Crucial Cars: Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door talks about the comeback kid of the SUV variety, the Ford Explorer.

The Ford Explorer is back. Not that it ever went anywhere, but Explorer sales were declining steadily from their peak of nearly 450,000 new vehicles sold in 2000 to a low of just 52,000 sold in 2009. That nearly 90 percent reduction in sales over nine years certainly gave credence to the observation that there just didn’t seem to be as many Explorers on the road, and the feeling that perhaps Explorer was slowly but surely fading from the automotive landscape into the annals of Ford’s highly successful truck history.

And then 2011 happened, when Explorer sales increased more than 100 percent from the previous year and marked the start of a sales rebound that’s continued every year through 2014 – the latest year for which full-year sales data is available.

So who or what is responsible for the sudden and dramatic resurgence in Ford Explorer’s popularity? Blame it on the fifth generation.

Debuting with the 2011 model year and based on the concept vehicle that Ford unveiled at the 2008 North America International Auto Show, the fifth-generation Explorer was conceived by the same design engineer who held a similar position at Land Rover. Notice any similarities between the Explorer and Land Rover’s Range Rover?

But before looking forward to the latest installment in the fifth generation – the 2016 Ford Explorer – one has to look back to understand the Explorer’s roots, and popularity right out of the gate.Ford Explorer tow picture

The Explorer placed third in truck sales in 1991 – the very first year it was available, and Ford knew instantly they had a clear winner on their hands. If you’re feeling nostalgic, check out this official Ford video explaining how to use the new 1991 Explorer’s features – if you can get past the talents’ “stylish” wardrobe that is. Explorer replaced Ford’s other entry in the sport utility segment, the Bronco II, and was designed to compete directly with Chevrolet’s S-10 Blazer, even though Explorer wasn’t the first compact four-door sport utility to market. That distinction belongs to both the Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu Trooper.

Explorer wasn’t a new name either. Just six years earlier it could be found on Ford’s F-Series Trucks, serving as a trim package designation stretching all the way back to the late ‘60s.

When it debuted, the 1991 Explorer was available as either a two- or four-door model with two- or four-wheel drive in one of three trim levels available on the four-door – the base XL, XLT, or Eddie Bauer. The two-tone green and beige paint scheme available with the Eddie Bauer edition became nearly synonymous with those early Explorers as it seemed they were everywhere.

On the four-wheel drive option, Ford also offered the choice of automatic locking front hubs that engaged with just the push of a dash button, or the traditional hubs that had to be locked manually and the system engaged via a floor lever. As anti-lock brakes were still in their infancy, only the Explorer’s rear brakes were equipped with ABS.

Towing capacity on the first Explorer came in at a hefty 5,600 pounds thanks to a four-liter, 155-horsepower V-6 paired with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. But perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind the Explorer’s instant popularity were its decidedly car-like luxuries, including leather seats and high-end audio, that drivers were not expecting to find in a truck-like vehicle. That power, performance and luxury came at a price – about $22,000 for the four-door model back in the day. Compare that to a price tag of approximately $30,000 for a base, entry-level Explorer today or jump up to the big daddy of them all, the 2016 Platinum Explorer, starting at $52,600.Ford Explorer interior picture

With four generations and five models in the current generation preceding it, Ford took its time arriving at the 2016 Explorer. Outside, the Platinum-level Explorer impresses with its platinum grille, dual-panel moonroof, hands-free, foot-activated liftgate, and LED lamps, all riding on bright aluminum 20’s featuring painted pockets. Inside, it’s all luxury, all the time, with wood accents and “Nirvana” (do they take you there?) leather-trimmed seats with “quilted inserts,” (what does that even mean?), USB charging ports, a command center with so much technology in its display that it looks more like the cockpit of a small plane, three rows of seating for seven, and Enhanced Active Park Assist to take the stress out of navigating virtually any type of parking space.

Under the hood, three engine choices are available with the Platinum – a 2.3 L EcoBoost I-4, a 3.5 L TI-VCT V6 (twin independent variable camshaft timing), or a 3.5 L EcoBoost V6. Getting all that power to the ground is a six-speed, SelectShift automatic transmission and front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Twenty five years later, Ford hasn’t forgotten their roots, or what’s behind the Explorer’s enduring popularity – luxury, car-like features, towing and cargo capacities you’d expect to find in a truck, and a revamped style that helps you look good doing it all.

Editor’s note: Got projects? Count on Advance Auto Parts for the right parts and tools. Buy online, pick up in-store in 3o minutes. 

It’s tax time – get last-minute car deduction tips!

Truck with cash pictureThe question often comes up around here at the DIY Garage on what you can and can’t write off in regards to your vehicle at tax time.

After doing a little digging, we found this informative piece on a deduction made possible by the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, back in 2009.

According to H&R Block:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act lets you deduct state and local sales and excise taxes you paid on the purchase of a new:

  • Car
  • Light truck
  • Motor home
  • Motorcycle

The deduction is currently available on new vehicles bought from Feb. 17, 2009, through Dec. 31, 2014. You can deduct either of these:

  • State and local sales taxes, including those paid on a new vehicle
  • State and local income taxes

You can’t deduct both.

If you deduct sales taxes, you can either:

  • Save sales receipts and deduct actual sales taxes paid
  • Use the IRS’s sales tax tables to figure the deduction. You can find the tables in the Form 1040 instructions.

The deduction is limited to the taxes and fees paid on up to $49,500 of the purchase price of an eligible vehicle. The deduction is reduced for:

  • Married filing jointly with modified adjusted gross incomes (AGI) of $250,000 to $260,000
  • Other taxpayers with modified AGI of $125,000 to $135,000

If your income is higher, you don’t qualify.

How will you spend your tax deduction?

If you’re lucky enough to get one, tell us what kind of DIY project you plan to take on in the comments below!

Top 5 Car Engines Shared Between Models

Our man Gearhead talks through his top interchange engines.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to light an enthusiast’s hair on fire, it’s a purpose-built engine that doesn’t appear in any other car.

Car guys like me will geek out for hours about the Porsche Carrera GT’s 5.7-liter V10, for example, or any number of air-cooled Porsche 911 engines. Lamborghini’s distinguished line of V12s also comes to mind. If you know cars, you’re no doubt thinking of other candidates, too.

But there’s a flip side to that coin. Just because an engine is shared between multiple models doesn’t mean it’s a dud. In fact, some of the greatest engines ever have enjoyed multiple applications, because if something’s that great, why not spread the love around?

With that in mind, I racked my brain — or what’s left of it at this point — and came up with my personal Top 5 engines that have known more than one master. There are a lot of illustrious motors out there fitting that description, so it wasn’t easy to whittle ‘em down. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Dodge Viper engine 8.0-liter V10 pictureDodge Viper V10

When Dodge brought out the Viper exotic sports car back in the early ’90s, they needed something that would shock the world. The radical styling was almost enough in itself, but the engineering team chipped in with an 8.0-liter V10 that made an even 400 horsepower — heady output for the day. Never mind that it sounded like a UPS truck; the Viper V10 was the stuff of dreams, and it helped make the car a legend virtually overnight.

Since then, the V10 has gone through a few iterations, now displacing 8.4 liters and pumping out a just-plain-silly 640 horsepower at last count. But that’s not all; it has also been borrowed by two other vehicles for limited-production use. The first, Dodge’s gonzo Ram SRT-10 full-size pickup truck, used an 8.3-liter version of the massive motor that was good for a truck-record 154 mph. The second, the Bristol Fighter, was an exotic British sports car that reportedly sold just 13 copies.

BMW S54 Inline-6 engine pictureBMW S54 Inline-6

So many great straight-sixes have come out of BMW’s factories over the years, but for my money, the 3.2-liter S54 is the greatest of them all. It debuted in 2001, appearing simultaneously in the E46 M3 and the Z3 M Roadster and Coupe. The S54 was limited to 315 hp in the latter pair, but it cranked out a full 333 hp in the M3.

With a sky-high fuel cutoff at 8,400 rpm, this engine loved to rev, yet it also had muscular midrange response that always felt like enough. The sound was nearly as thrilling, a metallic banshee wail that got more and more frantic as redline approached.

BMW gave the S54 new life when the 330-hp Z4 M Roadster and Coupe debuted in 2006, but it was brief, as both models bid adieu in 2008. Even today, I still cruise the classifieds looking for all of the above models. It’s on my engine bucket list, for sure.

Chevrolet LS7 V8 engine pictureChevrolet LS7 V8

When the C6 Corvette Z06 bowed for the 2006 model year, it came with a great big surprise under the hood. Displacing a full 7.0 liters, the LS7 was the biggest small-block V8 that GM had ever installed in a factory model. Unlike most small-blocks, the LS7 had an affinity for redline, making it ferociously fun when driven to its full potential. The noises were sublime, and 60 mph was yours in less than 4 seconds via the 6-speed manual transmission — no automatic was offered.

Now that the C7 Corvette Z06 has come out with its supercharged 6.2-liter V8, it looks like forced induction will carry the day going forward. But if you’re like me, you know there’s no replacement for displacement. Plain and simple, the LS7 is the best small-block V8 there ever was.

Thankfully, the C6 Z06 team wasn’t a selfish bunch. The LS7 has turned up in all kinds of places since it appeared, including the Corvette 427 Convertible (basically a Z06 drop-top), the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, the Hennessey Venom GT supercar and even a helicopter.

Mercedes-Benz M156 V8 engine pictureMercedes-Benz M156 V8

If you don’t think Mercedes-Benz and NASCAR belong in the same sentence, you haven’t driven one of the cars from the “AMG 63″ series. Ranging from approximately 450 to 580 hp, and technically displacing 6.2 liters, the M156 V8 was the first engine to be developed from start to finish by the performance wizards at AMG. You can certainly feel that hand-built touch. There’s endless thrust throughout the operating range, and the sound is astonishing — like a Detroit muscle car with impeccable manners. It’s impossibly well-behaved for such a beastly engine, but those noises betray its animal nature. Pity that Mercedes never saw fit to pair it with a manual transmission; otherwise, the M156 is a perfect 10.

What’s particularly awesome about the M156 is that it was made available across most of the Mercedes lineup, from the humble C-Class to the exotic SLS AMG sports car. Turbocharged V8s have since taken its place, but only recently, so there are plenty of low-mileage used M156 cars out there for the taking.

Volkswagen Golf 2.0T Inline-4 engine pictureVolkswagen/Audi 2.0T Inline-4

You don’t always need huge horsepower to have a good time. It took me decades to realize that, and the VW/Audi “2.0T” turbocharged 4-cylinder engine helped me see the light. There are actually a bunch of slightly different engines that fall under this heading, but you know what I’m talking about, right? Volkswagen has been putting a 2.0T in the GTI for about a decade, to take one example, and Audi offers a similar 2.0T in seemingly everything it makes. Whatever the setting, this engine serves up an amazing blend of refinement, fuel economy and smooth, spirited acceleration.

If there’s a better all-around engine that you can have brand-new in the $25,000 price bracket or thereabouts, I haven’t met it.

What’d I Forget?

A lot, I’m sure. My wife’s sure, too. Did any of your favorites get unfairly excluded? Let’s have it out in the comments.

 

Editor’s note: Keep your engine running right with parts, tools and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Quick Spin: 2015 Hyundai Sonata

2015 Hyundai Sonata pictureRead our exclusive review of this latest model.

If you’ve read any of my columns, you’re probably aware that I’m a muscle car guy. A horsepower guy. Big numbers, fast times. You get the idea.

But I’m also a man who likes to give credit where credit’s due.

When the Hyundai Sonata was redesigned for the 2010 model year, everyone wanted to crown it king, but I had my reservations. Where others saw a revolutionary exterior with ultra-sleek styling, I saw some overwrought lines that were bound to age poorly. And amid all the noise about its futuristic interior with a Volvo-inspired “mode man” for the climate vents, I wondered why no one mentioned that mode man’s head didn’t even work.

Sheesh.

But now there’s a new model — the 2015 Hyundai Sonata — and this one’s got my attention. I still say the critics were too eager to embrace the previous model, but this latest effort is the real deal.

Here are three reasons why.

  1. It Looks Like Money

I saw a 2015 Sonata on the road the other day, and this rarely happens to me, but I really didn’t know what it was. Maybe a new Genesis, Hyundai’s full-on executive sedan? Or some other premium car that just hit the market? Nope — it was a Sonata. You know, the one that competes with Camrys and Accords. And with its LED headlight accents, crisp new contours (none of that swoopy stuff from the previous model) and strong trapezoidal grille, it was a revelation.

When you see a new Sonata in the flesh, I think you’ll agree that it just looks like money. It’s a car that would look good in any driveway; there’s nothing about it that says, “I settled for less.”

It’s a downright handsome automobile.

  1. It Drives Like a Luxury Car

Behind the 2015 Sonata’s wheel, I truly am reminded of the Genesis, which starts at about $40,000 but looks and feels like about $60,000. Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement; if you’re on a mission to find some average-quality plastics in the Sonata’s interior, you’ll eventually come up with a few examples. But by and large, the Sonata comes across as decidedly upscale, from the cohesive flow of its dashboard design to its supple, well-damped underpinnings that keep road noise at bay. The steering’s more responsive than I’m used to in Hyundai products, and there’s a real confidence at higher speeds that belies the Sonata’s bargain pricing.

I’ll tell you something else I like — in well-equipped Sonatas, you get a 4.2-inch color trip computer along with an 8-in touchscreen navigation system, and they both look beautiful. I’m talking high-resolution graphics, smooth transitions between screens, you name it. They thought of everything. This really is Genesis-grade technology, and it puts those Camrys and Accords to shame, no doubt about it. You’ll pay for the privilege, of course, but even a fully loaded Sonata is still a good deal.2015 Hyundai Sonata 2 picture

  1. It’s Still a Great Value

So let’s talk pricing. Looking at Hyundai’s MSRPs for the 2015 Sonata, you can get into one for as little as $21,150 plus destination. That includes stuff like alloy wheels, those LED running lights, power everything, convincing “metalgrain” interior trim and 6-speaker audio with Bluetooth. An enticing Popular Equipment package ($1,150) adds automatic headlights, a rearview camera, a 10-way power driver seat, leatherette door-panel trim and a 5-inch color touchscreen. If you’re a sensible shopper, you could stop right there and be perfectly content for $22,500.

That’s what I call value.

2015 Hyundai Sonata engine pictureBut let’s say you want to go all-out and get the color trip computer and 8-inch touchscreen I mentioned. Say you want the optional turbocharged engine, too, because I sure would. Listen, 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque beats 185 and 178 any day, and that’s the difference between the “2.0T” turbo engine and the base, non-turbocharged 2.4.

So let’s zero in on the Sport 2.0T trim level, which incidentally throws in an exclusive flat-bottomed steering wheel, paddle shifters, xenon headlights, quad exhaust tips, a sport-tuned suspension and some other nifty touches. It’s the one I’d recommend if you want to treat yourself. You’ll also need the Tech package ($1,750) to get the upgraded screens, and that package tacks on a premium audio system and an auto-dimming rearview mirror for good measure.

Ready for the total tab?

How’s $30,325 strike you?

I’m ready to rest my case on that one. I’m telling you, I can’t think of a midsize sedan on the market that gives you more for the money.

Like I said, I’m a muscle-car man at heart.2015 Hyundai Sonata dash picture

But if I had to buy a family sedan right now, there’s no question where my hard-earned dollars would be going.

Your Thoughts

What do you all think of the new Sonata? Are you with me in thinking that Hyundai really turned a corner this time? Give me a shout in the comments, let’s hear it.

Editor’s note: Visit Advance Auto Parts for all of the parts and tools needed to maintain your muscle. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

The Wonders of Sea Foam

Sea Foam  can picture

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 cool 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 – you don’t always break down near a phone booth, you know! – and you plan to return home in time to get your film to the drug store that develops your photos.

Quick questions: 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 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.Sea Foam can 2 picture

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.

 

 

Crucial Cars: Chevy Cavalier

Chevrolet Cavalier pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

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.

Chevy Cavalier 1 pictureSupercharge It

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.

Slam It

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.

Lambo-Door It

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.

Chevy Cavalier 2 pictureCavalier Attitude

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.

Tech Garage TV review

Tech Garage studio photoRead our review of the Velocity Channel’s popular DIY show.

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.

Tech Garage AC show AC photo

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.

—MND

The neighborhood service station — a dying breed?

Gas station photoOur Mechanic Next Door reminisces about this steadily declining American institution–where many DIY’ers and professional mechanics first got started.

 

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. gas station 2 picture

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.

gas station 3 pictureFull-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.

 

 

 

Cracking the code: your vehicle identification number

VIN code photoThe 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.)Car VIN number

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:

A-F H-K M-P R-V
Alfa Romeo Honda Mazda Renault
Audi Hyundai Mercedes Benz Seat
BMW Jeep Mitsubishi Subaru
Buick Kia Nissan Suzuki
Citroen Opel Skoda
Chevrolet Peugeot Toyota
Ford Pontiac Volkswagen
Fiat Porsche Volvo

 

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

There is plenty of (dry) reading material available at the NHTSA site. There is also an article at Wikipedia that cites credible sources for its reporting.

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.

Euro Tripper 2015: Advance on the Fort Myers scene

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Check out this amazing photo exhibit from recent events in Fort Myers.

Enthusiasts from around the world love a quality car show – and it just doesn’t get better than Euro Tripper 3.EuroTripper 16 car

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Thumbs up!

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!

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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. 

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