Lessons from a Rusty Old Car

A few months ago my wife and I took a hike in the foothills near San Diego and we came upon an old Ford (I couldn’t find any identification positively proving this was a Ford.  It does appear to be a model A chassis, but I’ve never seen a modal A firewall with that exact pattern.   Someone more astute than I about old cars may know exactly what this is.) slowly rusting away.   I was amazed at how it looked like a diagram you’d see in a “How Things Work” book or website. Rusted Old Car FrameI took a walk around it and marveled at it’s simplicity. car4As I went front to back it was easy to see everything and figure out what it’s function was. Car2You could easily see how all the controls worked and intuitively  understand what they controlled.car3I also understood that I was looking at the basic blueprint of the American Automobile for the next 50 years or so.    Oh, there were some refinements for sure: power steering and brakes, coil springs, independent suspension, bigger engines, automatic transmissions, disc brakes and so forth.   But, you could look under the hood of something like a Dodge Dart, or even a Ford Pinto, and pretty much grasp what was going on and identify it’s function in pretty much the same fashion. Some say the high water mark of this basic layout was reached in the 60’s with the typical American Family car following the same basic layout.   Much of the technology developed and refined (Including some of the same basic engines and transmissions) during the 50’s and 60’s was still around in the drivetrain of large SUV’s being sold until very recently.

Not long after shooting those photos I happened to drop by a Tesla showroom and looked at a basic chassis they had on display in the showroom.  What struck me was the elegant simplicity of it and how much it reminded me of the rusty old Ford in that respect.

It looked like a new design, a car designed from the ground up to be powered by an electric motor, not just a gasoline powered one adapted for electric power.   I contrasted this with the experience of working on my wife’s Prius, which is a little like working on the space shuttle if it had an extra layer of alien technology grafted onto it.

I spent much of the period from around 1973 until sometime in the early 90’s mostly driving 1960’s era air cooled VW’s (three busses, two squarebacks, and a 914) mainly because I understood them well enough to work on them.  My experiences with mid 70’s – early 80’s automobiles convinced me they were unreliable; they didn’t run very well and I remember the typical engine compartment as an unruly maze of wires and hoses leading to lumps of metal and plastic with functions that were not readily comprehendible by mere visual inspection. The automobile manufacturers had trouble adapting to the demands of increasing safety and emission regulations and grafted things like catalytic converters, “smog pumps”,  steering wheel locks, air bags, and compression ratios designed to work with unleaded gas onto existing designs.

Cars from this era didn’t run very well, and made little power.   A 1975 Camaro took 10.9 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour  and a little over 17.2 seconds to get through the quarter mile, both slower than my wife’s 2010 Prius.   Along with reduced power, things like 10 mph bumpers, air bags, other safety equipment and higher standards for crash worthiness added weight: this further slowed the cars down, and the advent of the “energy crises” demands for better gas mileage resulted in a sort of automotive dark age that lasted until the late 80’s when manufacturers started to find the thread for making powerful, reliable and economic vehicles that met modern regulations.  

One probably shouldn’t be too shocked by any of this, as manufacturer’s really couldn’t afford to start with a clean sheet of paper and were forced to use a Band-Aid approach to adapt existing design paradigms to a new set of conditions. They also had to not stray too far from what buyers were familiar with.  Look at what happened at General Motors with the Corvair: not only was it not a big hit, sales wise, but people weren’t able to adapt to it’s different layout and handling characteristics.   Never mind the fact that the Corvair wasn’t all that different in engineering than the offerings of VW at the time, it just wasn’t what Americans were expecting.

In the world of Software design, this sort of thing is often called a “kludge”.   Rather than start with a fresh design, an older system will often have features added like band-aids to create something that will be backwards compatible with previous systems, but with new functions.   The problem is these “patches” will often have “bugs” in them that will cause more problems than they solve.   I suppose we should be grateful that Microsoft doesn’t design operating systems for automobiles;  “Windows 8 has encountered a problem and will shut down in five seconds.” is probably not something one would want to see at 85 mph on the I-5.

Flash Forward to today, and most of the “bugs” have been worked out in modern automobiles. Toyota Camrys (and other cars of similar design) are now faster than 60’s muscle cars (and have more real horsepower), get better gas mileage than an old air-cooled Beetle, outrun a 60’s Corvette or Jaguar XK-E around a race track while providing much better occupant safety than any car from 40 years ago.   And they use computer software to do it.  (obviously not Windows 8)

Going back to the 60’s and 70’s, one remembers a lot of complaints about all the new regulations.   Lots of calls to “let the market decide”.   It’s a debatableif the marketplace would have managed to produce the same or better results than what has actually happened, but it’s hard to argue that what we currently have offered to us aren’t reliable, fast, safe and economical, by any standard. My own take is that unless pushed to do it, Detroit would have continued to drag it’s feet and not take a long term view.

The “kludgy”, “band-aid” engineering is a thing of the past.   One can justifiably complain that we had to endure 15 or 20 years of fairly awful cars before things started to improve: with each new design, the modern features and engineering were much more integrated with the cars themselves, as they were designed from the ground up to meet modern regulations, rather than adapt them to 1950’s designs. Part of the problem is that you essentially had people who weren’t engineers making essentially what were engineering decisions about how automobiles should be constructed.  

On top of that, when congress was drafting the new safety and emissions regulations, they had to deal with making the auto industry and it’s powerful lobby happy.  Back in the 70’s, Detroit claimed that emissions and economy standards would eliminate large engines and reduce all cars to the size of subcompacts, which obviously didn’t happen.   You might take a look at this report for some further background on the subject: Auto Lobby .  that article was written in 2003,  I was trying to focus on the 70’s 80’s and 90’s.  With the government bailouts, the auto lobby hasn’t been quite as strident in it’s criticisms of regulations.

The down side is that modern cars are fairly complex as my own comments about my wife’s Prius will attest.   It’s really difficult for the average DIY guy to do much of anything beyond fairly simple routine troubleshooting or repairs.   Fewer and fewer gas stations or small town garages have the ability to work on modern vehicles.    (That’s slowly changing, but that will be a post better suited to the “Automotive Amusement” section of this blog.)

The early attempts to meet safety and emissions regulations were a little like trying to upgrade to Windows 8 on a computer designed to run on Vista: you can do it but your computer will still be clogged with unnecessary programs and things will happen that nobody has foreseen.  You won’t likely see too much improvement  If you do a reinstall on a Windows 7 era computer when upgrading to Windows 8, (which means you backup all your existing files somewhere else and then reinstalling all applications, one by one after you’ve installed Windows 8) you’ll probably have much better results.  

Going back to the Tesla, I think it’s important to recognize that they haven’t started from a totally clean sheet of paper, it still has four wheels with rubber tires, has a steering wheel and conventional accelerator and brake pedals.  Most people could hop inside and operate it with little instruction.  It also looks familiar, which is an important marketing consideration, as most people are more concerned with what a car looks like than anything else about it.  It’s too early to know if Tesla will be a success or a failure.   Viewed on it’s own as an engineering exercise, it’s brilliant.    It’s performance is a testimony to that, and a sharp rap on the knuckles to those naysayers who predicted the cars of the 21st century would be golf cart sized, egg shaped, slow and dangerous.