Saturday, March 31, 2012

We Miss You, Honda

The slide started with the seventh generation Civic.

Honda told us not to worry, they told us that the exclusion of a double wishbone suspension wasn't cost-cutting, but that it was for packaging reasons.  They told us that their struts were different and that the sophisticated ride and handling characteristics of previous Civics wouldn't be lost - and besides, look at that rear floor, it's flat!

the aptly named "refrigerator white" 7th gen Civic
It was a slippery slope.  The Integra/RSX and S2000 both disappeared soon thereafter, then, literally weeks away from its official public reveal, the NSX replacement was cancelled.  There was a bit of hope for a time in the shape of the 8th gen Civic Si, which may not have been equipped with double wishbones, but which was endowed with some fantastic handling nonetheless - not to mention one of the world's all-time great four cylinder engines, the fantastic K20.

Fast forward a few years to the 9th generation Civic, all new for the 2012 model year.  Any spark of creative design or engineering has finally been completely extinguished with the new model, and it's not only enthusiasts who have noticed.  Citing decreased ride quality, longer stopping distances, vague steering and other points, Consumer Reports, about as objective and dispassionate a group of non-robotic journalists as imaginable, rated the 2012 at 61 points - a 17 point drop from the previous car and a slip from "very good" to "mediocre" points categories.

6th gen, EK chassis Civic front double wishbone layout
And while we are all holding out hope for the new Si, they went and specced it with a relatively gigantic 2.4 liter that has a 1200 RPM lower redline than the previous car's.  Despite a 20% increase in displacement, output remains unchanged at 200 HP.  When Honda gives up on small-displacement, high-revving and high specific output engines, they have truly ceased to be Honda.

And yet chasing Toyota probably makes great business sense.  To paraphrase Mencken; "no one ever went broke underestimating the American public's perception of steering feel and materials quality".  It has inarguably worked very well for Toyota.

But Honda isn't Toyota.  Honda is a company founded by one of the single greatest engineers of all-time, not a guy who got his start making sewing machines.  Honda is a company who's first car was a Formula One racer, who's first production model was a roadster powered by a diminutive and jewel-like, quad-carb, DOHC four cylinder equipped with a roller bearing crankshaft that allowed it to rev to nearly 10,000 RPM.  A company who before building an oval-pistoned, eight valve per cylinder street motorcycle, revolutionized the market with efficient, reliable, advanced, affordable and high-performance bikes - nearly single-handedly putting most European manufacturers out of business forever.  Do I even need to mention the GP bikes or the NSX?

Honda is known for engineering, they are known for steering feel, handling, advanced engine technology, for their accurate, buttery shifting transmissions, for precise tolerances and high redlines.  These are all things that, for the most part, are not actual characteristics of any car currently made by Honda - how long will that positive image and the good will that goes with it remain?

Let Toyota be Toyota. 

It's better to have a unique identity and a smaller niche of the market than to be a second-tier appliance manufacturer.  It's better to have customers who are passionate about your brand than to have them by default, their only attraction to your products being that they are inoffensive and easily forgotten.

Ironically, the first exciting new Toyota in years, the GT 86, is much more in line with classic Honda thinking than it is with their own.  With any luck, it will be a screaming success, and ample encouragement for Honda to again enthusiastically build cars for enthusiastic drivers.

1999 Zanardi Edition NSX
fairingless 1966 RC166 - 250cc, 24V DOHC six exposed
Honda's first production car, the awesome S500

Friday, March 30, 2012

Exact, Running 1/3rd Scale Ferrari 312PB

And when I say "exact", I mean exact.

Every single piece is a perfect 1/3rd scale copy of the original.  Every last nut, washer, bolt, wire, fuse - all of it.  The raised printing on the headlight glass is there, the same cloth is used for the seat, the ignition key and the guts of the functioning ignition barrel are identical to the original's, adjusted for scale.  

It's like Wayne Szalinski's shrink ray was turned on an original 312PB - if Jacky Ickx happened to be standing nearby, he could run miniature hot laps in it until the tiny fuel cell ran dry.

Top Gear clip with Jeremy Clarkson

Yamaha OX99-11

The coolest supercar that never was.

Built around a carbon fiber tub with pushrod-actuated suspension, featuring central, tandem seating positions and running a detuned version Yamaha's then-current F1 V12, it was literally a Formula One car for the road.

Some specs:

Engine:  Yamaha 3.5 liter V12, 400HP @ 10,000 rpm.
Chassis:  carbon fiber tub - engine mounted directly to rear bulkhead
Body:  hand-beaten aluminum panels
Front suspension:  double wishbones from aero section steel tubing, fabricated uprights, push rods to inboard coil over damper units
Rear suspension:  double wishbones from aero section steel tubing, fabricated uprights, push rods to inboard coil over damper units - mounted directly on gearbox
Transmission:  6 speed transaxle with limited slip differential and multi-plate AP racing clutch
Brakes:  AP Racing 6 piston (front) and 4 piston (rear) billet machined calipers with cast iron discs
Wheels:  magnesium alloy

Sadly, like a lot of expensive cars in development in the early 90s (the projected price was $1,000,000 - this according to official sales brochures), it was a casualty of Japan's burst economic bubble.  At this point, the car was essentially ready for sale, with only fine-tuning needed before it could be put in to limited production - a similar tale to the more recent Honda NSX/HSV-010 debacle.

I could write a lot about this car, but it would probably read like an adjective-laced transcript of two 8th grade boys describing it to each other - the word "awesome" would be pervasive.  Instead, I'll link a short but excellent story from, written by one of the people personally involved in the project.  Someday, I hope to hunt down a copy of the detailed and exclusive 1992 Paul Frère/Road & Track test drive and post up some scans.

the 3.5L, DOHC, 48V V12 made 400HP and redlined at 11,000 RPM
Paul Frère love it - no one from the press ever drove the car
serious business
bare tub - like an F1 car without the aero
define evocative
where they hibernate
absolutely insane to think this was almost a road car

not a great video, but then again the only video of the OX99-11 in action  
sounds great just warming up, but the impatient should skip to 1:05

Thursday, March 29, 2012

911 GT3 Carmusic

Nearly nine minutes of it.  Turn up the volume and enjoy.

Odd Engineering - The Lanchester Twin

Designed c.1899 by one of the all-time great automotive engineers, Frederick Lanchester, the 4000cc horizontally-opposed twin cylinder had dual connecting rods per cylinder and dual counter-rotating crankshafts, which were joined by bevel gearing.  Just as it was designed to do, the unusual configuration provided smooth running - something that was previously considered unattainable in the early days of the internal combustion engine.

dual, counter-rotating crankshafts per cylinder
Another nearly unbelievable technical feature of the engine was an efficient and reliable cam driven, single valve per cylinder layout.  It worked by way of a disc valve in the initially combined intake/exhaust manifold that opened and closed the correct upper tracts as required - it's difficult to describe with eloquence befitting of its elegant engineering.

Before the marque's sad decline into re-badging and eventual closure in 1955, it was known as a maker of some the highest quality and most expensive cars in the world - easily the match of Rolls Royce.

Incidentally, Lanchester was the first ever British car manufacturer and is still registered as an active, non trading company.  The Lanchester name is currently owned by Tata Motors, India.

detail of the single valve per cylinder layout
1910 Lanchester 10 Landaulet

I Love to Wankel

And as soon as my LS400 sells, I'm buying an RX-8.  I can't wait!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Honda NR750 Internals

wrap your head around this

Did Honda Design the Lamborghini V12?

LJK Setright thought so.  The man was certainly not unknown for wilfully contrary opinions, but he is also commonly recognized as being one of the all-time great auto journalists - to discount his assertion as pure hyperbole would be unwise.

1964 Honda RA271 - was its transverse 1.5L V12 the basis for Lambo's V12?

Below, in an excerpt from Peter Lyon's authoratative history "The Complete Book of Lamborghini", he lays out many of Setright's strongest arguments for a Honda origin to the motor and then presents his rebukes.  They both raise good points and site compelling evidence, and it makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking read.  Where does the truth lie? 

begin excerpt:

Keeping track of history is a slippery business at times, and even something as familiar as the origins of Lamborghini's first engine can become a little oily.  Take, for example, an assertion by the inimitable L.J.K. Setright that the genius behind the beautiful V12 was not Giotto Bizzarrini but Honda.

Writing in the Spring 1986 issue of Britain's Supercar Classics, Setright declared: "The accepted legend is that the original engine was designed for Lamborghini by Bizzarrini, based on a design study of his for a 1.5 litre Grand Prix engine which (properly, from what I remember of it) came to nothing, and that this was subsequently modified or mollified by Dallara.  Now I will admit to a good deal of respect for the work of young Dallara, but honestly I cannot see anything in the work of either of these engineers, either before or since, of comparable quality.  I am therefore all the more inclined to believe what I was privately told quite authoritatively in 1975 that the design was secretly commissioned by Lamborghini from Honda."
Alas, Setright does not name his source, and offers nothing further to substantiate the claim.  However, he goes on to note that Honda "executed the commission very swiftly, as it was especially capable of doing; it met Lamborghini's original specifications perfectly, getting the design right the first time without need for prolonged development, which again is consistent with its unparalleled competence; and Honda’s corporate and individual sense of honor would prevent it from admitting it, since the normal cloak of commercial anonymity would have been cast over the transaction.  Nevertheless, there was no other engine, and especially no other V12, of equal merit created in the decade before the debut of the first Lamborghini, nor any superior in the years immediately following other than by Honda.  What more appropriate than that one of the world's best engines should be designed by the world's best engine maker?"

Setright isn't the only journalist/historian to suggest this possibility, but no one has so far mustered any really compelling evidence.  Granted, Ferruccio Lamborghini had established friendly contacts with fellow industrialists of Soichiro Honda’s caliber, and unashamedly "borrowed" their latest manufacturing techniques.  We know, too, that by 1963, Honda’s engineering expertise had laid waste to Europe's motorcycle racing establishment, a forecast of things to come in the street-bike arena.

the original Bizzarrini (Honda?) Lamborghini V12
It's also true that Honda entered Formula 1 auto racing in 1964 - a year after the Lamborghini engine appeared - with its own V-12: an advanced, very powerful 1.5-liter unit of similar design and transversely mounted (as Lamborghini would do two years on its roadgoing Miura).  But, this car/engine package did not have anything like the success of Honda’s motorcycle program, scoring only one victory before the 1500cc formula closed at the end of the 1965 season, and it wasn’t until the mid-eighties that Honda would become a dominant force in F1.

More to the point, why would a proud Italian industrialist like Ferruccio Lamborghini, bent on bettering Ferrari, seek design assistance from a very foreign company with no background whatsoever in high performance cars? And why would this same industrialist, who so often demonstrated a willingness to give his engineers free reign and to give them credit for what they did have any need for outside help when his own staff was already brimming with talent?  Finally, we are left to wonder how such a sensational piece of history has remained so obscure all these years.

Bob Wallace, who was there and ought to know, says this would-be revelation is "nonsense."  In a November 1986 interview with Automobile magazine's Ken Gross, he observed that the Lamborghini design was merely "typical of Ferrari racing engines of that era. To think anything else about that engine's origin is crap.  Probably that's something someone did to sell a magazine."  Could be, Bob, could be.  

Honda RA271 V12
Ingeniere Bizzarrini himself had this to say in Ken Browning's marque history, published by Automobile Quarterly: "I presented to Cav. Lamborghini the drawing of a 1.5 liter motor with 12 cylinders I had designed for Formula 1, but he gave me the assignment to design a 3.5 liter motor." That's a pretty clear statement, and it would indeed be brash of us to call the man a liar.  Cementing his claim to design "ownership" are Bizzanini's assertions that the dyno test engine developed 358 bhp at 9800 rpm, that he calculated bigger carburetors would have produced upwards of 400 at 11,000 rpm, and that he had to stop this line of development when Ferruccio made it clear that the goal was a street engine, not a racer.

Sorry, but the idea of a Japanese pencil drafting this Italian supermotor sounds to us like the outcome of a lazy afternoon with a bottle of Lambrusco.  In lieu of convincing evidence otherwise, we'll continue to believe in the "purity" of the Bizzarrini/Dallara V-12.

Meanwhile, here's one they can ponder: A friend of ours highly knowledgeable about affairs Lamborghini is absolutely convinced that Setright's got it backwards - that it was actually Giulio Alfieri who secretly designed the transverse-engine F1 Honda.  Now that makes sense.

BRM V16 Carmusic

I may be too busy to post today, but I have a lot of stories in the works - tune in tomorrow.  At the very least I'll throw up this amazing bit of noise for your listening pleasure.


1.5 liter, DOHC per bank, supercharged 135 degree V16. 
Developed 600 HP and revved to 14,000 RPM. 
From 1947.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Upcoming Feature

My good friend Randy in his dad's 288 GTO, seen next to the E28 M5 he bought new and still owns to this day.  A real gearhead's gearhead, for fun he enjoys rebuilding his Ducati every other weekend and tells stories of family outings in an LM002.  Full interview soonish.

McLaren F1 Test Mules / Driving Ambition

co-written and edited by Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray

When I was 18 or so, I bought a superb book called “Driving Ambition”. The book is an official account of the McLaren F1’s development, from the initial sketches all the way through road car production and LeMans victories.  If I remember correctly it cost $75, a lot of money to a guy my age in 1998  I still have it, and it’s been well cared for – it even has the original poster it came with, folded and sandwiched in between the same pages as when it was brand new.  I was recently shocked to discover it’s now worth about seven times what I first paid – obsessive compulsive disorder and anal retentiveness pay off, kids!

Edward - S70/2 V12 mule
Among the many chapters and hundreds of pages of fantastic, insightful writing, fascinating specs and detailed photography was a piece on “The Heavenly Twins” – the pair of original F1 development mules.

Both based on Ultima chassis, “Albert” and “Edward”, as they came to be known, were instrumental in the F1 design and testing process.  Before McLaren could commit the necessary resources to design and build their own chassis, The Twins allowed Murray’s team to test critical proposed design elements at a relatively early stage.

Albert had a Chevrolet V8 and was used to test the F1’s gearbox, brakes and central driving position, while Edward was built to test the BMW S70/2 V12 and its associated ancillary systems.

Sadly, both cars were ultimately crushed after they had served their purpose.  This was seen as necessary because magazines were already offering huge bountys for spy photos related to the program, and being a product of an active Formula One team, secrecy was valued above all else.

The book remains one of my prized possessions, and short of it one day being valuable enough to fund the purchase of a 997 GT3RS, I’ll probably never sell it.  Copies in well-read but still nice condition can be had for about $200, and it’s entirely worth it, as I guarantee you will never own a better car book.
Albert - SBC engined, central driving position
the team affectionately badged the cars
The Twin's sad end
one side of the poster included with the book

the poster's other side

Monday, March 26, 2012

Saab "Monstret" - The Monster

Saab's been on my mind a lot lately.  Their Death was a deep cut to weirdos who dig weird cars.  Everyone knew that it was inevitable, we knew for years, but we became emotionally invested and hoped against the odds anyway.  The result of all our blogging, petitioning, begging, wishing and praying is nothing but enhanced heartache.

It's cliché, but I want a party for my funeral.  I want my family and close friends to get properly smashed and remember fondly, share embarassing anecdotes, reminisce on my triumphs as well as my failures.  A heady, emotional mix of laughter and tears. 

In that vein, my eulogy for Saab is a brief celebration of a car that simultaneously represents one of their highest and lowest moments.  The Monstret, or Monster, sums up the spirit of Saab in one incredibly odd, improvised, oil-burning, smoking, torque-steering, understeering, evil-handling and stupefyingly awesome car.

A 1959 experiment aimed at improving power for motorsport, it was built around a lightened and widened model 93.  The real madness comes in the form of a 1496cc, transverse, two stroke inline six - essentially two highly tuned production 93 engines joined at the crank.  Each half retained its own separate 3 cylinder block and distributor.

an original diagram of The Monster's heart
The result was 138HP and 122 MPH, quite a lot for any car in 1959, particularly a small European family model.  The trademark aerodynamic teardrop shape of the 93, normally a boon to economy and handling, gave the rear of the car a tendency to become airborne when approaching its much higher top speed.  This terrifying quirk, combined with both heavy understeer and torquesteer gave rise to the nickname "Monster".

It was as flawed as it was genius, as terrible as it was fantastic - it was a true Saab.

LJK Setright Road Test of Triple Rotor Mazda Cosmo

A fantastic piece on a truly incredible car.

Credit to Raphael Orlove and DasWauto on Jalopnik/Oppositelock.

Click for full size.

Cars & Coffee, Irvine - 3/24/12

All photos credited to my buddy Randy.

Ferrari 512BB - sexy carbs!
super exotic Benelli triple
radiator fans on the Benelli
911-engined, sounded wicked
911-braked, too
a sleeper, until you peek underneath
Audi R8
my brother-in-law's sweet MkII Jetta coupe
he's got big plans for an upcoming motor swap...
he almost stalled - that tiny ceramic clutch is reportedly a real bear
this little X1/9 was a favorite of mine
the fun stopper, parked at show's exit - they actually allow a little hooning