Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Best Cars Ever

Once again we face a topic that can be very controversial. Which cars are the best cars ever made? Like the topic of the worst cars ever made there are many opinions. My list will be made up of vehicles that have been sold during my lifetime, and as I think about the list in my mind I think that every car that I would put into this category is one that is still currently being built. The only one that I might put on the list of the best cars ever that is no longer in production, and was built decades before I was born would be anything by Duesenberg. They will not be on this list however, since they built cars back in the 20’s and early 30’s.
My list is according to my opinion first and foremost. Some of the things that I consider in whether or not a car qualifies for my list are things such as overall quality and reliability. Vehicle performance compared to other vehicles in its market segment. Longevity on the market, vehicles that are terrible usually don’t stay around very long. The last thing is the mystique that accompanies the vehicle. Something that is a cultural icon is much more likely to be considered a great car then one that is not such an icon. This iconic status can be the result of a vehicle excelling in some of the other areas. As with the world’s worst cars list, these are listed in no particular order.

Ford Pickup

1997 Ford F150
This includes every version of Ford full-size pickups that have been built over the years. I want to specify that the compact Ford Ranger is definitely not on the list of best cars. Ford trucks have been the best selling trucks in the U.S. for past 20 to 30 years depending on how you count sales. Perhaps the reason Ford has enjoyed this sales lead for so long is because they build the best truck there is, or perhaps it’s just because they have the best deals available for industrial fleets which has a tendency to inflate sales numbers, either way Ford moves a lot of trucks every year.
The full size trucks are referred to as the F series trucks. They typically have included the F150, F250, and F350 which would be the ½ ton, ¾ ton and 1 ton respectively. In recent years the line has expanded to include some heavier duty trucks such as the F450, and F550. They even have an F650 and an F750 but these bear no resemblance to any of the others because they are so much bigger.
1918 Ford Model TT. Now that's a manly truck!
Ford has been building trucks since day one but the first purpose built truck chassis was built in 1917. It was a model T but with a heavier duty frame and suspension. This truck was called the Model TT. After the Model T more trucks came along based on whatever other cars Ford was building at the time. In 1948 the F series trucks hit the market. The half ton truck was the F1. In 1953 they started calling it the F100.  4WD was not added until the late 50’s. Over the years this option has become so popular that most trucks that are sold come equipped with 4WD. The extra cost of 4WD when the truck is purchased brand new will be made up in the resale value of the truck later on. Some other models that are essentially the same as the F Series trucks are some of the full-size Ford SUVs. The Ford Bronco, Expedition, Excursion, and even the Econoline full-size vans are all very closely related to the pickup trucks.
1948 Ford F1
These trucks are great because they have been around forever, they are extremely popular, and they are just so representative of American culture. Most full-size pickup trucks, including those from other manufacturers, could be classified in a similar manner. In what other country would you find so many people driving something so heavy and so thirsty for gasoline as their daily driver? I think the major reasons that these trucks are so popular in the U.S. are that gas is relatively cheap, and the people own property.
They have houses and yards that require trips to the home improvement store for 2x4’s and plywood. Americans need their trucks to haul a load of top soil once in awhile, and because we throw a lot of things away, we need a truck to haul things to the dump whenever the need arises. We also like to play and we have toys that are big and heavy. The snow mobiles, and the four wheelers, and the jet skis, and the boats, and the campers must be hauled to the wilderness every weekend, and sometimes all toys must be hauled at the same time.
We are very productive in our businesses as well, and so many of the full-size trucks that are sold each year are sold to big and small industrial companies for use in their various fleets. Every construction jobsite will be packed with all sorts of pickup trucks that are adapted for many different purposes. These trucks can be configured with as many seats and with as big or as small of a bed as any individual or company might need for whatever the jog is that they are trying to do. Because there are so many trucks used in so many industries, some guys have two or more trucks in their driveway. One for work, one for personal use, and maybe one for the wife or kids to drive.
2011 F150, The lightest duty pickups look different from the heavier duty ones.
2011 Ford F350, Heavy-duty model
Ford trucks are very versatile and very useful but they are also reliable. I would say that the full-size Ford trucks are the most reliable vehicle in the Ford line up and have been for a long time. Part of the reason for this is that the trucks don’t get redesigned as much as the cars do so the designers and engineers have had ample opportunity over the years to work the bugs out, and keep these trucks on the road. From about 1980 until 1996 the F series trucks hardly changed at all. They don’t go that long between redesigns every time but these trucks have never really changed that much their inception.
Another reason that I like Ford trucks is that they were the first trucks to really start using more modern engine designs with things like multi-port fuel injection, and overhead cam engine designs. The V-8 engines that are typically found in the Ford F series trucks have come a long way since the original flathead V-8s of the early 1930’s and 40’s.
When you think of great vehicles, you never think of the ones that are so common place, and so familiar to us all. But perhaps the fact that they are so colloquial is the same thing that makes them so great. These trucks are great there is no doubt. I would say they are the best vehicle to ever come from Ford Motor Company, and that if it wasn’t for the F Series trucks Ford might not be around anymore. Times have been hard in recent years for Ford but because they have been able to continue to sell their full-size trucks, they have found a way to stay in business.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cars 2, Mater, and Whitworth

When the movie Cars 2 hit theaters a few weeks ago I had to go and see it. Being a car guy, of course I had to go see a movie called Cars anything the first day it was in theaters. I also don’t mind saying that my kids were not with me. I did the same thing when the first Cars movie was released. No sense in taking the kids and run the risk of ruining my enjoyment. The movie itself was great and I enjoyed it very much as a movie goer but also as a car guy.

Like the first Cars movie there was a great deal of jokes, gags, and visuals that only a car guy would fully understand but one plot point in Cars 2 was so specific that I’m sure that I was the only one in the theater that really understood it.

As many of you know there used to be a rule when you were working on a car that said that if the car was American: Chevy, Ford, Dodge, Jeep, then you used standard tools on all of the nuts and bolts, and if the car was foreign: Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, then you used metric tools on all of the nuts and bolts. This is not true anymore and really hasn’t been true for about 25 or 30 years. All cars in the US have metric fasteners almost exclusively. Once in awhile you might still find something standard on an American car, but it’s pretty rare. My screen name metricwrench comes from the fact that I am a mechanic that works on cars so I primarily use metric wrenches. Isn’t that clever?

Anyway, standard tools are those that show measurements in inches and fractions of inches. 1/2”, 5/16”, 1 1/8”, are examples of this. These labels on the tools refers to the size of the head of the bolt but having a head that measures in inches like this means that the diameter of the shaft of the bolt and the size and pitch of the bolt threads will also follow this standard.

The name “Standard” actually refers to what is officially called the American Standard Units which are essentially a copy of the old British Imperial Standard but some of the exact numbers vary a bit. These units, such as inches and feet, have been around since the early 1800’s and are not used much by the British anymore. They have officially adopted the Metric System but we stubborn Americans have not, not that it really matters that much.

Metric tools come in sizes ranging in millimeters usually starting at about 4mm and going up from there. Some common metric sizes that are used on cars are 10mm, 12mm, 13mm, 19mm and many more. Metric tools are sized for the heads of the bolts and for the nuts and like the standard fasteners, the real difference is in the width of the bolt shaft and the pitch of the threads.

Metric tools are easier to get used to because if you grab a 13mm wrench and it’s a bit too small then you know what the next size up is going to be. With standard tools if you grab a 5/16 wrench and it is a bit too small you can’t easily tell what the next size up will be unless you are an experienced mechanic. Just so you know the next size up is 6/16 but it won’t be labeled as such, do some simple math to figure out how it will be labeled.

So what does all of this boring stuff have to do with Cars 2 and Mater. Well, there was actually a third system or standard, but this standard of measurement applied strictly to fasteners, meaning the size of a bolt shaft, threads, and heads. This standard is known as Whitworth. In the 1800’s Whitworth was developed by an engineer named Joseph Whitworth in Great Britain. Whitworth bolts and nuts are not used anymore and have not been used for some time, but any mechanic who has worked on any old British cars may have come across some Whitworth fasteners.
An old MG made in England that likely has Whitworth nuts and bolts

As Mater says in Cars two, “they ain’t metric, they ain’t inches, you never can find a wrench to work on them”. Whitworth bolts are used on the engine in the photograph that Mater, that they assume will lead them to the bad guy. Just as some metric and standard sizes are very similar, some metric size and standard size wrenches fit on Whitworth bolts, but sometimes not well enough to work effectively. This is why at the end of the movie when Guido is trying to remove the bomb from Mater he can’t because he doesn’t have the right socket size to remove the bolts holding the bomb to Mater’s engine.

The other part of all this is that the bad guy, Miles Axlerod closely resembles a Land Rover which is a British car, therefore he would use Whitworth bolts, and most of the old British cars that used Whitworth bolts in the past were, and are considered to very unreliable and prone to break down. Just like all the bad guys in the movie were lemons. The best quote of the movie regarding British cars comes from Mater when he is talking about how much oil British cars leak, “If a British car ain’t got oil under it, it ain’t got oil in it.” of course this whole British cars are lemons theme doesn't reconcile very well with the fact that the character Finn McMissle, who was a good guys, closely resembles an Austin Martin DB5 which is an old British car. 

The cars from Great Britain today are not like the ones from the past in that they are not the lemons that they once were but it takes awhile for a reputation like this to die. Not only that, but in the movie most of the cars that where part of the evil plot and were considered lemons were made by companies that are not around anymore. Things like the AMC Pacer, and Gremlin, the old British cars, and there were even a few old communist cars from Eastern Europe if I’m not mistaken. I could think of a few cars that are still on the road today, or are still for sale at dealerships today that they could have put into the movie, but I’m sure that the lawyers would not have allowed it.

So all the jokes about Whitworth from Cars 2 refer to an outdated standard for nuts and bolts, and more specifically a standard that was last used on old British cars. So how many people in the theater really understood the joke? If they have experience working on old British cars then they will get it. Probably not too many others will, but I think people will understand just enough to still enjoy the movie.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What does it mean to buy American?

My mom used to drive a 1994 Isuzu Trooper. One day the transmission blew up. I suppose it didn’t happen all of the sudden, but rather the condition got gradually worse over the course of a few months. Eventually when it got to the point of being undrivable we decided it was time for an overhaul.

After I pulled the transmission out it was interesting to see what it said on the transmission ID label. The transmission was actually made by General Motors and it turns out it was a 4L30-E. Not only did this Japanese car have a transmission made by an American car company but the transmission was made in a GM factory in France. You might say that this isn’t a really big deal because GM owns a large chunk of Isuzu however; the 4L30-E transmission was used in several BMW models as well. Welcome to the global economy.

So what does it mean to buy American these days when it comes to purchasing a car? Nothing is made exclusively in any one country anymore so it’s impossible to only buy American, or only buy Japanese, or only buy German. My mom’s Isuzu Trooper was actually built in Indiana; my Ford truck was built in Canada. Which one is more American? Maybe it depends on where all of the parts are made rather than where they are all put together.

Cars.com releases a list of cars each year that are considered their “Most American” list of cars and trucks. The factors that influence their findings are things such as where the cars are built, where the parts come from, and how much of an impact they have on local and national economies so things like sales numbers are important. Here is what they have found for 2011:

#10 GMC Acadia 
This car is built in Lansing Michigan, and the Americans working in that factory are certainly American.
#9 Toyota Tundra 
Built in Texas, this is the most American of all full-size pickup trucks with 80% domestic parts.
#8 Chevy Traverse 
Pretty much the same as the GMC Acadia, and also built in Lansing, but it is a better seller and therefore stimulates the economy a bit more.
#7 Jeep Wrangler
Built in Toledo, Ohio the Wrangler is the most American of all vehicles from the Chrysler Group.
#6 Toyota Sienna 
Built in Indiana with engines and transmissions made in Kentucky. An American minivan for American families
#5 Honda Odyssey 
Made in sweet home Alabama with 75% American parts, this is the most American of all minivans.
#4 Ford Explorer 
The new Explorer is the most American SUV that you can get.
#3 Chevrolet Malibu 
Built in the middle of the USA in Kansas City, Missouri from 75% domestic parts
#2 Honda Accord 
The second best selling sedan in the country is also the second most American. Made in Ohio from 80% US parts.
#1 Toyota Camry 
Made by Americans, for Americans from 80% domestic parts. This car is also the top selling sedan in the US and has been for a decade or so.

American or not the Camry is a sales juggernaut.

The above list changes from year to year and it even varies somewhat depending on the criteria that are used to make the final decision on just how American each car is. One can’t help but find it interesting that exactly half of these cars are “Japanese”. The fact of the matter is that nobody has moved more auto manufacturing to the U.S. than Honda and Toyota, and nobody has moved more manufacturing outside of the U.S. than the Big Three.

GM Ford and Chrysler have moved a tremendous amount of manufacturing to places like Mexico and Canada, and they are even in the process of building factories in China. You might say that they are doing this because it is cheaper for them to manufacture their products elsewhere and that is probably true. The other part of it is that they are becoming more streamlined globally and if they are to build cars that are sent all around the world it may be easier for them to do this from other countries.
Chrysler's most American model.

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and even some of the Europeans such as Volkswagen, and BMW have moved a tremendous amount of manufacturing to our shores. So why is it that this makes good business sense for them while it makes poor sense for the domestics to stick around? The biggest difference between a Honda or Toyota plant and a Ford or Dodge plant is unionization of the workers. None of the Japanese car assembly plants are unionized. This doesn't mean that the works are somehow oppressed without the unions. Many times the unions have tried to organize in these factories but they have been rejected by the workers every time.

This goes even farther with Honda and Toyota because many of their models that are sold here, were also designed here, for the purpose of selling here. Go anywhere else in the world and the Honda Accord is not the same car as it is in the U.S. Do you think that Toyota could sell a big truck like the Tundra anywhere else in the world? Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. based in Torrance, CA is practically an independent company from the mother company back in Japan. Does it mean anything to know that Toyota and Honda stocks are traded on the NYSE?

Buying this car makes a lot of Americans in Ohio happy.
But what about the bottom line? Isn’t the most important thing about where it is that the profits end up? That may be true to a certain extent, but isn't economic stimulation here in the U.S. really the most important thing. Thousands of Americans work for Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in factories and engineering centers around the country. What about their job security? Is it less important then the security of those that work in a Chrysler plant in Mexico, or should we just worry about the profits that go to the big boys in offices in Detroit, who frankly have not shown very good stewardship of the American icons of the automotive world? If you want to follow some of these returns, and where the profits go, just remember that Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep are owned by Fiat which is Italian. So if you buy a Dodge the profits ultimately go to Italy.

The bottom line is actually this: drive what you want to drive because you like it or you think it’s a good car. Flag waving and auto buying cannot go hand in hand. The global economy is far too complicated for that. Ford builds cars all over the world, and so does Honda. What is American and what isn’t doesn’t matter anymore because it can never really be determined how much your purchase benefits whom. No matter what you pick, unless it is some strange European car, chances are you are helping some American somewhere have a certain measure of job security. Just leave it at that and have fun with your new car.
Toyota Tundra. Designed in California, Built in Texas with parts from Indiana.