Monday, February 26, 2007

The Mad Beginning

Saturday November 4, 2006

I find myself on the road heading to Wilmington, Delaware. See, I got this really good deal on a factory-rebuilt, water-cooled 1.6 that’s still in the original shipping crate. Talk about NOS(new old stock) or maybe that’s ROS(rebuilt old stock). Whichever, this engine will be perfect for my ’80 Jetta project. More about this project in a bit, but first a word on EBAY. I love it! EBAY is a scavenger’s paradise, well, for that matter, the whole Internet is. Anything you want in the world is a keystroke away (even things you don’t want). Thank you, Al, for your role in transforming Arpanet. However, the types of things that I like to buy online are hard to ship. Like an engine for example, it weighs a lot and shipping companies want to charge you 300 to 400 bucks to deliver it. But that’s okay, because I like road trips. Go figure, the guy who likes cars also likes driving.

I should introduce myself. I am a failed journalist. You’ll see why if you continue to read this. I live in a very small corner of the country called Vermont. Some of you may never have heard of this place, others may have a vague notion of it. You might think, “Vermont, is that a Canadian province or, wait, that’s the capital of New England.” Wrong. Wrong. Though people from Massachusetts may tell you otherwise, Vermont is a state of its very own. We are famous…er…known…er…on the map for having cows, vivid fall foliage, maple syrup and party-shifting, republican senators.

I rather love my home state. That’s why I chose to be born and raised here, but the scale, for better or worse, is small. And so, I often find myself on the road heading down the Eastern Seaboard to pick up some new piece for a project. Five years ago, I drove a Mars Red, ’84 Jetta GLi back from Fredericksburg, MD. This fine, rust-free, vintage machine is in my garage undergoing restoration. Then there was an over-boosted Dodge Spirit that I retrieved with a friend from Jersey for his collection. Not to mention the yearly trip to Englishtown, New Jersey in July for the “Waterfest” VW show.

More recently, my cousin and I ran down to Allentown, PA to pick up my current project, an Inari Silver Metallic,1980 Jetta 1.6 gasser with only 65,547 miles on the clock. Don’t be fooled, Inari Silver Metallic is really pea green. Inari, by the way, is the Shinto(Ancient Japanese System of Spirituality) god of fertility, rice, agriculture, and foxes. Historically, Inari is either depicted as an old man carrying a sack of rice, followed by two white foxes or as a women with long, flowing hair carrying two sheaves of rice and riding a white fox. Thanks Wikipedia! I am not sure how this relates to the color of my new car other than the fact that Volkswagen produced a car called the Fox that was sold in the United States from 1986 to 1993 of which some were white. Regardless, my new VW is a true original car, unfortunately the engine is blown. This fact was withheld from me by the seller until my arrival in Allentown. No worries, I talked the guy down to about half his asking price. My cousin and I then hooked my ‘new’ Jetta up to a rented, car dolly and hauled it back to the green mountains.

But there I was with a nice vintage, water-cooled VW sans engine. I was in a lurch. I toyed with the idea of yanking the engine and having it rebuilt but it was getting cold outside and I have an oil-tank to fill. A quality rebuild can cost a grand or more around these parts and that was money I was going to need to heat my house once winter set in. But then, as if by divine providence, there appeared a zero-mile factory rebuilt engine on Ebay. I bid and won for the thrifty sum of $450. Not a bad price, even after you add on the extra 200 or so dollars it’ll cost in gas to retrieve it.

It’s a little past ten in the morning and we are running down I-287 in a rented Town and Country mini-van. This odd bit of circumferential highway connects Westchester County, NY and Staten Island while arcing around the unrelenting congestion of New York City. Highways such as I-80, I-78 and I-95 spike out from NYC and cross I-287 as they diverge into the countryside and ultimately to the ends of the continent. On the map in my Rand McNally the array of highways is dazzling and resembles the pattern that a well placed BB could make in a neighbor’s windshield. My father-in-law come co-pilot is snoring in the passenger seat. It is tempting to see how far west I could plunge the van before Doug wakes to discover. I could grab I-80 and make the Ohio border before he stirred from his catatonic state. We could live on the lam and travel from place to place like Kane did in the ‘70s TV series Kung Fu. I secretly crave adventure. But, my better judgment keeps me on the straight path. Come Monday, I’ll be back in my cubicle. Besides, Doug needs too many naps. I don’t think he could handle the excitement of a rambling life. I can see the situation going south fast. I picture Doug crushing and snorting tabs of Geritol and begging for change on the side of the road. It makes me wince.

Just past Edison, NJ, I-287 turns into Route 440 and from here we hook up with the New Jersey Turnpike and track south, down the seaboard and into Delaware. I’ve been this way before and I remember that one has to be a little careful not to go too far on 440 or one will find themselves in Staten Island via the Outer Crossing Bridge. It’s a very nice bridge but I didn’t think the view was really worth the $6 toll. Fortunately, I take the right exit and we’re set. Doug wakes momentarily and mutters, “New Jersey Turnpike. This is one of the most deadly roads in the country.”

To which I respond, “I heard somewhere that a super model got crushed in her Mercedes between two semis just a few weeks ago on this highway.” It’s a lie but it doesn’t matter. The only word Doug hears is supermodel to which he responds with a grunt.

Actually, according to a CBS radio report on July 30, 2006, a “rising star model” was killed this summer on the Turnpike near Trenton when the vehicle she was a passenger in “broke down in the center lane of the turnpike, and was rear-ended by a sport utility vehicle.” According to the New Jersey State Police, so far this year there have been 608 accidents and 657 fatalities on the byways and highways of the Garden State. This data is provided in a county by county breakdown on the New Jersey state homepage. You can see it here at: By my counting, thirty-eight of these deaths have occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike corridor that consists of sections of I-95, I-195 and I-295. However, in casino festooned Atlantic County, a county that is not traversed by the turnpike or any of its connectors, there have been fifty fatalities this year due to motor accidents. I think this proves conclusively that gambling and driving do not mix.

But seriously, the New Jersey Turnpike is an intimidating place to drive. Jack-boot shod state troopers, billowing oil refineries and menacing, slab-sided SUVs make those shock movies I saw in high school driver’s ed look like a trip through candy land. By the way, I always thought Princess Lolly was hot. At its widest the Turnpike is fourteen-lanes across and, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, an average of 205 million cars travel it every year. Just think about that. Our country has a population of 300 million people. Now a good number of those 300 million people are like my six-year-old daughter, they don’t drive or own a car. Also, another good chunk of those 300 million people live on the other side of our country and have no desire to tour Jersey. So, some of you people out there are being counted multiple times which means you are driving the Turnpike everyday. God have pity on your souls.

Oh, here are some other interesting Turnpike facts. In other words, skip this graph unless you are suffering your third week of bleary-eyed insomnia. The turnpike was the vision of New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscol who, in his 1947 inaugural speech, billed the Turnpike project as a top priority for the state. Driscol believed the super-highway would alleviate congestion along the existing Highway 1 and allow for the easy flow of goods, services and the increasing number of commuters who worked in New York City but preferred the suburban life of New Jersey. Construction of the New Jersey Turnpike began in 1950 and officially ended November 1951, though if you’ve ever been on the Turnpike you know personally that it’s still under constructed. In fact, more than 2,000 vehicles are employed for the maintenance of the Turnpike and each year workers use more than 30,000 gallons of paint, 25 tons of salt and more than 100,000 litter bags. Data provided by Oh, if you have to stop to pee or steady your nerves, the New Jersey Turnpike has 12 services stations that provide semi-clean restrooms, gasoline and quality fast food.

Fortunately, by God’s grace and good fortune, Doug and I manage to avoid dismemberment or mental derangement at the hands of the menacing Jersey commuters. We leave the turnpike behind at Deepwater, NJ where we cross the impressive Delaware Memorial Bridge. The Delaware Memorial Bridge is something to see and the toll of six dollars per car makes for a cheap thrill considering that a movie ticket goes for more than seven bucks. At 3290 meters long and eight-lanes wide it is 553 meters longer and two lanes wider than the Golden Gate Bridge. Ironically, this tremendous steel suspension bridge is the gateway to the nation’s second smallest state.

I’m not sure what to tell you about Delaware. The state’s population is 780,000, the capital city is Dover and-according to the state’s official webpage-Delawareans are fond of Blue Hens and tax free shopping. Oh, and Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and because of this they were the first to be honored on the commemorative state quarters. The Delaware quarter, minted in 1999, depicts Caesar Rodney, braving dire weather events on his way to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote for the independence of the British colonies. Go Caesar!

From the bridge it is a short drive to Wilmington and our final destination is a small garage called Eurotech. It is an unpretentious five-bay structure with a flat roof and a side office circa 1950. Inside we meet Lewis, the owner, who is Hungarian and happy to see us. Doug shakes his hand and the two immediately hit it off in that sort of “did I see you on the Eastern Front” kind of way. Lewis explains that the engine is in the last bay and shows us the way. The shop is filled with vintage Mercedes steel including a very original 70s 200-series coup that really catches my eye. But my attention is soon re-focused as I sight the crate sitting in the furthest corner of the shop. Lewis opens the over-head door allowing light to wash over the wooden box. I blow the dust off the top of the crate. The lid is pried open and like two Hollywood archeologists, Doug and I peer into this sarcophagus to find a perfectly preserved artifact from the last gas crunch.

Sunday November 5, 2006

Last night, somewhere near Hartford, CT on the Merit Parkway, Doug began rambling on about the rotary-powered Mazda RX-3 he owned back in the 70s. He spoke highly of the engine’s relative power and durability. He boasted about how smooth and quiet it ran stating that at speed on the interstate you couldn’t hear the engine over the noise of the road. “I don’t know why more car companies don’t use the rotary engine,” he mused, “it’s a great little unit.” Back in the 60s and 70s this wonder-motor known as the rotary or Wankel engine was billed as the motor of the future. With fewer than half the moving parts of a traditional piston motor it held the promise of simplicity, ease of maintenance and potential for great longevity. As well, the rotary engine had proven itself a potent performer, capable of producing half again the power of a similarly sized, piston engine.

Except for being a four-cycle engine, the rotary is nothing like the reciprocating, piston engine hiding under the hood of the car in your driveway. Instead of using pistons the Wankel engine uses a rotor and chamber to harness the power of internal combustion. The rotor, housed inside the semi-oval chamber, spins eccentrically on a shaft mounted through the center of the engine block. This rotor is shaped like a bloated triangle with a gear cut into its center. Think of a wedge of dough. Then take a gear-shaped cookie cutter and make a hole in the middle of this wedge-pretty technical, eh? This cut-out gear rides on the gear mounted to the shaft. The gear on the shaft is half the diameter of the cut-out gear and this is what causes the eccentric wobble. The wobble allows for unequal compartments to be created between the wall of the chamber and each side of the rotor. Because the tips of the triangular rotor maintain constant contact with the wall of the chamber, each compartment is sealed. It is inside these three rotating compartments that the four cycles (intake, compression, combustion and exhaust) of internal combustion occur. When the leading rotor tip passes the intake ports, fuel and air rush into the chamber. This intake step ceases when the second or following rotor tip passes the intake ports and seals the chamber. Incidentally, as the second rotor tip closes off the first chamber it allows for fuel and air to mix in the second chamber. This cyclical process will continue through the four cycles. Meanwhile, the entrapped fuel/air mixture in the first chamber is now compressing as the rotor works through its eccentric path. Because the rotor does not revolve but rather wobbles around the central shaft, the compression chamber becomes smaller as the side of the rotor moves closer to the wall of the chamber. The fuel/air mixture is compressed to about one ninth of its original volume. At this point, a spark provided by one or two plugs-depending on the type of rotary engine- ignites the fuel/air mixture. As the mixture combusts it expands and exerts pressure on the side of the rotor. This force drives the rotor around its axis and by the time the spent gasses have reached maximum expansion the rotor tip has passed the exhaust ports. The spent gasses escape out the exhaust ports while the second rotor tip exerts a sweeping push to help expunge the chamber before the next intake cycle. So what, you say.

Well, this basic and simple rotary action is what allows the Wankel to be such a high achiever. The rotary engine does not have to convert the linear motion of pistons traveling in a cylinder to the rotary motion of a crank shaft rotating on bearings. With fewer moving parts, there is less mechanical mass, less friction and therefore less power loss through the whole process. In addition, rotary engines do not require a cam-operated valve train so you never have to replace valve seals, lifters or bent valves.

However, the only auto manufacturer to fully embrace the rotary engine since its inception has been Mazda. (Interestingly, Citroen dabbled for a time with rotary power, more about this at a later date.) Mazda has produced various rotary-powered vehicles throughout the last quarter century including models such as the enigmatic Cosmo, legendary RX-7 and the current incarnation of rotary power the RX-8. However, Mazda and its engineers can not be credited with the invention of the rotary engine.

The rotary engine was the brainchild of German mechanical engineer Felix Wankel. It was 1929 and Felix Wankel was 27 years old when he received his first patent related to the rotary engine. However during the '30s and throughout World War II, Felix Wankel shelved his work on the rotary engine in order to help with the development of rotary valves for use in torpedo and aircraft engines for the German military. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in April 1945, Wankel was imprisoned by the allies for his involvement with the German military. He was released in 1947 only to discover that French troops had destroyed his workshops and research. As an aside, Wankel was not the only German auto engineer to be imprisoned for his work under the Nazi regime. Ferdinand Porsche designer of the Volkswagen Beetle and founder of Porsche AG was also jailed until 1947 for his involvement in engineering the Nazi war machine.

In 1951, the research department of a German motor manufacturer, NSU Motorenwerk AG at Neckarsulm, became interested in Felix Wankel’s work and under their auspices Wankel developed the first functional rotary engine. Designed initially as a motorcycle engine, this first rotary engine produced about 15hp. Further development of this single-rotor engine lead to a version that produced enough horsepower to be installed in a light-weight sports coup called the NSU Spider. Only about 3000 Spiders were built during the vehicles production run from 1964 to 1967. The single-rotor Wankel engine used in the Spider was mounted in the rear of the vehicle and produced 54hp at 6000rpm. This was enough power to propel the 1550 pound Spider to more than 90mph. The spider was successful enough to encourage NSU to further refine the Rotary engine for use in a larger, upscale sedan.

After considerable and expensive research, NSU produced its ultimate rotary-powered sedan the Ro80. The NSU Ro80 was a four-door sedan powered by a 1.0 liter, two-rotor engine that generated 115hp. NSU produced more than 30,000 Ro80s during the car’s production run from 1967 to 1977. Engine choice aside, the vehicle was revolutionary for its day. All four corners were sprung with coil-over-McPherson struts and stopping power was provided by disc brake at all four wheels. Contemporaries, such as the Porsche 911, were using torsion bar suspensions and, such as the Volkswagen Beetle, drum brakes at all four wheels. As well it was front-wheel drive, built on a unit-body chassis and used a clutchless semi-automatic transmission to transfer power from the engine to the wheels. The Ro80 was a stream-lined and modern appearing family sedan. It was extremely aerodynamic for the time with a drag coefficiency of .355 and was capable of hitting 112mph. By modern day standards these stats are mediocre and the Ro80 could be bested by the most sedate Honda on the road. However, when compared to its contemporaries and even cars a decade younger, the Ro80 was ahead of the times. My 1980 Volkswagen Jetta GLi with its traditional water-cooled 1.8 liter reciprocating engine produces 90hp and is, according to Car and Driver, capable of a top speed of 101 mph. I wouldn’t know personally because I always respect the posted speed limit. I was unable to find wind tunnel stats for the Jetta but, with its Frigidaire-styled body, I can only image the worse.

Wow, I think I’m getting sweet on this classic piece of German machinery. Sorry Princess Lolly, but I have a new love. Sadly, it’ll have to be a long-distance affair as the NSU Ro80 was never sold in North America. There is, however, one for sale in Las Vegas. I wonder if it’s gray market. Take a look for yourself. It’s listed with Hemming’s Motor News online as a 1972 NSU Ro80. The price is not listed-which means I can not afford it.

But that’s ok because the Ro80 had a dark side. It was plagued with engine problems. Rotor seals failed prematurely causing damage to the chamber walls and as a result NSU was forced to replace thousands of engines. Engineers at NSU worked to find a solution to the rotor seal problems but it was too late. Public opinion had soured toward the firm and its rotary-powered sedan. Dropping sales coupled with research costs left the company vulnerable and in 1969 Auto Union, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, purchased the financially damaged NSU and a new company, Audi NSU Auto Union GmbH, was formed. Audi NSU brass saw no potential in the rotary engine and so the project was killed. Instead, the new company struck a deal with Porsche AG, the later needed production room for its new line of water-cooled, four-cylinder sports cars. The empty factory at Neckarsulm was geared up to produce yuppie icons such as the Porsche 924, 944 and 968.

Today, the old NSU factory at Neckarsulm still stands at the corner of NSU Strasse and Felix Wankel Strasse but it is used by Audi AG as the production plant for its posh luxury sedans and wagons. All that is left of the NSU era is a street sign and perhaps the ghost of Felix Wankle. But this is not the end of the story. While NSU floundered, Mazda continued development of the Wankel engine and has been successfully producing rotary-powered automobiles since the 1960s.

Monday November 6, 2006

No work today. I wasn’t sure how long the trip to Wilmington was going to take or how tired I was going to be afterward, so I put in for the day off. Fortunately, the trip didn’t take too long and I’ve got plenty of energy and vim, so, its out to the garage. My next project is an exhaust job on my ’94 Saturn SL1. I use the Saturn to commute to work because it gets great gas mileage and its plastic body does not rust. The later is just as important up here in the Northeast where the roads are seasoned every winter with rock salt.

Although the body doesn’t rust everything else still does, a point made all the more clear last week when my exhaust began to crumble. After a very loud trip from work to home with my carpool buddies, I stuck my head under the car to find the flex pipe, located just forward of the catalytic converter, had completed its metamorphosis from a pipe of shiny, stainless mesh into a sort of turd-colored tube with about as much give as peanut brittle. I can’t say that I didn’t have any warning. Like some altered science student, I’ve been watching this slow transmutation for at least a year now. This pipe, however, is sort of important. As the engine rocks on its motor mounts during acceleration the flex pipe provides enough give to keep the rest of the exhaust from cracking. Well, guess what happens if the flex pipe stops flexing. That’s right, you get a big crack in your down pipe. Now, ordinarily you could replace the down pipe or weld the crack shut. Unfortunately, Saturn designed the down pipe, the flex pipe and the catalytic converter as a single three-foot-long piece. Ah, nuts. If I could weld I would be able to cut out the bad, rusted pieces and weld in new shiny ones. Hell, if I could weld I could build myself an airplane and fly to a warmer climate where there is no salt on the roads. But I can’t, so, I’ll just wait for global warming to take full effect. In the mean time I have to buy an expensive piece of stainless pipe with an attached tri-way converter.

Shopping time. After a bit of internet browsing, I found an online parts store that sells a direct-fit, stainless-steel replacement with the integral, catalytic converter. All for the low, low cost of $139.49. Not trusting of the internet, I decide to call the place up. The guy that answers the phone seems nice enough. I ask him where the company is and how long they’ve been in business. He answers, “Texas and we’ve been around as long as the internets have been.” He must be a Republican. I won’t hold it against him because I am a capitalist and his price is the cheapest in our free country. I order up and four days later I’ve got my stainless-steel OEM replacement down pipe, flex pipe, catalytic converter amalgamation, thingy. And boy is it purty.

My Saturn SL1 came from the factory with a stainless-steel exhaust system. Its engine, both block and head, are cast aluminum and all of the car’s vertical body panels are crafted of dent-resistant thermal plastic. Back in 1990, when General Motors revealed Saturn to the world, these were ground-breaking features for an entry-level vehicle.

Back then, Saturn was billed as a new kind of car company. GM brass referred to the company as “a clean sheet of paper” approach to car building (Ward's Auto World, Oct, 1990 by Edward K. Miller). They hoped that the fledgling division would emerge in the market as a viable alternative to imported compacts. To facilitate this fresh start, GM gave Saturn autonomy. Saturn automobiles were produced in a dedicated factory in Springhill, TN on a dedicated platform, the Z-body, with a unique engine built in a facility adjacent to the assembly complex. This independence, it was hoped, would foster the innovation and increased quality necessary to allow Saturn to compete with compacts such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Oh, and if you remember a different sort of Z-body you might be as old as Doug. Chevy Corvairs built from 1965 to 1969 were built on a platform that was also referred to as the Z-body.

Under the hood of my ’94 Saturn SL1 is a 1.9-Liter SOHC four-cylinder referred to by GM as the LK0 engine. It produces about 80hp and on the interstate I can get between 37 to 40mpg. The main components of this engine, including block and head, were manufactured using the lost-pattern casting technique. The lost-pattern method uses a molding pattern made of polystyrene, known to most as Styrofoam, housed in an outer mold of loose sand. When molten aluminum is poured into the mold, it evaporates the foam and takes its shape as it cools and solidifies inside the sand. Take a look at an old Saturn’s engine and you will see that the surface of the aluminum resembles the texture of Styrofoam.

This lost-pattern process has several advantages over conventional casting. Traditional methods use a pattern made of steel, plastic or some other material. The pattern is packed into casting sand. Resin is then added to bond the sand to the pattern. Then, because the pattern does not evaporate during the pour, it has to be removed once the sand mold has hardened. Removing the pattern can be tricky and if the bonded sand crumbles then the mold is landfill. Finally, molten metal is poured into the mold and allowed to harden. Once cool, the part is removed from the mold. The mold is now scrap and the part is ready to be machined.

Using the lost-pattern technique simplifies the entire process. The foam is easy to work with. It can be sculpted, carved and glued with relative ease and there is no need to plan for its extraction from the mold. Because of this, foam patterns can be extremely accurate representations of complex, final products. Because the pattern remains in the mold during the pour, complicated designs which would otherwise require multiple patterns can be achieved. Lost-pattern casting also yields excellent surface-finishes which reduces post-casting machine work. In addition, cast-in inserts such as cylinder sleeves can be integrated into the foam pattern. Finally, because the polystyrene pattern is evaporated during the process no resin is needed to bond the sand into a mold. This means that the loose sand can be re-used and that there are no “dirty” sand molds to dispose of. However, I haven’t discovered in my research any mention of how foundries are capturing or processing the gasses created when the foam-core is destroyed during casting. Modern polystyrene does not contain CFCs, but it does contain styrene which has been identified by the EPE as a possible carcinogen. Today, GM has expanded its use of the lost-pattern casting technique to include, among others, the eco-tech line and its new all-aluminum, hi-output, in-line-sixes meant for use in SUVs starting in 2007.

Plastic panels were another premier feature of Saturn automobiles. We all saw the commercials. Everything from shopping carts to sledge hammers were thrown at the Tupperware-like body panels of unsuspecting Saturns. And, every time, the panels would pop back to shape, unscathed. Impervious to rust and dent resistant these panels are ideal for wintry driving in the North. I once slid into a pole sideways in an icy, parking lot with a trunk full of groceries. The pole struck the rear driver’s-side door. The paint was scratched but there was no dent. And, six years later, when I got around to replacing the scratched panel it hadn’t rusted because plastic doesn’t rust! Interestingly, because these panels can expand in the heat, there is a specified tightening sequence to be followed when bolting on the replacement panel. And, if I recall correctly, early Saturn prototypes had a problem with their plastic, door panels swelling shut during a testing run in Arizona.

Despite GM’s efforts, the Saturn SL series failed to compete. The cars were panned by critics as being underpowered and built on the cheap. As an independent, Saturn Corp never earned a profit and was eventually reigned in by GM. The SL-series was replaced by the larger Saturn ION in 2003. The ION, though having plastic body panels, is truly a J-body, read as re-skinned Cavalier, and accordingly is motivated by the more powerful but less fuel-efficient Ecotech four-cylinder. The ION, however, is no SL and sales have been slow. In 2008, the ION will be axed and replaced with the European built Astra which is a rebadged Opel. As well, the new Saturn roadster, the Sky, a cousin of the Potiac Solstace, is a masquerading Opel GT. There are no plastic panels on these new foreign built Opel/Saturns and fuel economy is no better than any other GM product on the road. By the way, the nicely equipped Sky I saw at my local dealership could be had for a cool 30 grand which is about 5 large more than the MSRP. So much for the no hassle/no haggle price policy of the “people first” car company. Lets hope, for Saturn’s sake, that these new GM imports fair better than the Australian Holden Monaro did during its stint as the Pontiac GTO.

My Saturn is resting on jack stands, prepped and ready for surgery. During the last week I have been coating the rusty exhaust studs, which fasten the down pipe to the header, with penetrating oil. There are a number of penetrating oils on the market. My personal favorite is PB Blast. Sold in spray cans and stocked at nearly every parts store, this stuff can eat through binding rust like nothing else I’ve seen. By the way, like the original GTO, PB Blast is made in the USA.

The trick to success is pre-lubrication. When ever I plan to work with rusty fasteners, I’ll apply PB Blast to the appropriate pieces at least a couple of times during the week so that by the weekend everything will be nice and loose. Then, right before breaking the bolt, I’ll apply a final dose of PB Blast. This method nearly always works and rarely do I have to apply heat to free up a rusted fastener. A note of caution: PB Blast will also eat through some types of plastics. If you need to use penetrating oil on a fastener in close proximity to plastic pieces, I would recommend something like WD-40. I once tried to free a sticking VW door handle with PB Blast by squirting the stuff behind the plastic seal around the outside handle. The handle freed up fine, however, after two days the PB Blast had worked its way down the inner-mechanics of the door where it promptly dissolved the little, plastic coupling that hooks the door lock to the pull-rod. Needless to say, I had to take the door apart to replace the plastic piece.

I’m on my back, working under the car. The exhaust manifold is located at the front of the engine on my Saturn. Connected to the manifold by a three-bolt flange is the down pipe. First, using a swivel, deep socket, long extension and ratchet, I must work the nuts off the studs in the flange. The trick is to apply as much force as possible against the nut by pushing up with both hands on the ratchet. This force will keep the socket seated and prevent rounding the corners off the nut. Next, while still applying pressure against the nut, I steadily apply a counter-clock-wise force to break the nut loose. If you start to feel the socket slip on the nut, stop, because you’re rounding the nut. However, don’t be too alarmed if the ratchet jerks and there’s a loud crack. Usually this indicates that the rusty nut has come loose and you can proceed to unwind it off the stud. I luck out and all three nuts come off without incident.

Next, it is time to remove the bolts holding the catalytic converter to the center pipe. I have not pre-lubricated these with PB Blast. I’ve found from past experience that these bolts, like muffler clamp bolts, are always too rusty to save. Instead, I will simply break these bolts off by twisting them with two wrenches until they shear. It’s fun and macho. In their place will go new stainless hardware.

But to my surprise, I find that there are no bolts holding the center pipe to the catalytic converter. They have rusted off and whatever was left of them is, no doubt, imbedded in some other poor commuter’s Hakkapeliittas. Instead, rust has created a surprisingly sturdy and sound-proof union between these two exhaust sections. It takes me several strikes with a hammer to free these two pieces. I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be using rust as a general fastener for other applications. Unfortunately, the flange on the center pipe is far too corroded to re-use so the whole pipe will have to be replaced.

Fortunately, a local parts store has the pipe on hand. And since I’m replacing the center pipe I figure I might as well replace the muffler too. Doug, my favorite father-in-law, is excited by shiny, new bits of steel and has volunteered to assist me. The down pipe bolts easily to the manifold and I place a jack stand under the catalytic converter to prop it up while I fit the center pipe and muffler. The center pipe is half the length of the car. The pipe fits along a channel down the center of the car and then bends over the rear axle beam. On a VW Jetta this same stretch of exhaust consists of two pipes. To weave this extra-long piece over the axle beam the Saturn needs to be raised off the ground enough to maneuver the long, straight end of the pipe. Because I don’t own a lift, I have to work off the floor with a couple of jacks. To get the ground clearance needed, it was necessary to place three pieces of 2x4 between the jack and the lift port on the rear axle beam. Even with jack stands in place for safety, the Saturn seems precarious on its high perch. “I’m not sure this set up is entirely safe,” I muse. Doug laughs and says, “Just keep your head clear of the tires.” His comments do little to reassure me. In fact, I think he’s just a bit too cavalier with his son-in-law’s safety. However, I slide back under the car as Doug hands me the center pipe.

As I fit the new exhaust into place Doug tells me a story from his younger days. He tells me about how it was once possible to rent hi-po Chevies and Mopars from rent-a-car companies and that he and his friends would do so regularly. They’d pick the car up on Friday and pull the engine to put it into one of their own jalopies. According to him, they would rag on the engine all weekend at the strip and have the rental car back, with said engine reinstalled, to the rental company by Monday morning. I think he is blowing smoke.

Tuesday November 07, 2006

I took Doug out for a drive in my Rabbit. When I say Rabbit I mean the original ‘80s icon not the portly, re-christened Mark V Golf you can currently see at your local VW dealership. My bunny is a black ’83 GTi.

“Now Doug, I usually don’t allow passengers because they are detrimental to my power-to-weight ratio, but seeing you are my father-in-law I can make an exception,”

“I’m not entirely sure I want to ride in this thing. It sure doesn’t look safe. Before we go I better tell Marie where I left the plane tickets.”

“No worries, it may not look like much, but it’s got it where it counts.” And look like much it does not. For starters, there is rust on the rear corners, around the glass on the rear hatch and in a sundry of other locations. The windshield is cracked, there is a large dent in the right, front fender and various other dings and scrapes all over. As well, the bumpers are held on with carriage bolts and zip ties and for rims the car rides on a set of spray-painted Dodge Omni wheels. Also, much of the interior is missing as all these extra, useless bits of carpet and vinyl are, like Doug, detrimental to the car’s power-to-weight ratio. Finally, there are two window decals that should ward off all but true mouth-breathers. On the left, rear corner is a tiny photo of a super-charged, Ford XB GT Falcon emblazoned with the platitude, “Mad Max Lives!” If you recall, the XB Coup was Mad Max’s ultimate set of wheels and was “the last of the V-8 interceptors” in the dystopian Australia of the near future. (So, sad that Mad Mel needed to self-destruct last summer or he could have got in on all the geriatric sequeling going on around Hollywood. Move over Rocky Balboa and make room for the final chapter of the Mad Max series: Blunderdome.) The other decal is a Mr. Yuk sticker and it is adhered to the passenger door, corner window. Back when Mel Gibson was driving around Australia looking for gas, teachers in Vermont were handing out sheets of Mr. Yuk stickers to elementary school students. Kids were told to go home and place these round stickers that looked like vomiting smiley faces on items that were poisonous or could make you sick if you ate them. I put a whole sheet on my little brother and my father’s cigarettes. Today, teachers tell their pupils not to touch poisonous items, not even if they only intend to sticker them.

One should never judge a car by the cosmetic condition of its unit body. A lesson Doug quickly learns as we catapult from the driveway and down the street. This GTi is motivated by a not-so-stock 2.1 liter 16V that has bested many Hondas, some of which had rims worth more than my whole set-up. I look over to Doug as I turn onto Route 104. He looks like Mr. Yuk. I hit the gas and make 60 in about six seconds. Three miles down 104, I turn right onto one of my favorite roads. Oakland Station Rd is a windy affair replete with numerous high-speed sweepers and one “oh-my-god-brake-now” hairpin. It is seldom patrolled by ticket writers but caution must be exercised when cresting a hill on this road because of the numerous cow crossings. Doug has thawed and he seems to be enjoying himself. He tries to talk to me but I can’t hear him over the raucous exhaust note that resonates from the 2.5 inch piping that begins at the engine as a tubular header and ends just aft of the gas tank with a Dynomax muffler and tail pipe. So, I up shift, the RPMs drop and the engine slips into a mellower tune.

“What’s that smell?” still shouting, Doug asks again, “And what’s that knob down by the stick shift.”

“Lead,” I reply, “this thing runs on leaded gas, helps prevent pre-ignition but it smells funny and I can’t run a cat! They call the stuff 100 low-lead but it has like eight times the lead of normal gasoline and I have to buy it from the airport. This knob is attached to a proportioning valve and controls the brake bias. I’m running Mark IV calipers in the rear and standard GTi brakes up front. Without this valve there wouldn’t be enough brake pressure to operate the rear calipers and I’d have a real soft pedal.”

I kept the smallish, 9.4 inch vented rotors for my front set-up so I could run 13 inch rims. Remember, this is a sleeper and everything needs to look sub-standard in order to allow the car to blend in.

Back home, with his feet on dry land, Doug tells me that he wasn’t at all nervous about his ride in the GTi. He explains that, in his younger days, while on ski tour in Australia, he “befriended” a local constable who patrolled in a Mini Cooper. On one occasion the constable gave Doug a harrowing ride through the countryside that shook him of any notion that small cars are slow. I wonder if Doug is also friends with Mel.

Wednesday November 8, 2006

Every motor head has a dream car. This dream car could be anything from a Studebaker Avanti to a Dodge Omni GLH, but whatever it is, to the person that loves it, it is more than mere glass and sheet metal. Perhaps, it invokes nostalgia-the memory of better days-or it epitomizes class and style-a symbol of status and ambition-or maybe it is merely the aesthetic of the thing, regardless a true dream car will induce amorous desire compelling enough to empty one’s retirement account or even, dare I say, sell one’s wife to an Iraqi business man in order to raise funds enough to obtain said vehicle. The last scenario is, naturally, the worse possible case and I would like to remind the reader that there are numerous lenders out there willing to assist you with alternative methods of financing the car of your dreams.

My dream car is not a Volkswagen. How could it be, I already own six. Instead, I lust after a forgotten Brazilian sports car, the Puma AM-4. This two-seat drop top was the sports car that VW should have made. The AM-4, the final iteration of the Puma brand, was a sleek, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a fiber-glass monocoque and rear-mounted engine that was produced briefly during the early ‘90s. I love this car because it uses VW underpinnings and mechanicals but has a svelte and sleek body design that is definitely not the work of a German engineer.

The Puma car company came into existence in 1967 as a Brazilian-built specialty car. The fiberglass body of these original Pumas was designed by Rino Malzoni, an Italian immigrant living in Brazil as-of all things-a farmer. These first Pumas were built using DKW components and were used exclusively for racing. Later, limited numbers of DKW Pumas were made commercially available. DKW (Dampf-Kraft Wagen) was a German Auto manufacturer that merged with Wanderer, Hoch and Audi in 1932 to form Auto Union which is known today as the Volkswagen subsidiary Audi AG. DKW produced vehicles under its own brand name until 1967. Most of DKW’s cars were powered by two-cycle engines that drove the front wheels. In fact, these early DKW-based Pumas were powered by a modified two-stroke, 1100cc, three-cylinder motor that produced around 100hp.

After the DKW brand dissolved in ‘67, Puma started using the Volkswagen Karmen Ghia chassis as the foundation of its new line of air-cooled four-cylinder roadsters. These cars, like the Karmen Ghia, were powered by a rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed, four cylinder that drove the rear wheels. The last of the Pumas, including the AM-4, used the inline and water-cooled four-cylinder found in the VW Fox. This engine is virtually the same engine that Volkswagen used in most of its vehicles during the ‘80s and ‘90s including the ubiquitous Jetta and Golf. In fact, a close relative of this classic 8 valve over-head-cam engine was employed by VW as its base engine choice up until 2006. Note: no Puma was ever manufactured in the color Inari Metallic Siver.

Also like the air-cooled Pumas, the AM-4’s engine was mated to a four-speed transmission. This is interesting because the water-cooled engine was longitudinally mounted behind the transmission in the AM-4, a complete departure from the transverse set-up employed by Volkswagen for the front-wheel-drive Golf and Jetta, and rotated 180 degrees from the VW Fox. In the Fox the engine is longitudinally mounted and located forward of the front wheels and transmission. Based on the difference in orientation, I would have to guess that the AM-4 was outfitted with a Beetle transmission and that a special adapter plate was engineered to couple the engine to the gearbox. Otherwise, if the Fox transmission had been used the AM-4 would have had four gears in reverse and only one forward gear making it an even faster backwards driver than Mater the tow truck. Today, Kennedy Engineering Products (located in California) manufactures adapter plates that will facilitate all sorts of engine and transmission combinations. Check out their website at:

I have scoured the internet looking for more information on the Puma AM-4 but have come up with only the most basic facts. The car weighed under 2000 pounds and was equipped with Recaro sport seats, a manual convertible top and a full compliment of sport gauges. I also read that the AM-4 could only be purchased in the US as a kit car due to emission regulations. It seems that I may actually have to go to the library to do real research on this subject. Somewhere, a pasty computer nerd screams in anguish.

Friday November 10, 2006

I drove Doug and Marie to the airport where they boarded a flight to Abu Dhabi. Doug works for Raytheon out of the United Arab Emirates. It’s his job to keep the UAE’s defense mainframe operating so that when Yemen invades, the UAE will be able to launch its missiles. “Bye Doug, have fun playing DEFCON in the desert.”

Monday January 1, 2007

It’s 2007. Where’s my (expletive deleted) flying car.

Tuesday February 13, 2007

Snow is in the air. It’s late, about midnight, and the thermometer in my garage reads 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Its cold, too cold to snow, but the sky says otherwise and so does the guy on the radio. “Up to 24 inches, maybe more,” says the weatherman, “with high winds, low visibility, and temps in the single digits.” My boss has already closed the office for tomorrow on account of the pending storm and, though not a single snow flake has yet been spotted, schools across the state have cancelled classes. Sounds like a blizzard is coming, better change my oil before there is too much snow to work outside.

I’ve got the Saturn on ramps in the driveway. My driveway is paved but come February you can’t tell because it’s covered with about three inches of packed snow. A normal, sane man would be working on his car in the garage. However, due to my lack of planning, my garage is occupied with half-finished projects and stored summer cars. There simply is no room for anything else. I’ve made my frigid bed, so now I have to lie in it. It may be a cold bed but it’s not unbearable once you get used to it. In fact, there is something exhilarating about working outside in the cold. Of course, I’m dressed in several layers including a heavy, insulated coat and German army field pants so I’m rather cozy.

Now, every guy with a wrench has his own policy on the proper way to swap engine lubricant. So, I won’t go there. Instead, I’d like to recommend that while you’re draining the oil you take a moment to inspect your vehicles underpinnings. There are a lot of things that you can catch early before they become costly problems. I like to check the rubber boots that protect my constant velocity (CV) joints for rips and tears. There are two of these joints on each half-shaft of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. This means that there are four CV joints in all on a front-wheel-drive car. These joints allow the half-shafts, also known as axles, to travel up and down and from side to side as the vehicle’s steering and suspension is worked through its range of motion. If the boot rips-and trust me they do-the grease in the joint will get flung out through the tear when the axle rotates during vehicle operation. This will quickly lead to failure of the joint and an annoying clicking noise when the vehicle is cornering. If you turn your radio up and ignore this problem eventually you will find yourself writing a money order to the burly, tow-truck guy. Another sign that you have a CV boot problem is thick grease splatter on the backside of the front rims. Don’t confuse this with brake dust which is a dry, brownish substance. If you catch a busted boot early enough you may be able to re-pack the joint and replace the boot without having to buy a new joint or axle. While you’re under the car, also look at your brake lines, fuel lines and exhaust system for leaks and corrosion, check the rubber on the tie-rod ends and ball-joints for cracking, inspect for oil and transmission leaks and just keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look right. Anyway, time for me to get to work.

Thursday February 15, 2007

I spent yesterday and the wee hours of this morning shoveling more that 30 inches of snow out of my driveway. It was the light fluffy kind and I can’t wait to go out and play in it with my daughter. We love to go sledding at the community sled and ski hill. However, fun snow aside blizzards are no fluffy matter. This morning’s commute was a scary reminder of just how dangerous winter roads can be. My morning slog is a 26-mile drive from St Albans to Burlington. This morning the roads were covered in packed snow and ice. My Saturn does alright in these conditions, much thanks to the Nokian Hakkapeliittas it rides on. All too often, though, things like snow-tires and all-wheel-drive create a false sense of safety. We are all guilty of this. Skill and good judgment are the most important factors when driving in wintry conditions.

I was heading south on I-89 with my car-pool buddy, Dulcie, as co-pilot. About five car-lengths ahead of us was a newish Jeep Liberty. Traffic was light and slow due to the road conditions. The wind picked up and snow began to swirl off the ten-foot tall banks on either side of the southbound carriageway. Just ahead of the Jeep, a strong and sudden gust of wind blew the swirling snow into the roadway creating a thick, twenty-foot-tall wall of snow. Whiteout! As the Jeep entered the wall of snow, its driver panicked and laid on the brakes.

“Dan, that Jeep just lost control! Dan! Dan!” screamed Dulcie.

“I see it, I see it.” I shouted back. But really I didn’t. All I saw was the Jeep’s rear-end come loose and fade away into the blowing snow. Somewhere in that cloud ahead was a silver Jeep going sideways down the interstate. I began pumping the brakes, trying to create more space and time between us and the 3800 pound SUV wallowing in the snow. We entered the whiteout and-as much due to luck as skill- slipped by the Jeep as it completed a 360-degree spin before sliding aft first into the passing-lane snow bank.

It wasn’t until later, while taking a breather at work, that I realized just how fortunate we had been. There had been mistakes made by all involved. The Jeep driver relied too much on equipment and not on skill. Sure she had ABS and four-wheel drive but either system has its limitations. She could have remained in control by pumping her brakes in order to avoid a skid. She, however, panicked and stabbed at the brake peddle hoping ABS would rescue her. Instead, her tires locked up and her four-wheel-drive Jeep turned into a toboggan. I exercised poor judgment by getting out of bed. I should have never tried to drive to work in such poor road conditions. The next time it snows like that I’m calling in sick and making snow angels in the yard with my daughter.

Friday February 16, 2007

Hey, do you remember that ’72 NSU Ro80 that was for sale in Las Vegas. Yup, the one advertised in Hemming’s Motor News that I lusted after back in November. Well, it’s on EBAY and the auction is ending today. I’ll tell you later what it goes for.

In other news, I gave one of my co-workers a ride home yesterday in the Saturn. He had walked to work because his car was buried under more than two feet of snow, looks like he’ll be doing some digging tonight. Upon getting into the vehicle the first thing he said was, “Wow. It’s been a long time since I saw that.”

“What’s that?” I asked, “Do you mean roll-up windows?”

“No, automatic seat belts,” he clarified.

“Oh, they were part of the passive restraint system that was required when this car was built,” I explained. Then he asked me, “What ever happened to them?” I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know. I told him I would have to research that.

After some digging on the internet I discovered the answer, but first, some general information on the topic. During the 70s the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was concerned with the lack of seatbelt use in passenger vehicles and began to pressure automakers into developing passive restraints. Eventually, the NHTSA passed a regulation mandating the phase-in of passive restraint systems into passenger vehicles. Beginning in 1987, automakers were required to equip ten percent of their fleets with passive restraint systems. This was the first step toward a four-year phase-in plan that would require passive restraints in all passenger vehicles by 1990. In the late 80s and early 90s these systems included automatic seatbelts, knee bars and, less frequently, airbags. There were various types of automatic seatbelts. Some were very basic, for example many Volkswagen sedans had belts that were permanently fixed to the upper, corner of the front doors. When the door opened the belt was pulled away from the seat to allow ingress and egress. Likewise, when the door was shut the belt laid across the occupant’s shoulder providing restraint during a collision. These seatbelt systems often consisted of only a shoulder belt. I own a ’90 Jetta GL that came with this set up. Before I back-dated the seatbelts to the older, traditional three-point set up, it had only shoulder belts for the front-seated occupants. Frightening, indeed.

The seatbelts in my Saturn are the type that feature a motorized shoulder belt attached to a track that runs along the inside of the door. When the door is opened the shoulder belt retracts toward the A-pillar to allow for the passenger to enter or exit the vehicle. Once the door is shut, the seat belt moves up the track and toward the passenger until it reaches a fixed point. The lap belt is manual and has to be engaged or released by hand.

Litigation, safety problems and regulation mandating airbags contributed to the decline of automatic seatbelts. According to a CNN report by John Zarrella dated May 21, 2001, passengers regularly failed to fasten the lap belt in vehicles equipped with automatic shoulder belts. If a collision should occur when the lap belt is not fastened the passenger can slide down so that the belt restrains him or her by the neck. This action, referred to as submarining, can substantially increase the risk of serious injury or death. Zarrella explained that, “You can be decapitated by the shoulder belt as it comes up across your neck. There is a risk of blowing out your heart, lacerating the liver, and they say that because of a woman's anatomy, women who don't wear the lap belt are even at greater risk than men who don't wear it.”

In court, automakers maintain that it is the passenger’s responsibility to fasten the lap belt. However, plaintiffs have successfully argued that there was not enough information provided to the car owner explaining the necessity of using the lap belt with the automatic shoulder belt. (CCN, John Zarrella, May 21, 2001.) Today, most auto makers have returned to the manual three-point seatbelt. When used with dual, frontal airbags-which became required by the NHTSA for both driver and front passenger in 1999-the three-point seat belt meets the passive restraint system requirement.

Well, auction just ended on that NSU Ro80. Top bid was $6080.00 but the reserve was not met. Look for yourself. The item number is: 260084403635. Not that I can afford it but I hope it’s re-listed, you know, so I can dream.

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