The Right Pedal

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Some vehicles scare me. Even a picture gives me a chill.

They are military vehicles, of course. But not all military vehicles are created equal.

I can imagine a situation in which I’d be happy, even thrilled, to see an M1 tank trundling toward me. (There are thousands of American soldiers, not to mention Kuwaitis, Bosnians, and others for whom this tank is a symbol of strength and safety.)

But other vehicles radiate malevolence. If one is heading in my direction, I am surely suffering, and about to suffer more. And if I am driving one, it is because I am going to do something bad. Not necessarily painful, but morally wrong.

Look at this one. I don’t know what it’s called, so “pusher” will have to do. It’s a normal military truck—this one is an East German troop carrier—with a red and white fence attached to the front. The pusher is used to control large crowds, particularly protestors.

The pusher drives into the crowd and shoves them back. Imagine what kind of government needs such a thing so frequently that it’s part of the military fleet: a government which is hated by its people and must use force to stay in power.

If a government is using a pusher, that means it’s afraid to kill protestors. It could be worse: sometimes a government is not afraid to kill its people.

Cast your eye on a Humvee, and you might sense evil there, too. But its glowering grill and muscle-bound stance will deceive you: my cat is a greater threat. This galumphing, overgrown jeep has tin-can doors and floors, and sometimes even a cloth roof. A Humvee is so weak that anyone can overpower it, even a bunch of ratty rebels who never learned about toilet paper. It’s not a tool of oppression or evil: it’s just a military verison of, well, an SUV: good for toting around a few people and their stuff, but basically a station wagon with ‘roid rage.

Compare the Humvee to the Casspir—Satan’s own limousine. A couple decades ago, South Africa combined the worst features of antebellum Virginia and Charleton Heston’s gun-soaked wet dreams. The white government had a serious problem with land mines: planted by black rebels, they ripped apart convoys of government troops. (They also shredded many black civilians, but that’s another story.) Faced with a determined rebellion, the government ensconced its soldiers in these mine-proof vaults. Every design element of the Casspir protects soldiers as they scurry across roads that have slipped beyond their control: The V-shaped hull deflects blasts, the exposed mechanicals are easy to fix, and the narrow windows are explosion-resistant. The pathologies of the Casspir's creators led to this frightening vehicle. It is the car of choice for hated occupiers.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I consider it a sign of trouble that Casspirs would be tremendously useful in Iraq. Onward....

I want to add one one more mug-shot to the gallery: the Pookie. It’s actually a cousin of the Casspir, another member of a family where all the kids torture dogs and torch the yard. Rhodesians created it. If South Africa harkened back to Virginia, Rhodesia was an dank corner of Mississippi. Like South Africa, Rhodesia faced a mine-wielding black insurgency. But Rhodesia’s whites didn’t have access to gold and diamond mines like the South Africans. So when the world told them to go to hell and embargoed their country, they had to cobble together a mine-detecting vehicle with whatever they had around.

A mine-proof troop carrier like the Casspir wasn’t needed: the black insurgency in Rhodesia penetrated every part of the country. Ordinary white farmers needed something to let them get to the market without being blown up. The lightweight Pookie, with its soft tires, would travel at the front of a civilian convoy and beep if it detected a mine. The cars would stop, the mine would be defused, and then the convoy would proceed.

The immoral battle fought by the Rhodesian army dictated the Pookie’s design. It was jerry-rigged because the world wanted no part of the Rhodesian’s crusade. And it was a mine-detector because mines are used by insurgencies—the kind of war that gets fought when people oppose a powerful government.

Now don’t take all this the wrong way. It’s unfortunate that our problems in Iraq have parallels to the lost battles fought by evil, racist governments. Our situation is much more complicated than theirs.... but this blog is about cars, and about cars it shall remain.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Certain things are true about humans: we will never all love each other, women will never be fully equal to men, market forces always win, and we will never be satisfied with our station in life.

Hopefully something in that statement has pissed you off a little. That’s good, because it will put you in my mindset this morning as I ponder the vehicles that have graced my driveways through the last decade.

Don’t get me wrong: maybe there are some zen masters who have blotted out their desire to better their material lives. They are satisfied with their station in life. However, few of us have the power to excise our need to CONSUME. We can fight it, channel it, or defer it. But we will die before it does.

Between me and Michelle, our past & present cars cover nearly the entire spectrum of economy and luxury. A couple cars stand out, because they are better than what 90% of Americans will ever drive. Others stand out because they are more modest than what 90% of Americans drive. And the others? The shapeless mass of normal cars extruded them, mere pseudopods of the blob of middle-American transportation.

They all shared one trait, though: all were ALMOST perfect, and if we just had a little more cash to spend, we could’ve found the perfect car.

I did not shop for my first car: I hunted it. Like a silent Iroquois, I stalked car dealerships in search of a big old Acura Legend— preferably black, but I could cope with dark blue. For three weeks I combed the dealer lots of southern New Hampshire. But I didn’t have enough arrows in my quiver to take down the big game: they were all just a little too pricey.

Dejected and starving (for a car), I waved a white flag at Fort Autofair and made my mark on the treaty they offered me: a four-year old Subaru Legacy. It was perfectly tidy, but it was baby blue and not even all-wheel drive. At least my 17-year-old mind understood that it was better than being consigned to a pestilent reservation—barely.

Fast forward several years: a new Subaru Legacy came into our lives. It was almost perfect—but we kinda wanted the Limited edition, which had a few extra toys. But lucky us, we suffered for less than a year without leather upholstery: a twit in a Jeep wrecked our genuinely beloved Subaru by fiddling with her radio instead of paying attention to a red light.

I won’t numb you with niggling complaints about each of the eight cars we owned over the last ten years. That would be boring and ungrateful. But even my current vehicle, which clearly falls into the “better than 90%” category, sometimes leads to a twinge of regret: maybe I should’ve ponied up a little extra cash for one with a bigger engine.

Here we are, back at my first point: When I had my old baby-blue Subaru, I wanted a car that was just a bit better. It seemed like a black Acura Legend would fulfill my automotive dreams. Today, that Acura would be a pretty big step back. Yet when I look at my current, awesome car, the little needle-stick of desire feels the same as it did back in 1996: perfection dangled in front of me, and I couldn’t reach it for want of a few bucks.

I won’t apologize for this unseemly grasping: that’s the whole point of today’s blog. I may not give a crap about fancy clothes, granite counter tops, boats, iPods, or other accoutrements of the good life. But everyone, including me, desires something a little better than what they have.

I'm not saying that we all want to look good in the eyes of our fellow man. It isn’t about keeping up with the Joneses—though many cars are bought for that reason. Not mine though. I don’t want a Mercedes star to show the neighbors how much better I am than they are. I want cars that my Honda-and-Saab-loving neighbors never heard of, or would even hate: Citroen CX, ZiL 41047, 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood.

Even if I did manage to snag a low-mileage 1976 Fleetwood—and that would rank among the best days of my life—I would surely find myself saying, “Too bad I couldn’t get one with the ultra-rare moonroof, or the fabulous Talisman edition.”

So there you have it: the human condition as it manifests itself in a car nut. I wish I could be satisfied with my cars—make no mistake, they are excellent cars. But no one on this earth gets to skip regret. So I’ll just be grateful that my regrets are small: half a liter, to be precise. That’s difference between the engine in my car and perfection. Or at least the version of perfection I’m grasping for today.

Monday, February 13, 2006

“What kind of limousine will you have for your wedding?” a good friend asked me.

To me, this matter is of penultimate importance, second only to the choice of the bride herself. This question carries as much weight most brides would find in “What kind of dress/cake/location/season do you want?”

None of you, dear readers, will be surprised to know that I gave my friend a rapid and detailed reply. Nor will you be shocked to know that the top spot in my list is occupied by a Soviet limousine, the ZiL 41047.

The point of today’s entry is not to bask in the ZiL’s glory—but I’ll get to that someday. No: today I want to tell you how this question sent me on what can only be described as a “ZiL bender,” a trip through space and time, to an age of Cold War euphoria, and, oddly enough, Nazi collectibles.

I qualified my limo-choice answer by saying, “But I can’t actually get a ZiL, because there aren’t any in this country.” My friend’s response sent a chill down my spine: “Are you sure?”

No, I wasn’t sure. I probably know as much about ZiLs as any non-Russian American, but I can’t say for certain that not a single one of these hearse-like limousines ever found a home in the land of the free.

[Btw, ZiL did make an actual hearse. It is the ur-hearse, so hearse-y that it could be a hearse for hearses.]

Making good use of company resources, I searched a mega-database of news sources for any mention of ZiL importation schemes. Lo and behold, in 1991 an American collector by the name of Ralph Engelstad told a two-bit county rag that the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up a new world of autos for him to add to his collection. He kept his cars in a hotel he owned, the Imperial Casino in Las Vegas.

Now, Ralph was an interesting character. He liked Nazis. Well, maybe he didn’t like Nazis. But he did amass a “collection of Nazi memorabilia in the casino, including a painting of himself dressed in Nazi uniform (captioned "to Adolf from Ralphie"), a painting of Hitler with the reverse caption, and the cars of Nazi leaders.” He also got slammed for hosting Hitler-themed parties on the birthday of said Fuhrer.

It must be admitted that the t-shirts he handed out for these parties had a rather witty slogan, “Adolf Hitler—European Tour 1939-1945”

(This is from wikipedia, so it must be true.)

So Ralph had a hard-on for evil, including evil’s cars. He owned one of Hitler’s Mercedes parade cars. And, according to a two-bit country rag, he wanted to acquire one of Stalin’s limousines. Alas, Stalin predated the ZiL 41047 by a few decades. So Ralph’s taste in evil didn’t synch with my taste in squared-off 1970’s behemoths. Even if he did manage to acquire one of Stalin’s swoopy old jalopies (sometimes called “Black Marias”), it’s not the sort of thing I’d want at my wedding.

Interesting fact: Stalin’s cars were sometimes borrowed by Lavrenti Beria, his chief secret policeman, to prowl the streets of Moscow for very underage girls. Does this add collectible value to his limousines? If only Ralph were still around to enlighten us. He died in 2002, though his car collection remains on display, and on sale, in Las Vegas.

Ralph Engelstad turned out to be a dead end, albeit a fascinating one. I switched over to google, and hit one of my usual ZiL sites. I reread it and found an interesting comment: When Gorbachev visited the US, he brought his ZiL, and this piqued the interest of Americans. Apparently, some newspapers wrote articles about it….

Back to the mega-database, this time searching for “ZiL and Gorbachev” 1987-1991. I didn’t find much except passing mentions of Gorby’s mysterious black pseudo-Cadillac. But I did spend a pleasant hour transported back to the late 1980’s, reading accounts of Gorbachev’s visit.

In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev were trying to figure out how not incinerate each other’s countries. Americans were thrilled at the prospect of living to a ripe old age, unencumbered by fear of fallout or marauding bands of radioactive mutants. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably too young to remember much of this. In theory, so was I—except my social skills had decided to take a decade-long nap, leaving the rest of my brain free to worry about things like arms control and nuclear holocaust….

So Gorby came to Washington for a Big Summit. And you know what he did? He told the driver of his gleaming black ZiL to stop in the middle of the city. And Gorby got out of the car.

A crowd gathered ‘round the man who had the power to broil us in our beds. He told a bunch of average Americans, in full view of reporters, that he had come to ensure peace for us and our children. The crowd cheered, and a timid woman approached the Soviet premier and asked to shake his hand.

He grasped her hand, and this man, whom most Americans suspected was a cousin of Darth Vader, was transformed into a rock star. The crowd went wild, and Gorby Fever swept the country.

We felt like we had just woken up from a 40-year nightmare, that everything would finally be OK. Gorby didn’t want to kill us, he wanted to be our friend!

After about 10 minutes, he got back into the ZiL and went to dinner with Ronald Reagan.

Another cluster of ZiL + Gorbachev articles appeared four years later. In 1991, he came back to visit us, this time trying to negotiate the liberation of Eastern Europe. He later learned that there wasn’t much to negotiate: once you announce that you’re not going to nuke the countries you’re oppressing, they’re not going to stick around for the rest of your speech.

But Gorby (and his oft-noted ZiL) was welcomed back in the US like an old friend. He was mobbed when he appeared in public, though he seemed a little less ecstatic than last time. He had a lot on his mind, particularly the rise of a popular alcoholic named Boris Yeltsin.

I could say a lot about Boris, but there’s only one thing that really matters: he didn’t like ZiLs. He preferred respectable, German-made Mercedes limousines. ZiL nearly abandoned the limo business, until Vladimir Putin took over.

Putin, a former KGB man, likes things done the old way. The army should be strong, the people should be weak, and the limousines should be ZiLs.

Maybe ZiL’s return to favor will mean that a 41047 will some day grace our roads. It would be pretty spiffy if I could get one for my wedding. But it won't happen, unless I become the Great Leader of Russia in the next year or so.

David Stanleyovich for President!!!

Friday, February 10, 2006


It is the vehicular equivalent of oxygen: without it, one quickly finds oneself in a ditch, useless to the world at large. And owing several thousand dollars to men whose services border on extortion.

Or, one may find oneself sliding backwards downhill at alarming speed toward a four-ton pick-up truck crowded with a dozen bermuda-shorted tourists.

The Caribbean paradise of St. John has an unfortunate combination of 45-degree switchbacks, intense rains, and rental cars with bald tires. However, if you want an object lesson in traction, you couldn't ask for a better demonstration. It's even better than spinning one's tires in a futile attempt to climb an ice-slicked New England hill, because in St. John the rain will soon pass and you'll be on the beach before you can say "Where's the goddam snowplow when you need it?"

If you don't crash into the tourist taxi, that is.

Cars were once known as "horseless carriages." But one major difference between the car and the carriage is the source of traction. Carriages are tugged by horses, each with four hooves capable of finding a safe piece of earth from which to push off. But cars push themselves with their wheels. Think about the size of a tire's contact patch (where it touches the pavement) versus the size of a horse's hoof: a horse's hoof is slightly smaller than a tire's contact patch. But each horse is distributing one measly horsepower through its hooves.

A modern car with a typical engine has between 130-200 horepower. And it's sending that power to only two wheels, with a total contact patch smaller than four horse hooves. Trouble MUST ensue.

Even in the earliest days of the automobile, car makers struggled to increase traction: instead of steel-rimmed, wood-spoke wheels (like carriages), car makers used rubber-coated wheels. They replaced the steel band around the wooden wheel with a layer of the blessed sticky stuff. These wheels were the same shape as the old ones: the contact patch was tiny, but at least it was made of rubber. Cars tottered around in high heels with sticky soles. It was better than nothing, but you still wouldn't want to sprint down a country road

The next innovation--possibly the greatest advance in traction ever made--was the switch to air-filled tires in the 1910s and 1920s. Now the tire could flatten on the bottom, increasing the contact patch from a few fingers-widths to a couple hands. The tires were still pretty narrow, but it's a lot easier to run in Converse All-Stars than stilettos.

By this time, cars could easily have 30 or 40 horsepower. Power still outpaced the contact patch by a factor of 10. Over the next three decades, tire technology stagnated. But engines got bigger.

Then, one glorious day, the sun rose faster and brighter in the sky. The birds sang “Halleluljah,” but no one could hear them over the roar of Hemis and big-block Chevys: it was the dawn of the muscle car. Even a Chevy Impala, the Camry of its day, could put in a decent show at the drag strip before toting the kids down to the diner for burgers and chocolate shakes.

In the now-desperate quest to double or triple the contact patch, car makers adopted the tubeless tire (a.k.a, "steel-belted radial"). No longer donught-shaped like bicycle tires, they gained their now-familiar rectangular cross-section in the 1960's. They also lost their endearing habit of exploding in sharp turns.

I always thought the term "classic" was a misnomer for old cars, but that's another subject....

Alas, the steel-belted radial seems to be a plateau for tire technology. The only major improvements have been in size: tires have gotten taller and wider, helping to increase the contact patch. A 14-inch tire used to be high-performance, but today not even a Civic would be caught dead in the automotive equivalent of moonboots.

This plateau in tire technology left manufacturers in a bind: where to go from here to increase the contact patch? The answer was simple: more tires! In fact, an egocentric genius named Ettore Bugatti pioneered four-wheel drive back in the 1910s. He wanted his racing cars to wear Nikes while his competitors still wobbled in five-inch heels. This idea didn't catch on, due to its mind-blowing expense and unreliability. But the appeal of doubling the contact patch remained strong. Like computers and bathyspheres, the technology needed some time to catch up to the concept.

The first wide-scale use was, of course, the WWII Jeep. Now we'll have to get a little technical, but this will help explain why I nearly sent a dozen happy tourists off a rain-slicked cliff and into the ocean: the system in these Jeeps (and still in use on the modern Jeep Wrangler) has a big flaw. It lacks a front differential. A differential is a complicated doohickey that sits in the middle of an axle and allows the left and right wheels to spin at different speeds. (First invented, btw, by the Chinese who thought that the emperor's cabin on his carriage should always point south. But that's another story...)

In normal mode, only the Jeep’s rear wheels receive power. If you engage the front wheels, they receive power, but must always spin at an identical speed due to the lack of a differential. When you're going straight, all is well. Alas, this system does not cope well with that other element of driving: the turn. As you turn, the outside wheel has to cover a larger distance, so it needs to spin faster. But it’s stuck rotating at the same speed as the inside wheel. So it gets yanked along by the inside wheel, skipping over the pavement. This causes stress on the axle and damage to the tire, and the car literally hops.

So if you’re driving a rented Jeep Wrangler on a nice asphalt road, perhaps in the Caribbean paradise of St. John, you would not have the front wheels engaged. If you come upon a steep, wet hill, you have to decide: do I stop traffic to put the Jeep in neutral and engage the front wheels? Or do I assume that being on-road means that 4wd would be overkill, and just keep going up the hill?

If you said keep going, you’re wrong.

After nearly knocking the tourist taxi off the road, I halted the Jeep, engaged the front wheels and made it up the hill.

If the Jeep had a front differential, I could have just left the front wheels engaged the whole time, doubling my contact patch and avoiding a minor heart attack.

[A note, should this blog ever be read by Jeep enthusiasts: yes, it does actually have a front differential. But it’s so limited that the car still suffers from serious hopping and skipping in corners.]

Now, I’ll spare you a lot of the drama of how we got from nasty old Jeeps to modern Subarus, where all the tires receive power all the time. The short story is that the Japanese added a simple type of front differential, and made the whole thing fairly cheap and reliable. (To be fair, Audi led the way, but the importance of “cheap and reliable” never sank in with them.)

Back to the contact patch: nearly all of today’s high-performance cars have big steel-belted radial tires and some type of four-wheel drive. But the contact patch is still too small, because their engines push out 300 or 400 horsepower. It’s all-too-easy to overwhelm their little patches of rubber, spin the tires, and slide around.

But it is FUN.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I have acquired a blog

Let's get this out of the way: you won't find this blog as entertaining as I do. Not because my writing tends to the baroque, nor because my life is boring. (Though neither of these will help.)

Here is the source of your discontent:
  • The phrase "hydropneumatic spheres" make you think of Pamela Anderson
  • You are not sure why a Honda Civic is like a Hobbit.
  • You probably never even wasted brain cycles pondering what a Honda Civic "is like"
My brain, on the other hand, is overflowing with this stuff. Some people--I admit they may have been humoring me--have commented that this overflow can be interesting, occasionally even amusing.

So, even though I will not entertain you as much as I entertain myself, I hope that you, dear readers, find some amusement in what is essentially a pressure-release valve for my strongest and least explicable obsession.

My purpose is to write about cars. But where to begin? Cadillacs? Citroens? The aforementioned Civic? Perhaps I should address a socially-pressing issue, like the evils of SUVs.

Civics. Definitely Civics.

There are some people who are obsessed with certain cars. You have surely met men or boys for whom Corvettes are meaningful and beautiful objects. Some people's hearts flutter at the sight of a more obscure vehicle, such as the Isetta. (That's the motorized hard-boiled egg once driven by Mr. Urkel.) There are even polytheists who worship the many-faced "Ford," while cursing the devil "Chevy."

There are others who find that the Honda Civic speaks to them. Not in the Fast-and-Furious-slam-it-low-pump-it-up-fly-through-the-tire-spikes-and-crash-in-a-blaze-of-glory sense. No, for them, even the mild-tempered, fuel-efficient, socially-responsible dark-green Civic tells a story worth hearing....

Everyone knows that the Honda Civic is one of the most boring cars ever built. It's slow, physically forgettable, and technologically bland.

But it is also a righteous warrior.


Once upon a time, in the dark days before the Civic, Americans could only buy three kinds of cars: Big cars, bigger cars, and VW Beetles. Did you want one that was cheap, efficient, and pleasant? Tough shit for you, because you're a fucking Communist, and General Motors doesn't build cars for Communists.

I believe it was the early 1960's when a GM executive said, "An American who wants cheap transportation should buy a good used car." These were the days when GM execs' pontification actually mattered. GM was the biggest company in the world. People aspired to work for GM, and those who didn't, aspired to run their companies like GM.

But a very small company, one whose primary business wasn't even cars, did not aspire to produce products like GM. They thought that their success in making cheap, efficient, and pleasant motorcycles might apply to cars, too.

So the first Honda Civic came to America in 1972. It left the verdant hills and scenic shores of its native Japan, where all things were small and pleasant and friendly. It came to fight a battle in a land of giants, where other vehicles weighed literally twice or thrice its size. And the makers of those vehicles were so many times larger than Honda that a Hobbit doesn't have enough fingers and toes to count so high.

This unassuming car was even slower, uglier, and more boring than today's Civic. But it was cheap to buy, cheap to run, and the inside was not at all like Nazi prison cell.

Over the next 30 years, the Civic slew dragon after dragon. It brought immense riches and glory to its homeland. It was still small and boring. If one passed you by, you might not even notice it. But its enemies certainly did. They tried to defend themselves by building strong and thick walls of import tariffs. But the virtue and purity of the little Civic continued to win hearts.

And now.... look outside your window, up and down your street. If you can see any cars at all, I'll wager one of them is a Honda Civic. You probably can't even see a Chevy Cavalier.

So this is what you can expect from my blog. I'll try to share with you the thrill of exotic cars: those powerful enough to yank Texas from its moorings, or those bedecked in gewgaws conceived by teams of feverish German engineers. Or perhaps French vehicles so alien that we must assume they were designed by non-carbon-based life forms. But I also want to share the wonder of the mundane cars. Every single car has a story. Some of the most boring cars have the best stories. So even if you and I have different ideas about hydropneumatic spheres, I hope you'll still enjoy the stories--and rants, there will definitely be rants--I post here.