Savory lasagna, creamy gelato, great artists and Sophia Loren are some of Italy’s greatest contributions to the world. But many would argue, especially we car buffs, that the best gift this boot-shaped country has kicked forth is a buffet of delicious automotive treats. Although great style has much to do with their appeal, Italy’s cars bring joy to the ear with their fantastic mechanical music along with joy to the enthusiast’s heart with their involving driving dynamics.
New or old, Italian cars are lusted after and enjoyed by enthusiasts everywhere. Whether one is cutting through traffic in a diminutive, old Fiat Cinquecento with sunroof open and opera blaring, or slicing through a mountain pass in a newer Ferrari 458 Spider with its top off and its V8 providing the soundtrack, grins are virtually assured for anyone within either.
To celebrate the irresistible cars of Italy, we’ve picked our favorites both old and new from the major manufacturers. Our choices come via a rather unscientific approach, yet one fully befitting Italy — they are based on pure emotion.
For a classic Alfa, it’s hard to beat the simply named Spider (which is essentially Italian for roadster). Available in the states from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s, this affordable, Pininfarina styled roadster defined the Italian sports car experience. That is to say it looked sexy, sounded great and had its steering wheel laid down to almost a bus-like degree. It also meant it could be finicky and wasn’t the most reliable car on the road.
Alfa Romeo just came back to the states after leaving in the mid-’90s and offers but one model thus far. But what a firecracker the 4C is. With its snarly, popping, 237-horsepower turbocharged four, light (around 2,500 pound) curb weight and track-focused handling dynamics, this sports car is a blast to drive. It may be a bit harsh for daily driver duty, but the 4C, available in both coupe and Spider (removable targa top) body styles, makes no apologies for its “fun first” personality.
Choosing a favorite classic Ferrari is like trying to pick a favorite Beatles song. Nonetheless, we welcome the challenge and will go with an early ’60s 250 GT SWB (short wheelbase). Even those without 93 octane flowing through their veins would find it impossible to ignore this Ferrari’s handsome Pininfarina styling and incredibly melodic V12. Although these are priced in the millions (keep playing that Powerball), they are somewhat versatile, being able to serve as both a fairly comfortable grand touring car and a vintage racing track toy.
For a newer Ferrari, the 458 Spider pushes our buttons with its free-revving V8 engine cranking out nearly 600 hp while making all the right noises, open roof capability and of course the head-turning styling expected of the marque.
As with the Alfa, we’re with a classic roadster here, in this case the similarly-named Fiat Spider. Earlier versions (’67 to ’78) were actually called the 124 Sport Spider while the ’79 to ’82 versions were called the 2000 Spider. A Pininfarina design, the Fiat was powered by a double-overhead-cam, eight-valve inline four that grew in size from its initial 1.5 liters to 2.0 liters (hence the later “2000” designation.). A turbocharged version was also produced for ’81 and ’82. From ’83 through ’85, the car was marketed by Pininfarina as the Spider Azzura. Regardless of the year, the styling and driving experience are going to be similar, meaning those classic lines and the classic, arms-out Italian driving position.
Nowadays, not only has Fiat come back to the states, but they’ve brought the latest incarnation of the little 500 (“Cinquecento”) with them. Our choice is, no surprise, the feisty 500 Abarth, whose snappy turbocharged four makes us grin every time it crackles and pops when we downshift. Although it boasts a sport-tuned suspension that makes it a hoot on a curvy road, just don’t try to catch Miatas as its somewhat top-heavy feel and body sway when pushed harder show its athletic limits.
Miura or Countach…Countach or Miura? We’ll probably change our minds tomorrow, but for now it’s the Countach. The official poster car of 10- to 20-year old American males during the mid-’80s, the outlandishly styled (by Gandini) Countach looked like a land-locked spaceship. Adding to the effect were the so-called scissor doors that swung upwards and made for a grand entrance or exit. A mid-mounted V12 with output ranging from about 375 to 455 hp provided the appropriate gusto.
For a newer Lambo, we’ll go with a Gallardo. Yes, it’s not as powerful as a Murcielago or Aventador, but we prefer its smaller, more easily managed dimensions and lighter weight. Besides, we could get by with just a V10 and its 500 or so horses. Now the question is just coupe or Spyder…coupe or Spyder?
Although Maserati made some great sports cars – Ghibli (the original sleek sports car, not the current sedan with the same name) and Bora to name just two – the company was also known for its grand touring coupes and sedans. Although the Quattroporte (“four-door” in Italian) has been produced off-and-on since 1963, we’re going to go with the third-generation version. Why? Because we’re Rocky fans and it’s what the Italian Stallion drove in 1982’s Rocky III. Fitted with a 4.9-liter V8, the Giugiaro-designed sedan put about 276 hp (respectable output back then) at the driver’s disposal. Fitted with plush, overstuffed seats and trimmed with gathered leather and real wood, the cabin of the Quattroporte was more business jet than road car.
Our modern Maser choice would be the GranTurismo convertible. Sporting Ferrari-sourced V8 power and a superbly detailed interior fit for four (provided the rear passengers are on the smaller side) the GranTurismo exudes class and power that are fully befitting a Maserati.
Editor’s note: For more insights into the vehicles of the world, check out our recent feature on the Cars of Ireland.
Not all spark plug wires are created equal. And because moving electricity to the plug to produce a spark is so critically important, using the wrong wires for your vehicle, damaged wires, or poor-quality wires will undoubtedly lead to problems down the road.
As electricity travels along the plug wires toward the plug so it can generate a spark, it’s also looking to do something else – escape. The electricity is looking for any opportunity to jump from the wire and instead head down the path of least resistance. When it finds the escape route it’s been searching for – usually in the form of missing or damaged wire insulation – the results can include engine misfire, poor fuel mileage, hard starts, rough idles and lack of power. Electricity also generates radios waves and if it escapes from the plug wires can interfere with a vehicle’s radio and other electronics.
The plug wires’ insulation is what keeps the electricity from escaping, and high-quality wires will have more insulation that’s made from durable components that are better able to resist wear from vibration and heat. Over time, the engine’s heat cycling takes its toll on even the best spark plug wires, which is why replacement is recommended by many manufacturers at 100,000 miles.
There are primarily three types of spark plug wires:
1. Distributed resistance wires are constructed of fiberglass-impregnated carbon. Also known as carbon core wires, they were the standard on about 95 percent of vehicles before 1980.
2. A shift to inductance or mag (magnetic resistance) wires accompanied the rising popularity of Asian vehicles. Featuring a spiral wound core of a copper nickel alloy, the material presents less resistance to the electricity flow, meaning less current is needed to generate the spark, and at the same time the winding pattern and materials help prevent any Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from escaping.
3. Lastly, there are fixed resistor wires. These are often found on European vehicles and feature steel or copper wire and a resistor inside the plug boot to control interference.
If you think your vehicle might be having some issues caused by faulty plug wires, begin the diagnosis with a close inspection of the wires’ condition. Examine them for heat-induced cracks or abrasions caused by rubbing against other parts. Look for areas where they’ve been burned through because of contact with an exhaust manifold. Also try examining the engine in the dark, looking for visible sparks where the electricity is escaping along the wires, and also listen for an electrical ticking sound, similar to what you hear when you receive a big static electricity shock. Also measure the wire’s resistance with an ohmmeter. One plug wire with a resistance that’s significantly different than the other wires could indicate that’s the problem wire.
When installing new wires, make sure you’re using wires specified for your vehicle. Characteristics such as the wire length or a boot that attaches using clips as compared to a thread-on boot matter when it comes to performance. Also avoid problems by routing new wires in the same manner that the previous wires were, and removing and replacing the wires one at a time.
Using the best spark plug in the world won’t make any difference to your engine if that plug can’t get the electricity it needs, so choose and install plug wires wisely.
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car wiring needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.
Whether your ride is trying to rock a fatigued factory or ancient aftermarket audio system, one of the best ways to bring back its sonic boom is by changing out and/or adding speakers. And if you’re not an expert on all things audio, fear not. We’ll walk you through the basics and provide you with, literally, sound advice for tuning up your car’s tunes.
Hearing the highs and feeling the lows
There are basically four types of speakers: tweeter, midrange, woofer and subwoofer. Each is responsible for respectively reproducing the high, middle, low and super low frequency notes of the music. Let’s say you’re listening to “Stairway to Heaven” and you’ve got a system sporting all four types of speakers. The flutes would come through the tweeters, guitars would come through mostly the midrange while the bass and drums would speak to you via the woofers and subwoofers (or “subs,” if you want to sound hip).
Although some speaker systems will incorporate say a tweeter and a midrange in a single unit, high-end audio systems typically have dedicated (stand-alone) tweeters, midrange, woofers and subwoofers. This is why you see 9- to 14-speaker systems (and even higher) in more modern, premium-brand vehicles. These speakers are placed strategically for the best sound, typically with the tweeters up high, closer to the listeners’ ears, and with a subwoofer (or two) under the seat or behind the rear seats. Back in the “good old days” having four full-range speakers, two in the front and two in the back, was living large.
Spending for sound
Of course, your budget will dictate how far you can go with your speaker upgrades. If you’re tired of your car’s buzzy speakers, simply replacing them with higher quality units is the easiest and most cost effective way to restore your listening enjoyment. For example, your car may have had a simple four-speaker setup with a pair on either end of the dash and a pair in the back seat area. Those old factory speakers may be a basic, single-cone full-range design, with those cones made of now cracked and/or ripped paper. Swapping them out for a set of higher quality speakers with composite cones and a separate, built-in tweeter will make a world of difference.
This handy audio guide from Crutchfield electronics provides even more detail as far as what to look for when upgrading your car’s speakers. Indeed, this gentleman from Crutchfield shares his story of how his car’s paper-cone-equipped system sounded so bad that he stopped playing music on it and resigned himself to talk radio. Once he upgraded his speakers to more modern units with composite cones and coaxial tweeters, he rediscovered the joy of full-bodied music in his car. This “plug-and-play” install that uses the existing speaker holes is the easiest way to improve the quality of your sound system.
If you want to go bigger, then you may want to consider adding a subwoofer or two for tight, thumping bass that’ll have you thinking Larry Mullin Jr. is in the back seat with his Yamaha kit. To go with the demands of more speakers, and to pump up the sound, you should also consider installing an amplifier. Advance Auto Parts offers a large variety of speakers (including subwoofers), amplifiers and accessories to help you get that big sound for little expenditure.
More serious self-installations
Up until now, we’ve been talking about upgrades that should be fairly easy for any competent DIY-er. Those who are more advanced can look into installations that typically involve fabricating custom kick panel, door panel, rear quarter trim panel and cargo area speaker enclosures. As such, one should make sure they know what they’re doing before, say, cutting holes into the door panels only to discover the power window or door lock mechanism is in the way. As with anything, some folks go way over the top and use nearly every square inch of the car’s interior to create the ultimate mobile sound system.
All that said, there are plenty of car audio forums and enthusiast clubs that can offer tips and maybe even examples of custom setups for your specific make and model. A few we’ve seen online include caraudio.com, and Car Audio Help.
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts is here to support the cause with a vast selection of parts, tools and accessories to keep your ride on track. 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, Gearhead’s Garage puts the spotlight on that car/pickup truck cross breed known as the Chevrolet El Camino
“Is that thing a car or a pickup truck?” That question has been asked of owners of Chevrolet’s El Camino for decades. Certainly for most, if not all of its 26-year (total) production run many have pondered this vehicle’s genetics. Although officially classified as a truck, it is clearly a two-door car whose rear seats and trunk have been supplanted with a pickup-style open cargo bed. Whether it’s a 1965 or a 1985, from the front bumper to the end of the doors, an El Camino is virtually indistinguishable from the Chevrolet passenger car upon which it is based. And being a Chevy, one could have it as a plain Jane, six-cylinder-powered shop workhorse or a full-on muscle car ready to rumble down the boulevard with a “Turbo Jet” big-block V8.
The fleeting full-sizer
Debuting for 1959, the first-generation Chevrolet El Camino was based on Chevy’s full-size car platform. As such, the front clip and doors were the same as those seen on the Brookwood, a two-door station wagon, while an open pickup bed dominated the rear half of the vehicle. The cool “cat’s eyes” taillights with their big chrome “eyebrow”, seen on the other big Chevrolet’s, was also incorporated into the El Camino’s tailgate design.
Under the beefy hood one could choose anything from the base, lackluster straight six through a family of V8s ranging from 283 cubic inches to 348 cubes. Depending on the engine choice, changing gears could be done via a column-mounted three-speed manual (aka “three on the tree”), a floor-shifted four-speed manual or a two-speed automatic. The hot set-up was the 348 with triple two-barrel carburetion, solid lifters and a four-speed. Fitted with the latter powertrain, an El Camino tested by Hot Rod magazine sprinted to 60 mph in just 7 seconds, a very quick time for the day, let alone one for a two-ton bruiser.
But these early, full-size El Caminos were short lived due to plummeting second year sales. They were produced only for 1959 and 1960. But after a three year hiatus, the El Camino would come back strong, this time based on a smaller, more practical midsize car platform.
Ladies and gentlemen, the El Camino
Debuting for 1964, the same year as the Beatles in America as well as Chevrolet’s new, mid-size Chevelle, the reincarnated El Camino was more practical than its massive predecessor. Based on that Chevelle, this El Camino was easier to park and similarly offered a measure of open-bed hauling ability along with car-like comfort and handling qualities. And now, one could also opt for a Super Sport (SS) version. The ’64 and ’65 El Caminos are very similar with variations in front end styling and top engine choices being the chief differences. For both years, a four-barrel fed 327 V8 was the top power choice, with ’64s rated at 300 hp and ’65s making an impressive 350 horses.
In expected lock-step with the Chevelle, the El Camino was redesigned for 1966 and like the Chevelle SS coupe, could now be had with big-block 396 V8 power. With up to 375 hp on tap, it was ready to lay waste to rear tires and most stop light challengers alike. Indeed, with a quarter mile potential in the low/mid 14-second range, an El Camino SS 396 wasn’t to be taken lightly in the performance game. And you still had that big open bed in the back to carry spare tires. The 1967 edition was similar to the ’66 apart from the expected front end styling and interior updates.
This successful formula of offering everything from a six-cylinder, bench seat stripper to a big-block-powered, 4-speed with buckets-and-console street machine continued for the redesigned ’68 and similar ’69 El Caminos. The styling was bulkier than in past years, with thicker rear roof pillars and angled downward bed sides.
The 1970 through 1972 examples were arguably the most attractive, with the SS versions boasting the dual wide hood stripes and power-domed hood as their coupe brethren. You could even top off that hood with optional “Cowl Induction” that, upon laying into the gas pedal, opened up a small rear-facing flap to admit cooler air into the carburetor. The 1970 model year was the El Camino’s most potent, as the SS version could be optioned out with the legendary LS6 454 V8. Cranking out 450 horses, this brute could propel an El Camino down a quarter mile in the low/mid-13 second range. Power began to drop off after that point.
Performance becomes passé
The redesigned 1973 through 1977 model years would be the last of the bigger El Caminos and also were examples of the “Malaise” era. During that time, performance grew increasingly lackluster due to the increasingly stringent emissions standards and the need to run on lower octane gasoline with lower compression ratios.
By 1975, catalytic converters were fitted cope with emissions regulations and engine outputs hit new lows. The engines ran cleaner but performance suffered. Heck, if you checked off the 454 V8 option for your 1975 El Camino, you were rewarded with just 215 hp, and it was only available with an automatic by then. The adoption of a Mercedes-like grille for 1975 and then stacked, square headlights the following year were the major styling changes for this generation.
Lighten up, will ya?
Downsizing was the order of the day for GM’s 1978 midsize cars, including Chevy’s own Monte Carlo and Malibu, so by default the El Camino similarly slimmed down. About 12 inches shorter in length and 600 pounds lighter, the ’78 El Camino provided about the same passenger and cargo space as before and was more fuel efficient. Engines ranged from a 3.3-liter V6 on up to a 5.7-liter (350 cubic inch) V8 with 170 hp. In addition to an automatic, there were 3- and 4-speed manual transmissions, both floor-shifted.
The SS was gradually phased out, essentially replaced by the seemingly Pontiac Trans Am-inspired, black and gold trimmed “Black Knight” (later replaced by “Royal Knight”) edition. For ’79, a new 4.4-liter V8 debuted with a weak sauce 120 estimated horsepower. The following year the 5.7-liter V8 was gone, leaving a 5.0-liter (305 cube) V8 with 150 horses as the top power choice.
For 1982, this longest-lived generation of the El Camino received a facelift in the form of a new grille and quad headlights. This year also marked the availability of the ill-fated 5.7-liter diesel V8, a mill known for returning good fuel efficiency but bad reliability.
The biggest news for this generation came late in 1983, when the SS returned in flamboyant fashion. Actually the result of a joint venture with a company called Choo Choo Customs, the resurrected SS sported the aerodynamic nose of the Monte Carlo SS along with the requisite “SS” decals. Options for this SS included a raised power dome hood that recalled that of the ’70-’72 SS, simulated side pipe exhausts and a roof-mounted air spoiler. Sadly, no special engine was offered, as the 305 V8 was as good as it got.
Apart from minor engine shuffling that included the introduction of a 140-horse, 4.3-liter V6 for 1985, not much changed from that point on through 1987, the El Camino’s last year.
Entertaining the purchase or restoration of an El Camino?
Although most El Camino enthusiasts will likely lust after a ’66 through ’72 SS big block (396, 402, 454 V8s), one can still get plenty of pin-you-to-the-seat thrills with a small block version thanks to a huge variety of aftermarket hop-up parts including high-performance heads, camshafts, carburetors, intake manifolds and exhaust headers.
Whether you want to maintain an original El Camino in factory-spec condition or you’re looking to modify one from the Malaise era into a true muscle machine, Advance Auto Parts is ready to help with plenty of high quality parts.
Editor’s note: It doesn’t matter if you’re a collector or a commuter, Advance Auto Parts has the parts, tools and accessories to keep you running right and looking good. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.
Ever since 1996, On-Board Diagnostics generation two (OBD-II) has required all new vehicles manufactured in the United States to have self-diagnostic and reporting capabilities. This gives you access to the status of your vehicles’ systems in real time using a standardized series of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs).
This is accomplished through a 16-pin connector mounted near the instrument panel that provides four-digit codes for four main areas: P for powertrain; U for computer; C for chassis; and B for body.
Diagnostic scanning tools make DIYing it so much easier – and here are apps that you can access from your smart phone to help you do diagnostics right. Use the app on the road, order the appropriate car parts and you’re off and running on your latest car repair.
Actron U-Scan and more
With U-Scan from Actron, you can discover the cause of the check engine light by plugging a device in your vehicle’s adapter and reading the relevant code definitions. With the QuickCheck™ feature, you can use your Android or Apple device to read the codes appearing on your vehicle, and then, when appropriate, erase them to turn off the check engine light. You can also monitor your emissions status, and maintain a log of vehicle tests and procedures and more.
Advanced features include:
- Powertrain enhanced data ($7.99 per vehicle or $15.99 for all these manufacturers for most vehicles that are 1996 or newer: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota): Get access to Powertrain codes and definitions. U-Scan’s freeze frame data describes the vehicle’s conditions at the time when the trouble code first appeared. More than 300 sensor/data items are available.
- ABS codes and definitions ($5.99 per vehicle or $29.99 for all listed manufacturers): Discover the likely causes of ABS warning lights.
- CodeConnect® ($12.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for all vehicles): More than 4.3 million fixes are available in this database, verified by ASE-certified technicians. Note: You must first purchase the powertrain enhanced data and/or ABS codes and definitions before buying and using CodeConnect.
- Airbag codes and definitions ($7.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for list manufacturers): Access the most likely causes of airbag warning lights.
It never hurts to compare. In The 6 Best On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Apps for your Car, you can get more information on other similar apps.
What’s next: car key apps?
In June 2015, the New York Times published an article titled The Future of Car Keys? Smartphone Apps, Maybe, predicting how the car key and fob might evolve. Right now, if you own a Tesla, BMW, General Motors or Volvo, you might already own a key fob that allows you to start the engine, unlock doors, turn on heat and monitor the battery remotely. With the PEPS keys (passive entry, passive start), you don’t even need to remove the fob from your pocket. Its very nearness to the car allows you to unlock doors with a touch, and to start the car with a button push.
Experts don’t believe that a smartphone app will replace a key, not when a slow data network or dead phone battery would keep you out of your car. Plus, who wants to pay a monthly data subscription plan, which would likely be part of the deal, if you only got what a car fob previously provided? Especially with the complications provided by slow data networks and dead phone batteries? What would be the point?
Hakan Kostepen, the executive director for product planning strategy for Panasonic Automotive Systems, says that keys will eventually carry driver preferences, such as seating positions and favorite audio choices, even when you’re in a rental car. A smartphone app could work with the key data to recommend places to visit, eat and so forth, based on your known preferences.
Finally, Audi and Volvo are experimenting with groceries and packages being delivered to car trunks and the owner being notified. Car key usage would be authorized for a one-time use.
Editor’s note: What apps do you like? Which ones do you plan to try next? Leave us a comment below.
The crisp morning air greets a diligent car fan on a Saturday morning when the garage opens at 6:14 AM. It’s time for DuPont Registry Headquarters Cars & Coffee in St. Petersburg, Florida. The early morning car fanatic pulls off a cover and backs the 1965 introductory-year Porsche 911 onto the driveway. A quick dust off and it’s ready to go. This car doesn’t see the light of day often but the roads are quiet and the crowds are calm, so there’s no better time than now.
What is the DuPont Registry Headquarters Cars & Coffee event? Let us set the scene.
The DuPont Registry website lists “highline luxury cars for sale by auto dealers and private owners. In addition, consumers can search for wheels, car accessories, tuning, racing schools, exotic car rentals, and a wide variety of products/services for the enthusiast.” On certain designated days – such as the Cars & Coffee event held most recently on Saturday, July 18, 2015 – you can visit the physical location and see luxury cars, up close and in person.
We attended that event and had a chat with the organizers of the ten-year-strong show. Its success and popularity originally came through word-of-mouth advertising. While an event now typically draws in a few hundred cars, DuPont Registry doesn’t charge admission – not even for parking. They also give back to the community, allowing a local church to join them to sell coffee and doughnuts to the crowd.
Popularity of the events, organizers tell us, definitely has seasonal cycles. Fall and spring are busy times, while the winter and dead of summer are for diehards only. During more well-attended events, organizers have their work cut out for them. Not only do the local law enforcement need to be on board, but fans have to behave appropriately.
The good news: Cars & Coffee at DuPont has no end in sight. As long as the fans keep the cars on the road and the sheriff is on board, the show will go on.
Across the country, Cars & Coffee monthly car meets have been popping up at an incredible rate. In fact, some popular events have even outgrown their venues, including one of the most highly acclaimed Saturday morning shows, located in Irvine, California. As the event kept growing, it outgrew its humble location in 2015, becoming too massive to remain a calm and fun-for-everyone event.
Cars & Coffee events offer a unique atmosphere that is addicting for car lovers who want to see the rare and eclectic – and to talk to the owners of these uncommon cars (and bikes!) who truly treasure them. One of the bigger events is the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
The best part of one of these shows: meeting new people and hearing the story about a car, where it came from, where’s it been. Give someone a good cup of coffee and a few doughnuts, and you’ll have that person talking in no time.
Looking towards the future
Coming up this fall, the DuPont Registry Headquarters will host another type of event because, when Mr. DuPont wants more shows, his team will deliver. You can count on that.
Here’s a hint … just think cars, stars, and a show fit for the big screen.
Editor’s note: So what if your daily driver isn’t as glamorous as the ones shown above. You can still ensure it rides right and looks good with parts and tools from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.
If you’re paying too much at the pump, read on as our Mechanic Next Store explores the mysteries behind gasoline pricing and octane ratings.
When it comes to gas for your vehicle, is it all the same? Is there a difference between the “name brands” of Exxon, Mobil, Shell versus the “grocery store gas” at Kroger or WalMart or even the less common “off-brand” names sold at discount stations with odd-sounding names that include “Kangaroo,” “Pure,” or “Liberty”?
And what about the different grades of gas available at starkly different prices. Call it what you will – regular, mid-grade, premium, 87, 89, 93, or even “V-Power” if you happen to be filling up at a Shell station. By choosing one fuel over another, are you risking damaging your engine in the interest of saving money?
Let’s start with the easy answer. Unless the station attendant is bringing your gas out in a metal bucket or dispensing it from a pump with a glass globe on top so you can see the “quality” or lack thereof, like they did at the earliest gas stations, there’s little difference in quality no matter where you buy gas. Gas quality today is regulated and legally required to contain certain levels of detergents, octane, ethanol and other ingredients. And while “name brand” gas might contain more engine-cleaning detergents, there’s a good chance that the gas found at “off-brand” stations was actually produced by the same name-brand manufacturers you know. Save some money and buy gas where it’s convenient for you and easiest on your wallet and comfort level.
The bigger, and age-old question and debate on most motorists’ minds is, “do I need to spend more money on a higher grade fuel, and if so, which one, and why?” There are generally three grades of unleaded gasoline available at nearly all U.S. gas stations, regardless of name, with the price per gallon rising in tandem with the fuel grade. Depending on what you drive, these grades matter.
To make an informed decision, you need to first understand what those numbers mean. The results might surprise you. Spoiler alert – a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean the gasoline supercharges your engine.
The three numbers in question are simply octane ratings, which mean nothing to most drivers unless they’re a chemical engineer, or work in the petroleum industry. When crude oil is refined (cracked) into gasoline and other byproducts, the end results are products composed of hydrocarbon chains of varying lengths. For example, methane has one carbon atom, propane has three, hexane six, and octane eight. Thanks to Mother Nature, it turns out that octane – technically iso-octane – with its eight carbon atoms and 13 hydrogen atoms, resists detonation really well, as compared to, say, heptane, which ignites fairly easily. An 87-octane rating means the gas is composed of 87 percent octane and 13 percent hexane and/or other ingredients. Pushing the “91” button at the pump delivers gas that’s 91 percent octane, and so forth. You get the picture.
Fascinating – but what’s this got to do with your engine, and possibly saving some dollars at the pump? Simply put – as the octane rating goes up, so too does the gasoline’s ability, when mixed with air in the engine’s cylinders, to withstand compression without spontaneously detonating or igniting. In gasoline engines, the air/fuel mixture inside the cylinder is supposed to ignite only when a small flame is sparked by – you guessed it – the spark plug. As that small flame gradually grows and spreads out within the cylinder, the air/fuel mixture should ignite in one detonation. Problems arise, mainly in the form of an audible “knock”, when more than one detonation occurs within the cylinder. And that “knocking” or “pinging,” or “pinking” if you’re in the U.K., can be more than just an annoyance and rob your engine of power – it can also destroy it, quickly or over time.
As that initial flame grows, pressure and heat within the cylinder rise. Under the right circumstances, those increases will cause the air/fuel mixture that hasn’t yet been reached by the flame to detonate, resulting in two detonations – one from the flame and a spontaneous one from the increased pressure and heat. The knocking sound results.
Most modern vehicles have knock sensors on the engine that can tell when a knock is about to occur and can adjust the spark’s timing just enough to prevent the premature explosion. A higher octane fuel is better able to withstand the increased pressure or compression, thus preventing spontaneous detonation.
Does your vehicle need higher octane?
But that doesn’t answer the question of which engines need higher octane fuel. It’s a question with several answers. For starters, high-performance engines need higher octane fuel. That’s because the engine’s designers engineered it to generate higher compression within the cylinder and increased power. Higher pressure and lower octane, however, isn’t a good match.
To help determine what octane rating your vehicle needs, start by looking in the owner’s manual. Other good sources are two lists in this article that specify which vehicles require premium gas and those for which it’s just a recommendation. For example, Acura’s MDX, RDX and RLX are all on the “premium-required” list, as are Audi’s A4 through A7, several BMW models, Chevy’s Camaro and Corvette, the Dodge Viper, and numerous other vehicle manufacturers and models. On the “premium-recommended” list are again Acuras and Audis, Ford’s Escape, Subaru’s WRX and several Volvos. High-performance engines that require a higher-octane fuel and don’t get it will deliver decreased power and performance.
Still other drivers determine whether they need a higher octane fuel through experimentation. If the vehicle runs great on 87 with no knocking, pinging, or performance issues, and choosing the lower grade fuel doesn’t run afoul of any warranty requirements or specific manufacturer guidelines, why spend the extra money on a higher octane fuel?
Knocking or spontaneous detonation can be caused by other factors as well. For starters, the environment can be the culprit. Areas with high temperatures and low humidity can increase knocking and the need for higher octane. So too can vehicle age. Older vehicles can have a buildup of carbon within the cylinder, creating hot spots that lead to pre-ignition. These deposits can also decrease cylinder volume leading to higher pressures. Other culprits include a malfunctioning EGR system that increases cylinder temperature or an improper or malfunctioning spark plug. Increased load – like those that occur when towing or during steep uphill climbs – higher RPMs, or a malfunctioning cooling system that results in higher engine operating temperatures can also bring on the knocking.
Leaded gas and older vehicles
Many drivers will remember another choice available at the pump in addition to the three grades available today – leaded or unleaded fuel. Around the 1920s, a partnership between GM and ESSO, now Exxon, discovered that adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to fuel helped raise the octane ratings above what they were listed at by increasing the compression ratio. Leaded fuel also came with the added benefit of helping protect soft valve seats, like those found in many 1970s-era vehicles and earlier.
During engine operation, heat from combustion gases causes valves to temporarily weld themselves to valve seats, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. Each time the weld between the two is broken, minute metal pieces from the soft valve seat are torn away, attaching to the valve. Over time, these deposits oxidize and further harden, inflicting damage on the valve seat as the valve continually hammers down. Lead in fuel helped prevent the two from welding, reducing valve seat recession or wear. Unfortunately, lead – which was spewing from the exhaust of millions of vehicles worldwide by that time – is bad for the environment and devastating to human health, which is why it was gradually phased out beginning in the 70s.
That begs the question of what’s a 1970’s muscle-car owner to do to prevent damage in the absence of leaded fuel, short of spending a lot of money to install hardened valve seats or replace a cast-iron head with an alloy one? For starters, don’t overwork your engine, turn consistently high RPMs, or let her get too hot. And, consider adding a lead substitute with anti-wear properties to your gas tank.
For the rest of you, consider using one of the countless octane boosters available, most of which are designated as being safe for turbos, oxygen sensors and catalytic converters, if your vehicle needs it.
And remember two things. If you hear some knocking and there’s no one at your door, it might be time to switch to a higher octane fuel. On the other hand, if the vehicle manufacturer doesn’t specify high octane and there aren’t any performance issues, save some money by sticking with a lower octane fuel, and purchasing it where you want.
Editor’s note: Whether you need a lead substitute, octane booster, fuel additives or even a new engine, stop by Advance Auto Parts is here to help. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.
Today’s go karts are anything but greasy kids stuff. Read on to discover what makes these these mechanically impressive machines tick.
Some people love go kart racing – simply called “karting” by the true blue fans – because of the competition. Others love it for the family atmosphere at events. Still others love it because of the vehicles themselves – and, if you’re a DIYer, you’ll probably want to know just how these racing machines are constructed.
Recreational participants sometimes construct their own vehicles, while competitive racers must purchase factory-made ones. It’s all about safety. Racers on big tracks reach speeds of up to 152 miles per hour in professional-grade karts that typically weigh 165 to 175 pounds (75 to 79 kilograms).
“The TaG division,” says John Ferris, president of the World Karting Association, “is the most popular. TaG stands for ‘touch and go’ and its vehicles have an electric start, like a car, while the other divisions need an external starter, like Indy cars. TaG vehicles have water-cooled engines, while the rest have air-cooled ones.”
Typically, backyard / amusement park karts are powered by 4-stroke engines or electric motors, while racing karts use small 2-stroke or 4-stroke engines. “All classes of racing,” John says, “allow the owner to work on the engine – or to hire someone else to do so – by putting in new pistons or rings and the like. Some classes allow for rebuilding of engines that include modifications to make the kart go faster.”
The sport has evolved over the years and here is just one way in which that’s true. “Classes that allow modifications used to be the most popular,” John explains. “In these open classes, you could modify however you wanted – at least within certain limits. Local Saturday tracks, sometimes called outlaw tracks, still have those classes, but there is no tinkering in the big races. Those races are like NASCAR with strict specifications for engines.”
When people do modify engines, they typically take a factory built one and bring the specs up to the limits, perhaps by raising ports – or by lowering ports. “You can’t add extra ports,” John cautions, “because you need to use stock engines.”
- 4-stroke engines are typically air-cooled, with about 5 to 20 HP. Manufacturers include Briggs & Stratton, Tecumseh, Kohler, Robin and Honda.
- More powerful 4-stroke engines are manufactured by Yamaha, TKM, Biland and Aixro (Wankel), offering up 15 to 48 HP.
- 2-stroke engines are built by WTP, Comer, IAME (Parilla, Komet), TM, Vortex, Titan, REFO, TKM, PRD, Yamaha and Rotax, ranging from about 8 HP for a single-cylinder 60 cc unit to more than 90 HP for a twin 250 cc.
- The most popular classes use TaG 125 cc units, which are electronically limited to 16,000 RPM.
Karts do not come with any sort of suspension system. In fact, shock absorbers and springs are banned from the vehicles, according to John. “Instead,” he says, “the frame of the vehicle itself serves as suspension. A kart’s chrome tubing creates spring and flex, allowing the vehicle to spring and come back.”
Although the chassis needs to be flexible enough to serve as suspension, as mentioned above, it must also be stiff enough not to break. In general, a stiffer chassis is preferable for dry conditions, while a more flexible chassis is preferable in wet and/or other poor traction conditions.
To find which chassis – and accompanying engine – is appropriate for World Karting Association events, see the chart at the bottom of this page.
Because karts do not have a differential, the chassis is designed so that the inside rear tire lifts off the ground when cornering. “Karts are intentionally designed this way for speed,” John says, “so the inside tire doesn’t slow you down when you race. You may not notice as the tire lifts when you corner, but it does.”
Tires and wheels are significantly smaller than on a typical car, with Bridgestone, Dunlop and Maxxis making tires, along with kart-specific manufacturers such as MG, MOJO and Vega. Just like with cars, there are different types of tires for varying weather conditions. On a dry track, slicks are appropriate. Slicks range from very soft compositions that provide maximum grip to much harder ones that are longer lasting but provide less grip.
Rain tires are used in wet weather, and are also known as “wets.” These are narrower tires than slicks and are not permitted in all racing classes. John points out that many organizations specify how soft your tires are allowed to be.
More sophisticated karts contain monitoring systems that keep track of RPM, lap timing, number of laps, best lap, cooling system temperature, exhaust gas temperature, g-force (lateral and longitudinal acceleration), throttle position, steering wheel position, brake pressure and more.
If you’re interested in building your own kart for recreational karting, Popular Mechanics offers advice. This article shares how you can build your own kart for $689.15 in just one day, offering sites that provide the materials and resources that you’ll need. Remember that, if you’re interested in more serious racing, homemade karts are not permitted.
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has the tools and accessories for most moving vehicles–at great savings and values. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.
Photos courtesy of World Karting Association.
If you’re looking for a place to display your antique or classic car and spend a weekend with like-minded people, consider adding the annual Swigart Meet in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania to your schedule. Not only will you see plenty of outstanding cars at the meet, but you can then go into the nearby museum to see even more incredible vehicles, including rare – and even unique – cars.
Prior Swigart Meets have featured the following cars:
- 1925 Packard four-door sedan
- 1968 Honda Dream motorcycle
- 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V Limousine (formerly owned by Conrad Hilton)
- 1960 Austin Healey Sprite
- 1976 Pontiac Trans-Am Coupe
- 1999 Plymouth Prowler
Find photos and more information about the 2014 meet here. And, if you attend in 2015, be sure to visit the museum that co-sponsors the meet.
William E. Swigart, Jr. Automobile Museum
The National Association of Automobile Museums has only given out three Lifetime Achievement Awards: to Henry Ford, William F. Farrah (National Automobile Museum) and W. Emmett Swigart.
- Emmett Swigart may have been the first person to recognize the value in collecting old cars, first sharing his collection in 1920, after watching beat up vehicles being dismantled for parts. This was an era when many entrepreneurs tried their hand at car manufacturing, with typically small production runs – most of which haven’t been in production for a long time now.
He passed on his love of unique cars to his son, William E. Swigart, Jr., who opened the William E. Swigart, Jr. Automobile Museum in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
Billed as the oldest museum for automobiles, it contains rare cars, including these three one-of-a-kind treasures:
- 1936 Duesenberg 12-cylinder Gentlemen Speedster with 160 hp; a Lycoming L-head, V-12 engine; 390.8 ci; and 3 speed manual transmission. Two of these cars were built, but one was lost in a fire. The one in the museum was previously owned by actor Jackie Coogan.
- 1916 Scripps-Booth, a luxury vehicle built in Detroit; this was the year that Scripps-Booth merged with the Sterling Motor Company, with a goal to build 12,000 cars in just one year.
- 1920 Carroll Six: one of the previous owners, Eric Johnson, used scrap airplane parts from a WWII PT19 Fairchild trainer engine to repair the vehicle; more about the Carroll Six later.
This is the only museum with two Preston Tucker vehicles, located side-by-side, including his hand built 1947 Tin Goose Prototype. Plus, this museum may have the largest license plate and radiator emblem collection in the country.
Overall, there are approximately 200 vehicles in the collection, with 35 to 40 on them on display at any one time. Other rare cars include:
- 1930 Model J dual-cowl phaeton, a “straight-eight” with dual overhead cams and 265 hp
- 1903 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, one of 3,924 of this model built in this year, the third year of production for the company
- 1910 Winton Six Model 17-B, with 48.6 hp and a cost of $3,000 when brand new (more than $73,000 in today’s dollars)
Advance Auto Parts did a bit of digging into the story behind the Carroll Six. Why? Because it was built by one of the 70 to 80 entrepreneurs who manufactured cars in the Cleveland area during the early 20th century – and because there is only one known example left in the world.
To that end, car historian Bob Kayle provided us with the January-March 1991 issue of The Bulb Horn, the publication of The Veteran Motor Car Club of America. Through this resource and a handful of others, we discovered that:
- Charles F. Carroll, an attorney, successful advertising professional and inventor, announced his new car in Lorain, Ohio’s Times Herald on January 13, 1920.
- He rented factory space, created blueprints, gathered car parts and persuaded wealthy local stockholders to invest in his dream.
- “Two bodies will be furnished, one a close coupled five passenger touring car and the other a roadster, and will be finished in either Carroll green or Burgundy red. The wheelbase is 131” and it will have an aluminum body upholstered in leather. The six-cylinder engine develops 48 hp and has enclosed overhead valves. Full equipment includes six disc wheels, Fisk cord tires, permanent type top, and trunk with a built-in rack.”
- The roadster never came into being and the wheelbase was scaled down to 128”.
Distribution was a big problem for early car manufacturers, but Carroll quickly secured a partner in San Francisco, Fred W. Hauger, who planned to sell this car in 11 states, plus the Hawaiian Islands.
One hundred and six cars were scheduled for 1920, although it’s unlikely that the production goal for this “attractive and even a bit racy” vehicle was reached. The car had a:
- radiator that was set back seven and a half inches from the front axle
- body, hood and fenders that were “pleasingly curved”
- swept-back windshield that gave it a slightly futuristic look
The car was not cheap ($3,895 or more than $45,000 in today’s dollars) but it did come with leather-covered steel top, side curtains, long running boards with dual side-mount spare tires, Bijur starting and lighting, and a K.W. ignition system.
Some Carroll cars were allegedly ruined when they were shipped to California without antifreeze. When the weather turned cold, the engines were ruined, a serious financial blow to the company. By May 1922, the company was out of money and one of the investors was said to help himself to four cars, plus a partially built one, plus some parts as his self-determined repayment. Although there are rumors of four Carroll cars still being in existence, only the one at the Swigart museum is a certainty.
Editor’s note: What other rare or unique cars are out there? Leave a comment below.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to customize your car, then consider headlight, turn signal and taillight tinting. You can add a touch of personalization quickly, as long as you have a few basic materials, including the tinted film – and a steady hand.
But – and we can’t stress this enough – be sure to check with your state laws before adding any sort of film to your lights! And, the reality is that, if you travel to another state in this vehicle, you may have to face some challenges with law enforcement there if their laws – or enforcement of them – differ.
Here is a quick look at how to tint your headlights using vinyl from a roll:
Meanwhile, here are easy-to-follow instructions that use:
• paper towels
• heat gun
• spray bottle
• tinting film
• craft knife
Although tinting of your headlights, turn signals and taillights is inexpensive compared to many other customization options, it’s important to get quality vinyl – and that it’s transparent so that the light output is not dulled, which can be dangerous. Be cautious of spray products that create cool looks but produce dulled lighting that makes road driving hazardous.
Window tinting laws – can you do it or not?
There is a website specifically dedicated to sharing tinting laws by state, with the following cautions:
“Every state has different laws, rules, regulations and guidelines and we are offering concise data for legally allowed window darkness and reflection for each of the 50 states. While we provide generic state tint law information, note that every district or county may have its own specific restrictions, exemptions or regulations. You should verify our information yourself with your local DMV or other law enforcement authorities.”
As an example, here are applicable laws for sedans in California:
Tint darkness for sedans:
- Windshield: Non-reflective tint is allowed on the top 4 inches of the windshield.
- Front Side windows: Must allow more than 70% of light in.
- Back Side windows: Any darkness can be used.
- Rear Window: Any darkness can be used.
Tint reflection for sedans:
- Front Side windows: Must not be more reflective than a standard window.
- Back Side windows: Must not be more reflective than a standard window
- Side Mirrors: Dual side mirrors are required if the rear window is tinted.
- Restricted Colors: California tint laws do not permit using red, amber or blue tint colors.
- Certificates: Manufacturers of film do need to certify the film they sell in the state and the driver is required to have the certificate in his/her possession.
- Stickers: State law does require a certificate or a sticker from the installing company and the manufacturer’s name and address.
- Medical Exceptions: California law doesn’t allow any medical exemptions that would allow you use special tint.
Although California does not provide for any medical exceptions, some states do for people with sun allergies or other skin conditions. Different laws apply in California for vans and SUVs. And, here is information about window tinting in California directly from their DMV. We recommend that you look at the DMV information pertinent to your state before you begin.
Top reasons to tint your car windows
First of all, it can look really cool! We don’t need any experts to verify that for us. As for the rest of the benefits listed for window tints, keep in mind that many people who are knowledgeable about tinting also sell the product and we have not found independent studies that verify these claims. Many of them, of course, just make good sense.
• Sun glare can be dangerous. Yes, you can wear sunglasses, but you can lose them or break them. Tinting helps you to drive more safely without needing another glare-cutting accessory.
• Tinting provides more privacy. This means that people can’t readily see what you have in your car, helpful when you’ve gone shopping – or accidentally left your wallet or purse or cell phone, laptop or other in-demand device inside. Most people are honest, sure, and wouldn’t think of breaking in to steal your belongings, but the tinting will help protect you from people who might.
• Tinting provides protection to your upholstery, keeping your car interior cool enough to help prevent warping, fading and cracking. Plus, it feels cooler and more comfortable when you’re sitting on it.
• These treatments make your windows more shatterproof. This can help protect you and your passengers in an accident as the tint can keep pieces of broken glass together and prevent them from getting into your eyes or slicing your skin. Window tinting can save you money if an object crashes into one of your windows, for the same reason (tinting holding pieces of glass together).
• You can stay cool! You can reduce the heat inside your car significantly with tinting. A cooler interior means that you’ll have less need of your air conditioning – and less air conditioning means that you’ll use less gasoline.
• You can reduce UV rays with quality car tinting. Prolonged exposure to UV rays have been associated with skin damage, up to and including skin cancer. We have not seen any scientific studies that show a reduction in risk by using window tints, but common sense says it could have a helpful effect. Window tinting comes in a variety of variable light transmissions (VLTs) and, the smaller the number, the darker the tint – and the smaller amounts of light that is let through.
Choosing the right tint for your windows
Typical VLT choices – from least tinted to most – are 70%, 50%, 35%, 25% and 5%. As with all products, there are higher quality films and lesser quality ones. Higher quality ones are said to fade and crack less often. You can purchase an auto tinting kit with pre-cut pieces to fit your windows precisely. Or, you can purchase the tint material in a roll and cut the film yourself.
Editor’s note: Find the tinting products you need at Advance Auto Parts today.