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Weird Stuff


Given that the car was more or less invented in Germany, and given that German is a language in which you can create compound words with subtle and complex meanings, it’s not surprising that there’s a German word that all true drivers can relate to, even if we’ve never come across the word before or if we don’t speak German. This word is “fahrvernügen”, which means something like “the pleasure of driving” or “the joy of travelling”. 

OK, to be fair, the word isn’t a traditional one, and it was probably coined in the 1990s as part of a Volkswagen ad campaign that ran in the US. However, that was around 30 years ago (feeling old now?) and just because a word was made up for advertising purposes doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimately part of the vocabulary, especially when it’s a useful term that describes an everyday activity or need.  By way of comparison, fahrvergnügen is older than the English verb “to google” and nobody will challenge the idea that “google” is a legitimate verb. As far as I can work out, fahrvergnügen is an official German word.

And no wonder it’s become official, no matter how it entered the language.  I’m kind of surprised that it wasn’t around before the 1990s, as it’s certainly a thing that most of us can relate to, no matter what language we speak.  For some people, it’s the thrill of pushing down the throttle and feeling the acceleration and the blur of speed. For some, it’s the sideways G-forces as you put something with exquisite handling around a particularly curvy piece of road. For others, it’s the feeling of being in control. For others, it’s the combination of the car’s sound and personality. And for others, it’s just the satisfaction and pleasure of getting out of one’s usual surroundings and going somewhere else.

German has a few other words with no English equivalent that have their uses in the world of cars, driving and automotive topics that most drivers can relate to. Here’s a selection:

  • Fernweh – a longing for far-off places
  • Kabelsalat (literally “cable salad”) or a mess of cables, which is what you’ll be greeted with when trying to check the fuses or to install a new speaker in any modern car.
  • Schilderwald (literally: “shield forest”): a street so full of signs that it’s more likely to make you lost and confused than otherwise.
  • Schlimmbesserung: A tweak or update that was supposed to improve things but actually makes things worse.  The related verb is “Verschlimmbessern”. I think we can all think of examples, but I’m not stupid enough to name them, even for the sake of schadenfreude (the pleasure of seeing other’s misfortune).
  • Autobahn: I think we don’t have this one because we don’t have autobahns; we just have motorways that have set speed limits.

Just for the fun of it, other languages also have some words with no English equivalent that most drivers can relate to, like the following:

  • Akihi (Hawaiian): to get instructions or directions, then forget them completely when you try to apply them.
  • Gilchi (Korean): Someone who has a terrible sense of direction and gets lost all too easily.
  • Resfeber (Swedish): that feeling of nerves, excitement and anticipation before a journey begins.

And what about that other German phrase we see frequently in the automotive world, namely Audi’s slogan of “Vorsprung durch Technik”? Well, this means something like “advancement/progress through technology” or “the technical edge” or “technological advantage”. In fact, Audi tried to get this phrase trademarked, but this led to a long and complicated court case – which is a good story for another time, to quote the Star Wars sequels.

Anyway, even if you never came across the original fahrvergnügen ad campaign, I’m sure that you’ve experienced the concept all the same. Tell us in the comments what makes up fahrvergnügen for you.

The Fastest Wedge Of Orange In The Galaxy: The Bond Bug

Image by Mick from England – Bond Bug 3 Wheeler, CC BY 2.0,

It’s groovy.  It’s bright orange.  It’s a small car that aimed to capture the younger section of the automotive market that came out during a fuel crisis.  It’s the Bond Bug.  What’s more, it’s decidedly weird.

The Bond Bug isn’t like any other car found on the roads, and I very much doubt if you’ll see one on the roads of Australia, as only a few thousand were produced during its production run, which lasted from 1970 to 1974 (yes, this car is older than I am).  Although the engine is fairly standard – a nice little 700 cc water-cooled inline four engine – it’s the styling that really turned heads and is still turning them.  It wasn’t just the fact that the car had three wheels (which one motoring enthusiast described was either one wheel too many or one wheel too few). It also had a futuristic wedge shaped shape with a very space-age lift-up hood as well as two doors and pop-up lights. You could call it a two-door hatchfront instead of a hatchback. It seated two people on its black seats (bright orange and black – you could hardly get something more seventies than that!). It did have a boot that was able to get a small amount of luggage, such as a guitar, but that was about it.  The bodywork was made from fibreglass, meaning that the vehicle was light, allowing for better fuel economy (but probably not safety!).

The looks were the brainchild of Tom Karen, a designer for the Ogle company who, among other things, designed the Raleigh Chopper bicycle, a very cool-looking bike that I vaguely remember the cool kids having when I was at primary school (if they didn’t have BMX bikes, that is). The Raleigh Chopper made a brief comeback this year, possibly to commemorate the death of Tom Karen in January 2023.

The Bond Bug was produced by Reliant. Reliant also produced another three-wheeled car, namely the Robin, which is best known as the three-wheeled car that shows up in the Mr Bean skits as the adversary of Mr Bean’s trusty little Mini. This (meaning the Robin, not the Mini) was also designed by Tom Karen.

In terms of performance, the Bond Bug wasn’t quite a supercar, shall we say? The 700ES variant boasted 23 kW of power when the curve peaked at 5000 rpm, and had 52 Nm of torque at the same number of revs. If you think that it could barely overtake a fairly speedy snail or a leisurely cyclist, the Bond Bug was capable of a top speed of 121 km/h and did the 0–100 km/h sprint (?) in 19.7 seconds. Needless to say, it had a rear wheel drive. The handling also left something to be desired.

If you think that the Bond Bug looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, you are absolutely right. In fact, Tom Karen worked with none other than George Lucas and used the chassis from a Bond Bug to create the Landspeeder that Luke Skywalker drives in the early scenes of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (the anti-grav effect is done with mirrors).

Don’t Blame EVs For This Fire

Stock image – not the Luton Airport carpark fire.

I’m not sure if you caught this one on the news recently but recently, Luton Airport in London was shut down because of a major fire that ripped through a full car park, writing off over 1000 cars.  It wasn’t long until someone posted videos of this on YouTube and other social media, with at least one video – which went viral – either suspecting or outright blaming EVs for the fire and even claiming that this would kill the EV market.

Well, we all know that the social media is not the most reliable source of new, unless its news about your family members and friends that they post directly (and even then, it can be dodgy!). According to the officials investigating the fire, it looks as though a diesel car was to blame. All vehicles get pretty dramatic when fire is involved, either thanks to being full of a highly combustible substance (petrol or diesel) or prone to thermal runaway in the case of a short-circuit (in the case of EVs) or both (hybrid vehicles), so once the fire got started, every new car involved in the blaze made the problem worse. On top of that, the building didn’t have a proper sprinkler system. What were they thinking?

Were EVs involved in the Luton Airport car park fire? Well, given that London usually has a congestion charge but exempts EVs from this, I think it’s safe to say that a few EVs would have been caught up in the inferno. However, it looks as though they weren’t the cause. The claims probably arose because there have been warnings put out by several fire departments and authorities that lithium batteries are one of the most rapidly growing causes of fires. However, it’s not EVs that tend to get the firefighters called in. Instead, the more culprits are e-bikes and e-scooters that have been plugged into the charger for too long, resulting in the battery overheating and triggering thermal runaway.

EV fires are not particularly common because the designers know about the problem and have done their darnedest to prevent them happening. They are still working to ensure that the battery pack can’t be damaged easily, as anything that crushes or punctures the battery pack can trigger a reaction. The problem is that lithium battery fires burn differently from petrol or diesel fires (and a lot hotter), and the technique of putting them out quickly is different, and it’s something that firefighters may not have been trained in, although that’s changing as EV uptake increases – to say nothing of those annoying e-bike and e-scooter fires. This is partly because starving the reaction of oxygen (which works for combustible things) doesn’t work in the case of thermal runaway. The difference between the way ICEs burn and the way EVs burn is reminiscent of some of the advice given by Marmie in Little Women:

He has a temper, not like ours—one flash and then all over—but the white, still anger that is seldom stirred, but once kindled, is hard to quench. 

It’s not the case that EVs are more prone to catching fire because of the batteries. Petrol and diesel cars can also burn nastily, though probably not the way you see them do in the movies, where even one bullet turns a car into a fireball. It’s just that EVs are different, and what causes them to catch fire can be unexpected, so people don’t know to avoid the risk.

So what can you do to minimize your risk of a fire in your new EV? Here are some tips I’ve come across:

  • Watch out for sharp objects on the road. Physical damage to the battery can trigger thermal runaway – in fact, this is probably one of the most notorious causes of EV fires. Potholes can be quite nasty, so if you end up driving an EV through one of these, get it checked pronto. The same applies to loose stones.  This is probably also the reason why EVs aren’t as popular in circles and places where serious bush-bashing happens and dirt roads are common, as the potential for damage is much higher.
  • Keep the car at the right temperature. An EV is like Goldilocks – it doesn’t like to sit somewhere too cold (in which case, the battery will sulk) and it doesn’t like being too hot either. In a well-ventilated garage is probably the best, with air conditioning if you live in a particularly hot part of the country, or at least in the shade in summer.
  • Avoid charging the battery to 100%. Stop short of the maximum. Overcharging is usually the root cause of fires in smaller lithium batteries (phones, e-bikes, laptops, etc.). It’s recommended to keep the battery level between 20% and 80%. This may mean that you have to be more vigilant when charging your vehicle and keep an eye on progress, either via an app or in person.

The Stanley Steamer

Now that electric cars are becoming more popular, and there’s talk about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, our attention has been turned to what’s powering our cars.  In this context, it’s interesting to one of the solutions used in the past as an alternative to petrol or diesel power: steam.

One of the inventors of the Stanley Steamer and his wife driving in his invention.

A good friend of mine, during a discussion on fuels, EVs and similar topics, wondered whether steam could be used to drive a car.  I was sceptical, but it turns out that I was wrong. A little over 100 years ago, steam-powered cars were indeed a thing.  They aren’t just a steampunk fantasy, as I had thought.

One of the most popular type of steam-powered cars was invented by the Stanley twins in the USA at the end of the 19th century. Bizarrely, F.E. and F.O. Stanley also invented one of the first photographic airbrushes, as they started their business ventures in the area of photography.  However, automobiles were a lot more interesting, and they started the Stanley Motor Company in 1902 after an earlier attempt with a company known as Locomobile. 

At that time, many internal combustion engines that ran on petrol or diesel needed a crank to start them up.  These cranks were tough to turn and required a fair bit of elbow grease.  They could even be dangerous, as if the car backfired while someone was cranking it, this could leave the person doing the cranking with a broken arm.  However, the Stanley Steamers used gasoline (petrol) to generate a good head of steam, which provided the power to turn the wheels, and they didn’t need cranking.  Stanley Steamers were designed with safety in mind, as they had a system in place to prevent the boiler from exploding if too much heat and pressure was generated.

For its time, the Stanley Steamer had some fairly impressive specs.  It was a rear wheel drive affair, and didn’t require a transmission or clutch system, meaning that they were easier to drive.  The power output varied depending on the engine type.  The basic model (the compact engine) could deliver 7.5 kW.  Two twin-cylinder engines were developed, the smaller one (3¼-inch bore and 4¼-inch stroke) also put out 7.5 kW, but the larger one (4-inch bore and 5-inch stroke) delivered a massive 15 kW.

For its time, the Stanley Steamer was quite fast.  In fact, a customised version of the Stanley Steamer known as the Stanley Rocket Racer became the holder of the world land speed record for automobiles over a mile, clocking up 204 km/h in a trial at Daytona.  This record stood for five years, and remained the best time over a mile for a steam-powered car until 2009.

As time went by, the Stanley twins refined their design, switching to lightweight aluminium bodywork and features such as condensers that harvested the steam so that the range of the water tank could be extended. 

However, the makers of cars with internal combustion engines managed to find an alternative to the crank: the electric starter motor. This meant that the drawbacks of cranks were no longer, and the Stanley Steamer lost its biggest attraction, especially with the rise of cars produced via mass production and sold cheaply, Ford being the best known example of these.  The Model T cost less than a quarter of the price of the Stanley Steamer and the engine of even the base model, which ran on petrol, kerosene or ethanol (now, that’s an idea worth revisiting), had the same power output as the best of the “Flying Teapots”, as the Steamers were known.

Given the stiff competition from the internal combustion engines inside the Model T and similar vehicles, things didn’t look good for the Stanley Steamer. Eventually, after one of the twins died (in a car crash, of all things), the company went under, ultimately closing in 1924.

The Stanley Steamer wasn’t the only steam-powered car in existence.  Others have been made and sold, especially the Doble, and the idea has come back now and again over the past century or so, especially given concerns over pollution and the availability of fuel.  Saab had a go at making a steam car in the 1970s during the fuel crisis of that decade (the project failed, unfortunately).  An Australian inventor and enthusiast named Ted Pritchard tried to develop one in the 1960s and beyond and had some success.  Until he died in the early 2000s, he was pushing for the use of steam-powered cars. 

External combustion engines (which is what a steam engine is) aren’t as efficient as ICEs but they produce a lot less pollution, as they don’t burn as much fuel.  They are heavy, thanks to the need for a strong boiler and a water tank.  They can accelerate quickly once they’ve got a good head of steam up, but they do need a fair bit of time to boil and let the pressure build; this is one of the things that experimenters wanting to bring back the steam car try to work on.

And what about the future?  Given the push towards vehicles that are less dependent on petrol and diesel, will we see attempts to make the steam car come back again?  Electric cars have made a comeback (and how!), so perhaps steam will do the same.