We explore the rich history and impact of this magical elixir.
It’s a beautiful spring day and so you decide to drive to a car show and take pictures of the new vehicles on display. You carefully fold up your map of the area and put it into your glove box. You make sure that you have extra rolls of 35mm film, you do some quick maintenance on your car and you plan to return home in time to get your film to the drug store that develops your photos…
Quick question: did this scenario take place in 2015? Why or why not?
The answer to part one is: highly unlikely. This paragraph is chock full of products and scanrios that, if not obsolete, are definitely headed that way – which makes the story of Sea Foam all the more amazing.
“This product was invented in the 1930s,” says Sea Foam’s marketing director, Brian Miller, “and trademarked in 1942. Sea Foam was invented in a time when engines were much less sophisticated than they are today, with fuel that was quite different from today’s options. And yet, the same Sea Foam that improved the quality of fuel then still works every bit as well today.”
Glimpse back into the 1930s
Fred Fandrei enjoyed fishing, but he frequently experienced problems with his outboard motor. He diagnosed it as gummy varnish created by the gas and oil needed to power his engine and the “thought of spending more time fishing than working on the motor prompted Fred, who was a District Manager for the Sinclair Refining Company at that time and had a good knowledge of fuel, to invent a product that would stop the gas/oil mixture from becoming stale.”
Fred stored his product in beer bottles and quart jars and sold it to other fishermen. When one of them asked him for some of his “Sea Foam” stuff, Fred liked the name and began using it for his concoction. He advertised in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life for a while but the market demand soon started shifting from marine to automotive.
To give you a sense of the latest and greatest innovations in the car world during that era: they included low-pressure balloon tires, replacing those hard tires of the past, and windshield wipers, along with synchromesh transmissions for smoother shifting, automatic chokes, built-in trunks, hydraulic brakes and gear shifts on steering columns. Most cars now boasted both radios and heaters, and still featured foot boards and sunshades on the car’s windscreens. Radiator grilles tilted back slightly and were often made of flashy-looking chrome – and Henry Ford invented the one-piece V-8 engine for the common man. Here’s more about the cars of 1930s – and now we’ll move onto discussing what has made Sea Foam so effective for more than seventy years.
Wonders of Sea Foam
All carbon-based fuels and engine oils leave behind petroleum-based residue. Over time, these naturally build up and eventually prevent lifters and rings from working as they should, and this residue also affects injectors, pistons and intake valves. For optimum engine performance, car owners need to periodically do a clean-up job – and Brian explains how Sea Foam accomplishes this task using a petroleum-blended product.
Now, this can seem counter-intuitive. Why on earth would you use petroleum to clean up the residue from petroleum?
Brian offers a clear and concise explanation. “If you’ve ever gotten oil-based paint on your hands,” he says, “you know that using water to clean yourself up only makes matters worse. Instead, you use something oil based to remove the paint. The same is true when you want to clean your engine. The petroleum solvency cleans your fuel system and removes gummy substances that hinder performance – and is harmless to your engine.” As the company website describes the process, “Sea Foam helps slowly and safely re-liquefy this varnish so contaminants and deposits can be safely cleaned out of the systems as the engine is operated.”
Other additives on the market are either detergent based or use a combination of detergent and petroleum, Brian says, although he is quick to add that he has respect for competing additive brands. “We don’t tear them down to make ourselves look good,” he says. “Instead, we talk about how quickly and consistently Sea Foam solves problems.”
Sea Foam can also help, according to the company website, with lack of lubrication and with absorption of moisture from the atmosphere and condensation. And, here’s an overall message about the product from the company: “Sea Foam can be used by professionals and do-it-yourselfers alike to help safely eliminate many contamination and lubrication related performance problems and help prolong the life of an engine. A clean, dry and well lubricated engine will run smoother and more efficiently.”
What people say about Sea Foam
Marketing directors usually share a remarkable story or two about someone who has had incredible success in using their product. Brian, though, was an exception to the rule, providing no stories of nuclear-level success. He instead emphasizes how quickly and consistently the product has worked for a wide range of challenges over several decades – and how the product continues to do that, even as engines and fuels evolve and become more sophisticated.
“Stories from satisfied customers are so common,” Brian says, “that no one story stands out. Whether someone needs to deal with engine hesitation, poor idling or rough performance – and whether that person wants better performance out of a pickup truck, a sports car, or even a chain saw, their problems are quickly resolved.”
If he were to wear a Sea Foam t-shirt into a grocery store, he says, people would walk up to him to share their stories. “It’s fun to meet people who are excited about their experiences,” he adds, “and as long as we use carbon-based fuels, there will be degradation of that fuel, and we’ll still be relevant. We’ll still be around to help.”
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts carries the Sea Foam products your car needs.
In this installment, Street Talk takes on one of the truly unsung heroes of the tuner scene. Promise you won’t laugh, because we’re talking about the Chevy Cavalier.
To driving enthusiasts of a certain age, the Chevrolet Cavalier inevitably brings to mind the movie Swingers, wherein Jon Favreau’s character has the following exchange with a smoking hot model:
Model: “What kind of car do you drive?”
JF: “Uh, Cavalier.”
Model: [disdainful silence]
JF: “It’s red. I have a red…it’s a red Cavalier.”
Naturally, he doesn’t get the girl, and that’s largely how the Cavalier is viewed by the masses today — as a failure.
But if you’re into the tuner scene, you might be amused by the idea of tricking out a Cavalier to within an inch of its life. It’s certainly unexpected, and it’s bound to be relatively affordable, too. Could be a fun project, right? Let’s explore some of the possibilities.
The Cavalier’s successor, the Cobalt, came in a sporty SS trim level with a supercharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine cranking out 205 horsepower. Zero to 60 mph took about 7 seconds, and there was a lot of midrange passing power on the road.
The final-generation Cavalier’s humble 2.2-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder, on the other hand, most certainly did not have a supercharger.
But if only Favreau’s character had known the possibilities. Turns out you can grab the Eaton M62 supercharger off a Cobalt SS (or just buy a GM supercharger kit separately, supplies permitting) and bolt it right onto the 2.2-liter Cavalier motor. Give it a custom tune and you’ll be pushing 230 horses, easy peasy. That’s a lot of power in a lightweight sedan, and it just might be enough to convince you that a tuned Cavalier is worth the trouble.
One of the Cavalier’s best qualities is that Chevy made about a billion of them, so there are a lot of owners out there who might want to add something extra to their rides. Predictably, the aftermarket has responded with a wide range of products, including plenty of lowering springs that’ll drop your Cavalier as far as you want to go.
You can go the eBay route, of course, but they call it “fleaBay” for a reason — there’s a lot of questionable stuff for sale up there. Here at Street Talk, we’re partial to established brands like Tokico, Eibach and Koni. If you opt for a known commodity, chances are you won’t be disappointed. In any case, dropped Cavaliers can look pretty mean, and Chevy’s simple suspension design means you can probably do most or all of the work yourself.
If you haven’t looked into scissor-style Lambo doors before, you might be surprised by how simple they are to install. You actually get to keep your original doors; the difference lies in the hinges and gas shocks that take the place of the factory hinges. Just imagine how differently Swingers might have gone if that red Cavalier had Lambo doors that popped up on cue. A supercharged, slammed and Lambo’d Cavalier would be a real sight to see.
Of course, there are plenty of other visual enhancements on the market, including spoilers, aero kits, graphics kits, you name it. And we haven’t even talked about interior tweaks like metal pedals, custom shift knobs and racing seats. If you buy a used Cavalier, you’ll likely get a sweet deal on it, so with any luck there’ll be enough cash left over to fund some sweet mods.
Do you push a Cavalier with a little flavor? Any tips for our friends out there who might want to do the same? Let’s get a conversation started in the comments.
Editor’s note: Hit up Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection—to keep your Chevy (or most anything else) running right. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.
Do you look forward to seeing how big The Donald’s hair is this week while two celebrities engage in a boardroom battle? Do you enjoy watching “real” housewives fight one another? Are you still upset about Chris’ choice to receive the final rose?
If so, then it’s probably a safe assumption that you can’t get enough drama in your life, and that you love “reality” TV. If that’s the case, then I recommend you stick with what’s been working for you and not watch Tech Garage, one of the newest car TV shows on the Velocity Channel that just concluded its first season.
If, however, you love everything about cars – including how to fix them, coax more performance from them, how their various systems work, why they break and how to prevent failures, then you’re going to want to tune in to Tech Garage every weekend, or catch the episodes online. It could become one of the top car TV shows on YouTube.
Tech Garage features John Gardner, an ASE-certified master mechanic and automotive instructor at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., explaining how cars and their various systems work. There’s no drama here, but there are plenty of key tips. Whether you’re a heavy DIY’er who can handle pretty much anything under the hood or a 15-year old dreaming about the day you can drive, you’re going to learn something new about vehicle mechanics from watching this car TV show.
On one of the show’s first episodes, Gardner explored the vehicle’s battery, charging and starting system. What makes the show unique is that he doesn’t just explain to viewers how the systems work and leave them with only a cursory understanding. He breaks the system down and provides an in-depth explanation of not just how it works but why, and he uses some pretty cool, functioning system displays that any gearhead would love to have taking up space in their garage or man cave.
For example, in that first episode Gardner goes under the hood to diagnose a lack of starting power in a Mustang. He provides detailed diagnostics using a voltmeter, and has an awesome cutaway of a vehicle battery and even the internal battery plates to show viewers exactly what a crumpled mess it looks like when they begin to fail. Sure, most of us who know about cars understand why batteries fail and how to prolong their lives and replace them, but it’s not often we see the inside of one that has failed to add to our understanding or that we receive an education about volts, amps and resistance.
Gardner employs a similar tactic with the full-scale working model of a starting system. He even has a couple starters – including a big field-coil starter – that he’s taken apart to show viewers how they work and why. On this episode, the biggest moment of drama between people is when Gardner asks his assistant to crank the Mustang with the headlights on, and it fails to start. As I said, if you’re looking for fights and name calling, you’re going to find them on this car TV show.
In addition to adding to your knowledge under the hood, Tech Garage provides some pretty cool factoids in every episode that can be used to impress your friends, or one-up a fellow heavy DIY’er who always seems to be a step ahead. Try these on for size. What was the first production vehicle to use an alternator? That would be the 1960 Chrysler Valiant. How about the fact that the first storage battery – called the voltaic pile – was invented in 1796 by Italian scientist Allesandro Volta? The volt is named in his honor. And finally, 99 percent of all new cars sold have air conditioning.
On another episode, Gardner dives into a timely topic now that temperatures are starting to rise – a vehicle’s AC system. In addition to demonstrating how it works and how to quickly and easily recharge it using a canister of AC Pro, and how to identify the high side versus the low side, he has a full scale vehicle AC system, complete with condenser and evaporator – and it’s functioning. If you walk away not understanding more about vehicle AC and how the AC cycle works, you weren’t watching.
With insightful and timely show topics that include brakes and wheel bearings, fuel systems and turbo and supercharging, and engines and related emerging technologies, Tech Garage should quickly build a following of loyal viewers who want to learn vehicle mechanics from an ASE-certified pro.
Frank’s Gulf Gas and Service Station was a slightly intimidating place to a five year old. It was dark inside the “office” and in the garage, everything seemed to be either blue-gray or black, and Frank was a tall man, constantly wiping grease from his hands on the blue rag that dangled from his back pocket.
I learned quickly, however, that Frank’s was also a fun place. There were always ice cream sandwiches and cones in an old chest freezer inside the office that we could choose from. Frank’s easygoing personality, quick smile and willingness to help matched his intimidating stature. And, to top it all off, when our car was being serviced, Frank would let us sit in it while he raised it up high on the lift.
As much fun as it was for us kids, however, Frank’s was a lifesaver for my parents, and many of our neighbors.
Whenever there was anything wrong with the car, my dad always said, “Take it to Frank’s.” From routine maintenance to major repairs and pumping gas in between, Frank did it all in a two-bay gas station at the crossroads.
Frank’s, and tens of thousands of other gas and service stations like his across the country, are where countless teenagers first got some grease under their fingernails and began a journey to becoming a lifelong DIYer or professional mechanic. Hang around a gas station, cars and seasoned gas jockeys and mechanics long enough and you can’t help but learn about engines and how they run.
The service station’s history is murky, much like the quality of early gasoline when it was first dispensed everywhere and from everything, including in general stores and from buckets whose contents had to be funneled into the car. The first purpose-built service station is widely credited as being the Gulf Refining Company’s architect-designed, pagoda-style brick building that opened in Pittsburg in 1913. Earlier claims point to a Standard Oil station that opened in Seattle in 1907, but Gulf’s station is thought to be the first designed and built specifically to dispense free air, water and tire- and crankcase-related services, and of course gasoline. This entertaining and informative video traces the service station’s evolution and how the industry has changed.
Sadly, the neighborhood gas and service station is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Even Frank’s Gulf has long since closed, and the trend shows no sign of abating. 2013 data from NACS and Nielsen counted 152,995 retail fueling sites in the U.S., a continued decline from 1994 when there were nearly 203,000 gas stations. If you don’t remember or have never seen what a full-service, old-school gas station looks like, check out these photos.
Replacing the mom and pop neighborhood service station are 24-hour, corporate-owned convenience store chains whose primary business focus is selling motorists groceries, fast food and even hardware and household goods. With declining profit margins on gas sales, the only reason many even have pumps is simply to get customers in the door. Vehicle service and repairs at these convenience store gas stations have virtually disappeared. They even have their own trade industry association helping represent their interests – the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
It’s widely agreed that the death knell for neighborhood service stations began in the 1960s when convenience stores first started invading the gas-dispensing business, helped in part by new pump technology and states lifting bans on motorists dispensing their own gasoline. Today, only New Jersey and Oregon still have a ban on filling the tank yourself. Also helping fuel the decline were big retailers and grocery store chains’, including WalMart and Kroger, entrance in the 1990s into the business of selling gas.
The decline can’t be blamed solely on competition, however. Stricter environmental regulations related to fuel pumps and underground fuel tanks increased costs for many mom and pop stations while improved vehicle fuel efficiency and the rise of vehicles that use little or no gas saw fewer customers pulling up their stations for a fill up.
Full-service, neighborhood gas stations’ disappearance is a loss for budding mechanics and DIY’ers everywhere, who no longer have a place to go after school where they can get their hands dirty and their minds filled with automotive knowledge. It’s also a loss for drivers who don’t check tire pressure often enough or other vital fluids – including the oil level and when it needs to be changed – and for those who need a quick fix or some free advice while getting a fill up.
Frank’s empty building is still there, but inside it’s even darker than I remembered, much like the outlook for the remaining mom and pop service stations that have somehow managed to hang on.
Editor’s note: Have you logged in any hours at your neighborhood garage? In that same spirit, visit Advance Auto Parts for the parts and tools you need to finish your projects right. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.
The VIN (vehicle identification number) of your car has been described as its fingerprint – no other vehicle can have the exact same one, even if the other vehicle is close enough to yours to be its “twin.” It’s also been compared to your car’s social security number.
VINs first existed in 1954, but their length and code values were not yet standardized. That changed in 1981, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began requiring standardized VINs for any vehicle that took to the road.
As far as the number’s location in your vehicle, NHTSA says the VIN must be inside the vehicle, and visible through the windshield when you’re looking through the left windshield pillar. It must also – fairly enough – be readable.
The main purpose of the VIN is to definitively identify a specific vehicle, but its usage goes beyond that. According to DMV.org (a privately owned, non-governmental site), “deciphering these codes is a hobby for some car enthusiasts, including collectors who want to own one of the first or last cars to come off an assembly line.” Plus, of course, it’s a great way to understand the history of your vehicle – or the vehicle you’re thinking about buying.
So, you know how we are . . . curious minds want to know, and so we’ve decided to crack the code . . .
Truth – or urban myth?
Myth busting is fun and, if you look online, you’ll find plenty of places willing to tell you that a man named Steve Maxwell “invented” the VIN. Steve apparently didn’t fully understand the value of his invention, as he apparently wrote it down on the back of a bar napkin and sold the idea to a far shrewder tavern patron for $1,000. The VIN, we are assured, “soon evolved” into today’s system.
True or false? Unfortunately, we don’t know. Snopes had nothing to say on the matter and a search on Google patents didn’t shed any light, either. At some point, we knew we needed to cry uncle and get back to selling car parts – and so we did. But, if you know the answer about Steve Maxwell, we’d love to hear your info!
Back to the matter at hand . . .
Breakdown of the VIN
Not surprisingly, we found conflicting information online, but we were able to track down specifics from the authoritative source, NHSTA, along with other information-rich sites such as ResearchManiacs.com.
Today’s VIN contains 17 letters and numbers and is really a conglomerate of three sets of numbers:
- World manufacturer identifier (WMI): characters 1 through 3
- Vehicle descriptor section (VDS): characters 4 through 8
- Vehicle identifier section (VIS): characters 9 through 17
World manufacturer identifier: WMI
The first letter or number reveals the continent where the vehicle was made:
• A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H: Africa
• J, K, L, M, N, P, and R: Asia
• S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z: Europe
• 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: North America
• 6 and 7: Oceania
• 8 and 9: South America
The second letter or number identifies the country where the vehicle was made. As ResearchManiacs.com reminds us, though, “NOT all Japanese cars are made in Japan and NOT all GM cars are made in America and so on.” Here’s how you can decode that second letter or number in your VIN.
The third letter or number identifies the type of vehicle it is – a car or truck, for example, or a bus or motorcycle. Each manufacturer uses different codes – and, there’s good news and there’s bad news about that. The bad news is that it can be a bit of a hassle to track down your manufacturer’s coding system for that third digit. The good news is that it’s fairly unlikely that you don’t already know if you own a car or a truck, a bus or a motorcycle. (If you aren’t sure, ask a buddy.)
Note: If a vehicle is manufactured by a “low-volume” company – one that produces fewer than 1,000 of a particular vehicle per year – it will have the number 9 in the third character, as well as in the 12th, 13th and 14th placeholders.
Vehicle descriptor section: VDS
Letters and numbers in the VDS provide information about the vehicle model, engine type, body style and so forth. Again, each manufacturer devises its own codes. Fortunately, there are multiple VIN decoder sites such as this one that can decipher the meaning behind the characters. The one we’ve linked to works for cars manufactured by:
Note: the character in position 9 is the VIN check digit that is used to determine if it is a correct VIN and to help prevent VIN fraud. It does not tell you anything specific about the actual vehicle.
Vehicle identifier section: VIS
Characters 10 through 17 get down to the nitty-gritty, sharing when a car was built, what options it has and more.
Let’s look at character #10, which is the model year (not the year manufactured). If it’s A, then your car is from 1980 or 2010. To determine this (although it’s probably pretty obvious which one it is), look at character #7. If it’s a number, then your car is pre-2010 (and is therefore 1980). If it’s a letter, then it’s a 2010.
Letter B: It’s either 1981 or 2011; look at character #7 to tell
Letter C: It’s either 1982 or 2012; look at character #7 to tell
You get the pattern. The letter “Z” is not used in this cycle. Instead, once you get to the 2001/2030 option, the tenth character is the numerical 1 (and it goes through the numerical 9). Confused? Use a VIN decoder!
Then, characters 11 through 17 are used in unique ways by each manufacturer to record info, such as the assembly plant, options on the vehicle and so forth. So, track down the coding for your specific manufacturer. (Or use a VIN decoder!)
Useful fact: If a VIN contains the letters I, O or Q, then it’s not a real VIN. That’s because it’s too easy to confuse those letters with the numerical 0 and 1, and so they are avoided. And, character ten cannot be the letters U and Z or the numerical 0. You can use this info to dazzle your friends and/or to identify false VINs. Or to make yourself feel better if you needed to ask your buddy if you rode a motorcycle or drove a bus (to help figure out character 3 of your VIN).
For more information
What questions do you have about your VIN? What scoop can you share about the Steve Maxwell mystery? Please share in the comments below!
VIN graphic courtesy of Edmunds.
Check out this amazing photo exhibit from recent events in Fort Myers.
Some shows are only about the cars, while others are also a chance to catch up with good friends. Still others, like the Euro Tripper, offer entertainment for the entire family, striving to make it a good time for everyone.
In year three we’ve seen Paul Barney, the show creator, grow the show tremendously. This year featured a new location, new entertainment – and, as always, lots and lots of rescue animals from Brookes Legacy Animal Rescue available for adoption. People had the opportunity to donate food, toys, cash and more to the rescue operation, with parking fees donated to Brookes Legacy.
Brand spanking new location
Sponsored by the local VW dealership in Fort Myers, Euro Tripper moved from a hockey arena parking lot to a new location at Jet Blue Park, the spring home of the Boston Red Sox. The show field had cars from all along the east coast of the U.S. and even a traveler in his Mk6 GTI all the way from Mexico.
More about the cars . . . while newer Volkswagens, BMWs and Audis covered half of the show field, a great showing of air-cooled classics lined the perimeter. For those along for the fun and maybe not so much the cars, Paul brought out a team of BMX riders for family entertainment.
Giveaways have become a tradition at Euro Tripper and v.3 of the show brought a raffle for an air ride management kit, a set of brand new wheels and countless other smaller prizes. Many went home very happy that day. Wouldn’t you be?
Thanks to all the volunteers, workers at Jet Blue Park and sponsors for making Euro Tripper 3 another entertaining weekend for everyone involved. See you at Euro Tripper 4!
Editor’s note: As you head out to car shows this season, make sure your ride’s appearance is firing on all cylinders. Advance Auto Parts can help–with a wide assortment of appearance chemicals, accessories and more, all at great values.
In this new blog series, our trusty Gearhead explores the cars of his heritage, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
Everyone knows about the illustrious history of British motorcars — emphasis on the history part, since it’s all foreign ownership now — but what about Ireland? You know, the Emerald Isle? It’s where my people are from. I understand that my dear old uncle Gearhead O’Malley is still roaming the countryside with his trusty pint glass in hand. They must have some homegrown cars over there, right?
Well, technically, yes. But only in that sense. Turns out there’s virtually nothing to be proud of if you’re a car-loving Irishman like me. But in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s do a little historical review anyway, shall we? No doubt these automotive misadventures have given the self-deprecating Irish plenty of laughs over the years.
Starting the Irish auto industry off with a bang — of the self-destructing variety — the Alesbury hit the cobblestone streets in 1907, featuring a Stevens-Duryea engine built in Massachusetts. Not much is known about the Alesbury other than the fact that production ceased shortly thereafter in 1908.
DeLorean Motor Company
The DeLorean DMC-12, on the other hand, is famous the world over thanks to its Hollywood turn as Marty McFly’s time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. But did you know the stainless-steel sports car with gullwing doors was built in Ireland? Northern Ireland, to be exact, in a 660,000-square-foot facility near Belfast. Alas, the factory was plagued by delays and ballooning costs from the get-go. Then founder John DeLorean got ensnared in a drug controversy, and DMC folded in 1982.
Ford Motor Company
Henry Ford’s father was born in County Cork, Ireland, and Ford paid homage to his ancestral homeland with the Ford Cork plant, which opened in 1917 and kept on cranking till 1984. Best known for producing popular cars like the Cortina and Sierra, the plant was a landmark in Cork’s center of industry for the better part of a century. Of course, the company itself was Detroit-based, but we’ll take what we can get.
Inspired by the uber-cute Iso (later BMW) Isetta “bubble car,” the Heinkel Kabine was designed in Germany and built for a spell by the Dundalk Engineering Company in Ireland. Like Alesbury before it, Dundalk had quality-control issues and was forced to cease production mere months after starting.
With a name like that, how could you lose? Sadly, the fiberglass-bodied Shamrock is yet another Irish car with a comically brief production history. Designed to be a luxury car that would compete with America’s finest, the Shamrock was confusingly equipped with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at a pathetic 50 horsepower. The car was a colossal failure, with barely 10 examples being produced before the factory was closed.
Best for last? Quite possibly, though that’s no great honor in this bunch. Built from 1983-’87, the Costin was a lightweight, elemental roadster with two seats, rear-wheel drive and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that made 82 horsepower. Even though the car weighed just 1,450 pounds, those 82 horses could only pull it to a top speed of 112 mph. Although the company met a familiar Irish end — production ceased after the 39th car rolled off the line — the Costin’s spirit lives on in the high-performance, American-built Panoz Roadster, as Panoz bought the rights to the Costin’s chassis design and used it for inspiration.
Happy St. Paddy’s Day!
There may not be much to celebrate in the history of Irish automobiles, but that’s never stopped Irish folks from celebrating anyway. Cheers, my friends!
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more installments of Cars of the World, right here on the DIY Garage Blog. In the meantime, hit up Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store—in 30 minutes.
From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.
In this installment, Street Talk heads down memory lane to appreciate the remarkably practical, but fun-to-drive Honda Accord EX.
Back in the 1990s, there were only a few midsize sedans that really appealed to driving enthusiasts, and the Honda Accord EX always stood apart. Man, I can remember going on a test-drive with my dad in a ’94 Accord EX sedan, five-speed manual of course, and I’d never known the old man to have an inner Earnhardt until he redlined that VTEC four-cylinder through first and second gear, cackling all the while.
Tell me something: What other volume-selling family car could bring a grown man that kind of joy?
Any mass-produced product that’s this good deserves its own retrospective, doesn’t it? Let’s hop in the time machine and give the various Accord EX models their due.
The Accord EX first appeared on our shores as a high-end version of the fourth-generation Accord, which is still a great-looking car, by the way. This was back when Honda was light-years ahead of just about everyone on the design and engineering fronts. You got a standard sunroof, upgraded interior trim and extra speakers for the stereo, which would become the basic formula for most EX Accords to follow. Oh, and you got a little extra under the hood, too, culminating with the 140-horsepower engine fitted in ’92 and ’93. It was a tantalizing taste of things to come, and even today, I wouldn’t mind picking up a well-cared-for EX from this generation. Goodness, Hondas were gems back in the day, were they not?
The Accord went all futuristic with its styling for the fifth-generation model, and the EX continued to lead the way. The ’94 and ’95 Accord EX shared a particularly attractive set of alloy wheels, and all EX Accords from this generation boasted the first application of dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder with variable valve timing technology, or DOHC VTEC for short. The sharp triangular taillights got a bit generic with the ’96 refresh, but the engine — same one that put that silly grin on my dad’s face — was still a highlight, and the EX’s six-speaker stereo was amplified by Alpine for crisp, clear sound. Let me tell you something, driving a fifth-gen Accord EX with the sunroof open, the stereo cranking and the VTEC on boil might be the best time you’ll ever have in a top-selling family car.
The Accord got bigger for ’98, but not too big, with the four-cylinder engine swelling to 2.3 liters but carrying over that DOHC VTEC technology. In fact, all four-cylinder Accords shared in the VTEC love this time around, but the EX continued to offer its exclusive sunroof, trim and stereo upgrades. If you ask me, this was the last time that the Accord’s dimensions were just right. It had plenty of room in the backseat, but it wasn’t that big on the outside, and it maintained Honda’s traditional low cowl for superior outward visibility. Throw in a five-speed manual that positively glided from gate to gate, and you had an all-around package that was still tough to beat.
This period includes three Accord generations, and I’m lumping them together because in my humble opinion, they’re all too big and boring to be considered in the same league as the EX Accords that came before. When the seventh-generation Accord appeared in ’03, it lacked that low cowl and tidy styling that had always set the Accord apart, and the eighth-gen model was just plain overgrown — the EPA even classified it as a large car! The current Accord (2013) is the best since ’03, no doubt, but it’s still a relatively tubby, ungainly thing that’s nothing like the sophisticated, visceral, light-on-their-feet EX Accords from 1990-’02.
Honda had something special going there for quite a while, and talking about it makes me nostalgic for those days. If I could turn back the clock and buy any of those first three Accord EX models brand-new, I’d do it in a heartbeat — wouldn’t even think twice about other family sedans on the market today.
Let’s Talk Accords
Have you ever owned a 1990-’02 Accord EX? Have a different take on how Honda’s been doing since then? I love talking about these cars. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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If you know me, you know I’m all about American muscle. But I do occasionally make an exception, and rally cars are one overseas product that can definitely get my blood pumping. Growing up in rural America, I first learned to drift a car on all those local dirt roads to nowhere, and that’s what rally racing is — getting sideways on slippery tracks through the wilderness, as fast as your sense of self-preservation will permit. So naturally I’ve always been drawn to the World Rally Championship (WRC), which started as a mainly European thing but has since risen to prominence almost everywhere except the U.S.
To be honest with you, I’m not sure why there’s not more professional rallying on our shores. We’ve got more land than just about anyone, after all, and that includes countless mountain and desert tracks that would be perfect for rally stages. But for whatever reason, it’s never really been an American thing to do, so the only way most of us can experience the thrill of a rally car is by driving one of the few rally-derived models available in U.S. dealerships. Today I want to tell you about the three such models that I’d most like to have in my garage.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Popularly known as the “Evo,” Mitsubishi’s turbocharged, all-wheel-drive compact sedan is actually on its last legs with an uncertain future, I’m sad to report. Mitsubishi has officially announced that there will be no Evo after 2015, though a lot of diehard fans refuse to believe that the company would just kill off its most iconic nameplate. Whatever happens, the current Evo will go down in history as one of the most capable four-door cars ever built, and not only because of its deep roots in rally-racing history. The boosted 291-horsepower engine under the hood is just the beginning; this Mitsu also comes with a telepathic all-wheel-drive system that shifts all that power side-to-side during hard cornering, effectively eliminating understeer. Additionally, its dual-clutch automated manual transmission is one of the best, ripping off instantaneous upshifts and flawless rev-matched downshifts that no human could ever match. Bottom line? Mitsubishi nailed everything with this car, and I feel like a WRC champion every time I drive it. It’ll be a damn shame if they let the transcendent Evo go out with a whimper.
Subaru WRX STI
The top-of-the-line WRX is known as the STI, and it’s the closest you can get to Subaru’s legendary WRC race cars. It’s also all-new for 2015, and I was lucky enough to get the keys for a full day recently. As ever, the six-speed manual gearbox — no automated manual here — is a work of art, with short, precise throws and perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe downshifts. The steering feels heavier than before, in a good way, and it’s razor-sharp, with none of the on-center slop you expect in an all-wheel-drive car. Another thing Subaru has improved is the STI’s body control: the previous generation heeled over in corners like a sailboat, but the new model stays nice and flat, as a performance car should. If I had one of these bad boys, the only thing I’d modify the hell out of is the engine, because it basically hasn’t changed in 10 years. Sure, 305 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.5-liter four is nothing to sneeze at, but I expect progress after all that time. Crank up the boost and give me 400 horses, now we’re talking. Otherwise, I would gladly drive one of these Subies every day. It would be an honor to be just a few production tweaks removed from Subaru’s WRC glory.
Ford Fiesta ST
The subcompact Fiesta comes only with front-wheel drive, so you might not make the rally-car connection right away. But there’s a rich history of Fiesta rally cars dating back at least to the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally, when a couple extensively modified Fiestas braved the icy conditions and achieved respectable results. Since then, numerous Ford rally cars have worn the Fiesta badge, most recently the Fiesta R5 with its all-wheel-drive layout and turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor. Swap out the AWD system for front-wheel drive, add a few creature comforts and voila — you’ve got the showroom-ready Ford Fiesta ST. Rated at 197 horsepower, the flyweight Fiesta ST has plenty of punch, and it’s also an ace in tight corners thanks to a brake-based electronic limited slip differential. You can even get a pair of Recaro sport seats that are more or less full-on racing seats in disguise. Throw in the MyFord Touch infotainment system and you’ve got a fully equipped daily driver that just so happens to be a terror on the racetrack, too. For the price — the 2015 model starts at just over $22,000 — the Fiesta ST might be the ultimate road-going rally car, absent AWD system notwithstanding.
What’s Your Practical Rally Car?
Tell me about your daily-driver rally ride in the comments, won’t you? As long as it’s got a sporting chassis and some kind of racing heritage, it’s fair game in my book.
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Yeah, we know what you’re thinking. Tributes typically come toward the end of a career, but the BMW M3’s still in its prime. After all, the brand-new 2015 M3 sedan (joined by its coupe/convertible siblings, now known as the M4) is out right now, code-named F80. It looks great, it’s got 425 horsepower, and the steering and suspension systems are purpose-built for people who love to drive. You could even argue that it’s a decent value at $62,950 including fees, especially when you consider that the M5 starts at $94,550.
So what’s this business about a “tribute”?
That’s simple. We’re here today to pay tribute to what the M3 used to be, what made it truly great. Because the new M3 is not a great car. It’s merely a great numbers car, the kind that’ll get armchair jockeys all excited about its 0-60 time, its cornering g-forces, that sort of thing. Look, at the end of the day, it’s got a turbocharged inline-6 under the hood, just like the lesser 335i/435i. If you test-drive one, it’s not going to feel like some wholly different beast; it’s just going to be a 335i/435i cranked to 11. Previous M3s, on the other hand, had race-inspired, naturally aspirated engines that were unlike anything else in BMW’s lineup, and that’s what made them so special.
They were undeniably a breed apart, and sadly, now they’re gone.
Let’s take a minute and give them their proper due.
The M3 that got it all started was powered by a four-cylinder engine making a humble 194 horsepower, give or take, and it remains the only four-cylinder M3 ever built. But in terms of character, it’s an M3 through and through, unlike the current 425-hp turbocharged model. You had to cane the little 2.3-liter four to get much action out of it, but once the tach needle swept past about 5,500 rpm, a whole new personality emerged. The E30 M3 rewarded drivers who were adept enough with three pedals (no automatic was offered) to keep the engine on boil through the turns. Driving one was a skill to be mastered, and that’s what whetted everyone’s appetite for the genuinely fast M3s to follow. Kids these days might laugh at the goofy rear wing and some other “period-correct” details, but the E30 got the M3 dynasty off on the right foot.
The E36 M3 was the first to get its power from an inline-6, which had long been BMW’s trademark engine type (the four-cylinder E30 was an outlier). For M duty, the engineers whipped up a doozy — a 3.0-liter mill that pumped out 282 hp. By the time the E36 M3 made it to American shores in 1995, however, BMW had elected to give us a tamer 3.0-liter straight six that dipped to 240 hp, but it still got the M3 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, an impressive feat for the day. BMW rubbed a little salt in our wounds for ’96, when the displacement of both motors increased to 3.2 liters, yet the US-spec version held firm at 240 hp while the Euro version improved to a formidable 316. Nonetheless, even the defanged American E36 M3 was a sublime car, with a slightly feral roar at full throttle that would turn into a full-on yowl in the E46.
Ah, the E46 M3. Some say it’s the greatest all-around car ever built, and we wouldn’t disagree. It had luxury, style, space for four adults (though it wasn’t offered as a sedan) — and most importantly, it had the same engine around the globe, a 3.2-liter inline-6 cranking out 333 hp. That’s a number that enthusiasts will always remember, and for those lucky enough to have driven this M3, the distinctive velvet-chainsaw wail near its 8,000-rpm redline is equally unforgettable. It’s not that this engine lacked torque down low; on the contrary, it was a tiger at all operating speeds. But taking it to redline unlocked something extra, and once you experienced it, there was no turning back. You just had to keep doing it again and again.
The “X” signifies that the fourth-generation M3’s three available body styles (the sedan returned from its E46-era exile) had individual codes: E90 for the sedan, E92 for the coupe and E93 for the new folding-hardtop convertible. Another departure from tradition was the 4.0-liter, 414-hp V8 under the hood. There was actually some grumbling at the time that this M3 wasn’t a suitable heir to the throne. Too heavy, too insulated, too much technology — the naysayers were initially out in droves. But as with its predecessors, the engine made the difference, and it would not be denied. Running the V8 through the gears, shifting at its 8,400-rpm redline, you could be forgiven for thinking BMW must have borrowed the engine from Ferrari. The E9X was faster than its forebears, yes, but that wasn’t really the point. What mattered was that it had the spirit of those previous models, that insistent growl from under the hood constantly egging you on. Where would BMW go from here? Would we see a V10 M3? A return to a naturally aspirated inline-6? Whatever the answer, it seemed that the M division could be trusted to do the iconic M3 brand justice.
But then fuel-economy regulations got tighter, and automakers started realizing that they could achieve alluring economies of scale by tweaking existing engines for use in high-performance machines, and the F80 M3 happened. Turbocharging both dulls the new car’s throttle response and strangles its exhaust note, which is why BMW has seen fit to pipe fake engine noises through the speakers during acceleration. A turbo inline-6 plays perfectly well in the 335i with its civilized sportiness, but the M3 had always been about authentic performance-car spirit, an exercise in joy rather than jadedness. The joy, alas, is gone.
Ah, but what a car it used to be.
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