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Reinventing The Wheel – Several Times

They say that you shouldn’t try reinventing the wheel.  But why shouldn’t you try to reinvent the wheel?   After all, wheels have been reinvented several times over the course of history, and they’ve got better and better every time – something that most motorists of today should appreciate.  Let’s face it: there are more wheels in your car than the ones that actually touch the tarmac.

Let’s go back to when the wheel was first invented, which, according to archaeologists, was about 3800–3500 BC.  Before they had the wheel, the way that they hauled large loads about the place was to put it on a sled sort of thing.  You can try this for yourself some time: compare pulling a large rock across grass straight and then put it on a plank or a piece of tin or something and see how much easier it is.  They think that this is how they managed to build the Pyramids and Stonehenge, by the way.

During the sled years, they worked out that if you put rollers under a sled, it gets even easier to pull a load along.  The only trouble with rollers is that someone has to take the ones that have just popped out the back of the load to the front of the load, and if you’re not quick enough, then everything comes to a standstill.  Then some absolute genius had an idea: what if you could fix rollers permanently under a sled?  That gave us the axle.  Then another genius realised that if you have a larger round thing on the end of the roller, then the sled is off the ground completely and the load can be pulled much faster.  Hey presto: wheels.

Solid wheels on an ox cart from China.

The wheels on early carts and vehicles weren’t made out of stone, which you might be picturing if you’ve seen the Flintstones.  Stone wheels did exist, but these tended to be used for grinding grain rather than for transport.  The early wheels were wooden, and tended to be made of several pieces of wood carefully shaped (tree trunks aren’t always perfectly round) and clamped around the axle in the middle.  However, these wheels were really, really heavy.  With a pair of oxen hitched to the front, a cart could go at about 3 km per hour, which is fine if what you need to do is to carry a large load, but for getting yourself from A to B, it was quicker to walk.

Enter the first reinvention of the wheel.  Another unknown genius looked at the wheel and wondered how to reduce the weight to get better speed and greater efficiency (much like car designers do today).  This genius realised that what you need is the roundness of the outside of the wheel, the bit in the middle that hold the axle and something in between to hold the outer circle to the inner circle.  In other words, you need the rim, the hub and the spokes.  This reduced the weight of the wheel dramatically, meaning that vehicles could go faster.  The combination of hub, spoke and rim was also a lot more aesthetically pleasing, as anyone who has looked at the designs of alloy wheels knows.   This may be why it just feels right to have alloy wheels on a sports car: somewhere deep down in the human psyche, we know that spoked wheels go faster.

And they certainly did go faster.  After the spoked wheel was invented, it became more feasible to use horses to power the vehicle.  Horses were to oxen what turbocharged petrol is to diesel.  Diesel’s great at low speeds and for serious towing but for fast sporty stuff, you go for petrol.  Where you’ve got speed, you’ve got to consider handling as well, especially if you want to corner tightly.  This led to the development of the two-wheeled chariot – possibly the earliest example of a rear wheel drive?  Most recorded uses and images of chariots were used in a battle context and no, they weren’t usually used in head-on charges, despite what you might see in the movies.  That sort of manoeuvre would just lead to pile-ups.  If you’ve got something that fast and easy to turn, it’s better strategy to use the chariot to come in from the side and either drop off infantry or else shoot from the chariot itself before pelting away like mad.

This model comes fitted with classy six-spoke wheels for improved speed and better handling…

It probably didn’t take too long after the invention of chariots for people to try racing them.  It’s human nature when presented with something that moves fast to try to see who’s got the fastest.  Chariot racing was as popular back then as motorsport is today.  In Babylon, they enjoyed racing about on the asphalt – on the streets and on the top of the massive city walls (and yes, they did use actual real asphalt for road surfacing in Ancient Babylon).

There were two real problems with these lightweight chariot wheels.  Firstly, the chariot sat right on top of the axle and there was no suspension system to even out the bumps, which must have made a fast dash extremely uncomfortable for the charioteer and the archer riding up with him (or her, in the case of the Celts).  Leaf suspension is said to based on the technology of the bow and the Egyptians are said to have used it. The second problem was that round bits of wood chipped and broke really easily.  This led to reinvention number two: tyres (or “tires”, which is believed to be a shortened form of “attire”, suggesting that a wheel needed to be properly dressed).

Early tyres weren’t the rubber air-filled things we know today.  Instead, they were made of metal bands that contracted onto the rims as they cooled.  This protected the rim but increased road noise like mad.  It also made the jarring and jolting worse.  They made attempts to soften the steel with leather, but this only went so far and leather wore out pretty quickly with heavy use.

Metal tyres were the norm for millennia. Solid rubber tyres were tried once rubber had been made more widespread.  However, rubber was really, really bouncy, making the ride even worse (we don’t know how lucky we are with modern suspension and shock absorbers).  It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1800s that first a Scotsman called Robert Thompson and then another Scotsman called Charles Dunlop independently had the idea of making a hollow tube of rubber and fitting that around the rim of a tyre, which softened the ride without too much bounce.  Yes, that is Dunlop as in Dunlop tyres.  This was reinvention of the wheel Number Three.  Vulcanizing the rubber around the pneumatic tyre to make it tougher and more resistant to punctures was again invented independently by inventors on both sides of the Atlantic with more familiar names: Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock.  One hundred years after the invention of the pneumatic tyre, Michelin developed radial tyres and put these straight away onto the cars made by the company they had just bought out, Citroën.

The Virtruvian mill, one of the earliest gearing systems.

In the meantime across the ages, wheels weren’t just being used for transport.  Once the principle of the wheel and axle had been invented, it was used elsewhere.  One of the key ways that wheels were used in the hot conditions of the Near East and the Mediterranean was to lift water out of rivers up and into the irrigation channels of gardens and fields; the other was to grind grain into flour for daily bread.  The early versions, which needed something to turn the wheel vertically were a chore to turn – think treadmills.  Somebody realised that if you fit teeth near the rim of the solid wheel that’s turning in the vertical plane, you can make a second wheel being turned in the horizontal plane with similar teeth move the first wheel around.  In other words, they invented gears for irrigation systems and for grain mills, making this another reinvention of the wheel.  Before long, they were playing around with gearing ratios – this was one of the things that Archimedes (yes, the one who ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka!”) tinkered around with and refined.

Gears got really sophisticated over the centuries, especially for things like clockwork, but it wasn’t until the development of the internal combustion engine that these toothed wheels could be used for transport.  You can’t have the wheels turning at a speed that would make the cart or coach run faster than the horses pulling it.  It was Bertha Benz after her historic drive in the first motor car who had the idea of adding gears to the mechanism so a car could go uphill better.  At long last, the two branches of wheel development had come together, giving us the vehicles we know today, more or less.

What Did People Use Petroleum For Before The Internal Combustion Engine?

Vintage advertisement for benzine-based stain remover.

Petroleum is currently the backbone of the motoring industry, despite the push for alternate fuel sources such as biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, etc.  Ever since Karl Benz first invented the internal combustion engine and fitted it to the horseless carriage, vehicles have run on petroleum of some type – apart from a brief period where Diesel engines ran on vegetable oil.

On Bertha Benz’s legendary first long-distance drive in her husband’s new invention, she ran out of fuel and had to stop and pick up more from the nearest pharmacy.  It’s easy to just take in that sentence and think what a funny place a pharmacy is to pick up petrol until you stop and think about it: why was a chemist’s shop selling petrol?  What on earth were people using it for before we had cars to put it in?

Petroleum has certainly been known for at least four millennia. The name comes from Ancient Greek: petra elaion, meaning “rock oil”, which distinguished it from other sorts of oil such as olive oil, sunflower seed oil and the like.  The stuff was coming out of the ground all around the world, and quite a few ancient societies found a use for it.

The most useful form of petroleum back in the days BC (as in Before Cars as well as Before Christ) was bitumen, the sticky variety that we now use for making asphalt for road surfacing.  Bitumen (also called pitch or tar) didn’t just stick to things; it was also waterproof. As it was a nice waterproof adhesive, it came in handy for all sorts of things, from sticking barbed heads onto harpoons through to use as mortar – the famously tough walls of the ancient city of Babylon (modern-day Iraq, 2which is still oil-rich) used bitumen as mortar.  The Egyptians sometimes used it in the process of mummification, using it as a waterproofing agent.  In fact, the word “mummy” is thought to derive from the Persian word for bitumen or petroleum, making mummies the very first petrolheads.

For the next thousand years, petroleum in the form of bitumen was mostly used for waterproofing ships, to the extent that sailors became known as “tars” because they tended to get covered with the stuff.  In the 1800s, it was used to make road surface – before there were cars to run on them.

It was probably the Chinese who first had the idea of using petroleum as fuel.  “Burning water” was used in the form of natural gas for lighting and heating in homes, and in about 340 AD, they had a rather sophisticated oil well drilling and piping system in place.

The bright idea of refining bitumen to something less sticky and messy first occurred in the Middle East (why are we not surprised?) at some point during the Middle Ages.  A Persian alchemist and doctor called Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (aka Rhazes) wrote a description of how to distil rock oil using the same equipment the alchemists used for distilling essential oils.  The end result was what we know today as kerosene, and it was a lot more flammable.  Kerosene was used for lamps and in heaters, especially as it was a lot cleaner than coal.  It was also used in military applications.  Naphtha (one of the other early names for petroleum products) was possibly one of the mystery ingredients in Greek fire.

Kerosene and the like really took off during the Age of Coal and the Industrial Revolution, as they were by-products of the coke-refining industry.  About this time, scientists started tinkering around with various ways to refine crude oil into products like paraffin and benzene and benzine.  Benzene and benzine are not named after Karl and Bertha Benz the way that diesel fuel is named after Rudolf Diesel.  These words are actually derived from “benzoin” and benzene was given its official name by yet another German scientist in the early 1800s.  The similarity between the surname Benz and the name of the petrol product is pure coincidence – really!

The petrol product (ligroin) that Bertha Benz picked up at the pharmacy was probably sold as a solvent, like the ad in the picture up the top. This was one of the most common household uses of bottled refined petroleum.  Petrol is still very good as a solvent and can bust grease like few other things, so it was popular as a stain remover and a laundry product.  It might have ponged a bit and you had to be careful with matches, but it was nice and handy, and meant you could get that candle-grease off your suit without putting the whole thing through the wash.  Other uses for benzene that sound downright bizarre to us today included getting the caffeine out of coffee to make decaf and aftershave.  REALLY don’t try this one at home, even if you love the smell of petrol, as we now know that petrol products are carcinogenic and you should keep them well away from your skin, etc.

It was the widespread use of petroleum-based products such as paraffin in the 1800s that made the demand for whale oil drop dramatically.  This happened just in time to stop whales being hunted to extinction.  Using petrol was the green thing to do and helped to Save The Whales.  Now that whales have been saved and are thriving, cutting down on the use of fossil fuels is the main focus of a lot of environmental groups.  Irony just doesn’t seem to cover it.

The Story Of Diesel

It’s something we hear about our think about just about every day, whether we drive a diesel-powered vehicle or a petrol-powered one.  There you are, pulling up at the local bowser and you have to stop and do a quick check to make sure that you get the right one, diesel rather than petrol or vice versa.  You probably don’t stop to think about the word diesel much or the history behind it.

Most of us think that diesel engines are called diesel engines because they run on diesel. After all, a petrol engine runs on petrol (which, for you word boffins out there, is short for petroleum, which is derived from the Latin petra oleum, translated “rock oil”).  However, this isn’t the case.  We call the fuel diesel because it was what went in a diesel engine, i.e. the sort of internal combustion engine invented by Herr Rudolf Diesel back in 1893.  If you want to be picky, what we use is “diesel fuel” which we put into a diesel.

The story of the diesel engine starts back in the days of steam.  Steam power, though a major breakthrough that transformed the world and took us into the era of machines rather than relying on muscle power, was pretty inefficient.  You needed a lot of solid fuel to burn and you needed water that could be boiled to produce the steam, and you needed to build up a good head of steam to get the pressure needed to drive the locomotives, paddle steamers and machines.  Steam was really inefficient – up to 90% of the potential energy was wasted – and it was pretty bulky (think about steam trains, which need a caboose or a built-in tender to carry the fuel and water).  The hunt was on for something that could provide the same type of oomph and grunt but with less waste (and possibly less space).

In the 1890s, a young engineer named Rudolf Diesel came into the scene and started work on developing a more efficient engine. One of his earlier experiments involving a machine that used ammonia vapour caused a major explosion that nearly killed him and put him in hospital for several months. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, Diesel carried on, and began investigating how best to use the Carnot Cycle. His interest was also sparked by the development of the internal combustion engine and the use of petroleum by fellow-German Karl Benz.

The Carnot Cycle is based on the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which more or less state that heat is work and work is heat, and that heat won’t pass of its own accord from a cold object to a hotter object. This video gives a very catchy explanation of these laws:

The Carnot Cycle is a theoretical concept that involves heat energy coming from a furnace in one chamber to the working chamber, where the heat turns into work because heat causes gases and liquids to expand (it also causes solids to expand but not so dramatically). The remaining heat energy is soaked up by a cooling chamber.  The principle is also used in refrigerators to get the cooling effect.

Diesel’s engine was based on the work of a few other inventors before him, as is the case with a lot of handy inventions.  Diesel’s engine was the one that became most widespread and proved most popular, which is why we aren’t putting Niepce, Brayton, Stuart or Barton in our cars and trucks.  In fact, we came very close to putting Stuart in our engines, as Herbert Ackroyd Stuart patented a compression ignition engine using similar principles a couple of years before Rudolph Diesel did.

The general principle of a Diesel engine is that it uses compressed hot air (air gets hotter when it’s compressed, which is why a bicycle pump feels hot when you’ve been using it for a while) to get the fuel in the internal combustion engine going.  This is in contrast to a petrol engine (which we really ought to call an Otto engine, as it operates on the Otto Cycle rather than the Diesel Cycle), which used sparks of electricity to get the fuel and air mix going. Petrol engines compress the air-fuel mix a little bit – down to about 10% of its original size, but a diesel engine, the air is compressed a lot more tightly. More details of how it works would probably be better described in a post of its own, so we’ll save the complicated explanation for later.

Diesel fuel doesn’t need to be as refined as what goes into petrol engines, which is what makes diesel engines a bit more efficient than their equivalents that run on more refined petrol (makes you wonder why “petrolheads” are considered to be coarse and crude).  The fuel is more energy-dense and it burns more completely – and it needs less lubrication, which means less friction, which is also more efficient.

Herr Diesel’s original idea was to have his engine run on something that wasn’t this fancy petroleum stuff, which was mostly used medicinally to treat headlice at that stage.  The first prototype used petrol as we know it.  Later models used the cheap fraction that now bears his name.  Even later refinements ran on vegetable oil, with the grand idea that people could grow a source of fuel rather than mine or drill for it.  One of the great mysteries of the story of diesel is why they switched to fossil fuels when the peanut oil that Diesel raved about worked so well.  Now we’re all excited about biofuels and especially biodiesel once again…  Was there some conspiracy at work?

However, how diesel engines came to run on fossil fuels rather than plant oil is not the only mystery about Rudolf Diesel.  His death was also unexpected and mysterious.  In late 1913, this German inventor was on his way by ship to the UK for a conference.  One night, he headed off to his cabin and asked the stewards to wake him early in the morning.  However, he vanished during the night, leaving his coat neatly folded beneath a railing.  Ten days later, his body, recognisable only from the items in his pockets, was pulled from the sea.

How his body came to be found floating in the English Channel is a mystery.  Perhaps the problems with his eyesight left over from his accident with the ammonia vapour explosion and a rough sea led to an accident. Perhaps he committed suicide, as a lot of the fortune his invention had earned him had gone into shares that devalued.  Or perhaps foul play was at work. After all, in 1913, tensions were building between Diesel’s native Germany and the UK, where Diesel had planned to meet with engineers and designers for the Royal Navy.  This was the era of the Anglo-German Naval Race, where the German and British navies were in an all-out arms race to get control of the economically important North Sea.  When Diesel was making his ill-fated crossing, the Germans had the use of the more efficient diesel technology but the British had the formidable Dreadnought class of steam-powered battleships.  The arms race was officially over, as Germany had agreed to tone things down in order to placate the British – who had alliances with the two other political powers that were at loggerheads with Germany.  It’s perfectly possible that in spite of this and because of the political tension of the time, the idea of the firepower of the Dreadnought combined with the efficiency of the diesel engine was just too much for Kaiser Bill’s government…

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.


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.


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.