Tuesday, 26 June 2007

C-Crosser makes me cross

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I like Citroëns. I hope that is clear from my previous posts; as well as the C6 and my current BX I have fond memories of the C5 V6 (now sadly discontinued), the Visa and the iconic 2CV. The firm has blotted its copybook with the Xsara Picasso; an absurd vehicle good for nothing.

Now Citroën are jumping on the small 4x4-cum-mpv bandwagon with the C-Crosser, the result of a joint venture between PSA and Mitsubishi. I don’t blame Citroën for making what people want to buy. What I do object to, without quite knowing why, is the cloying emphasis on how kind it is to the environment.

Maybe if there was something identifiably Citroën about the C-Crosser it would be less annoying. Something minimal, lightweight, practical and go-anywhere - like an updated 2CV - would be brilliant. Sadly I don’t think the market wants such a car. Instead it wants soft-feel plastics, MP3 player compatibility, satellite navigation, two dozen airbags and low official CO2 figures for cheap road tax.

Citroën nearly went bust making the cars people should have wanted because the world was too dumb and too cautious to appreciate them. Sometimes, when I think of the Xsara Picasso and now the C-Crosser, I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier if the firm hadn’t survived the 1970s.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

thinktank at Millennium Point, Birmingham

I took a trip over to Birmingham this afternoon to visit thinktank, which (among other things) tells the history of Birmingham. The story is illustrated by the machinery used in and produced by the city’s industry. There is a great contrast between the giant steam pumping engines and the intricate button making machine.

The motor industry is remembered with some fine motorcycles from BSA and Brough Superior and some Austin cars – a Seven, Ruby and an original 1959 Mini (or Austin Se7en to be precise). The pioneer motor industry is illustrated by a license-built version of a Benz car. It seemed a missed opportunity not to credit Lanchester although there was a Lanchester prototype petrol-electric car, which I’d not heard of before.

The problem is that the museum’s strengths are also its weaknesses; there is so much in the museum that it sometimes seems to lack focus. Some more depth and detail on the exhibits would have been good – and this is where the museum’s website comes into its own - once you find your way around. Entry is quite expensive at £8.50 for an adult ticket but a family ticket at £25 represents quite good value and there is plenty to keep the whole family interested. Just don’t go on a weekend and expect to buy lunch – all the catering concessions appeared to be closed.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Weird Tech: Lexus rear mounted radiator

I was going through Autocar and saw a piece on the Lexus LF-A. This is a super-coupé with a 500bhp V10 engine and 200mph performance. One of the more interesting features of the LF-A is the placement of the coolant radiators at the rear.

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On mid or rear-engined cars this might not be unusual but the Lexus is a front mid-engined design. It seems to fly in the face of logic; the established convention for 110 years has been to put the radiator at the front of the car where it can receive the greatest flow of cooling air over its surface.

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The idea isn’t as barking as you might think. Lexus claim to have done it to achieve the optimum weight distribution but it makes aerodynamic sense too. A car punches a big hole in the air at speed – a low-pressure wake similar to the wake following a boat as it moves through water. Air picks up heat as it passes through a car’s radiator, this makes the air expand. The heated air can therefore help to fill the low pressure wake behind the car.

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What might be the practical drawbacks? The boot opening on the concept car looks quite small; will it accommodate the regulation issue two golf bags? The radiators might cook the luggage or anyone standing loading or unloading the boot. Then again Lexus have a reputation for being thorough. By the time the LF-A goes on sale in the Autumn or 2008 I wouldn’t bet against the drawbacks being overcome.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Pet Peeves: “The indicator stalk is on the wrong side”

In a right hand drive car where the gear lever is to the driver’s left which is the correct side for the indicator stalk? Is the proper position for the indicator stalk going to be the same for a left hand drive car where the driver applies the right hand to the gear lever? Indicating and changing gear are often done in close succession so why make it difficult by expecting the same hand to do both?

Having spent plenty of time driving right-handed cars with indicators on the right and gear lever on the left – not just my Hondas but also my German-built Ford Granada coupé of 1977 vintage – I have to say that it is a better arrangement. Indeed it used to be the standard arrangement for British cars, which is why it annoys me when people claim that the arrangement is wrong. It annoys me even more when Autocar criticised the Vauxhall VXR8 (an Australian Holden, set up correctly for its native RHD market) and yet the Kia Cee’d was praised for the same arrangement.

It goes to show that the unfamiliar is too readily accepted as wrong, even by people who should know better.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Unsung Heroes: Dr Frederick Lanchester

I was talking to someone yesterday about my university days and admitted that although I knew the place as Coventry University it enjoyed a long and enviable reputation as Lanchester Polytechnic. This prompted the question of where, what or who was Lanchester? What a terrible situation, I’m sure most people could name a British playwright, composer, and a couple of great political and military leaders. How many could name a great British engineer? Lanchester Poly was named after one of the greatest (if not the greatest) and brightest men in British engineering history.

Dr Frederick Lanchester was a man of many and diverse interests. Born in 1868 Frederick began to study engineering at 14, by the age of 20 he was working for the Forward Gas Engine Company of Saltney, Birmingham. Lanchester’s interests were broad including philosophy, poetry and photography and much more. Powered flight was another of his interests, studying aerodynamic theory and building up a wealth of theoretical knowledge on the subject. If Lanchester had found a suitable internal combustion engine for a manned flying machine maybe he would never have turned his attention to the motor car.

It is probably fair to say that it was Lanchester’s proficiency with mathematics that made him such a great engineer. The prototype Lanchester car was introduced to the world in 1895 - and it was wholly British in its design unlike the German Daimler that was far better publicised a year later. Lanchester approached the problem from first principles, his understanding of suspension (both geometry and spring rates), structures, ergonomics and engine design were decades ahead of anyone else. The car was designed for mass production using standardised components without needing skilled labour.

Over time pressure from customers and shareholders diluted the purity of the cars bearing the Lanchester name. By 1931 the motorcycle and armaments firm BSA took control and Lanchester cars became little more than badge-engineered Daimlers (Daimler also being part of BSA). By 1956 Daimler phased out Lanchester cars and the name faded into obscurity.

Even where you might expect the Lanchester name to receive some recognition it languishes in obscurity. Visit the Museum of British Road Transport in Coventry and (as far as I could see) Lanchester has been erased from the history books. There is a monument in Birmingham to Lanchester’s pioneering car but how many people know it is there, how many know why?

Monday, 11 June 2007

Formula 1 in new technology shock (long post)

At the risk of sounding like a scene from The Life of Brian I have to ask,
“What has Formula 1 racing ever done for us?”
It is a valid question; I cannot think of any significant technological advance that to come from Formula 1 racing. Anyone who knows different is welcome to leave a comment by way of a correction.

There is always hope that one day Formula 1 will give the world of motoring something worthwhile; whether it is developing a new technology or embodying some desirable system. It may be that 2009 will be the year for good to be done, as Formula 1 cars incorporate a Torotrak transmission within the driveline.

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What is a Torotrak drive? It is a vehicle transmission that does not rely on fixed gear ratios but offers a stepless spread of gear ratios between fixed upper and lower limits. It is not a new idea; the basic principles can be traced back to the 1930s, when it was known as the Perbury drive, but it needed materials and particularly lubricants that were not developed until the 1980s in order to work properly. To understand how the Torotrak works imagine an axle with two flat-faced discs mounted so that both are free to spin independently. Between the faces of the disks - parallel to the axle - is a roller, fixed in space but free to spin, with the circumference of the roller touching both disks. If you turn one disk the other disk will rotate in the opposite direction at the same speed. The principle is similar to the differential gear but relying on friction rather than meshing gears to transmit drive.

If the roller was not parallel to the axle but at an angle so that the roller described a larger circle on the face of one disk than the other then the two disks will turn at different speeds and there will be a torque multiplication or reduction depending on which disk is driven. Flat-faced disks are no good for a variable ratio transmission so the opposing faces of the disks are machined with circular tracks of curved cross section. The curved tracks mean that the roller (usually the real Torotrak has 2 or 3 to reduce wear) remains in contact with the opposing faces as it is tilted. To reduce stress on the friction components the output disk has the curved tracks on both faces and is sandwiched between two sets of rollers and facing input disks. The Torotrak transmission also incorporates an epicyclic gear set and a couple of clutches (which can be engaged or disengaged but never slip). One of the input disks drives the planet carrier, the output disk drives the sunwheel and the annulus drives the car.

It would be too much to hope that the Torotrak was going to replace the conventional transmission of a Formula 1 racing car. There is no reason why it wouldn’t work; back in 1994 or 5 Williams tried a Van Doorne CVT drive in their then current F1 car and David Coulthard lapped Silverstone two seconds faster than he managed in an identical car with conventional transmission. Two seconds, thanks to the oft derided “rubber band” transmission was a considerable and worthwhile advantage. Before Williams could incorporate the transmission in a racing car the rules were changed and such transmissions were banned. The Torotrak would offer similar advantages and probably enjoys similar prohibition.

So how is the Torotrak to be incorporated? In some sort of effort to appeal to or appease the environmental movement Formula 1 want to be seen as more ecologically aware and incorporate energy saving devices into F1 cars. One idea is a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) which is another old idea brought up to date. Rather than “wasting” energy converting kinetic energy to heat when braking, kinetic energy is used to spin up a flywheel which can be disconnected from the drive line and reconnected when the stored energy can be put to good use driving the car. It is an old idea because the Swiss used it in busses working in hilly areas; energy “gained” running down one hill could be stored and used to assist the climb up the next hill. By using a Torotrak drive rather than a simple clutch the energy sent to or recovered from the flywheel can be controlled with greater subtlety.

Torotrak PLC (the name of the British company owning the rights to the Torotrak drive) have granted a license to Xtrax, the transmission specialists, to incorporate the Torotrak drive in a gearbox with a KERS. The idea is to provide a more compact, lighter, more efficient means of energy storage than electrical batteries. The hope is that not only will racing teams adopt the technology but that it will find its way into road cars too.

My hope is that the publicity given to the Torotrak transmission as a result of the F1 association will act as a catalyst for someone to put a Torotrak transmission in a car that people can buy. Just imagine an automatic transmission that overcomes all the limitations of conventional automatics. With luxury cars adopting seven and eight speed automatics a transmission that can be in the right gear all the time by eschewing the established conventions of fixed ratios has to be a good idea.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Four wheels good. Four wheel steering better.

You might be able to guess from my user name that I like cars with 4-wheel steering. The improvements to steering response, agility, stability and therefore to safety are tangible but too little known to the population at large. Several years and lots of miles in a variety of 4-wheel steer Honda Preludes were enough to convince me of the value of 4WS. When Honda ceased production of the Prelude back in 2000 it seemed that those virtues were doomed to be forgotten.

Forgotten but not by everyone. Nissan have had 4WS for almost as long as Honda – most famously on the GT-R Skylines. Under the Infiniti brand Nissan have prepared a new coupe, the G37, which will be offered with 4-wheel steering on some variants. Called 4-Wheel Active Steer system (4WAS) it combines a variable ratio steering rack with actuators on the lower links of the rear suspension which alter the rear suspension geometry and thereby steer the rear wheels.

Renault does not have any previous history of 4-wheel steering. Renault and Nissan are business partners and share lots of hidden components. It may be a result of Nissan’s previous work or Renault’s own development but Renault will also offer electronic 4WS on the 3rd generation Laguna. According to Renault the combination of steering on all four wheels with the latest electronic stability program (ESP) gives the new Laguna impressive stability under the severest provocation.

The only concerns I have are that on the Infiniti 4WAS is listed as an option rather than standard equipment while Renault’s 4WS is only available on the top model (not likely to be a popular choice). How many people will know to exercise the option on the Infiniti? Who will be brave enough to choose the expensive Renault? More to the point; I hope I get to try them both.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Car of the day: Lada Riva estate

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An odd choice this; shoddy build, zero style and an antiquated driving experience but it fall squarely into the, “When did you last see one?” category. Ladas used to be quite common but they seemed to disappear overnight a few years ago. I have a feeling that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union lots of Ladas went back to Russia where there was a pent up demand for private cars. Old age and neglect have probably done for most of the Ladas left on these shores.

Maybe it is because I grew up when nearly all cars were as square as the Lada and therefore think that the Lada looks like a proper car. Maybe it is the irresistible lure of the awful car; refusing to believe that it is as bad as people say. Whatever the reason there is something about Ladas that appeals to me.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Vauxhall’s inflammatory press release

Apparently the sight of an old banger, belching choking exhaust fumes, is all too common. Clearly it is too common for someone at Vauxhall who – understandably, given their position – would rather see everyone in a new Vauxhall. As a result, Vauxhall are offering a £1,000 “bonus” to anyone trading in an old car as long as that car is scrapped. To add credibility to their argument about the number of old cars Vauxhall quote some figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders; 15 million cars are at least seven years old; of that 15 million nine million are over nine years old and four million are over 12 years old.

It is interesting that Vauxhall neglect to put these figures in perspective by quoting the total number of vehicles on the road or by offering finer detail about the rate of attrition past 12 years. I imagine that most cars can sail past their 12th anniversary with ease but few will see their 20th. My own unscientific study of the cars around me as I drove home suggested that most cars are less than 7 years old (based on the number of cars displaying the new format registration plates). If I hadn’t seen a Bentley station wagon (either MK VI or R-Type which puts it between 57 and 61 years old) then the 19yr old Citroen that serves as fourwheelsteer’s daily transport was the oldest car I saw. All of which suggests that old cars are pretty rare; the occasional banger is only noticed because it stands out against the background of newer cars.

An unscientific test which I inadvertently conducted earlier this year contradicts Vauxhall’s assertion that their new cars are more economical than the old ones. I had the dubious pleasure of hiring a Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 because my own car was out of action; it was pathetically slow, embarrassingly low-geared and not that economical (35mpg I think). A week later I borrowed a 1995 Astra 1.4. Doing the same journeys, under the same conditions and enjoying better performance the older car used less fuel. Given the older car’s cruder engine management and fuel injection that is quite impressive. The older car had a catalytic converter (as will anything post 1992) so how much worse can its emissions be?

Never mind the pollutants that are generated by car usage, they are trivial compared to the energy and resources required to make a new car. Given that cars are getting heavier it is axiomatic that they must need more material and more energy to produce than ever before. The best way to repay the investment in energy and materials required to make a car is to keep it running as long as possible.

The final and most disturbing point is just how anyone with a car worth £500 or less – and it can’t be worth much more than £500 if a £1,000 trade in is to be considered worthwhile – is going to afford £6,500 for a new Corsa. Of course Vauxhall will gladly offer attractive finance packages, so that instead of owning a car outright someone without much money ends up with a burden of debt.

Maybe if Vauxhall were serious about cleaning up old cars they would do more to maintain adequate stocks of spare parts for older models. Perhaps some work could be done to see about adding more modern engine management to older cars (there was certainly room under the bonnet of the Astra for multi-point injection and engine management systems). It would be a more convincing statement than a lot of nonsense about a non-existent problem and a measly fixed-price trade in.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Sighting of the day: Mercedes-Benz 260E

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On my way home from work today I spotted this Mercedes 260E – a W124 model. The first thing that grabbed me was the condition; it looked clean, tidy and almost factory fresh. The interior looked equally untouched by the passage of time. As far as I can tell only the alloys – from a later model – are not original. The second unusual thing was that it was the 260E instead of the 230E or 300E both of which seem more common.

Seeing a 17 year old Mercedes in such great condition reminded me why Mercedes enjoy a reputation for quality and longevity. There are lots of different opinions about which was the last real Mercedes but the W124 series was among the last real, over engineered cars.

Fury at Vauxhall

Just a quick post but I may add more later. I've just read a Vauxhall press release titled "Vauxhall moves to make Britain Banger Free". There's lots of nonsense about everyone wanting bangers off the streets and the owners wanting something better but unable to afford it.

It is a cunning way of promoting fixed value trade-in prices, I think. But I've driven nothing but bangers for the last 5 or 6 years and I actually like it. None of my bangers has been obviously poluting - no belching fumes here. I've also driven the current Corsa and, frankly, it is rubbish. I certainly wouldn't swap my £95 Citroen for one.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

From the archives - A nice pair of Bristols

I mean Bristol cars, of course. I've been going through some of my old photos and I found these which represent 2 of my favourite 4-wheeled things.

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This is a Bristol 406 Zagato of 1959, they only made 6 so you've probably never seen one before. The 406Z was smaller and lighter than the standard 406 saloon and had a more powerful engine. The famous motoring writer LJK Setright had a 406 Zagato.

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This is a Bristol 409. Commercial pressures forced Bristol to stop building their own engines and instead fitted Canadian Chrysler V8 engines. The 409 had power steering and better weight distribution than earlier V8 Bristols, although bristol owners and enthusiasts tend to fall into loyal pro and anti V8 camps.

Click on the title to go to the Bristol Owners Club site if you want to find out more about the company and the cars.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Roadsters Remembered Mazda MX5 mk2

The original MX5 of 1989 pretty much single-handedly revived interest in the open 2-seat sports car. British Leland ceased production of the MGB in 1980 and the closest thing to a mass-market roadster was the Reliant Scimitar SS1, launched in 1984. Angular styling and odd proportions robbed the Scimitar of mass market appeal (although I think it looks quite smart). Perhaps affordable mid-engined cars in the mould of the Fiat X1/9 and Toyota MR2 should have assumed the role of the popular sports car but it doesn’t seem to have happened. Instead the majority of modern roadsters have adopted the traditional front-engined rear-wheel drive layout.

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It was 9 years before the MX5 was updated, which must say something for how right it was. The second generation MX5 was received with nearly as much enthusiasm as the first. Although I never drove the original MX5 I was keen to try the second one when the opportunity presented itself. That opportunity coincided with the chance to drive 2 other roadsters, the Honda S2000 and the Vauxhall VX220 turbo (which I will return to); it seemed sensible to use the Mazda as a yardstick.

Trying to describe the MX5 is difficult; it was an appealing and light-hearted car. It enjoyed that trait unique to the best Japanese cars of being light and easy to drive without being vague or sloppy. As a result it felt good and yet it is nearly impossible to describe any single aspect. That is probably because there is nothing about the steering, the engine, the gearbox or the ride that is non-linear in behaviour. I’m sure it is the lack of exaggerated response that makes the MX5 such a nice car to drive. For everyone else the smart styling and Japanese reliability mean there is no reason not to buy the sports car you always promised yourself.