Pontiac, Holden, the return of the El Camino… and why Mullets won’t save GM

March 31, 2008

Holden Ute

The Holden Ute will come to the USA as a Pontiac. It probably won’t be called El Camino, which was the infamous trucklet sold by Chevy during the muscle car era. The Ute will get left-hand-drive, a V8 and Pontiac’s front grill treatment.

Mullet-heads rejoice – the Chevy El Camino is making its triumphant return. Alas, it will be sold as a Pontiac and not called the El Camino. Heck, it won’t even be American, rather another Australian vehicle – a Holden Ute, with left-hand drive and rebadged a Pontiac.

Pluck me bald and call me Breezy, but I just don’t see why bringing back the El Camino is a real priority for GM. I’ve mentioned over and over again that continued focus on niche vehicles is simply killing the Big Three.

We all know that Bob Lutz has an addiction to bringing captive imports over. The problem is that none of them have really been successful. From both a unit sales and profit perspective, the GTO was a disaster. And there’s a long track record of captive imports failing – need I mention Opel or the Merkur. (Yes, I know the XR4ti was a fun car. With only 42,183 sales in 1985-1989, however, it wasn’t the sales and profit success for which Ford had hoped.)

Pontiac’s slice of the overall automotive market pie right now is the caloric equivalent of something on the “Biggest Loser” diet. One might wonder why the company would spend money federalizing a vehicle that is at best a small niche player. This is a company that needs a solid double or triple to stay relevant, not a third-strike passed-ball run to first.

To put some perspective to the project – even in its heyday, the El Camino was never a huge seller. In the days when conventional wisdom placed model survival at 100,000 units, the El Camino never eclipsed 70,000. It was more at home in the 40,000 range. And yes, this includes its GMC Sprint platform-mate.

The El Camino had its best sales in the days before small and midsize trucks. These days, people who want an image truck incapable of hauling huge loads or towing anything larger than a SeaDoo buy a Toyota Tacoma, or one of the other dozens of mid-sizers. This doesn’t even include white-collar “trucks” like the car-based Honda Ridgeline or Subaru Baja.

With higher CAFE standards on the horizon and miserable sales of current Pontiac offerings, it’s a head scratcher concerning GM’s decision to make the brand the home to all the small-market long shots. The GTO, upcoming V8/rear-wheel-drive G8 and El Camino will not be kind to Pontiac’s CAFE ratings (or profitability). Pontiac is also home to some other also-runs – although even I’ll admit that the current portfolio is extremely impressive, but only when compared to the Grand Am, Grand Prix, Sunfire, Bonneville and other garbage that littered dealerships ten years ago.

Certainly there isn’t a complete lack of rationale for the El Camino coming in as a Pontiac. This has been GM’s “performance division” for decades, even if it hasn’t had a top-tier performance car of its own to top other GM divisions since the tripower-equipped 389-ci GTO of 1964. Since then, performance enthusiasts were better off shopping in Chevy dealerships.

The worst part of the Holden Ute-to-Pontiac conversion is that the car will come out looking less like a cool GM performance car, and more like the ugly angled-nose Dodge Rampage car/truck hybrid of the 1980s. How are enthusiasts supposed to get excited over a vehicle that seems to exhibit more visible DNA from a Subaru Brat than from the Chevy El Camino.

And please don’t use the argument that “they already have it, so it’s cheap to market here”. This simply isn’t true. Let’s not forget that GM can’t do ANYTHING cheaply, as the billion-dollar cost to shut down Oldsmobile exhibited. Converting the Holden Ute to left-hand-drive and meeting all safety standards is damn expensive, both in terms of total cost and percentage of projected sales revenues. Furthermore, Pontiac could sign a Major League Baseball MVP to a long-term contract to play for the corporate softball team for less than the cost of marketing and advertising.

I might have said this over a thousand times, but it’s worth repeating…”Big Three automakers have to stop making cars to feed the gray-haired executives’ nostalgia.” The El Camino’s days have long passed, and in the era of high-output low-displacement import tuners, the Elkie is no more than a punch line to the standard white trash joke.


“The Last Open Road” — Literary Porn for Vintage Sports Car Enthusiasts

March 26, 2008

I’m a voracious reader. The desk, nightstand, counters, and back of every toilet in the house are stacked with monthly publications and thick reference books.

What you won’t find are many novels. Quite honestly, I’ve never been that much of a fiction guy. I was one of the only chaps in high school who didn’t think “The Great Gatsby” or “Great Expectations” were really that great. Most of the modern novels I’ve read have turned out to be too predictable – like a Hollywood movie, except that I had to invest much more than 90 minutes of my time. Furthermore, with my busy schedule, it’s much easier to find the time between appointments to digest a four-page article than a twenty-page chapter.

Many years ago, though, one book caught my eye. A writer named Burt “B.S.” Levy had challenged the conventional wisdom that car enthusiasts didn’t read at all by self-publishing a book called “The Last Open Road”. I read a short review lauding that Levy had penned a great fictional tale about the very real sports car racing scene of the 1950s. This review called it a “must read”, so I told myself I would race to the phone and order a copy.

Fast forward over a decade. Not only had I not acquired the book, but Levy’s concept had proven so successful that additional printings of “The Last Open Road” and two sequels had already been released by a major publisher.

I was reminded of my inability to find time to buy and read Levy’s book last summer at the SOVREN Pacific Northwest Historics Vintage Races in Kent, WA. Walking through the vendors on my way to the paddock, I noticed a stand featuring “The Last Open Road”, plus the sequels “The Fabulous Trashwagon” and “Montezuma’s Ferrari”. As I looked around, I noticed B.S. Levy sitting and signing his books.

I introduced myself to Mr. Levy and told him of my ages-long intentions to read his book. He grabbed a copy of “The Last Open Road”, put it in my hand and said “read it and let people know what you think of it.”

It might have taken me seven or eight months to find the time to begin the book, but it only took a week to finish it. This is a pretty good indication of what I think of Levy’s work.

If that’s too abstract, I’ll make it simpler. “The Last Open Road” is a collector car and/or vintage racing enthusiast’s version of top-grade literary porn. It simply holds the reader’s attention and keeps it by painting an accurate picture of days and fabulous cars gone by.

Levy’s book chronicles the serendipitous events that take Buddy Palumbo, a wet-behind-the-ears blue-collar New Jersey kid, from living with his parents to working at the local Sinclair gas station and falling into the wild and upscale world of road racing in the early 1950s – the glory days of the sport when races were held on not on multi-million-dollar tracks, but on regular public roads. Levy’s ability to develop and bring to life the many fictional characters, as well as integrate them with real dates, times, people, and events is simply amazing.

Just as fantastic is Levy’s knowledge of cars. A racer and former mechanic (and certainly the foundation for the Buddy Palumbo character is Levy himself), his words display the passion of seeing, hearing and even smelling specific automobiles for the first time. Like the cars themselves, the beauty of Levy’s writing is in the details – the way he describes the brutish Allard, the sensual Ferrari, the amazing C-Type Jaguars …or the curves of Palumbo’s love interest.

Where many writers might have focused too much on the cars, Levy never neglects the story. Characters are brilliantly developed, and hold true to history – such as the rich racing trust-fund baby who never has cash in his pocket, the eccentric mechanic at the British import car dealer, or the anti-Semitic membership chairman of the SCMA racing body (a not-so-subtle jab at the SCCA) who creates narrow classes to ensure he wins awards for his own eclectic cars.

And Levy nails the real personalities. From the quiet and modest Phil Hill, to the gentlemanly Briggs Cunningham, the story remains authentic. Similar is the book’s accurate paintings of the sites of these races, such as Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake.

For those, like me, who missed out on these early days of sports car racing, but want a clear picture of what life was like, “The Last Open Road” is the best way of depicting the fun, hard work and danger surrounding the events. Not even period magazine stories or home movies tell the tale from cradle to grave quite like Levy.

Hopefully it won’t take me the rest of the decade to see how Palumbo’s story continues and ends.

Motorola’s MOTOROKR Hands-Free Unit Rocks… And How to Win One Here.

March 12, 2008

More and more regions have already outlawed driving while talking on a cell phone without a hands-free kit. It is no surprise that the hands-free equipment market is booming with new and better options.

Despite what politicians say, there are no statistics to show that hands-free kits make driving any safer. Basically, a distracted driver is a distracted driver. Since most hands-free devices are headsets, often you’ll find drivers untangling cords, plugging things in, dialing and then talking, whereas before the hands-free requirement, the user was simply dialing and talking.

No matter what I or anyone else says, the laws are the laws, so the next issue becomes how to best comply.

Motorola sent “Sam Barer’s Four Wheel Drift” two units of its new T505 MOTOROKR Bluetooth-enabled speakerphone – one to test, and one to give away to our readers…but we’ll get into how to win this a little later.

I spent a good portion of my early life working in telecommunications, so I was an early adopter of both cell phone and hands-free technology. Generally speaking, most hands-free kits diminished the sound quality (both sending and receiving) from the base levels of the handset.

Even on my current Palm Centro, trying to utilize the wired earpiece results in inaudible conversations for both parties.

Speakerphone devices have traditionally been a no-no in my life. A convertible junkie, the only thing worse than trying to carry on a conversation on a cell phone in a drop-top is to attempt to do so on a speakerphone.

So when I started testing Motorola’s MOTOROKR speakerphone, my expectations were lower than a D student during college admissions season.

The MOTOROKR is a small box (about half the size of a radar detector) that when plugged into the lighter/power outlet enables one to listen to conversations via an FM station on the car’s stereo (just like Mr. Microphone from days gone by.) A microphone in the box picks-up the user’s voice. Through the wonders of modern Bluetooth technology, the user’s cell phone can stay in a pocket or purse.

Installation is a breeze. Plug it into the power and push the FM transmitter button to select a station (and then tune your stereo to the same station.) Unfortunately, here are where my only gripes come about the whole experience. First, the power cable is too short to enable the box to be clipped anywhere higher than the center console. (The MOTOROKR has an on-board battery, but the cord still means that you’ll have to take it off the sun visor and place it near the console to recharge.) Second, the power and FM transmitter selection buttons are on the rear of the unit (with the other two phone function buttons on the front) so finding them while driving is somewhat clunky. Finally, it can be very tough to get a station with no interference in a busy media market. This obviously isn’t Motorola’s fault, but at some point, companies using FM transmitters will find a better way of overcoming ghosting from other stations.

The first test was in the 2006 Toyota Avalon. If a hands-free kit can’t make it in the Avalon’s Lexus-level of quiet, it can’t make it anywhere. With the MOTOROKR mounted at knee level, my voice still was clear.

Sample of MOTOROKR in a 2006 Toyota Avalon

Don’t think that I’d call it a day after one test in a Toyota. No sir, out of the cushy, quiet Avalon and into the nasty world of fiberglass (actually, “composites” is more accurate) in the form of a 2002 Corvette Convertible. The C5 Corvette Convertibles are instant death to cell phone technology. Top up, the noise from reverberating plastics and rumbling run-flat tires is deafening. Top down, even with an earpiece wedged in your ear canal at maximum volume you can’t hear anything…plus the person on the other end hears little more than wind and diesel truck engines.

At 60 mph with the top down on Interstate 5, the MOTOROKR worked like a champ. Sitting in the cup holder, it actually picked up my voice over the ambient noise. Furthermore, since it broadcasts the other party’s voice over the stereo, I was able to turn up the volume to the point where hearing the conversation was easy – even for my damaged ears.

Sample of MOTOROKR in a 2002 Corvette Convertible — top down on city steets
Sample of MOTOROKR in a 2002 Corvette Convertible — TOP DOWN AT 60 MPH!

For just under $100, the MOTOROKR…well, it rocks — like Motorhead in a world that’s all too full of Brittany Spears-level pretenders. It actually makes conversations easier to hear for all involved. It definitely doesn’t make driving any safer — indeed, I nearly tore off the Corvette’s side mirror when I grazed a trash can parked too far into the street while trying to power-on the MOTOROKR…and I’ve never come close to hitting anything during a non-hands-free conversation in the past.

But if the law says you have to be hands-free…the MOTOROKR is a fabulous way to go.

So now – how do you win one?

I’m pleased to announce The Four Wheel Drift’s Best Car Jokes Contest. Simply send in your best original car or car-related joke to fwd@apexstrategy.com (along with a way to contact you.) On July 1st, 2008, to commemorate Washington State’s hands-free law going into effect, a hand-chosen panel of “experts” will pick the best joke and award the author a new Motorola MOTORKR T505.

Jokes should be new and original – the staff here has heard all the classics already. All entries will be posted in the Best Car Jokes column, when we’ll award the Motorola MOTOROKR to the winner.

Why the SRT8 is no hemi-powered Challenger

March 10, 2008

The automotive world is seemingly in a full-body tizzy over the return of the Dodge Challenger. Hitting dealerships now, the SRT8 version has been the darling of the automotive press for months.

I’ve gone on record plenty of times about Dodge’s horrible belated timing — just like the 1970 Challenger on which the lines are almost completely based. And though I haven’t yet had the opportunity to slam the Challenger SRT8’s sickening 4000-plus pound curb weight, I’ll simply say that it’s disgusting and move on to a more important topic.

Dodge says its Challenger is equipped with the “6.1 liter SRT Hemi® V8 Engine.” Hear this loud and clear: no SRT8 Hemi Dodge or Chrysler is a hemi. With full credit to former Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, I say: “I knew Mopar’s Hemi, and you, Mr. SRT8, are no hemi.”

In an effort to make it crystal clear, ladies and gentlemen, since 2002 there has been a difference between “Hemi” (the marketing brand name) and “hemi” (the technology from which the brand got its name.)

The word “hemi” (lower case) is short for hemispherical combustion chambers. Put into terms the average runway model might understand, a cylinder fitted with a head utilizing a chamber formed like a hemisphere makes the quickest, largest, and most efficient boom. Placing valves on opposing sides of a central spark plug provides maximum ability to introduce air/fuel, ignite it and remove resulting exhaust and heat. This means more power, a happier driver, and busy radar-wielding police officers.

Chrysler Corp wasn’t even close to the first producer of an engine with hemispherical combustion chambers. The famous Hemi engines of the 1960s and early 1970s weren’t even Chrysler’s first hemi engines in name or technology.

So let’s start the history lesson: Way back in 1902, the Welch brothers of Pontiac, MI began building cars with an overhead cam engine featuring hemispherical combustion chambers. By the time General Motors bought out Welch (then known as Welch-Detroit) in 1911, the cars had yet to go into production. Tragically, GM decided to do nothing with the engine technology.

Charles Knight built his 1904 Silent Knight prototypes, which used a sleeve-valve engine with hemispherical heads. Like Welch, Knight never went into series production, but unlike GM, Daimler purchased the technology and used in its later products.

Starting in 1908, Franklin started using a hemispherical design on its air-cooled production engines, making it the first true production hemi. A well-known manufacturer of cutting-edge luxury cars since 1902, Franklin made hemi-powered cars available to its well-heeled customers, which included Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

In 1912 Peugeot’s factory racer, featuring a three-liter hemi-headed mill, dominated European events. Other companies would soon develop their own competing hemis. The most notable company was Alfa Romeo, whose chief designer, Vittorio Jano, created four, six and eight cylinder dual-overhead-cam hemis (some were even supercharged) for race and road cars starting in 1925.

Possibly the most unorthodox early hemi came from BMW’s 1937 328 sports car. Engineers utilized vertical pushrods and rockers for intake valves, but to actuate the exhaust valves located on the opposite side of the head, vertical pushrods and rockers pushed a second set of horizontally placed rods and rockers. Although complex, it worked surprisingly well, plus the dual rocker boxes made the inline overhead valve six look like a dual-overhead-cam unit.

Three years after Jaguar’s XK DOHC six became the first post-war hemi, Chrysler finally got into the game with 331 cubic inch FirePower-equipped 1951 New Yorkers and Imperials. De Soto’s 276-ci FireDome appeared in 1952 and Dodge’s 241 ci Red Ram V-8 came in 1953. Mopar “baby hemis” could also be found in Cunningham sports cars and Facel Vega grand tourers.

The heavy, complex baby hemi engines ate valve springs for lunch and camshafts for dinner. In 1957, Chrysler decided to end production of the engine with the 310-hp 325-ci Dodges and 345-hp 345-ci De Sotos. Chrysler held out through 1958 with the 380-hp 392-ci hemi in the 300D.

Then came the 426-ci Hemi. Debuting in 1964 factory-supported racers, the engine redefined the reaches of performance in NASCAR and drag racing. Chrysler begrudgingly made the 425-hp street Hemi available in 1966 to meet homologation rules. (Homologation is the fancy word used to describe the requirement in a production-based racing series that anything offered on a race car is also sold in dealerships to non racing clients.)

Mopars powered by the so-called 426 “Elephant motor” became legendary purely on brain-bruising performance. Simple hot-rodding easily unleashed over 750 hp. Due to being as fuel efficient as a 747, environmentally friendly as Clean Air legislation penned in Houston, maintenance-free as a runway model, and easy to insure as a sky-diving octogenarian, it was killed off after 1971.

With original Hemi cars bringing over six figures at auction and a contemporary power war raging, DaimlerChrysler decided the time was right in 2002 to bring back the Hemi in modern Dodge, Chrysler (and gulp) Jeep vehicles. Consumers responded by opening up their checkbooks and lines of credit.

The ads might have asked “that thing got a Hemi?”, but in reality, none of the Dodge and Chrysler engines based on the modern 345-ci “Hemi” can be considered a “hemi”. Plain and simple, none of these engines, base and SRT8 Hemi offerings included, actually have hemispherical combustion chambers! Just because they have valves opposing central spark plugs does not necessarily indicate that there is a hemispherical combustion chamber formed inside.

It is easy to get lost in the technology and terminology. The bottom line is that the SRT8 delivers 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, which absolutely is better than the quoted statistics for the 426 when normalized for the difference between pre-1972 gross and ’72-on net SAE ratings. There is simply no arguing: the SRT8 Hemi is a fabulous engine, and the use of Hemi as a brand name was a stroke of product marketing genius.

But for me, when it comes to dropping this glorious 6.1 lump in a 2008 Challenger weighing more than a 1970 Hemi Challenger, the lack of Pistol Grip four-speed, and the lack of accuracy in marketing, I can only come to one conclusion:

The SRT8 Challenger might look like a Hemi Challenger…but really it’s just a semi-hemi.

GM’s Lithium Ion Hybrid Announcement — Days Late and Dollars Short

March 4, 2008

As a follow-up to yesterday’s story about Mercedes’ new Lithium Ion battery technology going into hybrids, we have today’s release from GM announcing that they will also utilize the new batteries in 2010 models.

High-volume system will debut in North America in 2010, and then expand globally
Hitachi to supply new lithium-ion battery
Cost-effective technology to improve fuel economy by up to 20 percent

GENEVA – As another key element in its overall global strategy to improve fuel economy and reduce oil consumption and CO2 emissions, General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner announced today that GM will introduce a second-generation version of the GM Hybrid System with a new, more powerful lithium-ion battery.

It seems that GM is always days late and dollars short with both announcements and products. It is admirable that GM will quickly embrace the technology, but for the life of us, we cannot understand why a company of such influence couldn’t find a way to scoop Mercedes, which also upped the ante by announcing plans to produce a diesel-electric hybrid in the same time frame as GM’s gas-electric.

Like the Camaro to the Mustang, (which will debut right in time for the retro look to die, and the muscle car craze to wane,) GM is again late to the party…maybe because they’re playing with a few billion dollars short.

Mercedes Announces the Marriage of Lithium-Ion Batteries With Gas…and Soon Diesel Engines

March 3, 2008

Our inboxes have been working overtime due to the insane number of press releases issued by the automotive manufacturers. Needless to say, most of the email fails to catch our attention, because we honestly don’t care about which insider got promoted to division head.

One specific release did indeed peak our interest. This one from Mercedes Benz:

Stuttgart – Daimler AG has achieved a crucial breakthrough in battery technology. The Stuttgart-based automaker is the world’s first manufacturer to have succeeded in adapting lithium-ion technology to the demanding requirements of automotive applications. Until now, the technology has been used primarily in consumer electronics. The new battery will be used in the series-production S 400 BlueHYBRID beginning next year. This important technology was possible thanks to 25 patents held by Daimler.

Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Daimler AG Board of Management and responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, says: “What we have here is a groundbreaking key technology that is going to be a decisive factor for the future success of the automotive industry. That is a tribute to our intensive research efforts, which we have been conducting in this area since 1992.”

The engineers’ success is above all a result of the Daimler-developed integration of the lithium-ion battery into the vehicle’s climate control system. This ensures that the battery always works at optimal system temperatures of between 15 and 35°C, which in turn makes it possible for the battery to provide long service life and maximum performance.

The main advantages offered by the newly developed lithium-ion battery are its very compact dimensions and its far superior performance compared to conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries. The weight/power ratio of the entire battery is 1,900 watts per liter (W/L). What’s more, the battery stands out by virtue of its high ampere-hour efficiency, long service life, and great reliability, even at very low temperatures. Its high level of safety is the equal of that provided by today’s auto batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are ideally suited for use in hybrid vehicles to help reducing fuel consumption and thus also CO2 emissions. At the same time, the Daimler engineers are investigating to what degree this technology can be applied to other vehicle concepts, such as electric and fuel cell-powered cars.

S 400 BlueHYBRID — the world’s most economical luxury sedan

The S 400 BlueHYBRID consumes only 7.9 liters of gasoline per 100 km in the NEDC. This results in very low CO2 emissions of only 190 grams per kilometer, a very low value for this vehicle class and power class, making the S 400 BlueHYBRID the world’s most economical luxury sedan — unrivaled by any gasoline, diesel, or hybrid drive system offered by any competitor. And S 400 BlueHYBRID drivers will still enjoy impressive performance: combined with the hybrid module, the maximum output is 220 kW/299 hp, and the corresponding maximum torque is 375 Nm. The S 400 BlueHYBRID accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in 7.3 seconds on its way to an electronically limited top speed of 250 km/h.

Even more potential is offered by the combination of clean BlueTec diesel technology with a hybrid module, a duo that is featured in the S 300 BlueTec HYBRID, for example.

This definitely spells the end of Toyota’s worldwide dominance in hybrid technology, as well as puts the kibosh on its advantage from having Lexus as the only luxury division offering a hybrid.

Anyone familiar with “The Four Wheel Drift” knows we aren’t the poster-children for hybrid and diesel vehicle cheerleaders. In the past we’ve called-out hybrids for being a net loss for the environment, as well as challenging their economic value. The same holds true with diesel, which is currently much more expensive than gasoline, while only being able to claim lower greenhouse gasses (hence causing less global warming/climate change) at the expense of giving people asthma. Diesel also has an additional hurdle in America: our refineries are set-up to produce less from each vat of crude, so it will always be less economical than in Europe…that is until we build new refineries. At last we checked, nobody was volunteering their backyards for one.

Mercedes, though, has gone to great lengths to continually improve diesel to the point where we can see the firm in the near future offering oil-powered vehicles that emit less particulates than gasoline-powered counterparts. Furthermore, by combining diesel and advanced battery technology hybrids, the value benefits increase in terms of both economy and ecology.

This is not to say that other automakers are asleep at the wheel. General Motors actually provided an interesting story with its announcement that “Virgin Atlantic Airways, Ltd. … will use Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for its ‘complimentary ground transfer service for upper class passengers’ for planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).” The thought of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle from GM is a great story, but it’s a little too little too late to get the standing ovation. After all, BMW already has H-cell 7-Series in the hands of real customers.

At least it’s better than Ford, which competed with announcements indicating, among other things, that “Ford’s new Focus and SYNC are connecting with small car buyers. Focus retail sales were up 36 percent in February – the fourth month in a row of higher retail sales” and Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) today announced that Mike Nakashima has been named director of marketing for Mazda North American Operations, reporting to Jim O’Sullivan, president and CEO of MNAO.

Congrats Mike! Maybe you can convince your parent company that what would be great for Mazda’s product strategy is if Ford would get off their asses and provide R+D money to build next-generation energy-powered vehicles to compete with those coming soon to BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, and Chevy dealerships.