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Holden: The Day For Closing Is Coming. Part Two.

This is part two of an interview conducted with Holden’s PR guru, Sean Poppitt, before the closure of Holden as a manufacturer of cars and engines in Australia.

Speaking of local products…Keeping the Commodore nameplate has seen plenty of discussion as to whether it should stay or not. What has been Holden’s reason for doing so?
There wasn’t one single thing that drove that decision…there’s a number of different factors we considered…one of the first ones was this: we went out and talked to Commodore owners. We went and talked to non-Commodore owners, and we did a really extensive market research piece, sitting down with customers and non-customers and asking that question. The overwhelming response we got was to keep the name. Of course that doesn’t take anything away from people’s right to have an opinion on this, I would wonder how many of those with a negative opinion are Holden or Commodore owners.

Two, we made sure that we were comfortable that the car did everything a Commodore should do. (It’s here that Sean’s tone changed and he became very thoughtful.) What defines a Commodore? Is it local manufacturing? You could argue that it’s that as every Commodore from the start has been manufactured here. Let’s not forget that the first ever Commodore was…an Australian modified Opel Rekord…which we built…and we’ve come full circle…taking an Opel car and making it a Commodore.One of the great things about keeping our Lang Lang proving grounds is it’s allowed us to have our engineers embedded in that program for six years. There’s been well over one hundred and sixty thousand kilometres of local testing, which has given us a unique suspension tune for every single model, a unique engine and gearbox combination which isn’t available anywhere else in the world. We’re talking the V6 and nine speed auto, the advanced all wheel drive system, the adaptive chassis. If it’s going to be a Commodore we NEED it to be able to do X, Y, and Z. This car has everything the last car did and more, but there isn’t the obvious emotional attachment and nostalgic element to it not being built here.

I don’t want at all to make light or not give the gravity that it’s due to the local manufacturing people and the passion the people had for that, and what it’s meant for this country and this brand…by every conceivable measure, the new car is a better car than the old one.
(Sean’s tone becomes lighter here). We always knew that a front wheel drive four cylinder Commodore was going to raise some eyebrows, we knew that, but the four cylinder turbo is the fastest, most fuel efficient, most powerful base engine we’ve ever had in a Commodore, so by every single possible measure that car will be better than the base Commodore we have here.Outside of your preference for front drive or rear wheel drive, for the diehard performance enthusiast we’re going to have a sports car, or, potentially, sports cars in the not so distant future. It’s important to note that it’s really only in the last eighteen months that the sales of V8s in a Commodore has lifted up so high. Over the last ten years 88% of Commodore sales have been V6s, and of that a vast majority have been SV6s.
With Opel now under the PSA umbrella, does this open up the model range available for Australian buyers?
There’s certainly opportunities. We’ve been very clear that the current Opel products that we’re taking, which includes the next gen Commodore and the current Astra hatch, there will be no change to them over the course of their projected model life. Dan Amman, who’s our global president, said, when we were in Geneva recently that there’s more opportunity for Holden, not less.

At the current time, where does Holden see itself in five years time, especially with the new SUVs and Camaro in the frame?
We made a commitment back in, I believe, 2015, that we would launch 24 new models by 2020, which effectively means we’re revamping or replacing every single vehicle in the Holden line-up. I’d also say that right now we have the best “pound for pound” showroom we’ve ever had. And it’s only going to get better; we’ve got Equinoxe coming in mid November, the next gen Commodore of course, next year there’s the Acadia, which gives us this really filled out SUV portfolio, which is obviously great for us as that’s where the market is going.

Our strength, for a long time, has been in large sedans, which is a shrinking part of the market. The growth in SUVs, we’ve been really well represented there in the past, and we’ve got Trax, we’ve got Trailblazer, and Equinoxe and Acadia to come. Even Colorado, that continues to grow, with every month the figures show an increase in sales. It’s about going where the market goes rather than hanging onto a sector of the market where clearly people have voted with their feet and wallets to not be a part of.

When we made this announcement four years ago, back in 2013 (about ceasing manufacturing), which really raised questions about what does Holden stand for, which did have a shadow hanging over the business in a way, we want to stay and remain a clear and solid number four in the market and stay on track to sell one in ten vehicles sold in this country. I think it’s remarkable, too, that in such a tough period we’re still one of the top players in this country. I also think we’ve got a rare and unique opportunity to honour one hundred and sixty years of history and heritage and make sure that Holden means as much to our grandkids as it did to our grandfathers.(It’s a huge thanks to Sean Poppitt for his time and his candid responses, and since this interview Holden has confirmed the Camaro SS will come to Australia as the “halo” car. It also officially unveiled the 2018 Commodore which, effectively, confirms for Commodore the SS badging is no longer…)

A Long Time Ago…

In May of 1977 a film was released, a film intended to be an homage to the serials of the 1940s one might watch at the local flicks on a Saturday. With a nod towards westerns and featuring a cast of mostly unknown actors, Star Wars hit an unsuspecting public smack between the eyes. 2017 sees the fortieth anniversary of that film and Private Fleet takes a look at a few of the cars that turn forty also.

Holden HZ.
Yes, a bit of nothing more than a new grille differentiated the HZ Kingswood from the previous model visually, but it was underneath, with the introduction of RTS or Radial Tuned Suspension , that made this an important car for the then flourishing Aussie market. It was also the last large sedan Holden would make for some time.
Chrysler Sigma.
“It’s a sensation” went the advertising for a car that was built by Chrysler Australia and was based on the same car made by Mitsubishi. Powered (stop snickering) b,y at the entry level, 1.6L carbied four cylinder that was good for 56 kilowatts and 117 torques, the GE series Sigma became a mainstay of the Aussie market for a few years and kept the Sigma name plate when Mitsubishi took over the Chrysler manufacturing. There was even a Sports pack for the 2.0L version, with striping, low fuel warning light, sports tiller, and steel belted radials.Ford LTD 2.
Although a nameplate once familiar to Aussies, this was the American version and was, oddly, classified as an intermediate sized car. Given it was bigger than the German battleship Tirpitz and was powered by a strictly V8 engined lineup putting power down via a three speed auto, it’s hard to believe that a five point five metre machine could be considered an “intermediate” sized car. It was available in three trim levels including the top of the range Brougham, a name familiar to Australia Holden fans as the predecessor to the Statesman.Volvo 262C.
The squared off, boxy, blocky Volvo designs of the 1970s gained some coolness with this car from Swedish manufacturer, Volvo. Built in Italy and powered by a 2.6 litre V6 engine, this two door beauty still looks as gorgeous as the day it first appeared in 1977. Italian design house Bertone was responsible for both the design and build, with the coupe’s roof ten centimetres lower than the donor car, the Volvo 260. Standard equipment included power windows and mirrors, central locking, full leather interior, power mirrors, cruise control, air conditioning, heated front seats, alloy wheels and electrically powered radio antenna.Triumph TR7 Sprint.
British maker Triumph, along with MG, made some of the most memorable two door cars of the sixties and seventies but not always memorable for the right reasons. At least this one went some way towards a good purpose, being a limited run of 62 cars to homologate the Group 4 Triumph 7 rally car for the 1978 season. The engine was a two litre, 16 valve, single overhead camshaft type and bolted to a five speed manual. Peak power was 127 bhp, more than the same capacity slant four version found in the standard TR7.Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
Broad shouldered, hairy chested, metaphorically wearing a thick gold chain, Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage packed a 5.3L V8 with 280 kilowatts which promised a top speed of 280 kilometres per hour. Sharing the basic engine package with the Lagonda at the time, the Vantage received re-rated camshafts, a higher compression ratio, bigger valves and carbies, all which lead to a 0-60 mph time of a still rapid 5.3 seconds, quicker than Ferrari’s Daytona.So where ever you are you the galaxy as you celebrate forty hears of these cars and forty years of Star Wars, May The Force Be With You.

The Guy We All Need To Thank: Nils Bohlin

What would you call a guy who has saved approximately 11,000 lives every year in the US alone and way more than that around the world?  You’d probably think that you were reading a cracker of a superhero comic but this guy is for real.  Was he a war hero?  An emergency response guy like a medic, firefighter or cop?

Nope – he was an inventor.  What he invented was the three-point seatbelt.  His name was Nils Bohlin. In later life, he looked a bit like Father Christmas. Which is kind of appropriate, considering the gift he’s given to the world.

Bohlin was born in 1920 in Sweden, the country where he worked after graduating with an engineering diploma.  His first significant employer was SAAB , but he wasn’t working on their cars; his area was on the planes.  Specifically, he got to work on ejector seats, which were in hot demand at the time, the time in question being World War 2 when pilots were getting shot down and needing to bail out ASAP.  At the time, there was a bit of competition going on, and the German aircraft manufacturer Heinkel got the idea at the same time as SAAB and managed to get an operational ejector seat first.  (Did they really independently get the same idea simultaneously?  Or was there some skulduggery going on?  Plot for a WWII spy thriller here.)

After the war was over (and SAAB had got a good working ejector seat), a new problem was cropping up.  The demand for masses of fighter and bomber planes had died down but in the post-war period of prosperity, the demand for and use of the car had soared.  It wasn’t just a toy for the rich any more.  With a lot more cars on the roads going faster thanks to all the technology developed during wartime, there were a lot more accidents.  A sort of seat belt had been invented: a two-point lap belt with a buckle that did up in the middle over your stomach.  If you’ve been in some classic cars, you may have seen them (I have some very dim memories of using one of these, possibly in the ancient Mini  owned by my grandparents when I was little… I think).  While these two-point jobs were a heck of a lot better than nothing, they were not ideal.  For a start off, they didn’t stop your head pitching forwards during a crash thanks to all that momentum with the end result that the driver whacked his/her head on the steering wheel.  You also had the problem of sliding up and out of the seat belt.  Then there was the belt itself.  At high speeds, that meant all the momentum and force was caught and stopped by a band across your tummy.  With a heavy metal buckle right in the middle where the force would be greatest. At best, this would make you puke.  At worst, it would cause nasty internal injuries.  Don’t even think about what would happen if the person wearing the lap belt was a pregnant woman.  Something had to be done.

The something was done by Volvo, who hired Nils Bohlin to try to improve the design.  This was 1958 and Volvo had decided that one of their key design principles was going to be safety, safety, safety, rather than merely concentrating on power and speed (one of the CEO’s relatives had been killed in a car crash).  Bohlin was the perfect choice.  After all, he’d had to think about stresses on the human body at speed, restraints and sort of thing when developing ejector seats.  Ejector seats had four-pointer restraints but Bohlin knew that this wasn’t going to work in a family car.  He wanted a design that could be put on with one hand.  As he had four stepchildren and one child, he probably knew all too well that getting multiple straps onto a wriggly child was pretty tricky!  On top of that, he had consumer attitudes to contend with.  As he said, “The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute.” The restraints had to be comfortable.

It took him a year of testing, going back to the drawing board, retesting, tinkering and general improving until he came up with the three-point system we are all familiar with today: a belt running from shoulder to hip that attaches to a fixed point at hip level on the opposite side from the shoulder-height anchor points.  It was simple.  It could be done up with one hand.  It was comfortable for men and women (this was the 1950s when the ideal female figure was very, very curvy…).  This spread the force of impact across the ribcage and abdomen, which reduced the risk of internal injury dramatically and made slipping out over the top less likely.

His new design was patented in the US in 1959 and you can see it here.  However, even though Bohlin and Volvo held the patent, Volvo was public-spirited enough to allow other manufacturers to use this life-saving design for free, putting people ahead of profits (and giving their company image and reputation one heck of a boost).

Nils Bohlin demonstrates his invention to the public.

It took a while for the new invention to catch on.  After all, people just weren’t used to wearing seat belts on buses or the like.  They weren’t planning on crashing (who does?) so why on earth did they need to wear a seat belt.  Seat belt use wasn’t mandatory (and belts were only installed in the driver and front passenger seats at first), so a fair bit of PR work was needed to educate the public.  At first, seat belts were just nice accessories in a car.  However, a demo using eggs in rolling cart, one with a seatbelt and one without, got the message across, along with a bunch of other stunts presented in a world tour.  In 1969 in the US, seatbelts (in the front seats at least) became compulsory.  Today, in all developed economies, seat belt use is mandatory front and back.  On top of that, even the centre rear seat lap belt that most of us grew up with is being phased out, with more and more cars offering three-point seat belts for all five (or seven) seats.

The design has been tweaked a fair bit over the years, with pretensioners being added by Mercedes Benz in the 1980s, Audi adding height adjustments and those bra-strap style length adjusters being replaced by retracting inertia reels.  However, the basic design is still the same as Nils Bohlin’s original design.  Since its invention, it has saved over a million lives, and the US safety stats figure that seat belt use saves over 11,000 million lives every year.

Bohlin also invented the buckle design that is used on his seat belt, and he also worked on the Side Impact Protection System that has been another Volvo special that has since spread to other marques.

Bohlin became head of Volvo’s safety design team, and received numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including being inducted into the Health and Safety Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2002 upon his death.

Despite his invention, seat belt laws and more, some people still don’t seem to get the point and insist on not wearing their seat belts.  Come on, folks!  To quote Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore, “the funny thing about accidents is that you never have them until you’re having them.” Buckle up!

“My greatest pleasure comes when I meet people who tell me that a seat belt saved their life or the life of a loved one.  Many inventions make life better for people. I have been fortunate to work in the area of safety engineering, where innovation doesn’t just improve our lives; it actually can save lives.”—Nils Bohlin

Was an Exit Ford’s Only Option?

Last week marked the end of an era for the automotive industry within Australia. After 91 years, the blue oval badge that many Australians came to love called time on the local manufacturing of its vehicles. The day was a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, the brand, the company and its tireless employees were recognised for their invaluable contributions over the years.

Sadly however, an abundance of job losses as well as the demise of a true Australian icon will leave a void within the nation’s proud history and culture. The manufacturer’s peers are in no better position, with Toyota and Holden also approaching the end of local production in 2017. But was this the only option available? Was it possible for Ford’s local manufacturing operations to be spared a lifeline?

Despite its late efforts to adapt to consumer and industry changes (e.g. economical driving), Ford was always going to be facing an uphill battle. As wage growth peaked in the mid-2000’s, labour costs continually drifted further and further away from those of nearby countries. Throughout Asia in particular, labour costs remained arduously low, incentivising numerous manufacturers to set up their regional operations for the Asian market amongst low-cost producers. To say that our nation’s positioning worked against the company would be an understatement.

ford

Also weighing against the company was the particular requirements befitting right-hand drive vehicles. Although in theory this shouldn’t have impeded the prospects of exporting to neighbouring countries in Asia, said nations were instead able to capitalise on their low-cost positioning. These requirements also prevented Ford from exporting to the likes of the US or other parts of the world. When the local arm of the company sought permission to produce the Ford Falcon in left-hand drive (several times in fact), its parent company in the US was having none of it. The economies of scale were never there to provide efficiency gains.

When the company’s changes did come, they were usually slow-moving or reactive in nature. As the Falcon continued to be pushed heavily by the company, the likes of the Ford Territory (and its successors) and Ford Focus hatch were overlooked for too long while competitors made advancements. In the last 20 years, Australian SUV sales have increased over 20 fold. The corresponding market share has increased from around 8% in 1995, to approximately 37% by the end of 2015 – and these numbers continue to rise. Meanwhile, passenger vehicles have gone from approximately 77% to 43% market share in the same period.

2016-Ford-Falcon-XR8-Sprint

Ford was also largely propped up by government intervention and regulation. Not only were taxation benefits and direct financial aid afforded to the company, but the market had to be ‘artificially’ managed by way of taxes and duties after it had been opened up in the 1980’s to allow motorists greater access to imports. The introduction of a luxury car tax and import tariffs sought to all but direct customers towards our local vehicles but consumers followed their needs.

While the effects of a recently overvalued Australian dollar did not impact Ford as it did with Holden and Toyota, government assistance became a necessity to prop the company upright – across the industry, this is believed to be $12bn over the last 20 years. With each year that passed, the prospect that Ford’s production could remain viable within our market became increasingly dim. And ultimately, all the major parties in this story bear some degree of responsibility for Ford’s sad farewell.

The Rarest Cars In The World.

There’s been millions upon millions of motor vehicles built over the last century or so. There’s the bulk volume cargo vehicles, the popular and long lasting nameplates and then there’s the hand built rarities. One could toss in a name like Bugatti, or muse upon the Aston Martins built for the 2015/2016 Bond film, Spectre. However it’s arguable that the rarest cars in the world, of which there are three examples, and may never be touched by human hands in the first half of the 21st century, are the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV examples, left near the landing sites for Apollos 15, 16 and 17.lunar_rover_diagramThe design for the LRV or “moon buggy” as they became popularly known, was part of the overall design brief for the Apollo missions as far back as the early 1960s. However, the idea for a manned vehicle that would traverse the moon had been discussed in the early to mid 1950s by people such as Werner von Braun.

In 1964 von Braun raised the idea again in an edition of “Popular Mechanics” and revealed that discussions between NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Centre, Boeing, General Motors and others. Design studies were put conducted under the watchful eyes of MSFC. In early planning, it was mooted that there would be two Saturn V rockets for the moon missions, one for the astronauts and one for the equipment. The American Congress squeezed NASA and, as a result, the funds for including two boosters were reduced to one, making a redesign of the Lunar Module assembly a priority if a LRV was to be included.

In the mid 1960s two conferences, the Summer Conference on Lunar Exploration and Science in 1965 and 1967, assessed the plans that NASA had for journeying to the moon and exploration around the landing sites. Further design studies and development resulted in NASA selecting a design in 1969 that would become the LRV. In a small piece of history, a request for proposals for supplying and building the LRV were released by MSFC. Boeing, Grumman, and others were eventually selected as component builders; Boeing, for example, would manage the project, the Defense research Lab section of General Motors would look after the driveline componentry and Boeing’s Seattle plant would manage the electronics.apollo_16_lm_orionThe first budget cost for Boeing was nineteen million. NASA’s original estimate, however, was double that and called for a delivery date in 1971. As seemed normal for the time, cost overruns ended up being at the NASA end of the estimate and out of this came four rovers. Three would be used for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, with the fourth cannibalised for spare parts when the Apollo program was cancelled.

Static and development models were also created and built to assess the human interactive part, to test the propulsion and training models were built. None of these would make it to the moon. Barely two years after Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped on the moon, Apollo 15 used a LRV for the very first time.1280px-apollo15lunarrover2Bearing in mind the cost per kilo to lift an item from the surface of the earth, the LRV’s weight of 210 kilos must make one of the most expensive vehicles per kilo to have been shipped to its final destination. However, this equals just 35 kilos of weight on the moon. Part of this of course can be attributed to the four independent electric motors that moved the LRV around, with a designed top speed of just 13 kmh. Astronaut Eugene Cernan, on the Apollo 17 mission, recorded a top speed of 18 kmh. 1024px-lunar_roving_vehicle_wheel_close-upEach wheel had a motor powered by the on board battery system, with a total rated out put of just 190 watts, or a quarter of a horsepower. The tires themselves were the work of genius: a wire mesh design combined with a set of titanium chevrons for the “tread”, with a footprint per tyre of nine inches on a 32 inch wheel. Steering was electrically powered as well, with motors front and rear.

It was a unique design situation to get the LRV on board; with a total length of ten feet and wheelbase of 7.5 feet, a fold was engineered in, allowing lesser overall space to be taken up aboard the lunar module. A system of ropes, pulleys, and tapes was employed enabling the two astronauts to lower the LRV from its bay, with the design automatically folding the vehicle out and locking itself into place.1024px-nasa_apollo_17_lunar_roving_vehicleThe range of the vehicles was limited by an operational decision; should the LRV have broken down at any point, it would have to be in a distance where the astronauts could still have walked back to the lunar module with a margin of safety. Each LRV was built to seat two astronauts, plus carry equipment such as radio and radar, sampling equipment and tools, plus the all important tv cameras, which were later used to show the ascent of the final Apollo mission from the moon.

The second and third missions using the moon buggies saw range vary substantially from the first with Apollo 15. LRV 001 covered a total of 27.76 kilometres during a total on moon driven time of just over three hours and reached a maximum distance from the landing module of five kilometres. Apollo 16’s mission saw more time but less distance, with 3 hours 26 minutes for 26.55 kilometres. Apollo 17 upped the ante, with an extra hours worth of travel time and a whopping 35.9 kilometres driven and a maximum distance from the landing module of 7.6 kilometres.apollo-17-lunar-module-landing-siteAll up, in a space of seventeen months, these craft were designed and engineered and built with a 100 percent non failure rate. Even with a wheel guard coming loose after Cernan bumped it during Apollo 17’s mission failed to cause any real issue, apart from the two occupants being covered in more dust. And with four being built, the fourth being cannibalised once the Apollo program at Apollo 18 was scrapped, the three survivors, located at the landing sites for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, must be, indeed, the rarest cars in the world. Only when mankind eventually colonises the moon will they then be touched again by human hands.

Heated Seats – An Everyday Luxury

heated-seats-thumbWould you like to have a hot butt?  No, this is not an ad for some fancy-pants workout programme or weight loss gadget. Instead it’s all about one of my favourite driver conveniences, heated seats.

Electrically heated seats were the brainchild of the designers at Saab – those Swedes certainly come up with some great practical features.  This isn’t surprising, really.  We all know how cold it can get up there in a country that lies partly inside the Arctic Circle.  Saab, like the other Swedish giant, Volvo, know how to build cars that are toasty-warm and can cope with cold conditions (perhaps a little too much so – in a Saab I once had, the soft lining on the inside of the cabin roof came away because the adhesive melted in the warmth of a summer Down Under).

However, according to the Saab History site  (a fun place to poke around if you, like me, are a fan of Swedish vehicles), these heated seats were designed with another purpose in mind.  Instead, the aim of heated seats was to reduce backache and driver fatigue, rather than simply warming up after a brush with a Swedish winter.  This does make a certain sort of sense.  After all, there are other ways of ensuring that your lower half is warm enough, including a snuggly blanket tossed across your knees and wearing ski pants or long woollen underwear.  On the other hand, given that it’s the extremities that get coldest first and driving in mittens or ski gloves is pretty tricky, if dealing with chilly conditions was the aim of the game, you’d think that heated steering wheels would have made it onto the scene first (the patent for the motorbiking equivalent, heated grips, was acquired by BMW in the early 1980s). And it’s certainly true that having something nice and warm on your lower back and around your hips eases the ache of long periods spent behind the wheel… which could easily be a topic for another post.

How do heated seats work their magic to give you that nice warm feeling?  Basically, it uses the same principle as an electric blanket.  This means that the seat contains a heating coil that is supplied with electricity from the car’s battery, and also contains a thermostat to make sure that the heating coil doesn’t behave like the other heating coils we’re all familiar with (ovens and bar heaters) and fry you.  Switch the heated seats on and the electricity flows through the coil (which is a resistor, for all you more scientifically inclined folks), which heats up.  When the thermostat detects that you’ve reached the right temperature, the electricity is cut until the temperature falls below a threshold.

If, however, you have seats that have a heating and cooling function (which you do find on some of the latest models), the technology is a little different. Here, the seat has air vents in it (not so big that they become uncomfortable, of course) and either hot air or cold air is piped around your nether end, similar to what happens with other parts of the air con or ventilation system.

One of the things that was mentioned in that old Saab press release was that the heating system was safe and wouldn’t cause electric shocks in the presence of moisture.  This is a problem with electric blanket, after all, and is why I’m not alone in preferring a hot water bottle on chilly nights.  Some commentators have sniggered at the suggestion that drivers or front passengers might be wetting their pants and thus need the protection.  These commentators obviously have never spilt coffee in their laps or worn those raincoats that ride up and let your bum and thighs get wet.  Or slipped and fallen in a puddle.  Or, presumably, worn a wet swimming costume while driving… although if it’s warm enough to swim in a location that doesn’t allow you to get changed properly, you aren’t likely to be needing the services of a heated seat.  Unless, of course, your back aches.

Now if only they could make every single seat in the home as well as in the car heated…

Tesla: The Supergeek’s Supercar

NikolaTeslaBack in the 1880s, electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla tinkered around with using an AC motor to power vehicles. For some reason, the idea didn’t catch on the way his fellow inventor Thomas Edison’s lightbulb did, and cars kept mostly running on fossil fuels for another century while gaslights faded into the past. Tesla’s electrical car was sidelined into the realms of fiction, along with his ideas for wireless electricity transmission and death rays (yep, he’s the original “mad scientist who’s developed a death ray” beloved of sci-fi, superhero cartoons and steampunk, AND he predicted mobile phones). However, concerns about peak oil led to the ideas being dusted off again and considered seriously.  Was it possible for electric cars to be feasible for everyday use? Could people invent a battery that would hold enough charge to power a car over more than just a few kilometres? Oh yes – and can electric cars be cool rather than geeky and boring?

Enter Tesla Motors, a company founded in 2003 with the long-term goal of making mass-market electric vehicles that could provide the fossil fuel market with some serious competition. The Tesla Roadster proved that an electric car could indeed deliver the goods, combining style and performance with purely electric motors. The Roadster was the first purely electric car to have a battery range of 320 km per charge. This award-winning design made the cover of Time magazine in 2006 and proved hugely popular in the USA. The Roadster had a 0–60 mph time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 165 km/h, which is more than the legal road limit (and what else would you want anyway)? Its styling was very classy indeed and used carbon fibre throughout for the bodywork.

TEsla RoadsterThe Roadster is no longer listed on the Tesla Motors website. Three sedans have taken the Roadster’s place: the Model S, the Model X and the Model 3, which are very boring and ordinary names for cars that are anything but boring and ordinary: the Model S, for example, has a 0–100 time of 3.0 seconds (performance variant) and will do so without the engine roar typical of its petrol-powered peers doing the same thing.  They are an idea whose time has come – unfortunately too late for Nikola Tesla, who died in poverty in 1943 in spite of his brilliance and many inventions (he sold his patents).

Tesla Motors is the brainchild of a Canadian entrepreneur with the delightful name of Elon Musk. Tesla is not his only breakthrough invention: he’s also one of the team who created PayPal, the man behind the SpaceX non-governmental space exploration organisation (the one that’s thinking about the Mars colony) and tons of other high-tech ideas, including SolarCity, which produces low-cost solar panels to reduce dependence on fossil fuels even further. He is the owner of the famous aquatic Lotus Esprit that appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me and has strong opinions on keeping a lid on artificial intelligence, in spite of owning an AI company.

Of course, with any vehicle, you’re going to have to think about how you’ll make sure it’s got what it takes to move, whether you have to top it up with electricity, petrol or diesel. One of the big barriers to the widespread use of purely electric vehicles is the problem of recharging the battery. You thought recharging your mobile phone was bad! This infrastructure problem is a hurdle that has to be overcome with any new fuel or power source type. With electrical vehicles, there’s also the problem that many generators run on fossil fuel, which means that this technology isn’t quite as green as you thought it might have been. However, the boffins are working on improving ways to get electricity without burning fossil fuel and coal (like Elon Musk’s SolarCity power project mentioned above), so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Tesla models can be charged with enough juice in the battery (OK, I’ll spare you the science lesson about electrical potential energy) to last them 270 km. At Tesla’s specific supercharger stations, this charging process takes about 30 minutes, which is quicker than charging my mobile phone when it’s run flat. You plug it in, head off to the shops, then come back when you get a notification via the Tesla charging app. Tesla vehicles can also be topped up with charge at “destination charging stations”, which are businesses (e.g. shops, cinemas, etc.) that have a compatible charger

Three Tesla models are available for sale in Australia today. Most of these are likely to be sold in Victoria and New South Wales, as these are the states which have Tesla-specific “supercharger” charging stations available. Most of these charging stations are located strategically along the M31 highway between Melbourne and Sydney, and another is located up in Port Macquarie. Destination charging is also available in all states except Northern Territory (most of the Top End misses out – sorry, Darwin and Cairns!). For those interested in a test drive, the showrooms are located in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s true that purely electric cars have a long way to go until they are as popular as petrol/diesel cars, mostly for infrastructure reasons. However, given the way that hybrid vehicles have caught on, we are likely to see more pure electric cars such as the ground-breaking Tesla, gliding around Australian roads. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the Toyota Prius was a real novelty by being a production hybrid; now just about every car manufacturer is putting out hybrids. Now if we can just solve the problem of making sure that we’ve got enough sustainably produced electricity (i.e. if we don’t end up having to use fossil-fuel fired power generators to meet the electricity needs of heaps of hybrid and electric vehicles), all will be very well indeed.

 

Are Cars Getting Bigger and Heavier?

911s side by side

Porsche 911 Gets Bigger

When you have a look at the cars on the road, most of them are typically roomy and comfortable to drive.  The bulk of the cars seem to be medium-to-large vehicles, with a few small cars thrown in for good measure.  With our ever increasing desire to buy a new SUV, perceiving that driving such a vehicle will make the drive a safer one, it seems that cars on our roads are increasing in size.  Trends like the increasing SUV market suggests that consumers are really wanting that bigger vehicle with space and style to boot.  So what are the factors making the cars bigger on our roads?

The Safety Element

New cars have to be designed and built with the best safety features available.  If manufacturers fail to take the safety side of things seriously, then people just don’t buy them.  Crash testing informs the potential buyers of how safe a new vehicle will be and, if the crash test results don’t get anywhere near five stars, then the consumers are getting switched off, going to another model or even another car manufacturer to buy their new car.  With safety playing such an important part in new car sales, car manufacturers ensure that their new models going into production are equipped with all the important safety features; and this often adds to the car’s weight and, sometimes, size.  Side impact rails take up space; increased crumple zones front and rear take up space; six or more airbags take up space; strengthened A pillars takes up space, so it’s easy to see how models have had to increase in size.  What about all the extra active safety features like active cruise control, rear parking aids, lane change assist, collision avoidance systems, ABS, TSC, ESC, Limited Slip Diff, rollover detection, driver alerts, launch control, hill descent control… and the list goes on; increased weight and size being the natural result.

Luxury and Comfort Features.

We all like a bit of entertainment, and with more than six speakers, a CD stack in the boot, MP3 compatibility, multiple USB and auxiliary ports, multiple auxiliary jacks, glovebox coolers, cup-holders, back seat DVD entertainment, heated seats, rear-seat recline, electric windows, AWD, a touch screen, infotainment system, satellite navigation, zoned climate control, Smartphone connection, a panoramic sunroof and more, it all adds to the weight of the car – not to mention the ability to hold all these extra gadgets with extra compartments needing to be made to house the features.  Other accessories like larger alloy wheels, boot spoilers and fog lamps all make the car heavier and look larger, too.

People Are Larger So Cars Need To Be Larger

You could argue that with people generally getting larger (fatter would be more accurate but less PC) the general public need to buy a car that fits their bigger frames.

A Positive With Increasing Car Size

One of the amazing trends that runs alongside the cars’ bigger framework, however, is the fact that the modern bigger cars are getting better fuel economy – now that’s a great thing.  Automotive design teams are doing incredibly well at making cars more fuel efficient and more powerful, even as the car’s weight, size, comfort and safety ratings are all increasing.

What’s your thoughts; and do you have any interesting photos to back this trend up with?

Peugeots Side-by-Side

Peugeots Side-by-Side

Car Safety Trivia

This is the closest the Hybrid III crash test dummy family gets to smiling.

The Hybrid III crash test dummy family portrait.

I don’t know why trivia books are so popular, but they are. We could spend a bit of time pondering what it is about humanity that makes collecting obscure and quirky facts interesting or amusing. However, that wouldn’t be half as much fun as actually sharing a bit of trivia, taking the topic of car safety this time.

Not that car safety is a trivial issue, by any means. These days, a new car review is just as likely to emphasise all the safety features, active and passive, as it is to list the power and torque stats. And no wonder: in the state of Victoria last year, there were 248 fatal road accidents; NSW had 302. Some of these were drivers, some were passengers, some were cyclists and some were pedestrians. This is why safety features exist, everybody. There are a lot of lives that could be saved. When you think about the number of people who do idiot things like not wearing seatbelts, drinking too much and driving at speeds that are just plain too fast for the conditions, “facepalm” and “head-desk” just don’t quite cover it.

Right, enough depressing stuff and on with the trivia…

  • Top-level crash testing facilities such as MIRA in the UK don’t just crash-test cars. They also test other vehicles like heavy trucks, and “roadside furniture” such as lamp posts and traffic lights. Yes, they now crash-test lamp-posts to make them safer so wrapping your car around a pole is less likely. Don’t hold your breath for them to make it over to Australia for a while yet, though, so drive safely!
  • The first crash test dummy was called “Sierra Sam”.  Sam was invented in the late 1940s and was used for testing ejector seats in aircraft. It wasn’t until later that someone realised that using crash test dummies would be a good idea for new car models.
  • The average crash test dummy is 1.78 metres tall.
  • Airbags were first invented in 1952 by US inventor John W Hetrick. However, it wasn’t until 1971 that Ford  first actually put them in.
  • The three-point seatbelt that we all know today was invented in 1959 by a guy working for Volvo named Nils Ivar Bohlin. According to Volvo , during the inventor’s lifetime, about 1 million lives were saved by the three-point seatbelt. Let’s all make his name known more widely, because he certainly deserves it.
  • The state of Victoria was the first place in the world to enact seat belt legislation in 1970 when they made it compulsory for drivers and front seat passengers to wear some sort of seat belt. That’s over 40 years ago and some people still haven’t managed to get it.
  • Crash test dummies aren’t the only things strapped into the seats of cars and propelled at speed into an obstacle. Over the years, testers have used human cadavers and, rather nastily, live pigs under anaesthesia. Testing with live anaesthetised animals wasn’t banned until 1993. Cadaver testing sounds pretty macabre and probably is, but is considered to be the absolute best way to test new passive safety features. When you think about it, it’s no worse than donating organs for transplants or donating your body to medical colleges for research purposes and it does help save lives. It certainly beats using the poor old piggies.
  • Airbags inflate at 320 km/h, which is faster than the top speed of most cars they’re installed in.
  • The most common type of crash test dummy is the Hybrid III. To be more accurate, the Hybrid III family is used. This crash test dummy family consists of Mr Hybrid III (five foot nine inches), his big brother Uncle Hybrid III (six foot two), Mrs Hybrid III (five foot no inches) and two kids aged six and three. Mr Hybrid represents the 50th percentile for adults, Uncle is the 95th percentile and Mrs Hybrid is the 5th percentile.
  • Those percentiles mentioned in the snippet above are now out of date. Thanks to galloping obesity (or, more appropriately, not galloping), there’s a chance that crash testing facilities are going to need big fat dummies.

Safe (very safe) and happy driving,

Megan

A Sprint to the Finish for Ford Australia’s Falcon.

As October 2016 draws inexorably closer, the date set by Ford Australia to cease local manufacturing, the boxes of tissues are being stockpiled by the Ford faithful. But, for some, there won’t be just tears of sadness but tears of joy and, perhaps, a few born of anger and frustration. Why? Aussies will see Ford sign off on the Falcon nameplate by resurrecting one with more than a hint of history.

May 2015 will see the Ford Falcon Sprint go on sale, in a strictly limited numbers run of just 1400 cars. There will be 550 XR6 spec Sprints, 850 XR8 spec Sprints and there’ll be 150 cars, (50 XR6, 100 XR8) allocated to our Kiwi cousins.
Prices will start from $54990 (plus on road costs or ORC) for the XR6, so what will the canny investor get for their sheckels?

Each car will get an individually numbered plate confirming it was part of the build. There’s a specially Sprint calibrated 5.0L V8 with 345 kW and 575 torques. Of note will be the range that torque is to be made available. It’ll start from 2220 revs and will stay there through to 6250. Adding to the expected genuflecting purists will exhibit will be the transmissions.2016 Ford Falcon XR8 Sprint

Yes, transmissions plural. If Sir has three legs there’s a proper gearbox, a manual, or for easy as you go driving, a six speed auto. It’s auto only for the XR6 Sprint, with the turboed 4.0L offering up 325 kW and a hardly shy 576 Nm at 2750 rpm. The auto will be recalibrated to take advantage of the near V8 Supercar torque.
Both XR6 Sprint and XR8 Sprint will be able to momentarily top those numbers, with 370 kW and 650 Nm on overboost for the six, whilst the big vee will go to 400 kW and the same torque.

There’ll be uprated brakes from Brembo (six and four spot calipers, front and rear), blacked out headlight bezels, 19 inch diameter black painted wheels, a black rear decklid spoiler and blacket out foglight surrounds. In addition, the XR8 Sprint will also receive a Silhouette black roof and wing mirrors. The XR6 external indicator light will move to teh wing mirror and the cars will be given Sprint scuff plates in the door section. There’ll be just six colours on offer, with metallic such as Victory Gold a mere $500 premium.2016 Ford Falcon XR6 Sprint engine

The interior also gets an overhaul, with Sprint leather and suede trim for the pews, auto dimming rear vision mirror, bespoke trim for the instrument cluster, high end audio and a Sprint labelled head for the manual’s gear selector. Sprint specific decals will adorn the exterior and the wheels will also be different widths front to rear.

Along with the extra go and the trim, the XR6 will also feature an Aussie first, with a carbon fibre air intake system. Said to be stronger and more responsive than the current setup, Graeme Whickman, president and CEO, Ford of Australia also says: “The Falcon’s legacy will live on well beyond this year through our designers and engineers that will continue to innovate to make Australian’s lives better. The Falcon XR6 Sprint’s new innovative carbon fibre engine air intake is the latest example of how our local engineers and suppliers will reshape the auto industry well into the future.”

The manual XR8 Sprint will be priced at $59990 +ORC with the self shifter at $62190 + ORC.

Yes, October 2016 is on its way but there’s no doubt that this farewell from Ford Australia will put the Falcon Sprint well into the history books as possibly the best Falcons ever to be built.

Written exclusively for Private Fleet by Dave Conole. Information provided by Ford Australia via autonews.net.au