Why Snow+Toyota+Hill=Going Nowhere

December 25, 2008

One thing I’ll never understand is why Toyota now insists on building cars with traction control systems that cannot be deactivated. The person who gave final approval to such a system should be banished from working in the auto industry ever again…or at least be forced to drive one such Toyota in the mountains for a year.

Whether it’s the Four Wheel Drift’s own ’06 Avalon (with integrated Vehicle Stability Program) or the Prius owned by one of our technical contributors, all it takes is a small hill and a bit of snow to stop one of these Toyotas cold. In any other car one can simply deactivate the traction control and use momentum and some spinning tires to crest a snowy hill. In Toyota-ville, however, the fuel is cut-off the moment the wheels start spinning, which means momentum is killed.

It’s a sad day when my wife’s 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue – a car designed and built on a dead-company-walking budget, has an easier time ascending the hills covered by the Pacific Northwest’s record snowfall than the much newer Avalon. To up the ante, the Intrigue rides on four-year-old chewed-up Z-rated Continentals, while the Avalon has brand new all-season Michelin Pilots (which on small grades and flat ground actually cuts through the deep powder snow like Stevie Nicks circa 1979.)

I’d love to hear the reasoning from the Toyota PR machine for this terrible design flaw, and indeed I’ll be contacting the Media Relations guys after the holidays to get the official response. (I can see it now – something about “safety”, even though we all know the real answer is “we found a way to cut costs and/or increase the fuel mpg rating on the window sticker by leaving the traction control deactivation button out.”)

Given Toyota’s recent transmission issues (and its botched response to these issues), it’s alarming to see how the Japanese giant is beginning to act so much like one of the American Big Three. A couple more decades of poor design decisions like not allowing people to deactivate traction control for snow and maybe Toyota will be in line for a little bailout money of its own!


“Sammy’s Unofficial Template for Listing a Car or Truck for Sale on Craigslist” (or “How to sell a car in a crappy economy”)

December 9, 2008

With the economy in the smelliest of train station crappers, hundreds of thousands of used and classic vehicles have flooded web sites like Craigslist and eBay. While these sites have made listing a car for sale so easy that the dumber brother of the guy who copied off George Bush at Yale could do it, unfortunately, these sites don’t explain the critical information each listing needs to call potential buyers to action.

For the benefit of both sellers and buyers, we at The Four Wheel Drift present “Sammy’s Unofficial Template for Listing a Car or Truck for Sale on Craigslist (or other site)”.

Crazy as it might seem, you actually need to tell people what you’re offering for sale. These are all essential pieces of information:

  • Model year of the car – This is on the title and registration. If the car is a classic car, make sure that the year on the title matches the date code on the car’s data plate. (Most car VINs can be decoded to establish the date of manufacture.)
  • Make of the vehicle – Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Hummer, Hupmobile, Porsche, Dort, Crit, Steyr… For searching purposes, if you’re selling a Chevrolet, it’s not a bad idea to also include “Chevy” and “Chevie” in the listing. For most cars it should be absolutely obvious what make it is, however, for that wildly modified hot rod that remained in your garage after you kicked the cheating bastard out, simply look on the registration or title for the manufacturer of record.
  • Model – Just saying it’s a Mercedes, ’67 Chevy or ’30 Cadillac isn’t enough. (There were no less than 113 officially produced model and body styles for a 1930 Cadillac!) You need to list which specific model it is.

    The model name is usually evident (like Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, MG MGB), but it can get tricky for cars built before WWII. For instance, in 1936 Cadillac offered four different series of “Fleetwood” models corresponding with three available wheelbases. Make sure that you always include the series number with the model, such as “Series 85 Fleetwood” to avoid confusion. Any model or series number usually appears on the registration/commission plate on the engine firewall.

  • Trim-level sub-designation – Models often have an additional sub-designation to differentiate equipment levels. Don’t just say it’s a Chevelle if it’s a more desirable Chevelle Malibu. If it’s a Toyota Avalon, is it an XL, Touring or Limited? This is also the time to indicate if the vehicle has an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive option.
  • Body style – Don’t make the reader guess whether it’s a sedan, coupe, wagon, convertible, crew-cab, long bed, step-side… For cars before the 1970s, ensure you get the specific body style name correct, because it can be misleading. Taking the 1936 Cadillac as an example again, there were 21 different body styles of coupes, sedans and convertibles. In the 1950s and 1960s some manufacturers offered coupes and sedans, but also hardtop versions of both with no pillar to hold the side windows. The bottom line is to look for the VIN or commission plate on the firewall or body tag on the driver’s door and use a Google search to find how to establish via your VIN or body code that you are describing the vehicle’s body the same way the factory did (like sedanette, club coupe, club sedan, formal sedan, two-door sedan, phaetons, Victoria, town sedan, roadster…)
  • Engine – For most cars with multiple engine options, just indicating the number of cylinders will suffice. If the car you are selling was offered with multiple displacements and/or states of tune, such as a 1969 Corvette, list the important details (350ci or 427 ci V8 delivering 300, 350, 390, 400, or 435 hp?)
  • Transmission – For cars that offer optional transmissions: automatic, 3spd, 4spd, 5spd, 6spd manual, and list if the gear-change is steering column or floor-mounted for older vehicles.
  • Interior – Leather, cloth, bucket seats or bench.
  • Options – You don’t need to list every last option, but it’s important to list larger and more important equipment packages. Certain vehicles are more valuable with specific options, such as a truck with towing package, luxury car with heated/ventilated seats, BMW with Sport Package, British roadsters with wire wheels and/or Laycock overdrive.

You should always look at your own vehicle with a seller-calibrated eye. Intentionally misrepresenting the vehicle might be against the law, but unintentionally misrepresenting it is also bad, as it wastes the potential buyer’s time and money.

  • Body: Disclose in the listing if there are any sizable dents, scratches, faded paint, or areas of previous damage that were not repaired to as-new condition…this includes the presence of excess body filler (Bondo). If there is rust, please list the major areas and extent of the rust in detail. This is VERY important. Holes in the floors, trunk or disintegration of frame metal is something people want to know about before they take time out of their schedule to inspect a vehicle! To describe rust, you can use:
    • Surface rust: a light coat of orange on exposed metal pieces that can be scraped-away with a fingernail or light sandpaper.
    • Bubbling: Places where the paint is literally bubbling underneath. Usually you’ll find it low on the car – on fenders, doors and around the wheels. A small poke with a small screwdriver will reveal if the bubble is an indicator of rust through. If your car has bubbling, don’t claim it’s “rust free”.
    • Rust-through: Where the rust has destroyed an area enabling a screwdriver to go through the panel. The only cure is to cut out these rusty areas and weld in new metal.

    This is also a good time to detail if any chrome needs replating or if there are cracks in windows or exterior light lenses.

  • Interior: Describe any wear to the seats (splits, tears or burns), carpets, top, dashboard (cracks). If the car has never been smoked in, indicate it for the benefit of the asthmatic set. If any gauges don’t work, list it. For cars with a kickin’ stereo (that’s what the kids call them, right?) this is the place to describe it.
  • Mechanicals: Does the car run? If not, explain (as best you can) why it doesn’t? Does the engine smoke? When running at operating temperature, is the oil pressure gauge showing in the normal range? Detail any major component that needs addressing, as well as any recently completed major servicing. For collector cars and exotics requiring expensive services, indicate when (time and mileage) the services were last done.
  • Originality: If the car has been significantly modified, not only describe the changes, but also identify what was originally equipped. This is most important for clones/tributes of more exclusive high performance models. Not disclosing that your 1969 Camaro Z28 is actually the love child of a six-cylinder coupe mated with the drivetrain from a wrecked authentic Z28 is fraud. The same goes for more modern cars like Honda VTECs.
  • Mileage: How many miles on the car? If the engine is not original to the car, then how many miles on the engine, as well?

Don’t expect to get calls or reasonable offers without listing a price. Research what the value of your car is and set a realistic price. Don’t forget that asking prices of cars on Craigslist are just asking prices, not selling prices. Go on eBay and see what similar cars are actually bid to. The more you ask, the longer it takes to sell — and if you ask too much, people simply won’t call.

Don’t forget to explain where the car is located, because if you leave it blank, people will think it’s a scam. If you live in a small town that the city folks have never heard of, explain how far away you are from the nearest big town.

Include your email address and maybe even a phone number.

This is one of the most important parts of the listing! Take pictures outside in daylight. The most important shots are front ¾-view, rear ¾ view (showing the other side), interior, and engine. It’s also good to take detail shots of wheel wells, undercarriage, trunk floor, door bottoms and other areas so that you can email these to people when they inevitably ask.

People, people, people… please check your spelling! The chances of getting your asking price for your car if you misspell the make (Alpha Romero instead of Alfa Romeo), model (Camero instead of Camaro), body style (convertable instead of convertible), or important items (bumber instead of bumper), are Slim Whitman-to-nun chucks.

It might seem like a crazy suggestion after all of this, but be concise! Use bullet points and stay away from long narratives. If the car was only available with a single transmission, don’t waste space with the number of gears or if it has a manual shift mode.

The bottom line: be honest, direct and accurate.

If They Can’t Sell The Cars, How Do They Expect To Sell The Car Companies?

December 5, 2008

The Big Three CEOs are back in front of Congress to again ask for money. This time, the boys left their jets at home and drove in cars. They also brought the plans for returning to profitability that Members asked them to supply.

Pluck me bald and call me Telly, but what the executives are shoveling doesn’t seem to be nearly enough fertilizer to make this garden grow again.

Central in plans from each company is the sale of at least one brand. Ford wants to sell Volvo, GM admits Saturn, Saab and Hummer are on the block, and Chrysler is waving Jeep in the wind. Now I’m not an automotive executive…and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I’d like someone to explain to me how if none of these brands are successfully selling individual cars to consumers, then how do the Big Three execs expect to sell the freaking brands themselves?

Let’s break it down: Volvo is on track to sell roughly 72,000 cars. Ford sold-off Volvo trucks many years ago, so the value of the brand is based only on consumer vehicles. Over at the General’s place, Hummer is on pace for just under 45,000 vehicles, Saab at 90,000 and Saturn at 230,000 cars. Jeep is the largest contributor of any of the brands, looking to deliver in 2008 for Chrysler just under a half-million vehicles.

Nobody in their right mind will buy Hummer. Its place in a 2015 35 mpg CAFE America is non-existent. Some Arab prince might buy it on a whim, but no automaker wants that brand hanging on its CAFE results like an anchor.

Saturn is like Mazda, just not as sporty. It is possible that a BMW or Porsche could buy them for their mpg and stand-alone dealership network. Don’t expect them to pay too much.

Saab and Volvo might as well look to the Korea, Malaysia or India for a buyer. No German, French or Italian company will touch these quirky Swedes.

Jeep is a more interesting play, because it’s a respected niche brand without the horrible CAFE strain of Hummer. Some company will make a play for Jeep.

In the near term, though, selling these companies creates costs for the Big Three. GM, Ford and Chrysler have traditionally spent way too much money in concessions to dealers after selling or closing brands. Also, don’t expect any companies to pay much for these brands when it is well known that a) the brands are for sale and b) nobody else is bidding on them. Despite skipping all those economics lectures in college, I do remember the whole supply and demand concept.

Obviously there is much, much, much more the Big Three’s plans for profitability than just selling these brands. Labor union concessions, plant closings, pay reductions, job cuts, supplier contract renegotiations, and dealer closings (why is it when you ask about dealer quality, Big Three executives always are quick to point out that dealers are independent, and it’s impossible to better control service and sales capabilities, but when dealers are a part of larger plan for money, they are no longer seen as rogue entities?) are all part of the deal.

Maybe the Big Three will offer “Zero Down, Zero Percent Financing”, “Factory-to-Dealer Rebates” and “Employee Pricing” for any company interested in buying Saturn, Saab, Hummer, Jeep, or Volvo?

With now $34 billion in bailout (call it loans, investment, or whatever – it’s a bailout) requested, and now talks about “government managed restructuring” which sounds way too much like British Leyland version 2008, Americans should be screaming to let the companies sink or swim on their own. If it really is as easy to sell brands, lower labor and supplier costs, and most importantly – create new cars that people will actually buy over the competition as the Big Three claim it will be with the funds Congress provides, then certainly these companies should be able to do it without getting involved with inefficient government red tape that will come with any bailout money.

No More Wings With GM’s Prayers

December 2, 2008

General Motors finally has found things to sell that are harder to get rid of than its cars: its corporate jets. In a thinly-veiled attempt at wooing Congress and smoothing the public relations disaster from the last Congressional appearance, GM just announced that it is ending its aviation program:

GM Ceasing Corporate Aviation Operations

DETROIT — GM today announced that it is ceasing operations at General Motors Air Transportation Services (GMATS) at Detroit Metro Airport.
Due to significant cutbacks over the past months, GM travel volume no longer justifies a dedicated corporate aircraft operation.

GM is currently exploring options for transferring its aircraft to another operator. The company is pursuing sale of four of the aircraft so it can terminate the leases.

GM will shutter the facility at Metro Airport effective January 1, 2009. GM will work with the airport to seek a tenant for the balance of the lease, which expires in 2009.

I wonder if any of us can get factory-to-dealer incentives on these planes…Zero down, zero percent financing maybe? In any event, while GM will lose its shirt selling the planes, it probably won’t lose more money than it has selling its own vehicles through dealers.

The Battle Over Woodies

November 26, 2008

The 1941-1948 Chrysler Town & Country model line has become the Classic Car Club of America’s very own version of the abortion and gay marriage issues. Just like abortion and gay marriage, the T&C is a topic fueling crazy, non-sensible debates. By the way, it’s just a coincidence that they all have something to do with woodies.

Chrysler’s Town and Country ranks among the coolest of the blue-chip collectables – the best of the iconic wood-sided vehicles of the 1940s. To a vocal minority of the Classic Car Club of America, though, the T&C is a Trojan Horse used to overthrow the traditions of the club. Specifically, it was this motion recently passed by the club’s National Board, which was in direct opposition to decades of the Classification Committee (the group that decides the cars accepted by the club) voting to deny the model entry into the club:

Motion: That the Club recognize all Chrysler Town & Country automobiles from 1941 through 1948 as Full Classics. AS PART OF THIS MOTION, I move that the Board approve a POLICY EXCEPTION to the Classification Procedures reaffirmed 10-1-85 which states: ‘The CCCA policy regarding considering Classic status for production bodied cars is to accept only those production series in which the entire line of body styles may qualify. The Club DOES NOT ACCEPT INDIVIDUAL PRODUCTION BODY STYLES FROM WITHIN A PRODUCTION SERIES.’ This EXCEPTION to the aforementioned policy shall be specific only to the recognition of the Town & Country models specifically excluding Royals,Windsors, New Yorkers and Saratogas which are not Town & Country models.”

The Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) is one of the most visible and powerful car clubs in the nation. Its members are current and former board members, judges, organizers, and sponsors of the world’s best-known shows, such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Their roster contains many famous names, as well as some of the wealthiest and best-known car collectors…although the majority of the names over the years have been of guys you’ve never heard of. At one time, you could even find my name in there, because early in my career the Pacific Northwest Region of CCCA gave me a membership in return for serving as Editor for its regional magazine. I count members of the CCCA as close friends, mentors and family. My father has served for years as the Secretary of the Pacific Northwest Region.

Some Ironic History
The club actually formed in 1952 after members of the Antique Automobile Club of America got fed-up with the AACA’s stance that cars from the 1930s and 1940s… even Packards and Cadillacs, were nothing more than used cars. The AACA had no use for these vehicles on the show field (except in an exhibition class called “Tow Vehicles”), so a group collected their toys and started a league of their own.

The CCCA compiled a list of acceptable cars that are allowed in official club activities (meaning shows like “Grand Classics”). The cars on this list are deemed “Full Classics”, which is even a registered trademark by the CCCA.

It is this list and its long-time exclusion of the Chrysler T&C that finally resulted in the nuclear action that had the Board circumventing the Classification Committee. Now members are threatening to quit in protest. Some have even gone on record saying they’re considering pursuing legal action.

There is a very important fact here: the CCCA doesn’t discriminate in membership — anyone can join, even those without a Full Classic.

Defining “Full Classic”?
CCCA defines Full Classics as “fine or unusual foreign or domestic motorcars built between the years of 1925 and 1948, but including cars built before 1925 that are virtually identical to 1925 Full Classics and distinguished for their representative fine design, high engineering standards and superior workmanship.” Generally speaking, the definition works to point out that the CCCA is for high-end cars rather than the mass-produced Ford, Chevy, Plymouth, Dodge…

The CCCA started with only cars from the “Classic Era”, which the club self-defined as 1925-1941. Essentially, they wanted a club for hand-built, expensive cars made prior to WWII like Duesenbergs, Rolls-Royces, Mercedes-Benzes, and the senior (higher-end) Packards and Caddies with custom bodies created by coachbuilders like LeBaron, Murphy, Dietrich, Darrin, Figoni et Falaschi, Brunn, and others.

The Exceptions to the Rules
Shortly after the CCCA’s creation, they absorbed the Lincoln Continental Club. Since the 1946-1948 MKI Continentals were fundamentally unchanged from the pre-war run of 1940-1942 Continentals (which were already kosher with the club,) the CCCA extended the post war Contis a nod as Full Classics. Similarly, within the past decade the CCCA also decided to allow some vehicles prior to ’25, provided an earlier car was identical to an already approved 1925 model.

Price, Production, Prestige:
Many of the cars added over the years were justified due to its as-new high price, tremendous prestige value and/or low production. Unfortunately, since one of the club’s earliest tenants was that acceptance was based on an entire model line, not just a single body style, serious exceptions prevailed. For instance, the club wanted to include the 1936 Auburn 852 Supercharged Speedster (a $2245 car in 1936…and a landmark vehicle in anyone’s book), but in doing so, they also accepted the model line’s $995 852 Brougham. This might not seem like a big deal, but the vastly superior, more desirable, higher-performing, sexy-looking $1115 1936 Packard One Twenty series has never been allowed Full Classic status (due to the fact that the One Twenty was too “highly produced” and far less expensive than so-called senior Packards).

Indeed, in the club’s formative years, they tried to set up a hard price standard. Unfortunately, the methodology might have been less than stellar. According to one account, the price was set at the most expensive new Cadillac 60-Special sedan, because, according to a Classification Committee member at the time: “every ni..er in town drives a Cadillac 62.” (The 62 was a less expensive car.) Of course, this is a half-century-old story, so there’s a chance that it is apocryphal.

Similarly, I once questioned a former national CCCA board member (and regional past-president) regarding the seemingly cloudy criteria and how the Buick Roadmaster (never given Full Classic status) seemed to fit them better than many on the list of blessed vehicles. The person in question responded “we don’t want to be the Mediocre Car Club”. The fact that the Roadmaster line was more expensive, powerful, luxurious and desirable in its day compared to vehicles on the Full Classic list (such as the Packard Super Clipper) was never addressed. When I pressed the point, he returned a one-line reply: “Some people just like to be contentious”.

Post-War cars with Pre-War Designs:
CCCA has always maintained that for post war cars to qualify as Full Classics, they must be nearly identical to pre-war models. Again, while the club has followed this for the most part (including not allowing 1948 Packards and Caddies other than the sans-tailfin Fleetwood), there have been enough inconsistencies to raise doubts. In particular, post-war Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were of new design, yet have long been considered Full Classics. The reasoning: CCCA’s Classification Committee was dominated for a period by a group of Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners.

The T&C Conundrum
With all these issues, it is no wonder that at some point the CCCA was in for some serious debates over many great cars. For decades, though, the largest point of contention has been the 1941-1948 Chrysler T&C, although other cars like the Imperial Airflows and 1934 LaSalle have also been the subject of some serious food fights.

Over the years members of the CCCA have petitioned the Classification Committee dozens of times to include the T&C. Each time the petitions have been voted on and denied. In fact, the Classification Committee was so sick of the argument that they decided to pass a motion to not even hear another T&C petition for something on the order of twenty years.

So what was the argument for? The T&C was a high-end car with hand built parts. Carrying a base price of over $2700 in 1946, eight-cylinder T&C sedans and convertibles competed with Full Classic Packard Super Clippers, yet carried far more prestige and were significantly more sought-after then and now. With their hand-formed wood, the T&C was considered far more stylish.

The T&C was built on the 1941 Windsor/New Yorker platform. While it met the CCCA’s pre-war issue, Windsors and New Yorkers were low-priced cars, hence they have never been close to gaining Full Classic status.

The Nuclear Option Goes BOOM
The CCCA National Board’s decision to circumvent the Classification Committee by passing a motion to grant 1941-1948 Chrysler Town and Country Full Classic status pissed off quite a number of people. In the weeks that followed, emails and newsgroup postings aired the dirty laundry. Threats of boycotts, quitting and calls for the Board Members’ heads were met with strong words of support, and even much stronger language from those who disagreed. Those loyal to the Classification Committee called foul for short-circuiting the process. Others claimed the decision was a coup by T&C owners acting in their own self interests. Still more supported the decision and the means to make it.

So What’s the Verdict? Was It the Right Decision?
After all this history and build-up, my bottom line might surprise you:


The fact that this is such a big deal sheds a big spotlight on the more important issue: people take clubs way too seriously, and as such, these types of clubs are becoming less popular and important every year.

It’s not just the CCCA, because it seems that almost every club has a small percentage of people who use the organization as a vehicle for a power trip. In this case, the issue isn’t even much ado about a stinking car, it’s about process, heritage, power, respect, and other things that have nothing to do with actually owning a collector vehicle.

Like many clubs for older cars (such as the Horseless Carriage Club, the Model A Club, and the AACA), CCCA is slowly turning into a dinner group with an aging and/or diminishing membership. Each year, fewer members bring out their Full Classics for events, choosing more modern machinery in which to drive to and from garage tours and meetings.

The Full Classics come out primarily for Grand Classics, which is where people within a region give inflated judging scores and trophies to their friends in hopes that all of the cars will increase in value. The public is generally not made aware of Grand Classics, because most CCCA regions fear that Joe Q. Public will somehow not respect the cars or misuse the identities of owners. Control is a big issue.

Conversely, almost every weekend Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche owners who have gotten to know each-other via Ferrarichat.com and other “online communities” park their six-figure exotics on the street while they have coffee and kibbutz, and often they’ll take impromptu drives into the hills. No club, by-laws, board of directors, security, judging, dues, or fear of being targeted…and if a lowly Fiat, MG Midget or Mustang shows up? All the better!

Indeed, it’s the new generation of car owners who are driving the car hobby. Whereas clubs used to be integral for collector car ownership, now web newsgroups and networking sites provide much more technical and historical support 24/7, as well as the coveted social interaction with other car nuts. Younger owners live in a world with Ebay parts availability and agreed-value insurance coverage — so driving expensive collector cars doesn’t scare them. And for those who came into success during Reagan, Clinton and Dubbya, beeing seen with an expensive car isn’t tacky or inappropriate.

Car enthusiasts understand that the cars are less important to the active club members who utilize organizations like CCCA as a substitute for the power-rush and social aspect of the business world left behind for retirement. Cars are the topic of conversation and the common bond, but actually interacting with the vehicles just ain’t what it used to be. The notable exceptions are those who make their money with the Full Classics – restorers, dealers and active-trading collectors. For those still in the prime of their careers in other professions, however, the last thing car enthusiasts need is another organization that feels like work.

Since people in CCCA are so passionate about including the T&C, AND the car still represents the basic ideals of the club, it makes absolutely no sense to deny the model from Full Classic status. It’s not even the least controversial car from a factual perspective! (Again, check out 1948 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.) Most importantly, it could bring some fresh blood into the mix, but given the low rate of survival of the rust and rot magnets, CCCA shouldn’t even count on that too much.

It is similar to the pushback Bruce Meyer received for ages as he tried to get a class for significant hot rods on the field of Pebble Beach. A bunch of white-hairs feared the Concours would simply turn into a Goodguy’s rod meet, and that the Full Classics would be pushed aside. In the years since Meyer’s successful inclusion of the hot rods, this hasn’t even come close to happening.

The Question CCCA Needs To Ask Itself
Is it more important to keep the Full Classic list pure and enjoy the old country club-type politics of exclusion than it is to maintain current and maybe add younger members? There are plenty of purists who want to keep the CCCA what it is known to be: a group of well-educated, professionally successful, wealthy, white, Protestants with senior Packards and Cadillacs. From an actuarial perspective, in twenty years, a scary and overwhelming majority of the current CCCA membership will be dead or confined to a retirement home. The market, the public, and even those like me who are head-over-heels in love with cars of the so-called Classic Era will not give a moment’s thought whether a model was once considered a Full Classic by a club that will by then exist only in the pages of old publications and in the memories of people who ran the club into the ground by taking it all way too seriously, mistaking progress for attacks on traditions, and forgetting that passion for driving and enjoying cars is why most of us got into the hobby in the first place.

Why Cars Have Gotten So Heavy (or Yo Mama’s Car Is So Fat…)

November 20, 2008

Have you ever notice how cars are like their owners? All too often now “heavy” seems to apply to both the vehicle and the nut behind the wheel.

In times when everyone seems to be discussing fuel economy, the 800-pound gorilla is vehicle weight. The fact of the matter is that our cars are heavier than they’ve ever been, and that’s killing the mpg.

Ask an automotive manufacturing executive about why cars have become so portly and you’ll get a response like the one I heard GM’s Bob Lutz give a woman who asked why GM no longer makes economical cars like her diesel Chevette: “the government mandates a thousand pounds worth of safety equipment.” Lutz is definitely in the ballpark here. While 1000 pounds might be a little larger than life, the government is indeed responsible for ordering auto companies to install more and more safety gear.

The Safety Factor
It all started with seat belts in 1964, but most Americans with any gray hair remember the turning point as being the impact-absorbing bumpers mandated for 1975 cars. The original 5-mph bumpers were much heavier – using a combination of metal, plastic and struts. Now, however, cars use Styrofoam, plastic, composites, and other lightweight materials, making modern crushable bumpers dainty on the scale – even compared to those 1950s European sports car bumperettes. So bumpers aren’t adding anything more.

Ralph Nader was a big fan of improving side impact protection. The metal beams inserted into doors aren’t necessarily light, but they’re not really that heavy, either. In this case, a little iron goes a long way.

Airbags account for quite a bit of weight in a modern car. There are at least two airbags (driver and passenger.) In some cars there are driver, passenger (both face and knee), as well as side-curtain and head airbags. With sensors, wiring and the bag units themselves, it wouldn’t be crazy to figure the median extra weight added by airbags looming at around 100 pounds. Is it weight well spent? Absolutely!

Antilock brakes and stability control aren’t mandated yet, but they will be. Both require a number of sensors, wiring, valves, etc… When compared to older drum brakes, the modern ABS-equipped discs are often lighter. All that wiring for yaw sensors in stability control weighs more than you’d think, though.

Crash testing is an interesting issue. The more solid cars do better in NHTSA/IIHS safety testing, which can be a function of weight, but usually of well-engineered design. While performing well is not government “mandated”, poor ratings can be a kiss of death from a marketing perspective. Extra weight does not guarantee good ratings, but well-placed supports can help when lighter, better performing structures are precluded by money, time and/or existing designs.

The Green Factor
Safety isn’t that heavy, but preventing pollution really is. Catalytic converters to reduce emissions and mufflers to control noise pollution are heavier than a Metallica radio marathon. Many SUVs and trucks use two pre-cats and two cats to achieve emissions standards, while also sporting two huge mufflers to come in under ever-stricter noise ordinances.

Government Grand?
At the end of the day, though, safety and emissions brings a car nowhere near 1000 pounds. So let’s look at where the rest of the fat might be.

Let’s start where the rubber meets the road: wheels and tires. Back in the old days, cars used 14 and 15-inch wheels. In the 1970s and 1980s, 13-inch rubber was the norm among imports and econoboxes. Ferrari 328s had 16-inchers with wheels and tires at about 45-pounds each. Just ten years later, C5 Corvettes came stock with 35-pound run-flat tires over 25-pound 17 and 18-inch wheels. Now even Toyota Avalon sedans carry 17s and many sports cars and SUVs have 20-inchers. Larger wheels have also made way for significantly larger brake discs and calipers. Anyone who has ever tried to do brake work understands how much these components weigh. Larger wheels, tires and brakes together can easily add 250 pounds to a vehicle.

Transmitting the Weight
Engines are lighter than ever, but transmissions are heavier. In the 1960s if you had five speeds, you were probably driving a Ferrari. Now the standard is six speeds – for automatics and manuals alike, with seven (and even eight) speeds for the high-end vehicles. Since trannies are all computer-controlled, add in a box with wiring and some plastic to protect it from the elements. Use of lighter alloys and tighter packaging has kept the scales from overloading, but at some point, adding gears means adding weight.

It Makes You Feel Good, But Is It Good For You?
Where the real additional girth is now is in the interior – and it has nothing to do with safety or emissions.

  • Seats: Remember when seats slid forward and back and you could just recline the seat back? Gone now, in favor of 300-way adjustable buckets with multiple air bladders. Some seats, like those on my daily driver, offer heating and cooling. BMW and Mercedes chairs massage while you drive. All those features require motors, relays and wiring. Motors aren’t light.
  • HVAC Attack: I’m not sure why in my two-seat Corvette roadster I have dual-zone climate control, but I do. In some cars it is four or five zones. The more complex the HVAC system, the heavier it all is.
  • Infotainment Overload: Probably the main interior offender is the entertainment/information system. Back in the old days you had one head unit (weighing less than ten pounds) and two cheap paper speakers. Now hundreds of pounds are dedicated to up to two-dozen speakers, multiple amplifiers, complex wiring and multiple components to operate a radio, disc changer, and navigation. For SUVs and minivans, a DVD system is not uncommon.
  • Top Heavy: Sunroofs and convertible tops have become heavier. Panoramic multi-panel roofs can be had on everything from luxury cars to Subarus. As for drop-tops, the wild hardtop convertible contraptions that used to be reserved for anomalies like the Ford Skyliner, is now commonplace. It’s even an option on the Miata…which is supposed to be a throwback no-nonsense roadster.
  • Techno-burdened: High intensity discharge headlamps need automatic leveling systems, ballasts and larger gauge wiring that traditional lamps don’t require. Laser-guided cruise controls have a sensor box mounted in the front grill and a separate computer box to manage the system. Parking assist functions range from a few pounds for an audible alert and a handful more for a rear-mounted camera to a grade-schooler’s worth of equipment to achieve a fully-automatic parallel parking job from a Lexus. Just keep in mind that most core modern automotive technologies, like drive-by-wire and direct-injection fuel management, reduce weight.
  • Throw the Book At Ya: This might sound stupid, but even the owner’s manuals are overweight. The average manual from the 1960s weighed under a single pound. The combined weight of all the manuals (including several individual volumes for the car, the navigation system, the keyless entry/ignition, the laser-guided cruise control) that came with (and are still in the glovebox of) my 2006 Toyota is nearly six pounds.

Don’t get me wrong, I like butt warmers and nice sounding stereo. When I hop into a BMW 335 convertible, however, and realize that at 3960-pounds it actually weighs more than a mobile home-sized Chevy Impala with a 409ci big block, it’s startling. It is no doubt a testament to the capabilities of automotive engineers that the BMW out accelerates, out handles, is infinitely more comfortable, and gets exponentially better fuel economy than a 3705-pound 1964 Impala ragtop, a Chrysler 440-equipped 3696-pound 1973 Jensen Interceptor, a 2680-pound 1986 Dodge 600ES Turbo Convertible, or a 3471-pound ’96 Mustang GT Convertible – all vehicles that paved the way for the sport-luxury Bimmer.

The Big-Bottomed Line
Manufacturers need to cut back on this automotive version of the artery-clogger six-item breakfast from the local greasy spoon. Drop the useless huge tires and wheels – ’84 Corvettes hit 1g on the skidpad with 16”s, so anything larger is for looks. Reduce the number of multi-zones. Lighten the entertainment load…

But keep the safety and emissions controls like the vitamins we need each day.

A crash-course gizmo diet should do wonders to hitting and surpassing the 35 mpg CAFE standards. The next step is to take a page out of the auto racer’s bible: the easiest way to improve vehicle performance is to get a lighter driver.

Maybe we’d find that the weight the car and we could lose would make us…and the world healthier, more athletic and more fun. Plus neither the car or us could be the target of fat jokes.

Bail Out the Big Three? History Suggests “Don’t Do It”!

November 11, 2008

It would be catchy to lead with something like “I’ll give you fifty-billion reasons why the US government shouldn’t bail out the Big Three automakers.” Instead, I’ll just write: don’t do it.

I need to make something crystal clear here. My views are not ideologically-based. If you’d like some Republican versus Democrat, free market capitalism over big government socialism, Apple against Microsoft rants, you’re not going to find it here.

What you will find is a simple statement: history and common sense intersect at a point with a big marker titled “STOP”.

The Meat Of the Deal

Congress has already given General Motors, Ford and Chrysler around $25 billion so they can retool for production of more fuel-efficient cars. Last week the three CEOs returned to The Hill to ask for as much as $50 billion more to keep their companies floating while they hemorrhage cash in the down economy.

It is true that consumers are not buying new cars right now. That’s a huge problem for all automakers, not just the Big Three. When they start buying cars again, fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids and compacts will be in demand. Actually, if we’re being truthful here, these vehicles are in demand right now. Just go try to find a Prius on a dealer lot.

So the Big Three CEOs have the audacity to go to Congress and say “give us money so we can ride out the bad economy and have what the consumers will want when they are ready to buy.” Audacity? Why did I choose that word?

Simple, because unless you’ve been living in cave for the last decade, you’ll know that even when GM, Ford and Chrysler were selling SUVs and trucks faster than a Ramones drum beat, they were largely losing money. Keep in mind that SUVs and trucks had a hell of a lot higher profit margin than compact and hybrid cars could ever hope to attain.

Imagine if the CEOs told Congress: “we need money, because we couldn’t make profits when we were selling high-profit vehicles. Since we pocketed that money in salaries, union deals, benefits, and executive bonuses, and got drunk on cheap gas (although in our hearts we knew it wouldn’t stay that way, but we hoped we’d be retired by the time it hit $4 per gallon), we never spent enough on R+D, so we didn’t have vehicle products ready to go for this current marketplace.” Unfortunately, that’s the truth.

Here is a scary reality
If Congress gave $50B directly to American consumers with the condition that we went out and bought new cars, here’s what would happen: $50B would buy 1,666,666 cars, based on the current average price of around $30,000 each. Given the current market share, GM at 22.4 percent would sell 373,333 vehicles, Ford (14.8%) would move 246,666 units, and Chrysler (11%) would sell 183,333 units. In other words, with fifty billion dollars going directly into the hands of consumers to buy a new car, the best any of the Big Three could do would be to sell a group of additional vehicles equating to less than one year’s worth of Honda Accord sales in America. (392,231 Accords were sold in the US in 2007.) Think that’s enough to keep them (or dealers) from failing? Nope!!!

Inevitably, there are those out there who will say the Big Three are “too big to fail”. Television news channels are already reporting huge job loss potentials if the companies go out of business—from a few hundred thousand to somewhere around 1.5 million. For every one job at GM, Ford and Chrysler, there are seven positions at vendors providing parts and services for domestic auto production. In other words: if they fail, we’re in a depression with millions of unemployed workers.

The logical conclusion, claim these folks, is to keep the government money flowing– no matter how long it takes, otherwise the companies will implode, everyone in the industry will be out a job, and a depression is unavoidable. To these people I have just two words:


Allow me to follow up those two words with a description of why this is critical history for every Member of Congress to know. England used to be tied with America as the automotive powerhouses in the world. We had Ford and Chevy, while they had Austin and Morris. Just like the contraction of companies in America that formed Ford-Lincoln-Mercury and General Motors, Austin joined Morris in BMC. Standard joined with Triumph, which was joined with Jaguar. Finally, by 1968 most British-owned brands were rolled into British Leyland.

Thanks to equal parts ineptitude, greed and lack of ethics, BL drove the British car industry into the ground. BL executives blamed the economy (including an oil crisis) and labor. Everyone else pointed the finger at products that were inferior to foreign competition, as well as short-sighted contracts and profiteering.

Despite selling forty percent of the vehicles in Great Britain, by 1975 British Leyland was broke. The British Government sank millions into the group and became the majority shareholder. The corporation was reorganized, and millions more went to cure production and labor problems.

The company was again reorganized into saleable units. Jaguar-Daimler was sold-off in 1984 (two years later it went to Ford). The Leyland truck and bus unit was merged with Dutch DAF in 1987, which later sold bus operations to Volvo. Just a year later the Rover Group (including most of the remaining car business) was sold to British Aerospace, which turned around and immediately sold this remaining part of Great Britain’s auto industry to German BMW.

Which puts us back to GM, Ford and Chrysler

If Congress simply let nature take its course, there is a strong chance that all would fail. But we need to DEFINE “FAIL”. In this case, do we honestly think that if any of the Big Three “fail” everything the company owns would simply be auctioned off to the high bidder in front of the local courthouse? Of course not.

All three companies own valuable plant assets. All still have cash. All own products and technology that are profit centers. There is certainly a big financial value to Chevy’s Volt product, as well as Chrysler’s ultra-modern flexible plant locations, Ford’s Mustang brand, Corvette production, F150 fleet sales, the “Hemi” trademark…

Considering that Porsche just tried unsuccessfully to buy VW, it puts them back in the market for an entity that will enable them to meet 35-mpg CAFE standards. By the way, Porsche has also been one of the most profitable automakers of the last decade. (Turns out that selling overpriced sports-SUVs is a cash cow.) So even after the botched buyout, they have money to burn.

Hyundai is also a strong competitor without a good hybrid play, as is Mitsubishi. Both have money. Mitsubishi’s dedication to cars might be questionable, but Hyundai’s certainly is not. Honda could use a more diverse product range, especially upmarket. Even Toyota could make a case to buy one of the Big Three — Chrysler for flexible production facilities or GM for Volt plug-in technology (since it could take a big bite out of Hybrid Synergy Drive sales).

Then there’s BMW – the same company that at one time or another has purchased Rover, MG, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Austin/Morris/Mini, and still retains the rights for Triumph. They have cash and good credit…not to mention a pretty good history of acquiring, absorbing, improving operations, and remarketing companies. (We’ll give them a pass on Rover, which was a debacle, only because nothing short of a neutron bomb could have solved that company’s issues.) Finally, BMW has banked way too much on hydrogen over plug-in hybrids, so they could benefit from buying the technology, rather than developing it in house.

Don’t count on Mercedes to get involved. The company is still sore from its marriage to Chrysler. It turns out Mercedes was ill prepared to deal with the complexities of a merger with such a dysfunctional corporation at a time when it was challenged with its own operational and technical issues. Consequently, Mercedes lost more money than a drunk billionaire trying to impress the hotties at the high roller baccarat tables.

Hyundai, BMW, Porsche…Any of these companies could benefit by buying GM, Ford, or even Chrysler.

All have experience designing, building, marketing, selling, and servicing in America already, and do so with high profit margins.

No doubt each and any foreign buyer would bust the unions and negotiate dumping retirement benefits on the US government. Then the companies would kill poor performing legacy products, as well as the people who continued to push losing strategies. Good niche brands and solid future technologies would be exploited, while albatrosses like Hummer would likely be closed down or sold to a greater fool.

In the end, America would have to let go the concept of the American Big Three. One could get caught up in buzzwords like “failure”, but the goal is to save money and jobs.

No matter how we look at it, American jobs will be lost. The difference is that if the US Congress pushes the Big Three to sell, more people will actually be able to keep jobs. Granted some will do so at reduced wages and most at decreased long-term benefits. Wouldn’t it be better, however, for these people to work for a competitive company again – one that isn’t in jeopardy of needing to make more layoffs or beg for more government money next year?

Congress might still decide to throw good money after bad at GM, Ford and Chrysler, just like the British did for BL, but the best course of action is to allow these dinosaurs implode under their own weight sooner rather than later, and work to convince German, Japanese and Korean automakers to bring them back to life as more efficient, better targeted and longer-reaching versions of their old selves using the American workers and suppliers who are willing to adapt to a new world with a view far beyond the self-interests of Michigan and D.C..

Editor’s Note: We here at the Four Wheel Drift realize that this whole bailout issue is far more complicated than can be summarized in one article. We expect that if Alan Mulally or Rick Wagoner read the above article, they’d accuse us of missing important details. (We’d expect that Bob Lutz would say we’ve got our heads up our asses if we thought it was that simple.) The fact is that it isn’t simple. It took nearly a century for GM, Ford and Chrysler to create the mess they’re in, and there are no easy answers. We simply are taking a stand unpopular with car folks, especially those emotionally tied to the long history of American auto producers, and suggesting that the only way to stay competitive is to admit that there is no way to stay competitive by just taking government money and tightening belts.