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  • Collaboration machinations

    May 28, 2012 @ 11:16 am | by Neil Briscoe



    It’s a curious coincidence that I’m writing this, having just driven a car created out of collaboration between two once-unlikely bedfellows, as the motoring news wires are abuzz with word of another once unthinkable joining of forces.

    The Toyota GT86, a car that steps neatly into the space sadly vacated by its massively likeable Celica forebears, is in fact not just a Toyota. It’s a Subaru too, with the much smaller Japanese company carrying out much of the design and development work on the car at the behest of Toyota, which snapped up a significant shareholding in Subaru as Subaru’s erstwhile partner, General Motors, divested a few years back.

    That’s why the GT86 (and its Subaru BRZ kissing cousin) has a 2.0-litre flat-four engine (with Toyota injection systems and gearbox); it’s what Subaru knows best. Toyota, as the senior partner though, has clearly called the shots and it’s down to Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s insistence on light weight and crisp throttle response that the GT86 and BRZ do without either the turbocharging or the four wheel drive that have been Subaru touchstones for so long.

    The result is a car that feels gleefully out of place. It is small and light at a time when most cars are large and bloated. Its free-revving flat four sings and growls, drinking petrol in a world (a European world at any rate) that desires diesel. Its sub-200bhp power rating means that it barely qualifies in modern parlance as a performance car, but personally I have long felt that more than 200bhp is wholly unnecessary if you get the rest of the recipe right. Which Toyota and Subaru together have most certainly done so. It is just fabulous to drive on the road; Porsche-solid but with the adjustability and agility of a Mazda MX-5. It is a thoroughbred of the old sportscar school and all the more refreshing for it.

    And it won’t be alone for long, for news came this week that Alfa Romeo and Mazda are to join forces to jointly develop both a new MX-5 and a new Spider. This could be a concoction of rare wonderment. The MX-5′s combination of low weight, affordable price and rugged reliability joined with Alfa’s styling and engine magic could make for just about the perfect sports car, whichever badge you choose. We will find out for certain when the first of the new cars rolls off the production line in Hiroshima in 2015.

    In making these combined forces operations work so well though, the Toyota-Subaru combination has managed to (and the Mazda-Alfa alliance will have to) dodge the bullets of historical failure. Motoring collaborations rarely run so smoothly.

    When General Motors and Fiat tied the knot in the late nineties, it seemed to be an ideal marriage of two motoring giants, but the relationship ended in an acrimonious divorce that cost GM billions in alimony. Only joined-at-the-hip Punto and Corsa models ever really came of it, and both are decent, rather than outstanding cars.

    We all had high hopes for the marriage of Suzuki and Volkswagen, which recently looked like another combination where both sides could only benefit; VW from Suzuki’s low-cost Asian manufacturing base, Suzuki from access to VW’s bottomless parts-bin. But the relationship quickly soured and we were left with the unedifying sight of two major international car makers having a the equivalent of a screaming divorce row in the middle of a cocktail party. Not a single collaborative model came of the plan.

    And then there was Citroen and Maserati. A seventies joining that seemed odd, for certain, at the time but which produced some delectable machinery. Maserati’s Merak supercar benefited from a comfy Citroen-inspired cabin that made a mockery of Ferrari’s cramped seventies efforts, while the Maserati-engined Citroen SM still stands apart as one of the most futuristic looking cars if all time. Even today, it looks like it would be more at home in front of Ridley Scott’s camera than on a mere high street or motorway.

    But boy did the Citroen-Maserati setup go south. So acidic did the relationship become, that it bore witness to possibly the worst act of automotive vandalism ever. The story goes that, post-divorce, Citroen found it had a supply of spare Maserati V6 engines, for the now-defunct SM, sitting on the upper floor of a Paris warehouse. Despite the sheer beauty and ferocity of these engines, and their worth to future SM restorers and owners, they were summarily dispatched, through a loading door, to a waiting skip below. So much poetry and soul became so much scrap.

    Hopefully, the intra-Japanese and Italio-Japanese tie-ups will be more harmonious. If they manage that, we could be on the cusp of a great new era in sports cars. A turning away from the pointless horsepower wars and escalating prices and weights of the past decade. A return to simple, affordable driving fun. The GT86 and BRZ make a wonderful vanguard. Hopefully, the Spider and MX-5 will make a suitably brilliant follow-up.

  • Sticking to labels

    May 18, 2012 @ 1:06 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    As and from next month, you’re going to start seeing white labels attached to new sets of tyres that you buy. It’s an EU initiative, one designed to help consumers be better informed about the tyres that they buy and the performance of same. The labels are pretty simple really; similar to the ones we’ve already seen on fridges, kettles and washing machines for many years. A graduated colour bar indicating different bands of performance for both wet weather braking and rolling resistance and a separate panel that shows, in decibels, the loudness of the tyre on a drive-by test.

    All useful stuff. Wet weather braking is an obvious concern and with, it’s estimated, a 3-to-6-metre increase in braking distance for every jump in the bands (regimented A-to-G, just as with motor tax bands) there’s an obvious and immediate benefit in going for an A-rated tyre.

    That said, the demands of wet weather braking and rolling resistance are at opposite ends of the engineer’s skill-set, so finding a balance between the the two is a tricky compromise. Rolling resistance is exactly what it sounds like; the amount of turning force you have to apply to overcome the natural resistance of a tyre to roll forward; something that has a direct and significant bearing on both fuel economy and emissions. The trouble is that the hard compounds of natural and synthetic rubber needed to make a tyre with low rolling resistance are the exact antipode of the soft, sticky rubber needed to ensure wet weather performance.

    All of which is just the tip of a round, rubber iceberg (or lifebelt, possibly) that the tyre companies themselves are in a bit of a duality about.

    Required and enforced by the EU, the labeling system has been leaped on by the mainstream tyre makers as a tool to drag customers away from cheap-o Asian brands, which come with a tasty price tag but which are the technological equivalent of fitting some Polo Mints to your wheels. The theory goes that once consumers check the labels and see how poorly the cheap tyres perform, they’ll come running back to the major brands.

    “There is a risk of consumers not understanding the labeling” Peter Robb from Continental Tyres told us. “In terms of how we’re prepared, in terms of the material and the training of our tyre retailers, I think that type of issue will hopefully be minimised.

    “A lot of things go into making a tyre, in terms of the performance focus of the tyre. A lot of people just think tyres are round and black but in terms of what they’ve actually got to be able to deliver, they’ve got to supplement the vehicle you’re driving; they’re the only contact you have on the road. There are things outside the label that they’ll have to achieve excellence in; wet and dry handling, dry braking, in car noise. All these things are very important. The vehicle manufacturers themselves require excellence in all areas for a tyre, in the replacement market there are very few requirements, at least until the labels come in.”

    Which raises a serious issue with the labeling system. Rolling resistance, wet braking and noise are all significant items to be aware of but they are barely scratching the surface of what a tyre needs to do and the various ways in which its performance can be measured. Creating a label that covers all aspects would clearly be nigh-on impossible, but it does seem to be selling the consumer somewhat short. In fact, the labels are already out of date and will be revised in 2016 to provide separate ratings for winter tyres.

    There is a much bigger problem in terms of customers merely seeking to buy the cheapest possible tyre from a name that they recognise (or even just a country that they recognise in some cases) and then keeping those tyres in good condition once they’re on the car.

    The labeling system simply doesn’t cover people who don’t check their tyre pressures (most of us) or who never think about tread depth until NCT time (ditto), but these are far more vital to the performance of a tyre fitted to your car than anything that’s on a shop label. There is a legal requirement, of course, to maintain your tyres in a decent condition, but as Paddy Murphy, the boss of Continental in Ireland told us: “In 30 years of driving, I’ve never had a Guard check my tyres at a checkpoint.

    “It has been stated that if all the Guards did was run around and visually check the tyres, without taking any further action, that would be enough to scare people into sorting their tyres.”

    That’s a feeling echoed by Stephen Lynch from Dunlop: “The tyre industry – manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers – has invested heavily to adopt this legislation and given our full support to its implementation. It is now time for the national authorities to support this effort with a surveillance and enforcement programme that will ensure the objectives of the legislation across the EU – both in terms of road safety and the environment – are met. Surveillance and enforcement are also required to ensure a level playing field for all EU and non-EU manufacturers.”

    The problem is that there is little or no enforcement. Neither the EU nor the Government has even yet appointed a body to inspect and enforce the labeling system, in spite of the fact that it will be compulsory from November. All of which seems to place a lot of responsibility on an already over-stretched Garda force, when in fact it’s down to individual responsibility. The problem is that, in Ireland at any rate, individual responsibility is rarely met with an appropriate individual response.

    So why not abandon the labeling system, and take the responsibility away from consumers who are only interested in price and instead just make all tyres to one, high, standard? Then the choice is simply down to brand loyalty or price and everyone gets a good tyre.

    “In an ideal world that would be a good thing” says Peter Robb. “But that’s the problem of tyre development, only a certain few can make tyres to that standard. So if you say all tyres have to achieve that standard, you’ll probably clear a lot of the makes of tyres out of the marketplace. The research and development needed to produce tyres to the highest level is only done by the premium manufacturers.”

    A touch of tyre Communism needed, perhaps? From each according to his pocket, to each according to his rim size.

  • Chariot Of The Space Gods

    May 11, 2012 @ 11:01 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Alan Shepherd kicked off the astronaut-Corvette link after his first space flight in 1962

    Buying anything on eBay (other Internet auction sites are available) is always a bit of a leap into the unknown. You are putting yourself into the hands of the seller, relying on their knowledge and honesty to provide you with a product as advertised.

    It’s not a perfect system, but for small things it’s fine. After all, bid on a Ralph Lauren shirt and you’ll only be down €20 if it turns out to actually be from Ralf Loren. But bidding $250,000 for a car, sight unseen? Now that really is a giant leap into the unknown.

    Which is kind of appropriate as, apparently, the item bid up to that stratospheric level is a 1967 Corvette whose first owner was none other than Neil Armstrong.

    It’s not as if the ‘Vette is in sparkling condition. In fact it’s mostly a wreck; complete but hasn’t run since 1981 according to the vendor. And while Armstrong’s name is in the log book, it’s worth pointing out that Neil took delivery of this car in 1967 when he was a junior astronaut, ahead after his first flight into space on Gemini 8 but two years before the famed Apollo 11 flight. Furthermore, Armstrong sold the car on to a fellow NASA employee in ’68 so the car has, at best, only a tangential link with mankind’s giant leap. Yes, Armstrong’s backside did sit on those seats, but you’re probably going to have to get them re-upholstered anyway.

    Any connection with the Apollo moon missions is enough to send prices for memorabilia and artifacts spiraling though. A simple mission patch, as sewn onto crew uniforms, flown around the moon on Apollo 10 would set you back around $3,000 while even a simple signed photo by Buzz Aldrin (hardly a rarity) would cost as much as $300.

    How can this be? How is it that a scientific mission from forty years ago still holds us in such thrall? Andrew Smith should know. He’s a writer and broadcaster and author of Moon Dust; a book which charts the lives of the Apollo astronauts after they returned from the moon. He’s met almost all the key figures of Apollo (except Armstrong himself; always an elusive figure for the media) and thinks it’s down to the fact that Apollo was a one-off:

    “I often wonder whether that would be the case if the missions had carried on. Apollo only ran between 1969 and 1972 and only twelve people ever went to the moon. Only 24 people have ever, to this day ever left Earth orbit, all on those missions. So the further we get from that, the more exotic and strange they look. I think that’s where the mystique comes from. We don’t even have the capacity to go to the moon now, there isn’t a nation on Earth that could do it and I think that’s what adds the magic to Apollo.

    “The curious thing about the Corvette is that a lot of the early astronauts, from before Apollo, so from Gemini and Mercury, drove mostly European cars – Lamborghinis and the like. So it was this one Chevrolet dealer who changed all that.”

    Alan Shepherd, America’s first man in space, drove a Corvette himself and General Motors gave him the keys of a ’62 model following his flight in May of that year. It was a great bit of publicity but NASA subsequently decided that the astronaut corps shouldn’t be seen to be on some rocket boosted gravy train and banned all freebies.

    “Technically they weren’t allowed free cars. Technically they weren’t allowed free anything” says Andrew. “The Omega watches that they took to the moon, I believe they were given to the astronauts. Armstrong gave his to the pad commander, a man called Gunther Wendt. Armstrong wouldn’t take it as a gift, but they were never paid well these guys, they were paid according to their rank in the armed services.”

    They were allowed discounts though and that’s where Florida Chevrolet dealers Jim Rathmann comes in. Rathmann, a former Indianapolis 500 racer, dreamed up the $1 lease; astronauts could lease both a Corvette and a family car for the princely sum of a buck for the year and the programme continued until the end of the Apollo missions in 1971.

    The Apollo 12 crew of Alan Bean, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon got matching black and gold ‘Vettes in a colour scheme designed by Bean himself; he would later become a full time artist and painter.

    Gus Grissom, the ill-fated commander of Apollo 1, was another Corvette fan and tweaked his car up with special gear ratios, wider track and competition tyres to drag race between the lights along the roads leading to and from the Cape Canaveral space centre, something it would be hard to imagine any of the clean-cut modern astronaut crew doing.

    “The astronauts are a very different breed now, because NASA, like everyone else, is much more concerned with treatment in the media” says Andrew Smith. “When these guys were selected, there wasn’t even a word for ‘astronaut.’ None of them had expected to be doing this. NASA chose them for their engineering and piloting skills and because of that they were a very maverick breed. They’re not geared towards public relations and if you meet the Apollo guys now, the first thing you notice about them is just how individual they are. Modern astronauts are very good at talking about what they do and are very media friendly, but that simply wasn’t the case back then.

    “I’m no car expert but I do know enough to know that the Corvette was made in response to American pilots coming home from the second world war having driven British sports cars, and the Corvette was a response to that, a “let’s make one of these” response. It’s an American story, born of pilots and science and flying.”

    It seems that long before a mission to the moon, or even sending a man into space, was even seriously considered, high-performance fly-boys and a nascent American sportscar were already being made for each other.

    Apollo left a mark on the history of human kind that has yet to be beaten and can never be erased. When Neil Armstrong took that small step from a flimsy ladder and became the first human to set foot on a world other than the Earth, evolution took a step forward. We became, in however small a way, an interstellar species. Whether that makes a tired V8 sportscar worth the thick end of a Lotto win is another matter entirely.

  • Lost In Thought

    May 4, 2012 @ 7:56 am | by Neil Briscoe

    I can still remember the moment, listening to the radio, when I came close to sideswiping another car in traffic. It was all Mario Rosenstock’s fault; an especially pointed line in a Gift Grub sketch on Today FM had me temporarily convulsed with laughter, and temporarily heading right for the flank of a dark green Volkswagen Passat. It would have only been low speed impact, a fender bender more about cooling tempers than calling ambulances, but still a salutary reminder that the merest distraction can be the starting point for bent metal and even broken bones.

    Distraction behind the wheel is fast becoming the new drink driving, if you see what I mean. We all know the dangers of having a pint or two and then driving, and fewer and fewer of us are taking the risk, thankfully. Laws are already in place to restrict such distraction activities like using a mobile phone and some cars (Lexus, notably) have sat-nav systems that cannot be reprogrammed or fiddled with when on the move. But a new study from the University of Washington has demonstrated that even just thinking about your phone or some such device can distract you enough to be dangerous.

    “The folks who scored higher on compulsive cell phone use had more prior crashes,” said Jennifer Whitehill, one of the lead researchers on the report. “If we had a group of 100 students with the lowest scores on the (compulsive scale), we would expect that 25 had a crash in the last year.”

    “Among 100 students with the highest scores, we would see 38 crashes. That’s an extra 13 crashes per 100 students within the high-risk group. Even thinking about future cell phone calls and messages may be an additional source of distraction that could contribute to crashes.”

    It raises an Orwellian possibility of thought police following our every synapse, just waiting for us to disengage from the task of driving. Radio stations may well have to broadcast cigarette-style health warnings before a programme. “Warning: The following broadcast contains content that may be entertaining, distracting or mirthful. Please use caution when listening.” Of course, similar warnings would have to be played for excessively boring programmes, but few if any radio stations would admit to such a thing…

    Joking aside, the technology exists to monitor our situational awareness when behind the wheel, and it’s a short step to such systems being used as evidence against us (although there is always the possibility that if you own the car you can’t compel it be bear witness against you…). Mercedes and Lexus both offer driver awareness monitors that check your steering and throttle inputs and even monitor your eyeline and blink-rate to discern if you are dozing off behind the wheel. Such systems are currently expensive, but components supplier Bosch has already developed a more affordable version that will begin rolling out on the eminently affordable Volkswagen Passat this year: “Fading concentration and fatigue compromise the driver’s steering behavior and response time. Fine motor skills deteriorate, and steering behavior becomes less precise” said a spokesperson for Bosch.

    “The driver corrects small steering mistakes more often. The new driver drowsiness detection function is based on an algorithm which begins recording the driver’s steering behavior the moment the trip begins. It then recognizes changes over the course of long trips, and thus also the driver’s level of fatigue. Typical signs of waning concentration are phases during which the driver is barely steering, combined with slight, yet quick and abrupt steering movements to keep the car on track.”

    It is a serious issue, and it’s in America that policy is being promulgated to tackle distracted drivers. Given that we’ve followed America’s lead when it comes to safety and emissions regulation, don’t expect us to be too slow following them on this. Meg Ragonese, from the Nevada Department of Transportation told us that “Cognitive distractions are one of the three main types of distractions, along with visual and physical distractions, so the study makes an important point about the dangers of cognitive distractions. In fact, a Carnegie Mellon University study has illustrated that driving while using a cell phone, including hands free, reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%.”

    Of course, for those of you now panicking about the encroaching efforts of the Thought Police, you’re forgetting one important thing. These systems don’t actually detect your thoughts, they merely monitor your control inputs and alert you to take a break when you’re getting tired. Distraction, momentary at least, would be a much harder issue to monitor. Impossible to police? not quite. After all, display the attention span of a Goldfish and it will show in your driving, and then all the Garda have to do is book you under the old-fashioned offence of ‘driving without due care and attention.’ Sometimes, it seems, new science has some very old solutions.

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