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Weird Stuff

Flying At Ground Level.

A certain British car show once had a story about a car powered by an engine sourced from a WW2 fighter plane. It was a spectacle to behold with flames, sparks, and smoke being emitted as it was piloted around the show’s test track.

British based John Crowhurst is one member of a very select group that has similar thoughts to the builder of that car. John, formerly based in South Africa, has found an engine that comes from the same basic aeronautic background, however it’s a British engine, not German.

During WW2 the Merlin engine powered planes such as the iconic Spitfire. Rolls-Royce sourced parts from engines that had been in crashed aircraft with the hope of being able to use them for something else during the war. A home was found for the project by using these parts as the basis for an engine that was called Meteor.
The Meteor engine was built for and used in tanks and was used until 1964. One of these has been repurposed to be the powerplant for a handbuilt car that John, sadly, can’t legally drive on UK roads.

It’s a V12 configuration, something that fans of Jaguar or Aston Martin can appreciate. But it’s the capacity that gives pause for thoughts. Consider for a moment that a Holden 5.0L engine was 308 cubic inches. John’s beast is 27.022 litres or a whopping 1648ci!
Naturally something this big needs a good (great?) cooling system and John has fitted a set of tanks that have a total of 70 litres worth of fluid capacity. This is where the Australian based Davies, Craig have joined the party. Two of the biggest electronic water pumps that Davies, Craig have, the EWP150, were sent to John and have been fitted, one at the rear and one at the front end for the radiator.

The car itself is built on a ladder chassis with tubular components forming the upper body structure. It’s strong but flexible enough to deal with the 631 horsepower and 1449 lb-ft (470 kW and 1964 Nm).

John’s naturally quite happy with this laments that, in his extensive sponsor list, he doesn’t have a fuel supplier. Why? At around 100 km/h or 60 mph it uses a litre of fuel every mile.
At least it won’t overheat thanks to the two Davies, Craig EWP150s!

Private Fleet Car(?) Review: Santa’s Sleigh

At this time of the year, one particular vehicle is commented on, illustrated and watched for (on Google’s Santa Tracker, for example). It has come to my attention that we haven’t reviewed this vehicle yet for Private Fleet.  Unfortunately, it won’t be available through our car reviews page, as it’s an extremely limited edition vehicle and pricing information isn’t available. Nevertheless, because this is the Christmas edition of the Private Fleet blog, let us now present you with the official Private Fleet review of Santa’s Sleigh.

Make and Model: Santa Sleigh, Yuletide Saturnalia variant.

Years manufactured: First reviewed in 1821, then modified in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.  Updated in 1939 to include Rudolph. Prior to this, Santa’s transportation of choice has included a white horse (possibly eight-legged). The sleigh concept was apparently imported from Finland – obviously some winter rally driving expertise went into the development of this vehicle.

Top speed: According to an article originally published in Spy magazine that worked out the physics of Santa’s Sleigh, the top speed required by Santa’s Sleigh is 650 miles per second, which is about 3000 times the speed of sound. As the sleigh operates silently without sonic booms, we suspect that the sleigh makes use of hyperspace and multiple dimensions to cover the necessary distance.

It is not known if any other vehicle can match this speed, although it was once given some stiff competition by Six White Boomers (snow white boomers) who raced Santa Claus through the blazing sun on his Australian run. It is thought that these may be used as his hot weather equivalent for Outback use.

Engine: The very best in German engineering, the Dasher-Dancer-Prancer-Vixen-Comet-Cupid-Donner-Blitzen-Rudolph unit is laid out in a V configuration.  The actual power output of this unit is uncertain, as the power equation requires us to know the weight, which is unknown and also is linked to gravitational force acting on mass, and the sleigh may have anitgravity features. The power requirements of interdimensional or hyperspace physics are also uncertain. Torque is not applicable, as this refers to rotational acceleration; as a sleigh uses runners rather than wheels, the acceleration – which is considerable – is linear rather than rotational.  The 0–100 km/h time is phenomenal and is probably measured in nanoseconds.

Fuel type:  Runs exclusively on biofuels, mostly carrots, with refuelling stations provided along with milk and cookies (or mince pies and sherry, depending on the household) down many chimneys.  Emissions are also environmentally friendly and while they contain some greenhouse gases in the form of methane, the majority can be used for compost or can be broken down by algae for biodiesel (as invented by Rudolf Diesel – a relative of the other Rudolph?). We presume that the compost is used to grow carrots, possibly enhanced by fairy dust and magic.

Seating: One main seat is provided for a driver, although smaller passenger seats may be installed for elf assistants.  A pinhead may also be provided for angels to dance on, as angelic beings are multidimensional and multiple entities are thus able to occupy the same unit of space-time (so that’s how the interdimensional capacity of the sleigh is worked!).

Lights: Bioluminescence provides the main lighting system.  Fairy dust and candles may also provide auxiliary lighting. The most notable feature of the lighting system is the Rudolph front fog light, a nose so bright and you could even say it glows. The Rudolph feature is illegal in most countries, which do not allow red lights on the front of vehicles.  We can therefore assume that the North Polar road regulations are different from those of the rest of the world; the importance of red in the total ensemble also suggests this.

Off Road Ability: The off-road ability of Santa’s sleigh is second to none.  Not only are sleighs and reindeer superbly suited to winter driving conditions without the need for snow chains, Santa’s Sleigh can go further off the road the most vehicles.  According to the original reviewer, Clement, “when they meet with an obstacle, [they] mount to the sky”.  Flight capacity is an essential feature of this vehicle, so ground clearance is, theoretically, infinite.

Cargo Capacity: The cargo capacity that is usually depicted as being located to the rear of the sleigh and is styled to resemble a sack probably also makes use of hyperspaces and interdimensionality.  According to the Spy magazine review, Santa delivers to 378 million children (this figure doesn’t include Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim children, who have their own traditions and figures).  Quick experimentation with a sturdy hiking sock and a couple of small beer bottles reveals that the typical stocking contains approximately 1 litre, giving the sleigh a cargo capacity of at least 378 million litres.

Safety Features: The braking system allows the sleigh to go to a complete standstill from Mach 3000 almost instantaneously.  As the sleigh appears to use multiple dimensions and appears to be weightless, it is possible that an antigravity function is at work and the braking ability is achieved by suddenly switching this off so the force of gravity can slow the sleigh to a standstill.  It is no wonder that the driver comes with side and front airbags installed.

Sound System:  Similar to other wintertime forms of transportation involving animals with a bouncing gait, music is provided by small bells attached to the harness: jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.

Driver Assistance: Some navigation appears to be provided by the Rudolph package, which was specifically asked to guide the sleigh one foggy Christmas Eve.  Stop-go functionality, off-road ability and possibly steering are completely voice activated:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!


“Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”


As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

The sleigh also seems to have automatic parking ability.  Reindeer are capable of seeing light in ultraviolet spectrum that humans cannot see and each reindeer has a 310° field of vision; detecting signals in the remaining rear 50° degrees is handled by the ears, which are capable of tilting in any direction.  Possibly, the elf assistants also provide rear sensor ability.

It is probably just as well that all these driver aids are provided, given the British, Irish and Australian trend of leaving alcoholic beverages out for the famous and presumably immortal driver.  These units of alcohol are probably not off-set by the milk and cookies provide in the US.  Even given the noted bodyweight of Santa Claus, the amount of alcohol would probably put him well over the legal limit in all countries, probably excepting the North Pole.  However, as only one accident has been recorded involving Santa Claus (involving Elmo and Patsy’s grandma, who was reported to have been drinking too much egg-nog and to have forgotten her medication when she got run over by a reindeer), the sleigh operates at full speed and with perfect safe handling year after year, so the driver assistance and collision avoidance ability of the sleigh must be superb and flawless.

Have a safe Christmas and New Year season, everybody.  And for goodness’ sake, leave the high speeds and driving under the influence to Santa.  His vehicle is built handle it.  Yours isn’t.

Roads With A Difference

There are some pretty amazing roads around our world that might just be worth going to see.  Following are spectacular roads that have world record status, and you’ll see just why these ones stand out.

The Road Of Bones

1/            First of all, here in Australia we have the world’s longest road.  Highway 1 circumnavigates the continent and travels around the outside of Australia for over 14,000 km.  Along the way, you’ll be passing through some incredible scenery as well as some of Australia’s major cities that include Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide – along with a huge number of smaller towns.  Northern Territory roads allow a speed limit of 130 km/h on open road travel.

2/            Head over to Saudi Arabia and you’ll be able to take yourself down the world’s straightest road: Highway 10, Saudi Arabia.  This road was originally built as a private road for King Fahd and connects Highway 75 to Highway 95.  It runs for almost 240 kilometres, and is the perfect straight road to try out your Lane Assist and Fatigue Warning safety features!

3/            The world’s twistiest bit of road is found on Lombard Street, San Francisco, USA.  Unbelievable, the road features a 400 metre slope with a 27% gradient and a sum total of 1440 degrees to turn through and has a 5 mph speed limit.

4/            For those of you with a head for heights: you will enjoy the world’s highest roads around Uturunku, Bolivia.  Not only do they have amazing views but they are over 5500 m above sea level.  You will feel the lack of oxygen on this run!

5/            There are also roads that travel below sea level, and, in Israel, Route 90 is home to the world’s lowest road.  The road follows the western side of the Dead Sea where the water is so salty that you can go for a swim and float unaided.  No fish or plant-life are able to survive in this salty environment, either.

6/            Temperature is always a great leveller, and in Russia you’ll find the world’s coldest road that is called the ‘Road of Bones, (or M56).  Not for the faint hearted, the M56 has claimed many people’s lives whose cars have broken down and they’ve frozen to death.  Travelling in convoy is best.  During winter the temperature is rarely warmer than -30C.

7/            The world’s oldest road is the Via Appia, Italy.  Parts of this road have been preserved and are only open to pedestrians.  The Via Appia is located in south east Italy and can be dated back as far as 312 B.C.

8/            Our neighbours over the Tasman sea can lay claim to the world’s steepest road which is called Baldwin Street and is found in Dunedin, New Zealand.  Walking up Baldwin street can be as much fun as driving up it.  If you do drive up, just make sure there is room to turn around because it can be alarming having to stop just before the top of the road – your Hill Start Assist might just come in very handy.  A popular activity is to roll M&Ms down it!

9/            The world’s widest road is the ‘Monumental Axis’ found in Brasilla, Brazil.  In one part it is 250m wide!

10/         You are sure to find the world’s longest road bridge called the ‘Bang Na Expressway, Bangkok, Thailand entertaining.  Lasting for over 50 km, the bridge required an enormous 3.84 million tonnes of concrete in its construction.  Needless to say it wasn’t cheap to build, costing as much as £770 million to complete it build.

11/         On the other hand, the world’s tallest road bridge is the ‘Millau Viaduct’, France.  At its highest pint it is almost 250 m high!  The views are awesome.

Who said civil enginering was ever boring.  Let yourself loose on these roads, and you’ll have plenty of new conversation starters.

How To Repair A Scratch In The Paintwork

If the scratch is this bad, it’s probably best to take it to a professional.

#$%^&*()$%^&*!!!!!!! You left your car in the supermarket carpark looking perfect with nicely polished paintwork, and when you got back, you found that some clown opened their door and nicked the paintwork. Or the dog was just so pleased to see you and jumped up trying to lick your face through the car window with scrabbling paws and left marks of their affection all over the panelwork. Or (worst case scratching scenario) some pillock (and that’s using mild language) decided it would be funny or appropriate to key your car and leave marks all down the side.

It doesn’t matter how the scratch got there, whether you missed the keyhole with the key or whether your toddler rode a tricycle too close to the car in the driveway: it’s got to be fixed. And yes, despite what dodgy used car sales people will tell you, even a teeny weeny little scratch does matter. It lowers the value of your car and it makes your car’s paintwork look ugly. What’s more, not bothering and not caring about the scratch can lead to a general attitude of neglect and can’t-be-stuffedness about car maintenance, which can lead to you eventually not bothering about or putting off essential maintenance tasks like topping up the fluids and checking the oil.

Most importantly, scratches allow water, chemicals, grit and dirt to get to the metal beneath the paintwork. This means that the metal is going to corrode more quickly, and we all know how once rust starts, it doesn’t stop easily without a lot of hard work, either by you or your local friendly mechanic.

Small scratches, if they’re not associated with dents, are easy enough to fix at home with equipment you may already have or that is easily picked up at your nearest automotive supply shop.

First of all, clean the area on and around the scratch. There’s no point sealing grit and dirt under new paint.

Next, assess how deep the scratch is. If it hasn’t gone all the way through the paint or it has only gone through the top layer, it will take a lot less effort to fix. Did you know that car paint involves four layers? Lightly run the tip of your fingernail across the surface (making sure you don’t scratch the paintwork any further). If the tip of your nail snags a little bit in the scratch, you’ve got a deeper one to deal with. If you can’t feel it, you’ve got a surface-only scratch.

We’ll assume that you’ve already washed the area thoroughly, rinsed it and dried it. Now you need to roughen the surface so that it will take the new paint or filler. Small scratches that have just taken off the top coat or so can be prepped with toothpaste – apply whatever’s in the bathroom cabinet to a soft damp cloth and buff away. Rinse thoroughly after you’ve enjoyed the nice minty smell and dry the area. If you’ve got a deeper scratch, use very fine sandpaper (2000 grit) to work gently over the area. Then wash and dry the area like heck to get all the dust away.

Now the road divides.  If you’re dealing with a more serious scratch that gets into the colour layer, the base coat or even (horrors!) the metal of the vehicle body, you need to go to the next paragraph.  If you’ve got a small scratch, then just read on. With a small scratch, you get rubbing compound and wax from your local automotive supplies shop, apply a little bit of the rubbing compound and buff it like heck in small surfaces.  If you’ve ever buffed a floor or your nails, you know how this is done. After this, apply wax and you should be all good.

With a deeper scratch, you’re going to have to replace the coloured paint and possibly the primer below it as well. Here, you’ll have to spend a bit of time doing your homework, as you will need to get the right sort of paint or you will have an odd patchwork spot on your vehicle that looks worse than the scratch.  If you know where to look on your car body (it varies from marque to marque), you can find the code number for the paint type. Try the door jamb, the glove box, in the bonnet by the VIN sticker, in the boot by the spare tyre, the owner’s manual…  Yes, there are websites that have databases of the codes, but you have to be sure that you search on an Australian site (US and UK ones don’t have some Aussie favourites like the Ford Falcon).  It also pays to know the name of your paint colour – there’s a lot more than 50 shades of grey out there…  Do your homework, get that number and march down to the automotive supplies shop with it and ask for it (or you can try ordering it online).

Use a scuffing pad to roughen up the surface immediately on and around the scratch so it will take new paint. Don’t do too wide an area. After brushing surface dust away (blow on it), apply the primer and let it dry.

Once the primer has dried, it’s painting time. You can apply it with a brush, a pen or as a spray. A spray gives the nicest finish, but you’ll need to mask off things like headlights and bumpers. Let it dry for at least 15 minutes, then apply another layer. You may need to apply several layers until the scratch area looks like the undamaged paint around it.

Finish off with a spray-on clear coat, then a good waxing after the clear coat has dried.  Wax the whole car while you’re at it so you don’t get funny looking patches of dull and shiny.

More extensive scratches, such as those inflicted by pillocks keying your car, may be better dealt with by a professional. It’ll certainly be less hassle.

The Passengers That Drivers Hate Most

As we first discovered when we finally ditched the P-plates, one of the delights and duties of driving is taking passengers. Sometimes, your passengers are a joy and being their driver is a lot of fun. However, at other times, it’s more of a nightmare, especially with certain passengers.

Here is a rogue’s gallery of the passengers that you probably don’t want to provide driving services for unless you really can’t avoid it (e.g. if one’s your mother or if you’re a professional taxi driver).

#1: The Litterbug

According to a UK poll, messy passengers were among the worst type to cart about.  You know the ones – the passengers who think nothing about sprinkling the floor of your car with empty chip packets, fast food wrappers, fingernail clippings, empty drink bottles and all the rest. The litterbug seems to consider a vehicle a mobile rubbish bin and doesn’t care that you’re going to have to clean that mess out and bin it at the end of the trip. Having a rubbish bag or car tidy on hand sometimes helps curb the bad habits of the litterbug, but much of the time, you end up gritting your teeth and feeling grateful that the litterbug isn’t dropping rubbish out of the window (which is rotten for the environment and can also end up getting on your paintwork).

If, however, you are one of those drivers who also chucks wrappers and packets into the footwell, you are more likely to be annoyed by…

#2: Donkey

This clip from Shrek 2 says it all:

Yes, it’s a cliché, but asking “Are we there yet?” really does drive drivers around the bend, up the pole and stark raving bonkers.

#3: The Map Illiterate

All good rally drivers have good navigators. A good human navigator who knows his/her way around a map (paper or on-screen) beats some of the software that tells you directions (and won’t send you round the long way, as some software has been known to).

A bad navigator – well, that’s another story! You’ve got the people who can’t or won’t read maps, who are annoying but are merely useless. There are those who use every single meaning of “right” instead of keeping it for a turn to starboard and say things like “Go right through the roundabout”, leaving you uncertain about whether you’re supposed to head straight on or turn right, or answer your question of “So I turn left after the school sports grounds?” with “Right”. You’ve got those who tell you to turn at the intersection just as you’re going through it and it’s too late to brake or indicate to go around it safely, forcing you do a U-turn or go round the block (and possibly get lost). Then you’ve got those who think that they can read maps or think they know the way from A to B and give you totally mistaken directions, sending you into the middle of nowhere.

Some navigators are competent but have bad timing.  For example, they give you a screed of instructions (“Take the third intersection to the left, then second right, then go on for about a kilometre, then turn left at the roundabout, then the first driveway to the right.”) then expect you to remember it all.  Fortunately, these ones can be trained to do the job properly. With the others, there’s no hope and you’d do better to stick to the computerised navigation system.

#4 Backseat Drivers

The backseat driver know exactly what to do when.  He or she knows the right speed to go around every bend, the right time to indicate, the right speed to go at, the right lane to choose, etc. etc. ad nauseam.  You never get it right if you have a backseat driver on board. You’re either going too fast or too slow, you’re braking too hard or too late, you’re going the wrong way, you miss all the good parking spots, and you’re either far too cautious and missing perfectly good gaps or you’re reckless.

You wonder if they’ve got a secret wish to work as a driving instructor. That would certainly get the urge to tell others what to do out of their system. Or maybe it wouldn’t.

#5 The Slammer

Whether they’re happy or sad, mad or excited, the slammer only knows one way to close a car door: give it a hefty shove so it bangs closed, shaking the whole car and making you wonder if it’s possible to slam a door so hard that you’ll set off airbags (answer: no). They make you wince when you think about what this is going to do to your car.

#6 Bigfoot

Bigfoot doesn’t like having his or her feet down in the footwell. Instead, Bigfoot puts his/her feet all over the dashboard or the back of the front seats. This is bad enough if Bigfoot removes his/her footwear first, which means that your dashboard gets marked by sweat. It’s worse if Bigfoot keeps his/her shoes on, smearing mud and grit over the dash. It’s also annoying having those great big hoofs up there in the edge of your vision.

Female Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) also attempt to give themselves a pedicure or paint their toenails. Pray like anything that you don’t hit a bump at the wrong moment, because nail polish is a beast to get off your interior trim.

#7 The DJ

The DJ constantly changes the music, skipping songs and radio stations, tinkering with the graphic equaliser, changing the CD, changing the volume, plugging and unplugging things from the auxiliary input or the USB input… It’s an improvement on the backseat driver or the are-we-there-yet pest but very annoying if you’re listening to your favourite driving music but the DJ switches it in the middle.

However, on the other hand, having a DJ in the passenger seat is an improvement on a DJ in the driver’s seat, at least from a safety perspective. As long as they don’t drive you nuts by tinkering with the sound system without asking you first.

Are there any others that we’ve missed? Now’s your chance to have a bit of a gripe!

Why I’m Uncomfortable About Driverless Cars

Driverless-Car-AboveThe automotive news overseas is humming about how Ford  has just managed to put its driverless cars through its paces in a model city in snowy conditions. This is a big breakthrough for the world of driverless cars, because snowy conditions usually send the LIDAR (like radar but using lasers) sensors that make driverless cars “aware” of their situation berserk. To say nothing of what snowy conditions do to your traction when cornering or braking.

I’m not comfortable with the idea of driverless cars. This is not because I’m a technophobic Luddite (now there’s some big words for you to start the year off). It’s more because I spend a lot of time behind a computer and I know all too well that computers don’t always do what you want them to do. They stop working for mysterious reasons. They get too clever for their own good and try to do things that you don’t want them to (such as the time that my son borrowed my smartphone to check his Facebook feed, with the result that all his friends ended up on my contact list and I pocket-dialled them). Even those super-smart algorithms that customise the ads you get on social media make mistaken guesses about the sort of thing I am likely to buy (I’m already with that bank and I have bought my first home, thank you. And I am not interested in a university course. Or special offers on sunglasses. Or weird old tips.). So I can just imagine how things can go wrong with a driverless car.

This is especially the case if said driverless car is plugged into the sat-nav or GPS system. I’ve heard stories about navigations systems that have decided that the most efficient way to go is to take a 4×4 track that is marked as an official road but is only open for a handful of months a year, or decides to send you down a road that was permanently closed last year (and the system doesn’t know it). And what about all those stories from the UK about delivery trucks getting stuck in tiny old alleyways that barely fit a little wee Fiat 500?

So you can imagine what would happen with a driverless car. What if it decides that the best way to get to the shops is via the local golf course? What if it suddenly crashes like all computers do in the middle of a busy intersection?

The inventors, designers and legislators agree with me, too. Just last month in the US (in California, of course), the Department of Motor Vehicles decreed that all driverless cars must also have traditional controls, rather than the no-steering wheel, no-pedal Google prototype. In addition, the same governing body said that responsibility for crashes and traffic violations will still be squarely on the shoulders of the “driver” of the driverless car.Gov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous Vehicles

As for the inventors, one of Toyota’s inventors who just landed a nice big funding packet, Daniela Rus, points out that there are tons of things that robots and artificial intelligence can’t do for you, as they don’t have the sensitivity. Heavy weather like fog, snow and torrential rain is still an issue for driverless cars – which is why Ford was so thrilled about getting a driverless car to work in the snow – and so is heavy traffic.

The place where driverless cars are really likely to stuff up is in shared spaces. Shared spaces, as covered in one of my posts last year, are where pedestrians and cars aren’t in separated zones but share the same bit of “road”. This helps with road safety, as drivers (and pedestrians) have to stay fully alert to what and who’s around them, and use a bit of courtesy and common sense to avoid collisions. In situations like these, drivers and pedestrians communicate in subtle and very, very human ways: a quick cock of the head to one side, a raised eyebrow, a glare, a smile, a brief hand gesture…  Computers, even the most sophisticated, just can’t handle these things. They may be able to recognise your face in a crowd but they can’t recognise your emotions. These shared spaces are becoming more common in town plans, just to make things more interesting.

Driverless cars also have trouble with other places where humans or other sentient beings have overridden the norm. They won’t spot the line of ducks or the boneheaded spaniel on the road ahead. They don’t really know how to tackle the situation commonly encountered on a country road where a farmer is moving stock along the road. Around town, cops on point duty when the traffic lights have failed, a ball bouncing into the road closely followed by a crazy kid, a pedestrian suddenly stepping out, the road works crew’s hand signals and the local school crossing are all things that autonomous cars (to give them their official name) can’t really cope with.

Yes, I know jumbo jets fly on autopilot around the world all the time. However, I also know that jumbo jets with autopilot function (i.e. all of them) have a pilot-in-charge and two back up copilots on hand, all of whom have trained for much, much longer than the typical driver has, just in case things go wrong.

Anyway, where’s the fun in a driverless car?

Safe and happy driving (computers don’t get the “happy” bit),


More info is available at these links:

The Fastest Boat On The Road And Other Amphibians

Along with flying cars, amphibious vehicles would have to make the list of highly desirable vehicles from sci-fi movies, books and graphic novels. We are still waiting for the flying car but progress has been made in the amphibious vehicle department.

In fact, a lot of progress towards amphibious vehicles was made back in the World War 2 and Cold War era, with the two most successful being the Schwimmwagen and the Amphicar, being produced during WW2 and in the early 1960s respectively. Both were made in Germany.

SchwimmwagenThe Schwimmwagen was based on a Volkwagen  (in fact, the Volkswagen and Porsche  factories were responsible for making them). As they were made for the army, they still hold the record for being the most widely produced amphibious car, with around 14,000 originally turned out. However, less than 200 remain today, although the few that are in existence are highly prized collectors’ items that only occasionally risk going onto the water. What happened to the rest of them is uncertain. Possibly some of them sank. Or they may have been bombed to smithereens.

On land, the Schwimmwagen was a very rough and ready 4×4 with a four-speed manual gearbox and a 25-hp 4-cylinder 1.1-L engine. Four-wheel-drive was only available in reverse and in first gear. When the Schwimmwagen trundled down into the water, the driver lowered the three-blade propeller at the back, which engaged with the driveshaft and got the vehicle moving through the water. Ground clearance was a pretty decent 11 inches and it seated about three people.  Creature comforts were next to nothing, this being a military vehicle, although it did have run-flat tyres and a spare wheel mounted on the front bonnet – or should you call it the bow? An American intelligence report described it as looking like “a small civilian sports car”, which suggests that 1940s sports cars must have been rather rough and ready.

The Amphicar was a peacetime vehicle and it was intended for mass production. Sadly, only 4000 were produced; again, these are now highly prized collectors’ items.  The Amphicar was a two-door cabriolet with a Triumph Herald engine under the bonnet/bow. This engine was a 1.2-L 32-kW affair that was harnessed to a 4-speed manual transmission. The Amphicar was capable of getting up to a respectable 70 mph on the land and 7 knots on the water, which caused the designers to call it the Model 770. It wasn’t a speedster but, as one owner described it, it was still “the fastest boat on the road”. You can’t have everything, after all. In spite of one review saying that it was a vehicle that “revolutionized drowning”, it was reasonably good on the water, and has been able to cross the English Channel and cross the Yukon River. Well maintained Amphicars are still taken for little jaunts across water quite safely (or at least as safely as any other boat) by enthusiast clubs.

Amphicar Eagle High Res Image

The most famous owner of the Amphicar by far was former US President Lyndon B. Johnson. When not dealing with hassles to do with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and trying to beat the Soviets in the space race, LBJ liked to drive his Amphicar downhill into a lake in front of unsuspecting people while yelling that his brakes had failed for the fun of watching his victims panic.

Other amphibious vehicles, past and present can be found on the road, in car museums and occasionally on the water, such as the American military DUKW (inevitably called the Duck) and the more recent Gibbs amphibious vehicles (Aquada, Quadski and Humdinga/Amphitruck). They certainly look like a lot of fun, although they’re not in the same league as James Bond’s aquatic Lotus Esprit. Nevertheless, I think that you and I will probably be tying the kayak onto the roof rails or hitching up the boat trailer for some time to come.

Safe and happy driving (or boating),


Off-Road Driving That’s Out Of This World

A lot of us have discovered the joys of off-road driving.  Plenty of modern vehicles come with AWD capacity so you can do a little bit of off-roading of some sort – or so you can get the extra traction that a four-paw provides. There are plenty of very desirable 4x4s out there with all sorts of this and that to help them do better in the rough stuff. But no matter how good your Nissan Pathfinder or your Skoda Yeti  is, there are some vehicles that are a lot snazzier than that.

lunarroverGood-bye Land Rover , hello Moon Rover.  The Apollo Lunar Rover must be one of the quirkiest and most famous of all the vehicles designed by General Motors (and a handful of others), although you are never, ever going to get to drive one.  Only a handful of people, all from the USA and the former USSR have driven about as far off the road as you can get, going for a wee jaunt about on the surface of the moon before the manned moon landings were scrapped.

So what’s the Lunar Rover like?

The styling of the Lunar Rover is somewhat reminiscent of an old-school farm tractor.  Keeping the weight to a minimum was in the design brief, as was the ability to fold the car up for storage (now there’s an idea we could try to apply more widely to avoid parking problems), so flash-looking body kit was out of the question. Aluminium trim was very much in evidence, however.  There was also no need for climate control – all that was provided by the space suits. You could say that it was designed for maximum visibility and the whole cabin was one big sun roof, moon roof or possibly Earth roof. It did have a seatbelt that used Velcro to overcome the problems that would occur with inertia reels and the like in one-sixth of the earth’s gravity. The Lunar Rover has seating for two, with both seats being fully foldable and with a shared armrest. The steering “wheel” is a multifunction joystick.

The Lunar Rover was a very early example of an electric vehicle, which does leave one wondering why this technology was pretty much ignored for terrestrial vehicles during the 1980s and 1990s. It was powered by a pair of 36-volt non-rechargeable batteries with a life of 121 ampere-hours each for a total range of 92 km.  The wheels were 23 inch aluminium jobs and the tyres had a chevron tread for extra traction. They weren’t your pneumatic rubber jobs, either: they had a mixture of zinc, steel and aluminium. You could call them the ultimate run-flats.

Performance-wise, the Lunar Rover is no speed freak, with a top design speed of 13 km/h. However, this speed was exceeded by Eugene Cernan of the USA, who holds the current lunar land speed record of 18 km/h.

The handling, however, is excellent.  For a start, the suspension is superb: double horizontal wishbone with upper and lower torsion bars and a damper unit between the chassis and upper wishbone.  The front and rear wheels have separate steering controls, allowing the front and rear wheels to turn in opposite directions for a tighter turning circle, although the driver can select to steer with front or rear wheels only as needed.  Each wheel had its own separate drive unit and each wheel could freewheel if needed. Ground clearance is 36 cm.

Navigation, information and communication systems are also brilliant – modern cars are only just starting to catch up with this 1970s model.  Navigation used a combination of the odometer and a directional gyro, plus a sun/shadow monitor to get the right heading. Communications involved two TV cameras, another camera (with film) and several antennae for communication with the Lunar Module. Display panels inform the driver of the current speed, heading, pitch, and power and temperature.

You can see the Lunar Rover in this clip:

The Lunar Rovers (only four were made) were used on three Apollo lunar missions and were left behind on the moon each time (have a look here to see the exact spots). However, if you’re really, really desperate to drive about as far off the road as you can get, there is still hope, but your window of opportunity is closing rather rapidly, if it’s not too late already. The volunteers for the Mars One one-way trip to Mars will get Martian Rovers to drive in as they spend the rest of their lives on the Red Planet.

I think I’ll stick to off-roading in the other half’s Nissan work ute.

Safe and happy driving,


The President and The Beast

Obama_Limo“The Beast” is the nickname of the customized limo of the President of the US of A – a sort of land-based equivalent of Air Force 1.  While the name might make certain groups of conspiracy theorists-cum-Biblical fundamentalists have all sorts of conniptions, The Beast is certainly quite an impressive vehicle.  It’s almost worth becoming President for – or at least becoming the Presidential chauffeur.  That’s if you pass the driving test as well as the safety check – the driver has to be able to do advanced level police-style manoeuvres for evasion if needed.

Although the official marque of The Beast is (no, not 666) Cadillac, the current Beast is actually based on a Chevrolet Kodiak, which means that although it looks like a limousine, it’s a ute at heart.  Looks-wise, it’s got many of the classic Cadillac hallmarks, such as the lights and the overall styling. What you might not know is that the outside of The Beast that you can see isn’t actually metal but removable fibreglass panels that look swish while covering the titanium, aluminium, steel and ceramic panelling underneath.

The full list of specs for The Beast is classified information, but they’ve let us know a few little bits and pieces about it, either to deter us from attempting to assassinate anybody, to reassure us that assassinations are unlikely or to make us very, very envious. Or not.

There is not just one Beast but there are 12 identical ones, all tucked away in a very secure underground garage somewhere so they can be trotted out in rotation while the others get fixed.

The Specs of The Beast:

Seating: Seven: two front seats, a rear-facing middle row and two in the very back (this is where the President plus his (or, in the future, her) significant other or sidekick sits). A glass partition separates front and rear, and the rear seats can do the lot when it comes to reclining and adjustment. There’s also a table that can fold up and down in between the middle and rear row.

In-car communications: A highly sophisticated communications console is included somewhere in The Beast. For obvious security reasons, the full details are not available, but it’s pretty safe to say that it’s probably a lot better than what you’ve got in your car. One detail that is available to ordinary Muggles like you and me is that there’s a link that talks to everything else in the accompanying motorcade. There’s also a satellite phone with a hotline to the Pentagon and the Vice President.  The car has night vision cameras.  Five antennae can be counted coming off the trunk, so there are probably way more communications networks talking to The Beast. Conspiracy theorists are free to speculate as to whether The Beast is in touch with alien craft.

Safety and security: The Beast can withstand biochemical attacks, bullets, grenades and fire, with 8-inch thick doors and some very serious armour plating, including underneath the car.  The bulletproof glass is 5 inches thick and is sealed against biochemical attack.  Other passive safety features (i.e. those that kick in after or during an accident) include a chauffeur who is a Secret Service member trained in CPR (although he’s not permanently fitted to the car), a blood bank well stocked with the President’s blood type, and a bodyguard in the front seat. Only the driver’s window opens: to a mere 3 inches down.  There are rumours that The Beast is fitted with tear gas cannons.  Rumours also abound about grenade launchers but we can’t confirm this.

Fuel economy: The engine (reportedly a V8) manages 29 L/100 km, so they’d better have a good source of fuel handy (no, we won’t get into the possible politics of this). Diesel is the fuel of choice, as it’s less volatile than petrol and thus less likely to explode if attacked.  The fuel tank is surrounded by foam armour so The Beast won’t become a fireball if the tank scores a direct hit.   (Poking around on a few other websites for info suggests that it’s actually run on petrol – so who really knows?)

Tyres: Kelvar-reinforced run-flats made by Goodyear. The steel wheels can keep going even if the tyre blows out completely rather than merely getting flat.

Weight: that’s classified information but it’s pretty darn hefty thanks to all that armour, so it’s a lot.  Smart cookies might be able to work out the weight from a combination of the fuel economy and the 0–60 mph time.

Length: 18 feet long

Performance: The 0–60 mph time is 15 seconds, which makes underpowered LPG vans looks speedy.  Top speed is reportedly 60 mph.

Ground clearance: Could be better, as demonstrated by one incident in Dublin.

Actually, I think that I like my own Volvo better. It might not have the armour plating and the communications but it’s got better fuel economy, better acceleration and much better ground clearance. And it’s less of a hassle for the local mechanic.

Safe and happy driving,


Book Review: Top Gear – How To Parachute Into A Moving Car

Title: Top Gear – How To Parachute Into A Moving Car

Author: Richard Porter

Publisher: BBC Books, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-849-90635-7

Very few of us are likely to get a bright shiny new car this Christmas.  Although some of us might be living in hope… However, in the more realistic gift department, a car-related book might be in order.  Possibly this offering from the Top Gear franchise might fit the bill either for you or for someone else you know who’s into motors (if it’s a present for you, tactfully leaving this page open when your nearest and dearest are about to go online might be good for dropping a hint).

The subtitle of Top Gear’s “How To Parachute Into A Moving Car” is “Vital survival tips for the modern man.” In spite of this subtitle, the book should give most recipients a chuckle, male or female.  And you will get a chuckle.  Although there are some bits of good motoring advice sprinkled throughout the text (e.g. how to do a handbrake turn) and some thought-provoking pieces (how to make a car for old people), the majority is a light hearted and slightly cynical look at driving today, especially driving in Britain.  If you are (1) after a serious automotive book or (2) easily offended and drive an Audi, then you might want to browse another section of the shelves at your local bookshop.  The “how hard can it be?” rating given to each entry provides good material for discussions, and the “how to find your petrol station stance” entry could easily be turned into a sort of game of bingo to keep the kids in the back seat amused when you’re taking a long time at the petrol station refuelling, checking the air pressure in the tyres, etc.

Understandably, the book contains numerous references to the TV show itself (well, what do you expect from something published by BBC Books?).  If you have seen the episode in question, the commentary will bring back amusing memories.  If you haven’t, it will pique your curiosity and make you want to see it (in my case, this was the one about playing rugby with cars).  Sometimes, if you haven’t seen the show, the references are a little puzzling and tedious, but on the whole, the book is enjoyable all the same.

The tips and “advice” given don’t just confine themselves to car-related topics and wry comments about the three presenters (e.g. “How to dress like James May: Find a charity shop that hasn’t had any new donations since 1976.  Buy all their clothes off them.”).  You will find other topics related to life in general sprinkled in there, such as “how to feel like a hero when using the microwave oven” and “how to buy trousers”.

And as for the advice about parachuting into a moving car?  First of all, watch this clip of the actual episode:

For the next part of the instructions, you’ll have to read the book yourself.

Happy driving,