Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Old 1985 Citroen GSA in Action!

A classic car like the Citroen GSA deserves a full writeup, and it will certainly get one very soon, but I stumbled across this old video I took a few years back and wanted to post it. This strange looking car (originally named the GS in the 70's, becoming the GSA in the 80's) truly was a technological wonder. It had a version of Citroen's legendary hydraulic suspension system. Not only did it provide a super-smooth ride and excellent handling, it allowed the driver to choose between three different ride heights: low, for regular cruising, medium, for snowy or muddy roads, and high, for driving through rough fields and back roads. A small lever between the front seats actuated the hydraulic pump to either raise or lower the car.

The best feature was the load-leveling system integrated into the hydraulic circuit. If the car was weighted down with either people or cargo, the suspension system would automatically detect the extra weight. It would then compensate by further pressurizing the hydraulic fluid in the car, raising the front and/or rear ends to level out the car. Once the load was removed, the car would naturally raise up again, and the hydraulic system would relieve enough pressure to get back to a level ride height.

You really have to see it in action to appreciate it. Sadly, I no longer have the car, but I do have this video showing the GSA in all its hydraulic glory! Enjoy!

Coffee Time.

Sick of waiting in line for your morning coffee before attacking your commute to work? Assuming you're not already distracted enough by bad drivers, texting, doing your makeup, and the dozens of other distractions that modern drivers inflict on themselves, why not add one more: making coffee!
 As I was making my coffee this morning (safely in the confines of my kitchen, I might add), I recalled a story I had read a while back about a car manufacturer that had come up with the idea of an in-car coffee maker. I did some quick research, and it turns out that yes, one manufacturer is offering the coffee maker idea in a few of their models, but it is actually an independent company that has created this interesting device.

The Handpresso is a rather simple device to operate, so you don't have to balance a coffee filter and can of ground coffee and measuring spoon on your lap while flying down the highway. The device screws apart, you insert a one-shot coffee 'pod', add water, and plug in and turn on the machine. In a few minutes you have hot, properly brewed coffee.

The high-pressure brewing and pod system is similar to modern household coffee makers; this is no 'wait patiently for the coffee to drip' machine. Fire it up when you climb into your car in the morning and you are enjoying your coffee before you even hit the freeway.

If you can't stand the thought of being stuck in traffic without your coffee, then this is the item for you. I see enough distracted drivers on the roads as it is, so I suspect that we will be hearing about coffee brewing related accidents in the near future. Lets hope that drivers will be smart and either have a passenger prepare their coffee, or wait until they're stopped to do it.

Perhaps one benefit will be fewer people falling asleep at the wheel... there's nothing like a hot, fresh dark roast to wake you up for your drive home at the end of the day!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Are You Good at Sharing?

As a kid I didn't like to share very much. As an adult, I like to think that I am a little more open to sharing than I was back then. Need to borrow a tool? No problem. My phone? Sure, for a quick call. A bit of cash? If I have any on me I can usually help someone out. But my car?

Car-sharing programs are springing up in cities all over the world. The biggest one in France right now is called 'OuiCar'. The program allows members to put their car up for rent on their website at the price they choose. You list the make, model, and year of your car, along with additional details on the car and the price per day you are asking.

Through the website, people who are interested in your car contact you  directly. Once you agree to a price and length of time, you receive a contract with the details of the rental by email. The big plus of the OuiCar program is that you don't have to concern yourself with insurance: the renter must sign up for insurance through the website. In case of an accident, your personal insurance is not affected; it is the renters insurance that comes in to play.

As for payment, OuiCar keeps 30% of the total, leaving you with 70% of your asking price in your pocket.

Even with the safety of the insurance built in to this program, I hesitate. It is common knowledge that people don't always take good care of rental cars. Even if the car doesn't come back with visual damage, it would worry me to not know what someone got up to with my car. That said, there are many reviews online of OuiCar and other car sharing programs, and despite the occasional upset user, it would seem that most experiences are positive.

So am I ready to share my car? Vacation is coming, and I won't be using it very much. Perhaps I will give it a try. Feel free to comment if you have any experience, good OR bad, with this sort of car sharing program. I'm curious to hear what people have to say, and if they recommend it or not.

And to finish, this is the scene I imagine when I think about sharing my car, from the movie 'Days of Thunder':

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Quality repair job.

I was going to apologize for the quality of this picture, but it's probably fitting, considering the subject. I am always impressed by people who do their own automotive repairs, and this little Ford Ka caught my attention. Who needs tools and spare parts and elbow grease? Grab a roll of duct tape, a roll of packing tape and be done with it!
The patient is a first generation Ford Ka, produced from 1996 to 2008. It has moved from the spot in which it was parked last week, so I'm not sure if the tape-job was temporary or permanent, but I admire the attempt the owner made! Red Green* would be proud!

*This is a reference only Canadians can understand!!!

A Dash of Inspiration.

Every once in a while I come across this van in the street. It is never parked in the same spot, or even same street, but the owner appears to live nearby. Big utility vans like this painted and covered in graffiti are a common sight in the city, but this one really stands out. One can only guess that it belongs to an artist, because it goes beyond simple graffiti and is truly a rolling canvas for a creative painter.
And if the outside is impressive enough, the inside is something else. The dashboard is covered with objects and items and toys and collections. We all know someone who has a cluttered car, but this person takes it to a whole new level. It's hard to even know where to look first; everything catches your attention.
There are little dolls and plastic kids toys. There are posters and artwork (including a mini Mona Lisa). There are keychains and pins and buttons and tags. There is a collection of handmade knickknacks and toys. There are pens and markers and paintbrushes. And vases. And flashlights. And the list goes on... there are even objects that I could not identify...

It is hard to tell what part of this masterpiece was planned, and what part is just junk that ended up on the pile. Maybe the owner has worked carefully to add item with special meaning... or maybe he just tosses whatever he finds in his pockets onto the dash every time he climbs in.

If I ever see the owner, I'm going to ask him...

Shut Up and Drive.

When I left you the other day I was sitting in the Twizy, ready to give it a test drive. It's one thing to walk around a car, look at it from every angle, kick the tires, try out the seats and controls, but the most important part is obviously the test drive. All cars in the TwizyWay rental program have been modified to use an electronic swipe card and irremovable key, but I'll get into detail on that another day in another post.

In a regular Twizy, you put your foot on the brake, put the key in the ignition and turn it like in a traditional car. Once you see the green 'Go' light lit up on the dash, you're ready to go! With the handbrake off and the 'D' drive button pushed (there's no shift lever, just 'D' for drive, 'N' for neutral, and 'R' for reverse), all it takes is a push of the accelerator pedal and you're off. The feel is not quite the same as a traditional car, but you get used to it very quickly. What I didn't expect was the relatively quick acceleration. Not only is the Twizy light (around 470 kg), but it is in the nature of an electric motor to provide maximum power almost instantly. There's no 'revving it up' like one does with a gasoline engine in a regular car. You push, the car goes.
Of note, the Twizy I drove was the Twizy80 model, with a 17 horsepower motor. To drive this version you need a regular drivers license. A less powerful Twizy45 model with a smaller 5 horsepower motor is also available, and in France it does not require a drivers license. The '80' and '45' model names are not random: they represent the top speeds in km/h of the two different versions.

Much has been made of the fact that electric cars are silent, to the point that they are designed with warning buzzers that the driver can turn on in busy pedestrian areas. The Twizy may be silent when stopped, but it certainly isn't silent when moving. With no side windows to block the noise, you hear every sound, from the wind rushing past the windshield to the wheels on the road to the suspension working up and down. Unfortunately you can't even drown out the noise with music, as no radio is offered.

It is probably fitting that the car is noisy, because it's rather rough riding as well. The suspension is clearly designed for handling, and not a smooth ride. This may be an acceptable compromise for a car fan like myself, who is willing to trade a little comfort for some increased handling, but most everyday drivers will find the Twizy a little too stiff. It is most felt over speed bumps, which have to be taken at very low speeds.
Back to the handling. This is one strong point of the Twizy. With the weight of the battery back underneath the car, directly under the driver, the centre of gravity of the car is very low. Coupled with the wheels out at the four corners this creates a very stable, well-planted vehicle. I was able to confirm this in several turning circles and on a curvy stretch of road leading out of town: the car can be driven fast through twists and turns with great composure.

One long straight stretch allowed me to confirm that the Twizy80 would indeed reach 80 km/h. It does, but whereas initial acceleration is very impressive, you can feel the car running out of juice as it climbs up above 70. Designed mostly for city dwellers, the car will spend most of its time under 50 km/h, and at that speed, the car is very responsive.

Braking is perfectly adequate, even excellent. With little weight to bring to a halt, the Twizy is composed and confidence-inspiring under braking. The light weight also means that power steering is not required, or even missed, even at low-speed parking maneuvers.
So what is my conclusion after my 43 minute, 13 kilometer test? I would buy it, but many of you probably wouldn't. It is clearly much more closely related to a car than to a motorcycle, and in comparison to even the most cheap and basic of traditional cars, there are simply too many faults. Not offering a fully enclosed interior is probably the biggest, though the unadjustable seatback and harsh, bumpy ride, especially over European cobblestone streets, also stand out as big sore points.

Those people looking for something different than a regular car, something along the lines of a glorified go-kart that offers useful acceleration and fun handling, and who are willing to put up with the various shortcomings have their new toy: the Renault Twizy!
Next time I will get into the details and how-to of the TwizyWay rental program, and also take a closer look at the pricing of the Twizy. You will see that if you're not already 100% convinced, Renault won't make you love it any more with the pricing and restrictions they have placed on their unique but flawed battery-powered city vehicle...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Looking For a Car to Put in the Back of Your Pickup?

Check out this wonderful machine, people:
EDIT: link no longer active, apparently the car has been sold

I just came across it in, a person-to-person website used for selling all sorts of things, including cars. This contraption is a 'sans-permis' car, which translates to 'without license'. In France, it is legal for people who do not have their drivers license to drive these 'microcars', as they're also called. They are constructed following strict rules, such as only having a 50cc engine, weighing less than 350 kg, and not being capable of going faster than 45 km/h.

Looks to me like the one pictured here fits the criteria. It is basically a golf cart with a lawnmower engine... I sure HOPE that it doesn't go over 45 km/h! According to the website entry, it has a diesel engine, which is quite rare for this class of car (most run on gasoline). This one is branded Ligier, and after a tiny bit of online research, it appears that it is the GS4 model from 1987. It seats two people, as do all of these microcars, and offers a small luggage compartment behind the seats.
As much as I don't want to be THAT person holding up traffic on the 90 km/h roadways (it happens all the time in the countryside here in France!), I really am intrigued by this car. Might have to give the guy a call. I think I see a career as a mini ice-cream van driver in my near future... bring on the warm weather!

Where Have All the Old Cheap Cars Gone?

Missing: all the old cheap 70s and 80s cars that used to populate Autotrader websites...

Where have they gone? It used to be that when searching online for old, cheap restoration projects or parts car donors you could find dozens of prospects. Today it seems that they have all disappeared. And I find this very sad and troubling for the next generation of car fans.

What better way is there for a young person to confirm and cement their love of cars than to restore their own old car? A privileged few with daddy's credit card can pick up a true old collectors car and spend a fortune restoring it (or having it restored), but I'm talking about the hardworking young guy or gal who just wants a project to call their own, and wants to get their hands dirty without spending every last penny they have. Where can they find their toy?

In an age where auto parts stores and websites make it easier than ever to find parts and tools and kits necessary for automotive restoration, it seems paradoxical that there are fewer and fewer old cars around begging to be fixed. Not only are more recent cars out of reach financially to many young people, but they are becoming increasingly complex and difficult (if not impossible) to work on.

I am a firm believer that every young car fan needs to start with a simple, affordable restoration project to get a feel for the procedure. Something like a Chevette, or a Turismo, or a Pacer. Something that will break neither the spirit nor the bank account. A 'starter car' that one can still find parts for at a local wrecking yard, or online. Strangely, I find it easier to find odds and ends of late-late-model car parts on sites like Craigslist and Kijiji than I do to find the cars they originally belonged to!

My suspicion is that there are two issues that have cut into the supply of decent, simple car renovation prospects: tightening fuel economy restrictions, and the Cash-for-Clunkers programs of a few years back. Many people who have no interest in repairing their own cars trade in their junkers on newer models, and those junkers don't interest car dealers, so they're quickly scrapped. It was the same deal with C4C programs the world over: many cars that would have traditionally found their way to dingy corner used car dealerships with "500 bucks or best offer" scribbled on the windshield in grease paint were sent directly to the crusher.

This was my project from a few years back, a 1981 AMC Spirit I bought off of for $600

It doesn't seem that this trend is going to reverse itself. Do any of you know where one can still find these basic restoration projects? By scouring internet websites can they be found? Is it better to hunt farmers fields and small town garages in the hopes of stumbling across that ideal first car to redo? Feel free to post your ideas and sources, as I'm sure that there are many young people asking themselves the very same question!

Plug Me In.

It's official: I want a Twizy. There are many reasons why I shouldn't, but I would be willing to ignore them. The lists of faults that one can find with it is at least as long as the list of strengths, but it truly stands out as a new type of transportation, and is worthy of a close look. For now I will concentrate on the vehicle itself, and another time will explain the TwizyWay rental experience.
Talk about a visual stand-out. There is no way to confuse the Twizy with any other vehicle. The design can best be described as a pod with wheels at each corner. While doors are optional, the model I tried was equipped with scissor-type doors on each side. These doors do not seal fully against the body, and do not include side windows, but they do a decent job of not only protecting from wind and rain, but also giving the Twizy a more secure, car-like feel to it.

There are no door handles on the outside, so you have to reach inside and pull on a lever to open the doors. They lift up easily, and give easy access into the front seat. For those that complain about how 'plasticky' new cars have become, stay away! Everything is dark, hard plastic, from the floor to the dash to the seats to the ceiling. When one considers the fact that neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail can be stopped from entering the Twizy, it starts to make sense. It is clearly an interior that can be hosed or rinsed out without worrying about damaging anything. In any other vehicle I would insist that such a basic, plastic interior is a huge weak point, but in this case it gets a pass, and actually becomes a plus.
For fun I took a peek at the back seat, but at 6'2" I didn't even kid myself into thinking that I could fit back there. Actually, I might have fit in, but would never have been able to climb back out. It is clearly only suitable for children or small adults, but it is a suitable space for a small amount of luggage. According to the Renault website, storage space exists under the rear seat, but it seems that on these rental models the rear seat is fixed in place. Two small storage bins on either side of the steering wheel are handy for emptying your pockets.

Enough of the window shopping, it's time to get in the drivers seat. The padding is much more comfortable than it looks, though it is clear it would not be after a long drive. But as a city car with limited range, you won't ever be driving for hours at a time, so this isn't a big issue. The seat has great fore-aft travel, so people with short and long legs can fit. It is upon reaching for the handle to change the seatback angle that one of the biggest problems with the car jumps out: there is no handle. The seat is a one-piece molded plastic unit, and offers no angle adjustement. For my tastes it was much too upright, and as a result I could not get comfortable.
Once seated inside, the Twizy feels oddly spacious. Perhaps it's the fact that there is space between the seat and the doors, unlike in a normal car, but you don't feel as claustrophobic as you might expect in such a small space. The dash is very simple, but the steering wheel, instrument cluster, and turn and wiper stalks are not unlike those of an entry-level car. The view out front and to the sides is excellent. Without a back window you might again assume that you would feel boxed in, but when looking over your shoulder you tend to stick your head out the window, so even the view rearward is better than can be assumed.
As far as first impressions go, I have to say I was split. I liked how oddball and unique the Twizy looked from every angle, and quickly came to understand and appreciate the simplistic, rugged interior. At the same time, I felt that the lack of side windows and sealing around the doors was a big minus, and the unadjustable seatback simply unforgiveable. It would take a test drive to help me make up my mind on this strange buggy, and for those impressions, you will have to check back another time...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Love is Blind.

Just sitting on the train home after trying the Twizy... it has a rough ride, makes lots of weird noises, and feels like it was assembled in an old Lada factory... and I loved it! I will explain in more detail a little bit later how, despite these faults, I am already a huge fan... and how these faults are actually part of the reason why!

Twizy Time!

In only a few hours I am going to go and try out a new and rather exciting little "car": the Renault Twizy. If I put "car" in quotes, it's for a good reason. It's not really a car, at least not a traditional one, and legally it goes by a different name: quadricycle (heavy or light, depending on the power rating of the different models). It's unfortunate that the name 'hybrid' is already taken, because this vehicle is a true hybrid of a car and a scooter.

On the car side, it has 4 wheels, a steering wheel, full seats, seatbelts, an airbag, and a windshield and roof (though no rear window).

On the scooter side, it is narrow, has two inline seats (passenger behind the driver), and is lacking incliment weather protection (optional doors only partially close off the openings on either side).

To make it stand out even more, the Twizy has one other exciting feature: an electric drivetrain. An electric motor drives the rear wheels, making this ride unlike any car OR scooter most of you have ever tried. The range on a full charge (3.5 hours) is listed by Renault as 100 kms, though user experience shows that it apparently reaches 60-80 kms in real-world driving.

This week I signed up for a TwizyWay pass, an electronic badge that allows the user to rent a Twizy within a large urban zone to the southwest of Paris. Similar to bicycle rental programs available in many major cities now, I simply have to geolocalise a Twizy on my Smartphone, swipe my card on the card reader installed in the car, and drive off. The car has to be returned within the defined zone, but I am free to drive it wherever I like. The distance travelled is tracked by the car, and my bank account is deducted the corresponding amount.

Tonight will be my first try, not only of the TwizyWay system, but also of the vehicle itself. If I don't update this blog by tonight it means I have run out of charge and am sitting on the side of the road somewhere! Please, if you see someone sitting in a Twizy in the dark on the outskirts of Paris tonight, bring an extension cord!

In the Beginning...

My brain is full of automotive odds and ends. Like an old attic crammed with memories and objects and stories: some fresh and recently stored, and some nearly forgotten and covered in dust. I figured the best way to sort through it all and make room for the new would be to put it down in a blog.
I hope to share my old stories; pull them out, dust them off a bit, and enjoy them once again.

I also hope to create new stories; I constantly have my eyes open, ready for the latest automotive adventure.

Hopefully at least a few of these stories, old and new, will catch your attention!