The Automotive X-Files

June 3, 2010


The Xiali TJ 7100 (aka Daihatsu Charade)

As any reader of The Four Wheel Drift knows, I love to write about automotive names. Since I also like to discuss worthless automotive trivia, I’ve decided to combine the two topics for today.

Here is something nobody really needs to know: fewer automotive brands start with the letter X than any other in the English alphabet. I would have guessed Q, but it turns out that X marks the spot. While there have been hundreds of models starting with X (such as the KTM X-Bow or Nissan Xterra), there have only been two real automotive companies starting with this letter. On the other hand, nine marques have started with Q.

The first X-car was the Xtra, which was a three-wheeled cyclecar (ala Morgan) made in Surrey, England between 1922 and 1924. Available initially as a one-seater powered by a 270cc Villiers engine, a two-seater was added within the first year, as was the option of an eight-hp JAP engine. There are no definitive records on how many cars were produced by Xtra.

The best-known and highest production X-car is the Chinese Xiali. Tianjin Xiali FAW Automobile Co. Ltd. started producing cars in 1987 based on the Daihatsu Charade. These TJ7100 hatchback models and TJ7101U sedans became popular home-market taxis. Since 2002, Xiali also has mass-produced vehicles based on Toyotas, such as the Vitz and the Echo.

Often cited as an X-car, the Xedos was produced in Japan 1990-2000 as Mazda’s luxury line. (The Xedos 9 was known as the Mazda Millenia here in the States). Unlike cars from Lexus, Infiniti and Acura, the Xedos was actually still a model line under the Mazda brand (similar to how Hyundai markets its current Genesis), and therefore it really doesn’t count as a separate brand or company.

The closest America came to the X Files was with two separate companies, XTC and Xillion, both of which sold kits to replicate Ferraris with Pontiac Fieros. Neither can really be considered true auto manufacturers…or in good taste, for that matter.

For the record, Quadrant (1906-1908 in Birmingham, UK), Quagliotti (1904 in Italy), Quantum (1985-present in Devon, UK), Quantek (1977-1980 USA), Quantum (1988 in England), Quantum (1962-1963 in USA), Queen (1903-1906 Detroit), Qinchuan (A Chinese company purchased by BYD in 2003), and Qvale (1998-c2004) make up the world’s Q-cars.


Electric Car Ideas That Are Bound To Fail

October 7, 2009

It seems like just about everyone has a “new idea” that will inevitably make electric cars more popular than those relying on the good old internal combustion engine. Of course, maybe it just seems that there are way too many people trying to reinvent the wheel, because at every function I go to there’s someone telling me about another company or individual who is going to revolutionize electric cars.

Let’s get something straight here folks – there haven’t been any discontinuous innovations in the electric car in over 100 years. There haven’t been any important continuous innovations in nearly 100 years. Even the gas-electric hybrid with regenerative braking was developed when a very famous dead guy, Ferdinand Porsche, was a very young, very alive engineer for Lohner.

Blame low gas prices and Cadillac’s introduction of the electric starter for all of this. Prior to the debut of Kettering’s self-starter as standard equipment for the “Standard of the World” automaker in 1912, thousands of people drove electric cars. Not coincidentally, 1912 was the peak year for sales of electric vehicles. In fact, electric cars were a larger percentage of the market in 1910 than now.

Demographically speaking, most electric car owners/drivers were urban women who used the cars for shopping. Considering that starting a car used to require a strong pull on a large crank while standing directly in front of the vehicle, it is not surprising that women tended to like the quiet reliability of flipping a switch inside an electric car. As for the quiet, powerful steam cars – these often took nearly a half-hour to warm up, after which the right set of circumstances could set the whole system on fire like Nikki Sixx’s boots during early Motley Crue concerts.

It’s only recently that companies have again thought about electric cars. Since people aren’t really that interested in history, they’ve decided to reinvent the wheel or bark up trees that have long been deemed worthless.

Here are some of the “revolutionary” ideas about which people have told me while at dinners or other functions:

The “battery swap” concept: There are a lot of people trying to do this, but the most visible is from Shai Agassi, an Israeli guy who believes that the key to electric car acceptance is to have battery stations where motorists simply pull out the depleted tray of batteries in their cars and swap for charged batteries. Sounds like a great way to overcome the range issue, right? It’s just like barbeque propane tanks – when you’re out you swap, correct?

No – not really. In fact, the relationships of car versus propane tank is about as valid as the shared characteristics of Rush Limbaugh and Anne Hathaway. I have a better shot of winning the Formula One Driver’s Championship and America’s Top Model in the same year than this becoming a reality.

Let’s tackle the minor challenges first:

  • Unlike propane tanks, batteries – even lithium ion (or any yet-to-be invented cell made out of a combination of unobtanium and whatever pops out of a moon crater explosion) lose quality over time. You drop off your perfectly good new batteries and possibly get a tray of old crappy ones in return. Instead of getting a 50-mile range, you get 18 miles and the oh-no light comes on – which, incidentally, you scream at, because this warning light is taking much needed juice away from propelling your ass back to scream at the place that gave you these used-up batteries in the first place.

  • Distribution: Then you have to find a station with batteries. Not only are battery packs much, much, much more expensive than metal propane tanks, but also they are a lot heavier and more space-consuming. Don’t think that every Kwick-E-Mart is going to invest in a large extra building and employ another foreign-born better-educated-than-your-average-banker worker to lug 200-pound battery packs all day.

Now, it’s time to bring up the toughest barrier:

  • Standardization: As it stands, no single electric car or hybrid shares the same battery type/number, connectors (and most importantly) packaging with another non-badge-engineered vehicle. For instance, Tesla uses thousands of modified laptop battery cells, which is totally different from the dozens of lead-acid batteries in many of the electric tin-can commuter boxes I see around my parts of town. Considering that automakers have found six different ways of manually shifting an automatic (push up on a stick to upshift, pull down on a stick to upshift, push right on a stick to upshift, pull the right paddle to upshift, push the right button on a steering wheel to upshift, or BMW’s push either thumb paddle to upshift – not to mention the 7-Series unique one-button to downshift) ever expecting the companies to unite and tackle the almost impossible task of standardizing on a single battery technology that fits (and complies with safety regulations) in everything from an SUV to a sports car is about as big of an ask as requesting your spouse arrange for your birthday a three-way with you, her and the entire San Diego Chargers’ cheerleading squad.

“Electric Car Only” Charge-While-You Shop Parking Spaces: Some companies exist to print signs and install charging stations for restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores. In some cases, these charging stations are little more than standard outlets. In any event, even with high-voltage charging stations, most cars get little more than a mile’s worth of juice in a standard ten-minute excursion into a store. If it’s a 110-volt outlet, ten minutes on the charger won’t give any electric car enough juice to make it out of the parking lot! In other words – it’s snake oil, which might explain why the nutritional supplement store I passed the other day had one such spot.

And before you write in and talk about real high-voltage charging stations in office parking garages and park-and-ride lots: yes, these are great ideas. I do a) believe they need to be installed and b) predict that their adoption and use will be proportional to increases in peak electricity charges and brownouts in California.

The Back-Alley “Plug-In” Conversion: A friend of mine is renting space in his warehouse to a company that expects to get rich installing plug-in electric engines into existing new cars. My advice was to get as much rent up front as possible.

Where to start with this? First, these guys void the new car manufacturer’s warranty. Second, low production – no matter how careful, means poor quality control. Finally, the result is a shorter range at a higher cost per mile than the new car prior to removing the gas engine.

There are some businesses doing decent plug-in conversions for the Prius. Their corporate lifespan is limited, though, since Toyota has already committed to creating plug-in hybrids of its own.

At the end of the day, the only thing that will improve the acceptance of the electric car is to cure what killed it in the first place: range. These small companies will exist in the margins for a year or two more, but then the Chevy Volt technology will certainly kill most of them. I say Volt “technology” rather than just the Volt itself, because the plug-in engine/motor that is the basis of the Volt model will be used in all of GM’s front-wheel-drive vehicles.

When consumers can buy a single car that goes 40 miles on electric and then also go 350 miles on single tank of gas (plus fill up at any existing gas station to continue), it accomplishes what electric cars never could: kill two birds with one stone. The Volt will give electric-only benefits for those who want it without forcing them to exchange batteries, get some shadetree-mechanic conversion…or also own a standard car if they need to go on a road trip.

The Volt might not be that huge of a jump in technology, especially given what the industry had 100 years ago, but it’s a good small step in the right direction that will result in large change in gas prices (good), electric prices (bad), electric production challenges (really bad), and domestic automotive industry growth (very good). It might do very little for the environment, as production of electricity is like Mother Earth smoking ten packs a day and occasionally shooting heroin with the odd nuclear plant. At least it makes oil production a little less important on the world stage.


Import Tuners, Hot Rods, Muscle Cars And “Getting It”

June 8, 2009

If I had a dollar for every collector car guy or hot rodder who communicated to me in some way their lack of understanding about import tuner cars and the kids who drive them, I’d be able to afford a thumping subwoofer and some neon lights for my ‘60 TR3. All too many car enthusiasts seem to look at the coffee-can exhaust crowd with one part confusion and another part disgust.

For those who grew up in the pre cell phone days, allow me to make this very simple for you: the kids you’re looking at driving slammed Civics with wings are just a younger version of you. You just haven’t made the connection yet.

So allow me to make the connection for you.

About ten years ago my father-in-law made some statement about not understanding why someone would do all that crazy garbage to a Honda. I simply asked him: “what was your first car?”

“A 1950 Ford” he replied.

“Did you buy it new?”

“No, it was my parents’ old car.” He explained.


“What was the first thing you did to it when it became ‘your car’?” I continued.

“I stripped off all that chrome. It’s what everyone did in those days.”

“And what did your parents think about that?”

“They asked me why I was ruining the car!”

After explaining that parents don’t give their kids hand-me-down ’50 Fords anymore…now it’s Accords, Civics, Corollas, Tiburons, Eclipses, Imprezas, and since there’s no chrome anymore to take off, personalization trends have swayed towards exhaust, wings, lenses, wheels…he “got it”.

“Getting it” doesn’t necessarily mean wanting it for yourself. It does, however, lead one to understand that spouting derogatory phrases at the guy with the stickers, aero kit and wing on the ten-year-old econobox is no different than your dad yelling at you for buying Cragars and glass-packs for Mom’s Impala…or your dad getting yelled-at by grandpa for unbolting the perfectly good fenders from the ’32 Ford and spending a week’s pay for and a weekend’s time installing that foolish Edelbrock intake and carb setup on its flathead.

At the end of the day, we’re all car people. We might express our love for the hobby in different ways based upon where, when and how we were exposed to cars, but at the core we’re far more similar than we usually realize.

And even if it isn’t your cup of tea, take solace in the notion that most of the drivers of cars you shake your head at today will be scolding their own kids for making similar counterproductive modifications to a hand-me-down family car in the future.


Five Classics That Aren’t Nearly As Fun To Drive As People Think They Are

March 19, 2009

rr4

I was reading a great article written by a fellow collector car journalist (who I know and respect greatly) about a vintage twelve-cylinder Ferrari. By the end of the profile, it was clear that the writer felt the car simply wasn’t as fun to drive as its reputation had people believe.

It got me thinking…I feel the same way about plenty of other collector vehicles. So many classics are “good” or “pretty”, but just simply not really inspiring or engaging. Here are five cars that are perfect examples of collector cars that should be great to drive (based on reputation, looks, conventional wisdom), but in reality are only slightly more fun than having your throat swabbed for strep:

1966-1990 Rolls-Royces
Big, opulent… and more expensive than a year’s worth of Tara Reid’s bar tabs, Rolls-Royces have always been an acceptable choice of royalty, executives and rock stars. Hell, Keith Moon put his into a swimming pool, so if Moon-The-Loon owned one, they must be fun!?!?

Actually, they’re not.

All Rollers from a period spanning a quarter-century drive like a 1977 Buick with Jabba The Hut in the back seat and Mama Cass in the trunk. Steering is vague, sloppy and too slow. Overwhelmed by the weight, the suspension wallows and the brakes are inadequate. And after taking away the R-R logos and the radiator mascot, you’re left with a vehicle that has fewer usable luxury amenities than contemporary German luxo-cruisers.

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1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaros
I can hear the hate email filling-up my inbox right now. The first-generation Camaros are sweet-looking cars (especially the redesigned 1969.) You can’t help but smile when you see a good Hugger Orange RS/SS Camaro with black-and-white hound’s-tooth interior. At one time I even owned a ’68 V8 Camaro.

Unfortunately, unless the owner does significant modifications, first-generation (as well as all second-gen F-body cars, for that matter) are really a let-down to drive. To be fair, the Camaro’s problems aren’t any different from those found on all other GM products (and most from Ford and Chrysler). Given the Camaro’s Trans Am series success and pony car performance image, one expects more.

Cars with power steering provide zero feedback with skittishly-quick ratios, while the manual-steering boxes are slow and heavy. Brakes, either by optional discs or standard drums, are controlled with a numb, spongy pedal. Muncie manual transmissions require long throws that are less precise than Stevie Wonder’s skeet-shooting skills.

The first-gen Camaro’s lack of fun factor becomes most apparent in twisties, certainly if one has driven some of the contemporary European sports and grand touring cars. Third-generation Corvettes are almost as bad, but at least the smaller bodies provide a heightened sense of speed and capability. The F-body’s size combined with its disconnected controls, bouncy suspension and front weight bias, mean it is best in the hands of stoplight bandits and other go-straight-fast types.

Jaguar XJS
A painfully gorgeous coupe – even when sitting next to the E-Type model it replaced, sadly the XJS is also painful to drive. With a luscious V12 and meaty tires, the XJS should have been a great GT car.

It isn’t. There is less sensation via the steering wheel than profits in British Leyland bank accounts. Ergonomics were penned by a sadist, as it is one of the few cars ever made where a six-footer can simultaneously hit their head on the roof, knees on the wheel and dashboard, elbows on the door, and seatback on rear obstructions.

Actually, the best part of an XJS is that it is so unreliable…so shoddily designed, that most journeys are cut short by some type of major electrical problem.

Mercedes 450/500/560 SL
Despite being an icon of the yuppies, the 1973-1989 Mercedes SL range just wasn’t (and still isn’t) that fun to pilot. Yes, I’m fully aware that Mercedes wanted this generation to be fabulous touring cars (not sports cars), but uncomfortable seats (not fully remedied until after the new millennium), a cramped cabin, ponderous steering and brakes, and Bosch fuel injection that either runs rich at idle or lean at high RPMs mean that the SL is a serious let-down for drivers.

tr8web

Triumph TR8
Take a V8 and throw it in a British roadster? Sounds like a no-lose recipe, especially when the ingredients are a comfortable, nimble TR7 convertible and the bulletproof all-aluminum Rover (originally Buick) 215-ci unit. Too bad the car turned out as less than the sum of its parts.

Collectors and enthusiasts call the relatively rare TR8 a “poor-man’s Cobra”, but as a former owner of both a TR7 and a TR8, I can assure everyone that the TR8 meets expectations like a QB taken in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks.

The TR7’s Lotus-like handling make it a really fun car to drive hard. After quality improved and a full convertible came into production, all it needed was more power and better brakes to take America by storm.

The TR8 seemed to accomplish this in theory (although initial TR8 prototypes were actually coupes). The aluminum 215 V8 not only weighed slightly less than the 7’s iron two-liter four cylinder, but also had a reputation for being able to produce tons of power when properly tuned. However, when the TR8 hit the shores, the extra cylinders delivered only an additional 47 hp (to 133 SAE Net hp). As delivered, the TR8 actually managed to weigh more than the TR7, courtesy of the parts associated with the new standard power steering and vacuum-assisted braking systems.

On the road the TR8’s power steering feels a universe away from the responsive feel of the unassisted unit in the TR7. Even worse, TR8 power brakes are mushy as leftover Caesar salad, yet do nothing to reduce stopping distances. Finally, the changes in clutch and transmission parts and configuration to accommodate the additional torque make it harder to find gears.

Triumph might have wanted to give us the best of Britain and America in one package, but the instead the TR8 seems nothing more than a TR7 put through a 1960’s Big-Three sensation filter.


La Dolce Vita Automobili Will Compete With Concorso Italiano on August 14, 2009

March 12, 2009

La Dolce Vita Automobili will be held at Black Horse at the same time Concorso Italiano, which has announced that it will also return to the greener pastures of a fairway. Four Wheel Drift covered Concorso’s event in 2008, which was relocated to the concrete hell of the Marina Airport.

While normally the Italian machine enthusiasts would love another event, it seems La Dolce Vita Automobili has created a big problem. In a week where it is was already impossible to attend all of the events due to conflicting schedules, La Dolce Vita ensures neither Italian car concours will be as good as Concorso two years ago.

Owners of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Fiat, Alfa, Maserati, and other Italian cars are already trying to decide which event to attend. There’s no doubt that clubs and popular online chat communities like Ferrarichat.com will be forced to “pick sides”.

The bottom line is that adding La Dolce to the schedule not only hurts Concorso, but also the Italian car enthusiast community. Don’t misinterpret our statement: if La Dolce can be the better Italian Concours for the Pebble Beach week, then they deserve to be the lone event, but there is no possible way for two Italian car shows to exist in the same metropolitan statistical area on the same day without the enthusiasts and collectors being hurt.

So we suggest that the La Dolce team sit down with the new owners of Concorso and decide who will “buy out” the other…or at least figure out who will eventually run out of cash in a number of years…

…because that will save us — the real car enthusiasts from getting only half the story when we are able to attend only one event each year until La Dolce or Concorso finally reschedules or dies.


Concorso Italiano’s New Owner Hits A PR Home Run

March 3, 2009

Concorso Italiano 2008 was a disaster. We were there…and like others, we reported that while we loved the cars and people, the Marina Airport venue was a disaster of New Coke levels.

The new owner of the Concorso Italiano just sent this email to press and past exhibitors. One thing is for certain: any owner who can hit a PR home run so quickly is very capable of ensuring there are many bright days ahead for the world’s best show for Italian vehicles!!!

Dear Fellow Enthusiast,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tom McDowell. I recently acquired the Concorso Italiano from Jack and Leslie Wadsworth. For many years, the Concorso has been a trend setting show with many traditional aspects that all have anticipated and enjoyed each year. From humble beginnings in the early 90s evolved a special camaraderie that most of you have shared. The founders, Frank and Janet Mandarano, brought in legendary Italian personalities who were honored to be part of the experience of being with you, their fans, in a one-on-one basis on a lush green lawn surrounded by the cars they had designed, raced, or engineered.

I understand well, that great moment when Piero Ferrari, Sergio Pininfarina and Luigi Chinetti Jr. drove up on stage with Piero driving the 3-seat Ferrari Dino Concept and the three of them began discussing their fathers and their lives in their father’s business. The huge audience gathered in and around the overflowing bleachers. Their questions were answered – all in good humor – and the cacophony from the paparazzi cameras signaled this was something very special, and it was!

We, the new Concorso owners, believe that holding the 2008 event at the Marina airport was an unfortunate decision. It will not happen again. We seek to quickly return the Concorso experience back to the one you have known in the past.

I have now been the owner of CI for two weeks and have had time to speak with several past guests, and read the letters and press reports. Clearly, many of you take a more personal interest in this gathering of fellow enthusiasts and perhaps have a “protective” and/or somewhat “territorial” feeling about it. You may even feel cheated or let down.

Like many of you, I am not pleased with this unwelcome turn of events and vow here and now to correct Concorso Italiano. It will be steered back to its core beginning-to a place we all enjoyed for the right reasons.

SO AFTER ALL THE TALKING IS DONE WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?

We plan to return Concorso to a beautiful golf course on the peninsula in 2009. A classic car should always be displayed on a green lawn. The venue will be agreed upon shortly. Our goals for the provision of a wonderful dining experience at a reasonable cost and the experience you all should expect, are at the forefront of our minds.

That said, we would like to hear directly from you about your own expectations and special things you might like to see at this very special event. We want to know what you, the true enthusiasts, are thinking. Please email us at ci@concorso.com or call (425) 742-0632. We are most serious about making Concorso Italiano the first-rate experience for you, your families, and your friends that it has been in the past. We will be listening. And we plan to make the 2009 gathering one to remember.

Very truly yours,
Tom McDowell
Mercer Island WA.


It Was A Hell Of A Speech, Mr. President, But…

February 24, 2009

I left D.C. and my job as a Congressional staff member fifteen years ago. I don’t write about politics, but I do appreciate great political writing. President Obama’s was one hell of a speech. You’d have to be the most bitter hater of Americans or American Democrats to think otherwise.

But…

The staff here at Sam Barer’s Four Wheel Drift would like to correct our President (and his writers). The President made reference to America as “the country that invented the automobile”.

Sorry, Mr. President, it wasn’t the United States of America!!! You must have been watching too much Schoolhouse Rock “Mother Necessity” (which claims Henry Ford invented the car.)

While Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot’s steam car in 1769 is believed to be the first self-propelled vehicle, usually Germany’s Karl Benz and Gottleib Daimler are considered the “inventors of the automobile” back in 1885. France’s De Dion-Bouton also beat Americans to the punch.