Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.
Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.
Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery that is bought and operated by almost everyone regardless of whether they are interested in that machine or not? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it. In fact the buying profile of cars is more like toasters or kettles, everyone thinks they need one but has not interest in how to work them properly.
And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions. We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
Fully autonomous cars are now being trialled, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there. To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.
But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.
And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?
And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.
I say scary because we depend more and more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.
I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.
But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes indeedey I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.
What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.
The first thought when a problem hits now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.
People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.
But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.
Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.
The complexity is so great that I believe it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions. Complexity hides secrets, usually unintentional.
This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today which are also hugely complex and have chunks of third party software in the control system, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.
The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans? It is one of the most important debates we should be having today.
The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.
Ralph Hosier is a Chartered Engineer with over 25 years in the cutting edge of vehicle development and research. He has written several automotive books and many articles. He also teaches engineering at the UK forces motorsport charity Mission Motorsport.
For engineering enquiries, project advice or media requests please email on email@example.com and look at the company website www.rhel.co.uk for more details.
I love the whine of superchargers, from the characteristic howl of the Merlin V12 in an old warbird, to the scream of top fuel drag racer, blowers rock.
Clearly it was time I owned one, and in another dangerous moment of ebay browsing I came across a modestly priced Jaguar XJR, first of the V8 supercharged cars, 1997 vintage.
The car looked ideal, sensible mileage, good maintenance, but crucially cosmetically challenged which brings the price down nicely without effecting performance. Also the numberplate was probably worth as much as the car, so in theory I could sell the plate and make most of my money back…
Well, you’ve got to dream.
And in this case my dream was to buy a car cheap, strip out as much weight as I could without actually putting much effort in and then take it racing, or at least a track day or two.
So I did what any sensible and careful car buyer would do, I placed a bid without looking at the car and forgot about it. Oh, hang on, no, that’s the opposite of sensible isn’t it. Yes, often get those two mixed up; sensible / stupid.
The following day I received the email saying I’d got the car, so we had a little road trip to plan. Diana gave me a lift to Kent, just over 100 miles away from home, in her fabulous BMW 840. It was quite a fun road trip, the sun shone, the motoway food was edible, the exhaust roared.
The guy selling the XJR clearly enjoyed driving the car, judging by the tyre wear, which is as it should be. The car was a little tatty, a few dents, a bit of mould but seemed to be mechanically sound. Our five year old son thought it was lovely and spent a good ten minuets checking out how bouncy every seat was.
Documents were exchanged and off we set back home, but the very first thing to do was put some fuel in, the gauge was right at the bottom. The fuel station was a few miles away so I took it easy, it’s one of the exciting things about buying a second hand car; you don’t know how accurate the gauge is and whether you’re going to run out of fuel before you reach the petrol station, quite a fun game.
Soon the green glow of a fuel station arrived, I pulled in and pressed the button to release the fuel filler flap. Absolutely nothing happened. Yes, unbelievably the electronic flap release system had failed, imagine that, and old car with dodgy electrics, got to be a first…
Now there was quite a queue forming behind me at this busy fuel station, not a huge amount of patience present there at that time, which added nicely to the drama. I opened the boot and ripped the side trim out to expose the release solenoid, bent the bracket out the way and pulled the release mechanism by hand. Sadly no one in the queue seemed to appreciate this and kept scowling pointedly.
Anyway, with a full tank of motorway priced fuel we set off for home. On the slip road onto the motorway I gave it full throttle and the car responded with a very civilised yet substantial flow of thrust. I was quite pleased with this until I looked in the mirror and couldn’t see Diana’s 840, not because it was lagging behind, but because it was completely obscured by the thick smoke that had belched from the XJR exhaust. Hmm…
I knew the previous owner had used the car for short journeys, so there was probably some oil in the intake from condensing crank case vent gas, probably, so the smoke could be from residual oil, maybe, so it could be ok, perhaps, and might just need a good blast to clear it out, hopefully. Only one way to find out, more full throttle.
And sure enough, after a dozen high power blasts it did start to clear. Which was nice.
We made ‘good progress’ on the way home, the lead swapping from 840 to XJR several times, both cars are huge fun to drive but in very different ways. The 840 has a sports exhaust, it barks and growls, the ride is firm yet the steering has only modest feedback, it goes like stink and looks like a rocket ship. By contrast the Jag is near silent, the ride is exceptionally smooth but sharpens up when you throw it some curves due to the two stage dampers, it corners very well, more roll than the 8 but with more feedback in the steering, a gentle giant but the full throttle thrust is substantial and constant as the speed rises. And it has 90bhp more than the 8, but they have similar weights, something in the region of 1800kg.
The Jag’s interior is lovely, bright leather and dark wood, very comfortable and a pleasant place to be. The only down side is that it will all have to get ripped out as we enter phase two. It does seem a shame to throw all that loveliness away, but to be fair the seats are worn, the headlining held up with lots of tiny pins and the seat belts are mouldy. In fact there is a distinct whiff of mould all round the car and the carpets a slightly moist. Not encouraging.
Once home I gave it a bit more of an inspection, plugged the computer into it’s diagnostic socket and had a rummage about. Turns out the mileage isn’t genuine, this may be because it has had more than one replacement dash units due to the tendency for them to burn out. Not sure what the real mileage is, probably about 160k, not that this matters for this project.
Then, a few weeks later, I was asked to join the Coventry Motofest team as the Live Action Director, giving me the job of closing the ring road and the largest car park in the city and turning them both into race tracks for the event! This meant two things for the Jag, first I didn’t get to use it much as I was somewhat busy, secondly I decided to use the Jag as the Motofest Pace Car, which is basically a track day car with flashing lights on. Easy.
The Jag is left unused over Christmas, and on returning I find that the whole interior has sprouted a blanket of mould and fungus, the carpets are particularly lively and the seatbelts are now a multi coloured patchwork, I guess there must be a lot of nutrients in 17 years worth of executive belly sweat.
Eventually the sun came out and I set aside one weekend to do the initial strip out. First I set about the boot, obviously the trim had to go but I wasn’t expecting much weight there, but as it turns out there was over 15kg of fluff and rags in there. Then out came the tool kit and spare wheel. Now, the last owner had told me the car had a ‘matching spare wheel’ but seemed a little self conscious when he said it. The reason may have been that the wheel was utterly f##ked, the rim was badly damaged and in some parts it was missing completely, great chunks of aluminium alloy had been ripped off. The tyre had massive cuts in, right down to the cords which were exposed and rusting merrily. I have only ever seen wheels and tyres in this condition in a scrap yard. Which is where I took this one.
The strip out continued with some help from my 5 year old son who set about the CD changer with a socket set, good training. In total about 80kg came out of the boot that day.
Next it was the interior’s turn. This had to happen in a set order because the electric sun roof mechanism can only be removed when the front seats are out. And my lord those front seats are heavy, about 40kg each with all the electric motors and air bags etc. Once the front and rear seats were out and scattered on the drive way, Diana observed that they would look really good in the summer house that I hadn’t built yet.
Next the sunroof came out, which is also quite heavy. My initial thought was to use the sunroof outer panel to fill the gap in the roof, just running a bead of weld round it, but even the panel was heavy with strengthening beams in, so I abandoned that idea and riveted in a sheet of ally instead.
I wondered if it was worth taking the center console out, but the race seats would foul against it so out it came. Again I was surprised how heavy this piece of trim is, turns out it is made on a steel shell which seems a bit excessive, it’s not like the trim is structural.
Whilst I was on a roll I took out the radio (5kg) and some other bits and bobs which all added up. In total I took out about 250kg from the interior!
The seating posed an interesting challenge, I needed something supportive and tall for me, most race seats are too short in the back for me, but as this was going to be the Pace Car I needed a passenger seat that could accommodate a variety of body shapes. Corbeau stepped up to the challenge and supplied two ex-display seats. I bolted the passenger seat directly to the floor, fairly well back much as they do in real rally cars, I then bolted the drivers seat to the original jag seat frame to give it a little more height and make it adjustable.
I bought a 6 point race harness from Sabelt for me, somewhat overkill but it looks nice…
The passenger gets a four point supplied by the most excellent Matt Philips of Retro Warwick fame. The shoulder straps bolted onto the original seat belt mounting points on the rear bulkhead, but the lap belts needed a few holes drilling in the floor pan and some large spreader plates. All the seat and belt mounting was made a little more challenging by the fact that the floor under the seats is double skinned with an upper panel that slopes downward to the rear.
Now, because I have no money the plan was to leave the suspension and brakes standard, after all it already handles well and with the weight loss the brakes should be more than adequate. OK so it’s a fairly dodgy theory, but when you’re skint it makes sense. Of course this does mean that with the weight loss the car will be sitting pretty high on it’s springs, which would look silly, so I had a cunning plan. If you search the web for ‘Dakar Jaguar XJ’ you will see loads of rather fabulous pictures of an old Series 3 XJ hammering through the desert rally, quite inspiring. And of course it had raised suspension…
So all I needed to do was fit bigger tyres and I had an extremely unsuitable rally car! OK, so there’s a hell of a lot more to making a rally car than that, but this is just a bit of fun so I am quite happy to gloss over all those pesky details.
Although the car came to me with 18″ wheels, the choice of off road tyres is greater for the optional 16″ wheels, so I picked up a tidy set off ebay for next to nothing and set about acquiring a nice set of All Terrain tyres from our friends at Falken. I’d measured the wheel arch clearance and found that I could just about get away with 30″ diameter tyres if I made some subtle bodywork modifications with a big hammer. This compares to the standard tyres of 26” diameter, raising the car by a further 2” and filling the arches rather nicely.
It would still be a bit tight near the bulkhead, so just in case I also ordered a set of road tyres for the 18″ wheels, just an inch bigger than standard.
Then I hit an annoying problem, the original wheels wouldn’t come off! I tried encouraging them off with a big rubber hammer, with pry bars, soaking in WD40 for a week and even driving the car up and down a private road with the wheel nuts loose. It took a whole day to get the wheels off! All because who ever had fitted them hadn’t lubricated the mating faces, such a simple piece of maintenance, why do people skip it?
So, with one side on jacks I finally got to offer up the monster tyre to the front wheel arch, and sure enough it fouls on the front end of the sill quite hard, but luckily the sill extends quite a few inches in front of the bulkhead, meaning that the leading section adds nothing to the car’;s strength and is there merely to support the front wing. So I trimmed it back to the bulkhead, and in so doing successfully located the rust! The inner side of the sill was heavily corroded at the front end, additionally where the footwell met the sill there was a thin line of rust. Not ideal, but on the other hand it doesn’t make a huge difference to the vehicle’s strength. If the rust had been a bit further back, under the A pillar for instance, then it would be a different story, luckily that area was solid.
Also the wheel arch rim was in the wrong place and the lip just touched the tyre, with with some gentle persuasion with a big hammer the arch flared out nicely. It’s quite subtle but the top of the arch is an inch further outboard than standard. The rear edge of the front arches were unfortunately rotten, bit of a lace effect. To make it look a little bit less terrible I covered that bit in tank tape, which made it look just as terrible but now it looked like I was trying to hide something.
So now I had the wheels on, seats and harnesses in and a not leaking roof. Clearly time for a test drive! Pulling out of the first T junction onto the main road the weight loss was immediately apparent, the thrust was significantly higher despite the taller gearing from the monster tyres. It was obviously louder in the cabin without the sound deadening, but still civilized, which would prove vital at Motofest when using all the radio communications kit on the track. Going into a swift corner revealed that the chunky off road tyres tended to drift significantly, as expected, in a rather entertaining sort of way. But the tyres and the ground clearance mean that this venerable old Jag can clip apexes onto grass verges on a race track should the need arise, in fact it could probably drive straight through gravel traps!
An unexpected benefit is that parking and manoeuvring is easier as now it can drive over curbs.
Returning home the steering became heavy, and a pool of steering fluid on the drive indicated that the power steering cooler hose had burst somewhere inconvenient. The leak was from the union under the air filter in the front drivers side of the engine bay. The air filter was covered in steering oil which had sprayed up through a large hole in the airbox, the hole was caused by the mounting lug being ripped out, clearly something had been going on here. Further stripping revealed the car had had a frontal impact in it’s past, it had been pulled straight and a new front right wing fitted, although solid it was a cheap repair, with damage to the fog light and indicator wiring as well as the fore mentioned steering cooler. I had to take out the whole radiator pack, intake and chin spoiler to get it fixed. Whilst there I replaced the front drive belt and a couple of pulleys that were starting to make noise, I removed the air conditioning radiator and some other bits it no longer needed. I also left the lower headlight trims off, because I think it looks better without them. In fact it look quite good with no grill either, but then it looks somehow less Jaguar.
At this stage it needed a name, so I asked the Twitter and Facebook community for ideas, based on the car’s ability to push on through poor road surfaces with unreasonable haste. One suggestion caught my imagination; Dreadnought. Dreadnought was a class of battle ship from about a hundred years ago, it was more heavily armoured and faster than previous ships, and although that class of ship saw action the original Dreadnought itself was never used in a real battle. In other words it was heavy, fast and looked the part but was never tested in combat. My jag is heavy, fast and although it looks like a rally car it will never be in a real race.
It also fits into my ship based race car theme, as my last race car was a Jaguar XJ-S V12 called the ‘Black Pearl’ (see previous post for details).
In time honored tradition all the work was finished at the last minuet, and I drove up to Coventry the week of Motofest with several more things still to do. As I set off, driving round the lanes of Cambridgeshire was an absolute joy, then it was onto the A14 and M6 for the 60 mile trip to Cov, this all passed pleasantly enough but just as I slowed for the exit junction to Coventry a helpful warning light pinged onto the dash telling me the gearbox was unhappy, and suddenly I only had one gear, third! The symptoms pointed to gearbox fluid loss, I limped it very gently back to a friend’s house in Coventry where I could test it, Nick is used to race machinery as he races in the British Cross Country Championship in a car called Insanity 2. Cunningly there is no dip stick on the XJR’s Mercedes gearbox, although one can be purchased. I used a bit of wire and found that the sump was all but dry, fluid had been squirting out from a fluid connection on the radiator pack, a quick investigation revealed there was no O ring in the joint any more! By an utterly bizarre coincidence Nick had an old Jaguar X308 radiator pack in the shed that he was thinking of adapting to use on his Land Rover, even more bizarrely it still had an O ring in the hole where the fluid pipe goes! What are the chances of that?
Of course I also needed quite a lot of transmission fluid, now these boxes use a specific synthetic oil that can be tricky to get hold of. Luckily another chum, Franc the guru of Land Rover engines, happened to have a few spare bottles because his Jag also used the same fluid. Another bizarre coincidence.
With that all sorted it was time to fit the all important stickers, the most important one being the Pace Car and Motofest ones that had been cut specially for me by Nathan Ward of Golden Bull Racing fame. There is an art to applying large stickers without getting creases and bubbles in, you apply soapy water first and squeegee it out from the middle, using a heat gun to get it to flow to the curves of the car. As you can see I am rubbish at this and should have left it to the professionals. This is made more embarrassing by the fact that some of the stickers are from Missions Motorsport, the forces charity that uses motorsport to rehabilitate injured soldiers and who also run a very successful graphics course, they trained guys who now fit the graphics onto Formula 1 cars. They would also be at Motofest training volunteers how to do a few stunt driving manoeuvres, so they’d see what a mess I made of the graphics on Dreadnought. And yes, they did verily take the piss.
I also had to wire in the amber flashing lights kindly supplied by Jon Fry of Northants 4×4 club. He is a rally marshal and would bring his Discovery as the course closing car, more of that later…
All in a rush the big day of Motofest arrived, I’d been working past midnight for weeks and was up until 2am rewriting the running order. After a quick sleep I was up at 6am to check the road closure was going to plan, driving Dreadnought through the deserted city streets felt like the beginning of some cult film, I had the windows open to hear the supercharger whine and the drone of the tyres more clearly. It felt good.
Soon participants started to arrive, by 9.30 we had a closed road, I’d done the driver briefing and Darren of Destination Nurburgring fame was doing the signing on. The radio coms truck was set up, we had radios in all the control cars and we had teams on the entrances and exits controlling traffic. Time to deploy the marshal teams, leading the convoy of Land Rovers in Dreadnought round the deserted ring road was an interesting moment, this was the beginning of something special. We started the event with a few parade laps of classic and performance cars, sticking to 40mph and waiving to the small crowds building at the spectator points. I was at the front in Dreadnought and Jon was at the back in his Discovery 1 Tdi, that way we made sure no one went the wrong way or got left behind. In the afternoon we picked up the pace, with race cars running at higher speeds, demonstrating a small amount of their capability. Dreadnought coped with high speed cornering beautifully, drifting very controllably. Jon’s Discovery however may have not been quite so used to high speed cornering, but it kept up…
One memory will stick with me for a very long time, seeing an ex-BTCC Rover SD1 V8 in a long line of very fast race cars in my rear view mirror as I glided Dreadnought through the roundabout on junction 1, the crowd cheering and taking pictures.
In all Dreadnought put in 107 faultless miles hacking round the ring road that day. What a day.
Then it was a return to more mundane duties, for the next week I commuted to work in it, the only down side being that the wings on the race seat make side viability at T junctions a little tricky, that and the lack of air conditioning on a hot summers day.
Since then it has been used for some local trips and also appeared at Kimbolton Fayre along side Diana’s fabulous BMW 840, the fayre is the largest charity classic in the East, apparently, with over 800 classic and performance cars, well worth a visit.
We also took it to Santa Pod for a RWYB day, it managed a 13.8 second standing quarter mile with a speed of just over 100mph. Not bad for an ebay special!
So, mission accomplished. Dreadnought had a month and a bit of MOT left and so I put it up for sale in August 2014, it went to a new home at an Oxfordshire racing company where I’m sure it will continue to make people smile.
The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media has focused on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.
I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, was was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 2 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan, Honda and BMW to name but a few. All of these bring revenue and prosperity to the country and use British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruit about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes foreign sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, thus taking support investment away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it was something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors and for investors the dividends are modest.
Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance or retail.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school, and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects, we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidates skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what I see is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at
Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.
Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)
My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my
generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.
This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is
another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.
Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.
Astra GTE MK1
Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car
tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.
This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.
On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.
But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.
Astra GTE MK2
With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge
the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it
doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.
Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?
This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.
But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.
The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.
Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed
to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.
This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young
family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If
you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.
I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like
Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.
But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.
In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.
So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.
The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.
Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.
And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal
museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.
And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.
And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.
I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.
Or at least the truth from an engineering perspective. And that is an important distinction because of course the main catalyst for the change is political, there may be some very fine environmental and technical reasons for the change too, but politics holds all the aces. It can make oil prices prohibitive, it can subsidise new technologies that herald breakthrough innovations.
You see, every life changing new technology had to start somewhere, it usually starts off prohibitively expensive and a bit unreliable. Just think about those early mobile phones the size of a suitcase with a battery life of only a few minuets and call costs a hundred times greater than a normal land line. Or even the first computers, the size of a large room and less brains than a digital watch. The format is well established; pour loads of funding into research, laugh at boffins making experimental machines with questionable ability, wait for a company to spot the potential, get it into production and within ten years every competitor is developing better versions.
But electric cars are a bit of an exception because at the dawn of motoring they were a front runner, even Porche’s first car was electric. 130 years ago petrol was not readily available, you bought it in cans for quite a lot of money, car journeys were very short and cars were so expensive that only those with a large estate could afford one. Electric cars had the advantage over those first fledgling petrol cars in many ways, they were faster, quieter, much more reliable and had no starting problems. They didn’t even need a gearbox or clutch mechanism, so driving them was a far simpler affair than a crash box piston powered chariot.
But the materials technology needed to advance battery design was simply not there, the early EV hit a performance limit that it couldn’t break free from. The second problem was in motor control, all they had was switches, and as motors became more powerful the need for fine control at low speed became more problematic.
By comparison funding poured into petrol engine design, at that time it was far easier to improve than electric cars and oil companies were understandably keen to see this new product thrive. A couple of world wars forced engine design ahead very rapidly, not least to power aircraft from the humble Tiger Moth to the magnificent Spitfire.
Very rapidly it became far easier to make a high power, low cost petrol engine, opening up the possibility of cheap mass market motor cars.
Electric vehicles didn’t stand a chance. Half a century ago there was simply no reason to invest in electric vehicle research, emissions concerns had not yet manifested, climate change was unheard of and oil supplies were plentiful. A few enthusiasts continued to attempt to make electric vehicles, enjoying their simplicity and quietness, but materials technology would still limit their capability.
But times change, and now with political difficulties in oil supply, a far greater and ever developing understanding of emissions problems and climate change, coupled with massive advancements in technology there is an overwhelming desire to find alternatives to petrol and diesel.
This means that funding is now pouring into research in electric vehicles. But as mentioned above this is merely the first stage in a product becoming a commercial success, early adopters such as Honda with the Insight and more recently Toyota with the Prius have been suffering the commercial pain of subsidising less than ideal technology, but remember this is another essential stage in a technology’s development.
I hope that gives you an idea of where we are; about half way to getting a really useful, cheap and effective electric vehicle. There is now sufficient funding from a sufficiently large range of institutions, governments and corporations that the rest of the development process is pretty much inevitable, after all they all want to see a return on their investments.
Of course electric cars are not the only option for reducing CO2, existing piston engines could be re-engineered to run on hydrogen, and that fuel could be obtained by electrolysis of water. Storing hydrogen is a bit tricky unfortunately, but there are some exciting new developments that could make it a viable option. This has the advantage of using existing engine technology, but introduces large inefficiencies due to the process of hydrogen manufacture, its transport and the low efficiency of the internal combustion engine. You’d be lucky to turn 15% of the electrical energy used in hydrogen production into energy at the car’s wheels. and as ever you loose all that energy as soon as you apply the brakes.
The observant amongst you will know that lost energy from braking could be recovered by hooking up generators to the wheels and using the recovered energy to power the wheels on the next acceleration, as in KERS and other regenerative brake systems, but then you are carrying part of the weight and financial burden of the electric car but without all the benefit.
When you consider the total path from the source to the wheel the electric car can work out significantly better, potentially getting 50% of the source energy to the car wheels.
The other interesting possibility is gaining some, or possibly all, of the electricity from solar cells built into the car body. Various companies are developing composite body panels and special paints that act as solar panels that can be unobtrusively incorporated into the car design. In the UK the average energy from the sun through our legendary gloomy cloud is enough to power a small family car for about ten miles each day, so if all the car does is the school run and weekly shop then there could potentially be no fuel cost. Although as ever with new technology the first cars to have this feature will be hideously expensive and totally negate this benefit, but in time it will become a viable option.
Emissions are not the only reason for going electric, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper it will eventually become far cheaper to make an electric car than a combustion engined one. On a modern small car the engine and associated emissions systems can easily cost more than the rest of the entire car, getting this cost down is a huge incentive to car companies that struggle to make a profit at the best of times. in fact car companies have been trying to get up into electric cars for decades, remember the Ford Think?
There are many other benefits too, electric drives lend themselves to the ever increasing demands of advanced traction and stability control systems. As driver aids such as auto parking gradually evolve into fully autonomous self driving cars, having a simple method of accurately controlling the torque at each wheel becomes increasingly important.
When you put all these factors together the case for electric vehicles becomes compelling, and when you add in the political desire to reduce dependence on unstable oil producing countries the argument becomes overwhelming.
Obviously we are not quite there yet, historically the big problem has always been the battery. Old methods resulted in heavy, expensive and physically large units with limited range, they haven’t really changed in over a century. But in the last ten years or so there has been renewed investment, finally, and whilst there is still a long way to go we are definitely on the road to success already.
In fact as the ‘power density’ of batteries improves, eventually it will exceed that of petrol. This means that eventually electric cars will be lighter for the same power when compared to a petrol or diesel car, or more interesting to a racer like me, an electric car will be more powerful for the same weight. Imagine massively powerful electric supercars with precise control of the torque at each wheel from its four wheel motors, the ultimate in performance. The future world of electric vehicles is a very exciting place.
So there it is, electric cars offer huge benefits to the environment, car companies, drivers and world politics. They are not perfect yet, but within a decade or two they will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones.
And yes, before you ask, I still prefer the sound of a V8. But as long as the car accelerates as if it had one then maybe I could cope, after all we can always simulate the sound!
For more news about electric cars why not follow Robert Llewellyn, a superb ambassador for the EV revolution:bobbyllew
And you must follow Jonny Smith and his fabulous drag racing electric car ‘Flux Capacitor’: Carpervert
The car industry is a very spacial environment, with some very special people in. It seem to attract an amazing mix of personalities and a huge range of talents. Making cars fires some people with an enthusiasm that drives them far beyond the limits of their own talent, it’s a curios business, not quite like any other area of industry.
The history of the car industry is littered with the corpses of dead dreams, idealists, optimists, dreamers have all had a hand in making the story, but equally so have rogues, villains and cheats. It’s even more colourful than the newspaper industry!
Sometimes it’s just one name that signifies the loss of hope, the crushing of dreams and the tragic culling of ordinary hard working decent folk’s jobs. Names like Delorean are well known, but he is unusual in being almost universally held guilty, more often opinion is ferociously split. Names like Eagan, one camp see him as securing the future of Jaguar
with a wealthy parent (Ford), others view his skill in presenting a failing company as being a raging success as nothing more than a traditional used car salesman, some love him, some hate him, this is more often the case with the main characters in the industry.
There are a couple of key facts that are far too often overlooked when bloated executives prepare a new daring business plan for a car company. Firstly it takes a hell of a lot of money, time and people to develop a good car. I think the Ford Focus cost something like four billion dollars, seven years and a couple of thousand people to develop. That’s a huge investment, and a really long wait for a return, remember that is four billion over seven years and not one salable car produced, it would be many years after production started before any return on investment was made. In the Focus case it turned out rather well, but that’s not guaranteed, remember the Scorpio? That was designed many years before launch, as are all cars, can you predict what cars will look like in five years? Can you make a style that will fit in nicely on the high street in ten years time? It’s really easy to poke fun at the tragedy of the Scorpio, a car that lost Ford the D sector market so utterly that they found it more cost effective to just buy Volvo instead of trying to resurrect it, but when you look at the Mercedes that came out a few years later it looks very similar so they were not that far off.
Car design is a massive gamble, huge in fact. Not only does the product have to meet all the customers expectations, but it must meet incredibly stringent legal requirements too. I won’t bang on about the incredible scale and breadth of technical challenges, suffices to say it makes rocket science seem easy by comparison. I’m struggling to thing of another high tech, multi computer controlled, real time systems that has to function in specific ways even whilst being crashed.
It’s a sad fact that throughout the history of car design incompetent management have made the tragic mistake of thinking that the technical things they don’t know about must be easy. Just look at the once magnificent Rover K series engine, originally designed with a closed deck block, no head gasket worries there, solid and robust. But a decision was made to stretch it to a capacity well above it’s original design limits, this is not an engineers decision, this is a managers decision. This decision necessitated the loss of the closed deck and the inevitable sensitivity of the head gasket, but the mangers did what they so often do and pushed it through. Then they had a the clever idea of saving money by making the smaller engines in the same way, thus making the formally robust 1.4 just as fragile as the 1.8. The rest is history.
This is just one example of management not understanding the importance of investing in new designs to meet new targets. This problem is often scaled up to include whole companies, not just one car part. Trying to produce a new model without the correct investment in time, money and people results in inadequate products. Inadequate products result in reduced sales, and so less revenue coming in. Now a clever management team would spot this and invest in a new product to get sales up again, this is a long term strategy and makes successful companies. But a poor management team will notice the falling revenue and react the wrong way by tightening spending, reducing investment and continuing to bang out inadequate cars but with shinier badges and brighter paint.
When BMW sold Rover they had already made the investment in the 75, from that point on not one new model was developed. The Phoenix chaps made no obvious attempt to replace the old Honda derived 400/45/MGZwhateverthehellitwas etc. Remember it costs billions to develop a new car, they ‘invested’ millions, so no new platforms, no new engines, no new sales. From the moment they announced their plans most people inside the industry knew it was just a matter of time before the company sputtered to a tragic and unnecessary halt. The fact the the government also were convinced to invest millions into the failing company merely shows that ministers were either clueless or had other motives for handing over money to the increasingly wealthy board members.
Compare this with Jaguar, a company that had suffered inadequate investment since the grim days of the ’70s. When Ford took stock of what they bought and found out the truth they swallowed hard and started investing in making new models such as the XK8 and the S type, they also invested heavily on a complete redesign of the XJ plus they funded the development of Jaguars own legendary V8 even though Ford had a wealth of V8 engines available. They invested heavily and sales increased. No one is perfect and the idea that the X type would out sell the BMW 3 series was flawed, that decision cost them dearly. And the conservative styling of the S type and the XJ limited appeal. But again they saw struggling revenues and invested in new models, the current stunning XJ, XF and XKR were all funded by Ford. They bought Land Rover when BMW split up the Rover group and used the Jaguar engines in a range of new models there too. Unfortunately for Ford their own cash flow problems meant they had to sell Jaguar Land Rover before they saw the return on the investment, but their decision to invest in new engineering has resulted in Jaguar Land Rover posting billion dollar profits.
The same success from investment can be seen at companies such as Rolls Royce and Bentley. Morgan is a fascinating departure from the norm, they have steadfastly remained focused on doing what they do best, on servicing their unique customers demands, resisting the brainless call to expand excessively. They have stayed small but crucially stayed profitable, it is a very clever model and one that any aspiring business leader should make time to understand. But even they have understood the need to invest in new models, but where they could not afford to design their own parts they have bought in parts that meet their needs, benefiting from someone else’s investment and avoiding the trap of under investing in designing their own engines etc.
Focused investment at the right level generates success. Under investment generates failure.
So you see, if a mainstream car company announces it is going to make new models then there needs to be a large amount of money behind it to work, billions not millions. It also need the facilities and people to make it happen, thousands, not hundreds.
If you see a company that historically designs only one new model at a time then they will have the facilities and people to do only that. If they announce that they will suddenly make five new models at once then they will need five times more people, larger facilities and huge investment.
It is sad to see that there are such companies about in the UK, making bold plans but with a fraction of the required investment. The same old story, with inevitably the same old ending; lots of trouble, usually serious.
It has been another eventful year, as some of you may know this year I took the difficult decision to close my workshop, so this is a slightly self indulgent look at the last three years projects that have been through the ‘big shed’.
The first occupant when I moved from my old workshop in Coventry was my beloved Jaguar XJ-S V12 race car. You might think racing a V12 is a bit opulent, but it was one of those things that I really wanted to have done, even if it turned out to be just one race. The car itself took a fair amount of work but having bought a sound ebay car for £1500 it only cost a further £1500 to get all the bits to make it into a race car, so that’s a V12 on the starting grid at Silverstone for 3 grand, which I think is a bargain. As it turned out I did three years racing and even slipped in a bigger 6 litre V12, I sold it last year and it is now back as a road/track day car in Scotland.
Next in the shop was my long suffering Comp Safari racer, if you don’t know what that is then I strongly recommend you Youtube ‘Comp Safari’ and be prepared to be amazed. I built this car using my old Range Rover as a base, then bought lots of nice bent tubes and fibreglass bodywork from Tomcat Motorsport, Comp Safari racing is intense and punishes the car massively, it is both a technical and a physical challenge, this car is now running somewhere down south with its new owner as a road and play day car.
My toys were swiftly followed by the first customer project, this Volvo C303 6×6 army ambulance from the ’60s had the Volvo straight 6 petrol carb engine and a four speed box, oddly enough the fuel consumption was horrific. The customer wanted it as an expedition vehicle he could live in, so I raised the roof by just over a foot. Then I fitted the 2.5 Tdi
diesel engine and 5 speed gearbox from a Land Rover Discovery, which really doesn’t fit! After modifying the turbo, the manifolds, removing the water pump and fitting a remote electric pump, moving the alternator, shortening the bell housing, making new drive shafts, designing a new gear selector system, converting cable clutch to hydraulic, moving the brake servos, raising the cab, making new bodywork over the engine…… oh loads of stuff, did I mention it really didn’t fit? Anyway, it now works, has an MOT and is somewhere between Coventry and Africa.
The donor for the Volvo was a 300Tdi Discovery, bought for 500 quid with two months MOT left, it was a classic rot box and would never get through another test, ideal really.
Whilst I was modifying the body of the Volvo I tried a few ideas out on the Disco including a quick pick-up conversion (about an hour with an 8 inch angle grinder), I quite liked it and it was used on the farm for a few weeks before its engine was required. Fancy doing one?
Another interesting project was the PalmerSport Jaguar XK-Rs, all converted to LPG only, no petrol system left at all. My job was to re-tune the engine management, which obviously involved a lot of thrashing the cars round the race track, it’s
a hard life.
The next little project was a two pronged ebay ‘bargain’. I wanted to make a track day car for Di who loves E30 BMWs. I couldn’t find what I wanted so decided to make one using the tried and tested method of buying a car with the ideal shell but wrong engine plus a rot box with the desired engine. As luck would have it I found a mint 316 two door non-sunroof with MOT, plus a utterly rotten 325i with a really good engine and gearbox. Blending the two had a few problems but resulted in a track car at a fraction of
the cost of a mint 325. All the bits left over went back to ebay and paid for extras like the roll cage, which was nice.
Another purchase with only a few weeks of MOT was a rather pleasant Range Rover classic. It was just a few hundred quid because it wouldn’t start, the owners ‘mechanic’ friend told him it needed a new fuel pump, ECU and some other expensive bits, but when I got it back to the workshop I found it was just a corroded wire on the ignition, a few
minuets and a new spade terminal and it fired up. I had only bought it for spares but with a few weeks ticket left it seemed rude not to drive it, surprisingly it drove very well, even Di who is a sports car fan liked driving it.
The Range Rover’s engine and auto gearbox was due to be fitted to a rather tidy two door Range Rover Classic belonging to the editor of PPC magazine, I also fitted the stainless exhaust that the donor car had plus the fuel injection. The resultant car was a rather pleasing blend of ’70s style and ’80s performance, it was also more economical.
Sometimes I end up with a car that I have fixed for someone, such was the case with a Frontera that belonged to Di’s uncle. The car was at that age when one thing after another breaks, and after several trips to the workshop the owner got fed up and bought a Freelander instead, which needed less frequent mending. He offered the Frontera to me for a bargain price, I set about overhauling a few of the remaining items and sold it on, but not before driving it round for a few weeks and being surprised how much fun it was.
Some of the project cars are more interesting than others, one of my favourites was the Escort which came in for a suspension conversion. The engine was a big turbo Saab unit capable of over 400bhp, to cope with this I fitted a narrowed Volvo 740 axle with a classic four link set up. The front received Group A rally suspension. This was a thing of beauty.
Occasionally I get called by magazines to help with their project cars, if you follow Practical Classic you might know of their very long term restoration of a MK2 Jaguar to which I fitted the wiring and a few other bits. A more curious call was from Evo magazine who were running a ‘Grand Challenge’ where they bought a shed of a car for under £1000 then raced them. One car, the BMW 325 cabriolet had virtually no brakes so it trundled into the workshop for a rebuild, I was not allowed to spend any money on it as this was against the ‘rules’ so I stripped and rebuilt them to stop the callipers sticking and resurfaced the discs and pads. This worked well, but when the young Evo staff member drove it back on a cold and frosty night he managed to loose it on a corner and crash it. Undaunted, for the next trial at Bedford Autodrome race track we recovered the ‘scrap’ from the insurance company compound, at the pits with the 325
firmly strapped down to the trailer and the trailer brakes applied I asked someone to stand on the brakes of the Range Rover tow car, meanwhile I attached a tow rope to the crumpled bodywork that was crushing the front left wheel and had smashed the front of the engine, the other end of the rope was attached to my trusty Discovery which I drove in the other direction with some enthusiasm, repeatedly wrenching the bodywork out until the wheel was free. I dropped in the radiator and intake from our E30 and fired it up. The only thing preventing the wreck from an outright win on the test track was the fact that it was snowing! Ever done a track day in the snow? You should!
My trusty Disco has a hard life and needed a major overhaul, so to keep myself mobile I put the word out on social media that I needed a short term banger. This Volvo 940 turbo was offered to me for £50, only snag was it had to be recovered from a secure compound on a military base! A few tweaks later it was roadworthy and its remaining month of MOT was well used as I travelled the country for various photo shoots, it even managed to survive driving round a quarry when I test drove a Bowler Nemesis for Evo. After a few weeks I had patched up my Disco again and the Volvo was surplus to requirements, now this left me with an expendable car with a turbo engine, you can guess what happened next, up went the boost in stages, testing the performance then upping the boost a bit more. Obviously eventually it went pop, but a lot of fun ad occurred.
A frequent visitor to my workshop was Di’s BMW 635CSi, one of my all time favourite drives but by crikey does it need a lot of maintenance, and the bits aren’t cheap either, a genuine set of spark plug leads is over 80 quid! The car arrived with the original metric wheels with odd sized and very old tyres that made the car lean to the left. I bought a set of BBS wheels with decent tyres and unsurprisingly the handling improved dramatically. These are lovely cars to drive, but if you get a cheap one be prepared for a lot of work.
The Saab 9000 was an accidental purchase, or possibly more accurately incidental. It had been converted for track day use and was offered to me with a view to me breaking it up. All I wanted was the seats! Anyway, it had the big turbo engine and a few tweaks, it went like stink and handled OK, after a short period playing with it I swapped the seats back to standard and put it on ebay, two young lads bought it. I explained that it was a bit swift and that they should take it easy but I never heard from them after they took it away, don’t know whether they got home….
As my workshop was on a farm I occasionally got called upon to fix farm vehicles, tractors, a combined harvester, Teleporters and even crop driers. They also had two very rusty Toyota Hi Lux pick ups, these were rarely used on road, they are registered ‘agricultural vehicle’ and don’t need an MOT. Which is just as well because this one would never pass one. Being caked in mud and farm waste permanently had rotted nearly everything, it was held together with wood and good will, it had structural bailer twine, it was a shed. On this particular day the brakes had failed and the car had been stopped by driving it into a steaming mound of farm waste and poultry entrails. The car arrived on the end of a fork lift truck and was dumped in my compound. Taking the wheels of resulted in a splash of what I at first thought was mud, but as soon as it started running off I realised was in fact cockroaches, woodlice and maggots. The brakes had failed because the pistons had fallen out of the callipers due to the discs having worn down to 0.9mm thick!
Another odd thing from the farm was the Kubota lawn tractor, which had a problem with the hydrostatic drive. The engine just drives a hydraulic pump and the wheels are driven by a hydraulic motor, in between are two swash plates so the gear ratio can be infinitely varied between two limits. You can drive along and steadily drop the engine revs whilst increasing the gearing to maintain a constant speed, if you wanted to.
With the arrival of our baby, our transport needs changed. Di heroically continued to use the 635 with a baby seat in the back but the contortion needed to get a baby into the seat eventually wore her resolve down, so she decided to get a Disco like mine, only cheaper.
It had a worn cam and a host of problems caused by years of neglect. I fixed most of them but when it became clear a new engine would be the best rout she decided to sell it, there comes a point when it is better to get rid and start again, the art is to recognise when this is and not get trapped into spending a fortune.
Another example of this was a Fiesta I bought with a view to doing up and selling on. It had been parked on grass, which is the worst thing you can ever do to a car other than burning it or rolling it! Grass creates a very humid atmosphere that eats very quickly into every nook and cranny of the bodywork, it eats the brakes, the fuel lines and every fixing that is in anyway exposed. Up top the car had been regularly washed and appeared to be looked after, but once back at the workshop and up in the air it became clear that every mechanical part under the car needed refurbishing or replacing. Both sills had rotted from the inside leaving a thin layer of paint to make the outside look ok! I decided to cut my losses, strip a few spares off for ebay and weigh the rest in for scrap.
A better choice was a lovely green XJ-S 3.6, bought with an engine fault that was reasonable easy to fix. These 6 cylinder Jags are lovely to drive, quite nippy yet very smooth and capable of returning over 30mpg on a run. Once it was all running well it was bought by a chap wanted it as a first car for his son, how fantastic is that!
I have also done a few experiments in the workshop when people have asked me to investigate theories or product claims. One of which was the idea that you can improve mpg by using hydrogen obtained form on-board
electrolysis of water. I tried several variations and ran systems on my car for many months. Guess what, it doesn’t work!
Customer projects continued through the workshop including a rather cute MGB, it had a Lancia twin cam 2 litre engine and a Fiat five speed box. To get the power down I was asked to fit a modified Rover SD1 rear axle, parabolic leaf springs and convert it to use a Watts linkage. I was surprised how much difference it made, particularly entering fast corners where it settled in instantly rather than the traditional MGB rear end wobble. Must do an article on it one day.
To replace Di’s Disco she returned to her trusted BMW, this time with a 535, similar to the 635 but with 4 doors making fitting a baby much easier. These cars are often kept in very good condition but have amazingly low values, this one was under £300 and only needed tyres and front dampers for the MOT. Eventually she sold it to a collector in Dubi!
At this time I started doing higher mileages as my technical consultancy work really took off, I needed something a bit more economical so I bought a Rover 420 diesel. Fantastic car and cheaper than the smaller 220 for some reason. In a year of motoring it only
needed routine servicing and one new wheel bearing. I absolutely thrashed it, including a few laps on race tracks and running down the beach at Pendine. Only down side was I found the seat very uncomfortable.
I got a call one day from a bloke who wanted me to get his MGB working, this sounded ok until I saw it parked in a hedge, one side rotten the other side missing! I declined to fix it but did use some of its parts on his other MGB. Amazingly this chap bought two identical
new MGBs back in 1980, he used one (the one in the hedge) but kept the other one under wraps in a dry garage. It had last ran 20 years ago and had a few thousand miles n the clock, even the running in instruction sticker was still on the windscreen. I changed the expired fluids, cleaned the plugs, stripped and rebuilt the carbs to free them up, fitted a new battery and threw some fresh petrol in. Amazingly it fired up first time! I freed off the brakes and took it for a drive round the farm access road (private land), it was an utter time warp car and an amazing experience.
As time passed Di’s BMW started to show its age, and in the winter snow it was a bit to lively so she decided to try a Disco again, this time a ‘spares or repair’ Discovery 2 V8 with a faulty LPG system. The car was basically sound but had suffered from a lack of maintainance and a botched LPG conversion that had damaged the engine electrical system. It was a mash up of random LPG parts that would never work together but the tanks were ok, so I first reworked the wiring to get it back to standard and running
properly on petrol, then fitted new brakes and gave it a full service, it passed the MOT with ease. I then bought a second hand LPG front end kit to get it all running properly.
If you follow Twitter you may know @onecarefullowner, he has a dream of fitting a Rover L series Diesel engine into one of his beloved Allegros. I like this idea, double the power and also double the economy, double win. The target for his Frankenstein concept was a slightly battered white estate which in tru tradition ‘looks worse than it is’. The engine donor is a Rover 220d, it is always best to have a complete car to take the engine from so that you
get all the ancillary bits needed for the conversion. One small problem is that the L series doesn’t fit in an Allegro engine bay, you have to cut off the chassis rails! The solution would be to weld in a space frame front end, but this was beyond the scope of the original project and Richard took the difficult decision to quite before we ran out of time.
Other vehicles that have gone through the shop include a variety of bangers, the Audi 80, Pug 206, Freelander and my Rover 75 plus @petrolthreads E30 race car and a few prototype cars for OEMs, but that’s another story.
With my time totally consumed with consultancy work and writing I closed the workshop for the last time in October, it is sadly missed.
There is a saying in the army; something like the first casualty of any war is the plan. This reflects the fact that in adversity normal rules fail, but it is not restricted to war zones, there is a battle raging on all around us and on our streets right now.
If you starve a colony of rats they will eventually start killing each other, so I’m reliably told, to reduce the burden on the available food supply. They start by turning on the weak and old, then turn on the outsiders and any member of the community who is unusual in any way. We do the same, in fact most creatures do this to survive.
The instinct to turn on some members of the community when times get hard can be seen in the ridiculous way that some drivers demonise drivers of other types of vehicle. We all feel the pinch from fuel prices and many of us feel guilt at CO2 output, and whilst this drives some of us to find better ways to get about and to develop better cars, it also drives some people to blame minorities for their own perceived plight. One example that effects me is the way 4x4s are attacked. We have two Land Rovers, and they are used for heavy jobs but not for long journeys so their annual CO2 footprint is quite small, but that doesn’t stop 4×4 haters putting anonymous hate mail under the wipers and campaigning to ban them. The fact that a 20k mile a year Micra chucks out twice as much nasty each year seems to escape them.
This is just one example where society fragments and one section turns on another. Unfortunately all this does is consume energy and resources for no useful result, surely their cause would be better served if our energy is whole heatedly put into solving the problems of CO2 rather than banning this or that sub set of the community. In the UK 4×4 all terrain vehicles count for a very small percentage of the cars on the road, and their lower average mileage means that even with a slight increase in fuel consumption they contribute a minority of the road vehicle CO2, so banning them is not going to help anyway, and crucially all the media attention takes attention away from the truly important debate on how we stop CO2 emissions completely. (And before you go off on one; yes this does assume the CO2 issue is real, I am not going to get involved in that debate as I don’t have enough detailed knowledge to make a positive contribution, but in the context of this article it serves to illustrate how society fragments and how this is counter productive. So please don’t have a go at me about CO2)
Manufacturers are chucking huge quantities of money and resources into solving these big problems, but making plans for future eco products is hampered by the car buying populous constantly bickering amongst themselves about what sort of car is best, for example Ford has repeatedly tried to sell electric city cars such as the Think which was available a decade ago, but no one bought them. We have the hybrid fanciers and the hybrid haters, each throwing salvoes of misinterpreted data at each other to prove their own point of view. We have the big car lobby and the small car evangelists undermining each others right to exist on the road. Performance car enthusiasts are put against green car preachers, each striving to point out the pointlessness of the other’s point of view. The fact is we all have the same right to be here, we are all part of the problem and simply fragmenting will not solve anything.
Imagine if instead of finger pointing we actually joined forces, with car sharing on each part of the street so that one families diesel estate got used by many families for their annual holiday, or the neighbours 4×4 was available to anyone in the community to borrow for really big jobs and getting provisions in the snow. There is no technical obstacle to this, but there is a massive attitude problem which kills the idea dead. In any scheme like this someone always get disproportionately more benefit than someone else, but so what? As long as everyone in that group gets enough benefit what does it matter if someone else gets even more? But most humans rarely think like that.
Of course it is not just the car world that has this problem, recently we saw public sector strikes that seemed to resolve everybody’s opinions either for or against, most opinions seemed to be formed with the minimum of data and the maximum of social prejudice. For my part I voiced the opinion that I found it difficult to agree with the strike when we were all suffering from financial hardships, notice I did not say I disagreed with it, just that I found it difficult. In this example there are genuine grievances, if I signed up for a job on the promise of a good pension and several years of hard work later it suddenly gets taken away then I too would be bloody fuming. Clearly this aspect is a very bad thing to do. But when we look at the other side we find that there simply is not enough money to pay for this as well as everything else, this is a very big problem that has been brewing for many years and is suffered by most western countries. In this case both sides are right, the solution is to generate more wealth to pay for the promises whilst adjusting the terms of employment for new recruits, or something along those lines possibly. But rather than have a national debate about how to fix this and coming up with ideas, we are instead once again fragmenting into ‘sides’ and just having a slanging match.
Then there is the current hatred for rich people, it seems that anyone who has managed to amass a decent wedge must be vilified for the obviously evil methods they used to steal the cash of the hard working whatever. Again this is pointless, there are freeloading useless people in every sector of society, no one has a monopoly on bastards. But instead of discussing how we can all get a bit better off the argument descends into taking money off rich people to give to poor people, and in doing so fragments society into those who have money and those who don’t, rather than joining forces and generating new businesses that add value and generate wealth.
My message is a simple one; stop attacking and start building. Time is running short, and there’s a storm coming.
There have been many stories of genius inventors making a car that runs on water, only to be silenced by the evil oil companies, never to be seen again.
I was intrigued by the sheer volume of technical claims, despite decades working at the cutting edge of automotive technology and being immersed in scientific theory I am acutely aware there is always room for doubt, and for new ideas to surprise and change the way we think. Ideas like these are rare but happen often enough to make keeping an open mind and essential part of the make up of the modern engineer.
The traditional view is that water is basically hydrogen that has already been burnt, so it has no usable energy content left. Because of this fact there is a tendency to think that all these people who believe in water power are all nutters who probably have been abducted by aliens and experimented on for a laugh and are a tiny minority. But nothing prepared me for the depth and complexity of the technical explanations and the shear volume of conspiracy theory’s involving governments, car makers and oil companies all in cahoots to keep us buying expensive oil.
Well, let me assure you that car makers would quite happily stab the oil companies in the back if they could sell a few more cars, and one that ran on water would sell rather well, don’t you think?
So, how do you run your car on water?
Well, you will need a big plastic jar (screw top with a good seal), a small plastic jar, some tubing, a few strips of metal, some small bolts, a fuse and some wire.
But before I go into details, I want to talk about electrolysis. I found a number of amusing web sites that propose the use of hydrogen made from passing current through water. So far that’s not a bad idea, many car companies are investing quite a lot in converting petrol engines to run on hydrogen.
Where these sites go off the rails is when they generate the gas on board the car, using electricity from the alternator, which is of course powered by the engine.
Here are some basic figures for you, a good car engine will convert 33% of the energy released from the fuel into usable power at full throttle, it goes down to about 10% at light loads. An old carb engine might be as poor as 20% at full tilt. Oddly enough big engines can be more thermally efficient than small ones, its all to do with heat loss and the ratio of volume vs surface area, the most efficient piston engines in the world are the cathedral engines in super tankers, such as the 25 thousand litre Wartsila-Sulzer RTA96-C turbocharged two-stroke 14 cylinder, which gets up to 50% efficiency. You may recal I did a blog post about it last month, its very impressive but at 2300 tons you would struggle to get it in a car.
So, going back to our in-car hydrogen plant, with the precious little power left at the crank we drive the alternator, which usually has quite a good efficiency, converting about 90% of the power fed into it into electrical energy.
Then there is electrolysis, at the molecular level, the energy you put in to separating water into hydrogen and oxygen is the same energy you get back when you set fire to it. Interestingly, some of that energy can come from heat from the environment, ie the heat from the engine.
So, when you add up all those efficiencies up, to produce 1bhp worth of hydrogen, the engine has to burn nearly 4bhp worth to make the process work.
Guess why it doesn’t work!
Mind you, if you generate the electricity away from the car, say from a wind turbine in your back garden, store the gas in huge explosive bags attached to the roof of your car then you are on to a winner. Until it imitates the Hindenburg.
So once again I have shown that you can’t run your car on water. So now I will finally get round to showing you how to do it.
One of the reasons that the efficiency of car engines is so low is that not all the petrol gets burnt, and some gets partially burnt. The actual combustion process is very complicated, with molecules decomposing into sub species before reforming into exhaust gasses. The flame front travel across the cylinder is also semi-chaotic and some molecules get passed by entirely. Some start burning then hit the cold cylinder walls and stop burning, some start burning at the end of the process when the piston is to far down to convert it into usable energy. Petrol mixtures burn at a rate of about 40 to 50 centimeters per second depending on loads of factors like pressure, turbulence and temperature. That’s one of the reasons that big engines run slower as it takes longer for the flame to travel across the bigger combustion chamber, for instance that super tanker engine I mentioned produces 5 million ftlb of torque at just over 100 rpm.
If we could speed up the burning process then more of the petrol’s energy can be converted into useful work on the piston. Also, if we could put in something that would mix more readily with the air and bridge the gaps in the fuel mixture we could avoid those dead spots.
Ooh, hydrogen does that, it mixes very readily and burns faster. So all we need is a very small amount of hydrogen and we can improve the efficiency of the petrol.
Well, if its so good why hasn’t it been done before? Well, it turns out that this method has been used for many years and some reasonable research has gone into it, have a trawl through the SAE web site and you will see that many respected institutions and big companies have published papers on the subject. Some use methane which is broken into hydrogen and carbon dioxide by the use of rather hot steam. Of course you then have a hydrogen car that produces co2 which is sort of bad really.
So here is the theory; you get a bucket of water strapped to the car, stick two bits of metal in it (electrodes) connected to the battery (via a switch and fuse). The lid on the bucket has a hose to transport the explosive hydrogen and oxygen gas to another bottle where any water is removed (don’t want to hydraulic the engine). Finally the hose is stuffed somewhere in the intake to allow the gas in.
Great, but how much gas do we need? Well, to make 1g of hydrogen you need to apply 285Kj of energy to the water, luckily the water tends to use energy from the environment during the process, so potentially about 48 Kj of heat will come from the engine bay, leaving our electrics to provide about 237Kj per gram.
Now, power in Watts is Joules per second. So 1.4Kw (1 HP) is 1.4Kj per second. Which works out equivalent to burning about 0.006 grams of hydrogen per second, or in volume terms that’s about 0.066 litres per second, a steady stream of small bubbles.
So for a cars electric system to put in 14Kw of power at 14v the current will be 100 amps, which is a lot.
But remember we are not talking about using the hydrogen to power the engine, but to help get more useful energy from burning the petrol. So the big question is how much do we actually need? The web sites suggest one litre of water will last up to 900 miles. That works out at about 1.1g per mile, and of that 1.1g of water there is only 0.12g of hydrogen per mile. At average speeds this works out at about 0.0013g/s, about one fifth of a bhp, less than 1% of the overall fuelling and will draw about 10 amps in the electrolysis bucket.
To get a sensible answer to all this, I nailed some scrap metal into an old washing powder tub and tried out some combinations.
The first version was one recommended on an American web site, claiming up to 40% gains in efficiency. It consists of a one litre plastic container with two bolts in as electrodes. But even with a little salt added to my copy it only managed to draw 0.1 amps and no detectable gas flowed out of the outlet hose. In short, it was useless and had no effect on the engine.
Clearly we need more power, one of my favourite sayings. So next we have a system with drastically increased conductor length by using wire, wound round a cross shaped former, still in the one litre pot. This has the effect of drawing 10 amps, about where most of the internet products are, and a steady stream of bubbles.
This very small amount of gas will have the most dramatic effect on the engine at lower loads and idle because that is where it will be the biggest proportion of the total mixture, so I fitted the system to the intake and watched the injector pulse widths and lambda compensations so see what effect it had. Well, the web sites suggest a 30% fuel saving overall, so at idle it must be huge, but no, there was absolutely no difference on average.
I even drove it round for a few weeks, and at first I though I could just detect an improvement in power and the fuel bill seemed to be dropping. But then it went up again; it turned out that it was just me driving more carefully as I paid more attention to what I was doing after fitting the kit. This is a very common phenomenon.
So how much gas do I need then? Well, some very useful research has been done by NASA and various universities. Basically to get a 30% increase in efficiency (power out vs fuel in) we need to run 90% hydrogen/10% petrol!
At 50 % hydrogen the efficiency improvement is only 15%, but what does that mean in a normal car? Well, if you are cruising down the motorway you might be using about 20kw of engine power, if you only run 50% HHO then that’s 10kw of electricity running through your jam jar, at 14v that’s over 710 amps out of your alternator! But then that power comes from the engine so it would now have to produce over 30kw, which would mean a 30% increase in petrol use in order to gain a 15% efficiency saving….. Hmmmmm..
Now, bear in mind that the average driver can improve their fuel economy by up to 30% just by learning better driving techniques, and that on an average commute fuel economy can vary by 20% easily depending on what mood the driver is in. So subjective assessment of 10% economy gain is meaningless, it has to be checked on a proper test facility.
There are of course other ways of generating hydrogen on board a car, using chemical reactions, and this would take the alternator problem out of the loop, but generally the chemicals are rather nasty/expensive and leave a chemical waste problem.
One of the favourites being explored by the car industry is called ‘reformate’ where the petrol is partly separated into CO2 and Hydrogen using a catalysts and exhaust heat. At the moment the fuel savings don’t justify the expense of the extra equipment, but I am sure that will change in time.
Water has a number of other benefits in a traditional engine, I am sure you know about water injection which turns a bit more of the heat energy from combustion into pressure energy. It also reduces cylinder temperatures and so reduces knock, allowing a bit more advance. But also a small amount of water, up to 5%, if well mixed in the fuel before its injected can increase power by up to 7%. Unfortunately you cannot just chuck a cup of water in the fuel tank, because it wont mix, you need some reasonably clever and accurate mixing machinery.
In short, there is a lot you can do with water. However, if you google ‘water car’ then the myriad of websites that appear generally talk complete twaddle and make excessive claims for there own brand of hocus. Whilst I am talking about the web sites, there were a few claims that I feel are potentially harmful.
First is the matter of your cars warrantee, unlikely anyone thinking of doing this will have any, but the point is that despite the various web site claims, fitting absolutely anything to your engine will invalidate the warrantee. In the car industry we spend a huge amount of time and effort checking the car works under all sorts of conditions, it takes years for each model to complete all the tests before being ready for production. Modern engines are so finely tuned that any disturbance will cock things up, and that includes those plug in chip tunes by the way. So plumbing in a bottle of water to your intake will definitely lose any warrantee.
Next, some sites sell you electronic devices to bias engine sensors to make it run lean, best fuel economy generally happens when you run 10% lean of stoich, which is fine at part load on a non cat car, but obviously not at full load because things overheat and fail, and if you have a cat it will stop working eventually. And as these are sold without checking the engine on a dyno the potential for detonation or catalyst damage is rather significant.
Then there is the matter of additives in the water, remember it all goes somewhere and some chemicals will put quite nasty things into the atmosphere. Some sites advocate volatile fuel additives too, again the reason the car industry doesn’t do this is that it poisons the catalyst and puts very nasty stuff into the air. Fuels with super chemicals that don’t pollute as much are readily available, such as Shell Optimax or BP Ultimate which have over 200 chemicals in to get the best performance.
Safety seems to get a fairly low priority too. Remember that as we separate the water we get a perfectly explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen, albeit in very small amounts. If the pot you generate the gas in is not ventilated then any slight spark could leave you pot-less and potentially destroy things under the bonnet. Luckily most of these systems produce so little gas that it is unlikely to be a problem!
So in summary, yes you can run your car on water, but not using a jam jar and some wire.
Don’t just take my word for it; here are some of the research papers I used in my research:
SAE 841399 1984
SAE 740187 1974
Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation
General Motors Corp.
SAE 810921 1981
Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation
University of Michigan
Hydrogen reformate (H + CO2)
Robert Bosch GmbH
SAE 760469 1976
Hydrogen reformate in aircraft engines
Jet Propulsion lab
What are the losses?
The heat released from fuel is mostly wasted, about a third goes down the exhaust pipe (turbos can recoup a small fraction of this) and another third goes into the oil and coolant. A smaller amount is wasted as noise and vibration.
At part load the throttle causes an obstruction that wastes power too. A better solution at part load is to replace the unwanted air with an inert gas, this allows the throttle to open up and reduce losses. That is why Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) can improve economy by 5%.
What is reformate?
This is where the petrol is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is inert and at part loads is used as ‘padding’ allowing higher throttle openings, this reduces the throttle losses and also improves efficiency. This double benefit is why the car industry is concentrating on this way of making Hydrogen. But with the petrol engine’s days numbered, the technology may never mature.
What is HHO, Oxy-hydrogen or ‘Browns Gas’?
This is what you get from electrolysing water, it is simply oxygen and hydrogen in a gas. There is a lot of myth about it, but here are the facts: It burns at about 2800 C, compared to about 2000 C for petrol in air, or about 3000 C for oxyacetylene welding kit. In fact it was one of the first gasses for welding, but in slightly richer proportions. When HHO is burnt in air, as in our engine example, the flame temperature drops to similar values to petrol.
When it burns it expands, and so can be used to power piston engines, then it forms water vapour and starts to condense, rapidly contracting into just water.
The gas has been the subject of many hoaxes, frauds and misguided optimistic claims.
It’s not magic, just nature. Although personally I thing nature is pretty magic.
The Mugen Honda Civic Type R has a very long name, it also has a very big rear spoiler which is attached to a very small car. Small cars with powerful engines are a tried and tested recipe for fun, thrills and teenagers driving into lampposts outside McDonald’s, in short it’s a winning formula so it seemed rude not to take up the offer of thrashing this icon of the Burberry clad yoof of the day. The location for said thrashing was the fantastically twisting snake of a road that is Millbrook’s Alpine route, yes that’s the one where they filmed James Bond rolling an Aston but as I am not being chased by super-villains I feel confident that the car will remain shiny side up. And that is quite important as there are only 20 of these UK models, although as always with ‘limited editions’ if popular there will surely be further runs of similar but not quite exactly the same models. Right, enough preamble, to the car:
Snug is a good word, even the word ‘snug’ feels snug, as do the Mugen’s seats. The interior is a bit like a condensed version of that corner of Halfords where all the hoodies gawp at excessively loud stereos, as well as the usual dash with the now obligatory ‘Start’ button there is an extra set of largely pointless gauges telling the driver things that most wont really understand in a sculpted pod. When I used to write for Max Power magazine I would see a lot of this sort of thing. But whilst it is very easy to mock, the remarkable thing is I rather like it, it appeals to the child within in much the same way that those enormous Lego Technic sets do, I feel that at my age I really shouldn’t but actually I really want to. As soon as the seat hugs me and I pull the red seatbelt down the whole car just screams to me ‘drive fast’, so not wishing to disappoint that’s what I proceed to do.
The superb two litre VTEC engine is quite audible but still reasonably civilised, it pulls away without drama and can be driven normally, although I have no idea why you would want to because as soon as it comes on cam at about 5500rpm there is a goodly surge of thrust and the engine starts screaming like an aged rock star on a come back tour; strong, purposeful, loud, tuneful with a rough edge, exciting even, but not necessarily something you would want to listen to at 6am on a damp Tuesday morning commute.
In low gears the 8600rpm rev limit arrives rapidly and a certain joy is to be had swiftly charging through each of the close ratio gears, the selector is wonderfully accurate and fast (I believe the trendy term is ‘snickerty’ or something, but that sounds like a word made up by people who cant describe things properly).
The exhaust noise is predominant but the intake makes a healthy roar too, when blasting through the gears the rasping and popping is terribly addictive urging me on to higher speeds just so I can change gear again. I actually found myself laughing out laud.
Turning into fast corners in the standard Civic results in the now traditional dull under-steer and a vagueness to the steering, the Mugen is a world apart and very direct, a lot of the compliance has been taken out and the geometry altered to suit the sportier driver with remarkable results. The turn in is so positive that I feel I could just will the car to go round corners, it responds quickly to every input from me and almost becomes an extension of my body. I say almost as it is not quite the same as a true race car, but there again this is a road car that can still accept a full load of shopping, it’s still hugely addictive and I soon find myself deliberately taking tighter lines round corners just to enjoy the joy ride.
Each corner follows the same format; brake late enjoying the powerful and responsive brakes, short shift a couple of gears enjoying the bark from the exhaust on overrun, throw an arm full of steering in and power out with the engine screaming round to the rev limiter, slicing through the roller coaster Millbrook track. Admit it, you want a go now don’t you!
For the first few minuets this car brought me sheer joy, I was laughing out loud. But after a while the fact that I had to keep constantly changing gear became a tinsy bit tedious, and the fat tyres tram-lining on the rougher bits of road surface required constant correction which started to become tiring.
And that’s it in a nutshell; the Mugen is huge fun, briefly. Not an everyday car, unless you are extremely addicted to go-karts and are slightly hyper active, in which case constantly flailing your limbs about to get the best out of the car will second nature.
Would I buy one? Probably not. But would I borrow a mates one? Oh yes, as long as I could get back from the race track before he finds out what I’d done with it!
Performance 6.0sec 0-62mph, 150mph, 30mpg
Length/width/height in mm 4280/1795/1440
Engine 1998cc 16v 4-cyl, 237bhp @ 8300rpm, 157lb ft @ 6250rpm
Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive