Thursday, January 23, 2014

Camel Parking Only.

It's a bit of a stretch to call this photo automotive related, but there IS a car in it, so I figure I can get away with it. A circus has set up in the lot next to where I work, and all this week we've been entertained by a camel (technically a dromedary, I suppose), a horse, a llama, a couple of donkeys and some mini cows, most roaming freely in the grassy field next door.
This morning, though, he had become more curious, and wandered right into our parking lot! It's not every day that I can say I parked my car between a Peugeot 106 and a camel! He (or she, I didn't ask) didn't even seem to pay much attention as I pulled in, got out, slammed the door and started taking pictures. Apparently he is used to people and cars, as after a quick peek at me he went back to eating grass.
Just wanted to share my parking-lot adventure this morning, as it put a smile on my face for the day! I suspect I'm not the only one who finds that this is a rather odd way to start your morning!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Where It All Began.

The other day I took a trip down memory lane and tried to remember my earliest automotive memory. I recall my dad using the swing-set in our yard to hang the rear end of his VW Beetle from when he replaced the motor. Apparently I wasn't yet a fully-fledged automotive fan, as this seemed like a rather grave injustice, and a serious misuse of a father's veto power over his kid's toys.
Another early memory was that fateful run down 'The Hill' (pause for dramatic effect) near my house with my cousins in my pedal car. Each excursion was more elaborate and complicated than the last, and the culmination was certainly the time we strapped a kid-sized wooden airplane swing onto the top of the car (a wooden copy of a Ford Model T my dad made by hand) and went flying down the gravel road at over 100 km/h (probably closer to 2 km/h)... with catastrophic results!

I was the driver, and take full blame for the accident. That said, the car was more adapted to boulevard cruising than a Baja off-road adventure, what with its 1/4 inch thick wooden disk wheels (a fan belt nailed around the circumference gave some pretense of adhesion, but it was more for show than anything). The steering was a little tricky too, as you turned right to go left and left go go right, and all of this was compounded by the extra 50 pounds of plane swing strapped to the top. It was an impressive prototype vehicle, to be sure, but the trial run would be its first and only.
The sun was beating down as we pushed that monstrosity to the top of 'The Hill'. Ah, that hill. It made Pike's Peak look like a speed bump. The air was thin near the top, but we kept pushing. A little known-fact is that there was a fourth member that day, a cousin named Aaron. Conspiracy theorists have gone wild over the years, with many claiming that the youngest member of the group (he was around four years old at the time) was never even there that day. But he was, and he was installed in the back seat of the airplane, ready to make history with the rest of us. Unfortunately, just before take-off his flight approval was revoked (when his mom drove by and yanked him off his seat and asked us if we were nuts; she gave us full permission to kill ourselves, but not her youngest son before nap-time).

At the top of the hill we turned the car around, pointed it down the hill, and climbed into our positions (me in the drivers seat, Josh in the back, and Matthew on the top, in the plane). With little ceremony, I released the emergency brake (lifted my feet off the ground, Flintstones-style), and we were off. We were thrown back into our seats as the breakneck acceleration got us up to maximum velocity in a split second. Mathew (the navigator, on top) yelled out directions to guide me ("Okay, no cars coming!"), while Josh (the systems specialist, in back) kept me updated as to the critical operating parameters ("I can't see anything!"). Everything was a blur, and I must have blacked out, because the next thing I remember was the car careening off the road towards the ditch. An experienced driver, despite my young age, I expertly counter-steered out of the skid to regain traction, and hung out the rear end to force the pedal car + plane hybrid into a well-controlled power slide (which is to say I held the steering wheel straight and screamed like a little girl).

Alas, I was not able to recover. We bent the laws of physics, but they snapped back, and the car hurtled off the road, coasting silently through the air in a cloud of dust and gravel. The Ford logo on the front of the pedal car hit the pine tree squarely, several hundred feet (maybe more but probably less) above the ground, and the front beam of the car snapped. In the blink of an eye it was over. But it wasn't really over, no...

Matthew, on the top, was hurtled through the air in spectacular fashion, getting 'big air' (that's kid lingo for a jump) before landing several hundred metres (or was that centimetres?) away on a pile of branches. When asked about it nowadays, he gets a far-away look in his eyes, as he thinks back to those long minutes (milliseconds) soaring through the air. He will tell you that he saw his life flash before his eyes, just before his military (GI Joe) training kicked in and he pulled himself into a full tuck position, enabling him to perform an expert barrel-roll thrust-kick manoeuvre to soften the blow and come to a textbook landing in proper crouched-commando position (he landed like a sack of potatoes).

As for me, it is a miracle that I am here today to recount this harrowing tale. I braced for the impact, powerless to do anything. My body slid forward on the plastic seat, and I felt my face contact the steering wheel. When the car came to a stop and the wheels stopped spinning, my first thought was for my fallen comrades ("Oh crap, dad is gonna kill me!"). I looked down to the steering wheel and saw a drop of blood (real blood!). I felt my lip, and there was another drop. Knowing that I only had moments left before my body emptied itself of its blood, I was determined to first save my cousins. I managed to extract myself from the twisted, mangled wreck using some superhuman force I summoned from within (or in simpler terms, climbed out the window)...

I saw Matthew off in the distance (two feet in front of me) where he had landed, and he came and joined me. We knew that Josh didn't have much time left, stuck in the back (he really had to pee), so we forgot our own injuries and tended to him.

Jammed in the rear rumble seat of the Model T, Josh was unable to extract himself from the horrible wreckage. The sturdy cables (twine) holding the plane in place had loosened after the intense impact, and his exit path above his head was blocked. If I recall correctly, he was stuck back there for several hours (minutes), crying and wailing (laughing) due to the agony of a broken leg (he bumped his knee). With the jaws of life (a jackknife), we were eventually able to extract him from the carnage. He put on a brave face, but an experience like that changes a guy, and he was never the same afterwards.
We stood silently looking at the scene of the wreck as the dust settled around us...

It was a long and solemn walk back down to my house (approx 1 minute and 10 seconds), knowing that we had come within an inch of our lives. Luckily, both my father and my uncle were there, and we stumbled over each other trying to find the words to explain our harrowing adventure, though I don't think that we were ever able to fully explain the gravity of that day to anyone ("So you goofballs strapped the plane to the pedal car and crashed it into a tree?"). Our physical wounds eventually healed (my lip stopped bleeding, Matthew got a band-aid on his arm, and Josh took a pee), but the emotions of that day marked us for life.

It has been over 20 years since I have told this story, which has become a family legend. Some of the details have become murky, but it is a timeless tale that needed to be told, and it is one of my oldest and most powerful automotive memories...

EDIT: Thanks to my little sister for finding and sending this photo, one of the few of the infamous green Model T pedal car in action...

Also found picture proof of the misuse of my childhood swing for automotive purposes...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ford: Aluminum Can.

Automakers have all been asking themselves the same question lately: what magic bullet can help us meet ever-increasing fuel economy standards? Ford's answer? "Aluminum can."
There are many different solutions to reduce fuel economy. Aerodynamics, engine design, improvements in fuel quality and composition, fuel sources, vehicle size, to name a few. Another very important factor is vehicle weight, and Ford has been working hard to pull a maximum of weight from their biggest seller, the F-150 pickup truck.

The most popular vehicle in the US for over 3 decades now, the F-150 is a common sight all over North America. The full-size pickup truck is a North American particularity, as most other regions in the world make do with either smaller pickups, or forego pickups (with an open bed) entirely and use instead vans and wagons as utility vehicles.
Rumours have been circulating for some time that Ford was seriously studying replacing significant amounts of steel in their trucks with steel, and apparently it's going to happen. The next F-150 has been shown at the 2014 Detroit North American International Auto Show, and it has been reported that close to 750 lbs (340 kg) have been shaved off, which represents nearly 15% of the weight of the current truck. The improvement in fuel economy will be drastic.

Aluminum has several significant advantages to steel (including weight, corrosion resistance, and formability), and has already been used in the auto industry (the F-150's current hood, for example, is already made out of aluminum). Where Ford is going to meet resistance is with the traditional pickup truck buyer who associates aluminum with soda pop cans, aluminum foil, and other light, flimsy uses. Ford markets their trucks under the "Built Ford Tough" slogan, and are really going to have to make en effort to prove that their new lighter trucks are as tough as ever.
My current job is in the automotive industry with a company that makes aluminum parts (heat exchangers), so it's easy to understand why I find this news so exciting. I touch aluminum every day, and know its strengths and weaknesses. Technically speaking, aluminum does corrode, actually faster than steel. The advantage of aluminum corrosion (aluminum oxide) is that it forms very quickly and in a thin, tightly-adhering layer, which then acts as a barrier to further corrosion attack in wet and salty environments. Steel corrosion (what we typically call rust) is loose and voluminous. It easily flakes off the surface of the metal, and allows further corrosion to remove more material until you have a hole in your fender, for example.

While the resistance of aluminum to corrosion is a big plus, it is not without complications. Salt (like you find in the air near the sea or in places that salt the roads in winter) in the presence of water accelerates corrosion in aluminum. So does the presence of another metal, such as steel. If a future F-150 owner were to, for example, use steel rivets to attach something to the side of their truck, the steel would provoke very rapid corrosion in the adjacent aluminum. As a result, the paint on the new F-150 will be an integral part of the trucks corrosion defence system. Ford has been studying and testing aluminum parts for years and years with major aluminum suppliers, and I have no doubt that they have worked all of these bugs out, but it will be interesting to see how the trucks will hold up over time.
I applaud Ford for their bold gamble, and I look forward to seeing one in person. Lets raise a can (aluminum, of course) and cheers to this automotive revolution!

Friday, January 10, 2014

What's Long, Grey, And Rear Wheel Drive?

Recently I wrote about a 505 sedan for sale nearby, a long and low 1980s sedan from Peugeot, a rare rear wheel drive model from a company known for its small front wheel drive econoboxes. This roomy, comfortable car would make an excellent touring vehicle for long-distance trips.

Sifting through some old pictures I have, I came across ANOTHER car that fits the same description: a rather under-powered, large, 4-cylinder sedan with a manual transmission on a rear wheel drive platform. No sporting intentions, just a simple, down-to-earth spacious family cars with seating for five and a big trunk for luggage. To make the comparison complete, this car was grey, just like the 505!
It was a Ford Granada, a model that was sold in Europe from 1977 to 1985. I found it for sale on the same website as the 505 almost a year ago. At the time I had called and planned to go see it, but it sold before I got the chance. While more potent V6 and diesel versions did exist, this specific model was a sedate 1.6 litre 4-cylinder gasoline engine version. It DID have a manual transmission (4-speed), which is a big plus to me.
These two vehicles appear to my eyes to be very comparable, and to be sure I threw together a table comparing some of the major dimensions. It turns out that the Granada is actually a fair bit larger, even if it's a bit lower than the 505. They may pale in comparison to the size of American sedans from the same era, but for Europe, both of these were definitely not the average family car you saw parked in every driveway.
While not everyone is going to agree, I find something very appealing with these large 80's touring machines. I think that before I plan my next big road-trip I really need to pick something like this up.

Does anyone know of any other cars of this type from the same era that were available in Europe? I'm always glad to learn about old cars, and would be glad to discover some other LGRWD wonders!!!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

An Odd Way To Even Things Out.

Just a few weeks back the government announced that the speed limit on the Boulevard Périphérique (the 'peripheral' ring-shaped highway that encircles Paris) would drop from 80 km/h to 70 km/h. The goal of this drop in the speed limit, which has been studied for years and tested on certain stretches of the boulevard since 2011, is to reduce accidents and lower noise and air pollution. It would seem the results are positive, as, since January 1st, 2014, the official speed limit is 70 km/h.
While a car fan rarely approves of the tightening of speed limits, in the case of the 'Périph', it really doesn't make all that much difference, as the amount of traffic on this very busy road will make even 70 km/h hard to attain.

A different proposal being studied for Paris drivers is much more problematic for motorists. The law being considered (apparently similar laws are being studied on other European cities as well) would effectively cut in half the number of cars on the road on any given day. Vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates would be allowed to drive on, for example, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while those with even-numbered plates would be allowed to drive on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Feel free to take a moment and let that sink in. Try to picture planning your daily commute to work, a trip to the grocery store, dropping the kids off at the pool, an emergency run to the hospital, a surprise call from Grandma who needs a ride to Bingo... basically, any of the dozens of reasons you might want to use your car at any given moment if you can't use your car half of those days.

Few people would disagree that limiting traffic and the resultant pollution and accidents and headaches is important, but I simply can't see how this could work. At all. In certain cases it would push people to carpool with coworkers, but not everyone has the chance to easily take advantage of such a situation. Ever-climbing housing prices in Paris (like in most major cities) push people further and further outside the city, into the suburbs, with often limited public transit options. And for those lucky enough to live near a train or bus route, there's still the over-crowding that already exists on many routes to contend with.
Many argue that two-car families will simply make sure that they have an odd and even-numbered car, or will arrange to borrow the opposite-plated car from friends and family to be able to drive every day. There's no question that this plan would reduce the number of cars on the roads, but at what cost? The gain is clear (less time wasted, less pollution, potentially fewer accidents), but what about the loss? Will businesses and companies suffer if employees and customers can't easily get to where they need to go? Will the cars kept off the roads on certain days simply be replaced by other cars that have the correct plate for that day? Will an influx of taxis cancel out the reduction in cars every day.

It's a potentially messy situation. I will be watching closely to see if this plan gets put into law. For now I will concentrate on keeping my speed below 70 km/h, and worry about which days I'm allowed to drive when and if it happens.