

As I had my foot on the brake pedal scrubbing off speed it suddenly went to the floor. A smooth milky feeling that was in total contrast to the panic of the vehicle not slowing down. I pumped once on the pedal and got the same result, which was nothing. Now, a 20 MPH speed becomes hurtling toward a corner I can't make.

I quickly moved my left foot on to the emergency brake pedal, and reached down with my left hand to hold the release lever out, so that the e brake pedal wouldn't latch. The normal feeling of braking returned, albeit with less authority than before. I made it into my neighborhood and managed to drive on the ebrake alone back to my house where I parked without running over or into anything. Wow was that weird.

Emergency brakes on trucks are kind of a second thought and many are not in operating condition. When they are, their power is minimal - but as we have seen, sometimes critical. I've always kept mine working, but never thought it something that was as critical as it turned out to be.

The failure, it turns out, is that on GM's GMT800 series of trucks the brake lines are routed in the worst possible way under the chassis. They are all routed directly across the path of where the front wheel kicks up road salt/spray/slush. That's the real problem. Adding to this is the fact that they are the standard coated steel construction of most brake lines - which is to say that they will rust if you subject them to that environment. My brake lines, all 4 of them, are heavily rusted there and one of them ruptured under braking force. Surprisingly, the old standard of a split braking system where if any single hydraulic line fails the result is 2 wheels without brakes and 2 wheels with brakes isn't true with my truck. A single line failure can take all the brakes out.

If the lines were stainless, this probably wouldn't have happened. Better yet, if they were routed just about anywhere else, this wouldn't have happened either. I've owned many old cars and I've never seen brake lines in as bad a shape as on this 50,000 mile old truck. 'Course even the British were smart enough not to route their brake lines directly in the path of road spray.

And GM is busy recalling ignition switches that might turn off if you hang crap on them. I found out that GM's official position is that this isn't a safety issue, and that their response is to give a discount on their overpriced brake line replacement kit. Which, also surprisingly, is not in stainless but simply in OEM steel. By the way, the discounted price is almost twice the cost of a very nice stainless aftermarket replacement kit. I'd buy stock in that company if I could.

The moral of the story here is make sure your emergency brake works. Apparently, part of the bad design decisions around modern brake systems involve changing things that were not broken. LIke fail safe design. Which brings up the point of some cars going to a electric operated parking brake that functionally can't be used in situations like this. I think it's a better time than ever to drive a hot rod as a daily.

At least the brakes will work.

Driving some else's car with free gas

Enthusiast rant follows! Those of you inexperienced enough to only want happy balloons and unicorns, please turn back now! Gritty real world stuff lies ahead!

You've been warned. You've been discouraged. But you have read to this point, so be prepared - gird your loins and face the full wrath.

I'm tired of reading supposed long term tests from "journalists" who are getting free cars with free gas to schlep their pathetic lives around. These articles contribute no value to anybody thinking they might own the car in question and are looking for practical advice and insight from an owner. That would be anybody else other than the journalist. Some examples I've seen recently - a long term test of an Audi RS7 ($120,000 MSRP) where the journalist was going on about the cheap date dynamics of such a car. You know you look like the no success kid borrowing Dad's car for a date, don't you?

Or the group of BMX burn outs going around in a Suburban ($80,000 MSRP) trekking cross country to visit some unemployed friends. Yeah - your observations are going to benefit prospective owners. Not only are you not contributing, you are constantly making fun of the real potential owners of the Suburban, well to do soccer moms. You have nothing useful to say to them.

So what long term tests come off OK? Well - given the average salary of a auto journalist I'd say they might have something useful to say about a sub $20,000 car. 'Course they all just hate them. I guess being seen in what you really might own is just disappointing to them. They only wax poetic trying their best to show they know better by comparing the switch gear on that econobox with the Bentley they had for the weekend. And is there ever a long term test where the journos achieve anywhere near what real owners fuel economy is? Does your kid ever get the fuel economy you do when they borrow your car? Especially if it has a big engine?

So a word of advice to the automakers (one of which I used to work for); stop giving journalists long term cars they can't afford. Their articles are not doing you any favors. If you are looking for long term merit to be displayed, look for and support some online organization that has the right demographics. Looking for glowing compelling testimony for a Suburban? Hit up private school forums, suburban soccer leagues, professional forums for professions where members actually might buy your product. You don't even have to give them a vehicle for extended testing. Just loan them one for 2 weeks and you'll get a thoughtful, useful writeup. And the car will come back to you not trashed. I know I don't really like to drive vehicles that aren't mine, because unlike the journalists who could never earn or hence be responsible for the price of the ride, I am concerned about damaging something that isn't mine. If I like it, I'll buy my own.

So what about the journalists? Are they to do without support from the manufacturers? Well if you make the publication actually buy the vehicle, the number of long term reviews drops precipitously. If you further make the journalist personally responsible for the gas the number of miles driven drops too. Some publications, mostly non-enthusiast do this - kudos to you for having a strategy to achieve objectiveness. They also get to find out what working through the dealer network is really like.

Don't think that I don't respect what journalists do - they are wonderful at chronicling the automotive world. Long term tests are just kind of barking up the wrong tree. I kind of smile when I see some organization getting a high end car for a long term test. The same smile when I hear one of my friends in sales gets a new company car that is pretty nice. I think "there's somebody who got a six figure car to drive for free with free gas". Pretty good deal if you can get it.

I'm honest enough to know that the only real thing of interest I could say if I got that deal would be "hey! look what I got for free!" I would love to read just one long term test along those lines. I would appreciate the honesty. The journalist will probably be fired or black balled, but just think - you'll be carried out of your office on the shoulders of your co-workers and remembered forever in office gossip with reminiscing sentences that all begin with "there was once a honest hero that worked here...."

Kudos on the scam.

When did Pickups become Useless?

Ahh the pickup truck. That bastion of American utility. The perennial best selling vehicles since forever. If you own one you know how liberating it is to be able to move just about anything. Your friends share that view too. How does that old saying go? You want a close circle of friends that includes a boat owner, a pickup owner, and a power washer owner.

Somewhere along the last 20 years the pickup got pulled into suburban commuting duty. It became an image vehicle for a certain urban crowd. It also became clear that whatever the ride height was from the factory, it was wrong. There are magazines and websites devoted to lowering or raising a truck. Interestingly, I've come across none that are about just using one. So apparently everybody buys them to look cool. Well, not everybody, but the practical users apparently don't mind looking cool too.

The latest crop of pickups, the 2014 GM pair, the 2015 Ford F-150, and the soon to be upgraded Ram, are quite the vehicles. On paper their hauling and towing capacities have never been higher and their fuel economy is even rising at the same time. One would be led to believe that these are the most useful pickups ever built.

But you would be so wrong.

Have you seen how high up the beds are? Order a 4 wheel drive version and the bed goes up even more. Oh, and speaking of beds, the most popular configuration these days is a crew cab with a 5.5' bed so the overall truck doesn't get to school bus length. So on these you get a short but high cargo space. The cab is however, spacious and provides nice room for families. The only innovation to utility in this segment, the ability to fold down the back wall of the cab so cargo can take advantage of added length, made an embarrassed and now extinct appearance on the Chevrolet Avalanche and the late Hummer H2 SUT. I guess nobody noticed what was probably the most enabling utility feature in the segment because nobody actually uses a pickup for picking up.

So let's look at the typical pickup today. It's a crew cab short bed that offers spacious seating for 4, 5 comfortably, and some can handle 6 in a pinch. The rear seats can be folded to reconfigure the available space for cargo, and the bed outside offers awkwardly sized space. If you look at it from a practical standpoint, the pickup is good at hauling 4-6 people in the cab, and really big trunk items in the bed. Traditional pickup items, like a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood, however, need not apply. Even with the tailgate down, this item will hang off the back edge. Motorcycles and lawn mowers need just a little more space to be comfortable, while everything suffers from having to be lifted up to the height of the bed. I don't know if you've ever ridden a large motorcycle up a ramp into a pickup, but it's pretty scary on today's vehicles.

Hmm... Let's see... The passenger space gets bigger and bigger, the cargo space shrinks and loses utility and the fuel economy keeps going up. Sounds like a minivan. But with attitude. Especially if you raise or lower it from stock ride height.

So where does one turn to get a vehicle that actually has great utility? One that can haul an entire decks worth of wood? or allow you to save the shipping fee on that new washer/dryer pair? Look no further than the current crop of light commercial vans. Most of these have been European staples and are now available in the US. I believe the Ford Transit was the first to establish a beachhead. Now, Ram is joining the fray with Fiat vans. These are very practical.

They have really low load floors, can easily haul 4' x 8' stuff, and have the height to accommodate things like clothes washers and even refrigerators. Their load limits are high and their doors all swing open very wide. I haven't seen one with a pickup style tailgate for the lower part of the rear doors yet, but I'm guessing it'll be available soon. These vans are low enough to the ground that such a tailgate can probably be made to serve as a ramp for loading things on wheels. Instead of having to ride a motorcycle up into a high short bed, you can just push it up a gently sloped ramp to a low, spacious cargo area. And yes, a motorcycle will easily fit. Towing capacity is good, so a trailer can be a practical solution to hauling things you might not want inside with you. Like dirt. 'Course most pickup drivers I see wouldn't think of having something so dirty as dirt loaded in their beds.

The one main drawback is that these vans are, well, ugly. They tend to have no windows after the cab, are quite tall and skinny looking and come in attractive hip vibrant colors like... white. I've seen owners make up really cool wraps to cover the sides and take advantage of the billboard like space. I particularly like the ones where the wrap is the side image of a sports car with the drivers window lined up with the real drivers window of the van. Always gives me a laugh.

So vans are more utilitarian than pickups and pickups are really just image vehicles. What a wondrous and modern time we live in.

My Precious..
My Precious..

One Wrench To Rule Them All

This blog focuses on cars but will occasionally take a detour into a related subject. Today, we go on such an adventure; an adventure from my past, not one I am proud to admit, but one that existed nonetheless. We talk of tools today.

Many moons ago, heck it might even qualify as a different epoch, I came into possession of a, well, I guess I'll describe it as a tool, a wrench of sorts. I think the occasion was one of my first bicycles (so that places it better than 35 years ago) from that now defunct retail giant, Montgomery Wards. Or Monkey Wards for those who were personal friends of the store. It was a bike not of my picking, but of my Dads to whom things like 10 speeds were exactly 9 too many. So it was to be that my first bike was a english style 3 speed (I managed to talk him into some speeds at least). You know, the kind that you see Russell Crowe riding around with a basket on the front in a period piece from the 1930s. Back then, bikes came in boxes and some assembly was required. I found in the packaging a multitool, pictured, that had everything from a flat screw driver to lockring spanners all ingeniously stamped out of a piece of, it would turn out, mild steel. Even at that tender age, I looked at the tool with disdain, knowing that it was a cheap probably poor performing substitute for some nice tools. The kind you had to ask permission from an adult to use. But being rather impatient I launched ahead assembling the bike with what would be come to be known as The Wrench.

While my excitement was all wrapped up in the bike, I did realize that once I had finished the work that the tool did serve its job. I managed to get the whole bike assembled with it and so there really wasn't a good reason to throw it away. I decided to hang on to it for awhile longer. I didn't know it at the time, but this was the first in a lifelong series of decisions to keep the tool.

As the years went by, my interest in all things mechanical and especially automotive grew as did my collection of tools. I had the philosophy of "if the tool costs less than the shop charges for the repair, buy the tool and learn". Under that justification, many strange tools made their way into my possession and since each one saved me money, I didn't fret over the fact that some of these were one-use-in-my-lifetime. I developed a secondary hobby (you know, the hobbies that you aren't really interested in but because your main hobby needs them you become an enthusiast) around tools that operated well and lasted a long time. I happen to know that a Sears ratchet has 36 clicks per revolution, their Fine Ratchet has 40, and my preferred Facom and Snap On have 80. I learned that having tools organized neatly helps you use them, that keeping track of tools and having a "check in/out" mentality minimized the episodes of frantically searching for a tool you "just had in your hand".

All of which made me a bit of a tool snob. And the sight of The Wrench made me cringe each time I saw it. But The Wrench had one annoyingly constant characteristic. It kept on being useful in spite of my growing tool collection. One would think that as my tool collection grew, The Wrench would have less and less of an occasion to be used. It was always a tool of last resort. I have a friend that calls a adjustable (or Crescent) wrench a tool of last resort, but that's because he doesn't own a copy of The Wrench. A typical scenario would involve me finding a situation where my nice tools wouldn't quite do the job - like maybe not enough room to get a socket on a bolt, or the tool was too loose on the nut to be comfortable, or a thinner tool was required. That would cause me to work my way down the hierarchy of tools from six point sockets to twelve pointers, then gear wrenches, box wrenches, adjustables, pliers, vice grips and, finally, reluctantly, the tool. Which always worked. Which I always suspected.

It started really bothering me that a really nice tool couldn't do the job of this casually stamped out piece of scrap metal. I started a campaign to figure out what it was that was indispensable about The Wrench and replace it with some nice stuff. Like the nice thin forged anodized thin wrench sets I bought. No good. Like the set of crows feet I bought. Nope. Like the adjustable lock ring pliers. A joke. The Wrench always triumphed and was always, after successfully doing its job, flung back into it's place in my now stainless, ball bearing, padded tool chest. Next to the finely polished foreign alloy stuff. It was killing me.

It is my most battle scarred tool. It has paint, grease, scratches and gouges and bits of gasket, sealent, and other unidentified things stuck to it. It receives no love. No cleaning, polishing, lubricating, or rust prevention. And yet it still remains useful. In the 5th century BC (Please don't give me any BCE crap), the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu wrote to hold your friends close and your enemies closer still. He must have had a copy of The Wrench, for it is a worthy enemy, and I hold it very close.

After the Lord of the Rings came out, I finally realized what this thing was.

It was obviously forged,

well stamped,

deep in the heart of some evil mountain.

I'm afraid to get it close to flame, as it will probably reveal the fire writing that I'm sure it has. The longer I posses it, the more attracted I am to cheap tools. I know now that I will never be rid of it. It has a home in my tool box forever. I hope that perhaps treating it as a permanent member of my toolset may retire it, as I really don't like using it. At least that's the hope.

It has become precious to me.

Enthusiasts over All

I have spent a lifetime working on cars.

A lifetime.

I've owned 30 cars. I've worked on more. I learned long ago to buy the factory shop manual with every new car I purchase. You never know when it'll come in handy. Like the time I had just purchased one of the new 1993 Camaro Z28s (you remember, the car with the ad slogan "275HP, 6 speed transmission, and a cup holder big enough for a Big Gulp"), and it needed warranty work almost right out of the chute. I was afraid of giving the car to the dealer, as they were rare then, and I didn't want to risk having my car hot rodded while on a "checkout drive". So I convinced the service manager that the part was in fact defective, and if he got me one under warranty, I'd take care of installing it. He did, and I did. Worked out great. It also resulted in a soiled service manual almost from day 1. Like I said, worth their weight in gold.

Like all those that own factory service manuals, one experiences a learning curve when first trying to use one. It's not the most obvious organization for a reference. Finding where a particular component is described, and then finding the torque specs, materials needed, what kind of special tools are required, are all not perhaps where you expect them to be. Personally, I speak GM manual and BMW TIS service CD. I've owned Toyota manuals, but have never had a need to actually go use one - so I don't have the faintest idea of how they are organized. My Fiero manual was practically memorized (and auctioned off for gold like prices when I got rid of my last Fiero). A friend of mine was a factory service manual writer. Nice lady. There is a certain way that a service manual is organized and written, and that's just the way it is.

Like most, I've wondered if there was a better way. A more obvious way. Like listing tools needed at the beginning of the section for a particular job and listing torque specs right where you describe the reassembly. Pictures would be nice too. The drawings factory service manuals have are quite intricate, but I've had more than one episode of lying on the floor of the shop under a car with the manual and a flashlight trying to figure out where the picture was describing on my car. Like the drawing with the title "fuel fitting" and a drawing of a tube with a nut on it. No mention of where on the car the fuel fitting is.

About 10 years ago I found the better way. It came via an unlikely path. I was browsing a car enthusiast website forum when I came upon a DIY thread on an oil change. It was for a Subaru WRX, if you must know. The writer of the thread had taken pictures of all the required tools laid on a bench, described each one, then proceeded to mix pictures and text into the most comprehensive description of an oil change I had ever seen. I went out and performed that exact procedure and came back impressed, because all was as described. I realized then that this was a better service procedure than the factory described one in the service manual. I guess that's what happens when the author loves what they are doing versus just doing it well.

These days, it's the first place I look. I typically start with a symptom that my car is suffering, like say "idles erratically", and start searching the Internet for answers. When I find results that are from a car enthusiasts forum on the model I click through. I usually find the beginning of some detailed description and diagnosis over several related threads and end up with the most likely cause. If it's common (who really suffers uncommon problems anyway?), there's usually a link to a "write up" or "DIY". I love these. They usually are great step by step descriptions with wonderful non ambiguous color photos and concise text. They get this way because from the moment it is posted, the community gives feedback to improve it until there is no more feedback. I guess everyone is happy with it then. I wouldn't be surprised if factory mechanics consult these pages to gather extra info over the service manual. The accompanying thread usually also contains expert info on why this was designed this way, or how this component typically fails adding to the knowledge feeding frenzy.

I recently followed the clue "irratic idle" to the conclusion that I might need walnut shell blasting on my intake valves. I'm quite familiar with the procedure and expected to have to find a local shop to do it. Except I saw a link in the thread to a "DIY walnut shell blasting" set of instructions.

What I found was someone describing not only the procedure, but how to fabricate your own inexpensive tool set to accomplish it. Now this really intrigued me. I love tools. I never thought I'd own a walnut shell blaster because they are relatively expensive and you'll likely use it once in the lifetime of a car. So by following the DIY, I built a blaster setup that used various odd parts and some plumbing fixtures (gotta love it when plumbing parts are involved in a car) and replicated a setup that looks like it worked at least as well, if not better, than the factory toolset. I know this because there are videos of folks on Youtube using the factory tools to clean valves on the exact car that I have. I'm pretty sure I beat them because my tool was easier to use and more effective. The factory toolset costs close to $1000. I've got $60 in my setup. WOW!

Mentally, as I built my tool setup and tested it on some of my wife's dirty bakeware (I figured baked on grease was pretty much baked on grease), I had a doubting, questioning attitude about whether it would work or not. I realized this the 1st moment I pulled the trigger on the engine and realized "Wow! this works great!" - all doubt instantly disappeared and the kind of joy you get when you get away with something comes over you.

I owe it all to the enthusiasts. I try to contribute to the sites I frequent as possible because I want to give back. I've benefited greatly, and I hope my contributions can help somebody else. When I'm about to buy a car, one of the things I check is to see if there is a good enthusiast site. Car manufacturers should take note. A few dollars sponsoring the best enthusiasts of your product can build more loyalty than all the TV commercials combined.

I've never felt the need to send the factory service manual publisher more money.

M Twelve

Growing up a gearhead in the 80's one must have at least heard the legend of the 1.5 liter BMW F1 engine that produced 1500HP. Back then, it was the stuff of crazy legend - a HP/displacement ratio of 10:1 when the world was struggling with getting to 1:1. I remember the thoughts fondly.

I remember reading an article about how BMW was struggling with tuning the engine because there weren't any dynos capable of over 1000HP. The ones that did go that high dated from WW2 aircraft engine development. So ultimately, who knew how much power the engine really put out? It was a F1 world champion, and raced in endurance and other series to varying success. All of that not that different than what I perceive about today's crop of F1 engines. Except they don't have the power to displacement specs of the old BMW 1.5. An engine known as the M12.

Alright, time to hold on tight as we are going to go where no race engine has gone before. The M12 engine used an M10 block.

Silence and reverent awe should be rolling out if you speak BMW at this point...

For the rest of us, the M10 block is a production iron 4 cylinder block found in popular road cars such as the 1600, 2002, and 320i. I had a 1981 320i with the M10 block. Yes, the most powerful engine ever in F1 used a straight up production iron block. There were rumors (nowadays more or less confirmed) that BMW engineers had actually looked for blocks from road cars that had around 100k gentle kilometers on them because the iron was "seasoned". There were rumors that the blocks were left outside in the rain to further season them before going through the exacting process of being machined and then built into a F1 engine. Talk about race on Sunday and sell on Monday! When was the last time any real racing series used an actual production block? I stood by my phone back then awaiting the call to use my engine for the F1 effort.

The secret to all that power was of course boost. Lots of boost. like 60PSI (4+bar over atmospheric). The engines were known to grenade. Race power levels were around 800HP up to 1000HP, but qualifying engines could touch 1500HP. Those engines were only expected to live a few minutes at those levels. Drivers account of how narrow the power band was and how much turbo lag there was. They get paid to figure it out. And they did. Car designers put as much as 70% of the vehicles weight over the drive wheels to try and take advantage of the power. The Brabham BT52 F1 car even looked like a slender arrow up front, with the bulk all around the rear wheels.

Stories of those who rode the beast have surfaced in subsequent years. Perhaps the most telling statistic from the drivers perspective was that horsepower would go from 450 to 850 over the span of about 1000RPM. Which turns out to be less than a second as the engine is revving up. Imagine that!

Quite the amazing engine and I was in awe of it recently as I had an opportunity to pour over a nice vertical display of the back half of an F1 car from the era. Most F1 cars, since the Lotus 49 designed for the 1967 F1 season by Colin Chapman, use a stressed drive train configuration. That is, that there is no chassis in back of the car for the suspension to attach to, rather the rear suspension is screwed right to the engine and transmission. The front of the engine is attached to the chassis which only carries the front suspension loads. Very efficient. Some types of engine blocks work better for this, as you can imagine. V type blocks provide a nice 3 dimensional stability due to their inherent "Y" shape. The newest F1 rules for 2014 cited this as the reason for going with a V6 rather than an inline configuration.

The M12 was, of course an inline 4 cylinder, so it needed some help in the form of a black tubular structure on the left and right sides to reinforce the block. You can see one of these in the picture above. The silver colored framing you see in the picture is a frame that holds the display, not part of the car. So BMW managed to get it down to 2 tubes on each side. Still pretty efficient and light weight. As an engineer, this type of feature really speaks to me. It's a band-aid, but a pretty reasonable one, and it's simplicity hints at a certain elegance that comes from solving problems quickly. Today, it would be a 3D CNC machined piece of Titanium with carbon nanotube reinforcing web.

The engineering on this engine from the early 80's is nowhere as elegant as those of a current F1 lump. The castings and fittings all seem pretty home made in comparison, but they are much more familiar to the auto enthusiast. This, I believe is the root of why F1 no longer holds as much interest for me today. As a automotive engineer, I am not as impressed with a contemporary F1 effort done with a large enough budget to create clean sheet designs to meet the rule book as I am with a much more ingenious approach dictated by a reasonable budget.

Give me $300 million and I can build a wonderful engine, but it won't be legendary. Give me a budget of $1 million, and I'll cobble something up that has a shot at that status. The rule makers and the industry are too far gone to ever go back. The legends these days are all the drivers, never the cars. I liked the legendary cars. I want to feel the wildness of the BT52. And that almighty "I've just been rear ended" feel of the M12 pushing.

Engines to Motors

There is one engineering peeve that is coming to the forefront in the slowly electrifying automotive world. That is that the beast of burden that moves our beloved cars around is changing from an Engine to a Motor. Non-Engineers treat the terms pretty much the same; much to the annoyance of engineers. And although the interchangeability of the terms is common and accepted now, I still prefer to differentiate thus: an engine converts fuel into motion, and a motor uses electricity to generate motion.

As more and more cars begin to use motors as a supplement to their engines (see how nicely defining terms makes an idea clear?) this idea of the motor begins to enter the heads of the collected gear head world. They both ultimately drive wheels, but they are quite different. So - from the gear heads perspective:

Both require cooling systems. An engine generates a lot of heat. A motor less, but also requires that the associated power electronics be cooled too. The difference here is in how much heat is to be dissipated. We know that losing heat in a system wastes energy and is an indicator of lower efficiency. Gas engines range from 15% to maybe 25% efficient in converting the energy in gas to motion, Diesel engines maybe 5% to 10% more efficient. So the other 60% - 85% of the energy in fuel goes to heat. No wonder a 600HP engine requires some serious airflow and radiator! Motors require but a fraction of that cooling due to their efficiency. More on this later.

Both have optimum operating RPM ranges. Engines generally have such low RPM ranges and power bands within that range that multispeed transmissions are necessary. Motors have much wider RPM ranges, but some applications may do better with a multispeed transmission.

Flexibility of packaging - engines, due to cooling requirements, tend to be difficult to put into a car. There is a rich history of combinations of engine configuration and where to put them. I always like the under the floor flat engines for their ingenuity, but servicing was always painful with these. Motors are more compact; along the size of other driveline components like axles and brakes, and so are easier to deal with. Electricity is easier to route than a spinning shaft, so the associated power electronics can be anywhere and in any configuration. The weight of the combined motor/electronics is substantially less than that of the engine/cooling/transmission, but the scale tips back when the energy source is thrown in, batteries and gas tanks. The energy side of the equation is extremely unfavorable to motors - in my electric car, the battery system weighs 600 lbs. and contains the same energy as 2/3 a gal of gas, about 5 lbs. worth.

So here's the meat of the matter, efficiency. Electric motors, it turns out, have been around longer than the current form of internal combustion engines can trace its roots to. Motors have also been in wide use in non battery applications across huge industries. The result of which is that they are very efficient. There are several types that are applicable to cars, and the least efficient designs start at 80% efficiency. In permanent magnet brushless form, efficiencies of 95% can be realized. So compared to the efficiency of engines, this is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Not that there isn't any work to be done - getting the right sized motor with the right characteristics takes real work, along with the controller that goes with it. But realize that you are starting at the end of the spectrum where there isn't much room for further gains. To bring the development status of a motor to cold hard facts, a good auto targeted motor of 10" diameter and 75 lbs. weight (think car battery size/weight) can put out 125 HP at 90%+ efficiency. A typical efficient small car 4 cylinder gas power plant is at minimum 300 lbs. and more like a 2 foot cube.

Gas engines in particular have been around in their very inefficient form for quite some time, as gas was cheap. Now that the precious fluid is going up in price, there has been an explosion of development in increasing the efficiency of the old lump. When you start at the 15% end of the scale, big gains can be made quickly. Not so much low hanging fruit as succulent fruit lying about the ground in huge piles for the harvesting. The Motor tree is barren with a lone shriveled fruit at the very top of the tree. A small one at that.

So what we have here is an old fashioned conundrum. The fuel for engines is light and packed full of energy. The engine sucks at turning into motion. It's a pretty good heater, though. The storage for electricity, batteries, sucks to the tune of 100 times worse than gas. But the motor is almost perfect.

What's needed is a way to turn the energy in fuel into electricity at a better than 20% efficiency.

There are fuel cells. The name implies exactly what we are looking for, but to date, only limited applications drive their development.

There are fuel-electric systems that get at some of that efficiency by running an engine at highest efficiency for electricity generation and then using motors to drive wheels. This seems to have found a home in large machines. Like diesel electric locomotives and giant "steam" shovels. Their efficiency overall can approach 40%. Still not great, but for certain applications, a pretty good idea. The "range extender" type of hybrid falls into this category. Its typically an electric car with an add on gas or diesel generator. The new BMW i3 even treats the generator as an option. It's a motorcycle engined generator with it's own cooling and fuel system packaged in a suitcase style enclosure.

The auto industry, and more likely the popular press, searches too hard for pure solutions. Pure as in let's get gas engines to 80% efficiency, or lets develop batteries that have the energy density of gas. Either of those is nice and likely a long term goal given the current technology levels. But in the rush to pure nirvana, we might be missing some pretty attractive combinations that the technology is ready for right now.

Motors are efficient and easy to package. You can have a motor built into each wheel, or a motor that looks like a differential driving 2 wheels through axles. Since suspensions want to be as light as possible, this configuration is pretty attractive. Using either of these schemes to add 2 wheels of drive to the existing 2 seems like an attractive combo. For one thing, you can probably do it to existing vehicles. Enthusiasts are most likely to benefit here. Imagine building a rock crawler where you don't have to worry about all the stuff to drive the front wheels. Instead, you strap a supercharger sized generator onto your engine, beef up your battery pack, and add a pair of motorized hubs to your front suspension. Think of the steering angles possible with driven wheels on that rig!

While we are on the subject, note that electric motors are a good replacement for transmissions, drive shafts, and differentials. Maybe it's worth exploring the diesel/electric side of things. Makes for good marketing too. I'd buy a pickup that was "Diesel Electric powered by Cat". Makes your diesel powered rig seem puny, given that diesel electric is LOCOMOTIVE POWER! It also probably allows pickups to get away from full frame construction, as a frame twisting engine is no longer a part of the equation. And since you have a generator on board such systems, I think you have just added all the benefits of a big generator for powering tools at job sites or backing up your home in a power outage to the mix. It's really the best generator for such things, as it has the reliability of a truck (versus a lawnmower engine), and a large fuel tank, and the ability to simply go to the gas station when refueling is needed. Those of you that use generators on a regular basis know how much a pain these tasks are.

So I'm hopeful the car manufacturers will take a few steps along the way to electrification. It needn't be one giant leap. That's only necessary for stepping onto the moon, and all I want to do is drive cool cars.

1973 BMW 3.0 CSL
1973 BMW 3.0 CSL

Air vs. Character

I visited the BMW Zentrum recently. It's a small museum at the BMW assembly plant in South Carolina. Inside, there are a small number of displays, and occasionally, a car that BMW enthusiasts go all crazy over.

Before we go much further, I should point out in the manner of those Wall street types that are now required to state their investment interest in the topic they are writing on, that I was a BMW fan boy. I was a 20 year member of the BMW Car Club of America. The finest car club I have seen. I left it not because of any of the work of the fan club folks, but rather I knew that I would never buy a new BMW again. So I gave up my low member number (low numbers indicate you joined early) and stopped receiving their fine magazine, Roundel. So now you know that I know a good amount about BMWs, but am not a fan of the new cars.

So given that confession, I found the 1973 3.0 CSL to be an absolute treasure. In photos it looks like an older car with a lot of character, but standing next to it, you get additional cool vibes.

Like it's size.

It is a low car and pretty compact. Maybe put another way, sitting it next to a modern car makes it look small and frail. It happened to be sitting in a room with a modern BMW M3 competition vehicle and some of the companies Sport utes, an X5, X6M and a X3, I believe. The room couldn't provide a more powerful statement about the evolution of BMW design. That's probably why they are placed there, but there wasn't a banner or info board that pointed this out. I think for the benefit of the companies sales, as I prefer the older car to the new ones and I'm not alone.

Compared to the X lineup, the CSL is tiny. It's also much slower than all of them, especially that mighty abomination of the lineup, the X6M. It's 555 HP (the most powerful production BMW built until recently) and 4 second 0 - 60 time are unholy. A truly fast car. Also a truly huge hulk of a machine. It looks wild enough on its own, but seen with the CSL it looks like it could transform into a robot. Maybe it should. The CSL screams classic.

Even compared to the 2011 Le Mans GTE M3 racer it seems small and low. Now that's an accomplishment because a modern Le Mans racer is a fantastically low racecar that happens to look like a street car. If you park a 2011 M3 next to the GTE car, you'll see what I mean.

This CSL is a street car. Probably owned by somebody in Germany and driven around daily. For its day it had high tech concessions to aerodynamics. This was very much in its infancy in 1973, or more likely 1972 when the aero kit was designed. As I understand it, aerodynamic add ons were placed in the trunk when the car was sold and the customer had the option of mounting them or not. These consisted of some small fences that rode lengthwise along the top of the front fenders, preventing air coming over the hood from spilling off the sides. There was also a big wing (boy racer/ WRX STI scale in modern terms) that could be mounted on the trunk and a director that mounted over the rear glass. This example has none and presents as the nice clean street car that it is.

For me, it contains the essential elements of the BMW sport sedan design. The reverse raked "hunters nose". The airy upright green house. The Hofmeister kink in the rear quarter windows. This is the kick up at the bottom of the window towards the trunk end. And of course, the 4 round head lights and the double kidney grills. I maintain that if you put these elements together, you get something that looks like a BMW. But style alone is not the only story. There is also the knowledge that BMW raced with mighty engines. The Group 5 CSL based on this car might be the zenith of it all. It's reported 800 horsepower overcame that reverse raked nose to drive it to frightening speeds. Kind of like the engineers said "Air resistance? Ja... it's too high. We'll have to put in an 800HP engine to batter the air into submission". I like that kind of thinking.

The GTE M3 is a very modern design. The base M3 sedan is a slippery soap bar as all cars are now. The racer that much more so. The air is cruel. It doesn't reward cars because they are styled nice. It doesn't care. All cars today look a great deal alike to satisfy the air god. Sure they go faster and even manage to trick the air into pushing them down on the track. But if you have to look like that, you've obviously sold out. Well, as a side effect you might win races too, but it all has the wrong outcome if something as pretty as the CSL is no longer competitive. I guess that's why vintage "racing" is so popular.

I think this may be why I stopped liking the newer BMWs. I owned a E21 chassis 3 series, E12 5 series, and a E28 M5, all with reverse rake noses and Hofmeister kinks. The last BMW I owned was a E30 3 series, still with Hofmeister, but the nose was vertical now. No longer reverse raked and heading towards the normal swept back/layed back look.

Yeah, I know the 1 series made an attempt to bring back the reverse rake, but it was vertical at best. It also was a car I came close to buying. Twice.

Note to BMW: Do a retro off the CSL. Nobody really drives that fast anyway - keep the hunters nose. I'll buy one and reup with the club.

GTI? Did you say GTi?

I came across something that reminded me of one of my favorite cars recently, the GTi.

A Volkswagen GTI (note the capital I)? - why yes, it's one of the Worlds favorite cars for the past 30 years!

Uhh... Well... actually no. I mean a Suzuki GTi.

The VW GTI is a fine car - I have friends that are of the GTI persuasion.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I have driven every model of VW GTi in this country since a good friend of mine bought a 1st generation 1983 Mk. 1 VW GTi. Great car. We had a lot of fun in that car. It defined the category Hot Hatch in the US and many other parts of the world. It weighed 1800 pounds and had 105 horsepower. It's been getting fatter ever since. The latest GTI is everything I used to buy BMWs for. It just isn't as fun as the Mk1.

So what about the little known or loved Suzuki GTi? It came out in the US in 1989. It weighed 1750 lbs. and had a 100 HP DOHC 4 cylinder that had a manic, motorcycle feel about it. Something the 1st generation VW GTI never had (it's engine just did the job, but never seemed happy about it). It also had 4 wheel disc brakes, some nice grippy cloth sport seats, and a 5 speed manual transmission that shifted well. I loved that car. It had something fun about it. Like after driving it, I had a dopey smile on my face. Kind of like I just got done pretending to be a race car driver. It was a happy car.

The Swift GTi did not do well in the US. It was burdened by 2 things. It was related and looked like the very pedestrian Swift, and it was expensive for such a small car.

The lineage was somewhat contorted. The GTi I knew was actually a 2nd generation of a platform known in Japan and the rest of world as the Cultus. It is still around today in it's 6th generation or so. In the US, the first exposure to the car was the 1st generation Cultus known as the Sprint when you bought it from Chevrolet. That was rare. GM needed a small car, so they had it under their nameplate as the Chevrolet Sprint in generation 1 and then under the Geo nameplate as the Metro for generations 2 and 3. In either case, the base car was famous for being a 3 cylinder. Very efficient for it's time, but the American public was enjoying sub $1 gas and mostly thought it a cost savings. Like that was the conclusion of some corporate meeting with the subject of "Get cost out of this car" - uhh, we could try 3 wheels? or maybe 3 cylinders?

Chevrolet did try to spice things up somewhat and brought in the Sprint Turbo. It turbo charged the 3 cylinder 1 liter engine from 55 HP up to a whopping 70. I think the starter on my truck has that kind of grunt. But to those few who have driven a Sprint Turbo there awaited a surprising experience. It was quick. I guess the surprise comes from you having such low expectations when you approached it. It was, however, cute beyond belief. There was a small slot on the front grill with a sticker on it that said "Intercooler" and an arrow to direct air into it. It also kind of felt like a home "tuned" car. Surprisingly good performance, but raw. It vibrated funny because of the 3 cylinder. It sounded funny. And for it's target crowd of 1st time male car owners, it would not make you look cool to the opposite sex. No sales to speak of and a rare sight even in its day.

The Sprint GTi was a whole different animal. It's little 1.3 liter 4 cylinder was quite the engine. It could rev safely to a reported 9000 RPM, but longevity of the accessories kept it down to 7500 or so. Those who would later hot rod the car verified it's comfort and durability at high RPMs. It felt like it wanted to go - a very happy manic engine that plucked the right strings of cute and angry. A true bumble bee of a car. It also left an impression on those who came to own one. There are enthusiast sites to this day that focus on the GTi, and rightfully so.

In the US, the car was available for a short period of time under the Suzuki brand only. I guess Chevy took enough of a bath with the Sprint Turbo to not repeat that mistake again. As a result, they are also rare cars.

Driving the GTi was akin to riding a bull dog. Its little engine had a gravelly motorcycle like growl to it. It was easy to fry the front tires (of course they were only 175mm wide - and these were the wide ones!). You could even do it going into 2nd if conditions were right. Winding out the engine to its redline just felt like you were releasing it to do what it was born to. The factory exhaust was a laughable diameter (think garden hose), but it did have just enough aural quality to get the job done. I installed a larger free flowing exhaust that was just wrong. Too loud and it droned at an unfortunate 55 MPH. It did free up a precious 5 HP or so. I drove with earplugs.

The engineering on the car was exemplary. So was the factory service manual. I worked at GM at the time, and knew that this was probably due to the low number of Suzuki engineers. So the car was designed with the singularity and consistency of thought that one person projects have. Everything made sense. The manual had the perfect drawings and instructions and data at the right places. Like torque numbers where you needed them, not buried in some weird section all by themselves. As a result, I actually torqued everything to spec. I heard that one person wrote the manual.

It also ran its lifetime like it was intended. It's the only car I've had where the brake pads (all eight of them) wore out at precisely the same time. As in when I found the first pad had worn thin, all the other pads had the same level of wear - virtually no material left, but no metal on metal scraping yet. I removed 8 equally thin pieces and replaced them with brand new pads of different thicknesses and realized that there was some fine engineering going on there. I've not seen this from many more respected manufacturers. By the way, this occurred once in the life of my GTi at 80,000 miles.

The precise engineering was everywhere. The car ran as it was supposed to, lasted the 100,000 miles it was designed to, and left little on the table after that. The only problem I had with it was a funny one. The speedometer cable drive (yes it was mechanical, and I'm glad they are all electronic these days) had lost a seal down at the transmission end of the cable. The result was it screwed transmission oil (that nasty, thick 90 weight bad smelling stuff) up the cable and spilled out around the back of the speedometer. This led to the weird observation that the car smelled bad (well, maybe that alone is not so weird), and oil dripping down from the upper dash onto the floor mats. That was weird. It took a while for me to figure that one out. When I did, I went to the dealership to get a new housing, and the mechanic (who was an owner of a GTi and an enthusiast) knew about the issue and struck up a conversation with me on our common interest. That's rare too - most mechanics have a secret hate for the cars they work on because they only see them at their worst.

The precise engineering was also the reason I reluctantly parted company with my GTi. I had reached 100,000 miles with mine and liked it enough to put the effort into a complete frame down (I guess unibody down is the correct term) restoration but I didn't. I took some cross body measurements (you know, the ones that are provided in the body repair part of service manuals) and was dismayed to learn that my GTi was now 6mm longer than it was when it left the factory. Nothing broken, you understand. It had just stretched out during it's time with me. Now This is the source of some bragging (Yeah guys, I guess the engine is so powerful that I measurably stretched the chassis out!), but unfortunately not restore-able. As far as I could tell, the car had pretty evenly stretched. The gaps in front of and after the door were equally longer than factory spec on both the driver and passenger side.

It probably shouldn't have stopped me, but it did and I reluctantly traded the car in. I still miss it. I believe that my ownership of 4 modern Mini Coopers is due to my wanting to duplicate my old GTi. By the way, the modern Mini is the same length as my GTi, only almost a 1000 pounds heavier. Think about that - 1000 pounds more in a space 146 inches long. A much more solid and luxurious car for sure, but not nearly as manic and fun.

I like to waste time sometimes by looking at the enthusiast sites around the Internet focused on the GTi. Saw one the other day where somebody had taken the 4WD (yes, in other parts of the world 4WD was a factory option) chassis and turbo charged the little 1.3 liter up to 310 HP at the wheels. It made me smile as I wondered how long that car was. 'course 4WD might keep it from stretching as the rear tires try to catch up to the fronts.

I knew Supra, and you, sir, are no Supra

The Toyota Supra. Today it has legendary status. By IT, I mean the Mark IV cars that lived from the early Ninetys to the early Aughties. There were earlier Marks I remember too, but barely. The Mark IV was a surprising car for it's time. Equally surprisingly, many of it's owners today were just little kids when it was new. A better testament to it's durability as a legend I cannot think of.

Toyota has been showing the FT-1 concept car and has been widely fishing the public for commitment on this as its new Supra. Surprisingly, it seems to be all about the styling. There's little mention of its intended power train or performance, other than the implication that any car that looks as it does must surely be fast. So this is interesting. Looks like there won't be any attempt to duplicate what made the Mark IV a car that reached legendary status.

A brief recap - Set the time machine for 1992!

It was the golden age of Japanese sports cars. These were affordable by a pretty large chunk of the population with prices starting at the average car price to about twice that. In Today's terms, around $30,000 to $60,000. On the low end were some delicious cars like the Toyota MR2. It had started as the adorable Mark 1 that represented one of the only genuine sports cars offered to a public coming off a big recession and just getting on it's feet. A new Mark 2 offered a turbocharged engine and mid engine placement in a fun looking body. The RX-7 had been around much longer, but a new FD turbo version debuted that offered enthusiasts what they had always asked for. Very few bought it, and the manufacturers learned to not listen to enthusiasts. Nissan had the 300ZX, also the pinnacle of a lineup that reached back to the Datsun 240Z. Capped with a twin turbo model that bristled with technology. Subaru was thinking WRX but had the SVX which was a pinnacle model for them, although it is surely the least remembered of this class. Acura/Honda had debuted the NSX, and it was just a little out of reach for most. But it put the halo on Japanese sports cars. And it was a work of art in every respect.

Toyota, which already had the potent 2nd gen. MR2 on offer, created late in the epoch, the Gen IV Supra. When it came out, it was a surprise and I remember the styling being not liked. It actually came in two versions, the normally aspirated which was by far the volume car, and the twin turbo. Were it not for the twin turbo, the Mark IV would have been consigned to a similar niche as its predecessors, that of a secretaries car. Or is it Office Manager now? In contemporary terms the Supra occupied the space a Hyundai Genesis coupe or a Infiniti G37 coupe would occupy. Except it had a turbocharged big brother.

The turbo Supra was the car everybody knew would do 0-60 in 4.6 seconds. In 1993. That would be fast today, but back then, it was unbelievable. Who cared if it looked a little goofy. Who cared if it was overly luxurious. It struck fear in other manufacturers hearts. Sports car manufacturers. Manufacturers that didn't think a threat would come from the Supra line. I worked at GM at the time and I remember the commotion.

Every year, the GM divisions would put on a internal show of new cars and technology for the executives at Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan, GM's test track. I was there with a show car of electronics. We were parked next to the Corvette guys who were directly in the sights of the Turbo Supra (or so they thought). So they had brought a Turbo Supra and a prototype supercharged Corvette that would be the response. Well, it rained that year, and so the executives cut short their test drives and we were all left with a bunch of cars, a test track, and no responsibilities for the rest of the day. Everybody started driving cars. I got to drive the Supra on a track, which by the way was far better than any public race course I'd been on. I remember thinking as I pulled out of the parking lot that this doesn't feel like it's THAT fast. Then I looked down at the speedometer and saw 120 MPH. WOW! I brought it back impressed with how quietly it got up to speed. Next was the supercharged Corvette. Now that felt like a fast car at the turn of the ignition. Its engine was loud and raspy in a good way and shook the whole car. Even pulling out of the parking lot it felt like a wild beast. It then exploded down the track and you felt like you must be going some crazy speed. Except it was going the same speed as the Supra. Well that pretty much summed up the characters of both cars. Both were genuinely fast. The Vette felt fast and was more entertaining. Like as in if you had bought it as a speed toy you would be rewarded with a richer experience on each drive. The Supra was a ho hum car that you would always be surprised at how fast you were going. One felt like it was fast, one didn't but was. Either way, both cars left quite the impression on me. GM didn't go through with the supercharged Vette in production and Toyota had a hard time selling the Turbo Supra. They did much better with the normally aspirated car. I remember the last of the Turbo Supras sitting on the local dealer lot with discount stickers in the window.

Somewhere after it went out of production, the gear heads beat a path to the Turbo Supra and it attained legendary status. The power levels that could be achieved were breathtaking and the drag strip performance got into muscle car territory. The Fast and the Furious came out and the Supra became Legend. It has a reputation as a viciously powerful car. Something that could bite. Kind of like the reputation that Shelby 427 Cobras established in the 70's.

And Toyota wants to capitalize on that.

The FT-1 certainly looks the part. It even has the overall proportions of the old Supra. But remember it was not a universally liked design back then. I guess it's the shape of fast given the history of the Mark IV, but can the shape stand on its own right?

The Turbo Supra's fans are sure to be all about the performance of any replacement. The current day spiritual equivalent is the Nissan GTR. One of the fastest cars available and tune-able to become the fastest. I see videos of tuned GTRs going faster than million dollar Veyrons all the time. That car is assuming the role of the Supra in todays scene. So unless the FT-1 derived production car can match or exceed the GTR's performance, it's likely to draw derision from the hardcore Supra crowd.

Whom Toyota is courting.

That's a pretty tall order, as the GTR is a pretty hard act to follow. I'm just hoping the new Supra will be as fast as the old one. That's pretty fast in today's world still. Somehow I doubt that I will have a similar experience with the new Supra as the old one; that of quiet surprising legend making speed. I'm sure it'll be very nice in the manner that all contemporary Toyotas are. But they probably shouldn't name it Supra. That name might be best kept on the shelf until something GTR killing arrives. And they should probably offer a non turbo version. Just to make sure they sell a good number.

New Amazon

1995 Toyota Supra Import Tuners 1:18 Scale (White/Red Stripes)
1995 Toyota Supra Import Tuners 1:18 Scale (White/Red Stripes)

Lowest cost way to realize some Supra dreaming...


Direct Injection and Direct to the Point

Direct injection is one of those "new" technologies that the auto industry loves, but the public barely acknowledges. It is a huge factor in the recent rise in US car fuel economy and when coupled with a turbocharger yields a small efficient engine that really does feel like a bigger one.

But what is this new miracle technology? and is there a hidden downside? Well, if there is one, it is the problem of valve deposits.

Let's dive into the combustion chamber. Here, air and fuel are mixed as evenly as possible in preparation for the spark ignition event that hopefully burns all the fuel evenly and providing the most expansion of the gasses to drive the piston down on the power stroke. There are many secrets here, but most are aimed at getting that air and fuel mix to be thoroughly mixed. In the past, the fuel and air entered the chamber through the intake valve together. In the old carburetor days, the fuel air mixture was a mist of fuel coupled with liquid drops that had pooled behind the valve. Technology applied to the shape and location of valves and piston features (shapes on the top of the piston) were aimed at causing turbulence in the chamber as the piston drew the mixture in. This turbulence would hopefully more thoroughly mix the components before the compression and ignition events. Obviously the more fuel that started in aerosol form and the less in liquid form, the better. And in an age before Computer Fluid Dynamic simulations, coming up with the combination of shapes was more black magic than targeted engineering.

Fuel injection, that is fuel sprayed under pressure into the air stream, vs. the natural venturi suction that the carburetor provided helped a little, but mostly addressed the finicky nature of that all mechanical contraption, the carburetor. As a trivia point, the car manufacturers in the carburetor age would tune a new engine by having a crew of the black magic guys go at it with an adjustable carburetor until they were happy with the operation of the engine. Then that "golden carb" would be placed in a vault as the reference for the manufacturing guys to duplicate. Kind of a "we don't care what makes it work, just make them all like that one" approach. Also, as there was fuel pooling behind the hot intake valve, these engines were subject to valve deposits over the years. The basic effect being fuel getting cooked and leaving a residue on the back of the valve that was mostly hard carbon. Over thousands of miles, the buildup could be substantial and actually begin to block off the flow into a cylinder.

There was an old trick that would be performed by pouring cold water straight into the carburetor while holding the throttle open to keep the engine running. The water would hit the hot parts of the intake tract and cause a fast thermal contraction that had the effect of cracking off some of the deposits. The water would then flash into steam and go through the combustion chamber and leave through the exhaust pretty harmlessly. The trick was to not put so much water in that you flooded a cylinder and caused a hydro lock, but to pour in enough that the water remained liquid and hence cold when it hit the hot parts of the engine. Cars back then had pretty open exhausts, so the events I witnessed had all sorts of black tarry goo come out of the exhaust pipe and splatter onto the ground when you did this. And you know what? The car generally ran better afterwards.

Sequential fuel injection helped the actual efficiency by limiting the fuel injection event to right when the intake valve opens, hopefully eliminating the liquid fuel that would pool on the back of the valve in earlier mechanizations. This required higher capacity fuel injection systems as the full amount of fuel would have to be delivered in a shorter time through the injector. Most of these systems aimed the injector at the intake port, pretty much in line with the back of the valve. The aim was to keep fuel in air suspension as it was drawn into the cylinder. It also kind of power washed the back of the valve. It would leave a bit of a residue on the back of the valve, and poor timing could exacerbate this, but for the most part these engines would stay pretty clean. The higher pressure in the fuel injection system allowed for a greater atomization of fuel and this led to horsepower increases. This was a good technology and lasted for years in production.

Direct injection borrowed a page from the Diesel world where a very high pressure fuel injector is used to inject directly into the cylinder. The pressures go up tremendously, because you might be injecting during the compression stroke so you had to overcome the pressure in the chamber and then have a high enough pressure to cause atomization. 26,000 PSI is not uncommon vs. the 80 PSI that a sequential system might take. As you can imagine, the fuel injection system is much more capable, and most have an engine driven boost pump to achieve these pressures. The good news is now you have the freedom to inject, possibly multiple times, directly into the compression stroke to really achieve great atomization of fuel. And with the uber high pressures involved (and the really expensive injector with multiple holes on the business end), you get great atomization. The size of the droplets in air suspension decrease compared to sequential injection and a power increase is given from the same amount of fuel. Adding a turbo to cram more air in allows a smaller engine to achieve higher efficiencies.

The intake and valves do not see fuel anymore, as their job is limited to bringing air in now. However, since emission regulations have been in place, there has been Positive Crankcase Ventilation, and the PCV valve that accompanies it. This is a system where gasses (mostly the compression that escapes past the piston rings) end up pressurizing the lower part of the engine, the crankcase, and need to be expelled. In the old days, there was simply a hole in the side of the crankcase, and a tube going through it shaped to prevent rain or road water/debris from entering while allowing gasses to escape. If you watch tractor pulls or other similar forms of racing, you might notice a small jet of oily steam coming from the bottom of the engines as they are pulling. This is the vent tube in action. But since this is a unclean oily emission, the PCV system was introduced to suck the gases out of the crankcase and put them into the intake system so the engine could burn them off. The basic system is still in use today. Unfortunately for direct inject engines, this puts oily air into the intake system where it can collect on the back of the hot intake valves and cook without the washing effect that gasoline had to keep things clean. This is part of the equation with direct injection valve buildup.

The other is timing of fuel injector pulses. The intake valve spends a good amount of time open where it is pushed into the combustion chamber. If you inject fuel into the chamber when the valve is open, and given the geometry of the spray pattern of your injector, it is possible to have fuel hit the backside of the valve. This is not a power wash with fuel, but rather a light dusting. This can cause buildup.

Audi, BMW, and other early technology marketers have run afoul of this and many owners report very fast power-robbing valve deposit build ups. On the Audi forums, there is a key thread on a poor soul who spent a small fortune on a high performance RS4 and over successive dyno runs noticed his power dropping by 5 percent every 10,000 miles. A walnut shell blasting would instantly restore the power. This fast build up is apparently the result of the above 2 contributors and is not readily changeable for an existing engine design. Poor fellow.

GM and Ford have quietly published papers on this years ago, and have fielded engines for years that are direct inject turbos that do not have anywhere near the build up problem that the poor RS4 folks have. Ford was confident enough that as a demo of the suitability of their 3.5 liter DI turbo engine for trucks performed a public tear down of a 150,000 mile engine at an auto show. The valves had only a minor buildup - although I suspect they might have peeked at the valves with a bore camera before the public show just to be sure. Imagine the pressure! But very impressive nonetheless.

So have the other manufacturers all figured this out? I'm sure if not, they are working on it.

The point of it all? Be careful of buying used early DI cars (mostly European). Check forums for build up problems as dealer cleaning can run up to $1000. Or buy yourself a walnut blasting rig and get good at doing this as routine maintenance. It's not a huge job once you do it a few times, and it sounds cool to say "yeah, last weekend I decided to walnut blast my intake valves to keep things in tip top shape". If that doesn't get a conversation started, I don't know what will.

New Amazon

Eastwood 13944 Blasting System
Eastwood 13944 Blasting System

Small media blasters can be made into effective valve cleaning setups. Consult internet for various builds specific to your car

5 LBS FINE Grade Walnut Shell Blast Media
5 LBS FINE Grade Walnut Shell Blast Media

Has the property of being able to chip off the hard carbon, but not gouge or damage the metal beneath it.


The New New MINI

Kicking the tires on the 2014 F56 MINI Cooper/S

The new new MINI (Isn't BMW's insistence that the name be all caps wearing a bit thin?) has just been introduced and is the topic of 2 kinds of commentary: those that think it destroys what Mini is all about, and those that think it's a great variation on the theme. Kind of like the commentary on all new cars.

I'll add to that commentary, but I will state my resume as an authority on the subject: I've owned 4 (2 of each generation) of the new Minis that debuted in the US in 2002. These are, for the record, 2 of the R53 version and 2 of the R56 version. All Cooper S's. I've driven all of the Mini models over the years and have worked on all of mine. All were purchased new. One was modified to the extreme, one was left completely stock, 2 are in between. I have not been without a Mini for any period over the last 12 years. And I've driven a bunch of miles in them for commuting, performance, vacations (not many, due to the ride and all..), and general utility (not much). I pay for all my gas out of my own pocket, as I do for all the maintenance (BMW maintenance, 18,000 miles between oil changes, mine, 6,000), and modifications. So given that, I feel like I might know more about Minis than the editors of most car magazines.

The new F56 Mini looks much like it's predecessors and would not be a surprise to anybody who has seen any generation of Mini. Each generation manages to be just a little bit larger, and, to my eyes, a little bit less focused on the design elements of a modern Mini. That is, a notably small car that exudes a happy, cheerful "I think I can!" persona with modernized design cues from the original 1950's Minis. So the F56 fits in that line well. Real Mini enthusiasts, that I count myself a member of, all seem to worship the original Mini, but somehow never seem to own one. Concession to a modern working car, I suppose. The F56 does by it's proportions seem to tread into some ugly territory. The uber short hood and non-existant overhangs are going away with each generation. BMW claims it necessary to satisfy some arcane European pedestrian safety regulations (I thought chief among these should be the wisdom of staying out of the street), but I believe the real reason is that for the first time the Mini is on a platform that BMW intends to share with other models Ones that don't have short overhangs and short hoods. Think a X1 like vehicle, or in this case, an X0.5 to follow their numbering convention. While that makes sense, I'd appreciate a comment to that effect rather than a camouflage "it's not our fault, we would do what you want if the evil government allowed us to" comment.

So I'm not in love with the styling, but it looks more Mini than a VW Golf. Which I'm sure the Golf enthusiasts are relieved to hear. It does seem to be that BMW is morphing the Mini into a Golf sized vehicle. A very popular demographic for Europe that seems to get no real traction here in the US. Typical.

The new engines are all the highlight of this generation. 3 cylinder turbo for the non S, and a 4 cylinder turbo for the S. Both modern paragons of efficiency and power that BMW is famous for. Their middle name is, after all, Motor. Which brings up the interesting engineering point: these are gas burning Engines, and a Motor is what's in an electric vehicle. So maybe BMW's new "i" lineup of electrics finally fulfills their name.

The new engines are also uber complex for what they do. Just like the outgoing engines. The first generation done in cooperation with Peugeot and the second with Chrysler. As consistent with BMW, always there is technology that sounds really techy like dual variable lift/phase camshafts, Turbos with innovative vane/scrolls mounted right on the block, etc. Direct fuel injection, electric periperhals, start/stop. Somehow, only 189HP from 2 liters. And all the service woes of all that complexity without the major benefit, real horsepower. All the complexity makes sense on a 500 HP M5 engine that sings opera and looks like jewelry, but in a lowly Mini it just means repairs will be frequent and expensive. I liked working on the complexity of my M5 engine because it was a beautiful engine that did great things, but I hate working on my Mini's because it just exists. Same work really. Same electronic manuals, tools, techniques. Different attitude. Nothing new or unique to the F56 Mini, as this has plagued the marque from day one in 2002. So nothing different. Just a missed opportunity. I'd be one of the first in line and willing to forgive anything else about the car if it had close to 300HP, you know, like that inexpensive and most likely reliable Ford Focus ST (also a 2 liter direct inject turbo, but with 250HP), but as it is, I wonder why I would "upgrade" from my current Mini.

The interior is pretty much the same - slightly better, but no revelations. More tech features as is the norm for modern cars. But here is a nugget: I love the technology in my phone. I am not looking for a giant Mini shaped phone. So integrate if you must, but I'm more interested in the interior materials (leather and wood must have higher margins than phone like center clusters, don they?) than the "tech" features. Nice seats (Mini has never had these - trust me on this one), solid doors (R53 - C grade, R56 - B grade), and a nice quiet cabin. Better in the F56, certainly more modern, but hardly a reason to buy the car.

Ride is slightly better, but that is roughly like saying that this particular dirt is less dirty. Minis have always been faced with a fundamental conundrum; The image is all about go cart like handling, the usage is all about commuter/shopping. BMW guessed handling. Most folks buy commuting. No different on the F56. My guess is that the basic suspension design might be more accommodating on this generation due to the future BMW models that will probably be required to ride better. The old R56 suffered from a suspension with so little travel that a good ride really simply wasn't possible. But Minis are tuned to be firm and the F56 is no different than its predecessors.

Practicality - Minis have very little. I'm 6'3" and the back of my seat touches the bottoms of the rear seats. Not sure why BMW feels that the back seats are necessary. An option to delete them and have some nice cargo space would be nice. I've always assumed that if I wanted a cargo/people hauling car something named Mini would not be a choice. Besides, Mini now has cargo haulers in it's lineup (well, relative to a standard Mini 2 door coupe that is). So this is still best as a 2 seat commuter vehicle. I've taken the rear seats out of 2 of my Minis and enjoyed the car more. It's a surprisingly roomy cabin without the back seats. So I'm sure that is true of the F56 too.

In summary, the main point of the F56 Mini is how small a change it really represents to customers. Incremental at best. Those in the know will be hard pressed to identify one on the street. Those less so won't even notice. Not sure I'd be happy if I were Director of Mini Development and this is the result of my billion Euro development bill. As a retired auto industry guy, I'm sure I'd be ecstatic with getting one of BMW's unique platforms to integrate into the main lineup. That's where the real benefit and beauty is. The customer, however, gets more of the same. Which isn't all bad. It's just disappointing that a billion Euro opportunity was missed.

To put the final cap on it - I'm looking for a 1st gen new Mini that I will put a GM Ecotech 2.0 liter turbo engine in. I'm projecting an easy 320HP in a very streetable configuration and a much simplified interior. Not the first time I've built my own car because the industry doesn't offer me what I want. Unfortunately, probably not the last time.

It will be the first time I don't own the new Mini in it's first model year. I guess that counts as a big change.

New Amazon

Prothane 191412 Red Jack Stand Pads fits up to 1.5 X 4.5 Inch Heads
Prothane 191412 Red Jack Stand Pads fits up to 1.5 X 4.5 Inch Heads

Protects the undercoating of your car. After years of old socks on top of my jack stands, these are the best solution

ScanTool 423001 ElmScan 5 Compact OBD-II Scan Tool and OBDwiz Diagnostic Software ( Compatible with all Windows OS programs including Windows 8 Operating System )
ScanTool 423001 ElmScan 5 Compact OBD-II Scan Tool and OBDwiz Diagnostic Software ( Compatible with all Windows OS programs including Windows 8 Operating System )

Inexpensive and capable. You'll be amazed what you can do with this, and at it's price, not a big deal if you lose it or break it while working on a car.

Gearwrench 20-Piece Ratcheting Wrench Set, SAE and Metric # 35720
Gearwrench 20-Piece Ratcheting Wrench Set, SAE and Metric # 35720

So slim you can reach some tight stuff and the ratchet is fine enough that you can generally get things moving even if you don' t have much space to swing the wrench!

1.5 Ton Compact Aluminum Racing Jack with Rapid Pump
1.5 Ton Compact Aluminum Racing Jack with Rapid Pump

Nice and light - if you remove the handles you can place a jack stand close to the point of lift (modern cars seem to have lift points, but no separate place to hold the car up, so being able to get a jack stand as close as possible to your jack is important).

Milwaukee 2401-22 12-Volt Li-Ion Compact Driver Kit
Milwaukee 2401-22 12-Volt Li-Ion Compact Driver Kit

Great for removing all sorts of bolts/screws on cars. Not powerful enough for the big stuff, but small and light and has a nice flashlight built in. I use mine all the time.


Please comment - argue with me, agree with me, or share a similar experience or observation!

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