Sunday, 4 February 2007

Don’t believe everything you read.

I am going to assume that you know what, in the context of motor vehicles, I mean by a differential. If you do not, it might be helpful to read this article from

How a differential works.

As far as I am aware the only front-wheel-drive car without a differential was a racing car built by Walter Christie. This monster from 1907 had a 19 litre V4 engine set transversely driving the front wheels directly from the ends of the crankshaft. As you might imagine it did not enjoy any racing success and it was a long time before the idea of a transverse engine, driving the front wheels enjoyed commercial or sporting success.

Why does it matter? Because in the Sunday Times today I read Jeremy Clarkson’s review of the Renault Mégane Renaultsport 230 F1 Team R26 . Putting lots of power (the Renault has 230bhp) through the front wheels can cause problems, such as going straight on when going round a corner would be more useful. Clarkson explained that the way to overcome the difficulties of lots of power in a front-wheel-drive car is to fit a front differential. I would hope that most people would see that for the nonsense that it is and realise that any fwd car would be nigh-on impossible to drive without a differential (which must be a front differential in a fwd car). What he probably meant to say “limited-slip differential”, which has been used to mollify the behaviour of some powerful fwd cars and it may be that a sub-editor, ignorant of the technicalities of the matter, simply snipped the limited slip bit in order to save space.

If the error had been made in a specialist publication with a knowledgeable readership it would not matter as much but newspaper motoring sections attract a wider selection of readers, some might end up misinformed as a result of what they read. It is not serious in the great scheme of things if a few Sunday Times readers believe that the way to tame a powerful front-wheel-drive car is with a front differential and then make the logical jump that low-powered fwd cars do not have front differentials. It does however go against the grain, to my mind newspapers have a duty to educate and inform their readers which implies that facts will be reported accurately and truthfully. With Jeremy Clarkson entertainment is a key element of the writing. If the truth had been distorted for comic effect I could see a purpose to it. Unless the idea is to wind up people like me, who care about technical accuracy, I think I’ve missed the joke. If something like this can slip through the net then what other errors have been made in the past? What if a greater error is printed in the future?

The only remedy is to look carefully at what you read; does it fit in with what you already know? Does it make sense if you try to reason it from first principles? Are there other sources that corroborate it and what about any sources that contradict it? Above all, use your brain and don’t automatically believe everything you read.

1 comment:

David Wilkins said...

Actually, I suspect a differential is pretty useful in helping put the power down on a powerful FWD car - compared with not having one, that is! I think the sub-editing explanation is probably the right one. Anyway, good luck with the blog!