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The Story of License Plates

License Plate 1

Fact or Internet myth? Read about one person’s struggle with personalized license plates, plus brush up on your knowledge of these automotive necessities.

In 1979, or so the story goes, Robert Barbour of California decided to get personalized plates. The application asked him to list three choices, just in case a desired plate wasn’t available. So, Robert writes:

  • SAILING
  • BOATING
  • NO PLATE

“SAILING” was already taken. “BOATING” was . . . already taken. So, even though Robert had meant that he had no third choice, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) sent him plates that read–you guessed it–“NO PLATE.”

This wasn’t what Robert had in mind, but he had to admit that these plates were pretty distinctive, so he put them on his car. Four weeks later, he received a notice for an overdue parking fine; then, he began receiving them from all over the state–daily.License Plate 2

Ends up that, when a California police officer ticketed a car that had no plate, they wrote on the citation: No Plate. With the magic of technology, the DMV computers sent the citations to the gentleman whose plates matched the note on the tickets. Meaning, of course, to Robert.

In a matter of months, Robert received about 2,500 notices. When he contacted the DMV, they suggested that he get different plates. Instead, he responded to each citation with a letter explaining the situation; often that worked. Sometimes, though, he had to appear in front of a judge to explain further.

License_Plate_3A couple of years later, the DMV requested that police officers write “None” rather than “No plate” when a cited vehicle had no license plate. This slowed down the number of notices Robert received to, oh, about five or six a month. That worked well for Robert and apparently nobody in California had personalized plates reading “NONE.”

But. Always a but, isn’t there? Some officers wrote down “Missing” to cite vehicles without plates–which caused the avalanche to go to Andrew Burg who (c’mon, you already know the punch line) had personalized plates that read “MISSING.”

By now, you’re assuming that this is one of those Internet tales that grows larger with each telling, much like Pinocchio’s nose. But, according to Snopes, this–and other personalized plate disasters–actually happened.

License plate laws

License_Plate_4 picturesAlthough Robert Barbour’s story shows how laws can cause problems for innocent people, these laws exist to keep order–and it just makes good sense to follow them. Otherwise, you can be fined. According to LegalMatch.com, here are the main requirements to stay in compliance; each plate must be:

  • Currently valid
  • Clearly visible:
    • Mounted in the proper place without obstruction
    • Cleaned so that it is free of debris, mud or dirt
    • Without a protective plastic cover if your state has banned them (because of the glare)

More than half of the states in the United States do NOT require front license plates. To get more information about your state’s requirements, you can use this page from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

History of license plates

california license plateHard as it is to imagine today, throughout most of history, people didn’t need to have license plates. Before there were cars, no one apparently saw a need for identifying vehicles, such as horse-drawn buggies, with numbers. And so, when cars were brand new, there was no already-established system for license plates that could be transferred from one type of vehicle–the buggy–to the next: cars. Officials quickly began to realize the importance of being able to identify cars, though, because a form of a license plate was apparently used as early as 1896 in the German state of Baden.

As far as the United States goes, New York started requiring license plates in 1901, but didn’t issue them. In other words, each individual owner was responsible for creating his own plate, using his initials as the identifying mark. (Can you imagine how many duplicate license plates would exist today if this system were used?)

“New York then began assigning numbers,” says Jeff Minard, license plate historian for the American License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA). “That system worked for years and people created plates out of leather or painted the number on their vehicle–or used house numbers. Whatever worked. You could use whatever materials you wanted and whatever color you liked. As long as you paid a small fee and put the correct number on your car, you were good to go.” Other options included going to the local blacksmith to buy a metal plate; still other people had wooden plates.

Also in 1901, the city of Cleveland, Ohio required motorists to register with city officials and receive a license number. The owners apparently created their own tags here, too, putting the appropriate number on them; these tags did not need to have the word “Cleveland” on them. Toledo, Ohio also had a similar system.

In 1903, Massachusetts began officially issuing license plates (rather than assigning a number to a car owner and requiring him to create the plate). The first one issued simply contained the number “1” and was given to Frederick Tudor. And, in multiple places online, it states that one of his relatives still has an active registration for this plate.

So, we asked Jeff if this was true and he confirmed it as fact. “Tudor was the head of the highway department in 1903,” Jeff says, “and so he was able to secure that number. And, in Massachusetts, license plate numbers can be inherited. That’s also true in Washington, Rhode Island, Delaware and Illinois.”

We dug around for more info and found an article on the subject by Ryan Lee Price on the Chilton DIY website. In June 1903, Ryan says, Massachusetts wanted to solve a dual problem: to generate revenue so that they could improve the road systems and to identify drivers and cars involved in breaking traffic laws. So, the newly created “automobile department” required all drivers to register their cars and pay an annual fee of two dollars; drivers were given until September to fulfill the requirements. By December 31, 1903, 3,241 cars and 502 motorcycles were registered, which raised $17,684–and those drivers typically wanted to obtain the lowest numbered plates possible “as a symbol of status.”

As for Frederick Tudor, Ryan provides these facts:

• He received his license plate on September 1, 1903

• He lived in Brookline, Massachusetts

• Tudor was also the nephew of Henry Lee Higginson

Although Higginson is not especially well known today, he was a Civil War veteran, a respected businessman–and the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881. So, in other words, he had some clout.

Early Massachusetts plates were iron, covered with porcelain. The background was cobalt blue and the number was in white, along with “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” When the plates contained single digits, they were quite small. As the registration numbers got larger, so did the size of the plates, which suggests that state officials didn’t foresee the state housing large numbers of drivers.

These old license plates weren’t dated, according to Jeff (and here is a look at some of those early plates). “Some states made you pay money every year, but you kept the same plate. Some time around World War I, though, state officials began saying that the current systems of issuing license plates was chaotic and that’s when the appearance of license plates became more standardized within a state. By 1918, according to the Smithsonian Institute, all states required them.

During the early days, drivers in some locales were required to have both a city and a state plate. In Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and New Mexico, license plates were required before they were even states. Because of all the variations in laws, plates can be classified as pre-territorial, territorial, pre-state and state.

Trivia: vintage license plates

The ALPCA site lists fun trivia, much of which comes from License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History, 1903 to the Present by Jim Fox. For example, did you know that the 1916 California plate has a spot where the owner needed to scratch in his name? Or that, during World War II, some states made their plates out of a soybean-based fiberboard? And, yes. The goats did find them to be tasty.

But, for the curious-minded, it’s this mystery that sticks in the mind: from 1910 to 1913, in Kentucky, plates first contained a small letter “B,” which was then replaced by an “L,” then an “M” and then a “G.” And, of course, nobody knows why! Argh.

License plate collectors

“This hobby attracts people from all walks of life, from farmers to senators, from undertakers to entertainers.” (License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History 1903 to the Present by James K. Fox)

When asked why he chose to collect license plates, Jeff Minard says, “Some people collect. Other people don’t. Some collect stamps and coins, or spoons or ashtrays. I liked how plates could come off of a car and then be hung in a garage, and I kept those.”

And, it simply went from there. “There are very few books about this type of collecting,” he continues, “and little knowledge about the plates. That can be a turnoff for some people, while other people like that. License plates also used to be difficult to find, but that was before eBay.” (Note: at the time of writing this post, after typing “license plates” into the eBay internal search bar, there were an astonishing 505,858 results!)

Jeff brings up an interesting point–that there is no central archival place to gather information about license plates. “Each state has its own DMV,” he says, “and if you call, someone there can tell you about the current plates, but not about historical information. In a sense, the amateur collectors are really also the historians.”

ALPCA has existed as a club for collectors for more than 60 years. Currently, according to Jeff, the club has 3,500 members; altogether, there have been more than 11,000 in the club’s existence. There are also about 1,000 people in a European club and 1,000 in an Australian club. “Plus,” he adds, “there is the guy on the street who has ten old license plates hanging in his garage, just because. Maybe because he just hasn’t thrown them away. I’ll bet that millions of men in the United States do that.”

Personalization of the plates adds a level of interest. One way to do that is to pay extra and be able to choose how your plates read (as Robert Barbour did in 1991). Another way is to choose a specialized kind of plate, an affinity plate, that “feeds into personal interests,” whether that means saving the whales, neutering pets, visiting national parks or something else entirely. “Tennessee has about 200 choices,” Jeff says, “while California has five.”

Why the difference? “California has too many cars and too much administration to be able to offer numerous choices,” Jeff explains. “But, the eastern and southern states typically have plenty of options, which makes collecting them fun. Some people will buy more than one license plate in a year and switch them out, almost like changing shoes. What you don’t want for your personal collection can be sold on eBay or at swap meets or on other websites.”

As if those weren’t enough reasons to collect, Jeff adds this: “License plates are quirky. They hang on the walls of bars, coffee shops and country restaurants. It’s just a cool thing to collect. If you haven’t traveled somewhere but would like to, you can get the license plate. You can even collect plates from around the world: from Vietnam, from Cambodia, from the Philippines. For $15 to $20, you can have the world at your fingertips.”

A look at a niche collection of vintage license plates

As Jeff mentions, different collectors have different interests–and we at Advance Auto Parts talked to a man, Charley Kulchar, who focused his collection on Ohio license plates. He started his collection “long ago” and what fascinated him enough to start his collection were the first four years of state plates in Ohio, before they became painted metal.

“In 1908 and 1909,” Charley says, “they were blue porcelain with white letters and there was a zero with an H in the center to designate Ohio.” In 1910, state officials experimented with using red porcelain “with black brushed through for a woodgrain effect”; and, in 1911, they tried white porcelain with black lettering. Switching to flat metal plates with painted lettering in 1912, letters became embossed in 1918.

After that, the state of war and peace dictated significant changes in Ohio’s plates. “Ohio license plates were issued in pairs until 1943,” Charley says. “But, because of the steel shortage during World War II, people didn’t receive new plates in 1943. Instead, they got a sticker for their windshields.” In 1944 through 1946, the steel supply apparently freed up enough for Ohio officials to issue single metal plates, returning to pairs from 1947 through 1951–when the Korean War caused more changes: a sticker in 1952 and a single plate in 1953.

During the single-plate years, some cities, including Cleveland and LaGrange, offered what was called a “booster plate” for the front of the car, the forerunner of today’s personalized plates. “It was just an accessory, a novelty,” Charley explains, “often seen with folks’ initials on them.”

Charley says that he continued to collect Ohio plates (all double-plate years, with embossing gone after 1973) until 1975, when people no longer needed to buy new plates each year. Instead, a sticker could be purchased and placed on the bottom right hand corner of the back plate to indicate current registration.

And, remember how Cleveland was the first city to require registration of cars in 1901? Charley says that “registration was required if you lived in the city or if you spent 24 hours in a row in Cleveland, so people who did business in the city often had to register, too. They were each given house numbers to use.”

Charley has spent considerable time studying the handwritten registration ledgers from 1908, when Ohio first required plates. “You needed to list your name, the type of auto you had, its horsepower, its serial number and where you lived. You were then assigned a number, starting with 1. Of course, the influential people–usually those in mining, steel or some other industry–got the low numbers with Francis Prentiss, owner of the Cleveland Twist Drill Company, getting both #2 and #4.”

It’s hard to locate single-digit plates, since there were only 9–and not all that easy to find double-digit ones, either, since there are only 90 of them. So, Charley has focused on finding triple-digit plates. “In 1930, when the Cleveland Municipal Stadium was being built,” he says, “it was placed over the city dump. Then, when it was torn down in 1996, a number of 1911 porcelain license plates were found and circulated. Many were quite deteriorated but, since they were made of porcelain, they are still legible.”

Charley owns “a couple of thousand plates,” explaining that, sometimes, he might “only want one or two plates, but needed to buy an entire collection to get them. Then, I’d trade, sell or scrap others of the plates.” His collection grew to the point that he had a plate from the entire timeline of 1908 to 1974. In recent years, he says, the hobby has changed because of the Internet. “You used to go to swap meets to buy and sell and you got to meet a lot of nice people from around the country. Now, you can just put up a plate on the Internet–or buy one that way. It’s a better way to sell but less personal, and nowadays you can become an overnight collector just by buying online.”

Editor’s note: How about you? Are any of our readers collecting old license plates? What are your thoughts? Please share in the comment below!

10 Tips on How and Why to Organize Your Trunk

Messy Car trunk picturesWhether you’re driving a sedan, SUV, pickup or wagon, chances are that its trunk or cargo area is in need of some serious organizing and TLC. For most drivers, these cargo areas get messy in a hurry and understandably so. Being out of sight and a somewhat expansive area, it’s a natural tendency for the trunk to become a catch all for items hurriedly placed in the vehicle, and then just as quickly forgotten.

There are undoubtedly some things that belong in every trunk, such as an emergency kit, and then a whole lot of other items that can probably be removed. It’s a new year and time to get organized, and even if organization isn’t one of your resolutions, just consider this top ten list of how and why to organize your trunk as a way to get a jump on spring cleaning.

1. Increase safety – when a vehicle stops short or is involved in a collision, its occupants are (hopefully) restrained thanks to safety belts. The same can’t be said for items lying loose in the vehicle. In an emergency situation, these items become airborne projectiles capable of inflicting serious injury on occupants and causing significant damage inside the vehicle, particularly if the loose items are heavy. This isn’t as much a concern when the items are contained in the trunk as compared to loose items in an SUV’s cargo area or a pickup truck bed. Loose items can also impact vehicle handling in unexpected ways. Heavy items rolling about can cause a loss of vehicle control during cornering because of the uneven weight distribution and sudden weight shift. Organizing items back there, removing unused cargo and securing what remains can greatly improve passenger safety.

2. Save money – the extra weight being carried around is having a negative impact on both fuel mileage and your wallet. Reduce the vehicle’s weight by removing unnecessary cargo and increase your fuel mileage. A better organized cargo area also helps save money because you know what you have at a glance – such as windshield washer fluid, oil, deicer or bottled water – helping prevent the purchase and unnecessary expense of purchasing duplicate items.

3. Drive (or ride) happier – most vehicle owners aren’t fond of disorder, chaos, and clutter when it comes to their vehicle’s storage area, or any aspect of their environment. Organize your vehicle and be a happier, more efficient driver.

4. Remove everything – the first step in organizing the trunk is to remove everything so you’re starting with a clean slate (after you’ve vacuumed and shampooed the carpet, that is) and you can actually see what’s been lurking back there these past several months. Next, decide what’s staying and what’s going.

5. Get an organizer – there are numerous products on the market that will help you achieve an organized trunk or cargo area. It can be as simple as a device that prevents shopping bags from tipping over or cargo from rolling about, to a multi-compartment organizer that collapses when not being used. Only you know what works best for your lifestyle and trunk. The key to organization is knowing what you have, and having a designated place for it.

6. Keep it out of the trunk – one good way to keep your trunk or cargo area better organized is to not put stuff back there in the first place. Plastic or re-useable fabric grocery bags, your purse, or pretty much any bag with handles might be better off riding up front with you. These ingenious hooks slip over the headrest, providing a convenient and secure spot to hang a bag with handles. With the bags not being in the trunk, they won’t spill over and you won’t run the risk of forgetting they’re back there.

7. Bare necessities – in keeping with point number six, above, the less that’s in your trunk means the less you have to organize. That’s not to say the trunk should be empty. At the very least, there should be an emergency kit with jumper cables or a battery booster, first aid kit, tire inflation, flashlight, snacks and water, fresh batteries, flares and/or emergency warning triangles. If it’s winter and you’re driving in colder climates, also include a small snow shovel, blanket, and traction material

8. Use protection – whether its hauling bags of potting soil, sandbox sand, or water softener salt, or just muddy or snow-covered boots, things can get pretty dirty back there. That’s ok, because the cargo area is designed for this. That doesn’t mean, however, that the carpet or other items stored in the trunk have to suffer from damaging stains or moisture. Trunk and cargo-area liners are made to fit snugly in the area they’re protecting, feature a lip around the edge to contain spills, and are made from moisture proof rubber or plastic materials that make clean up a snap.

9. Stay clean – your vehicle’s exterior probably isn’t sparkling clean 100 percent of the time. And when it’s at its salt- or dirt-covered nastiest, you can be sure that’s the day you’ll need to lean over the back bumper to retrieve something out of the trunk. When you do, you can prevent getting your clothes dirty with this trunk protector that’s always in your trunk and attached to the carpet when you need it. Simply unroll it over the bumper and you’re leaning up against a clean surface.Car trunk organizer photo

10. Contain it – loose items and trunks, beds, and cargo areas aren’t a good combination because they’re guaranteed to deliver spills, damage, frustration and potential injury. The solution is simple – no matter what you’re driving and what you’re hauling, contain the cargo. Bars, tie-down straps, and pet and cargo barriers will help better protect you, your cargo and the vehicle.

 

Editor’s note: Count on Advance Auto Parts for your trunk storage and organizational needs. Buy online, pick up in store—in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Nissan Maxima

1989 Nissan Maxima photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, Street Talk goes in-depth on perhaps the first affordable performance sedan of the modern era: the Nissan Maxima.

Do you know about the original four-door sports car?

We’re talking about the Nissan Maxima, of course — but a lot of people would have guessed something else. If you want to talk about cars that don’t get enough credit for being cool, the Maxima’s right up there at the top. This car should be a legend in its own time, yet all it is to most folks today is an overgrown Altima with a price tag to match.

But we’re not talking about the current Maxima, see, or even the previous one; we’re talking about that sweet spot back in the 1990s, when the Maxima gave you performance you couldn’t get anywhere else for the price.

So we’re going to take a minute and set the record straight. We also want to talk about some cool mods that Maxima owners are still rocking on the street.

4DSC

Wearing that simple acronym — 4 Door Sports Car — on a sticker affixed to its rear window, the 1989 Nissan Maxima started a revolution. Actually, some would argue it was the preceding Maxima (1984-’88) that commenced the true sportiness, what with its 3.0-liter V6 engine and available adaptive suspension, and you could even go back to the first two generations (1976-’84), which shared their powertrains with the iconic Z two-seater. But if you ask us, the official beginning of the Maxima’s dominance was when they slapped that “4DSC” sticker on the window. Nissan had brought together the strengths of the earlier models into a cohesive whole, and the result was the perfect antidote to the common Camry.

What made the 4DSC Maxima so great? Styling, for one thing. Even after almost three decades, this is one slick-looking sedan, with smooth lines that clearly distinguish it from its blocky, ’80s-tastic predecessor. But the real star was the SE model, which featured a 190-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 that put it in the upper echelon of performance sedans. If you wanted a quicker midsize four-door in those days, you had to go European — and even then, the Maxima SE had a fighting chance. Consider this: with the five-speed manual transmission, the Maxima SE did zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. Shoot, the Mercedes-Benz E420 with its 275-hp V8 would have had a hard time keeping up.

Naturally, this Maxima cost a fraction of what the Europeans were charging, and it also offered cool stuff like a legit sport-tuned suspension, a Bose audio system, a sunroof and attractive alloy wheels. The icing on the cake was its incredible reliability, with 200,000-mile-plus specimens becoming increasingly common as the years went on.

Check out this vintage commercial on the 1989 Nissan Maxima:

The Torsion Beam Fiasco and General Decline

To be fair, the subsequent Maxima (1995-’99) was a great car, too, even though it carried over the SE’s 190-hp V6 (now standard on all models) and didn’t really break new ground otherwise. That was still good enough to make it the enthusiast’s choice over the humdrum family sedans in its class. But some bemoaned its droopy rear-end styling, and even more shook their heads at its solid-axle torsion beam rear suspension, an explicit cost-cutting move that effectively conceded the handling crown to the previous car with its four-wheel independent setup. The “4DSC” sticker had disappeared from the rear window, and that wasn’t a coincidence.

To this Maxima’s credit, reliability remained a strong point, and many are still on the road today with insanely high miles. But it wasn’t as awesome as its predecessor, and unfortunately that was the start of a trend.

Since then, each subsequent Maxima has grown more powerful but less engaging, culminating with the current model, which comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and is indeed little more than an overgrown Altima.2014 Nissan Maxima photo

But for a decade or so, the Maxima was the best affordable performance sedan that money could buy. When you look around today at high-powered midsizers like the Accord V6 and Camry V6, you gotta give a little nod to the four-door sports car, the granddaddy of them all.

Street Mods for your Maxima

If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the Maxima community, check out the forums. They break it down by generation, and if you look at the two we highlighted — 1989-’94 and 1995-’99 — they’ve got tens of thousands more threads than the rest.

No offense if you own a different Maxima, but we weren’t kidding that those are the ones to have.

Now, supposing you want to put your personal stamp on your Maxima, there’s no end to the possibilities. Slap a turbo kit on it for more power? No problem, the powertrain’s certainly robust enough for that. Crazy subwoofers in the trunk? Been there, done that, with extensive DIYs in the forums. You’ll see a lot of the ’89-’94 models slammed to within a millimeter of their lives, and some of them look damn good, too. Ground effects, sick rims — you name it, the Maxima can rock it.

The best part is, these cars are so old that you can buy one for a song, leaving you plenty in the bank to customize to your heart’s content.

Tell Us Your Maxima Story

The Maxima is a car that engenders serious loyalty. We know a number of “Maxima families,” and all of them got started with one of the early models that never let them down. Have you had that kind of Maxima experience? Tell us about it in the comments.

2015 comprehensive wheel guide by Advance Auto Parts

Ferrari F40 wheel photoCount on Advance Auto Parts for reliable info about your ride, whether you’re looking to improve performance or street appeal – or both. Today, we take a look at one of its most basic features, the wheel.

Most iconic wheels in history

According to CarThrottle.com’s top 10 list, the Ferrari F40 from the late 1980s and early 1990s is the winner. According to the site, these wheels are as special as the car itself and “despite being only 17 inches at each corner (small by today’s supercar standards), they displayed all the confidence in design that became synonymous with the era.”

Second place went to the BMW E30’s cross spoke alloy wheels that cost extra when the car was first released in 1982. Check out the article for photos of these two beauties, as well as the wheel choices in places three through ten.

Modern-day choices

Whether you’re looking to pimp your ride (wouldn’t it be great to have a fresh new look after a long winter?) or whether you’re looking for tough dependable choices from reliable brands, here is guidance.

First, a video. In it, Alan Peltier, president of HRE Wheels, shares the latest in his company’s custom high street performance wheels with Jay Leno – including one that Leno says looks like so much trouble that it should get a ticket even when not in motion. Warning: if you fall in love with these babies, be prepared to spend $6,000-$12,000 – or even $15,000 to $20,000 – for a set of four:

Now, let’s get more practical.

CarThrottle.com names the ten most incredible aftermarket wheels for when you’re ready to make your ride look amazing. Topping the list:

  • Rota Grid: called the “Swiss Army Knife of rims” for their ability to look “awesome on pretty much any car,” they come with uncluttered wide spokes.
  • OZ Ultraleggera: if you love a dark grey finish, CarThrottle.com recommends this “gorgeous multi-spoke design.”
  • ATS Classic: these come with contrasting black centers with chrome rims.

Take a look at the images as well as the rest of the winners.

Here’s what Tires.About.com chose as the ten most beautiful aftermarket wheels (after confessing a dislike of chrome because it’s harder to maintain, and because of a personal distaste of the look). The list is topped by:

  • KMC Ink’d: called a “canvas for wheel artists. Just breathtaking.”
  • TSW Silverstone: “dead black inner looks great in the daylight, but tends to disappear at night, leaving the bright-silver, diamond cut outer ring looking like it floats in midair as the car is moving.”
  • Enkei GW8: “I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this wheel. Minimalist red plastic inserts and a jagged, asymmetrical spoke design make the GW8 one of Enkei’s unique works of wheel art.”

Toughness matters to you? Find out which five aftermarket wheels Tires.About.com names as the five brands to consider – and three to avoid.

Finally, get another opinion – from Sub5Zero.com – about the ten coolest wheel manufacturers on earth. They assure readers that, “Yes, even the most mundane transportation appliances under the sun can be endowed with new found sex appeal simply by slapping on some new hoops.”

Point of clarification

Today, many people call wheels by the name of “rims,” especially when crafted from aluminum alloy. Technically speaking, though, “rims” are the outer portion of the wheel where the tire is actually mounted.

But, no matter what you call them, how did we get to this point?

Going back in time

The name of the creative genius(es) who first thought of using wheels for transportation reasons is lost in the mist of time, but it probably happened around 3,200 BC (yes, more than 5,000 years ago!).The goal? To have the fastest Mesopotamian chariot in town.

Fifteen hundred years later, Egyptians invented a way to use less material and to move more quickly with their lighter-in-weight wheels: they invented the spoke. Greeks then brainstormed the cross-bar wheel.

About 3,000 years ago (1,000 BC), the Celts added iron rims to their chariots – and that’s about as far as wheels evolved until 1802, when G.F. Bauer registered a patent for a wire tension spoke, where wire was threaded through the rim of the wheel – and this evolved into what we see on modern-day bicycles.

Automobile wheels

If you were a true trendsetter, buying wheels for the first automobile that used them, you’d only need to buy three – since the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen only had three wire wheels covered with hard rubber. Another set of trendsetters, Andre and Edouard Michelin, first came up with the idea of using rubber for this purpose. They then went on to found the now-famous tire company. In 1910, the B.F. Goodrich Company improved upon the invention by adding carbon to the rubber.

In the United States, the Ford Model T sported wooden artillery wheels until the 1926 and 1927 vehicles, which used steel welded-spoke wheels. The tires, unfortunately, had a short lifespan, needing repairs after only 30 to 40 miles and lasting only about 2,000 miles before needing to be trashed. Plus, tires often separated from the wheel.

Next were the steel disc wheels stamped out of a roll of sheet metal, which were more solid that Ford’s version. These became more lightweight over time, leading to today’s steel and aluminum/nickel alloy wheels (more about those soon).

From looking cool to keeping raw power under control

Complex.com provides a great overview of car wheels from 1945-1960, the period they call the postwar drag racing era. During this time, drag racers cut holes into the wheels to avoid meltdowns, turned them backwards into deep dish wheels to make them stand out, and more.

Then, in the late 1950s, American Racing invented what is now called the mag wheel with “big fat spokes. It met the three considerations – weight, strength, and brake cooling – but it also looked cool. It was the first real cool hot rod rim.”
Plus, heavy-duty steel and then aluminum rims made “gas-guzzling muscle cars” from Ford, Chevy and Chrysler capture attention on the streets. And so, “what distinguished the ‘hot’ from the ‘cold” was not just the big-block engines under the heavy hoods. It was the rims that let you know real quick who was a serious threat and who a poser. If you have American Racing rims, you were the big-time. They kept all that raw power under control.”

Complex.com also takes you through 1960-1970, the age of chrome, when racecar rims made it on the streets and the smooth aluminum Moon Disc reduced drag, when chrome reverse rims were cutting edge and people painted their rims. Also check out rims from the era of the low rider (1970-1980), from the age of the spinner (1980-1990) and beyond.

Steel versus alloy

Car wheel comparison chart

 

** Less nickel creates a lighter wheel, but one that can bend more easily upon impact; more nickel makes a heavier wheel, which doesn’t bend easily but can become brittle and crack.
Some wheels are made of cast aluminum where the melted alloy is poured into a mold, with multiple methods of casting, including:** Less nickel creates a lighter wheel, but one that can bend more easily upon impact; more nickel makes a heavier wheel, which doesn’t bend easily but can become brittle and crack.

• Gravity casting: metal is poured directly into a mold with only gravity pushing the alloy. This ends up being a thicker and heavier form of alloy.

• Pressure casting:
  • Low pressure: air forces the molten metal into the mold, making it denser and stronger
  • Counter-pressure: a mild vacuum in the mold sucks the alloy into it; this also makes a denser, stronger wheel
 • Free flowing: high pressure rollers stretch and shape the alloy, creating a thin dense metal that is similar to forged aluminum (see below)

Some wheels are made of forged aluminum where a solid piece of alloy is placed under 13 million pounds of pressure (and heat) to crush it before shaping. This makes an exceptionally dense and strong piece of metal that is also very light. TSW Wheels takes forging a step further, doing so while the forge is spinning at high speeds, which creates an even stronger product.

See Tires.About.com’s Wheel Composition and Construction for more info.

Time to DIY

The TireRack.com site is a great resource when you’re a DIYer. One article suggests that, when choosing which wheels to buy, you should consider quality, integrity and value. What level of quality do you need? If you’re looking for winter wheels, you’ll have less of a need for sophisticated technology, TireRack.com points out, than if you’re looking to race.

Having the correct size of wheels, of course, is crucial. You already know that they come in a wide range of widths, from the petite 14” wheels to massive 24” ones, with 16”, 17” and 18” serving as common diameters. Widths tend to increase along with diameters, so you might see a 14 x 5 wheel or a 19 x 10 one.

Yet, a proper fit is something more than diameter (or even diameter and width). According to TireRack.com, “To property fit on a vehicle the wheel must have the proper bolt pattern, centerbore, offset, width, and most importantly, the proper load capacity for the vehicle.” And, when selecting wheels, make sure that you tell your vendor what has been upgraded on your vehicle. If, for example, the brake system has been modified, then additional measurements need taken for an optimal fit.

If you’re buying online and need to measure the wheels yourself, eBay.com’s Wheels and Rims Buying Guide offers advice. If you aren’t changing the size, it’s fairly simple. Look at the code that’s on your current wheels. It might read “225/70R16.” If so, then these are 16 inch wheels on a 225 millimeter radial tire with a sidewall height of 70. Note that, on some high performance cars, rear wheels are slightly larger than those in the front.

If plus-sizing your wheels, then precise measurements are a must. Measure the width (left edge to right edge); diameter (top to bottom); bolt pattern (“how many bolts; measure width of bolt circle with bolt circle gauge or use measuring tape and starting at edge of first bolt hole, measure to the center of the third bolt hole, skipping the second one); backspace (clearance of wheel from the wheel well); and offset (distance from the hub mounting surface to the wheel centerline)

When it’s time to install your wheels, we refer you back to TireRack.com. The site offers tire and wheel installation tips. Even if you’re fairly comfortable with doing the job yourself, it wouldn’t hurt to review these first.

Budgeting for your upgrade

Costs vary widely. Bigger wheel sizes, not surprisingly, can cost more than smaller ones, all else being equal. Steel is cheaper than alloy. Plainer wheels are typically less expensive than flashy and/or artistic choices, and more appealing wheel finishes can cost you.

We’ve seen $65 wheels on discounted wheel sites. We’ve seen refurbished wheels that cost much less than what they would when brand new, and we’ve seen eye-catching ones that are custom made (and therefore more expensive).

It will almost always be cheaper to upgrade your Ford or Chevy than your Mercedes-Benz. Replacements for luxury cars can easily cost $500-600 per wheel.

The best general advice that we can give:

  • Determine your vehicle’s needs; as mentioned above, you need more sophistication if you plan to race than if you drive more traditionally.
  • Decide your budget.
  • Choose wheels of reasonable quality that fit your vehicle (and your budget).
  • Don’t be so penny foolish that you buy wheels that are poorly made or that aren’t the best fit because those decisions will cost you in the long run.
  • Beyond that, let your personal taste be your guide.
  • Have fun!

Gas mileage

You’ve probably heard that the right wheels can save on gas mileage – and we decided to investigate, to determine how much of that is rumor and, how much, fact. Among other sources, we took a look at BankRate.com’s article, Wheels and tires affect car’s gas mileage. This article points out how manufacturers invest time and money determining the ideal wheel and tire sizes for a particular vehicle. When you replace OEM wheels and/or tires, the car’s handling – and therefore fuel economy – can be affected. And, handling and mileage can be affected in either an upward or downward manner.

Common sense suggests that bigger wheels are heavier and are therefore a drag on fuel efficiency, but the formula isn’t quite that simple. We recommend that you read the entire BankRate.com article if you’re interested in how aftermarket wheels can affect handling and/or mileage.

You can also look at CarAndDriver.com tests on upsized wheels as they attempt to find just the right upgrades.

Other performance benefits with the right wheels

TireRack.com lists these four that, taken together, make for a smoother more comfortable ride:

• Alloy wheels reduce unsprung weight, which allows for “more precise steering input and improved ‘turning in’ characteristics.”

• Improved acceleration and braking

• Added rigidity, which can “significantly reduce wheel/tire deflection in cornering”

• Increased brake cooling

Future of the wheel

The pneumatic tire was invented in 1845, when leather was filled with compressed air – and it’s still the standard used today, although the leather was replaced with rubber.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s around the corner with futuristic wheels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVgMArLtDk8

In 2006, Michelin announced the Tweel, which is a non-pneumatic tire/wheel combo that, according to Michelin, can provide the same load-carrying capacity as the traditional wheel and tire. Stability challenges apparently exist once a vehicle moves at more than 50 mph, with significant vibration occurring, but we expect to see improvements.

Michelin is also experimenting with the Active Wheel System for electric cars. This system houses the vehicle’s engine, suspension, gearbox and transmission shaft.

Keep your wheels looking good

Once you invest all this time, energy and money into choosing the right wheels for your vehicle, you’ll want to keep them looking nice. Fortunately, Advance Auto Parts has a complete line of products to keep your wheels looking their best, plus accessories.

 

Wheel graphic courtesy of Hemmings Motor News.

 

 

 

Recap: Detroit Auto Show 2015

Our resident Gearhead recaps one of his all-time favorite events: The North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, Michigan.

Let me say this right upfront: It’s always a privilege for an old fart like me to attend a major automotive event like the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, or NAIAS, as it’s sometimes called. There’s nothing like that buzz in the air when a new car gets unveiled, or when the next automaker’s press conference is about to get underway.

But recently I’ve been feeling like there aren’t as many awesome rides at the auto shows as there used to be. With the internet, of course, you get all manner of “teasers” and information leaks on social media before the show, but the cars themselves just haven’t been doing it for me.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by the action this year in Detroit. For once, the focus wasn’t on electric-powered this or hydrogen-powered that; there were simply a bunch of amazing cars that I’d love to own, and I got up close and personal with every one of ‘em.

I’d have you here all day if I gave you the whole list, so tell you what, here are the three vehicles at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show that I liked the most.

1. Ford F-150 Raptor

Ford F-150 Raptor 2017 photo

 

The all-new, second-generation Raptor off-roader was love at first sight for me, and the more I learned about it, the more infatuated I got. Well, for the most part. To be honest with you, I wish the previous Raptor’s 411-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8 were still around. The newly standard 3.5-liter “EcoBoost” twin-turbo V6 is said to make even more power than the outgoing V8, but I promise you it won’t sound half as good when you’re on the throttle. Otherwise, though, the new Raptor is a home run, from its handsome, muscular styling to its beefed-up underpinnings that are even more capable than before. The specialized Fox Racing Shox have more travel, there’s a new terrain-management system with driver-selectable modes, and the transmission is a novel 10-speed automatic that’s being co-developed with General Motors. I’m not even a truck guy and I want an F-150 Raptor. Bad.

2. Ford GT

Ford GT picture

Ford managed to keep its next-generation supercar under wraps until the company press conference, and let’s just say everyone was shocked in the very best way when it broke cover. I mean, look at the thing — it’s gorgeous, but with a definite edge, like a Ferrari that went to finishing school in America. It’s even got Lambo-style scissor doors, trumping the previous Ford GT (sold in limited quantities a decade ago) with its conventional forward-hinged swingers. In the engine compartment, located behind the seats and beneath a clear window, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost takes up residency, relegating another fine V8 to the dustbin. But in this case I’m in a forgiving mood, because Ford has cranked the twin-turbo V6 up to more than 600 horsepower. Offered solely with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, the latest Ford GT figures to be a world-beater at the racetrack, yet the interior’s decked out with high-tech furnishings like a configurable TFT instrument panel and the SYNC touchscreen infotainment system. If there’s one car at this year’s show that’s bound to become an automotive icon, it’s the reinvented GT.

3. Acura NSX

Acura NSX picture

But for the Ford GT’s presence, the new NSX would have stolen the show. Like the GT, the NSX has had about a decade off since the previous generation bit the dust, and it’s been similarly rejuvenated with a twin-turbo V6 of its own and a nine-speed dual-clutch automated transmission. Unlike the Ford, however, the NSX also features an all-wheel-drive system with tri-motor hybrid assist (two motors for the front axle, one for the rear). Total output is estimated to be in excess of 600 hp. Beyond the numbers, the NSX looks great with cool LED headlights, massive wheels (19-in fronts, 20-in rears) and a body that actually takes some chances, at least by Honda/Acura standards. The interior looks beautiful, too. Audi and Porsche might want to check their rearviews, because Acura wants in on the premium sports-car business.

Let’s Talk

Come on, I know you were following the Auto Show at home. What were your favorites this year? Tell me why I should have picked yours in the comments.

Destination Daytona: Simply Clean 6

Daytona_1

Photo credit: Mike Raffia

Auto enthusiasts are the lifeblood of the aftermarket performance industry. More specifically, these men and women are the driving force for manufacturer motorsports programs from Porsche to Kia.

In the Southeast, the Simply Clean annual car show has become a destination attraction for custom car enthusiasts from Connecticut to the Florida Keys. These enthusiasts push the physical limits of how low they can drive and how wide their cars can be.

 

Simply Clean 6

In its 6th year, Simply Clean was presented by an Orlando, Florida based group of enthusiasts in Ormond Beach. The group prides themselves on appreciation of all styles and cultures in both cars and motorcycles. This year, the show attracted a crowd of over 2,000 participants, and we noticed plates from almost every state along the East Coast.

Daytona_2

Photo credit: Mike Raffia

We love going to shows like this to see cars prepared for anything from weekend track days to cruising Daytona Beach in style. The cars of choice this year (and for enthusiasts everywhere in the U.S.) seem to be the Scion FR-S and the venerable Mazda Miata.

Daytona_3

Photo credit: Mike Raffia

In Florida, the Miata goes for a premium. As one owner told us, “It’s made for Florida.” Convertible top, great ride and Florida’s scenic State Road A1A all contribute the popularity of this model in the Sunshine State.

Vendors, including multiple custom wheels companies such as Complete Custom Wheel (CCW) from Daytona and Brada Wheels out of Atlanta, showed their latest styles. Vossen’s rare VLE-1 was also on display.

Daytona_4

Photo credit: Mike Raffia

For additional coverage, check out this post by our friends at Lowered Lifestyle.

In the meantime, check out the rest of this exclusive photo essay:

 

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

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Photo credit: Mike Raffia

News from Detroit Auto Show 2015

Can’t make it to Michigan this week? No problem, Advance is live at the Detroit Auto Show, bringing you the latest news and updates!

Ford GT Supercar

Here’s a hot item for you:

Ford is making big waves early on at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, unveiling a pair of hotly anticipated second-generation performance models: the Ford F-150 Raptor and the Ford GT supercar, both powered by the proven 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6.

Ford F-150

Keep an eye out for more news and a full recap later this week!

The North American International Auto Show takes place now through January 25, 2015, at COBO Center, Detroit, Michigan.

What NOT To Do While Working On Your Car

Check out our resident Gearhead’s Top 3 Things to avoid doing while DIY’ing.

Car engine pictureIf you’re reading this article, let me first extend a warm welcome to a fellow Gearhead. Anyone who likes to get his or her hands dirty with DIY projects is alright in my book. But there’s a dark side to DIY, as we all know, and it’s the simple fact that things can go wrong.

Moreover, things will go wrong if you don’t have a method to your madness.

Now, I’m not here to insult your intelligence. Chances are, you’ve tackled some heavy projects already, and I imagine you’ve been successful. But even experts can learn new tricks, and that’s what I want to talk about today. Let’s consider three things you don’t want to do when you’re taking on a serious DIY challenge.

1. Don’t trust the Internet.

Remember, I’m talking about hardcore projects here. If you’re changing your spark plugs or brake pads or something simple like that, then by all means, consult your online forum of choice and follow the handy DIY guide. But for more invasive procedures, you’re playing with fire if you crowd-source the details. You’re already invested enough in your car’s well-being to be your own mechanic — why not act like a mechanic and get a dedicated shop manual for your car?

If you’re with me on that, you’ve got a couple options. The old-school approach is to track down a manual that you hold in your hands, whether you find it on eBay or through a third-party provider like Haynes or Chilton. If you just can’t stay away from your computer, Haynes has an online version that features color photos and wiring diagrams, videos and detailed troubleshooting procedures.  Have a look at http://www.haynes.com/onlinerepairmanuals/.

2. Don’t rely on memory – use your camera.

This one’s so simple that experienced DIY’ers might even find it a little insulting. “I don’t need no stinkin’ photos,” you might be thinking. “I’ve been wrenching on cars for years!” Hey, I hear you. So have I. But with the advent of smartphones that can take a nice sharp photo, you’d be crazy, in my humble opinion, not to use your phone’s camera to document the disassembly process step-by-step. Okay, not every step — some stuff you can do in your sleep if you’ve been DIY’ing long enough. But you know as well as I do that those shop-manual diagrams are inscrutable at times, and anyway, the job’s bound to be a lot easier if you can retrace your steps in full color. The point is to put everything back where you found it, and photos leave no doubt where things are supposed to go.

3. Don’t forget the “While you’re in there” stuff.

This is one that only DIY mechanics will embrace — because real mechanics want you to pay them to disassemble the same stuff as many times as possible! As a DIY’er, though, your time is valuable, and you don’t want to waste it on taking things apart more than once. There’s a counterargument, of course, and it’s that the main point of DIY’ing is to save money, so why compromise your savings by replacing parts that aren’t broken? If that’s what you’re thinking, I hear you, and my answer is that you’ve just got to use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

I’ll give you an example: I did my lower ball joints recently, and while I had the control arms out, I thought about other parts in there that might merit the R&R treatment. You don’t want to use a spring compressor more often than you have to, right? Well, I realized each control arm had some rubber bushings in it that had probably never been changed, and new ones cost about 20 bucks for a whole kit. That’s what you call a no-brainer. On the flipside, whenever my engine cover’s off, I’ve got easy access to my mass airflow sensor (MAF), but that damn thing costs 400 bucks. Now you’ve got a no-brainer going the other way. So it’s a judgment call, like I said, but you should always be thinking about reasonably priced parts that can be replaced “while you’re in there.”

Let’s Talk

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about DIY’ing over the years, it’s that every experienced DIY’er has wisdom to contribute. What are some common mistakes that you’ve learned to avoid? Let’s hear it in the comments.

 

Editor’s note: After all that, one things’s for sure—what you should be doing is getting the parts you need fast and then back to those car projects. Advance Auto Parts can help: buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Toyota Camry

Toyota Camry photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door showcases the midsize miracle that is the Toyota Camry.

32 years later and the Toyota Camry is still battling it out with its arch-nemesis Honda Accord.

First introduced in the U.S. in 1983 to replace the rear-wheel drive Corona, Camry was Toyota’s answer to the Honda Accord’s steadily growing U.S. popularity. The Accord had already been available in the U.S. for seven years when Camry entered the market and one of the ways Toyota helped set the Camry apart from that competition was by making the Camry larger and more powerful. The first Camry’s wheelbase was nearly half a foot longer than Accord’s and had about seven percent more horsepower.

But it would take Camry nearly 14 years to jump ahead of Accord in retail sales, a feat it accomplished in 1997 when it also became the best-selling car in the U.S. The two have traded places numerous times in the years since even as many other Toyota cars were added to the lineup.

Even today, Camry is still compared to Accord, but Nissan’s Altima and Hyundai’s Sonata have been added to the list, as seen on Toyota’s 2015 Camry website. It’s a perplexing comparison, from a consumer’s point of view, in that there’s very little differentiation between the four models and certainly nothing that makes Camry a clear winner or standout in any one of the more than 25 categories. Perhaps that was Toyota’s intention – to position Camry as Accord’s equal and as a solid choice among the numerous Toyota cars, trucks and SUV’s available today.

Camry, like other Toyota cars, has changed with the times, undergoing a redesign approximately every five years. That first Camry’s 2-liter, four-cylinder engine cranked out 92 horsepower compared to today’s 3.5-liter, V-6 engine that delivers 268 horsepower. The V-6’s availability wasn’t an option on Camrys until 1988 when all-wheel drive also became available.Toyota Camry Trunk photo

As Camry grew in popularity, and size, it also increased its reputation for ride comfort, luxury and delivering a quite ride – attributes that helped the 1992 Camry serve as the model for Toyota’s 1992 Lexus ES 300. Even today Toyota still carefully focuses on and promotes Camry’s quite-ride factor, highlighting the 2015 model’s “vortex generators” on the exterior that are designed to smooth turbulent air, increasing efficiency and reducing cabin noise.

Today’s Camry offers seven different models to choose from – LE, SE, XSE, XLE, Hybrid LE, Hybrid SE, and Hybrid XLE. The two models Camry lovers won’t find, however, are the two-door model and the station wagon, both having been discontinued in 1997.

With a base MSRP of $22,970 and 25/35 estimated miles per gallon, Camry’s 2015 design is promoted as bold and aggressive. An available sport-mesh grill, LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels and dual chrome-tipped exhaust are paired with a sporty interior to give it that look. An interior – or “cockpit that’s ready for the fast lane,” as Toyota describes it on some models – features sport seats, moon roof, and paddle shifters mounted to the back of the steering wheel that enable the six-speed automatic to be shifted manually.Toyota Camry Interior photo

Technology designed to enhance driver convenience and comfort is an integral part of Camry’s interior. The Entune® App Suite enables drivers and passenger to perform a wide variety of activities – including access Pandora and iHeartRadio, make dinner reservations or even purchase movie tickets. The wireless charging feature enables Qi-compatible electronic devices to recharge simply by being placed on the non-slip surface.

On the road, Toyota helps drivers keep Camry’s 268 horsepower under control with a wider track, taut suspension, recalibrated springs, shocks and sway bars, and optimized Electric Power Steering as part of a sport handling package.

Safety features abound on the 2015 Camry and include a blind spot monitor, backup camera, lane departure alert, tire pressure monitor, and cruise control that automatically monitors the preset distance between the vehicle and the one in front and adjusts speed accordingly. Also helping protect passengers inside the Camry are 10 airbags – including knee airbags – Whiplash-Injury Lessening (WIL) seats, and several safety systems – including one that connects drivers with Toyota’s 24/7 call center in the event of an emergency, stolen vehicle or need for roadside assistance.

The Toyota Camry has traveled a long way in its 32 years in the U.S. and continues to gain in popularity while garnering strong reviews. For a nostalgic look back, here’s where it all began with one of the earlier Camry’s in 1986 with Toyota parts that look a lot simpler than today’s complex machines.

Editor’s note: Camry? Accord? Whatever camp you fall into, you can rely on Advance Auto Parts for the car parts and supplies you need to maintain your vehicle right. Buy online, pick up in store—in 30 minutes.

CES 2015 — NVIDIA unveils superchip for smartphones…and cars

Nvidia Tegra X1The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is underway in Las Vegas, offering up an exciting array of car-related gadgets and gizmos to techies and car enthusiasts of all stripes.

One of the show’s top attractions so far is a new superchip for cars from visual computing leader Nvidia.

On Sunday, NVIDIA announced the Tegra X1 processor, which CEO Jen-Hsun Huang described as a tiny workhorse for smartphones and cars. The Santa Clara, CA, company aims to push into the automotive market with chips for vehicles’ driver-assistance and entertainment systems as they become as complex in their way as PCs and tablets.

Huang also unveiled two new technologies for cars using the Tegra X1. Automakers could use NVIDIA’s Drive PX platform to push advanced driver-assistance systems a step closer to self-driving cars. The PX system can scan dozens of images a second using cameras and sensors around a vehicle and actually learn to categorize these images so it can more easily recognize them, Huang said. The technology would help a car assist drivers to avoid crashes or, eventually, take over all driving responsibilities.

Huang also unveiled Drive CX, a system that uses the Tegra chip to provide souped-up graphics and infotainment displays inside vehicles. He said cars will soon have many more touchscreen displays and NVIDIA wants to provide the technology to make those displays graphically stunning and powerful enough to create real-time navigation maps in 3D.

Visit CNET to read the full story.