Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Corvette Origins

1953 Vega RoadsterAnswer to last week's trivia question: 1953 Vega Roadster. This car was displayed at the latest Barrett-Jackson auction. There is some debate between the Street Level crew weather or not this could be considered a concept car for the T-Bird. You be the judge. "This one off prototype was commissioned by Ford Motor Company and financed by Henry Ford II. Willys Wagner, stylist for the International Division of Ford Motor Company and the legendary Indy racecar designer Frank Kurtis awarded the project to automotive designer Vince Gardner. Vince's resume includes Studebaker, Ford, Budd car body manufacturer, and most notably, the Auburn Automobile Company design department under the direction of Gordon Buehrig, the design team responsible for the famed Cord 810. Vince's influences from his days at the Auburn Automobile Company are clearly evident in the Vega's (Cord like) disappearing headlights. Vince spent over 2 years building the lightweight aluminum bodied roadster. Henry Ford would check on the progress and sometimes bring his celebrity friends, Groucho Marx and Red Skelton. Howard Hughes also paid a visit. Upon the cars completion, Ford Motor Company summoned the "one off" Vega roadster back to Dearborn to celebrate the firms 50th anniversary. Ford displayed the Vega for several years at its Rotunda Exhibition Hall in Dearborn. Then it slipped into obscurity. However, not before a seed was planted. While strolling through the 1953 Paris Auto Show, Henry Ford II, first acknowledged interest in building his own two seat roadster, which would become the 55 Thunderbird.'' - Barrett-Jackson

This week's trivia: Name the three different cities in which corvettes have been produced. Lets not get cute and talk about how someone may have built one in their garage. I'm talking about normal production corvette plants.

Monday, January 30, 2006

James Bond will return...

That's right boys and girls, James Bond is returning. Being a fan of the series of movies, I have always noticed the cars of Bond as well as the girls. I've seen Bond in many different cars, Lotus, BMW, and even an AMC. In this new Bond movie scheduled for November release Bond will return to an Aston Martin. This time in the all new Aston Martin DBS. Ever since the beginning with Sean Connery and to now with Daniel Craig, Bond is behind the wheel of pure class and power. I hope to enjoy this new Bond.

Variable Valve Timing Pushrod V6

Chevy's Malibu Maxx flies quietly under the radar of the general public. It is a low-key pseudo-wagon with lots of utility, but not a lot of excitement. It is available in SS trim which raises the bar slightly, but it is hardly the favorite of tuners or street racers, despite having a fairly generous 240hp available.
One very underrated feature of the Malibu Maxx is the equipment used to generate that power. Based on Chevy's 3.5 liter V6, the 3.9 in the Maxx doesn't appear to be anything special with its iron block and pushrod design. However, closer inspection reveals variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust.
This marks the first instance of variable valve timing in a pushrod engine, and is a very exciting development considering cars like the Corvette have yet to take advantage of this technology. It will certainly open up options for powertrain engineers looking to boost the power and efficiency of their pushrod engines.Chevrolet Malibu Maxx EngineChevrolet Malibu Maxx

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Top Down

The answer to last week's trivia is, 613 Lamborghinis were sold in 2005.

After going to my local dealer and sitting in a Pontiac Solstice, I have got riled back up about convertibles. I miss my old convertible. Its a car that looks even more beautiful in person. The extreme round front is not as pronounced when your standing over, looking down on the car. It is unfortunate that a front license plate is required in Massachusetts. Pontiac is nice enough to supply a bracket, however I'm sure drilling is required to get it in there. The whole car is very elegant, which is not what you think of when you say Pontiac. When you think of Pontiac generally you think of huge hood bulges and giant fender flares. The one part of the car that does follow in gaudy Pontiac tradition is the 245mm wide tires. Holy crap is that huge for a 2 seat roadster from the factory. For comparison the GTO Pontiac also sells comes with 245mm tires as well. The inside is big. There should be no problem for those of us who have long legs. All this for $20 to $24k.

This week's trivia/Google questions is:

Name the 2 seat roadster prototype and year which eventually evolved into the highest selling 2 seat roadster in Ford's company history. Email your answers here.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Back in September, I saw something a little strange on I-10 in Los Angeles. It looked like a RAV4 from the back, and a squashed Wrangler from the front:
Ssangyong Korando RearOn closer examination, you can see it is a Ssangyong Korando, with a Michigan dealer plate:
Ssangyong Korando Rear CloseSsangyong Korando Front QuarterSsangyong Korando FrontSsangyong Korando Front FarSsangyong has very little presence on the Internet, so digging up information was rather difficult. I managed to find a few reviews, and most of them are surprisingly favorable. It seems the truck is built in Korea, and in fact Ssangyong is Korea's fourth-largest auto maker. The obvious resemblance to the Jeep Wrangler is apparently intentional, as the truck was drawn up by a Professor of the Royal College of Art in London who used the WWII Willys Jeep as his basic theme. I would have thought the seven-slot grille and round headlights would have brought the wrath of Jeep, but it has somehow escaped. The Korando uses Mercedes engines, and Borg Warner transmissions and transfer cases. Daimler had a stake in Ssongyang (possibly explaining Jeep's tolerance), but has since sold its stake to Daewoo, the majority shareholder.
None of this explains what one was doing wearing Michigan dealer plates navigating morning rush hour in Los Angeles. It was possibly on a shakedown run in preparation for an entry into the U.S. market, or it could have been on some kind of comparison test for an auto publication, but I couldn't find any mention of it anywhere online. Nonetheless, an interesting sight during the morning commute.

What's In A Name?

Lincoln has recently unveiled four new vehicles: the Zephyr, the Mark LT, the MKX, and the MKS. These last two in particular have given rise to some criticism of Lincoln's naming scheme. While some car companies have had great success with alphanumeric naming schemes, BMW and Lexus come to mind, Lincoln has not been one of them. Much has been made recently of the plight of U.S. automakers and their fight against their foreign rivals, and one of the few things U.S. automakers like Lincoln have over their competition is heritage. While the offerings of the 80's are what let the competition take hold in the first place, the offerings before then are legendary, and almost exclusively American.
Lincoln seems to have realized the importance of this heritage by bringing back the Zephyr name: The Zephyr was originally offered in the 1930's and was in fact the car that made Lincoln financially successful. The names Continental and Town Car are classic Lincoln. Before the mediocrity of the 80's, these names had 50 years of history and heritage behind them.
Regardless of Cadillac's apparent success in the switch from names like DeVille and Seville to DTS and STS, Lincoln appears to need all the help it can get and it would seem wise to remind people as much as possible of the days when a Continental was something you wanted to work towards. As much as someone may aspire to someday own a 760Li, S600, or LS430, I think Lincoln would do better to try to add Continental or Town Car back to the list, rather than MKS.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Domestic v. Foreign

Jeff Olsen recently published an article on SpeedTV.com discussing Toyota's entry into the NASCAR world and the fan reaction to it. Mr. Olsen notes that this reaction has been mostly positive, and he surmises this is because NASCAR fans, "perhaps better than any demographic group - understand what's happening in the automotive industry," which is that Toyota is now manufacturing models in Indiana, while Ford and GM have plants outside the country. Mr. Olsen concludes that the line between foreign and domestic manufacturers has been blurred, and buying a Toyota is just as helpful to the American economy as buying a Ford or Chevy.
What Mr. Olsen doesn't seem to take into account is the difference between assembly line jobs and upper level (R&D, management) jobs. While Toyota may have factories in Indiana, their corporate offices are in Japan, and Toyota is certainly a foreign company.
Buying a Toyota is hardly the same as mailing cash overseas: many mutual funds include Toyota stock, and Toyota pours a fairly large amount of cash back into U.S. operations. However, the majority of Toyota's profits go home to Japan.
While the UAW may be thrilled that Toyota has opened so many jobs for them, the overall state of the U.S. economy is not aided by the proliferation of Camrys and Corollas, while it is rather directly linked to the success of both GM and Ford.
Mr. Olsen seems to share the rather popular opinion that the American auto industry is in no real danger, nor is it linked in any real way to the U.S. economy. The reality of the situation is that stereotypes brought on by inferior product in the 80's, along with aggressive and deceptive marketing by Toyota and other foreign manufacturers today, have put Ford and GM in very real financial danger. Further, the health of these two companies is extremely important to the health of the U.S. economy as a whole.
As always, chosing a vehicle that is the best solution for your particular needs is a smart move. Perhaps, however, country of origin should carry more weight in the decision than has previously been necessary.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Australian V8 Supercars

Recently several racing series have come under fire for a relative lack of excitement. Both F1 and NASCAR have gotten the "boring" tag, and attendance for IRL and Champ Car events has been dismal. One series that is unquestionably exciting, however, is the Australian V8 Supercar series. The cars are Holden Commodores, which are the basis for the current GTO, and Ford Falcons, a similar offering that Ford inexplicably does not bring to the U.S. Near 30 of these V8 sedans blast around road courses in Australia in races of varying lengths. Some of the races are 50 lap sprints, and some are 150 lap endurance events including driver changes and brake pad swaps. The cars are incredibly durable, backing out of tire barriers and driving through fairly massive collisions. Tire-smoking burnout 180s are the most common way to get cars turned the right way after a spin. The racing is also incredibly close, with frequent passing all over the track and tight finishes. The series is literally a reminder of why I enjoy auto racing so much, and I would highly recommend checking it out if you have the chance. Speed Channel has recently begun showing this season's races, and their coverage is excellent. Borrowing the feed from an Australian channel, the races are edited to essentially skip caution periods without losing race continuity. Absent Speed Channel, the V8 Supercar website has video highlights from races of past seasons, and they are definitely worth a look.

Totaled Up

According to Autonews GM has sold almost more than double the amount of cars and light trucks than Toyota has in the US in 2005. 4,454,385 to 2,260,296. Worldwide GM has sold 9.17 million vehicles. Toyota which sold 8.1 million cars. Worldwide sales figures, however, are misleading whereas Toyta sells lots of small cheap cars not seen here in the states. Even if toyota overtakes GM in total sales GM will still be king of gross, the total amount of money, sales.

Now its trivia/google search time. Please guess or find the total number of Lamborghini sales for 2005. Please email entries here with subject as Street Level Trivia. A winner will be announced Jan 24th.
*Edit* Total number of Lamborghini's sold in 2005: 613.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Toyota Sued For Patent Infringement

Solomon Technologies, Inc. has filed a complaint against the Toyota Motor Corporation with the US International Trade Commission in addition to action already filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida. According to the claims, technology used in Toyota's hybrid powertrains infringes on a patent held by Solomon.
The end result may see Toyota unable to import its current hybrids, which would of course be a fairly serious blow. While a monetary settlement is much more likely, this should be interesting to watch in any case.

Danica Patrick To Race In 24 Hours Of Daytona

Danica Patrick will join the likes of Rusty Wallace, Boris Said, and Allen McNish to drive the Howard-Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Patrick is an IRL regular but got her start in karting and should be able to hold her own on Daytona's road course. Wallace is a retired NASCAR ace who specialized in short tracks but had an impressive road-race record. Said and McNish are road-racing regulars, making this a fairly well-rounded team. It is also a marketing gimmie-shot as Patrick and Wallace should draw eyes that may not normally watch the arguably ugly Daytona prototype cars drone around for 24 straight hours.


While Boris Said was originally listed as the fourth driver, Howard Boss Motorsports has announced that Jan Lammers will take his place, citing "size limitations." This may sound trivial, however the height difference between Said at 6'4" and Patrick at 5'2" is not slight. Most multi-driver race cars have slightly adjustable seats, but 14" of travel is simply not possible. Lammers has won the Daytona 24 twice, finished third last year, and is certainly an appropriate replacement for Said.

Passive Vs. Active Safety

CNN recently reported on a study done by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia which gives us the shocking revelation that while SUVs have certain size-related safety benefits, those benefits are offset by their tendency to roll over in accidents.
This rehashes the difference between active and passive safety. Passive safety is the ability of a vehicle to absorb damage without adversely affecting its occupants. Crumple zones, seat belts, and general heft are means to this end, with SUVs and other large vehicles standing as examples. Active safety, on the other hand, is the ability of the vehicle to avoid the danger in the first place. Nimble handling and computer controlled stability systems contribute to this, as demonstrated by smaller, sportier cars.
While both are obviously important, it would seem to make sense that if the goal is to reduce and minimize injury, avoiding the accidents in the first place would be more effective.

Super Aguri F1 Team

Formula 1 could now have 11 teams competing for the World Championship. The Super Aguri F1 team needs only the FIA's approval, and to place a small, mandatory $48 million deposit to be allowed to enter. This 11th team, while providing much-needed expansion to the F1 field, brings to light an up-until-recently-insignificant rule: only the top 10 constructors get to share in F1's TV rights money. Since the TV rights money is the primary source of income for teams of limited success, this may quickly lead back to a 10-team field as the lowest-rank team may not be able to fund another season sans TV rights money.
Either way, in the meantime it should make for some exiting racing as 22 cars take to each track.

Super Aguri F1 Logo

F1 Rules Changes

Formula 1 draws polarizing reactions from those who have seen it recently. Some are in awe of the technology that allows the cars their blistering speed. Some are bored by their lack of relevance to anything on real roads, and even more are tired of the almost total lack of real competition, with each team essentially stuck in whichever position they start each race in.
In an attempt to retain the die-hard fans, as well as bring back the bored masses, the FIA has settled on a number of significant rules changes designed to liven the competition in various ways. The cars will look significantly different, as the rear wings will be split in the middle. This will allow for a smoother wake behind the cars, which will in theory allow trailing cars to follow closer, facilitating passing. The cars will also run slick tires, allowing for much greater mechanical grip. Coupled with some aerodynamic adjustments, this will again allow for closer running and more passing. Another goal of the changes is to reduce costs, hopefully attracting more teams while keeping those currently running. Larger fields would obviously make for more exciting races.
As an F1 fan, I am very excited to see what effect these rules have on the series. Formula 1 has long thought of itself as the pinnacle of motorsports. With any luck these changes will start to convince the rest of the world of the same.

F1 In Germany

Given the popularity of Michael Schumacher in F1, one would think that Germany would have no problem sustaining the two grands prix it currently hosts. Unfortunately, this appears to not be the case. According to SpeedTV, Germany may be looking to consolidate it's race dates, leaving each venue with one race every other year.
Regardless of exciting new rules changes and the formation of new teams, dropping race dates is never a sign of good health for a race series.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Billy Draws The Line

William Clay Ford, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Company has announced that his company will hold on to its market share in 2006. The automaker has been losing market share every year for the past five years and Mr. Ford has vowed that this is the end of the line. Of course losing market share isn't always a bad thing. The highest volume manufacturer is not always the most profitable manufacturer, which partially explains why this vow to hold on to market share can be viewed as a change of strategy rather than simply stating the obvious. In recent years Ford allowed market share to slip at times when retaining it would have caused losses. Back in 2002 when William Ford replaced Jacques Nasser as CEO of Ford this strategy made a lot of sense. The company was reeling from a $5.5 billion loss in 2001 and it was crucial to show a profit quickly, even if it meant sacrificing market share. Today Ford's most visible setback (besides having its debt rating cut to junk status) is losing the distinction of being the world's second largest car manufacturer. Toyota recently surpassed Ford in global sales, leaving Ford in the number three slot. Holding on to its number two position in the US market probably seems rather important now, and might even be worth sacrificing profits for. However Mr. Ford insists that they won't be buying the market share with hefty discounts and incentives but will win it through their strong product line.

If this all sounds a little familiar, think back a few years to the period when GM made a whole lot of noise about its intentions to reach 30 percent domestic market share. After years of slipping they wanted to climb back up to what they considered a reasonable share, and intended to get there through sustainable business practices. All of the executives wore gold pins advertising their intent to hit the thirty percent mark. After a while it became clear that they would never even crack twenty seven percent and the pins quietly went away.

Does Ford have a better shot? Arguably yes. Its product line is the best it has been in years, and the company seems to have a good idea of what its customers want. But competition from both domestics and imports is fierce, and Ford will have to work hard to hold on to the market share it has.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Volkswagens New Crossover

Volkswagen has unveiled a new crossover to their potential lineup. This new vehicle is a half car and half motorcycle. The GX3 is the crossovers current name. Powered by a 1.6L 4 cylinder engine with 125HP this baby is made for the mean streets of the city. With an amazing 46 MPG rating and the top speed of 125MPH this pocket rocket can move. This not-so-standard vehicle is made to get your blood moving. Designed with the cityscape in mind, the GX3 is made to corner and power down the road. The estimated price tag of this machine would be less than $17000. Not too bad for a modified motorcycle with two seats.
From what the statistics read, this odd machine weighs in at lean 1257lbs which gives it a very nice power to weight ratio of 10 lbs/hp. The 5.7s 0-60 MPH isn't have bad either. Still keep in my mind that at 46 MPG this rocket is pretty impressive. Take a look at the link below for some photos and more detailed information.

Volkswagen GX3

Ford Hybrid Leadership

As of a November 9th press release, Ford offered two models with hybrid drivetrain options and had plans for two more. Two of these models are SUVs, and the other two are mid-size cars. Ford also announced that hybrid Escapes would be serving taxi duty in New York City.
At the time of the release, Ford was producing 24,000 hybrid vehicles annually, with plans to produce 250,000 hybrids per year by 2010.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Cost of Doing Business

Daimler Chrysler, BMW, and VW do not seem to have any concern with the US environment or US laws. BMW paid $12 million in fines, DC paid $8.5 million, VW paid $3.4 million. The current CAFE laws require an average fleet gas milage to be obtained. 27.5 mpg for cars and 21.8 mpg for light trucks. It does not seem like any of these companies are really concerned with complying to the laws. If an American company had been breaking pollution laws in Germany you would see public outcry and possibly a complaint with the WTO. I propose law makers take the oppurtunity to raise fines for companies who are repeat offenders. Apparently the current fines are not heavy enough to cause a change of action.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Chevy vs. Ford

There is no American rivalry that can match that of Chevy vs. Ford. Not Coke vs. Pepsi, PC vs. Mac, Burger King vs. McDonalds... not even Yankees vs. Red Sox. No two groups fight harder over the hearts and dollars of the American public than Chevy and Ford, each of which sell over two and a half millions vehicles every year in the United States. Today, as imports take an ever increasing portion of the market, Chevrolet and Ford are still at each others' throats, battling for the title of US sales champ. Since 1986 Ford has held the top postion, aided by its strong truck and SUV sales and by GMs decision to send half of it's pick-up customers to GMC, deflating Chevrolet's sales. For 2005 it seems the tables turned and Chevrolet is once again on top of the heap, outselling Ford by 17,084 units. But GM cannot afford to rest on it's laurels. Nor can Ford spend time licking its wounds. Toyota is nipping at the heals of the American automakers, selling 2.2 million units in 2005. That's about four hundred thousand units behind Chevrolet and Ford, and only 300 thousand behind Daimler Chrysler.

Of course there's more to be concerned with than just the American market. Ford was recently surpassed by Toyota as the world's second biggest automaker. GM and Ford are both losing ground in the global market while Toyota continues to thrive. Will we see a new global sales leader by the end of the decade? It's too early to tell, but it's definitely not out of the question.

Corn Fueled Trucks

GM is currently selling the Avalanche, Tahoe, Suburban, and Yukon with engines that can run on gasoline or ethanol (E85) or a mixture of both. Ethanol comes from from corn grown right in the US.

"E85 is the term for motor fuel blends of 85 percent ethanol and just 15 percent gasoline. E85 is an alternative fuel as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy. Besides its superior performance characteristics, ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline; it is a completely renewable, domestic, environmentally friendly fuel that enhances the nation's economy and energy independence." -ksgrains.com

Unlike the "hybrid" bandaids which still use a normal gasoline mixture. GM's solution is an actual difference maker in the transition from foreign oil to domestic fuel.

Challenger Reborn

Ever since the emissions and economy laws of the late sixties and early seventies brought the power wars to a screeching, eye watering halt, enthusiasts have bemoaned the loss of the classic American muscle car. Gone were the thundering big-block V8s wedged into undersized coupes. Gone were the aggressive lines and sinister stance that advertized Detroit's unabashed infatuation with high powered cars. Sure the Mustang, Camaro and Firebird lived on, but the spirit had faded.

Today modern technology has allowed manufacturers to deliver the power we crave with none of the emissions we detest. Why then, one might ask, can't they simply bring back the cars so adored by the American public? Indeed why not? And so they have. Chrysler probably deserves credit for kicking off the modern age of retro styling. Its Prowler arrived in 1997, delivering the styling of a classic hot-rod melded with the performance and reliability one can expect from a modern chassis and powertrain. Others soon followed, pilfering their own (and others') heritage for shapes and lines that stir passion in consumers' hearts. The New Beetle, the PT Cruiser, the Mini, the HHR, the Mustang... the list goes on.

Now Chrysler is at it again, bringing us perhaps the most cleanly and gorgeously re-interpreted car yet. The Dodge Challenger. Unlike the new Mustang which borrowed styling cues from several generations and integrated them into a new design, the Challenger concept is a straight-forward remake of the 1970 Challenger. It delivers the lines and stance of the original car, in a thoroughly modern package, backed by a proven chassis and drivetrain. This isn't "building it like the used to." this is better.

For now it's only a concept, but recent years have shown that making the leap to production is not something to bet against. Chrysler says that if the car gets the response they're looking for, it could be in production by 2009. Only time will tell how long the retro movement will last, but for now let's hope DC has the good sense to put this stunning car into production.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Jaguar's J-Gate

Jaguar is a car company rich in tradition. From the character to the craftsmanship of the cars, Jaguar is not a company known for deviation. One of the features that has remained virtually unchanged has been the automatic transmission J-gate shifter. Instead of a straight up-and-down shift gate found in most other cars, Jag's heads down but then to the left and back up as you go from D to the manually-selected gears. This design is fairly unique to Jaguar and has been the case for many years. However, I have read countless reviews of Jaguars in magazines and newspapers over the years, and not one has praised this design. Every word I have read about this layout has been negative.
In January of 2002 I had an opportunity to spend a week with an XJ8 and it's J-gate shifter. I was absolutely thrilled to be driving a Jaguar, so the shifter was not the first thing I noticed. However, after spending a few days driving the car I realized that it was hands-down the best automatic transmission shifter I have ever used. I liked it so much that I re-read one of the Jaguar reviews in a magazine I had handy to make sure I had read it correctly. Sure enough, this shifter which has been the bane of seemingly every magazine editor that had ever used one was my number-one favorite. The movement of the shifter through the gate was very smooth, and it clicked assuredly into every notch along the way. The magazine editors frequently gripe about the difficulty they have moving the shifter along. I find that the distinct notches make it easy to tell which gear it is in. Where they found the J pattern to be difficult to master, I found it intuitive as it followed the natural arc of my hand and arm.
I honestly do not know what all of the complaints were about, as I have never had the shift pattern of an automatic transmission much affect my driving experience, but what really surprises me is how much I prefer Jaguar's approach where the popular opinion seems to be the opposite.