May 20, 2006

Soda Can Center Caps

We are often urged to “think outside the box” which sounds good, but does anyone know what that really means? Simple solutions to simple problems are often elusive.
Scientists tell us that great musicians can actually visualize music as having color or shape. I am willing to bet that artists and designers have a way of visualizing spatial relationships that the rest of us mere mortals cannot comprehend. While you and I may see a pile of stone, others can see a building, a bridge or a wall.

I like to think that I have the ability to see a physical problem with an automobile and be able to visualize a solution. If a car needs a part that is no longer supplied by the original equipment manufacturer, I can usually find a way to adapt a part from some other car or to fashion something out of scrap metal or plastic to fill the need. I often wander through the local junkyard imagining how the trashed treasures contained within can be used to make some other car better. Will those seats fit in my car? Is that engine more powerful that the one in my daily driver? Will that body part make my car more aerodynamic?

But I am certainly far from infallible and although it does not happen often, from time to time I get stumped on how to overcome a problem when a car part has morphed from readily available to being made of solid “unobtainium.” Unobtainium is the materiel that an once obtainable part has become made out of once they cease to be made, or sold. I recently hit this car restoration wall when I needed a set of wheel center caps for my 1980’s-vintage Momo wheels on my 1987 Honda CRX.

Every wheel on every car has a hole about 2 inches across at dead center. This hole is necessary so that tire-mounting equipment can get a grip on the wheels and nudge the rubber tire over the metal wheel. On stamped steel wheels that many cars come with from the factory, a hubcap covers the entire wheel and so we only see the shiny cap which covers the lug nuts and the center hole. On styled wheels that are so popular these days, the lug nuts are often part of the design and so a small center cap is used to fill that center hole. Look closely at the next car you see with styled wheels; the car company logo is usually embossed onto the small center cap. If you lose this small cap, it usually can be ordered from the parts counter of your local dealer.

Finding a replacement center cap for an aftermarket set of wheels can be tricky. Wheel manufacturers feel no compulsion to stock replacement caps and as I have discovered, there are no generic wheel center caps available because there is no standard size for the wheel center hole. Usually eBay would be the best source for obscure, out of production bits and pieces but even this choice is no good to me, they just do not exist for my wheels.

The set of Momo wheels I have on my car were a relatively rare design that was intended for a racing series and not generally available to the public. I bought them used from a former racer without any center caps so I have no reference for what they should look like.

Normally not having a set of center caps would not bother me; I have been happily using the wheels for about three years now. My motto is From Follows Function; it is better to go fast than to look fast. But I must admit a creeping sense of pride welling within my consciousness about my car’s looks and so I have embarked to find a set of center caps for the wheels.

Momo no longer supports these wheels, generics do not exist and eBay had been a disappointment. So I had reached a dead end in my quest. No shop owner could suggest a solution and the Internet forums were equally stumped.

I causally mentioned my dilemma to a fellow car enthusiast at a local car meet and he offered me an elegant solution to my problem. He suggested sawing off the bottom of an aluminum beverage can and gluing it to the center hole. From a distance, the casual observer would never notice the ruse and if the job is done with care, it is possible to fool a more detailed inspection. It would never pass muster with the Judges at the Pebble Beach Concurs d’ Elegance, or the crowd at Hot Import Nights, but I do not plan on entering this car in any kind of seriously judged auto beauty pageant.

So I have a set of soda can center caps and unless I had not told you about it, you would have never noticed.

Posted by Scott at 4:23 PM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2006

A project car NEVER seems to be finished.

Now that I have all the major systems working (or removed) on my 1987 Honda CRX Si hobby car, it is time to start dealing with the sniggling little details that keep your car from being "perfect." Being the compulsive type, I expect that I will never get the car perfect but I am willing to try.

Number One on my list is clear up that oil pan gasket drip that is driving me crazy. I am not losing a lot of oil, but any spot on the driveway is enough to make me crazier than I already am. Plus the oil manages to hit the hot exhaust pipe, which gives the car the faith odor of something burning.

Number Two is to recenter my Momo steering wheel. I had to do some fabrication to get a '95 steering wheel from a Japanese-market Integra Type R made by Momo to attach to the adapter hub. The wheel is just a couple of degrees off, which in the long run is not a big deal... but it drives me NUTS!

I would really like to find a set of center caps to complete the look of my second- hand wheels. On one hand the missing center caps sort of compliment the "phone dial" style of my wheels so I do not have to put them on. But it would be nice.

I suppose I should put new fenders and a carpet kit on my car. I have the usual cracks in the fenders and the floor mats hide the worn holes in the rug. But the car is about function, not form so I can suppress the urge to fix these problems.

There is a hidden "problem" in the suspension that I need to correct if I want to retain what is left of my sanity. I am the only one in the world who knows what the problems is, it does not affect the car or the way it drives and I will never need to use the function that is missing. But knowing that the problem exists is making me nervous and anxious.

A less compulsive guy would be happy to have a 20 year old Honda that runs so well. As the women in my life will tell you, I am hardly compulsive about my personal appearance (although I believe that I can be cleaned up for appropriate occasions) But I am compulsive about my hobby car. I take pride in it... and yes I will admit that appearance does count.

So what are the little things that you need to do to your car?

Posted by Scott at 5:45 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2006

An Opel GT calls out to me

My beloved fiancée and I am are searching for a new home, a house that will not be “hers” nor “his” but rather “ours.” Buying a new home in Southern California is not like shopping for any other commodity, you do not just order up the perfect domicile. Rather you scrape together every penny you own and hope to find a lean-to that will not be over priced beyond your economic circumstances. Part of the process is to slowly drive through the streets of your prospective new neighborhood to “get the lay of the land” as well as hoping to find a diamond in the rough that you can mortgage your soul to own.

Sundays may be the Lord’s Day and a day of rest, but there is no rest for those seeking to buy a new home. Sunday is the day of the Open House, a ritual where homeowners looking to sell their house allow perfect strangers traipse through their home. Prospective purchasers complete the rite by tramping through countless homes they can never hope to afford.

On a recent Sunday my lovely intended, my daughter and I set out to cruise a particular neighborhood that is honestly out of our economic league, but dreams die hard and it does not hurt to look. We did not find a house, but we did spot a car.

Sitting forlornly at the curb in an upscale neighborhood overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a car that I had not seen on the street for nearly 25 years. An obscure car that was never very popular here but one that made an impression on me in my mis-spent youth. It was a 1970 Opel GT in reasonably good condition, covered in a patina of dust and rusty brake rotors which tells me that it has been sitting in one spot for some time.

Think back 35 years to the Chevrolet Corvette of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Swoopy and low slung, it had a low pointed shovelnose, a rounded cockpit and terminated in a cute bobbed tail. Got the image? Now imagine that car built on a three quarter scale with a four-cylinder engine that measured less than half the capacity of the Corvette’s.

The Opel GT was the answer to the question nobody was asking, “What would a European-built Corvette look like?” Well apparently the big thinkers at GM corporate headquarters asked that question and they commanded their German subsidiary, Opel, to whip up a petite-sized clone of the American Resin Rocket.

In Europe, with steep gas prices, a fuel sipping “sports” car that reminded the neighbors of an exotic American Muscle car made some sort of sense and they sold reasonably well across the pond. Over here in the land of 30 cents per gallon gas, nobody was much interested in a wacky little wannabe car.

Back when acne was my most pressing medical concern, the Opel GT struck a nerve in me. I was never much of a fan of ground pounding muscle cars, my tastes then (as now) run to nimble little cars that can carve corners, stop on a dime and squirrel up a twisting mountain pass. While the Opel GT may not have been the ideal candidate for that sort of activity, its cute shape and size suggested that it had the capacity to show its heals to American Iron on the snaking canyons roads that my group of teenaged delinquents used to emulate our Formula One heroes.

Back to the present: Like Mia Farrow and orphan children, I feel compelled to give unwanted cars a loving home. I can feel the neglected Opel’s pain, left to rot in the elements on the mean streets of a community of ocean-view mansions.

The Opel cries out to me. "Save me! Love me!”

But it also told me in a voice that only I can hear. “I will return your devotion by being hard to fix, difficult to find parts for, never run as well as you would hope and drain your bank account. I will cause you to neglect the “hobby” car that currently lives in your garage.”

Finally it told me, “I am not really the car you need or want right now. But I am one of the many unrequited loves of your impressionable youth and your middle-aged angst may possibly be soothed by owning a car that reminds you of your high school glory days."

That is a lot of talking from an inanimate object. Note to self: Maybe it is time to seek professional help. Of course the professional help I would look for is a fabricator to design an intake manifold for a set of Weber Carbs to hang on the side of the Opel’s cute little SOHC head. {Must snap out of this.}

No, I will be strong. I must resist the temptation to leave a note for the owner of the Opel asking if he would consider selling it to me. I must concentrate on saving my money to pay for college tuition, home purchase and wedding party/honeymoon. Even though my equally car-mad fiancée tells me that it would be, ’OK to buy it cheap and store it until you are ready to work on it’ I have to be the fiscally responsible one. Money does not grow on trees and my supply of the green stuff is finite.

Besides, what would I do with the Opel? I already have a canyon carving, auto-crossing, little two-seater that perfectly suits my needs for an impractical sports car.

But the Opel would be the perfect platform for a Quarter Mile Hero. I could drop a Chevy small block V8 into the front, tub the back end, lace it all together with a roll cage and go searching for 10 second time slips. Not that I have ever had a desire to go drag racing… but you do not get an opportunity like this every day.

Posted by Scott at 8:38 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2006

I am still thinking about building a car

Regular readers of this space (both of you) know that I am planning on building a car from scratch. Not content to merely fixing up an old car or modifying a newer car to have more performance, I want to stretch myself as a mechanic and fabricator by building a car from raw parts. In my mind's eye, the car I would build would be purely fun; an open topped roadster that would deliver 100 smiles per gallon, low loud and quick, it would be perfect for carving up a canyon road or romping around a race track.

Building a car can be as simple as assembling a car from a kit that gets delivered as a large box of parts dropped at my front door. Or it can be as complicated as buying steel sheets and tubing to weld into a form of my own design. As this is will be my first complete car construction from the ground up I have been thinking that buying a kit car would be the best way to ease into the world of automobile construction.

Car kits come in a variety of forms, it is possible to buy a kit that will replicate an exotic high performance racing prototype or as ruggedly simple as a dune buggy. As I have written before, the two leading contenders are the Lotus Seven style of low slung roadster from the 1950's or the classic Shelby Cobra of the 1960's. The Lotus is smaller and less powerful, the Cobra is larger and probably more powerful than any reasonable person would ever need.

I have thought about putting a six-cylinder engine rather than the usual V8 into a Cobra for a lighter and more maneuverable car. And I have considered replacing the usual four cylinder engine found in most Lotus with a larger, more powerful power plant, probably a V6 engine of some sort. But the Cobra is truly meant to have that monster V8 and the Lotus would be an ill handling mess with a heavier engine in its wimpy little frame. If only there was a kit that was a scaled down Cobra or a scaled up Lotus...

Fortunately I have found just the compromise, the Stalker V6. Largely based upon the design of the Lotus Seven, only on steroids, it is designed to accept the General Motors V6 engine that power a zillion S10 pickup trucks and SUVs. The frame is stronger and larger than the Lotus designed frame, which is an advantage for us Plus-Sized Americans. Performance parts are easy to come by for the GM V6 can be manipulated to squeeze out plenty of power in a relatively light package.

A bonus for the Stalker V6 is that kit is very complete; essentially there is no welding required. Plus it is possible to order ALL the parts for your car from the company that makes the kit or you can source the vital bits yourself. Any North American junkyard is filled with all of the inexpensive components needed to create my automotive masterpiece.

The resulting complete car comes in at about 1400 pounds and 200 horsepower is not hard to achieve. This works out to a very tasty 7:1 power to weight ratio, which is enough to hold my attention.

The legal disclosure portion of this posting is that I am not in position to get rolling on this project right off the bat. I have a lot of personal obligations and responsibilities to take care of over the course of the next year or so. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step and my first step is to think this project through. I value the input I receive from my readers (thank you family and friends) so I hope to hear some of your views on this new development in my car-build project.

Posted by Scott at 6:39 AM | Comments (5)

January 16, 2006

So much for he six cylinder idea

It is official; I am giving up the inline-six-cylinder-in-a-Cobra-clone idea. After doing some more research I discovered that the smaller 200 cubic inch Ford inline six is probably never going to make the 300 naturally aspirated horsepower that I am looking for and the large 250-300 cubic inch Ford inline six is physically too long to fit in the Cobra’s engine compartment and there is very little weigh difference between the big six and the small Ford V8 that is the normal power source for the Cobra and its clones.

If I persist in building a Cobra clone the small block Ford V8 gives the most horsepower for the size and weight of its package. And it is dead simple to build a powerful small block Ford V8, the parts and services are as common as dirt here in the United States. For that matter, it equally easy to find performance parts for a small block Ford V8 in nearly any part of the globe. The advantage of being in production for 40+ years and used in performance applications since inception has made the aftermarket supply of high performance parts nearly endless and the ease of constructing an engine in my garage as simple as ordering some online parts.

Heck, there is no reason why I have to build my own engine in my garage. I can buy a high performance Ford V8 new from the Ford factory, delivered to my location of choice for a reasonable price. Nearly complete, a crate engine (so called because the engine gets delivered in a wooden crate) arrives just needing a few external accessories bolted on before installation into the car or truck of your choice. And there are numerous companies unrelated to the factory that will be happy to ship you their version of a crate engine in a nearly endless variety of levels of tune.

So the Cobra with a weird engine project is officially off the table for discussion. That means that the consideration is between the Cobra clone with a V8 or a Lotus Seven clone with either a Miata engine or some other undetermined power source. The visceral thrill of a large thumping V8 pulsing under the toe of my right foot is seduction. The thought of more power and torque than any set of street tires can translate to the street is tempting. But the Cobra is a big project; the Lotus is a smaller and less complicated project to construct.

Finally, the cost of a buying and constructing a Cobra clone is about three times that of building a Lotus clone. Not that money should ever be a consideration when pursuing a dream, automotive or otherwise. But I do live within a finite set of means with family responsibilities to consider. So I will continue to mull over the possibilities before making a decision.

Posted by Scott at 7:00 PM | Comments (5)

December 27, 2005

Throttle linkage to the past.

When you step on that long skinny pedal on the right, what does that thing do and what do we call it? I know that we step on that to make the car go and we commonly refer to that pedal as the Gas Pedal. But how does it make the car go and is it really connected to the gas? Like knowing how microwave ovens work or why windows-based PC need to crash every couple of days, how the "Gas Pedal" makes the car move is generally a mystery to most drivers.

The Brake and Clutch pedal are easy to understand because they are really connected to the items they are named for. OK, you nitpickers could drag me over the coals for not disclaiming that the Brake and Clutch pedal in most modern street cars are actually attached to a hydraulic system that in turn activates the Brakes and Clutch. But when you step on "The Brakes" friction materiel will convert motion into heat and in turn stop the car. If you have a car with a Clutch Pedal, stepping on it will activate the clutch, which is mechanical connection between the engine's flywheel and the transmission.

Mash down on the Gas Pedal and the car goes. But what is the pedal physically attached to? In the days before fuel injection, the gas pedal was physically linked through the car's firewall to the carburetor by a Rube Goldberg system of levers and rods that pushed, pulled and rotated to make the butterflies flutter open (perhaps the most poetic operation in all of mechanical engineering) in the throat of the carb to allow air to flow into the carburetor. Also invited to this party in the carb is gasoline, which arrives from by fuel jets that deliver pressurized fuel from a small pump in the carb. The swirling action of air and fuel meeting in the carb stirs the mixture to an explosive combination that is then delivered to the cylinders via the intake manifold. The spark plugs ignite this brew, explosions occur in the cylinders, pistons are thrust up and down, the crankshaft spins, power is transmitted to the wheels and the car goes. So way back in the day, the Gas Pedal was actually attached to the Gas (which was actually metered and mixed with air by the carburetor.)

That old-fashioned connection between the gas Pedal and the Carburetor of a series of rods and levers was perfectly adequate as long as it stayed aligned and lubricated. But as time passes the well-oiled connections in the linkage would get sticky and normal engine and road vibration could put the carefully arranged pieces out of whack. It was not uncommon for throttle linkages to get stuck, sometimes at open throttle with disastrous results. As a legacy of those times, technical inspectors for amateur car racing make a point of inspecting the throttle linkage of competing cars to insure safe operation.

The first improvement to the Gas Pedal to Carburetor connection was the introduction of the throttle cable to replace the linkage. A simple braided wire cable was used to supplant all that tricky throttle linkage. The throttle cable simplified the manufacturing process and made life for home hobbyists some much easier. One of my earliest memories was watching my Dad spread out the various linkage bits from a new four-barrel carburetor on the kitchen table so he could re-engineer it to work with the car he was trying to modify. If the throttle cable had been an available option to him the process would have taken minute rather than hours.

The Gas pedal stopped being attached to the fuel system when the electronic fuel injection system became common on modern automobiles. The Gas Pedal in the car's cabin was still attached to the engine compartment by a wire cable, but stepping on that pedal did not DIRECTLY (a special qualifier) induce more gas to enter the fuel mix. Stepping on "the gas" only opened a valve that allowed more air to enter the intake manifold. "Give her more gas": in fact became "Give her more air" The clever electronic fuel injection can sense the extra air entering the system and in turn order the fuel injection nozzles to squirt high pressure sprays of gas which atomizes and create a nearly perfect air/fuel mixture. The great leaps forward in fuel economy, performance and environmental protection that modern cars enjoy is largely due to advancements in fuel injection and precision ignition control that modern automobiles have enjoyed for the last 20 years.

The latest development in the "Gas Pedal" completely breaks the direct connection between the thingy down on the floor and the engine compartment. The very latest cars use a technology that was pioneered by NASA for the Apollo Program, refined in fighter jets and eventually trickled down to consumer use in our cars. Called Fly-by-Wire, the gas pedal no longer uses a wire cable or linkage to control the engine; instead a data stream is created by a sensor at the gas pedal that is sent to a central processor that evaluates a huge number of variables to sent a data message to the engine management system to add just the right amount of air and fuel to be mixed for the engine's needs. Pressing down on the "gas" is really just sending a signal to a computer that can be located anywhere in the car (usually hidden in the passenger compartment) and so that old-fashioned direct physical connection between the Gas Pedal and the Engine is completely broken.

Military Aircraft Manufactures are working hard to create a telepathic link between pilot and plane; a person would only have to think of the command and the aircraft will respond without any kind of physical input from a human. Eventually this technology could trickle down to consumer terrestrial vehicles. But hopefully the software will include a buffer to filter out random thoughts of road rage during commuting hours.

Posted by Scott at 9:12 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2005

Romance tips from the At Home Mechanic

Call me a romantic fool but I believe in taking my special lady out and showing her a good time. Just as we used to go on dates when we first met, we like to keep the romantic spark alive by treating ourselves to a special night out at least once a week. Dinner and a movie are our typical evening out, but we like to mix it up by socializing with friends, hunting for bargains at the antique fair or just strolling through the local mall. But I like to reserve a particular spot for one of those “special occasions.”

Nothing says, “I love you” quite like a trip to… the junkyard. Imagine if you will, walking hand in hand past the rusting hulks, pausing to pick through cast off parts, lingering over a promising wreck that may yield that Master Cylinder that you both had hoped to find. It chokes me up just to think of the fine time we could have sharing tools while stripping parts from derelict cars. Good times, good times.

Or maybe sharing a day of behind the wheel racing at the local track is the way to build a strong relationship. Bonding as a couple is assured when you walk the track together, discussing apex points, braking thresholds and course strategy. It takes a strong man to admit that his ladylove is faster and smoother through the double apex and negative camber turns. But think how much stronger your relationship will be when you surrender your ego and love without reservations.

And think of the happy times you and your sweetie can share in the garage under the hood together. “Honey, could you hand me that 10 millimeter socket?” “Sure dear. Do you want a short or a deep socket? And do you want it in half-inch or three-eights?” “Three-eights in a shorty will do Sugar Pie.” I bet all you hopeless romantics are wishing that you and your significant other could communicate so well.

I know it is unrealistic to expect your girlfriend/wife/occasional bedmate to share all of your enthusiasm for all things car-related in the same manner as the average Gear Head. But every once is a great while a fellow gets lucky and finds a woman who has at least an open mind when it comes to our car hobby. As long as you do not abuse that special quality (“Dear, do we have to go to the drag races again this weekend?”) and mix in a few chick flicks for date night you should be able to keep the romance alive.

As for me? Well, I have shared a racecar with my fiancée. And she is insisting that I take her to the junkyard today when her son and I look for some Camaro parts for his ’78 Z28. My Love is a good sport and is willing to give every new experience a chance so I expect that she will approach this as a learning opportunity. But I bet it would be delusional of me to think that she will make a second trip to the junkyard anytime in the future.

Posted by Scott at 9:39 AM | Comments (1)

November 21, 2005

Car Troubles?

Of all the troubles in the world to have, trying to decide if I should replace my perfectly good three year-old automobile with a new car should be the least of anyone's problems. But I have been struggling to find a way to justify buying a new car even though my current daily driver is working well and is completely paid for.

My current ride is a 2003 Honda Accord LX four door, which I have owned since new. It delivers reasonable economy (slightly better than 20 mile per gallon in my heavy-footed stop and go driving routine) combined with enough size to haul four or five people and their luggage. The trunk will swallow a $40 dollar load of firewood and the rear seat back folds down to allow the large flea market purchase to come home in our car. But best of all, I paid cash for the car and it costs me nothing other than routine maintenance and fuel. The only replacement that the car will need in the next 55,000 miles is a pair of tires, which are approaching the end of their service life right now (I replaced the other pair about a year ago). So there is really no logical reason to ditch this car.

Ah, logic. The decision to purchase a car is not always based on logic. Emotion is as great an inducement to change your mobility method as any form of logic, maybe more so. My boring four door Accord screams out to the world "Mediocrity!" If this car were an item on a fancy dinner menu, it would be the chicken dish. If it were a suit in a Men's Store it would be grey flannel. Of the 31 Flavors, it would be Vanilla.

The kinfolk told Jed to move away to the hills of Beverly, the Jefferson's moved on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky and maybe it is time for me to shed my dowdy feathers and fly... a little bit. My kids are nearly out of the nest, the fiancee would like to see me sporting a higher profile ride, and I am good enough and smart enough to deserve a car more in keeping with current station in life. By golly I DESERVE a great, stylish car. A car that shouts out, "Here I come! Get out of my way for I am truly a special person who drives a truly special car."

So let's crunch some numbers: My current car is probably worth slightly better than $10K as a trade in, and even a entry level Style-mobile is going to cost something in the range of $35k, so we are talking about a cash hit of $25K or financing costs of about $750 per month. A lease would bring the monthly down considerably, but that is all money down the drain because I could not deduct a lease from my income taxes. With my son rapidly approaching college, my daughter rapidly approaching any shopping mall and my fiancee planning a lavish wedding celebration for us plus shopping for a new house for our blended families to share in the white hot California real estate market is this the best time to be buying a new car?

Rhetorical questions aside, what exactly would I buy? Two doors or four? Some people have a real phobia about being seen in a sedan rather than a coupe. Me, I am secure enough in my masculinity to drive anything. I have owned a Triumph Spitfire and a VW Cabriolet so obviously I am not afraid to be seen in any kind of vehicle.

Is there a manufacturer that I should be concentrating on? Lexus? Boring. Mercedes? Common as dirt out here in LA. BMW? Yawn. Acura? Not much cache. Audi? Too expensive for a upscale VW. VW? Been there, done that, not going back. American made? No way.

I use my car primarily for solo commuting ten miles to work and ten miles back on the mean streets of LA's rush hour crawl. But from time to time I need to haul a bag of planter mix, or a couple of lawn chairs or some other cargo so I need something that can handle a load. If I got a cute little roadster like a Lotus Elise, or a Porsche Boxster I would also need to buy a used pick up truck to hold in reserve when I need to carry something larger than an overnight bag.

Back to my food analogy comparing my boring Accord to a chicken dinner, a grey suit or vanilla ice cream. I like chicken, I own a grey suit and I always order Vanilla ice cream. So in a sense, the Accord is perfect for me. The out of pocket expense is low and it has all the features I need in a car.

There is an old saying, "Happiness in not having what you want. Happiness is wanting what you have."

Posted by Scott at 6:01 AM | Comments (4)

November 20, 2005

Presidential Car Guys?

Have there been any US presidents that we would consider a "car guy?" The last US presidential election fostered a lot of discussion about which of the two major party candidates the average American would like to sit down and have a beer with. But there has never been any discussion in the popular press about whom the average gear head would want to talk cars with. Presidents, and those who aspire to become president, will often go to great pains to show through photo-ops that they are men of the people, you would expect to see a candidate hanging out in a garage talking cars. Motor sports and home mechanics are popular American pursuits, but it seems to me that we have not had any potential candidates who could be realistically expected to differentiate between a differential and a drive shaft.

Woodrow Wilson was the first President to be driven to his inauguration so he gets Honorable Mention as a Car Guy. But I am willing to bet that the Washington DC sanitation department was tired of sweeping up horse poop and lobbied to have the new president make the change to cars rather than the traditional horse-drawn carriage.

Colonel Ike Eisenhower led a convey of Army vehicles from Washington DC to San Francisco in the early 1930's to determine how long it would take to reinforce the West Coast in the event of enemy attack. He discovered that it took nearly a month to make the transcontinental journey on the deplorable roads that spanned the country. One the first things he did when he became president 20 years later was to sign the legislation that created the national highway system that gave birth to the Interstate highway system that we take for granted today.

Lyndon Johnson liked to drive his Secret Service Lincoln limousine around his huge Texas ranch to check on his cattle. And it was rumored that Richard Nixon would take his Lincoln for high speed blasts up and down the Interstate highway just outside his San Clemente California "Western White House" late at night to relieve the pressures of office.

Jerry Ford's first speech as President was to modestly declare that he was "... just a Ford, not a Lincoln." The only driving he did was on the golf course and he was famously inept at that.

Jimmy Carter was a farm boy so it is certain that he grew up with a wrench in his hand to repair farm machinery. He became a Propulsion Officer on a Nuclear submarine and in his retirement he builds houses for the less fortunate through Habitat for Humanity, so he is the most mechanical president so far. But he walked back to the White House from his inauguration so he loses any Car Guy points for that.

Ronald Reagan was photographed driving his jeep on his California ranch and made the pilgrimage to Dayton to see Richard Petty win his 200th stock car race. But both gestures seemed more like ploys to shape his image rather than real interests.

Bill Clinton was a Ford man; prior to marrying Hillary he owned a Mustang convertible and a Ranchero truck with an Astroturf carpet in the bed. When asked why the working end of the Ranchero was lined with the fake grass, the president responded with a wink, "Don't ask."

The current administration certainly seems to be automotively involved. Between George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney, they possess three convictions for driving under the influence. And toss in the president's wife Laura who was behind the wheel when her high school boy friend was killed in an automobile accident. In the interests of political balance it is important to mention that the handguns that most Americans possess legally in their home have killed fewer people than Ted Kennedy's car.

It seems to me that our presidents have only been tangentially connected to automobiles. An interest in things automotive or mechanical does not seem to be an important political qualifier for public office, which puzzles me because Americans have a demonstrated interest in all things automotive. NASCAR draws more fans than any other sport, car magazines are amongst the most popular periodicals and nearly every American relies upon a car for transportation.

The only public figure that admits to working on his own cars is General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, who made a nice side business of buying and fixing up used Volvo's for resale during his military career. Not afraid to get his hand greasy, General Powell has publicly stated that he does not want the dirty job of being the President of the United States. I think that proves that car guys are a lot smarter than we are given credit for.

Posted by Scott at 5:56 AM | Comments (0)

November 5, 2005

Weird GM engines

I have known and loved some strange automobile engines in my lifetime. I suppose is part of my obstinate nature to embrace the odd or the unusual, it is far too easy to run with herd, I do not roll that way. Me, I prefer to stand out in the crowd, follow the path least traveled, and explore new territory. In my view a 400 hp small block Chevy is boring; seen one, seen a million of them.

I look for innovation in engine design and I like to recognize engineering daring. Good old General Motors is sometimes viewed as resting on their engine design laurels. What other automobile company would celebrate that their mainstay engine, the small block V8, has been in production for 50 years? But GM used to be in the cutting edge of automobile engine design.

In the 1950's, GM responded to the success of Volkswagen/Porsche and Renault selling millions of cars with air-cooled, aluminum-cased, opposed four cylinder engines by creating their own air-cooled aluminum block opposed six cylinder engine for the ill-fated Corvair. You have to give GM credit for trying by eventually selling a version of that engine with a factory turbo charger. But even though that engine used lightweight alloys to reduce weight, it still came to market heavier than a similar displacement Ford inline six of a more conventional design.

Expanding upon their investment in lightweight engine designs, GM introduced a 3.2-liter aluminum V8 based upon their cast iron block small block design. Regrettably, the US buying public made larger displacement iron engines their primary choices and GM sold off the aluminum V8 to Britain's Leyland Motors where it got stuffed successfully into a succession of saloons (sedans to us Americans), Land Rover products, and even into the MGB.

GM engineers still had faith in aluminum allow engines and were unwilling to let their greater production cost to deter their attempts to put it into regular production. GM's large block engines were powerful but heavy so an aluminum-alloy version was created for specialty (racing) usage. But the limited demand could not justify the costs and the large block GM V8 faded away just as another GM aluminum engine came into production.

The all-new Chevrolet Vega was GM's answer to the rising tide of smaller foreign cars taking market share in America at the end of the 1960's. Looking like a scaled down version of the Camaro, the Vega used an overhead cam in-line four with an aluminum block. The revolutionary breakthrough made by this engine was that it used no iron sleeves to prevent excessive wear between the pistons and the cylinder walls. Previous aluminum block engines need to be fitted with the iron sleeves, but GM and Reynolds Aluminum claimed that they had created a newer, stronger alloy that eliminated the need for the extra expense. It certainly kept cost down... for GM. Vega owners discovered that the engines would hand grenade at about 50,000 miles.

The Vega engine was actually a pretty good design, if you discount that nasty habit of wearing pistons through the cylinder wall. Famous engine building company Cosworth eventually was commissioned by GM to build a double overhead cam version of the Vega engine with mechanical fuel injection. Part of the Cosworth conversion was to add a set of iron sleeves to preserve the engine.

GM currently has an inline 5-cylinder engine that is exclusive to their small and mid-sized trucks. This engine has earned praise for its high torque capability and appears to be selling well. But long before this engine, GM stole market share from industry leader Ford in the late 1920's by offering in line six cylinder engines when you could only get a four in a Model T. Perhaps the most famous inline six cylinder from GM was the "Stove Bolt" six that powered nearly everything in the bottom end of the GM offerings starting from the early 1930's. The Stove Bolt powered the very first Corvettes and remained in production mainly for truck use until very recently in a series of continually updated versions.

But my all time favorite version of the GM inline six-cylinder engine was a Pontiac offering in the 1960's with an overhead cam design. Only sold for a few years because Americans preferred V8 to inline six, no matter how sophisticated the design, the over head cam GM six was America's answer to the Jaguar and Mercedes OHC six cylinder engines that were so successful for those manufacturers. There was an effort to used the OHC six in performance applications, but there was never much interest and Pontiac quietly dropped the engine.

A friend is restoring a 1967 Chevy Nova with a 200 cubic inch inline six. I have urged him to drop a late model 300 cubic inch GM inline six into the car or maybe even a Pontiac OHC six. But he prefers to be a member of the herd and drop in just another small block V8. Ho hum, so boring.

Posted by Scott at 2:52 PM | Comments (4)

October 15, 2005

Upgrading is not always simple

I have been corresponding with a fellow Honda CRX enthusiast about an upgrade to his car's suspension. He is very happy to have found a relatively rare set of front torsion bars to replace the stock items in his car, and he is looking forward to installing them for a stiffer ride. I am happy for him and I know that he will get plenty of enjoyment from the new parts, but I also told him that in order to get the maximum benefit from this set of front torsion bars, he is going to buy and install a whole host of other parts that are necessary to facilitate the new torsion bars working to their top potential.

Torsion bars are used rather than coil springs in some cars to provide a cushion for the car's suspension. The greatest difference between a torsion bar and coil spring is that the torsion bar is a straight piece of spring steel that gets twisted to provide the spring action rather than compresses as a coil. Air-cooled Volkswagens and Porsches, most Chrysler products from the 1950's until the 1980's and a variety of racing cars used torsion bars instead of coil springs for their compact size and unique packaging advantages that reduce unsprung weight in a car's suspension.

The 1984-1987 Honda Civic and its sporty brother the CRX all came with torsion bar front suspensions with a conventional spring suspension mounted over a solid beam axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard bar in the rear. Although not as sophisticated and adjustable as some other more complex suspension systems, the torsion bars served these cars well. The supply of stock replacement parts for these cars is very good, but the supply of performance parts sold by aftermarket manufacturers and retailers is slim and getting more scarce with each passing day. For my friend to score a set of 27.5mm thick torsion bars for his CRX is a real coup.

The CRX came with 19mm torsion bars and Mugen, the factory performance parts outlet, sold torsion bars as thick as 25mm so the 27.5mm variety made by torsion bar maker Swayaway are VERY stiff. Maybe too stiff for anything other than a racing application. I have a set of 23mm torsion bars on my hobby car, a 1987 Honda CRX Si, and I think that is plenty fine for street and track.

Nothing happens in a vacuum with automobile performance improvements. Even my thicker than stock torsion bars required a flock of other part improvements to fully realize their potential and so is the case with my friend's car. Stiffer springs (or torsion bars in this case) in front mean that stiffer rear springs are in order to balance the handling of the car. In my car I have upped the rear springs from a stock rating of about 200lbs. To 350lbs., the guy with 27.5mm torsion bars will need rear springs in the range of 500lbs to match the stiffness of his new torsion bars.

With all that stiffness in the springs, he will also need stiffer shocks and struts to manage that rigid ride; the stock dampers will be overwhelmed by the new ride dynamic. And if he has not replaced his suspension bushings (a series of rubber "donuts" that locate and insulate the various parts of the suspension) the new stiff ride will demand that they be replaced. And understeer, the basic flaw of nearly every street car as delivered from the factory, will need to be addressed by adding a rear sway bar to his car’s suspension.

It seems like every major sub-system of an automobile requires a group of new parts to make one new replacement upgrade part work to its best potential. In the engine, a new cam helps to make a ported and polished head breath at its best potential, new brake rotors will not be much better improvement until you upgrade the quality of the brake pads, and a car's stereo upgrade will require better speakers to get the full effect of the new system.

The bottom line is that if you budget for a single new part or set of parts, be prepared to also buy and install all of the supporting parts that will be necessary to make that first part work to its fullest potential.

Posted by Scott at 2:46 PM | Comments (132)

October 6, 2005

Car show vs. Car meet

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I entered my hobby car (a 1987 Honda CRX Si) in a car show for old Japanese cars. This was the first car show that I have entered as a participant although it was far from the first car show I have ever been to. From the carefully manicured lawns of Pebble Beach, to parking lot of the local mall, to the dazzling halls of the Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, I have been to many car shows. The settings may vary and the featured cars can range from manufacturer's concept cars to clapped out, but beloved clunkers, but all car shows share a few similarities.

A car "show" is different from a car "meet." A show is a formal, well-organized event with judged classes and prizes awarded for various achievements. A meet is a much less formal gathering of like-minded enthusiasts who just agree to park their cars in a selected spot at the same time and generally hang out with their buddies. I have taken various cars to car meets and had a great time swapping stories and occasionally swapping parts in a relaxed environment. Generally speaking, a meet differs from a show by the degree of familiarity of the car owners with the other people at the event.

A car meet is a gathering of friends, a car shows exists for the owners of the shown cars to get some love and attention from strangers. Nothing is better for the ego than to have a stranger tell you that he always wanted "a car just like yours," and that your car is "really cool." To be able to tell the story of acquiring and restoring your car (with a few embellishments as befitting any good fish story) to a receptive audience more than pays for the rolled eyes and stifled yawns that greet the same story to your long suffering friends and family who have heard the story so many times before.

There is also the chance to receive official recognition via the awarding of trophies at a car show. For the Automobile Company that needs the press attention of a major car show award to launch a new model to the neighborhood hobbyist who is starved for affection at home, the cheap and ugly trophies handed out at car shows go a long way to satisfying those needs.

But the best form of attention for a car owner is to have your car featured in a car magazine as a result of being at a car show or meet. A judged show is always a subjective evaluation by a jury of questionably qualified "experts." But a magazine editorial board can be relied upon to recognize the truly outstanding car from the masses of cars presented by enthusiasts. To have your car make the pages of a magazine, you can be assured that your car is an outstanding example of the ideal that all other car enthusiasts aspire to achieve.

At both a car show and a car meet it is possible for members of the car enthusiast press to cover the event for publication. All the major car magazines make a point of attending the important auto industry shows like SEMA, the Detroit Auto Show and the Frankfort Auto Show; the specialty magazines (dedicated to a particular make or model of car) will cover the more significant shows and meets for that interest group. When an entire show is dedicated to a particular car it takes a special or unusual version to get the attention of the jaded auto journalist professionals.

Being unique amongst a crowd of similar cars has gotten my CRX into Honda Tuning magazine. At a gathering of all models of CRX's, representing the three model variations of the car from the early 1980's to its last incarnation in the mid-1990's, the majority of the 50 or so cars there were the of the last two model variations and there was only two other early model cars like mine. The other two early cars were lovely examples of the model and worthy of inclusion in the magazine, but my car ended up in the pages of the July 2004 issue strictly because it was the most modified of the early cars and unique amongst the crowd.

At the car show that I recently attended as a participant, (my first entry in a car show) my car was not the necessarily the most modified, cleanest or the oldest. But the wheels on my car caught the eye of a correspondent to for Japan's Car Boy magazine. My wheels are a period correct set of Momo 13x6 "phone dial" style wheels from the 1980's that are different from the typical shiny wheels seen on show cars. That one detail was enough to have him pause, notice my car and learn more about it.

Being a professional journalist (I am not just a blogger but a broadcast journalist for a major multi media corporation) I know the power of the prepared press release that frees the journalist of the rigors of actual research on a topic. When encountered by fellow professional journalists at the CRX meet and at the car show, I was prepared with a fact sheet about my car that makes the journalist's job so much easier. In clear, simple to read language I listed all of the modifications to my car, the specifications of critical components and the manufacturers of the many aftermarket parts on my car. With this in their hand, a writer/photographer on a deadline can more easily present an article with key details that will help insure your car's inclusion in his story.

Posted by Scott at 6:24 AM | Comments (0)

My classic car

It only took 30 plus years of car ownership, but I now officially own a car worthy of presentation at a car show. And wasting no time to exploit this opportunity, I entered my hobby car, a 1987 Honda CRX Si, in the first annual Japanese Classic Car Show this past weekend in Long Beach California. Open to Japanese cars from 1985 and earlier, my 1987 model qualified for entry by being a model that was first offered for sale in 1985 or earlier.

Normally my car and me are the antithesis of the Car Show car and owner. Car shows cars have been buffed and polished, chromed, meticulously detailed, and modified beyond all recognition of its original shape. On one extreme of the car show scale, these cars are gleaming examples of the art of applying plastic body filler, airbrush artwork and velvet upholstery. Or on the other extreme, a car show car is restored beyond mere restoration to the point that they have been prepared for judging to a point that they are in better condition on the show grounds than when they left the factory.

There are two special words to describe the owners of these types of show cars: Obsessive and compulsive. No surface, see or unseen, has escaped the attention on these head-cases. Cleaned, painted, polished and then polished again, these cars fairly glow in the dark from the attention lavished upon them by anal retentive types who would rather lose a kidney than allow the tires of their show cars to touch the common asphalt of public roads. Car show cars are not meant for actual use as "cars" and the owners have morphed beyond the definition of mere "enthusiasts."

I am of the belief that if it runs good, then it looks good. Performance is far more important to me than a slavish devotion to originality or flouncy frills. Form follows function best describes my attitude towards my hobby car. Clean is good, but a blemish or two will not ruin my day. Shaving another thousandth of a second from my lap time or increasing lateral grip is much more important than seeing my reflection in the paint's finish. So it would not seem likely that I would even care that my car would finally qualify for inclusion in a judged car show.

But the truth is that we all want love and by extension we want love for our hobby car. All it would take is one person at the car show to say, "Nice car man." I only ask for a little accreditation, a small amount of approval for what I have wrought in my garage. And where else will you find this kind of acceptance than at a car show for my car and it's contemporaries?

"Classic" may seem like a stretch when applied to old Japanese cars, but the late 1960's marked the emergence of the Datsun Fairlady/240Z, and the 510. Toyota shrugged off the Toyopet to give the world the GT2000 with the engine that would eventually power the Supra, and the Celica premiered in this period. Honda offered the 600 mini-car at motorcycle dealerships, but soon brought the first Civic to market and quickly set the standard for small car engineering. Mitsubishi was a captive import for Dodge carrying the Colt nameplate. And Mazda was making noise with a rotary engine that hummed. Perhaps none of these cars have the cache of a Ferrari or a Rolls, but to a certain segment of the auto enthusiast hobby they represent a nostalgic remembrance of a bygone era. And for the youthful sport compact crowd, a chance to connect with the roots of their sport.

Frankly I had no allusions that my car was going to win any kind of awards, I just wanted to see all the cool old cars and I might as well park my car amongst the show cars. A quick wash and wax was all the preparation I gave my car and off I headed for the grounds.

Just as a classic Japanese car is a relative term when compared to our usual concept of a classic car, the show cars at this event were generally well kept survivors rather than pampered trailer queens. There were a few cars at the show that could compete in the usual car show venues, but for the most part the old cars at this show were well loved hobby cars that are not strangers to the highway or racetrack. A few of the owners troubled to mount mirrors to showcase the chromed undercarriage, but most of the folks just brought a picnic lunch and enjoyed visiting with other owners and their cars. There was a pretence of judging and awarding prizes, but most folks were there to enjoy the day in the park with fellow enthusiasts.

I left the day with a souvenir tee shirt, a window sticker to commemorate my car's participation and an afternoon of good memories. But best of all, my car got its photo taken by a journalist from Japan's "Car Boy" magazine covering the event. Look for the red CRX in the December 2005 issue.

Posted by Scott at 6:23 AM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2005


Patina is not the name of the fanciest Italian restaurant in town; it is the word to describe the faded, dusty finish of an old car. In the old days a car worthy of collecting was worthy of an extensive and expensive restoration that would refinish the car to a lustrous shine that was every bit as good, if not better, than the finish that came from the factory. But today there is an appreciation for an original car with its faded finish. The feeling seems to be that anyone can repaint and recondition an old wreck of a car and breath new life into a hulk, but a car that is untouched yet still in servable condition is rare and special.

Cars that have survived 20 years or more in original condition have lived a charmed life. It is possible for a daily driver to endure with loving care, but the challenges of harsh northern winters and salted roads make such cars rare outside of the sunshine belt of the South Western and South Eastern United States. If you do find a survivor in the Rust Belt, it has been the cherished possession of an eccentric family or in the babied custody of an avid enthusiast who have carefully garaged their cars at the first hint of snow. But out here in warm, dry Southern California it is not uncommon to find cars 40-50 years old being driven by the original owner on a daily basis.

In my neighborhood there is a nice little old lady who drives a 1966 Mustang that seems to be untouched by time except for 40 years worth of parking lot dings and stone chips. In the local mall parking lot there is a 1973 Chevy Nova that has lost some of its chrome trim but otherwise is as it was when sold new. Near my office in Hollywood there is a mid-1950’s Ford Crown Victoria that appears to have never experienced the ravishes of time. At the car wash I met an gentleman in his 70’s who is the proud original owner of an immaculate 1987 Honda CRX Si. And these are hardly the only examples; the streets of Southern California are the automotive version of Valhalla for old cars that seem to live on forever in the comfort of the California sunshine.

My hobby car can be classified as one of the patina-blessed cars of Southern California. A 1987 Honda CRX Si, I rescued this car from a life of abandonment from a suburban driveway where it had been parked when its owner became a mother of two and needed a larger source of transportation. I have bent and shaped this humble grocery getter into my personal interpretation of what a performance car should be. Under the surface, nearly every part and sub-system has been modified to exact the most power, the greatest amount of road holding and the surest brakes. But the exterior has been left untouched, the paint is the same coating that left the factory in Japan. To the casual observer my car is no different from the rest of the compact cars seen on the street.

But recently I changed out the hood of my car for a Carbon Fiber hood. The new hood saves weight off of my car and thus serves to enhance performance, but it also ruins the stealth characteristics of my car. The contrasting color of the Carbon Fiber hood is like a red flag that announces my car’s sporting intentions. My cover is blown, the patina that my car has enjoyed as a cloak of anonymity is no longer enough to insure that my car does not draw unwelcome attention from racer wannabes, thieves and the enforcers of traffic laws.

In the logic of the car hobby, now that my cover has been blown I am compelled to finish the job and perfect the car’s exterior. My buddy’s tell me that it makes no sense to lay claim to Patina when the Carbon Fiber hood cries out that this car has been modified. But I am strong. I will resist the temptation to spend a lot of money to replace the damaged body panels and repaint the entire car. Because at heart I still cling to my automotive motto that Form Follows Function.

Posted by Scott at 9:38 AM | Comments (0)

September 25, 2005

Used Car Radio

In a previous post I wrote about the adventure of tracking down and buying a used car. I also pointed out that a used car can also hide some interesting treasures that are waiting discover under the seats and within the nooks and crannies of the trunk. Hopefully, the used car buyer has enough information to sleuth out any serious mechanical defects and use that information as negotiating leverage. One of the clues to potential electrical problems is if the original factory stereo has been replaced.

I recently purchased a 1990 Honda Prelude for my teenaged son. The car met all of my criteria: it was clean, well care for and never been in an accident. The only fault I could find with the car was that the original factory stereo had been removed and replaced with a Pioneer unit with a detachable face, a CD drive and the ability to drive a separate amplifier, a sub-woofer driver and an equalizer function. Before sale, someone had removed the sub-woofer and amp but had thoughtfully left the wiring behind.

Unfortunately, the extra functions of the Pioneer stereo were buried in a menu tree that requires scrolling through several options in an LCD display. The space let over for the radio station preset buttons was very small and the tiny buttons were hard to stab with clumsy fingers while driving. The fatal blow to the Pioneer stereo was that the AM reception was very poor; after consultation with the car’s primary user (my son) it was decided to replace the Pioneer stereo with an OEM Honda AM/FM/CD unit I had in storage. The OEM Honda units are actually excellent stereos and many people foolishly discard them thinking that an expensive aftermarket stereo must certainly be a better unit. It is possible to buy an OEM Honda unit for next to nothing from a source like eBay and I have upgraded many Hondas with cast off OEM stereos that feature CD players.

The first challenge is to get the old Pioneer stereo out of the dashboard. Honda normally secures their radio with a singe Philips head screw that is easily accessible by reaching under from the passenger foot well. But most aftermarket stereo installer use a sleeve device the wraps around the unit that they are installing and then wedges itself into the dash, defying removal and this was the method employed by the guy who installed the Pioneer. A sleeve is a fast and easy way to install a new stereo and but it is not a sign that the rest of the installation job was done with care or thought.

I managed to pry out the old Pioneer unit with out doing any damage to the stereo being removed or the surrounding dashboard. But what I found behind the stereo within the dash nearly broke my heart. Rather than use an adapter to allow the Pioneer stereo to be easily plugged into the Honda’s wiring harness, the installer had cut away the Honda’s pre-wired plug and cobbled together a splice in every single wire in the 16 wire loom. So the car was left with a Pioneer plug that fits into the back of the Pioneer stereo and I had a Honda stereo with a completely different plug interface. And never the twain shall meet.

Rather than making a long trip to the junkyard to cut a Honda stereo plug out of a wrecked hulk, I ran to my local Best Buy stereo installation shop and bought a “Reverse Harness.” This is a Honda plug that comes with wiring guide and instructions for restoring the car’s wiring to allow an OEM Honda stereo to be installed.

Carefully I cut away the Pioneer plug from the car’s wiring harness and then I patiently rewired each of the leads in the new Reverse Harness so that the OEM stereo could be installed back in the car. I used a set of wiring crimps and a proper crimping tool so that the job went surprisingly fast and smoothly. I finished the rewiring and test the stereo before loading it into the dashboard. Surprisingly, I had managed to get every connection correct and the unit worked on the first try. Insuring that all the connections were solid, I slid the OEM Honda stereo into the dashboard and set all of the radio presets.

With the replacement of the stereo my son’s Prelude is now a solid, dependable and fun car to drive with great sounds. I only hope that as an inexperienced driver that he does not wrap this sweet car around a tree.

Posted by Scott at 6:33 PM | Comments (1)

September 24, 2005

Used Car Treasure Hunting

Acquiring a used car is an adventure; selecting the make and model you want, tracking down just the right car, inspecting it for mechanical defects and then negotiating the price are all part of the used car experience. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt for just the right used car, and I see the task as an exercise in detective work to determine exactly what kind of life a used car lived before it came up for sale.

Is there paint overspray on the trim? That means the car has been repainted and likely in some sort of an accident. Are the tires all the same brand and model? If not, there could have been some wear issues related to the suspension. Has the stereo been replaced? If it has there is a good chance that the car’s wiring harness has been modified to accommodate the new stereo. While this is not always a bad thing, it could signify that a less than tidy installer did a hack job on the car’s electrical system that could manifest itself in electrical gremlins down the road.

My most recent used car purchase is a 1990 Honda Prelude 2.0 Si 5 speed that I bought to be my teenaged son’s first regular daily driver. A very clean, straight and well cared for car; it represented a good value for the price and a solid source of transportation for a young man. The Prelude is not a road burner but it offers a modicum of style with an acceptable balance of economy with snappy performance. At first I was disappointed to discover that this particular generation of the Honda Prelude is not well supported by the performance parts aftermarket. But I figure that this will save my son from spending his limited pocket money on go-fast parts and keep his car within the realm of sanity for street use.

But more than a new-to-you car, getting a used car can also be a treasure hunt. I always look forward to the sense of discovery when I clean under the seats, the glove box and explore the darkest corner of the trunk. Usual finds in a used car can be assorted change, pens, hair clips and bottle caps. Trunks can yield spare parts, extra tools and “personal” items of dubious legality. Many military commands will offer a free inspection with drug sniffing dogs to personnel who have bought a used car so that the new owner does not suffer any surprises if stopped and searched by the cops.

My very favorite find in a used car was in the trunk of a 1968 Triumph Spitfire that I bought while I was in college. There I found a negotiable Cashier’s Check for $150 that I viewed as the previous owner’s repayment for taking that car off of his hands. After only a few days of ownership I came to realize that I was dreadfully underpaid to relieve him of that miserable lemon.

Posted by Scott at 5:35 PM | Comments (2)

September 22, 2005

Function AND Form

I appreciate the beauty of a highly polished, carefully detailed show car. I admire the dedication it takes to get every seam on a car’s body straight and spaced proportionally. No one is more reverential to a car that has every period correct optional feature added to make a car a complete example of the make and model. I can understand the desire to customize a car with chrome, candy flake paint and cushy upholstery as an artistic expression. But for me, I want my hobby car to be light and fast, pared to the bone, nothing onboard that is not absolutely necessary. If it does not make my car faster or safer, I do not want it on my hobby car. If given the choice between a beautiful car or fast cars… well, that is not a good example because a fast car is automatically beautiful to me.

I prefer that my hobby car, a 1987 Honda CRX Si, run as powerfully and efficiently as possible. In the pursuit of maximum performance I have carefully stripped the car of air conditioning, comfy seats, and some sound deadening. My hobby car is not a comfortable car to ride in; no one in the family suggests that we take it for a short trip to the store, let alone a long leisurely drive in the country. But my hobby car is purpose aimed at being as fast and efficient over the road as possible.

With these goals in mind I have removed much more than I have added to my hobby car. But I have just added a piece to my car that reduces weight and (dare I say it?) adds a measure of beauty to my car. I recently removed the heavy steel hood of my car and replaced it with a beautiful custom-made Carbon Fiber hood. Additionally, this new hood also replaces a section of plastic bodywork that had never fit correctly and had marred the graceful lines of the car's front end. So by adding this Carbon Fiber hood I reap the double benefits of lighter and sleeker.

Carbon Fiber is a miracle product that is one of the collateral benefits of the Space Program, along with Tang, Space Food Sticks and Velcro. Carbon Fiber is similar to fiberglass in that is a cloth fabric that is imbedded in resin, but the resulting materiel is then baked at great heat to harden it. The resulting product is lighter and stronger than regular fiberglass.

But there is also a danger with mounting a Carbon Fiber hood on my hobby car. I run the risk of being associated with the backward ball cap wearing, street racing wannabe,
Sport Compact Car crowd who are so slavishly devoted to the street racing movie The Fast and the Furious. Commonly found hanging out in the parking lot of the local burger joint, the cars of this crowd are decorated in the height in “tuner” fashion with large wings, huge shiny wheels, stickers and stripes. But the single most important feature is the hood on their cars, which is most likely not the same color as the rest of the car’s body. This is the type of "enthusiast" who has most thoroughly embraced the Carbon Fiber hood.

I have found that my heretofore nearly anonymous hobby car has begun to draw the unwanted attention of every Boy Racer in town. They will pull aside my car at stoplights and challenge me to a street race, a very dangerous and stupid thing that I have preached against tirelessly. But I am willing to tolerate the challenges from the mouth breathers and knuckle draggers driving recklessly on the local roads to get the weight savings and sleek style that my new hood gives my car.

Posted by Scott at 4:57 PM | Comments (1)

September 19, 2005


An unexpected oil discovery made TV’s most famous hillbilly Jed Clampett a wealthy man, allowing him the money to move away from the backwoods to the Hills of Beverly. But an unexpected oil discovery on the driveway under your car is probably going to make you a bit poorer. But worse than the mess on the ground is the specter of engine damage that looms over an oil leak. Just about the only way to damage a modern engine is to run it without enough oil so it is imperative to keep the oil in the engine and off of your driveway.

The oil in your crankcase is the lifeblood of your engine; with the exception of the bearing between the crankshaft and the piston connecting rods, a thin layer of oil is the only barrier to wear between metal parts in your engine that are pumping and whirling within tight tolerances of each other. With modern advancements in metallurgy and oil formulation, an engine that has been maintained with fresh oil can last nearly indefinitely. But if you neglect the oil, your engine’s useful service life will be severely curtailed.

Chefs and cooking experts tell me that there is a difference in using corn oil, peanut oil, olive oil or palm oil when cooking. It is equally important to your engine that you use the correct type of oil for your car. The engineers who designed your car’s engine have specified the exact viscosity (often called oil weight) for your engine and you should follow those guidelines. Your owner’s manual will give the recommendations for your climate and driving conditions.

Generally, manufacturers recommend a type of variable viscosity oil that is thin when cold and gets thicker as it heats up that is usually designated as being “10-30” or some similar designation. The lower number represents the thinner viscosity of the oil when cold and the higher number tells how thick the oil becomes when the engine has reached operating temperature. In warmer climates, a manufacturer may recommend an oil with a higher set of numbers and conversely they will recommend a lower viscosity in cold climates.

Many manufactures recommend an oil change every 7,500 miles and it is probably OK to follow this schedule. But it is cheap insurance to change your oil more frequently, particularly if your drive in stop and go driving or dusty conditions. I am a firm believer in changing your engine’s oil every 3,000 miles or every six months as old oil loses its effectiveness.

Dusty conditions has an impact on your engine’s oil? Yes, dust and dirt from the atmosphere does work its way into the engine’s oil and that dirt acts like sandpaper on the moving parts, wearing them out.

Synthetic oil and “special oil for older cars” are major profit centers for the oil change industry. The Old Car oil is not much different for regular oil, but tends to be a bit thicker and less resistant to leak from old, dried up gaskets. If you have maintained your older car and run the engine regularly the gaskets will be in good condition and leakage will be less of a problem.

Some high performance engines are specifically designed for synthetic engine oil and I would not suggest ignoring the manufacturers recommendations. But unless your car’s engine requires synthetic oil, I would not bother spending the extra money charged for synthetic oil. One of the key justifications for using synthetic oil is the extended period between mandatory oil changes that synthetic oil enjoys. But as we have discussed, the oil in your car is exposed to atmospheric dirt that will contaminate synthetic oil as easily as regular oil. I prefer to use organic oil and change it regularly to insure that the lubrication system of my car is always filled with fresh, clean oil.

Take good car of your car by keeping current with your engine’s oil level and have the oil and oil filter changed regularly. In turn, your engine will reward you with years of reliable service.

Posted by Scott at 7:35 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2005

Check Engine Light #2

In a previous post we discussed the Check Engine light and the associated electronics that are attached to that light. Basically, the modern automobile engine is controlled by a central computer system that monitors and regulates fuel, ignition and in some cars cam timing to make your engine as powerful, fuel efficient and clean burning as possible. And this type of central computerization makes your modern car smooth and efficient to drive.

We also talked about how the Check Engine light is a warning signal that there is a problem with one of the many systems of the car’s engine. When the light comes on, the informed owner should not panic and run blindly to a service facility, but rather he should first look at the car’s central computer’s display to see exactly what the problem is. On many cars, the central computer will display a binary number code that will give the exact nature of the problem. Your owner’s manual or a service manual for your car (available for about $10 at your local auto parts store) may contain the information to decode the computer’s code. On some cars, a relatively inexpensive dongle available at specialized parts and tool stores plugs into the car’s central computer to read the information. And in the case of a few models, the information can only be read by an expensive piece of equipment that is only available at the dealership or specialized service center.

Once the information has been decoded, the warning signal coming from the engine’s central computer must be cleared and the Check Engine light extinguished. The Dealership will charge you a lot of money to turn this light off, on BMW’s it requires a special tool to reset the computer (guaranteeing that you will have to visit the dealer’s service department). Considering that the dealership makes their most money not from selling cars but from insuring that their service bays are filled with customer’s cars.

The secret that the dealership does not want you to know is that the signal from the Check Engine light can be a false alarm. Yes! It is true; a car’s central computer can make a mistake. Ask Dave the Astronaut from 2001: A Space Odyssey about a vehicle’s central computer making a mistake, it can happen. To test if your Check Engine light is a mistake or not, all you need to do is to reset the computer (sort of like rebooting a Windows computer when it gets stupid). Again, in your Owner’s manual there may be the information needed to reboot or reset your car’s central computer. If not, the best way for the At Home Mechanic to reset the computer is to simply remove electrical power to the central processor and then restore power to it. In most cases, it is as simple as removing and replacing the fuse that supplies power to the computer. Check your Owner’s manual for the fuse location.

The Check Engine coming on is not a death knell for your car’s engine, most times when it comes on it is warning of a relatively minor fault or in some cases not fault at all. Before you get excited when that light comes on, take some time to read the information that comes in your owner’s manual to be an informed and empowered car owner before you take it to the service center.

Posted by Scott at 2:57 PM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2005

Check Engine Light

Perhaps the scariest event in a car owner’s life is when the “Check Engine” light comes on. What does it mean? Should I get the car to a repair facility as soon as possible? Is the car safe to drive? Is my engine about to fall apart? That light does not come on randomly for no apparent reason, there is something going on with your car. But most times it is a relatively minor problem and your car is safe to drive until you have the problem fixed.

The Check Engine light is a relatively new development in automobiles; they are a direct result of the use of computers to control the operation of the car’s engine. This light is part of the federally mandated engine control systems that keep modern automobiles clean and efficient. By law the Check Engine light must function properly, if the light bulb burns out or becomes disconnected for some reason your car will not pass any state’s smog inspection. And as an automobile owner, you want the Check Engine light to work.

The basic function of the automobile gasoline engine has not changed since the first Daimler wheezed down a German strasse over one hundred years ago. The engine mixes a bit of gasoline with some air, passes the mixture into a cylinder, ignites that mixture with an electrical spark, the resulting explosion causes the pistons to go up and down with the resulting exhaust passing out of the cylinder. Engines then and today have cylinders, pistons, crankshafts valves and cams. Outside of the increasingly better and stronger materials to make these parts out of, the single greatest difference between your modern chariot and a horseless carriage are the regulatory mechanisms of fuel, air and ignition. In the old days these things were regulated by manual adjustments made by the driver and in later years a series of crudely automated mechanical regulators. Today precise measurements made by computerized systems regulate those functions, plus in the newest cars cam timing is also adjusted by the computer. All that precise computerized regulation allows your engine to be as clean and as powerful as it can be.

Those computerized systems are all interconnected to a single central computer (cleverly hidden in some unexpected spot under the dash typically, check your owner’s manual for your car’s computer location) that balances the car’s engine needs for fuel air and ignition timing based upon atmospheric conditions, grade of gasoline and load on the engine. The central computer receives data from sensors through out the engine system and balances that data input to control the engine. When one of those sensors receives information that is out of strictly defined parameters, the computer gets an alert and in turn ignites the Check Engine light.

So now the Check Engine light is on, now what? If you are a panicked car owner you rush down to you favorite service center and throw yourself at the mercy of the Service Writer. “Oh please sir, interpret this sign and make it go away.” And like Snidely Whiplash collecting on the overdue mortgage payment, the Service Writer will curl his lip into a snear and tell you, “Leave it with us over night and we will see what we can find. There will be a minimum three-hour labor charge at $100 per hour to diagnose the problem. Once the car is diagnosed we will discuss the cost of fixing the problem.”

If you are a smart car owner you will reach into the glove compartment for the owner’s manual. Searching the index under “Check Engine Light” you will turn to the page indicated and read that the car’s central computer has detected a problem and that the car’s computer can tell you what the exact problem is. If you car is of an enlightened design, like Honda, the computer will visually display easily read code numbers that can be checked against a list of codes (usually available in the owner’s manual, but sometimes found in a $10 service manual available at your local auto parts store) that will tell you the owner EXACTLY what the car’s problem is.

Thus armed, you can repair the problem yourself or you can look the Service Writer right in the eye and say, “The Computer is throwing an Oxygen Sensor code. Fix it.” And the Service Writer will be so impressed by your knowledge and strength of conviction that he will forget to try to sell you a transmission flush or a set of engine mounts that you do not need.

Posted by Scott at 3:12 PM | Comments (1)

September 15, 2005


A serendipitous event is the happy result of one good thing that comes equipped with an even better thing attached. We can not count on something so good happening all the time; in fact we are lucky if we experience serendipity once in our lifetime. But there is one place that can usually be counted upon for a regular series of serendipitous moments and nearly every middle-sized town in America has at least one of these magic playgrounds. Could this be the store that sells beer AND lottery tickets? Could this be the United States Postal Service that loses bills but delivers large checks in a timely manner? While those are both wonderful, the answer I am seeking is.... Your local junkyard.

Call them the bone yard, the rubbish heap, the scrap yard, the breakers or what ever, the place you go to salvage parts from cars no longer in service is a wonderful place for the At Home Mechanic to frolic. Well maybe I over state my case, but in any event the junkyard is my favorite source for parts great and small for my current project car. But more than that, the junkyard can occasionally yield a true gem that will reward the finder with a bounty and eventually make some desperate car enthusiast happy. Allow me to elaborate.

I had some spare time on my hands today with no pressing need to be anywhere at any particular time. Idle hands are the Devil's tools so I engaged myself in a jaunt down to my favorite local junkyard, just to keep myself out of mischief. I needed some minor parts for my hobby car; there is a car show coming up and I wanted to finish off a couple of niggling details before the event. And a trip to the junkyard would allow me to stroll the grounds and see what is currently available.

You have to visit the junkyard on a regular basis and get lucky with your visit. The selection of old cars available for dismantling is constantly being turned over as the cars longest in inventory get picked over and removed for new stock coming in every day. On any given day you could find nearly a dozen cars that will yield parts you need, and on the very next day they can be all gone and you will get stiffed. But in my local junkyard the supply is large, the turnover relatively slow and there are just enough exotic cars to make the visit interesting.

My hobby car is a 1987 Honda CRX Si, not terribly unusual by the standards of Southern California where I live, but not as common on the streets as it once was. Where the junkyard would often have 6 or 7 such cars from which to pick parts in the past, these days the chances are good that maybe only one or two are available. Today I was luck enough to have three old CRX's to choose from and I was able to snag some small rubber parts that will I was looking for. So this was a good day in the junkyard, but not that magical type of day. Or so I thought.

I spied a Second-Generation Z28 Camaro over in the side of the junkyard reserved for General Motors cars. Normally, "high interest" cars like the high performance Z28 Camaro would never have made it to a common junkyard. Usually, this car would have gone to a yard that specializes in Camaros, Corvettes and the like with prices jacked up to soak the poor souls who are slavishly devoted to those old cars. The Z28 Camaro sitting in my friendly local junkyard was like a jewel glimmering amongst the dirt, a rose amongst weeds, a shining beacon luring me toward it.

My future stepson has just turned 16 and has purchased a 1978 Z28. His Camaro is in excellent condition; the previous owner had run out of patience with the restoration project and had sold the car at a bargain price. But the boy's Z28 is missing some minor plastic piece under the hood and the junkyard car gave up the parts that were needed. So this was the serendipity that I was speaking of, right?

Well it could have been the end of a happy story, but not quite. Because, as I was walking out of the junkyard an obscure emblem on a dusty car caught my eye. Parts of the emblem were actually broken away, but enough remained for me to see that it said, "...gen pow..." with distinctive Japanese writing just below it. This emblem was the remains of a genuine "Mugen Power" emblem attached to a genuine Mugen part, in this case a pristine Mugen rear spoiler for the 1986-89 Acura Integra. For those who do not know, Mugen is the in-house performance arm of the Honda Company (think AMG for Mercedes) and their parts are highly prized for their function and their handsome features. Rare when new, Mugen parts for a car that is nearly 20 years old are essentially impossible to find today. I have hit the Motherlode, the El Dorado, the Lost Dutchman's Mine of rare car parts in finding an example in such good condition.

I snapped up the Mugen rear spoiler along with all my other junkyard booty and nearly danced all the way home with the wealth of my finds. I got the parts for my car, my step-son gets the parts he needs, I have a very rare Mugen part that I will sell for a minor profit and some lucky Integra owner who has been searching for a genuine Mugen rear spoiler for his car will get what he has been looking for. Truly a serendipitous day.

Posted by Scott at 4:44 PM | Comments (1)

September 5, 2005

I am planning

It is time to start planning my next project for my hobby car, a1987 Honda CRX Si. Right now the car is at the very peak of performance, it is running better now than it has ever run before. I am not one to leave well enough alone, like Tim Allen’s character on the old TV show “Home Improvement” I believe that batter is… well, better. And I will not rest until I have made another improvement to my hobby car.

I have already had my engine tested and tuned on a dynamometer after I finished all of the engine modifications that I plan to do to the car. The adjusted flywheel horsepower registers just above 130 hp from a stock output of 91 hp, an improvement of 42%. Not bad for a backyard hobbyist with nothing more than hand tools and a little effort. Since that test I have lightened the flywheel, cleaned and rebalanced the fuel injectors and recurved the distributor for faster ignition advance. I am willing to bet that I if I were to retest the engine on the dyno I could get the engine to touch 140 hp as an adjusted measurement at the crank. So I think there is very little room for improvement in the engine as it is currently configured. I could add a turbo to the engine, but homemade turbo engines live short but exciting lives. I prefer my engine to live longer and not live such an exciting life.

I could lighten my car some more if there were some lightweight body parts available. Newer, more popular cars have a wide variety of carbon fiber and fiberglass parts commercially available to reduce weight. But for an old car like mine, the aftermarket does not support it with a huge variety of light body parts. I am waiting and hoping for one manufacturer to resume its limited run of light carbon fiber hoods that would take 20-30 pounds off the already too heavy nose of my car. But he has raw materiel supply problems and I will not see any hoods from him in a while.

There is another guy who promises to make a fiberglass plug to replace my car’s sunroof, which will save about 50 pounds. But it seems he has not made much progress on the design and has proposed to his girlfriend so his attention is not focused on car parts right now. I am not holding my breath waiting for the sunroof plug.

I have already removed the air conditioning system and that saves about 50 pounds off of the car. I could strip the interior of the car for a few pounds of weight savings. But I like my car’s interior and the relatively few pounds that could be saved would not make a major impact on the car’s handling.

The car’s body is in decent shape although the plastic front fenders (the car came from the factory with plastic fenders. It was an experiment that Honda performed on the 1984-1987 CRX and then chose not to implement on any other car) are cracked and could be replaced. But replacement fenders would need to be painted so I will wait until I get the carbon fiber hood before I tackle any body issues.

The brakes are fine, I have added larger disks and calipers in the front and I sourced a set of aluminum drums for the rear brakes. High performance Porterfield brake pads and shoes make stopping safe and secure.

That leaves the suspension. I have added a rear sway bar, better shocks and I have replaced most of the suspension bushings. Most, but not all of the suspension bushings. The front bushings on my car are easy to change and following the path of least resistance I have done that job. But the rear bushings are a major challenge change and I have never gotten around to that part of the job. But I have reached the point where there are no other jobs to be done and so I must prepare for this one.

The bushings in a car’s suspension look like a bunch of hard rubber do-nuts that insulate the various bits of your car’s suspension. Over time, the bits breakdown and do a less effective job of keeping your car traveling in a straight line. Manufacturers use the rubber bits in your car’s suspension to keep the noise vibration and harness of the road isolated from the passenger compartment. It is worth the compromise of a less than infinite life for the bushings to keep the car’s ride smooth and silent when you drive off the dealer’s lot.

On my car there is only one large bushing on each of the rear trailing arms. To replace them, the entire rear axle and everything attached to the axle (wheels, hubs, bearings, brakes, etc.) must be removed. Fro a pro mechanic using a lift and pneumatic tolls, the job should take a couple of hours. I do not have a lift or pneumatic tools or even any experience with this job. So it should take me a couple of days.

For an old, fat guy like me, the prospect of wiggling on the ground as I figure out how to get the darn thing apart is not as appealing as it once was. A stiff back, sore muscles and the nagging suspicion that a man of my age and station in life could be using his spare time in a more meaningful manner.

But knowing that my hobby car is at less than 100% efficiency gets under my skin. And so like Sisyphus from Greek Mythology, I will start rolling that giant bolder up the steep mountain. Or in this case, I will put the hobby car up on jack stands and begin my next project.

Posted by Scott at 2:38 PM | Comments (1)

September 3, 2005

Size Matters

Size matters. Now take your mind out of the gutter because I am talking about something entirely different from what you are thinking about. I am talking about the size of your car and the effect size and weight has upon performance. As we all know from Physics 101, a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. It requires energy to make a car go and stop; the less mass that needs to be moved into action or stopped from rolling the easier it is to perform those tasks.

American Muscle car owners love to crow about making four or five hundred horsepower in their cars, but the size and weight of their land yachts limits the performance potential of the cars. Sure, they can burn rubber and make deep-throated vroom-vroom sounds, but when asked to move all of that chrome, vinyl and shiny paint the inertia of two tons is difficult to overcome. And once that hulk is moving it is difficult to drag it to a stop, let alone making it dodge around a curve. The smaller and lighter car does not need as much raw horsepower to do the same job; a 200hp engine in a 2000 lbs. car does the same job as 400 horsepower in a 4,000lbs. Car.

Early on, the original Hot Rodders knew that a small light car was going to be faster than a heavy car. That is why the Ford Model A was a popular choice for dropping a large modern V8 into in the 1950’s. When European cars became more widely available in the US after World War II, American Drag racers embraced the tiny FIAT Topolino for its slim size and petite features.

Japanese cars currently imported to the US have grown in size to accommodate American tastes in large cars. But 35 years ago, the Japanese sent us some pretty small sedans and coupes. Light and cheap these cars served well and then were discarded and crushed at the end of their servable economic life. Which is a shame because the Datsun 1200’s, the Dodge Colts (imported from Mitsubishi) and the Toyota 1600’s of the early 1970’s would be the ideal basis to build a truly fast car. They were all front-engine, rear wheel drive coupes of small dimensions; dropping any thing from a Mazda rotary engine up to a small block Chevy into them would be a snap.

I got to thinking about old Japanese cars because I saw a fairly rare example on the street the other day. The Datsun 1200 (also known as the Sunny in Japan and most foreign markets) was the bottom of the product line that was sold as a coupe, sedan, and as a pick-up truck. Using an Overhead Valve inline four, it chugged along American highways making about 60 horsepower and then disappeared from the Datsun (later Nissan) product line in the early 1980’s. I am sure that I have not seen a running example of one of these cars in over 15 years. But as I was driving east on the Santa Monica Freeway and fairly clean version passed me by.

The owner appeared to be a young man; maybe this car was a family heirloom that got passed down to him. He had added a set of shiny wheels and fat tires, the ride height had been lowered and the exhaust note suggested that the engine was not as it came from the factory. The throwback styling of the fastback coupe struck just the right note of irony with me and the “sleeper” potential to surprise some stop light racers is an attractive lure.

It would be a kick to find a car like this, add a hot modern motor and strengthen the brakes, suspension and chassis for spirited driving. But the tricky part is to find a suitable car to start with, by now all the cheap light Japanese cars of the early 1970’s have been recycled into rebar.

Posted by Scott at 2:34 PM | Comments (1)

September 2, 2005

Torque Wrench

Only a very few species create and use tools. Chimpanzees strip the bark from a twig and stick it down a hole to scoop out termites for eating. Egyptian Vultures use a rock to smash open Ostrich eggs and Green Herons will toss a pebble into a pond to lure fish to the surface. But the all time champion of tool usage is the human species; if Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” basic premise is correct, the assent of modern man is a direct result of our primeval ancestors discovering the use of tools. Nearly everything we touch in our life can be considered a tool and we use them without much thought about the process. The At Home Mechanic knows just how important tools are for enjoying our automobile hobby and has a large investment in a wide variety of hand and power tools.

It is not necessary to have a huge collection of tools to begin working on cars, a generic set of wrenches, sockets and screw drivers will get you thorough most jobs you will tackle in the beginning. And although you can “get by” with the basic hand tools for nearly every job, there is one specialized tool that has no replacement and should be included in your basic tool set. Very soon in your journey through the automobile hobby, you will be faced with the need for a Torque Wrench.

A Torque Wrench is a ratchet handle with a device built into it for precisely measuring the amount of torque (or twist) you are applying to a nut or bolt. In many situations it is necessary to put just the right amount of twist on a fastener; too little torque will not secure the part properly and too much torque can cause damage or binding of rotating parts. A Torque Wrench of dubious precision can be bought inexpensively at discount stores, and highly accurate versions with digital read-outs can cost as much as $1,000. Cheap tools seem like a bargain, but in the long run it is always best to spend a little extra money to buy quality tools the first time.
There are two basic designs for a Torque Wrenches: A bar/dial design that has a pointer parallel to the main shaft of the wrench and crudely indicates that amount of torque being applied in foot-pounds or metric measurements. And an internal spring-loaded version that will allow on the amount of specified torque to be applied and then will make a clicking sound to indicate that the right value has been reached.

A Torque Wrench is a precision tool that has been calibrated at the manufacturer to deliver exactly the correct value. To maintain that precision it is necessary to use them and maintain them carefully. When you are tightening a fastener (never use them to undo bolts), keep an even turning speed. Do not stop mid stroke and ratchet the wrench a little bit. The force needed to overcome friction will give you an incorrect torque. When you are done using a spring loaded Torque Wrench, return the wrench to the lowest setting on the handle and relax the tension on the internal spring. If you do not relax the internal spring you are effectively stretching it out of calibration. And use care to not drop a Torque Wrench, it can break and/or need to be recalibrated. Professional mechanics that earn their livings with Torque Wrenches have them recalibrated on a regular basis.

Invest wisely in your Torque Wrench and then take good care of it.

Posted by Scott at 7:10 AM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2005

Cut your losses short

There comes a time when a bad relationship must be broken off. A romance gone badly, a destructive co-dependency, or an evil influence are all reasons to cut your losses short. While this is painful in the short run, it is generally beneficial in the longer view of things to just Move On. It is not always easy to admit that you made a mistake getting into the relationship in the first place. The fear of admitting your errors keeps some people in those bad relationships for far too long. Hopefully a “way out” can be found in time to stop the emotional (or even worse physical) bleeding. Our relationship with a hobby car can turn ugly and it is important to recognize the danger signals before it is too late.

Blind love is the maybe the single greatest indicator of possible danger ahead in a hobby car relationship. If an automobile enthusiast is imprinted at an early age upon a particular make or model of automobile it will be nearly impossible for him or her to ever be objective about that object of their affection. A good example of this deadly trap is my friend E. He fell in love with Magnum PI’s Ferrari back in his elementary school years and he has been under the spell of the Prancing Horse ever since. Time passes; he is married with a young family, and has a small house with a large mortgage. Life was good for E, but he felt that there is something lacking, like a space that was not filled. That space turned out to be in his garage and he filled it with a good deal on a slightly used1995 Ferrari 348 Targa in Italian Red (what other color could a Ferrari be?). E was happy.

Well, E was happy until his cream puff turned into an inedible bulk. It turns out that the forty thousand miles on his used Ferrari were generated at a rental car in a holiday destination. “Rode hard and put up wet” does not begin to describe the usage this car received as an upscale rental hack. And the rental company did not waste a lot of money on using a Ferrari approved repair facility to keep the car running. As things went wrong on the car for E he discovered a series of low cost, quick fixes to keep the shiny car on the road for ham-fisted renters. E’s good deal has turned into a nearly continuous horror story of expensive fixes that are draining his pocket and his resolve. Hidden body damage, electrical faults and transaxle troubles combined with staggering part prices (spark plug wires at $150 for each of eight wires?) have added nearly 50% to his original purchase price. Of the four years he has owned the car, it has been able to navigate the street under its own power for less than half that time.

A more rational person would have drawn a line in the sand and terminated the costs much earlier in the process. Just get the car running reliably enough to sell it off as a “work in progress” to someone else to finish sort out this mess. But E is in love and determined to see this relationship to the very end.

I hope that E gets his Ferrari running again and that he can find happiness with that car for all times into the future. But I suspect that the love that E lavishes upon his Ferrari will be returned with ever increasing bills and very little driving time.

Posted by Scott at 8:25 AM | Comments (1)

August 28, 2005

Are you a Car Person?

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy gave up his career as a computer system analyst for IBM’s Atlanta office to make a new career out of observing the foibles of rural Americans. His comedy act largely revolves around examining the behavior patterns of “just plain folks” that indicate that, “You may be a Redneck.” In that vein I say that if you behave in certain, predictable manner, “You may be a Car Person.”

Do you know and care about the differences between an Audi and a Volkswagen? Are you willing to endure increased brake dust for less brake fade? Do you have an opinion on the outcome of Formula 1, NASCAR or the Indy Racing League? Can you detail the running changes in the first model of the original Mustang? If the answer is yes to any of those questions then there is a good chance you are a Car Person.

As a “car person” are you merely involved or are your committed? If you are unclear on the difference between involvement and commitment consider the analogy of the Bacon and Egg breakfast: The Chicken is involved with a bacon and egg breakfast, but that the Pig is committed to that breakfast.

Let me give you an example of a type of hobbyist who is committed to his leisure time pursuit. People who own and race sail boats long distances across oceans describe the experience of standing long watches at the wheel of their frightenly expensive sailboats in fierce storms as being like standing in an ice cold shower tearing up one hundred dollar bills all night long with no sleep. To a rational person this sounds like an illogical waste of time and money to achieve nothing more substantial that a handshake and a ten dollar trophy. But to the avid hobbyist, a person who is committed to the cause, there is no reflection upon doing what most rational people would find repellant.

The cost of being an automobile hobbyist can be measured in money but it is much more difficult to measure the emotional quotient. The money portion is easy enough to observe as it leaves your wallet in exchange for goods and services for your car. The emotional quotient is harder to measure but is just as clearly felt as the lightness in your wallet after you have paid dearly for some obscure part to complete your car hobby project. The warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from finally identifying and fixing the single sticky valve out of 16, finding the source of the oil stain on your garage floor, or getting the paint and chrome to gleam in the sun can not be measured by scientific observation but to a Car Person they are as real as any number or statistic.

So if rational and observable standards cannot be used to measure the pleasure you receive from the time spent with your hands covered in grease, driving with the throttle wide open (in a safe and controlled environment) or listening to the judges finding you car represent the finest achievement within it class of automobiles then you are a committed Car Person.

Posted by Scott at 2:39 PM | Comments (2)

August 27, 2005

A task worth of Sisyphus

In Greek mythology there is the legend of Sisyphus. As I recall, he made some sort of Olympian boo-boo and was sentenced by the chief god Zeus to an eternal punishment. I maybe be wrong about the “why’s” of the story but I am certain about the punishment.

Sisyphus was sentenced to hard labor… with a twist. His eternal punishment was to roll a giant bolder up a very steep mountain. Straining with all of his might, he had to use every ounce of strength in his body to the point that he nearly died. After endless toil, Sisyphus finally gets the giant bolder to the very peak of the steep mountain. For one brief moment he is allowed the satisfaction of achieving his goal. But the satisfaction is fleeting as the giant bolder slips away and rolls back to the very bottom of the steep mountain. So Sisyphus must begin again. And the process is repeated over and over for all time.

I am a bit like Sisyphus when it comes to working on my car. Do not get me wrong; working on my hobby car is a pleasure, a labor of love. But as soon as I finish one job successfully I allow myself a seeming fleeting moment of satisfaction before I plunge into my next project.

My most recently completed project was preparing my 1987 Honda CRX Si for its semiannual California smog inspection. Notoriously tough, a car cannot get its California registration for the coming year without passing the test. Not only does the exhaust have to blow cleanly, but also all the visible parts of the engine must be the original parts that came from the factory. If any of the visible engine parts have been replaced by non-factory parts, they must carry a California Air Resources Board (CARB) tag that proves that they have been tested and approved for use on a car operating in California. Something as benign as a tuned exhaust manifold MUST be approved by the CARB and carry a tag that identifies it as an approved part. If the tag is missing, the smog tech testing the car for emissions can instantly fail the car regardless of the exhaust’s cleanliness.

I have slightly modified my car’s engine over the years and not all of the parts I have used carry the all-important CARB tag. So I have put a lot of effort into restoring the stock factory pieces to the engine where I previously had high performance but non-approved parts. I take this job seriously because if the car does not pass and is barred from legal operation on California streets my entire investment into this car will have gone down the drain.

After much personal stress and strain I got my car into optimal tune for passing the sniffer test and I removed all of the non-CARB parts from the outside of the engine compartment so that even a detailed inspection would not find an offending part.

I watched and waited with bated breath as my hobby car was being tested for emissions. The smog tech’s grim face betrayed no emotion as the engine was put through it paces on California’s mandated dynamometer test. The tension was killing me; would the car pass the test or would if be failed and I would have to diagnose and fix whatever defect the testing had revealed? Only five or ten minutes had passed but it seemed like an eternity to me. Finally, the smog tech gave me a small grin and told me that the car had passed. Like Sisyphus, I had finished rolling my personal giant bolder to the top of the mountain and I reveled in the joy of accomplishment.

I drove the car home and immediately replaced the stock parts that I had used to pass the smog test with the high performance parts. Even though my car runs as clean, if not cleaner, with the high performance parts on the engine I needed to use the inefficient stock parts to pass the test. With the car configured and tuned for its full potential I took it for a victory lap of the neighborhood, savoring all the power and performance I had wrought from this car.

Ahhh, that feels good. But now it is time to start planning the next project. And so my personal giant bolder has rolled to the bottom of the steep mountain and I must begin the arduous task of rolling it back up to the top. Maybe this time I will allow myself a couple of days to enjoy my success before I start the process again.

Posted by Scott at 3:01 PM | Comments (1)

August 14, 2005

Stop me before I spend again

My name is Scott and I cannot stop spending money on my hobby car. I am weak and I have no control over my life. I am revealing myself to you in the hope that you can learn from my addiction and avoid my fate. If it is too late for you and you already have fallen under the spell of a hobby car I am here to offer support.

It started so innocently; I needed a hobby to occupy my free time. My fortieth birthday was a few years behind me, my career was well developed, the kids were long past diapers and the wife was reasonable happy (are they ever completely happy?) I had all the materiel and metaphysical possessions that any man could hope for, but still there was a lingering feeling that something was missing in my life. Some guys my age fill that empty feeling with a blonde bimbo twenty years too young, but it soon dawned on me that what I lacked was a creative outlet for my hands (and no other parts of my anatomy). A hobby car would give me something to tinker with in the garage, removed from the household hubbub but close enough to be within the family circle when needed.

I won my wife's support for a hobby car project by promising to keep the discretionary spending on the project to the barest minimum. After an extensive search I found a very used 1987 Honda Civic CRX Si offered at a reasonable price; the attraction being that the car was cute, well engineered. Most of important, the parts to repair and improve it would be easy to find at the local parts store.

The early days with the hobby car were cheap. A through inventory of what was broken or missing on the old car yielded a list of parts that barely dented a C-note. The hours spent with the car fixing and repairing was fun. Like a new drug in my system, a warm and fuzzy feeling of contentment embraced me and all was good with the world.

But soon the feeling wore off. At first I could not place what the problem was, but soon I came to realize that I was missing the satisfaction of working on the car. All the initial projects were finished, there was nothing to be done to the car. I needed that good feeling again. I found myself hanging out at the local car parts store looking for the next item to fix or improve and gladly spending the money necessary to satisfy my need. I soon exhausted that possibility, the local parts only had a limited selection of stuff to fit my car. I needed a new way to throw my money at my hobby car.

I turned to the Internet... that was a mistake. Not only could I find new parts on the web, but I also found that it was fun to order parts online. Money flowed like water as I mindlessly bought parts for my car. And I could track my purchases as they were shipped across the country to my home; it was like Christmas when the UPS man arrived with packages for me.

But the money spending got even worse when I started to race my car in local amateur events . At first I was happy just to participate, but after awhile I got tired of bringing up the rear of the field. It became an uncontrollable flow of money from my pocket to bring the car up to standard with the other competitors.

I have been racing for a few years now and I can not stop the money flow. Every time I think that I am done spending on the hobby car I either break something from racing or I find a new part that will make my car even faster.

I know it is an addiction, like a drug I need to keep the parts coming to keep my car obsession rolling. It is too late for me, but maybe you can save yourself. Just say, "No more car parts."

Posted by Scott at 1:18 PM | Comments (1)

August 13, 2005

What next can go wrong?

It is always something with an old car. You find and fix an engine oil leak and then your fuel injectors get clogged. You root out the problem with the fuel injectors and then a suspension bushing goes south. I swear; keeping an old car in running condition is like a full time job.

I suppose that I should not complain, I bought my hobby car for precisely this reason. I enjoy the time I spend in the garage tinkering with my old car. It would be pretty boring to have a car that was perfect all the time and there was no room for improvement. Actually I think it would be boring to have a hobby car that did not need any attention. I would not know, my car is a constant series of brush fires that seem to crop up.

Maybe I over state the case; my hobby car is a fairly well engineered 1987 Honda CRX . Not exactly at the cutting edge of technology in its day, it is now a fairly dated design by current standards. But the factory sent hundred of thousands of similar Civics and they have held up well over the years. The problem is that I am not content to just repair problems as they crop up; I want to "improve" the car to enhance power and performance. And once the car has been improved, I like to beat it like a rented mule around the local racetrack. Between my homegrown improvements and the stress I put on a car that is nearly 20 years old, it is inevitable that something will break.

This latest crop of problems is directly related to my last day of racing at Willow Springs Raceway . The centrifugal forces generated by high speed cornering forces the oil in the oil pan away from the oil pickup and can potentially starve the engine of oil when I am stressing it the most. So I installed a Moroso racing oil pan that has greater capacity and a set of windage trays in the pan to keep the oil from sloshing around. I installed the new pan exactly as instructed and it seemed to hold just fine. But an oil leak soon appeared so I had to get back under the car to tighten and seal the oil pan better than as specified in the installation instructions.

I blame the next problem on racing, although the real culprit is my own stupidity. I got so excited to be on the track that I failed to keep a close eye on my fuel gauge; on the drive home I nearly ran out of gas. Sucking up the very last drops of gas in the tank, all of the sediment and general gunk that normally sits at the bottom of an old gas tank soon found its way into my fuel injectors. Combine that gunk with the low pressure I run my fuel system on to keep the oversized fuel injectors from drowning the engine in fuel and I was getting a nasty engine hesitation . The cure for this is to pull out the oversized injectors (which I installed hoping that they were the path to power, but turned out to be a waste of time on an engine that remains naturally aspirated) and reinstall the original injectors. Draining the fuel system to clean out the junk in the fuel lines and restoring the fuel pressure to the stock 38psi solved that problem.

What I have not tackled yet is the left rear trailing arm bushing that is circling the drain as we speak. I replaced all of the other bushings on the car, but the rear trailing arm bushings on my Honda are a major pain in the butt to get to. Consequently they never got replaced which was not a problem when the car was only seeing street use. But the stress of racing soon exposed the weakness of the old bushings and there is a definite wiggle in the left rear wheel. I will need plenty of time to remove the entire rear suspension to get at these bushings and time is something that is in short supply right now.

But knowing that a major project awaits me is comforting in a way. I always know what I will be doing with my future free time.

Posted by Scott at 9:35 AM | Comments (1)

August 12, 2005

Be organized

A guy invites his neighbor the surgeon over for Thanksgiving Dinner. He makes a big show of carving the turkey to impress the doctor with his knife skills. When he was done, he asked his guest, "Well Doc, how did I do?" The physician inspects the well-carved turkey and then says to his host, "Anyone can take them apart. Let's see you put it back together."

That principle also applies to the At Home Mechanic, it is pretty easy to take a car apart but it can be a lot harder to put them back together. More specifically, putting a car back together so that it runs right is a challenge greater than merely stripping the pieces off. There are very few things in life more satisfying as hearing your engine roar to life with the first twist of the key after you have done a major repair or improvement. And the most gut twisting moment you can endure is turning that key and NOT hear that engine start.

I generally judge a project success upon the number of left over parts that remain after I finish the job. The ideal is to finish with no left over parts, however an extra washer or two with no apparent place to go is OK. A bolt that cannot be identified is worrisome but probably not fatal. But a few bolts and a gasket that did not get fitted deep inside the replaced part is enough to make a grown man cry.

Detailed notes are always a good idea before your tear something apart; I note the location of major components and the bits that hold them together. My dad is a big fan of old fashioned paper tags that look suspiciously like the toe tags used by the coroner's office to identify bodies in the morgue. He makes a notation of the tag and then ties it to the part he is removing.

In this age of digital cameras it pays to take a few pictures as the job progresses so you have a visual reference to getting the complicated projects back together.

I firmly believe in collecting the little bits (bolts, nuts, washers, etc.) that come off of a job in small plastic containers. Margarine tubs are particularly handy for this chore. And inexpensive disposable aluminum roasting pans make great collectors for all the slightly larger loose parts that a job may yield.

Finally, take your time. If your hobby car is not a daily driver and you are not depending upon this car to get you to work in the morning, there is not reason to hurry thought the either the dismantling or reconstruction process. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.

Posted by Scott at 8:38 AM | Comments (2)

August 10, 2005

What to do?

I am on the horns of a dilemma. Of all the car related decisions that anyone could have to make, I should be happy that my problem is relatively minor. But that does not make the solution to the problem any clearer. I have to make a decision about modifying my hobby car, I want to make the car as light as possible. It involves removing a fairly large part of the car. But I also want to the car to look aesthetically pleasing once the job is done.

My hobby car is a 1987 Honda Civic CRX . Essentially a stripped down two-seat version of the ubiquitous Honda Civic, it is a cute little car with a peppy engine and a sporty suspension. By no means a "sports car" as it came from the factory, the car is a favorite of enthusiasts who recognize the basic platform’s potential for performance enhancement. Light with a slippery shape, just a little bit of tweaking can turn a common commuter car into a fairly aggressive road machine. The key is to minimize the car’s weight and increase the engine’s out put.

At this point I have made as many engine modifications as I feel comfortable doing. I have maximized the flow through the head, raised compression and reduced rotational weight and stayed within the letter of the California Motor Vehicle Code. From a stock 91 horsepower, my engine is making somewhere in the region of 130 hp now. I could swap in a larger engine or add a turbo charger, but for my purposes this engine and its output are fine.

With engine issues put to rest that leaves weight reduction as the path to performance improvement. My car left the factory at 2050 pounds and I have stripped it down to about 1850 lbs. This was achieved by removing as many non-essential items as I possibly could and replacing some parts with lighter replacements. This leaves me with a lean, mean road machine with very few concessions for creature comfort.

Stripped for battle and the power up to maximum potential I have changed the power to weight ratio from the stock 22.5:1 to a much more appealing 14.1:1. A staggering difference when you think about it and I should be happy with the good improvement.

But good is never enough. I want MORE. Or in this case LESS. Less weight. And this is where my problem lies. The last non-essential part of the car that could be removed is the sunroof and its motor, tracks and controls. All together I can remove another 40 pounds from my car by 86-ing the sunroof.

Simple enough, the sunroof mechanism on my car is attached by 10 12mm bolts that are exposed by removing the headliner. The removal process only takes about 30 minutes… and that includes stopping for a soda in the middle of the process. The tricky part is filling the resulting hole in the roof of the car.

I could just lay a piece of sheet metal across the roof and rivet it down. Effective but hardly aesthetically pleasing to my eye; the result would look like my car has a boo-boo covered by a makeshift bandage. There is a guy in Utah who sells a sunroof "plug" to fill the gap. But the kit is very expensive ($300+) for a sheet of carbon fiber and some L-brackets that the home hobbyist has to drill and screw together. Heck, I could fabricate something similar out of sheet aluminum and hardware store parts. But I have been trolling the Honda enthusiast’s web sites and there are guys who promise that they will be able to create a fiberglass product that will fit flush in the hole and not leave any rivets in view. Oh yeah, and these are the same type of guys who will sell you a bridge in Brooklyn, some Florida swamp land and a miracle carburetor that gets 100 miles per gallon.

So what to do? Dole out the big bucks for the Utah kit? Fabricate my own clone for the kit using a sheet of aluminum? Or wait for the Easter Bunny to deliver a product that no one has built yet? Or stop being greedy and live with the sunroof as it is? What do you suggest?

Posted by Scott at 9:15 AM | Comments (1)

August 8, 2005

Hobby Car Decisions

You are going to start working on your hobby car, but before you start answer one question: What do your want your car to be? Is it going to be a Show Car, a Racecar or a Daily Driver? A car can be one of those three definitions very well; it can have the qualities of two of those things fairly well. But it is nearly impossible for a car to be all three things at the same time.

A Show Car is not just a nicely cleaned up street car with maybe a bit of extra chrome. To be a contender on the Car Show circuit you need to completely rebuild, repaint and reengineer a car so that is only faintly resembles the original car. Everything you can see and many parts you cannot see are chromed and polished to a burnished gleam. Custom upholstery, mind numbing and ear splitting entertainment systems, hydraulic suspension systems, thousands of man-hours and untold piles of money are all incorporated into a Show Car. Even the slightest blemish can seriously degrade a car's chances to win a show trophy so a Show Car is towed in an enclosed trailer to prevent the chance of a stone chip.

A Race Car is stripped down for speed and has no creature comforts. Loud, stiff, cramped and unpleasant to ride in, a Racecar is meant to go fast at all expense. It has no creature comforts, like a heater or air conditioning, certainly no radio and tight seats that grip you in a tight embrace that discourages any kind of movement.

A Daily Driver can be clean and shiny, it can be pretty quick, but it surrenders all claims to the domain of Show Car and Race Car in a compromise of comfort and convenience. A Daily Driver does not need to have its engine, brakes and tires rigorously warmed up before performing to their best ability like a Racecar. A Daily Driver might get a wash every week and a wax once a year, but you do not need to be compulsive about it.

But a Hobby car is nearly always going to be a compromise of fulfilling more than one function, the trick is to find the right amount of balance. Imagine a triangle with Show Car at one corner, Racecar in another corner and Daily Driver in the third corner. Some where within that triangle is where your hobby car is going to fall. If you plan on racing this car and not use it for show or street very often, then your car would be closest to the Racecar corner. But if you plan on being able to drive this car on the street occasionally, then its mark would nudge a bit closer to Daily Driver within that triangle.

For me, I have a perfectly decent daily driver that is not my hobby car, so that part of the triangle is not important. And as much as I like my hobby car to look sharp, I am not overly concerned with a few flaws in the paint so the Show Car end of the triangle is not a consideration. But I do use my hobby car for amateur sporting events so my hobby car definitely leans toward Racecar territory.

But in all things in life there are compromises that we must make. I need to be able to drive this car on the street so it retains all of the street legal equipment and a full interior. I even have a CD player with four speakers.

The decision is up to you, the At Home Mechanic. Fast? Shiny? Comfortable? A combination of all three, but with an emphasis on any one in particular? That is the great thing about a hobby car, the choice is yours alone to make.

PS- A special shout out to Dave who is also a faithful reader. Thanks for the nice wishes about my back, it is much better today.

Posted by Scott at 7:30 AM | Comments (0)

August 6, 2005

Playing in Pain

Not that it physically hurts to pound out a story or two on the keyboard, but I am playing in pain for you today. Yesterday I was doing some research for this blog in the garage when I suffered an injury. In a sense, I "took one for the team." Normally the At Home Mechanic can expect to suffer a skinned knuckle or two in the course of a project. I like to think of the tiny scars on the back of my hands as battle decorations that demonstrate years of devotion to the cause. I will never get a job as a hand model, but that career path was never really an option for me. But yesterday was a new and troubling injury that may signal a change in the way I will work in the garage in the future.

I was bending deeply from the waist changing the fuel injectors in my 1987 Honda CRX Si when I felt and heard a "ping" in the lower left quadrant of my back followed by a sharp pain. Barely able to straighten up, I gingerly sat on a straight back chair that I keep in the garage. It took a few minutes for the pain to subside and my blurred vision to clear.

I left the car project uncompleted and closed up the garage for the day, that project will have to wait until I regain some mobility. I hobbled back into the house and went straight to the medicine cabinet. Normally an aspirin is the strongest medicine I take, but this pain called for more serious relief. Fortunately the governments of Canada and Great Britain can trust their citizens with something stronger than plain aspirin; they allow the sale of a compound of common pain reliever like Tylenol with a trace amount of Codeine. I keep a box or two on hand at all times specifically for this type of situation.

The rest of the day was spent horizontally, waiting for the knot in my back to unravel. I suspect that the problem is muscular rather than spinal and in time the injury will heal. By today I am more stiff than sore and I will take it easy for the next day or so. If there is no improvement in a week, then I will consult a physician. But I am not immobilized and the pain is subsiding.

Working on your car is a physical endeavor; you bend, twist, crawl and contort to get at the trouble spot. In the future I will have to be more careful to do some warm up stretches before tackling a car project. And I may have to call upon a helper for assistance for some projects. I had always suspected that there was a reason the wife and I decided to have children. Now I know why.

Posted by Scott at 2:56 PM | Comments (1)

August 4, 2005

In praise of drum brakes

We all know that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Even small children know that the Moon orbits the Earth. And everyone knows that disk brakes are much better than drum brakes. Common Sense, Conventional Wisdom, Accepted Practice are all names for the type of knowledge that we all collectively know. But every so often we learn that what we have always thought to be absolutely true is in fact completely wrong. At one time we thought that the Earth is flat, that traveling faster than 20 miles per hour will cause suffocation and that tomatoes are poisonous. And there are a few select instances when drum brakes are a better choice that disk brakes.

Drum and disk brakes differ in a variety of ways; generally speaking, disk brakes are lighter, dissipate heat better and resist fade better than drums. Once considered exotic technology that migrated from aircraft applications to racing cars in the 1940's. In the 1950's only exotic foreign cars were available with disk brakes although such classics as the Mercedes Gull Wing 300SL did not get factory disk brakes until the production was nearly ended in the early 1960's. Front disk brakes did not appear of US domestic cars until the mid 1960's as an extra cost option. By the early 1970's front disk brakes became the accepted norm and disk brakes on all four corners became the standard for most luxury and performance cars by the 1980's. But even to this day rear drum brakes are common on lower priced cars and trucks with four-wheel disk reserved for upscale and high performance cars.

Nearly all forms of race cars use four wheel disk brakes unless the organizing body decrees that production based race cars must use the same type of brakes that came from the factory. Amongst the car modification hobby, it is considered essential to replace rear drum brakes with much more stylish rear disk brakes. And consumers are willing to pay extra for the perceived advantage of four wheel disk brakes, and they will identify a car's performance potential by the presence of four-wheel disk brakes.

All the evidence seems to point to the undeniable fact that disk brakes are superior in every regard. Except when they are not.

Large cars need large brakes. And large brake drums are heavier and less efficient than large disk brakes so disk brakes still retain an advantage over drum brakes. But smaller cars can use smaller brakes and small drum brakes are actually lighter than small disk brakes. Strange as this may seem, the rear drum brakes and all the assemblage required to make them work are lighter than the total collection of parts needed to make rear disk brakes work on small Honda Civic-sized cars.

But the braking advantage of rear disks would negate the weight disadvantage, right? In actuality the rear brakes on the majority of street cars contribute very little to the car's stopping power. Most street cars have as much as 60% of their total weight over the front wheels and the forward momentum of a car in motion puts even more of the car's total weight over the front wheels. The rear wheels are relatively un-loaded during stopping and can not contribute much stopping power under the best of circumstances. That is why the rear brakes are the first to lock up during a panic stop. In street driving, rear drums are perfectly adequate for all driving conditions, and that is why manufacturers have no problem selling cars with rear drum brakes. It is only consumer demand that drives the sale of so many cars with rear disk brakes, the average driver will never notice the difference between rear disks or drums.

Before consumer demand began to dictate that manufacturers sell performance cars with four-wheel disk brakes it was common for sports cars to come with rear drum brakes. You might be shocked to know that the original Datsun 240Z came from the factory with rear drum brakes, albeit the drum brakes were aluminum rather than the usual cast iron. The aluminum drums were lighter and they dissipated heat almost as well as the disk brakes.

And the American Muscle Car crowd is very hesitant to adapt rear disk brakes to their drag racing cars. Not just because they seem to have a phobia of adapting current technology to their nostalgia-mobiles, but because drum brakes have no parasitic drag when released while disk brakes rub ever so slightly even when not engaged. For drag racers who only use their brakes once at the end of a long straight, the lack of total braking power that drums suffer is not a disadvantage.

The advantages of disk brakes over drum brakes are numerous. Disk brakes are the only choice for the hard working front brakes of any street car and rear disks can be an advantage in the rear for some cars. But it is not universal that rear disk brakes are always superior to rear drums.

Posted by Scott at 10:44 AM | Comments (2)

August 2, 2005

New Honda Engine

Honda has announced a new line of engines for the Civic for the upcoming model year. Based upon their successful K-series of engines, the new Civic engine will expand in displacement from 1.7 liters to 1.8 liters, gain an increase in horsepower and fuel efficiency, all while reducing engine parts by about 10%. Wow! What a break through in engine design. How did they do that? Maybe Honda did it by rediscovering an engine design from nearly 20 years ago.

We do not have any hard details at this time; Honda prefers to withhold the specific information until the new engines go on the market. But I have a pretty good idea how Honda increased engine efficiency while decreasing the number of parts required to put the engine together. And I expect that the Honda marketing folks are going to be challenged to make the public understand how less is more.

The current Honda K-series engines are a double overhead cam (DOHC) design with electronically controlled variable valve timing. An excellent design and one that appeals to consumers who desire the prestigious DOHC design; but there is room for improvement. The two cams per cylinder bank and the four valves per cylinder of the DOHC design allows great flow through the combustion chamber, particularly at high rpms. But the parasitic loss of having to spin two cams and open four valves costs the engine some efficiency, particularly at lower rpms where the typical street car operates.

Back in the early 1980's, Honda offered a D-Series Overhead Cam (SOHC) engine that had three valves per cylinder which was considered unusual for its time. The two intake valves gave great breathing characteristics and the single large exhaust valve created just enough backpressure to build great low end torque for stop and go driving. Engineers loved the engine, but the public greeted it with a yawn. It did not have the "sexy" DOHC design and was not easy for consumers to grasp its unusual design.

Honda eventually dropped the three valves per cylinder, SOHC engine design as the public voiced a desire for DOHC engines. Honda happily supplied the public with what they wanted and has sold hundred of thousands of DOHC engines around the world.

Recently Ford has introduced a successful series of SOHC, three valve engines that power the new Mustang amongst many other cars and trucks. The inherent efficiency of this design is too great to be ignored and I expect that more manufacturers will seriously consider bringing similar design to market.

And with this in mind, I expect that the new Honda Civic engine will also feature the SOHC, three valves per cylinder design. And those of us who always like the quirky design of the old Honda engine will be vindicated after all these years.

Posted by Scott at 7:33 AM | Comments (124)

July 30, 2005

My mistake

I made a big mistake; the kind of mistake that many people make. But here I am, the At Home Mechanic, making the kind of mistake that I generally chide other people for making. I am so ashamed; the only way I can repent is to confess my sin. Hopefully you will learn from my mistake and not repeat it.

The mistake I made was to ignore what my car was telling me. My car is not a special car; it has no KIT technology out of the old Knight Rider TV show. It does not tell me, "Your door is ajar," when I leave the door open with the motor running. (Do you remember when Japan sent the US "talking" cars in the early 1980's? Adapting the technology of talking dolls, the Japanese manufactures led the automobile industry in cars with prerecorded messages. Very quickly, American consumers got tired of being nagged by their cars to put on their seatbelts, get more gas or turn off their lights when the motor was stopped.)

My car was talking to me just like every other car on the road speaks to its owner. Your car and mine all speak the same language, although there are no recognizable words in this language. The language of "Car" is composed of the calliope of sounds plus the subtle nuances of symptoms our cars exhibit.

Being a car mechanic is a bit like being a Veterinarian or a Pediatrician, your patient cannot tell you what the problem is in words. But like a Veterinarian or a Pediatrician, an At Home Mechanic has to be able to interpret the signs of trouble.

Back to me and my problem: My 2003 Honda Accord was telling me that my car's battery needed to be replaced. The signs were clear, the hesitant start was a dead give away. I had a week's worth of starts that there were weak and tentative. Intellectually, I knew that all I had to do was to pop the hood to check the fluid level in the battery. At the very least, I could have put the battery on my at home charger for a couple of hours to top off the charge.

But I was swimming in an ocean of denial (And that ain't just a river in Egypt. That's a joke. Get it? Denial... river in Egypt? See? If you have to explain your jokes I guess they are not very funny). Anyway, I knew that there was a problem and I did nothing about it. And just like any dieing battery, mine died at the least opportune moment. You know what I am talking about: You are running late to an important meeting. You jump in the car, pray to the Gods of All Things Automotive to give you just one more start, turn the key and get that sickening lack of anything happening that tells you your luck has run out.

The key mistake I had made was not popping the hood to check the battery. I assumed that my new-ish car came with a modern sealed battery that has no provision of service. Of course once I did look at the battery I could see that it was an old fashioned battery with a service port. The recent spate of hot weather had allowed the fluid in the battery to evaporate to the point that the cells were uncovered and the battery was cooked. I could have gotten another year or so of useful life out of that battery if I had been paying attention.

A handy set of jumper cables, and a helpful neighbor got my car started. It cost me about $75 to replace the battery, which is a financial kick in the butt to remind me to not ignore what my car is telling me.

Listen to your car; be sensitive to the warning signs. And then act on the problem when the car starts telling you about them.

Posted by Scott at 3:34 PM | Comments (2)

July 28, 2005


The cost of owning an automobile is not restricted to the purchase price, petrol and insurance protection. Maintaining your car has a cost and ignoring your car's preventative routine will end up costing you more in the long run. Motor oil is the lifeblood of your engine, changing it every 3,000 miles is cheap insurance that your engine's innards will live to serve you for as long as you can possible want to own your car. And a regular check of your tire pressure will enhance tire life and reduce fuel consumption.

All the other service items your car may require are in your car's owner's manual contains a list of regularly scheduled maintenance items that you should be doing to your car on a routine basis. But if you are like me and nearly every other new car owner, once you figure out how to program the clock and the radio, the owner's manual gets stuffed back in the glove box until the next Daylight Saving's Time.

Even the most ardent At Home Mechanic will begin to tire of checking the fluid levels ("They were fine a couple of months ago"). Gas stations that offer truly Full Service disappeared with 25-cent gasoline; nobody is offering to check your tire pressure, oil level or coolant level any more. If you are vigilant, you could do all that stuff yourself at your local Self-Serve gas station. But the reality of modern life is that you only dash in and out of the self-serve with time only for some gas with a Big Gulp, a Slim Jim or an order of double latte to go.

Your new car dealer is more than happy to help you keep your car serviced regularly, in many cases he will give away oil changes for little or no money. The dealership makes it most money from the service department so their motivation is to sell you service and repairs that your car may not strictly need. His motive is to get you car on a rack so that the service writer can call you with the grim news that unless you change the coolant right now, they cannot be held responsible for your car's engine lasting the night.

Roadside retail oil change specialists aggressively advertise low cost, high-speed oil changes for the busy motorist. But their profit margin on an oil change is razor thin so the real money in that business is selling air filters, windshield wipers, and radiator flushes. Those helpful young people writing down the details of your make, model and mileage are also subtly pressuring you to add-on services that will drive your bill beyond the range of a crisp portrait of Ben Franklin.

So how do you protect yourself? Start by digging out that Owner's Manual in the glove box. When exactly does the manufacturer recommend a coolant change, a transmission service or a tire rotation? Does it match what the kid with the clipboard is telling you?

While there is no danger in servicing your car earlier than recommended, there is no reason to spend more than you need to as well. Get the details from your service manual. Be prepared to look that kid straight in the eye and tell him to keep his lubrication system flush, his fuel injector cleaner and his radiator service to himself until your car is truly in need.

Posted by Scott at 7:32 AM | Comments (2)

July 27, 2005

Physics and cars

Physics is a daunting topic to most people. All that egghead, Einstein, stuff about splitting the atom and the time space continuum is just to so hard to grasp. So when I say that physics is the single most important topic that an automotive engineer can study and the principles that can be learned from physics are applied to car design and improvement, I can hear you groan and roll your eyes.

But if you go back to the father of modern physics, Sir Isaac Newton, the apple falling on his head and his writings about the principles of bodies in motion, you have the basis of the science of making a car go and stop. I could bore you worse than you are already are but instead I will boil it down to a few basic points: A body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Throw in some ancient Egyptian discoveries about leverage and you have all need to know to improve the performance of your car. Got that? Good. There will be quiz on this materiel at the end of the week.

So what does this have to do with your car and its performance? Bottom line: It is easier to make a light car go, stop and turn a corner than a heavy car. An American Muscle car that weighs3800 lbs with a 400 horsepower engine has a power to weight ratio of 9.5:1, you only need to create about 300 horsepower in a 2800 lbs. car to get the equivalent power to weigh ratio.

Where the weight is on your car makes a difference also. As an extreme example, think if you had a couple hundred pounds hanging off the front bumper of your car. That weight acts like a pendulum when you turn a corner; your car will want to continue to turn after you straighten the steering wheel due to the momentum of that weight. This example demonstrates the principles of both a body in motion combined with leverage and how they act on your car. So by this example we have learned that we want as much of the cars weight within the wheelbase of your car to fight this pendulum effect.

The height of the weight in your car makes a difference as well. All those SUV's on the road have a very high center of gravity and it is relatively easy to push them over. Again, leverage and the principle of bodies in motion act together to tip over a tall vehicle with its high center of gravity. So clearly, a car with its weight as low as possible is less likely to tip over and can turn a corner more quickly.

As an aside it is easy to determine approximately where the center of gravity (CG) is on your car. Roughly, the CG on a modern car is about the height of the driver's seat bottom cushion. I can judge how well a car will withstand tipping motion by standing next to the vehicle. If the seat cushion is at my knee or lower, the car has a fair chance of being safe and stable in an emergency maneuver. Many SUV's and trucks put the driver's seat bottom at hip level or higher; you can expect those autos to be candidates to roll over much more easily.

As the American consumer base ages, car buyers as a class prefer taller cars that are easier for older, less flexible drivers to get in and out of. Other consumers prefer the view form a higher seat position. This has induced manufacturers to create taller cars that sacrifice stability for comfort. I prefer a low-slung car that has a better chance of safely maneuvering around an obstacle that might suddenly appear on the road.

Posted by Scott at 8:13 AM | Comments (1)

July 26, 2005

Join the club?

All I wanted to do was join the club. I figured that if I got a cool old car, I could join the cool old car club. In retrospect, my image of a car club was terribly out of whack with reality. In my fantasy of what a car club should be, I expected to find a group of professional people who gather upon manicured lawns to tastefully appreciate achievements in the automotive arts. Think of a lawn party from The Great Gatsby crossed with a sherry tasting in the Oxford faculty lounge... with some cool old cars in the background. I expect that sort of car club exists somewhere, but not for those of us who appreciate Hondas.

The real problem was that I got back into the car hobby after an extended hiatus. As a teen I had built and rebuilt foreign and domestic cars for fun and profit. But I put that all aside for a television career and a family life for about twenty years. Sliding into my early 40's and its concurrent mid-life crisis angst, I chose to get a little red sports car as my outlet rather than engage in an age inappropriate liaison that could jeopardize my happy marriage. I had my eye on a couple of little cuties (cars) and I figured that ownership of a cool car would allow me to join The Club.

My Uncle is a Morgan man. The automotive object of his desires is a 1960 Morgan Plus Four which is as typical an English sports car as ever existed. To be a member of the Morgan Club one you practically are required to wear a tweed coat with leather elbow patches and smoke a Bier pipe. The Morgan Club is a linen tablecloth affair; they throw wine and cheese parties and plan trips up the Coast for a Spa Weekend at a fabulous resort.

Dad has restored and enjoyed a variety of Fords, but the five Mustangs that have passed through his garage tell you his major automotive allegiance. He and Mom have been members of the Mustang club for years and they attend the club meetings. More of a back-room-of-the-local-Denny's affair, the Mustang club is well organized with regularly scheduled shows and rallies.

Toss in the image of the local Corvette Club (a gathering of really successful Plumbers) the Ferrari Club (a gathering of really successful Dentists) and the Porsche Club (a gathering of really successful Jerks) and I had created in my mind's eye of what a car club should be: Mature folks who organize sedate social soirees with a couple of days each year at the local racetrack so that we can exercise our favorite cars.

When it came time to pick a hobby car, I did the research on the cars but I did not research the car clubs. I figured that an appropriate club would support whatever car I chose. After long and careful thought, I picked an early version of the Honda CRX as the right combination of solid engineering and competitive performance. I was right about the car, I was wrong about the Honda Club.

Actually, there is no "Honda Club" per se. I was expecting a nationally organized association with maybe a little encouragement from the manufacturer to continue to buy and enjoy their products. But that is not in Honda of North America's marketing strategy so the organization of any kind of club to enjoy Honda products is left to the owners.

I have discovered that the owners of Hondas fall into two distinct categories: The general public who buy and use Hondas like the reliable household appliance they are. And a sub-culture of quasi-law abiding performance freaks that the manufacturer may not care to acknowledge.

The Honda-as-an-appliance crowd only cares that their cars run reliably, hold their resale value at trade-in for another Honda and have no interest in Car Clubs. This leaves the potential group of Honda club members to The Freaks (and I do not use this term in a pejorative manner as I consider myself one in spirit).

Generally a younger, less affluent and ethnically diverse, the performance crowd that is drawn to Hondas may loosely organize into "crews" but the limit of their organization is to spread the word about possible mid-night street races. At first glance to the casual observer, the typical gathering of Honda performance fans looks like a gang fight about to erupt. Closer inspection finds nice kids who are stylishly attired in baggy clothing listening to contemporary music that Hips and Hops.

I enter into this world as a bald, fat suburban white man old enough to be their father. My search for chronological or socio-economic contemporaries in the world of Honda performance has proven fruitless in my local area. Conventional Wisdom holds that guys like me should be playing with American Muscle Cars and leave the "rice burners" to the kids. And so it seems to be; I am an anomaly within the world of Honda performance.

My car is "just" a "lowly" Honda, the other clubs do not want to know about me and my Japanese econo-box; there is no club for me to join. It is not so bad, I get invited to participate in track day events at the local road course and I try to run as many Autocross events as I can in my area. But the social scene for us older Honda lovers is pretty thin.

Posted by Scott at 8:26 AM | Comments (1)

July 25, 2005

Lessons learned in school

Did you take shop class in Junior High School? Back in the days of adequate public school funding and less emphasis on college preparation, young men were given instruction in the "Manufacturing Arts" and young ladies were taught "Home Economics." Conventional wisdom of the time held that we needed to prepare your youth for their eventual careers: Men on the assembly line and girls at home keeping house. American society has outgrown this quaint anachronism, (although the children's school year is still constructed around a three month summer holiday so the young'uns can be home to help bring in the crop at the family farm). Shop class is now a distant memory for us older folks, kids today are more likely to get a computer arts class that is certainly more relevant to today's job market. Which is kind of a shame since the basic skills learned in shop class are important to the At Home Mechanic.

We learned in Wood Shop how to appreciate the danger of power tools; at least one kid each year discovered a way to permanently disfigure himself with the band saw. In Metal Shop we learned that making toolboxes was boring, but you could use scrap sheet metal to make your own Ninja Throwing Stars (imagine a palm-sized, star-shaped Frisbee, used for teen-aged mischief), which would be confiscated if found by the shop teacher.

But we also learned how to use hand tools, the importance of measuring carefully twice so that we only needed to cut once and we gained confidence in fabricating something from raw materials as opposed to assembling form a kit of pre-formed parts. Fabrication is to assembly from a kit as free hand painting is to paint by numbers.

There is eventually come a time in the garage when the "guaranteed to fit" parts may not or you will be forced to make what you need on your own because no one sells that kind of part for your car. Those fabrication skills will serve you well in this situation. I take pride in being able to define a problem and then design a solution using scrap metal and my imagination. A garage vice, a ball peen hammer and a hacksaw have served my needs well.

I created a front air dam for a 1958 VW Beetle using sheet metal, a hand drill and some screws. I made a new set of seat supports for a 1966 Mustang using a hacksaw and some angle iron. And I have fab'ed a Cold Air Intake for my 1987 Honda CRX from some PCV plumbing supplies. While none of these items will ever earn a design award, they are perfectly functional. And I was able to make them from raw materials because I had the experience of building stuff from scratch that dates back to Junior High School shop class.

My next fabrication project is also for the '87 CRX. I am going to remove the power sunroof and all of its associated mechanism from the car and I need something to fill the hole that will be left in the roof. I could just screw down a sheet of metal over the hole, but that offend s my aesthetic sensibilities, I want something that looks as if I made an effort to creatively solve this problem. So I will be doing some fabricating to make a slick filler for the resulting hole and I will be posting the process in the coming days.

Posted by Scott at 7:19 AM | Comments (2)

July 23, 2005

Project time

How often do you take on a new project on your car? Obviously you can not wait to fix a car that is your daily ride to work, school, etc. But those discretionary jobs, the hot-up jobs, the "make it run better" or "make it look cooler" jobs; how often do you take them on? If you spend every free moment in the garage with the project car your social life is going to suffer. So how do you space out the time you spend playing with the car?

Is it based upon money? Do you only buy parts and work on the car when you are flush with cash? In my case the performance parts to improve my old Honda CRX are hard to come by; when you find them you have to buy them. But I have been known to let a set of parts sit on my work bench until I have the courage to tear apart a working engine, suspension, brakes, etc. So in my case my hobby car work is not regulated by money alone.

Do you let a deadline inspire you to start or finish a project? Is a car show, enthusiast's meet or race coming up and you want to be ready for that? I have to admit that I have been known to hurry up a project so I can show off for the other guys. And you always want to be prepared for a race so that is a good incentive to get something new ready on the car. But a deadline is not the most important factor in determining when I start or finish because my car is generally ready to go to the show or the track.

After long thought on this topic I realized that there is a subconscious timing device that regulates how often I take on a new project in the garage. I have just recently come to recognize that I will not take on a new project in the garage until the wounds on my hands heal from the last project.

Even though I wear protective mechanics gloves when I am busting bolts in tight spaces and I wear latex gloves when handling fluids and grease, the At Home Mechanic's hands do take some wear and tear when working on the car. A small cut or scrape is fairly routine for every project, a major gash is the price to be paid about once a year or so.

The guarantee that you will do injury to yourself while working on the car is not an enticing inducement to take up the hobby, is it? But there is a macho pride in displaying your scars to the guys; think of them as badges of honor. No pain, no gain.

Of course if I was more careful maybe I would not be injury prone. Maybe if I read the service more carefully I could find a more adroit method of getting into tight spots. But as Popeye the Sailor proclaimed, "I yam what I yam." In this case I am just a clumsy but enthusiastic At Home Mechanic.

Posted by Scott at 3:57 PM | Comments (2)

July 22, 2005

Does ATC and ABS hate your tires?

Automatic Traction Control (ATC) and Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) are a pair of great modern safety features on many modern automobiles that will give less-than-fully attentive drivers a chance to recover from a driving mistake. These systems prevent your tires from skidding, which in turn allows the tire to maintain as much traction as possible. And with that traction, the driver can stop or steer the car away from danger.

ATC and ABS both use a system of sensors in each wheel of your car that is linked to central computer. The computer compares the rate upon which each wheel is turning. If the computer senses enough difference in the rate that wheels are turning, it will send signals to the either the engine (for Traction Control) or the brakes (for Anti-lock Brakes) to keep the tires turning no matter how slippery the road or how hard you mash on the brakes.

In the top levels of auto racing, primarily in Europe and Asia, ATC and ABS combined with very sophisticated automatic transmissions are incorporated in the design of racecars to wring the last bit of speed out of the cars. But all that technology is complicated and expensive so race organizers who want to keep costs down for competitors outlaw this technology.

So this ATC and ABS stuff is great right? Well when it works, it is pretty darn good. For the average inattentive driver on the cell phone, it could be the margin of safety that prevents an accident. Personally, I am of the opinion that an attentive driver who drives within the limits of the car, the road and his own abilities does not need all this "nanny" technology for normal driving. And I have seen reports that ATC and ABS can be a disadvantage in gravel and snow. Apparently, being able to lock up the tires on those surfaces allows a "wedge" of gravel or snow to build up in front of the tires and facilitate stopping.

OK, so most of the time ATC and ABS are great. And I would not avoid buying a car because it has this technology. But sometimes the ATC and ABS lights will light up on your dashboard for no apparent reason. And in some circumstances, you will feel the Traction Control "grip" your wheels to prevent slippage when you are on a dry surface. Why would this happen?

It is not unknown for this mysterious bad behavior by ATC and ABS to be caused by tires that have worn unevenly or just have different air pressure. If your tires are approaching the end of their usable tread, there could be enough slippage to set off the systems. And you can imagine the havoc that would be played with the system if you put miss-matched tires on your car. So if your car is alerting you to ATC and or ABS activity when you do not think it should be, check your tires for wear or uneven inflation.

Posted by Scott at 11:44 AM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2005

The shape of cars part 3 of 3

We continue to examine the shape of cars in this the final installment of three.

For consumer cars, the wing at the rear of the car and the front air dam below the front bumper have become profit centers for manufacturers, dealers and the aftermarket. Rear wings out of all proportion are sprouting on trunk lids. While the aesthetic value of these wings is debatable, their function is nearly nil as they sit on street cars. Creating a hazard to the driver's vision and a comical visual blight upon otherwise respectable automobiles, the rear wing is at best a homage to the truly functional wings that function to create true down force on race cars.

On the other hand the front air dam on most cars generally serves a real purpose. Popularized by General Motors in the early 1970's to direct more cooling air to the radiators, these little extra bits under the front bumper can also prevent some air from passing under the automobile. Reducing the amount of air passing under the car in turn helps to prevent lift. On my hobby car, a 1987 Honda CRX Si that is reserved for sporting purposes and is retired from daily use, I have combined a deep front air dam that allows only a small amount of air under the car with a very large passage under the rear bumper to speed what little air does get under the car out from under it. This combination acts to create a tiny amount (and I do mean a tiny amount) of vacuum that helps to suck the car down on to the road.

Aerodynamic considerations are incorporated into automotive designs and it is why many different manufacturers create cars that seem to appear similarly. Perhaps the most predominate characteristic of modern cars is the high trunk. The rear area of cars has gotten higher and higher over the years as designers have come to recognize that air flows more smoothly over a car if it is slightly wedge shaped. And because the laws of physics apply equally to all automobiles, various different brands of cars are all beginning to resemble each other. And the distinction we used to associate with style has become a victim of the times.

Posted by Scott at 7:21 AM | Comments (1)

July 17, 2005

The shape of cars part 2 of 3

We continue to examine the shape of cars in the second of three parts.

In the 1960's innovative Texas racer car builder and racers Jim Hall introduced the concept of the wing to motor racing. Standing on stanchions well above the car and flying in the clean air traveling above the car's body, Hall's wing was a revolution in extra down force for racecars. But a wing also has a cost in drag, the down force acts like an anchor when you are trying to travel at the greatest speed in straight line. Hall designed his wing to flatten out for the straight and to dip down for extra down force when the brakes were applied for a turn. It was not long before other racers complained and the moveable wing was soon banned. But the floodgates of wings were let loose on nearly every form of auto racing and wings appeared in a bizarre variety.

Racecar driver and builder Dan Gurney made the major improvement to the wing in the early 1970's. He discovered that putting a small "lip" at the trailing edge of a wing works to increase the effective area of the wing. The Gurney Flap as it became known seems counter intuitive, this little tab sticking up at a 90-degree angle to the wing, would be a drag inducer and ruin the flow of air over the wing. Which is exactly what it does, it creates a small eddy of swirling air juts behind the rear edge of the wing. But his swirling air acts to create a boundary that lengthens the effective length of the wing and gives it the effect of a wing with a much larger area. This principle is used by NASCAR racers who have a blunt spoiler at the rear of the car sticking up almost straight into the air. Again, the swirling air of the NASCAR spoiler creates a swirl effect that lengthens the flow of air over the race cars and reduces the kind of drag that the Kamm Back did.

Another round of aerodynamic research was unleashed upon auto racing and the effect of air passing under the car was harnessed with the concept of ground effects in the 1970's. By limiting the flow of air under a car and then controlling what air that did pass under the car, it was possible to create a low pressure zone under the and in effect "suck" the car down onto the pavement. Side skirts to limit air travel under the car were used by some racers. Innovator Jim hall combined side skirts with a second engine in the car to drive a large fan that would operate like a vacuum sucking the car to the ground. The greatest drawback to ground effects is that disastrous things happened to the car if the low pressure zone under thc car was disrupted and nasty crashes were the result. Side skirts, sucking fans and creative shapes to the car's bottom were all outlawed by most sanctioning bodies as present too many risks against the danger of some part of the ground effects failing. Today, most sanctioning bodies today have struck a relatively safe compromise of designs to create down force without radial appendages.

The notable exception to the radical appendage rule is Formula 1. Today's F1 racer is a dazzling array of wings, winglets, bargeboards and various types of air shapers that create awesome down force. But the high strung racing cars of Formula 1 are designed to create down force at speeds approaching 200mph, the common consumer car spends its life at much lower speeds, the advantages wings and other dooh-dads plastered over every surface like a F1 cars are lost at those speeds. A clean, uncluttered shape is the best for the street. And those wings you see hunched over the rear deck of daily drivers are there for no reason other than style.

More on the shape of cars tomorrow.

Posted by Scott at 9:13 PM | Comments (0)

July 16, 2005

The shape of cars part 1 of 3

This is the first of a three part series on the shape of cars.

Automobiles are shaped all wrong; if the laws of aerodynamics were taken into consideration, all cars would be turn upside down. Of course this would present a packaging challenge to the engineers, but the shape of the automobile should be reversed from its current configuration.

An automobile moves across the road and through the air. The road and the air both have an effect on the car as it moves across one and through the other. As speed increases, the air resistance and the dynamics of the air flow over and under the car increase. At highway speeds, the flow of air around the typical car is trying to lift the car off of the road The air acts to lift a car off the road because the typical car is roughly shaped like an airplane's wing, curved on top and flat on the bottom. the curve on top of the wing/car acts to create a longer path for the air flowing over the car than the shorter distance travels for the air going straight under the flat bottom of the car. The air traveling the shortest distance is more densely packed and thus a zone of high pressure exists under the car compared to the lower density air flowing over the top, which creates a zone of low pressure. High pressure below and low pressure above creates lift. To prevent lift and to create down force, which helps stick the car to the road, a car should be flat on top with a curved underside.

Of course this is not a practical shape for packaging purposes and we will continue to see cars with the same general shape. We are seeing more slab sided and box shaped vehicles whose sole purpose is to maximize interior shape while minimizing the exterior "foot print" of the vehicle. These cars are particularly popular in the old cities of Europe and Asia where road are narrow, parking is scarce and all space is at a premium. In Japan, road and parking space is so limited that the government bases some of the tax burden on each car based upon the width of the car. This why Japanese cars meant for their domestic market tend to be tall and narrow.

The principles of aerodynamics have been applied to automobiles since the 1930's as the result of trickle down technology from the emergent aircraft industry. As airplanes shed their two wings in favor of one, automobiles began to become more sleek and in tune with the airflow over them. The 1934 Chrysler Airflow and the Bugatti Type 57S were smoothly shaped to encourage easy passage of air over the body. After World War Two, racecars borrowed engine and aerodynamic technologies from the military to increase speed. At speeds of 150mph and more, their was so much lift and such little contact with the road that car would begin to yaw (twist side to side), compromising traction and safety. The first reaction to yaw was to equip racecars with vertical stabilizers that sprouted like dorsal fins from the rear. But this did not address the problem of lift and loss of contact with the road.

By the late 1950's sophisticated research was being applied to racecar aerodynamics and the more voluptuous shape emerged as the style of choice. Front panels bent farther down to skim above the road and a short abbreviated tail was the fashion. This chopped off tail was the design of Dr. Kamm who believed that the short tail would induce a swirl of air behind the car and push it through the air. Called the Kamm Back and seen on the Cobra Daytona coupe amongst other cars of the early 1960's era, subsequent research demonstrated that the swirl did occur, but that it acted as a drag rather than as help. This led to the long and elegant tails that we see on high-speed cars such as the type that race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

More on the shape of cars tomorrow.

Posted by Scott at 2:41 PM | Comments (2)

July 14, 2005

The Neighborly At Home Mechanic

Are you a good automotive neighbor? Do you care how your neighbor's view your car hobby practices? Do you want to insure the good will of everyone on your block? How you conduct yourself as an automobile enthusiast can have a huge impact on your image in the community you live in and how society in general views the car hobby.

If you have derelict cars strewn across you property maybe you are not helping your standing in the community. If you are pounding out body dents late at night or early in the morning you may not be winning any friends amongst your neighbors. If you are testing reaction and 60-foot times in the street in front of your house, you are probably not going to make the local residents happy. Our actions do have an impact upon how we are seen by others.

A man's home is his castle, which is the English Common Law tenet that implies that each homeowner is the master of his domain. How a property owners uses his property is solely up to him, right? Not always. Without going into long and boring discussions about the legal findings on the topic, suffice it to say there are some very clear laws regarding Eminent Domain and Community Standards in the United States and they can be applied to property owners whose use of their property is not up to some set of standards. If you are sloppy about how you store and work on your cars, you could invite unwelcome attention from the local authorities.

I love my cars and I enjoy the time I spend in the garage working on a variety of Do It Yourself (DIY) projects. But I am also aware that my neighbors may not share my enthusiasm for old cars. That is why I make sure that my "project" cars are kept well out of sight until they are ready to be displayed on the street. I have torn a car completely down to its frame, sold off the parts that I did not want and have the hulk towed away without my neighbors knowing I had a junker on my property. I do all of my work on my cars during reasonable business hours, never early or late at night, and I keep dismantled cars in the garage well away from public view.

When I test my cars, I drive cautiously and courteously from my neighborhood. It is not until I reach a highway that I reach highway speeds. And I do not rev my exhaust where the local folks can hear and take offense.

I know that the value on my neighbor's home is dependent on the manner in which I keep my home. If my neighbor spends time and money to turn his house into a showplace, my house will drag his house's value down if I do not keep my home in a presentable manner. And this works in reverse as well; if my home is freshly painted and my garden is neatly trimmed, a dumpy house next door to me drags my property values down.

I have no sympathy for some in the auto hobby who claim to have the right to keep "parts cars" in full view of the public or operate their garage as long and loud as if it were a commercial establishment. We live in a society of cooperation; I try to be a good citizen by not offending my neighbors with my cars, my noise or my driving.

Posted by Scott at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

July 7, 2005

When parts are hard to find

The modern At Home Mechanic can find the service parts to repair his or her car online or in the local auto parts store with ease. The supply of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) parts for cars made in the last 50 years is truly impressive. Need a set of sparkplugs for a 1960 Rambler? Chances are that you can get them delivered to your doorstep within 48 hours.

But what if you want to improve your car's performance? Go faster, stop quicker or get better mileage? Parts that provide that kind of improvement are also generally available at your local parts store... providing that your car is supported by the Aftermarket. The Aftermarket is the broad term that refers to the huge industry of specialty manufacturers who make parts to dress up or speed up your car. If there are enough enthusiasts with a need for speed, there will be an enterprising businessman who will fill that need. Want a set of exhaust manifolds for a V8 Chevrolet from the 1970's? There are several manufacturers who will be happy to sell you a set.

But what if you want to improve that 1960 Rambler? How many different manufacturers do you think are supplying dress up or improvement parts for a car that has been out of production for over 40 years and did not sell a lot of units originally? A businessman would go bust if he committed his time and money to a product for a slender (if nearly non-existent) market segment.

Lets say, for the sake of argument, that you want to add a front air dam to the your 1990 Honda Prelude 2.0Si. It just so happened that I was faced with this dilemma recently. The first place you go is to the online Honda parts retailers like , look up the part you need and simply order the part. But in this example, Honda does not carry this part. And the local junkyard does not have one in their inventory.

Knowing that Acura is Honda's sister company, I look up a same year Acura product on that is roughly similar to the Prelude. In this case, the 1990 Integra is about the same sized car and I can see from the illustrated list of parts that both cars' front air dam have the same number of attachment points.

I ordered the Acura front air dam for sue on my Honda Prelude. But I was disappointed to find that of the eleven attachment points on the Honda only one (the middle) matched the attachment point on the Acura part. Plus, the Acura air dam had some extra tabs that did not fit into any Honda slots. But the Acura part was approximately the right size and a pre-installation test fit revealed that it could be made to work.

I trimmed off the extra tabs with a razor blade and I connected the air dam using the one common attachment point in the middle, which centered the air dam on the front bumper. Using self-tapping screws I was able to firmly attach the air dam to the car and the finished product looks factory correct.

My 1990 Honda Prelude is sporting a 1990 Acura Integra front air dam and for all but the fussiest perfectionist, it looks as if it was designed for the car. It is possible to mix and match parts from one side of the corporate family with the other side if the original parts were never offered. Chevrolet parts will often fit a Pontiac, Ford parts will often fit a Mercury and as much as it may annoy Porsche fans, Volkswagen parts will sometimes fit their cars. Do not get discouraged if you can not find what you want in your car's parts catalog, the chances are good that a determined search will get you close on the other side of the family tree.

Posted by Scott at 8:53 AM | Comments (4)

July 6, 2005

Three Important Tools

The three most important tools in your garage may not be tools in the traditional sense of the word. Craftsman or Snap-On, or my current favorite Husky (which is the Home Depot house brand) does not make them. You may already be using them and not thinking of them as tools. But for the At Home Mechanic they may become your favorite tools once you realize their value in the garage.

Of the trio, the first is perhaps the most unexpected. The one thing that every At home Mechanic has in common with every other mechanic, professional or otherwise, is the inevitable drips of oil, coolant, fuel and grease on the floor of your work space. A professional workspace usually has some sort of sealed floor that resists the spilled fluids from seeping in. There are many paint-type products offered for the At Home Mechanic to brush or roll on a sealant that will protect a concrete floor from staining. For a more finished look, some companies offer a type of interlocking floor tiles specifically meant for the garage that resist staining and by clever application can create a decorative design. But for the majority of us, the cold hard concrete floor of our garage is all we have. Being porous and absorbent, the concrete grasps oils and keeps the mark nearly forever.

But a simple household product that you may already have in your home is the secret to removing oils stains from concrete and asphalt. Kitty Litter. Invented in 1947 by Ed Lowe, Kitty Litter started out as a solution to a messy pet problem. But its absorbent properties make it the best may to soak up standing fluids and if left on a stain for a couple of days, it will draw the stain out of concrete nearly entirely. I keep a five pound bag in my garage and I try to get if onto any spillage as soon as possible. Of course the best solution for spills is to no make the in the first place and to use adequately sized receiving pans when draining sumps and reservoirs. Kitty Litter applied to a stain can often be reused on a second, third or fourth stain before the stuff is completely saturated. I have been known to keep a small pile of slightly used kitty litter (not by the cat) in a corner of the garage for later use upon future stains.

The next two tools are fastening devices. While nuts bolts and screws have their place, it is Duct Tape and Tie Wraps that can salvage a seemingly impossible situation from disaster.

Duct Tape is the binder of all things flat. Artistically applied to body work, upholstery or even clothing, there is no limit to what Duct Tape can do. Invented in the 1920's as a descendant of medical tape, the sturdy green colored tape was backed with "Duck" water resistant fabric was used during World War Two as a sealant for ammunition cans and from this description it received the name "Duck Tape." After the war, the color was changed to a silver materiel and used in the application of joining ventilation ducts and the name evolved into Duct Tape. Racers often refer to it as 100-mph Tape because it can withstand high speeds while protecting headlights and other fragile glass pieces plus is can be used to smooth out the gaps between body parts and give a car a smoother aerodynamic profile.
The Tie Wrap or the Cable Tie as it is sometimes called, emerged during the high tech boom of the 1960's as simple and cost effective way to control the jungle of electrical cables that modern aircraft and technical installations were becoming. A strip of strong plastic with a self-contained locking mechanism, The Tie Wrap comes in a wide variety of sizes and colors and be looped through nearly any opening to secure body parts, hoses and stray wires. It is only limited to the user's imagination how Tie Wraps can be used in the garage and applied to a car. I use Tie Wraps to secure my air cleaner, hold the front bumper cover to the framing underneath and keep interior trim pieces from rattling. A collection of various sized Tie Wraps is a vital part of my garage collection.

The use of non-traditional tools is not limited to Kitty Litter, Duct Tape and Tie Wraps. As time and necessity dictate, other items will be pressed into service in ways that the original designers had never intended. What will you use to solve a problem or finish a job in a creative way?

Posted by Scott at 7:11 AM | Comments (0)

July 5, 2005

Car Shows

Concours d'Elegance has such a nice ring to it. But it seems so many things sound better when you say them in French. In this case the words, Concours d'Elegance has a much classier ring to them than "Car Show." A Car Show can be just a bunch of dusty daily drivers parked in one section of the mall parking lot for the amusement of the local shoppers. But a Concours d'Elegance is literally an examination of elegance, or in this case an examination of beauty. Beautiful cars will not just be shown, but examined and appreciated for their beauty. The French words conjure a much more gentile and refined image that plain old Car Show.

A Concours d'Elegance suggests a high society charity event of smartly dressed couples strolling over manicured lawns to view pristinely restored classic cars from the far distant, but far more elegant Brass Era of refined carriage building that evolved into the first automobiles. Dashing runabouts from the 1920's driven by Flappers and Swells. And 1930's sedans owned by (but not driven by) the Captains of Industry who never felt the bitter bight of the Great Depression. Set on great estates or private country clubs, a Concours d'Elegance is a social event of the summer season set at places like Amelia Island or Pebble Beach. Strictly a white linen affair. Please, no loud noise, no oil drips and certainly no automobiles from the past 20 years.

But there are some chinks forming in the armor of this snooty crowd. The old boys and girls who can remember when that Stutz Bearcat was sold as new are dying out and new blood is required to keep the Concours d'Elegance tradition alive. Over the course of the last few years, the post war examples of Italian and German marques have been allowed to join this exclusive club. Sometimes included in the main festivities and sometimes allotted their own "corral" as a sub set of the main show, these newer cars are admitted to draw a broader and presumably younger audience to the Concours. And as a shocking and controversial addition, Hot Rods from the "classic era" of the 1950's are also being invited to participate as the resell value of these old street rods climbs into the range of six figures.

There are two major alternatives for the car show audience to the Concours d'Elegance. The 1960's Muscle Car Era is booming with interest and the owners of these cars will dedicate shows entirely to their appreciation. Although the cars are often just up-optioned versions of pedestrian American models of the era, the owners and fans if these cars are every bit as snobby as the up-market Concours crowd and clannishly exclude Japanese cars of the past 35 years.

In the course of the last 35 years, Japanese cars have made a huge impact on the US and the World's automobile industry. Affordable and well engineered, the Japanese automobile has revolutionized consumer expectations for value and performance. The fan base for these cars skews young and far less affluent and it is the fastest growing segment of the auto enthusiast market. Vast halls are filled in major cities by the Hip Hop Generation at events that celebrate their taste in cars, music and lifestyle. In this generation of car fans, emphasis is placed on chrome, paint, and entertainment suites rather than restoration and preservation. It is not uncommon for huge sums of money to be invested in these show cars that are too "valuable" to be driven on the street in the pursuit of judged competition.

So where does this leave you and me, the average Joe, with a cleaned up old car and no niche to fit into? Feeling that my 1987 Honda CRX Si does not have enough pizzazz for the Hip Hop crowd, no American Muscle qualifications and certainly no credentials for the Concours crowd, I decided to throw my own Car Show. I invited all my car-loving friends and family along with their hobby cars to come to my house for a celebration on the cars that have fallen into the gaps between the major categories of car shows. No prizes and no judging, we just all came together for a day of comradely enjoyment of the cars we have fun with. And because I was the host, I parked my CRX on the front lawn so that I could pretend I was showing it at one of those snooty Concours d'Elegance.

Posted by Scott at 7:00 AM | Comments (1)

July 4, 2005

Car seats

Car seats have come a long way from the old days. I can remember when car seats had the contour and comfort of a park bench. Covered in shiny vinyl, they offered nothing in terms of support or safety. With the rise in popularity of foreign sports cars in the 1950's, the American public came to recognize the "bucket seat" as a sporting alternative to the three across seating that most domestic cars came with. By the late 1960's American cars with sporting pretensions like the Camaro, Mustang and the like offered high back bucket seating that suggested some lateral support.

But it was the German manufacturers who lead the industry in offering supportive and stylish sports seating for street cars. Recarro emerged as an industry leader, providing seating to Porsche, Audi and others as well as selling a popular line of seating as replacements to other less-sporting models.

Today the aftermarket offers a wide variety of "racing seats" to dress up even the most pedestrian car to look like it belongs on the front row of the Le Mans starting grid. When choosing replacement seats for your car there are some important factors to consider.

Real racing seats in real racecars are not particularly comfortable seats. In the world of high lateral g's generated by racing tires and suspensions, it is important to keep the driver's butt nailed down in one spot. I guarantee you that it is impossible to drive a high performance car are its peak efficiency if the driver is slipping and sliding around in his seat. Designed to hold you in tightly, race seats are narrow in the hips (painfully so if you need to wear jeans with a touch more room in the seat) and envelope you upper body neck and head to protect against injury in an accident.

Better suited to street use are aftermarket seats that have a "racer" look. Less deep and restrictive as real race seats, these seats are easier to slide in and out of. Plus they provide more padding and general comfort.

Fitting aftermarket to most cars is a simple job requiring only simple hand tools. The only consideration is that after market seats come without the sliding rails that allow easy adjustment; these must be purchased separately and are designed for specific applications. Most aftermarket seat manufacturers will have a list of car models that their sliding rails will fit into.

If you are very handy you might be able to modify the sliding rails that your car's standard seats ride on to accept the new aftermarket seats. But care must be taken to insure that the new seats are safely attached permanently to the body of the car and can withstand the forces of an accident.

Posted by Scott at 5:32 PM | Comments (0)

July 3, 2005

Removing the Air Conditioning

I just removed the air conditioning out of my hobby car, a 1987 Honda CRX Si. The air conditioning has not been working very well and I was not inclined to repair it, again. Over the course of the 6 years that I have owned this car, I have had an expensive relationship with the air conditioner on this car. I replaced the compressor initially and that required a second trip to the ATM to get enough cash to satisfy the wholesale parts guy.

Of course you can not just replace the compressor, the dryer also needed to be replaced and I needed the oil that lives inside the guts of the air conditioning system, all of these things help run up the bill for parts to a point that required four portraits of Ben Franklin and not much change in return. Having spent all that money, I cheap-ed out and did not replace the tiny gaskets that keeps the Freon inside the A/C system (Hey, they looked good to me). Once the system was all put together and charged with $50 worth of hard to find Freon (the old A/C Freon that my old car requires puts a hole in the Ozone Layer) it worked fine... for about a month before all the Freon leaked out through the gaskets I had not replaced.

Sloth led me to ignore the non-functioning A/C for a couple of years. In a burst of energy and boredom I tore the entire system apart, replaced the gaskets and had the system recharged again. The A/C blew ice cold and I felt vindicated.

I do not use the car very much; it is meant for amateur speed events and the occasional car show, it was never intended to be a daily driver in my fleet. Over the course of the last year I have become more serious about producing power from the engine and so I changed the throttle body (think of a carburetor but without the gasoline, that is fed by the fuel injection) for a high performance piece. This new high performance throttle body has no provision for adjusting the engine's idle speed when the A/C is on (the A/C adds drag to the engine and it might stall if the idle is not adjusted up during A/C operation). Every time I came to a stop sign I had to turn off the A/C to keep the engine from dieing. That got old in big hurry.

Finally I came to the realization that 40-50 pounds of air conditioning equipment that I do not use in a car that needs every ounce of weight reduction for optimum performance was a waste. The A/C must go!

I started by having the Freon removed by a qualified facility that could keep it contained and not contaminate the atmosphere. I brought the car back to my garage and began the orgy of removal.

Usually when you remove something from your car, you intend to replace it eventually. Great care and attention to detail should be taken so that the At Home Mechanic can put everything back in the same way as when you removed it. But when you are tearing something out with no intention of replacing it, the At Home Mechanic can indulge in a bit of blood lust in ripping and removing. High-powered power tools, shears and plain old brute strength are allowed.

Ah, the cathartic pleasure of lightening you car. As legendary Lotus Cars designer Colin Chapman was famously quoted as saying, "Add lightness." The lightness has been added; 50 pounds of weight removal in my car is equal to adding about three-horse power to my engine. So with the removal of air conditioning from my car I have taken a decisive step to casting my 1987 Honda CRX as a dedicated performance car with little or no provisions for creature comforts.

Posted by Scott at 5:28 PM | Comments (3)

July 2, 2005

Timing (belt) is everything

Timing is everything. The insides of your car's engine is a series of doodads that spin, whirl and go up and down. As long as all those thingies are moving in the correct relationship to each other, your engine runs well and you perceive no problems. But as time passes the gears, chains and belts that connect all those moving parts wear out or even break. Ideally you will keep track of the routine maintenance to prevent major problems. But when you ignore the manufacturer's recommended service intervals, expensive damage can occur.

On most modern cars there is a rubber belt or metal chain called the Timing Belt or Timing Chain which is critical to keeping your engine running right. This belt or chain needs to be replaced every five years or so (check your owner's manual for details). It is possible to do this job yourself with simple hand tools and a long afternoon's worth of time.

Honda products are particularly sensitive to having a fresh timing belt installed. It is not unknown for an old, worn-out Honda timing belt to slip a tooth on the geared cogs that run the engine. That will cause poor performance and in severe cases, expensive valve damage.

Typically, the cost of having a shop replace your timing belt is about $500. But that is mostly labor as the belt only costs about $30. For the At Home Mechanic the hardest part of the job is getting the crank pulley bolt off which is wrenched onto the end of the crankshaft with about 145 lbs. of torque (that is a lot). It is possible to get it off at home without anything other than a breaker bar and a lot of effort. But it is also possible to win the lottery. If you know someone with an air wrench ask him or her to lend it to you. Otherwise you could ask a shop to just loosen the bolt with their air wrench and then get it home ASAP to get it off.

As long as you are tearing that section of the engine apart, you should also change the water pump. The replacement water pump is not that expensive (about $35) and it will aggravate you if you have to come back and essentially redo the whole timing belt job to put in a new water pump. I have made the mistake of NOT changing the water pump while changing a timing belt and it has come back to haunt me.

Changing the water pump is not that hard... but there is a special place in Hell reserved for the Honda engineers who designed the water pump placement on their engines. From a packaging standpoint, it all makes sense to tuck the water pump into that nook it occupies. But to get the old one out and the new one in you will need to remove the timing belt and in many circumstances you will need to move or remove the alternator, power steering pump or some other accessory and their associated belts.

Check your owner's manual carefully for timing belt change intervals. If your car's engine is approaching the due date it is imperative that you either change the belt yourself or have a qualified shop do the work for you. The cost of ignoring that timing belt far outweighs the cost of replacement.

Posted by Scott at 10:39 AM | Comments (1)

July 1, 2005

Beater cars

I like a clean car. Not just washed and polished, but empty of all flotsam and jetsam. My trunk is empty, there is nothing stuffed under the seats, the map pockets are clear and there is nary a drink in the cup holders. I am funny that way, I don't like top hear things rattle around when I drive.

My engine compartment is clean also. Squeaky clean. No grease, dirt or even dust. My wheels are clean and the tires get a regular coating of Armor-All. I like my car clean.

But it takes a lot of effort to keep a daily driver clean. I run my car through the car wash that is just across the street from my office once a week. They have a reduced price special on Tuesdays and Wednesdays that knocks the price down from $9.99 to $6.99 and your tenth car wash is free. For another three bucks, they will Armor-All the tires. Toss in a couple buck tip and for the price of a half a tank of gas I get to drive off in a shiny, clean car. I consider this a small price to pay to keep my car looking sharp.

Not all of my cars get this kind of lavish attention. I have been known to own and drive a "beater." A beater is a car whose cosmetic appearance is of no consequence to you or anyone else (except maybe the neighbors who have to see that thing parked on their block) because you are only going to own it until it drops in its tracks and needs to be towed away. A cheap car that may or may not run so well, but gets you where you need to go, but do not wear your good clothes, and don't let anyone you know see you driving it, is a beater. Beaters don't get washed, and the dents don't get fixed. A beater gets used to haul furniture, pick up lumber or lug potting soil. A beater is easy to own if you have a "good" car at home for dates and important business appointments, because anyone who saw you in a beater would give you wide berth.

In snow country a winter beater is the vehicle of choice for the snow months. Any car you love will become a victim of salted roads, sheet ice and snow drifts if left on the streets during a typical snow country winter. In those places, the good car gets to rest in the garage while the winter beater braces the elements.

Beaters I have owned have included a '66 Ford Mustang coupe that was never going to become a 100 point (perfect) show car and its 6 cylinder engine was never going to allow it to be a performance car. A '82 Toyota Corolla that I inherited from my wife and that served my well until it got stolen and chopped for its parts was a good beater. And a '89 Honda Civic that was simply the best car I ever owned. I should have kept and appreciated that car but I let it go when my car count reached four and that is three more than I could drive at any one time.

But the best beater of all was a '85 Dodge Diplomat that I bought used from the California Highway Patrol. The CHP throws a cheap paint job on their used black and white patrol cars and sells them to the general public, and I snapped one up. They come with a cop engine, cop transmission, cop tires, etc. etc. so you get a heavy-duty sedan with a stout driveline. This car could transport 3 suspects, err, passengers in the back seat, hold an evidence locker's worth of junk in the trunk, and looked like I was on narcotics stake out when I drove it on the street. Nobody messed with that car.

I currently do not own a beater, my three current cars are all "keepers" and I treat them with care. But there is something very liberating about owning a car that can be parked in any neighborhood, can carry any kind of cargo and never needs to be looked after with any particular care. Every car collection should include a beater.

Posted by Scott at 8:24 AM | Comments (2)

June 30, 2005

Keep your fuel tank at least half full

Are you running on empty? A gasoline tank in your car that is less than half full represents a danger to a vital part of your car's fuel system and I do not mean the danger of possibly running out of gas on the road.

The overwhelming majority of cars on the road today are fuel injected; if your car was sold in the Untied States initially within the last 15 years, it is fuel injected. Fuel injection is a very precise way to deliver fuel into the combustion chamber of your car's engine. It is precise because the fuel is delivered at high pressure (in the neighborhood of 35-45 pounds pre square inch) from the gas tank and squirted into the combustion chamber at exactly the right amount at exactly the right time by a computer controlled system in your engine's management system This precision helps to create a very clean burning engine that runs as efficiently as possible (and efficiency equals power).

Before the advent of common fuel injection, cars did not have the advantage of a computer to measure and time the delivery of fuel in the combustion chambers. Relatively crude carburetors were used to deliver fuel and air into the engine for combustion in amounts that were "about right" but hardly as precise as modern fuel injection systems. Carburetors operated on a gravity system of fuel dripping down from the float bowl to the jets that actually delivered the fuel and as a consequence did not require high fuel pressure from the fuel tank. Fuel pressure delivery for a carbureted engine needs to be only about 7-12 psi.

The fuel tank, fuel lines and fuel pump for fuel injected cars needs to be much stouter than a carbureted car because the fuel pressure is so much higher for fuel injected engines. The fuel pump is the largest moving part in the fuel system, pumping gasoline constantly to your engine from the fuel tank, and it is an electrical pump that is working very hard to provide that pressure. Any thing that is electric powered and works hard throws off heat and a build up of heat is the death knell for any kind of electrical component, including an electric fuel pump.

In to keep the electric fuel pump cool, automobile manufactures keep it bathed in a cooling liquid to prevent burn out and premature fuel pump failure. Do they keep it in the radiator? No. Do they keep it in the air conditioning system? No. Most car manufactures put the high pressure, hard working, electrically powered fuel pump in... the gas tank. Your fuel pump is mounted inside your car's gas fuel tank surrounded by gallons of gasoline that help keep the fuel pump cool. Now this may seem counter intuitive to keep an electrical device inside a tank full of volatile gasoline that will eventually be sparked into combustion by an electric spark at the combustion chamber, but this system seems to be relatively safe and we do not hear of cars blowing themselves up on a frequent basis.

But driving your car with less than half a tank of gas on a regular basis, particularly in hot weather is guaranteed to put extra wear on your fuel pump by denying it the cooling that a full tank of gas provides. So keep at least a half a tank of fuel in your tank and protect your fuel pump from early failure.

Posted by Scott at 7:47 AM | Comments (0)

June 26, 2005

Your key ring

How many key do you have on your key ring? Only a few right? If you are like most people, you have a house key, a work key, a car key, a key to your mother's house, a safe deposit box key, a garden shed key, a garage key and a gym locker key and maybe a key to your old house that you just never got rid of. Add in those affinity cards that you leave on your key ring to scan at the check out counter or gas pump, plus a flash light, a tiny Swiss Army knife plus an emergency whistle and you key ring is getting pretty heavy.

So what? A big heavy key ring is a convenient place to keep all those important keys and accessories, it is big enough that you will not misplace it easily and it makes a good weapon to slug a mugger with. But it is a potential problem for your car's ignition switch that could leave you stuck with a car that will not start.

It is not a coincidence that most modern cars have an ignition switch (the thing you stick you key into to start your car) that appears similar to almost every other car on the road. This is because the Federal Government has mandated the design of ignition switches to help prevent auto theft, including a locking mechanism that prevents the steering wheel from turning.

But the ignition switch is more than a locking mechanism, it is also an electrical switch that allows the engine to start and continue to operate. And because it is a mass produced piece, car manufacturers tend to chintz on the bits inside the ignition switch. A heavy key ring hanging from the ignition switch will cause those bits to break.

Once the bits break you car may not start, or your car may shut off without warning as you drive down the street. The only solution is to replace the ignition switch which can be an expensive repair. The very best way to prevent your ignition switch from breaking is to use a separate key ring for your car keys. Keep all they other keys in your collection separate.

Posted by Scott at 4:42 PM | Comments (1)

June 25, 2005

Tire treads

Back in the 1960's, Uniroyal Tires advertised their "Tiger Paws" automobile tires by claiming that the treads of their tires gripped the road. Today, most people think that the tread of their tires also grip the road and that traction on dry roads comes from good, deep treads. The truth is that treads on your automobile tires has nothing to do with gripping the road. And in fact your tires increase their road traction as the treads wear down.

Your tires are the only contact you car has with the road. And that tire contact is only about the size of a man's palm at each corner. Needless to say that is not very much physical contact between the ground and the car. Your tires are doing a heck of a lot of work to put power down to the ground, or provide the stopping power to haul your car down from speed, or keep your car from sliding sideways off the road in a turn.

Cutting grooves (tread) in the surface of the tires reduces the contact patch with the ground and in turn reduces traction. When your tires are new and the treads are the deepest, the tread will "squirm" as you make a turn and slide just a tiny bit; most drivers will not notice this squirm. In racing series that require the sue of street tires with treads, racers will have the tread "shaved" down to reduce the tread depth and in turn reduce tire squirm. Formula 1 require treads to be placed into their racing tires to reduce traction and hopefully reduce car speed which can approach 200 mph even on typically tight and twisty F1 tracks.

If treads reduce tire contact with the road and consequently reduce traction, what purpose do treads serve? Treads are on your street tire to fight hydroplaning. That is the fancy name to describe how a smooth tire with little or no treads will ride up on a thin barrier of rainwater that builds up as you drive down a rainy road. Hydroplaning is a very dangerous condition because your tires have lost their contact with the road entirely. Treads allow your car's tires to pump water away from under the tires and help to maintain contact with the road. Tires rated for "Mud and Snow" have even broader treads to help remove those hazards from under tires and improve grip, but at the expense of less traction as regular rain tires on dry surfaces.

Many forms of auto racing will cancel their races on a rainy day, but some places in the world have too much rain to worry about a little precipitation and they press on in any conditions. In those cases, racing tires with chevron shaped treads are used. Looking like an endless line of wide letter V's, these tires are the most effective for pumping water away from the bottom of the tires. Water is thrown 20-30 feet into the air when racing cars are running at top speed on a wet track.

Throwing water high into the air is the least of your concerns in passenger cars driven on the street. But what you do want to be concerned with is that you buy the right tire for the conditions in which you are most likely to drive in. As much as an enthusiast may want to have the tires with little or no tread for the greatest potential traction on a dry surface, for practical purposes all street tires need to have treads to insure some wet road traction.

Posted by Scott at 4:41 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2005

Why are new cars are better than old cars

They don't build them like they used. They build them better. Automobiles manufactured today are better in every way than cars from the "good old days." They are faster, safer, more fuel efficient and more economical than those old cars we often pine for. If I were given a choice between a restored old car in perfect original condition and a run-of-the-mill new car as my daily driver, I would take the new car every time.

But the real question is: Why are new car engines so much better than old cars in terms of reliability, economy and environmental impact? A small part of the reason is design and materials, things like light-weight alloys, innovative head designs and tighter tolerances make modern engines better than old engines. But the single most important innovation in automobile engines is the wide spread use of Silicon. The same revolution in computer chip integrated circuits that drives the current communication revolution (and makes things like the Internet and this site possible) has made car engines better. Little computers are regulating the functions of your engine to such a fine degree that your engine runs more efficiently. Engine efficiency equals power, performance and economy.

Way back in the dark days of automobile design, as recently as the 1970's, the functions of the engine were controlled by vacuum lines, mechanical linkages and good wishes from the design staff. Old timers wax nostalgic over carburetors and distributors that they could adjust and repair with blacksmith's tools. They are horrified by today's high tech engine management systems that are best tuned with a lap top. But while the old systems would work, they were far from efficient.

As proof lets examine the most popular car engine in the world, the Chevrolet small block V8 engine. First sold in 1955, General Motors is still selling an engine that is basically the same design as the power plant of their largest cars and trucks. But the 1955 engine could never match the power, economy or clean burning of today's engine because it lacks the critical ignition functions of air/fuel mixture and ignition timing. Today's cars make power with environmental friendliness by insuring that the EXACT amount of air and fuel are delivered to the cylinders and that the resulting mix is sparked as EXACTLY the right moment. This is achieved through the use of computer controlled fuel injection and distributor less ignition that uses electronic signals from a crank position sensor.

Old cars are great for their style or the happy memories they evoke, but when you get right down to it they suck as transportation. Even the guys who lavish huge sums of money on old cars, restoring them beyond their original condition, will not drive them regularly because they really are not any more comfortable, easy to drive or powerful than a new car.

Do not get me wrong, I get a major woody for certain old cars. Largely because the sight of them transports me back to happy memories of my misspent youth. In particular are the cars from the mid 1960's until the very early 1970's, the cars that originally sparked the flames of automotive desire for me. And yes, I would like to one day own some really cool old cars. I just am not sure I want to rely on them for my daily ride to work.

Posted by Scott at 7:32 AM | Comments (2)

June 22, 2005

Don't bust your lug nuts

Change a car tire? Easy as pie. A basic skill that everyone can do. But it is also the single most commonly messed-up automobile repair that can end up costing you a lot of money if it is not done correctly. And most "professional" repair shops and tire stores get it wrong every single day. But I will give you the secret to doing it right and also give you a measuring stick by which you can determine if a repair shop knows what it is doing with your car.

Finding a level piece of ground, securely setting the brakes, and properly jacking the car up is all covered in your car's owner's manual. The manual will also suggest that you apply the tightening wrench in a criss-cross pattern and in a progressive manner to prevent over tightening any one lug nut.

While you are looking through your owner's manual for the jacking and other instructions, check to see if they also give you a torque wrench setting for replacing the lug nuts. A torque wrench you say? Yes, a precise device for setting just the right amount of twist on a secured nut or bolt. Every manufacture has a precise amount of torque for their lug nuts; not enough torque and your wheels could fall off (a very bad thing). And too much torque will cause... what?

Is it even possible to torque a lug nut too much? The more the torque on those lug nuts, the merrier, right? WRONG. Strange as it may seem, putting all of your might into that lug nut wrench is damaging your brake rotors. In some cases you can actually bend the brake rotors out of shape by over tightening your lug nuts. "Warped rotors" is often blamed on poor materials or brake over-heating, but the over whelming majority of all warped rotors is caused by over-tightened lug nuts.

Most car manufacturers specify between 80-110 pounds of torque on the lug nuts. If that sounds like a lot of twist on the lug nuts, you will not think so when you actually apply it. In fact you will double check your torque wrench setting and be afraid that the lug nut are not on nearly tight enough. It just does not "feel" tight enough. But you will have to trust in your torque wrench and the manufacturer's recommendation, because if you decide that standing on the wrench to get those lug nuts really tight you could be bending your brake rotor.

But as bad as it is when the At Home Mechanic uses his hand tools to over tighten a set of lug nuts, imagine how much damage could be done by a guy with an air wrench at the local repair shop. Nine times out of ten, the slack jawed yokel with the air wrench is only looking for the fastest and easiest way to get your wheels on. Using a torque wrench takes extra time and effort to dig the torque wrench out of the toolbox, set it to the proper setting and then applied accurately.

The next time you have any kind of work done on your car that involves removing and replacing the wheels, be sure to ask the service writer just exactly how that shop tightens lug nuts. If he gives you a blank stare, ask specifically if his shop uses torque wrenches to replace lug nuts. Unless he tells you that his shop uses exact torque specifications, take your car somewhere else.

Posted by Scott at 8:33 AM | Comments (2)

June 21, 2005

Does your engine have a personality?

Is your engine friendly? Is it bubbly and out going? Or is it reserved and shy? Just exactly how would you describe your engine's personality? When I ask about your engine's personality, I was not actually asking about its social skills but rather how it behaves under the hood of your car. Does your engine make lots of low-end torque but run out of poop in the higher rpms? Or does it not make any decent power until the engine is spinning nearly at its redline? The manner in which your engine behaves is mostly dependant on the cam and changing cams can change your engine's personality.

A quick review, the cam (or cams in a multiple cam engine) are the lumpy looking sticks that open and close the valves that allow air and fuel into the engine and the exhaust gasses out. By changing the cam you can change the timing and the amount of the opening and closing of the valves. In turn, this changes the engine's personality.

To give you an idea of the range of personalities that an engine can have, think about a truck or heavy vehicle that needs a lot of "grunt" at low speeds to get rolling from a stop. They would have a cam that allows an engine to build torque quickly at low rpms. While a racecar is concerned with making peak power at high rpms and never dips down into low engine speeds. A street car's engine ideally has low end torque for stop and go driving with power for highway speeds so the manufacturers compromise on the cam design to give a little of both to a street car's engine.

Until about 20 years ago, an engine had a cam and that gave the engine a single personality. But the car manufacturers have come up with a variety of methods to change the cam's timing (called variable cam timing or variable valve timing) while the engine is running and in turn this allowed the engine to have a broader range of personalities. Today it is common for a newly purchased street car to be able to deliver low-end grunt and high rpm power with a cam that changes its relationship to the engine via variable cam or valve timing.

On some engines you can change the way the stock cam relates to the rest of the engine by changing the cam's timing. By using an add-on adjuster, it is possible to advance or retard a cam's timing. This will move a cam's peak power point either higher or lower in the rpm band. But this is a minor adjustment and does not give the same results of changing the cam to an entirely new profile.

On my 1987 CRX Si, the stock cam was a compromise of OK low-end torque, better high-end power and reasonable gas mileage. I swapped in a cam of a slightly more aggressive nature and it turned a pretty good performing engine into a real tiger.

So change your cam and change your engine's personality.

Posted by Scott at 7:28 AM | Comments (0)

Driving on the left side of the road

Those wacky British, they drive on the wrong side of the road. The driver of a car in Britain sits on the right side of the car and drives on the left side of the road. And the British have convinced all of their former colonies to drive on that crazy left-hand side of the road... with the notable exception of the Canadians. The Canadians may have emotional have ties to Dear Old Blighty, but know that their financial bread is buttered on the US side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We know why the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, the first cars built in Japan during the 1920's were reverse engineered British cars. Why did the Japanese copy the British cars rather than French, German or American cars? Because as the Japanese emerged from their self imposed world isolation in the mid-19th century, they chose to follow the industrial and military example of the British who were arguably the most important and influential economic and military of the period. The Japanese navy that soundly defeated the Tsar's navy of Imperial Russia in 1906 was nearly entirely composed of British build warships and the officer corps was trained by the British Navy.

The Swedes used to drive on the left hand side of the road and decided to switch in the mid-1960's. But the Swedes realized that their best export market for their cars was the rest of Europe and the United States and that it was in their best interest to drive on the right side of the road.

The Brits like to explain their choice of driving on the left side of the road dates back to ancient times when a knight on horse back would keep his weapon hand (the right) toward approaching travelers so that he could defend himself in an instant. And this sounds convincing on the surface. But if you have ever traveled on the old roads of the English countryside that have not been widened or otherwise modernized you know that they are terribly narrow. Back in the day of knights and the such, everyone rode down the middle of those narrow lanes and moved to one side or another as the situation permitted.

It was not until the English Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century and the rise of commerce that traffic patterns became a problem. Horse-drawn wagons were soon crowding the roads as good were being brought to market. It became apparent that a system was necessary to insure the orderly flow of traffic. But what side of the road should all traffic stick to?

Imagine a horse drawn wagon. The driver sits up front with the reigns in his hands with which he steers the wagon. And the only means to slow or stop the wagon was a long lever by the driver's leg that could exert some muscle-powered friction on one of the wagon wheels. Aha! What leg is strongest for most people? Their right. So for the driver of a wagon to use his strong right leg to slow his wagon, he would have to sit on the right side of the wagon's front seat.

And if two wagon drivers met on a narrow road and they wanted to insure that there was no collision, they would each have to travel on the left side of the road as they traveled so that their seated position could afford the best view of the passage.

So while it is romantic and exciting to think of dashing knights on the road challenging each other to a duel on the narrow roads of the English countryside, it is really the rather mundane world of 18th century business and commerce that dictated the rules of the road that the British have kept to this day.

Posted by Scott at 7:24 AM | Comments (3)

June 20, 2005

How much car is too much car?

How much car is too much car? Do you need to be driving a car that is capable of 150mph? Do you need to be able to generate 1.2g's of lateral force? Is getting from 0 to 60 in three seconds important to you? I used to think that I needed a car that could do all that as my daily driver. But once I built a high performance car for myself I discovered that all that performance is a waste for a daily driver.

I used to drive a lot of mundane cars. Four doors, automatic transmission; my cars looked like a cross between a refugee from a rental fleet and an undercover narcotics officer's reject. But I always had visions of driving a real performance car, something along the lines of a turbo Porsche or a high end Corvette.

As I ventured past the happy side of 40 years old I experienced a very typical mid-life crisis. Many men in my situation throw off the yoke of bland suburban living and try to recapture their lost youth with some desperate measures. But I know how pathetic that sort of behavior is (and my home state of California is a community property state) so I decided to build myself a performance car.

Building a performance car was a more attractive option than just buying a hot performing car. I could have the satisfaction of building a car to my exacting specifications. And I was too cheap to spend 50 large or more on a car that my wife would never understand.

The basis for my motor fantasy is a 1987 Honda Civic CRX Si. 91 ground-pounding horsepower wrapped in a 2,000 lbs. Body. OK, it does not sound like the most intimidating road machine. But over the years I have modified that car to generate over one g of lateral force around turns and it now boasts a power to weigh ratio that rivals high-end sports car. It may not look like much but it can make the Kessel run in less than 12 parceps. This is one hot number in a plain brown wrapper. While top speed is limited by the car's final gear ratio, I can match speed with anything on the road up to 100 miles per hour. You want proof? That little Honda was featured in the July 2004 issue of Honda Tuning Magazine.

Great! The car of my dreams. Let's go out and play! But I can not press the car to its fullest ability of the streets; it is neither smart nor safe to drive at a car's limits on the street. And traffic in Los Angeles reduces pleasant cruising to an infuriating crawl. Once or twice a year I get to take the car to the local autocross event or an open track day at my local racetrack to really open her up. But all that potential is made to simmer in a tightly restricted container 99% of the time.

So unless you need to be able to impress the valet parker at your local eatery, there is no reason to aspire to a higher velocity car for your primary street machine.

Posted by Scott at 9:52 AM | Comments (2)

June 19, 2005

Automobile Rust

Rust. Road Rot. Car Cancer. The scourge of the automobile owner. Nothing will kill a car faster than uncontained rust. Out here in the dry Southwest, rust is not much of a problem. Maybe if you live within a few miles of the ocean's salt air, a scratch or other unprotected surface may gather some rust after a couple years of exposure. But in humid regions, or worse, in regions of the country that put salt on the roads to improve traction during the snowy, icy winter, rust is a guaranteed occurrence.

There are those who subscribe to conspiracy theories who say that salt on the roads is part of a nefarious plot to insure that consumers will need to replace rusted-beyond-repair automobiles on a regular basis. And is it a coincidence that two of the largest industry's in Michigan is automobile manufacturing and... salt mining? I think not.

Combine that with the damage done to the roadway caused by salt runoff. Salt melts the ice and snow into water, the water seeps into cracks in the roadbed; the water then freezes, expands and creates potholes. The potholes need to be repaired by road construction crews and contractors whose jobs are dependent upon a steady supply of roads to fix. Do you think any of them are anxious to stop salting the roads?

What is the average automobile owner to do? Sadly, not much. Commercially available undercoating for the underside of your car and sealants for the painted finish can slow rust but never really stop it. I suppose you could hose the salt off of your car every time you drive, but that is not very practical. And many enthusiasts recognize the need to garage their collectible cars during times of salt.

But beyond moving to the dry Southwest or not driving your car during the winter, there is nothing practical that can be done from preventing the inevitable advance of rust on your car.

Posted by Scott at 3:01 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2005


LSD are three letters that incur strong emotions. For many people they represent a utopian ideal that should be shared with everyone. Others view them with suspicion and mistrust, wondering how anyone could possibly benefit from them. For me, LSD represents pleasure beyond description and I believe that it should be shared with all freely.

LSD, in this case, does not stand for "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" nor is short for "Acid," "Window Pane" or any other drug reference but rather stands for Limited Slip Differential. A Limited Slip Differential (LSD) is device for getting power from the engine to the ground and if you are serious about going fast in your car you will want one.

First the boring back story- Front or rear wheel drive, a car needs to transfer the turning of the engine into the turning of the wheels. When the wheels are moving in a straight line, they both rotate at the same rate of speed. But when you make a turn, the outside wheel has to turn faster than the inside wheel. If the wheels are not connected to each other, this differential in wheel rotation rate is no big deal. But the set of wheels that drive your car (front or rear) are connected together and need a device to allow one wheel to turn more that the other. This device is called a Differential. Most commonly, manufacturers send cars out into the world with cheap, easy to maintain Open Differentials. An open differential transmits power from the engine to the wheel that is has the least amount of resistance. Unfortunately, the wheel with the least amount of resistance is probably slipping and thus the power is not getting to the ground. To go fast, the engine's power has to get to the ground and so a Limited Slip Differential is used to put more power (but not all of it) to the wheel that is not slipping. This characteristic is also helpful for cars and trucks that will be operated in low traction conditions like ice, snow or frequent rain so this feature is sometimes included in vehicles that will see this kind of service.

Some budget racers and racers that only go in a straight line (drag racers) will weld their differential so that the two drive wheels are locked together and 100% of the power goes to the ground. But when those cars try to turn, the wheels will not turn free enough to prevent the wheels from chirping and chattering, which is not something you want in a car that you take your date out in. A Limited Slip Differential puts enough power to the ground but allows enough slippage so that the wheels can turn smoothly.

The down side to a Limited Slip Differential is that they are more expensive, require frequent lubrication changes (something that most drivers are not used to paying for) and they contain parts that are subject to increased wear. Most Limited Slip Differentials are probably not going to last more than 100,000 miles without a major rebuild. And if the average driver, driving in an average manner, is not going to notice the difference on the average day, the manufacturers will not include a Limited Slip Differential to reduce costs.

But for the spirited driver or the low traction conditions driver, a Limited Slip Differential is a great addition to his car.

Posted by Scott at 7:39 AM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2005

A low can you go?

A low car is a cool looking car. When a car has been lowered the tires fit better in the wheels wells, the contours of the body flow more smoothly when they float just above the ground and a low car has the look and feel of a racecar. Lowering you car will also lower the car's center of gravity by a corresponding amount and this will increase cornering ability.

But lowering you car has some potential problems that you may or may not have thought of. Problems like potholes, speed bumps and driveways. Quickly you will discover why the manufacturer sent you car out into the world with that seemingly high ride height. Racecars can get away with a super low stance because the racetrack is relatively smooth compared to the real world of the public highway.

Reducing ride height by lowering your car may also reduce suspension travel. Instead of a comfortable ride, your car may bottom out on even moderately bumpy roads. Bottoming can negatively affect your shocks and struts, increasing their wear and shortening their useful life. And if you reduce your ride height through lowering you may need to use shorter stiffer springs, which will give you a choppy, harsh ride.

Another problem with significantly lowered cars is the problem of getting a floor jack under the proper jacking points. You can not just slip a jack under any old spot on the car's body; you can do some major damage to your car by trying to lift it in the wrong spot (check your owner's manual for more details). And it may also be possible to "high center" a car that has been severely lowered.

But the most important consideration when lowering your car is the effect of lowering has on the suspension geometry. Back in the days when a car's suspension was hardly more sophisticated than that of a coal cart, lowering the car down on the wheels was very straightforward. But today's cars feature intricate suspensions that are dependant upon the car's springs to be a particular height so that all the other components will be in their proper relationship. Lowering a car can affect the tire's camber (the amount of lean of the top of the tire toward or away from the car) and toe (is tires can become pigeon toed or splay footed) and will need to be corrected with new alignment and in many cases new parts to allow adjustment to get the tire alignment as close to normal as possible. Not correcting your car's alignment will result in increased tire wear as well as negatively affecting steering response.

And in some cases, lowering your car will result with your tires rubbing on the bodywork of your car, which will need to be corrected with cutting, hammering, or flaring of the wheel arches.

If you must lower your car, consider moderation and be sure to include the purchase of camber correction and alignment into your cost estimates.

Posted by Scott at 7:35 AM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2005

Do let power go to your head

A car's engine makes power, but where exactly is the place in the engine does the power get made? Most will argue that the output of the engine is transmitted through the crank and that is where the power is made. Others will say that the pistons move the crank so that is where the power is made. And while those arguments do hold plenty of weight, for me an engine's power is made in the head.

Consider that a gasoline engine is basically an air pump: I t sucks air thought the intake side of the head and blows it out the exhaust side. For a brief moment that air is mixed with gasoline or a similar combustible gas, ignited with a spark from a sparkplug and the resulting explosion sends the piston down the cylinder which in turn spins the crank. The more efficiently an engine sucks in air, ignites the air/fuel mixture, and then passes the exhaust out of the engine, the more power it makes. As the head is the portion of the engine devoted to moving air and containing the explosion that is each cylinder firing, it is the single most important component for creating power.

Commonly, the tyro At Home Mechanic will seek to add power to their car's engine by bolting on some simple improvements like a Cold Air Intake (CAI) or a Tuned Exhaust Manifold (commonly called a "header"). These are external devices that free up the flow of air into the head and they can easily increase power and response by a few percentage points. But if you want to make a lot of extra power in your engine, it will be necessary to go beyond these simple bolt-ons and do some work to the internal workings of the head.

The head is a complexly designed piece in today's motors and most manufacturers do a good job of designing their heads to facilitate flow. But even in the most expensive cars, there is still room for improvement over the factory's design. The primary improvement to be made is to improve the flow of air through the head's ports with a process called Porting and Polishing. This is process where the ports are enlarged and smoothed to let more air move smoothly through the head. Done by a professional to insure that every port is ported and polished exactly the same amount to preserve engine balance, this can add a realistic 10% extra efficiency in your engine. And efficiency adds power.

Contained in the head are the valves (the actual gateways to allow air and fuel into the engine and the exhaust out), which can be reground and polished to improve flow past the valves. And changing the cam, which is the part that controls the opening and closing of the valves, will complete the upgrade to the head and its components to make more power in your engine.

So the key to making real power in any internal combustion engine is to improve flow through the head.

Posted by Scott at 6:20 AM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2005

The Junkyard

"The Junkyard." Just the sound of those words is enough to get me salivating. The Bone Yard, The Wreckers, Auto Salvage Yard, Used Parts Recycler. In England they call it The Breakers. What ever you call it, I love them all. The world of possibilities is endless in the Junkyard. Think of it as a treasure hunt for the At Home Mechanic.

I love the junkyard for the parts that will fit my car and I love the junkyard for the parts that might fit my car. To search through stacks of derelict cars arranged by make or country of origin is a trip through a living encyclopedia of automotive theory. Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive. Three, four, five, six, eight, ten and twelve cylinders. Automatic and manual. It is all there in the junkyard.

I prefer to use brand new parts for critical components and for wear items like brakes and tires. But fender is a fender. After all, my car is used. So used parts will feel right at home on my car.

But not all junkyards are created equal. In fact some junkyards are down right elitist. As you can imagine, junkyards that specialize in luxury cars or foreign sports cars are not the same type of business as the guy who hauls away clunkers from the side of the road. The specialized junkyards generally operate their business from behind a counter: You walk up to a counter and ask for a particular part; they go fetch it from the inventory.

My favorite junkyards have a more common touch. And touch is the operative word because my favorite type of junkyard allows the customers to bring their own tools into the junkyard to strip off the parts they want. Known as "Pick and Pulls" or "Pick your Part" these yards charge a small admission price to enter the premises. Once the booty is collected, the customer presents their finds to the cashier and they are charged for their purchases. Because the customer provides the labor, the cost for parts is generally lower than other types of junkyards.

Other than providing being a source of inexpensive parts, the junkyard is also a laboratory for experimentation. Sometimes it is possible to fit high performance/heavy duty parts from one end a manufacturer's product line into a lighter car at the other end of the product line. But there are not guarantees that just because they come from the same car company, that parts will fit all of the company's offerings. Will that Crown Victoria master cylinder fit into my Mustang? Could I use a Passat seat in my Jetta? Will an Acura engine fit in my Honda? In the junkyard it is possible to test fit a particular part on a car similar to your own car without committing to a purchase.

Posted by Scott at 7:15 AM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2005

Suspension Bushings

I recently read a posting on a Honda web site from a fellow in Australia who wanted to know where his car's "bushes" are and if changing them was worthwhile. Unless they have another word for these parts in Oz, they are called "bushings" and these are a bunch of little rubber "donuts" that connect the moving parts of the car's suspension to the body of the car. In time they wear out and it is a good idea on cars older than 10 years to replace them if you want to keep the car.

On his mid-1980's Honda Civic, the front suspension bushings live at the end of the boomerang shaped control arm on either side of the front suspension. (The rear bushings are at the pivot point of the rear control arms on that car).

You will need to remove the control arms to put in the new bushings, but that is not very difficult. And the results are definitely worth it. All Hondas will wear out their suspension bushings in time; if a sloppy suspension does not bother you then it is OK to use the old bushings. But for spirited driving and a quieter ride you should replace the bushings on any old Honda.

I just bought a '90 Prelude 2.0Si in pristine condition. The previous owner had kept it in PERFECT shape. But the old bushings are still in the car. For my son who will drive the car on a regular basis, the old bushings are not a problem. But for the perfectionist in me it makes me nuts to hear the rattles and not get the optimum performance from the car.

So why not just change the bushings and get it over with? While the early Civic/CRX bushings are relatively cheap (a complete set of replacement bushings cost less than US$100) and easy to change, in the 1988 model year Honda updated the suspension to a more complex design that uses more bushings. And because the Prelude is a relatively low volume car, a set of replacement bushings is going to cost about $500 for just the parts!

The Prelude is going to be my 16-year-old son's daily driver until he
graduates from college in six years. If the car survives and if it is still in salvageable condition, I will reclaim the car from him and put those bushings in. But the car is perfectly serviceable in the condition it is in right now.

Posted by Scott at 7:11 AM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2005

The At Home Mechanic's 3 Project Phases

There are three distinct phases of any project you take on in the garage. The first phase is the enthusiastic euphoria of confidence that comes when the handy guy or gal tells them self, "I can do this job. I have studied the manual. I have the parts, I have the tools, and I have the time. There is no way that I can screw up this job. I will ________ (fill in the blank) to my car and I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I have done it myself. I can show the guys back at the office how handy I am. And I will save enough money to take my significant other out for a lovely dinner."

And so with enthusiasm you begin. But soon you achieve the second phase of the arc that the At Home Mechanic experiences. The bolt that should "just unscrew" doesn't. And you soon realize that the manual failed to mention that "remove and replace" is far more involved than just "remove and replace." Maybe you cannot get the ratchet into the space provided and so you have to use a much slower wrench. The new part does not fit quite right. You may have banged your knuckles painfully or scraped a gash in a finger. But worst of all, creeping doubt begins to cloud your vision. "Maybe this job is more than I should be taking on. Maybe I will screw up my car and it will not run. Maybe I will be forced to have the car towed to a real mechanic. Oh, the shame of having to ask a professional to do what I cannot do. Imagine the humiliation of having to admit to the guys at the water cooler that I am not Man Enough to finish what I have started. Oh the ignominy of it all!"

Fear of humiliation is a powerful motivator. No one wants to look like an At Home Wimp so with the energy of desperation you press on. That bolt comes loose; a new angle allows you to get the ratchet into that tight spot. Rotating the hard-to-fit part a few degrees makes all the difference and it fits like it should. In time your confidence grows, the job goes smoother and before you know it you are wiping the grease off your hands with the smug confidence of a seasoned pro.

And this is when you have moved into the best phase of all projects for the At Home Mechanic. This third and final section is the "I knew I could do it" phase. And with no left over extra nuts or bolts on the floor of your garage, and your engine roaring to life you can take pride in knowing that you will have the best story to tell to the fellows at work tomorrow.

Posted by Scott at 6:19 AM | Comments (1)

June 8, 2005

Give me a brake and tires part two

Yesterday we talked about the basics of tires and brakes and that they are dependant upon traction/friction to do their best work. But that the tires and brakes with the best traction/friction factors are also likely to wear out faster so that most consumer tires and brakes are a compromise of long life and reasonably good performance.

Many consumers believe that they can get the very best of both worlds of performance and long wear by paying more money for tires and brake pads/shoes that promise "race car performance." In the case of tires I can assure you that even the most expensive street tires are no where near as good as racing tires when driving at the limits of you and your car's performance envelope. Even at the lowest rank of automobile contests like a "run what ya' brung" day at the local drag strip or a club's autocross competition, expensive street tires will get beat all day long by even old worn out race tires. I know this because I have done these kinds of competitions on expensive street tires and old, used race tires. Old, used race tires win EVERY time.

Now lets get back to brakes and more specifically what you can do to improve your car's braking ability. Most people assume that "bigger is better" and they install larger disks and calipers. While installing larger brakes is relatively easy and it will improve braking power, the extra weight of the larger components is a performance negative and the new larger parts may not fit under the wheels you have on your car.

A much better way to improve your brakes is to use quality friction materiel (brake pads and shoes). If you go to your local auto parts store Pep Boys, AutoZone, Kragen, etc. or even a good independent parts store they will offer OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) style brake pads and shoes and maybe a slightly more expensive "upgrade" set that promises better performance. Frankly even the upgrade stuff is not all that much better than the standard stuff. For real braking performance you need to move up to the stuff racers use which is sold by Porterfield Brakes or EBC Brakes.

So what is the down side of these real performance pads? They cost 2-3 times as much as the cheapos sold in the parts store, they will wear out faster than standard pads and shoes and as they wear out they will throw off more brake dust on to your shiny wheels. But you will also notice a marked improvement in stopping power when you are driving enthusiastically.

Posted by Scott at 7:06 AM | Comments (26)

June 7, 2005

Give me a brake and tires

Contrary to popular belief, your brakes do not stop your car. The brakes on your car stop the wheels turning; the wheels are attached to your tires and the tire friction with the road is the factor that stops your car. All of your car's motion or lack of motion is really dependent upon the tires and their contact with the road. And the tire's contact with the road is an area about the size of the palm of your hand. Imagine, those four palm prints are all that starts, stops and turns your car.

So by extension if the tires stop your car then sticky tires stop your car better than not-so-sticky tires. But stickiness in a tire comes at the expense of long tire wear so sticky tires do not last very long. The average car owner wants his tires to stick reasonably well but to last for a reasonably long time. Just like any other factor in a road car the manufacturers have to make a compromise between a bunch of factors and so the tires you can buy for your car are reasonably sticky so that they are also reasonably long lasting.

But this post is about brakes so to get back to where we started from let's do the old “the road is connected to the tires, the tires are connected to the wheels and the wheels are connected to the brakes” shuffle.

Most cars come with disk brakes these days but there are plenty of cars with drum brakes at the rear wheels. Only really old cars (thirty years or older) still have front drum brakes. A discussion of the relative merits of drum versus disk brakes will come in a later installment. But regardless of the type of brakes your car has, they use a friction materiel to rub against either a brake drum or a brake disk.

Friction materiel are the important words for this discussion. Just like your tires need friction to get traction against the road, your brakes pads or shoes (for disks or drums) need friction. And just like tires that get really good friction but do not last for a long time, pads and shoes that get good friction do not last a long time. The average consumer wants inexpensive parts that will last a reasonably long time, so most commercially available replacement brake pads and shoes are a compromise of lasting a long time and stopping well.

If you are a law abiding driving who observes the speed limit and does not "push the limits" of your car's performance, then standard tires and brakes are fine for your use. Even if you are a "spirited" driver (somewhat short of a speed demon) your stock tires and brakes are adequate. If you are exceeding your tires and brakes capacity on the highway, you are a major menace to public safety and need to rethink your use of automobiles.

And if you want to test you and your car's abilities in a safe and controlled environment on a closed track you will need to upgrade your brake and tire friction materiel to more expensive, shorter lasting pieces. Check tomorrow's posting for more on this discussion.

Posted by Scott at 7:20 PM | Comments (0)

June 6, 2005

At Home Mechanic's Work Space

The at home mechanic needs a place to work. Ideally this place to work is covered, well lit and protected from the elements. It should also have a place to store tools and parts in an organized manner and it should be secure so that big jobs can be wrapped up at night for a second day's effort.

My garage is a detached "two car" garage from the 1930's with a cement floor at the back of my property, well removed from view from the street. Measuring approximately twenty by twenty, it is barely able to contain my project car (currently a 1987 Honda CRX Si), my tools, my work bench and all the flotsam and jetsam that a suburban homeowner stores in his garage. I have lined the side and back walls with shelving so that I store my junk in a rough form of organization and my car is parked in the middle of the garage with just enough room around it to do my work.

In an ideal world I would have a warehouse sized garage with room for a lift, a paint booth and a office with a desk. I don't need an office or a desk in my garage, but as long as I am wishing...

My current garage does have two absolutely vital accessories. I have a radio and a TV in the garage so that I can keep track of the ball game, listen to tunes or track the rants on talk radio when I am wrenching on my car . While I enjoy the hours spend tinkering in the garage, a little subliminal entertainment in the background helps to pass the time pleasantly.

And the other vital component of my garage is the full sized refrigerator. This second refrigerator allows the household the luxury of additional cold storage and it keeps the cold malted beverages close at hand.

While you are working with tools, the possibility of injury is always present so save the cold malted beverages for after the work is done. But nothing caps a successful session in the garage like a refreshing cold malted beverage enjoyed in a responsible manner.

Posted by Scott at 6:06 PM | Comments (0)

Don't be a tool, use them

Tools. I love tools. I love tools the way some people love shoes. Not to get off track, but what is the deal with shoes? How many pairs do you need? A black pair, a brown pair and a pair of sneakers. Slippers do not count, nor do flip-flops. And how do you spend $400 on a pair of shoes? I suppose that if you got a set of really nicely tooled boots in some fancy exotic leather you could spend a lot of money, but I cannot for the life of me understand spending huge money for some strappy Italian sandals that have a postage stamps' worth of leather.

For the At Home Mechanic, tools are a necessity. And you do not have to spend a fortune on tools, but you will need a few basics. A set of wrenches, a set of screwdrivers, a ratchet set and a hammer are a given. Your local car parts store or hardware store sell sets of tools that represent good value.

Eventually you will want to do some work to the underside of your car so that means a jack and jack stands. The jack that comes with your car is barely adequate to lift the car in an emergency; you will not want to use it on a regular basis in your garage. An inexpensive hydraulic can be bought for less than $30 at most hardware stores. And once the car is up in the air, you will want a set of jack stands for the car to rest on. Your life is too precious to gamble on a jack alone to keep the car in the air.

Perhaps the single most important tool you can own is a good quality Service Manual for the car you will be working on. There are varying degrees of Service Manual quality with the very best being the Factory Service Manual published by the car's manufacturer. But car manufacturers are not primarily in the publishing business so they stop making the Factory Service Manual available for sale a few years after that particular model has stopped being sold. So if the Factory Service Manual is not available directly from the manufacturer (and it does not turn up on eBay or Amazon) there are secondarily published Service Manual available through various publishers can be bought at most good book stores.

And finally you will want some clean up tools like rags and mechanic’s soap hand cleaner. Mechanic's soap is the generic name for a type of waterless cleanser that generally comes in a tub. A little dab of this stuff rubbed vigorously over your hands and then wiped off will get the majority of the grease off you hands.

But better than getting your hands dirty in the first place is to use gloves to protect your hands. Most car parts and hardware stores sell boxes of inexpensive latex gloves that form fit to your hands allowing flexibility and protection. And for less than $20 you can buy a set of Mechanic's Gloves that will protect your hands from cuts and scrapes.

Posted by Scott at 7:13 AM | Comments (0)