The Land Rover Writer

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sublime Experience

A classic car, specifically my '66 Corvair Monza, need not be a trailer queen in appearance or a full mechanical rebuild in condition to provide a sublime driving experience. You don't even need to go very far. For me the first step required a 1 hr 20 minute ferry ride to the mainland terminal in Rockland, ME, to get my Corvair. 

For the past several months it has sat outdoors in the ferry parking lot as a "mainland car." This role had been served by my '80 Triumph TR-7, but after a water pump failure and a head gasket leak repair, it needs more attention before it can regain that responsibility.

If the TR-7 demonstrated that a skilled engineer like Spen King could take conventional components, like front engine/rear wheel drive, solid rear axle and coil springs, and produce a good handling sports car, the Corvair demonstrated that a team of suspension engineers could produce an unconventional, rear engine/rear wheel drive, fully independent rear suspension, sporting car. The fact that the TR-7, particularly in its 5-speed iteration, proved to be a comfortable car for highway travel was a bonus. The Corvair had to provide highway comfort and sports car handling to satisfy its wider buyer market - which is why I appreciate the Corvair so much.

Stepping off the ferry I admit to some concern as to whether the Corvair would actually start, given that the last time I visited this car one month ago I found the battery quite dead. In fact, after jump starting the car with a battery pack, I had to park it on a slight incline with plenty of "push" room in case it would require a push start later [it didn't]. So I purchased and installed a new battery and then let it sit for another month. 

Happily, the car fired right up in the warmish 40 degree temperature and then proceeded to entertain me for the afternoon. It took me to get a haircut, purchase coffee beans [unavailable at the island market] and then stop for coffee and a late afternoon lunch at an empty if nifty Rockland restaurant. There the Corvair parked outside delighted the young waitresses. 

The actual time behind the wheel was less than one hour, but the experience filled the day. The thin windshield pillars and frameless windows brightened the interior. Rolling down the window let the relative warmth flood the car. The thin steering wheel felt delicate but the bite around corners felt anything but delicate. With its Clark's-rebuilt twin carbs, set up and balanced by ear by Jim Westervelt, the Monza idled smoothly and accelerated smartly. 

I thought back to Robert Cumberford's "RIP Corvair" essay in Car & Driver [August, 1969], lambasting GM for killing off the car:

"Have you driven one of these cars?...Do you appreciate how seductive the '65-'69 machine really was? Have you ever driver an American car with pleasant manual steering? With powerful non-servo brakes? With soft suspension and side bite?" 

Yup - just yesterday, and he's right!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Manufacturing Auto Parts in the US

I found this link courtesy of an interesting column by David Brooks in today's New York Times. The original piece, a long report in The Atlantic by Adam Davidson, will capture you with its clarity and detail.

Davidson looks at Standard Products, one of the better known aftermarket manufacturers and distributors. He notes that as the chain auto parts retailers like NAPA, Autozone and Carquest dominate their distribution markets, the pressure on manufacturers like Standard mount greatly. 

Also, the precision nature of auto parts continues to grow as engines, transmissions, braking and suspension designs become more interconnected with tighter tolerances. In a defining moment in the article, Davidson interviews a tenacious single mother whose a "level 1" factory worker who doesn't even know what "tolerance" means within an engineering context. Until she can learn that concept, as well as metallurgy, the programming language that controls the robotic machines, and the calculus-level math skills necessary to make the required adjustments, she'll never move up the employment ladder - and likely, neither will her children [post-secondary education is closely linked to the educational achievement level of the family].

Great article and a thoughtful insight into the challenges of producing, maintaining and repairing today's automobiles. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Fiat Convinces a Skeptic

Greg Migliore of Autoweek captured a reality of the American market when he wrote "small [cars] for the sake of small is not what Americans want." Certainly the poor sales of the original Austin Mini-Minor or Fiat 500 demonstrated that reality. Of all the tiny imported cars, only the VW Beetle defied that sales reality - and in Europe or Asia it wasn't considered that small.

The newest Fiat finally convinced an Autoweek skeptic that small cars can be hugely entertaining, especially in the snow. Here's the article itself. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

First Snow

Unlike last winter it's been a quiet one, snow-wise, this year. This week the snow finally arrived in synch with the colder temperatures - so the snow stuck and has covered the roads.

Cold snowy weather brings out the best and worst in the Land Rover. The  best rises out of its four wheel drive; bang down on the yellow lever next to the gearshift and you're in high range four wheel drive. When you start off you can feel the front wheels scrabbling a bit, with a wider turning radius, but the car moves forward with a genuine assurance.

The good ground clearance, high torque at low rpm engine, and nicely-matched gearing lets the car hit the road with a encouraging sure-footed power. 

However, even a Land Rover cannot changes the laws of physics. Winter is nature's way of letting you know who's in charge, especially when slowing or stopping. When you hit the brakes you stop the tires from moving, so they slide along the snow or ice. When they slide or skid, the car follows and "Houston, we have a problem."So it's much wiser to let the car decelerate and keep your feet off the brakes as long as possible.

A 1966 Land Rover also adheres to 1966 standards concerning heat and defrosting; actually, since the heater used by Rover actually came into existence in the 1950's, we're talking about a time when drivers in the UK routinely drove with a chamois cloth to wipe off the windshield and matching blankets to warm the passengers. With its newer Mt Mansfield heater unit from Rovers North, my Rover will warm up but it takes a l-o-n-g time for the radiator to warm the coolant. You need to have a long drive, or multiple trips, to get the temperature to a pleasant level in the car. 

The Corvair, being air cooled, oddly heats up its engine relatively quickly but takes its time about warming up the cabin. The rear wheel drive does make for terrific traction in snow and ice. Even more weird, the British Triumph TR-7 has a terrific heater that can keep you warm and clear the windshield quickly - but without snow tires, it's a poor snow car.

Driving in the snow highlights why you should live in New England; you'll have a few months of this chill and occasional terror, and then it will turn into spring.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hey, Dude, Where's The Car? Fiat and the JLo Problem

I will admit I'm an avid fan of beautiful women and beautiful cars, so I wasn't that disappointed when Fiat chose Jennifer Lopez to be the spokesperson for the 2011 importation of the Fiat 500. She certainly looked dazzling tootling through her Bronx neighborhood - except that she actually didn't make the drive.

The original Fiat 500 ranked with the VW Beetle, Renault Dauphine, and Austin Mini as an iconic car whose style and engineering enabled its manufacture with modest changes over the decades. Inexpensive to buy, with reasonable interior room, excellent fuel mileage and a high winding rear engine and rear wheel drive, it helped put Italy on wheels during the second half of the 20th century.

I've owned only one Fiat, but that's not from a lack of trying. I fell for the Fiat 850 coupe and convertible in the 1960's-70's, but could not find one that survived New England winters. My one Fiat came in 1979 when an Oldsmobile ran a red light in Burlington, VT, and took out the front end of my MGB. So I found a '72 Fiat Spider which, despite its lovely lines, had seen hard times but ran quite well over my two years of ownership. Mine never looked this good but I quite enjoyed the 5-speed on long trips - but the high revving engine meant low torque at low rpm, and thus a lot of traction problems in the snow.

So I joined a lot of enthusiasts in welcoming Fiat back into the US market - and a lot of economists in thanking Fiat for taking over and reviving Chrysler.

Fiats always rewarded enthusiastic driving and featured elements of Italian style unique to their culture. So when Fiat announced its new dealerships would be called "Design Centers" I wasn't surprised, but I was puzzled when the first marketing campaign re-introducing the brand into the US focused on its "cute" factor.

 This remained puzzling because Fiat's niche has always been their driving entertainment factor. Yes, the interior comes filled with clever design features and its appearance has the right "adorable" factor, but remember that Abarth, Zagato and Pinninfarina all designed special models for Fiat. The Abarth and Zagato versions always provided extra performance, too.

The word from Fiat-Chrysler's current CEO, Olivier Francois, is that Fiat has accelerated their push to remind potential buyers that Fiats have real performance, not just style cred. A Fiat would never replace my Land Rover but I would not toss a Fiat convertible out the door, either.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tata Staring at Saab?

I've picked up hints that Tata, the Indian conglomerate that owns Jaguar Land Rover, has studied the possibility of purchasing Saab, the bankrupt Swedish manufacturer of interesting cars.

Tata benefited from the development work already underway at both firms through Ford's parentage; GM did not appear to be as generous with Saab and the company would need some real capital to develop new products. That said, Tata has been a good corporate parent to date and it certainly has the energy and focus to become a major player in the automotive world. 

Surely there's a place in this automotive universe for Saab. The company went front-wheel drive for traction in snowy conditions and interior packaging long before the Mini elevated it to cult status in 1959. 

Starting in 1957 they developed a strong niche market for themselves in New England as the "bad weather car of choice," first with their quirky 2-cycle engines, and then cemented by their Monte Carlo Rally wins with small V-4 engines against far more powerful cars and better-financed teams. 

In central Maine a former Saab dealer has an extensive collection of classic Saab models housed in his barn; a salesmen at a southern Maine Chevy dealership still owns and drives a 2-cycle model to Saab events all over New England. 

The 1980's saw Saab move upscale and revive the use of the turbocharger in small 4-cylinder engines; they took the 2.0 liter Triumph 4 and made it into a reliable, long-lived performer. After GM bought Saab it seemed to devolve into a mini-Buick and lose some of the sharp engineering that always made it an engaging car to own and drive.  

GM still seems eager to kill the brand as it still seems to have a veto on financing schemes to revive manufacturing of the car. Let's hope that this marque does not disappear into history.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kudos to a Car Club

This article appeared in this morning's email newsletter from Hemmings Motor News.

It offers a heady reminder that classic cars can serve multiple roles in our lives. They can be sources of excessive ego-stroking or they can be sources of communal satisfaction. The cars are object that we imbue with purpose and symbolism; it's what we do with the car that makes us enthusiasts sharing our talents, interests and energies - and of course, hard-earned dollars. 

I admit to envy for those who can afford to have their classic cars restored and detailed so to look brand new, but if all those owners do is display the car, they've missed the main reasons to own classic cars.  Auto manufacturers engineered, designed and sold cars to be driven; if all you do is show the car at events, if you're afraid to drive it because of its "investment value," you're missing the point.

This Georgia Corvette Club refurbished a car for a family that had given so much, and in turn, they created a daily driver that gave them so much in return. Job well done!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Old Cars and Winter

It's taken longer than usual for winter to hit here in Maine, but finally we have temperatures around 0 degrees F and some snow on the ground. It's rare that we can be this comfortable so late into winter.

The cold and high winds came on strong this weekend. I could hear their effects when I went to start the 46 year old Land Rover. I've never done a compression test on this engine, but after some 400,000 miles and some 17 years of daily use, it's probably not at 150 psi on every cylinder. Combine that with an oil capacity of 7+ quarts and a single, manual choke carburetor, and you have the makings of hard winter starting. This new starter helps churn the engine so it will fire quickly - it does sound funny, though, as if something's not tight. I'll have to check it when it warms up.

Normally I could minister to the car gently upon starting it at 0 F. You pump the accelerator a few times, pull out the choke, press the starter button, and once it fires up, wait a few moments before driving off. You try to warm the car up while driving so you can push in the choke as soom as possible. This helps reduce carb icing and the "wash down" effect that gas has on the oil that lubricates around the piston rings. 

Since I became an EMT a couple of years ago I don't have that luxury. I must start the car quickly, force it into gear [the thick gear oil makes shifting hard], run the car a short distance, and then turn off the engine. Few things will accelerate engine wear faster than this ritual - it runs counter to everything I learned about how to take car of older design engines.   

The 46 year old Corvair handles this for me very well; with its twin carburetors and automatic choke, it simply won't run at all if you try and move too quickly upon a very cold start. You must wait for it to warm up some before driving away.  

The 32 year old TR-7 used to be a brisk starter and runner in cold weather, but ever since it developed its head gasket leak, it won't start well at all- even with the leak seemingly cured. Right now I fear that I might have condensation in the gas because of the car's stationary situation. I purchased a new fuel filter and installed it this weekend, but an EMT call out prevented me from fiddling with the engine very long. It will start [with ether] but would not run on its own. I need to sort that problem out when the temperatures rise later this week.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Kudos to the Range Rover Evoque

Not long after Land Rover re-entered the US market in 1987, LRNA President Charles Hughes noted that one great challenge for the marque was that relatively few people knew the Land Rover marque at all, and nowhere near enough knew the Range Rover.

You were not only trying to interest people in a particular model, you were trying to convince them to part with their hard-earned dollars and give them to a automobile company that for many had receded into distant memory. After all the last new Land Rovers left the US market in 1974 and they resembled the first ones from 1948 - hardly contemporary in appearance. 

The Rover name had been further tainted by the marketing efforts behind the Rover 3500, and worse, the Sterling [the name given to a Rover-Honda car because old British Leyland litigation might have been resumed had the Rover name appeared on the car], proof that the Rover nameplate did not bring back fond memories.

Give Land Rover credit, though. Starting with the Range Rover, they brought in the Defender, Discovery, Freelander, LR3 and LR4 models, and now, the Evoque. Land Rover enthusiasts like me might shiver at the sight of one but guess what - Land Rover is an automobile manufacturer in business to make money selling new cars every year in over 168 world markets. 

The Defender lineup might be the emotional successor to the Series Land Rover models, but at most Land Rover can make and sell 35,000 of them, out of the over 200,,000 cars produced annually. So the models less-loved by enthusiasts provide most of the profit margin needed by the company.

The Evoque keeps winning award after award. There's a 7 month wait for one in the UK, something that would be nearly impossible to fathom in the instant-gratification world of the US. Good for Land Rover for producing a small Range Rover with 28 mpg highway, eye catching looks and some pretty good off road cred!


Connected to What?

Attention is back to automobiles again with the opening of the North American Auto Show in Detroit. Among the attention-getters is the trend towards wireless connectivity between your devices and your automobile.
Automakers have come to learn that consumer technology can change more rapidly that the lead time for automobiles. Stand-alone devices such as GPS's, digital cameras and even laptops might be rendered obsolete by cellphones and tablets - so why incorporate them into automobiles as optional accerssories?

“While we are already working on the cars that will hit the road seven years from now, the next disruptive consumer technology might hit the market in seven months,” Dr. Dieter Zetsche of Daimler said. “A 20-year-old car might be a classic that you love to drive, but do you know anybody who is still using a 20-year-old mobile phone?” 

That's a good point that centers of the real question. Should automobiles just become an adjunct to the wireless world or should they retain a connectivity unique to themselves?

When one said their car had a certain "feel," they usually meant the way the suspension and steering let the driver know about road conditions. Cars that isolated you from the road, generally through wallowing suspensions, extra bushings and overly-sensitive power steering, offered little to no "road feel."

Now our sense of connection with the road has more to do with the world off the traveled road - the web. Automakers rushed to make their cars connect, through phone systems like OnStar, to hard drive storage, like MySynch. As one commentator noted, why should automakers seek to create unique devices when apps for smartphone or tablet will accomplish the same things. Who needs a stand-alone GPS if they have their cellphone? Garmin and Tom Tom will likely keep searching for answers to that question.

The larger question is whether we should be letting devices answer all theese questions for us. Imagine a time when you looked at a thermometer, saw that it approached 32 F, and drew the conclusion that you needed to drive with added care because black ice might cover parts of the road. Now luxury auto lines compete with who can provide you with the greatest number of features - ones to alert you of icing conditions [the Rover 3500 offered a primitive version of this in the 1970's], whether an obstacle or child is behind you when you're backing up, even parallel parking. Of course, you could just learn to check the weather, get outside the car and just look, and learn how to maneuver your car into tight places.